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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In 1728, a strange messenger approached the commanding general of Sichuan Province in China with a letter urging him to join a growing rebellion against the corrupt emperor. Thus opens Treason by the Book, Jonathan D. Spence's brilliant and thrilling history of a case of attempted revolution in 18th-century China. Through the amazing use of extant court documents and historical records, Spence develops an enthralling portrait of the battle of wills between the would-be conspirator Zeng Jing and the Emperor Yongzheng, creating a history that is more like a novel for the richness of its prose. Spence proves that a story as fascinating as Zeng Ling's traitorous letter, the Emperor Yongzheng's unorthodox response, and the book that they produced together, can be written in a beautiful, literary manner without sacrificing historical accuracy.
Spence is a professor at Princeton University and one of the United States' foremost scholars of Chinese history, with 13 books to his credit on the subject, including his acclaimed short biography of Mao Zedong published through the recent Penguin Lives series. Treason by the Book starts off as a detective novel, then becomes a character study of the emperor and the rebel, and ultimately evolves into an exploration of Chinese society.
The letter that was handed to General Yue in October 1728 accused the Emperor Yongzheng of extensive corruption, of murdering his brothers, of committing sexual excesses with the women in his family. The brilliance of Treason by the Book stems from Spence's extensive use of the government documents. The Qing dynasty of the 18th century was characterized by impressive record keeping. When General Yue sent his report of the interrogation of Zhang and a copy of the treasonous letter to Emperor Yongzheng, the emperor wrote on the report in brilliant red ink that he did not kill some of his brothers, did not starve his own peasants, and had always been respectful to the women in his family.
The rebel leader Zeng Jing, a failed intellectual, was captured and brought to Peking. After Zeng Ling claimed a change of heart and renounced his traitorous ideas, the emperor worked with Zeng through his officials to create a book called Awakening from My Delusions, in which Zeng's heretical rumors about the emperor were aired and then rebutted. The emperor decreed that hundreds of thousands of copies be printed up and sent around China, and they became mandatory reading for government officials and students alike.
Treason by the Book goes through the roller-coaster ride of the nine-year case of treason against Zeng Ling, with twists and turns that are guaranteed to surprise readers. Spence has developed an engrossing and elaborate tale of intrigue that will surely become a classic study of Chinese history. (Dylan Foley)
Dylan Foley lives in New York City.