Author and Professor Jonathan Spence Explains Challenges in Modern China

Jonathan Spence, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, came to PA following a luncheon with President Bush and President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China, to lecture PA students on the social trends and history of China. Following lunch with President Bush, Hu travelled to Yale to give “an unusually candid” lecture, according to Prof. Spence. Prof. Spence, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Chinese history, gave a presentation entitled, “China Now: The Burdens of the Past.” He addressed four aspects of China: the Central Government, Cultural Worlds, Geography and Demography, and Trade and the Wide World. Prof. Spence discussed China’s political history in his “Central Government” section. Although China has had a central government for centuries, the Chinese acknowledge that the regime will change form; dynasties have always fallen, giving way to new ones. In regards to China’s “Cultural Worlds,” Prof. Spence stressed China’s emphasis on education. The Chinese education system is extremely difficult, and citizens who wish to maintain their doctorate degrees must pass an exam covering their subject every three years. Prof. Spence said, “The educated elite were the moral conscience of the country.” On the topic of “Geography and Demography,” Prof. Spence noted China’s constantly changing population patterns. Though China’s current population is 1.3 billion, a burgeoning number of Chinese have begun migrating elsewhere in search of opportunities. Prof. Spence also discussed the current gender imbalance in China. The One Child Act, instituted in 1979 to prevent strain on the country’s resources, has caused a discrepancy between the number of men and women in China. Since Chinese parents generally prefer male children, many terminate pregnancies if a fetus is female. About China’s trade and international relations, Prof. Spence said that China has almost always been one step ahead of other countries. He cited the Bronze Era for its renowned porcelain, gunpowder, navigation instruments, and movable type, among other inventions. In response to the lecture, Tantum Collins ’08 said, “I don’t know much about the Chinese government…it was interesting to have an inside look at the workings of the Chinese government.” Prior to the lecture, Prof. Spence held an informal luncheon and Q&A session in the Rose Room. Aaron Jakes, a Teaching Fellow of History and Social Science, and former student of Spence’s at Yale said that he was “one of the reasons [Jakes] decided to become a historian.” Mr. Jakes also added, “I think Prof Spence is a master narrator and he’s at his strongest when he’s using anecdotes to illuminate a particular idea, which is an amazing gift to have as a historian…I think this comes out more in his books than in a thirty-five minute lecture about 2000 years of Chinese history.”