Treason by the Book

by Jonathan D. Spence

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Treason by the Book, by Jonathan Spence, tells the story of Chinese Emperor Yongzeng and his efforts to deal with a group of dissidents who distributed a letter throughout the land denouncing Yongzeng’s regime. The Emperor responded not by issuing a death sentence for treason but by corresponding with the leader of the dissidents and, ultimately, swaying his opinion and securing his support. Spence’s treatment of this subject matter recounts a fascinating story about the power and passion of the Chinese emperors, but just as effectively, it reveals the power and passion of the written word. Spence shows how the written word was used both as a method of attack and as an implement of persuasion.

Yongzeng recognized the power of the letter—and of the persuasive tactics used in the letter. He recognized the ability of the written word to convey messages that reach people throughout the land—and to sway public opinion. Thus, he relied on the power of the original letter to turn the tides in his favor. At the same time, he used it to stop the dissidence and avert a rebellion. He was able to avert the attack against his regime by proving his powers of persuasion to be superior to those of the dissidents. Thus, Yongzeng not only turned the dissidents in his favor, but he used the very implement they used for attack to do it. By publishing the original treasonous letter with the correspondence that invalidates the attack—and by incorporating it into Civics instruction—Yongzeng was able to indoctrinate the young people of China and to garner widespread support for his regime.

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