Treason by the Book

by Jonathan D. Spence

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Although Treason by the Book is fiction, the novel is based on a historical incident that occurred in eighteenth-century China. Jonathan Spence, a professor at Yale University, is a specialist in Chinese history who has written numerous other nonfiction studies. Through the fictional format, he brings the people and events to life for modern readers.

A chain of incidents is set in motion by one event: the 1728 delivery of a letter about potential treason to China’s Qing rulers. The empire was divided among those who supported Emperor Yongzheng, factions that called for reform, and still others who aimed to overthrow the emperor and in so doing end Qing (also called Manchu) rule. One governor, Yue Zhongqi, is the most likely leader for this rebel force. When he receives the letter from a messenger, Zhang Xi, Yue instead affirms his loyalty to the empire by capturing Zhang and informing the authorities of the plot.

Rather than a straightforward resolution, the actions involve numerous intrigues. Under guise of supporting the rebels, Yue learns their identity and location from Zhang. One prominent rebel is revealed as Zeng Jing, a peasant schoolteacher. The emperor embarks on a far-reaching, violent campaign to eradicate the rebels and discourage future resistance. As he sends spies as well as soldiers, the emperor realizes the greater value of information and gains insight into the far-flung empire he controls.

The intelligence network reveals that the dissenters’ instigator has already died: Lu Liuliang was a revered scholar of Confucian philosophy, and his followers base their views in a backward-looking vision of China’s former glory. Subjected to a sustained education campaign conducted by correspondence, Zeng Jing is not only persuaded to recant but also writes a treatise about his newly found loyalist convictions. Awakening from Delusion is one of the actual historical tracts that prompted Spence to write this novel.

The last portion of the book shows the aftermath of the publication, and introduces one of Spence’s key themes: the birth of modern state-generated propaganda. The emperor frees Zeng Jing and Zhang Xi and has the Awakening mass-produced and distributed. At the same time, however, he comes down hard on Lu Liuliang’s family, putting his descendants to death, and even targets his corpse, which is disinterred and disgraced. He also has the scholar’s other followers put to death. The two freed conspirators live under surveillance and a cloud of suspicion as likely continued informers. The combination of apparent mercy, fierce punishment, and the nascent propaganda apparatus was apparently effective, as the Qing stayed in power. Upon Yongzheng’s death in 1735, the new emperor, his son Qianlong, did have Zeng executed.

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