Treason by the Book

by Jonathan D. Spence
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Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

Treason by the Book is a novel written by historian, Jonathan D. Spence, that is closely based on actual historical events that occurred during the Qing dynasty. The overall theme of the book is the examination of power struggles in 18th century China. Part political thriller and part historical documentation, the book offers a glimpse of how the Qing dynasty—as well as other dynasties before and after the Manchus—controlled a vast country.

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Another theme, which is not overtly stated in the book, is xenophobia. The Manchus are from the north and do not speak Han Chinese, which is the language of the emperor's subjects. The Manchus are similar to the Mongolian rulers who once took over China and oppressed the majority Han Chinese populace. The rebellions and coup d'état attempts stem from resentment harbored by the Chinese people towards their Manchu rulers. This is similar to other cases in history in which a majority ethnic group was ruled by a minority group. In contemporary times, an example of this is the Rwandan genocide, in which the majority ethnic group launched a violent initiative against the minority rulers who they despised.

The other theme of the book is the concept of loyalty. The emperor uses brute force and covert intelligence to destroy the rebels, which showed that his subjects' loyalty to him is based on fear and oppression rather than respect.

Another theme of the book is the complicated and challenging undertaking of unifying China. Even non-Manchu rulers in the past have had numerous issues in creating a unified empire. Interestingly, it was the communist regime of the present day Republic of China that more or less achieved unification.

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