Jonathan Spence

Professor, Yale University

The world’s foremost authority on Chinese civilisation.

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Yale historian Jonathan Spence is the world’s foremost authority on Chinese civilisation and the role of history in shaping modern China. No one has more knowledge or insight into the forces driving China’s extraordinary emergence today.

Professor Spence has led a truly distinguished career and is a prolific writer.

He was named a MacArthur Fellow and has received ten honourary degrees and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Other honours include the C.M.G. (Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George) from Queen Elizabeth II.

Spence is the author of over 15 books that combine vivid narrative description with valuable critical analysis. His critically acclaimed The Search for Modern China has become one of the standard texts on the last several hundred years of Chinese history. Every edition of the book has been a bestseller.

He specialises in a "history from below" approach, exploring the lives of everyday people, not just the prominent.

Spence is a dazzling presenter, a fabulous storyteller with an instinct for the human drama in history, and for bringing significant patterns to life with compelling and colorful details.

A native of England, Jonathan began teaching at Yale in 1965. Jonathan Spence is the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and is president of the American Historical Association.


  • Sterling Professor of History, Yale University
  • President, American Historical Association Companion of the Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George
  • MacArthur Fellow
  • Guggenheim Fellow
  • Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Sidney Hook Memorial Award, Phi Beta Kappa Society
  • Council of Scholars, Library of Congress


  • Ten honourary degrees, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Oxford University
  • Vursel Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • Los Angeles Times History Prize and Book Award
  • Lionel Gelber Award and Kiriyama Book Prize for The Search for Modern China
  • Sidney Hook Memorial Award, Phi Beta Kappa Society
  • William C. DeVane Medal, Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa
  • Former visiting professor, Peking University; honourary professor, Nanjing University


The Search for Modern China (1990)

To Change China: Western Advisors in China, 1620-1960 (1969)

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolution, 1895-1980 (1981)

The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds (1998)

Mao Zedong (1999)


Return to Dragon Mountain

Memories of a Late Ming Man

Jonathan Spence

Zhang Dai is recognized as one of the finest historians and essayists of China’s Ming dynasty. When he was born into a wealthy family in 1597, the Ming dynasty had been in place for 229 years. Zhang’s early life was marked by the expansive sense of progress that permeated Ming culture: the flourishing of reformist schools of Buddhism; wide-scale philanthropy; the education of women; a celebration of the visual arts, writing, and music; intellectual pursuit of medicine and science — this was truly a time of cultural creativity and renaissance in China. When the Ming dynasty was overthrown in the Manchu invasion of 1644, Zhang Dai’s family lost their fortune and their way of life. Zhang Dai fled to the countryside, where, as a writer of tremendous skill, acuity, and passion, he spent his final forty years recounting his previous life as a way of leaving a legacy to his children and rebuilding a spirit shattered by the violent upheaval he had witnessed.

Celebrated China scholar Jonathan Spence has pored over Zhang Dai’s extraordinary documents and vividly brings to life seventeenth-century China. This absorbing book illuminates a culture’s transformation and reveals how China’s history affects its place in the world today.

Penguin Books (25 Nov 2008)
Quercus (8 Jan 2008)

Treason by the Book

Jonathan Spence

Shortly before noon on October 28, 1728, General Yue Zhongqi, the most powerful military and civilian official in northwest China, was en route to his headquarters. Suddenly, out of the crowd, a stranger ran toward Yue and passed him an envelope-an envelope containing details of a treasonous plot to overthrow the Manchu government.

This thrilling story of a conspiracy against the Qing dynasty in 1728 is a captivating tale of intrigue and a fascinating exploration of what it means to rule and be ruled. Once again, Jonathan Spence has created a vivid portrait of the rich culture that surrounds a most dramatic moment in Chinese history.

Penguin (5 Jan 2006)
Allen Lane (29 Mar 2001)

"An infectiously readable narrative . . . on a par with bestselling works of historical reconstruction such as Dava Sobel's Longitude . . . Eighteenth-century China springs to life."
The Dallas Morning News

"A slice of history told in the lively manner of a novel."
— Ian Buruma, The New York Times Book Review

"A work of history that pulses with emotion, with vital characters re-created vividly, with complex situations lucidly unraveled, with irony underscored. His straightforward prose style and use of the historic present give his work an engrossing immediacy. It is history of the best kind."
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Mao Zedong

Jonathan Spence

The sixth book in the bestselling Penguin Lives — Penguin Lives pairs celebrated writers with famous Great writers on great figures individuals who have shaped our thinking.

The complex persona of Chairman Mao — remembered with hate, awe, and even reverence — calls for what the Boston Globe has termed "[Jonathan] Spence's engaging blend of history, literature, and biography."

Drawing from his expertise in Chinese politics and culture, Spence penetrates Mao's rhetoric and infamous self-will to distill an intimate portrait of a man as withdrawn and mysterious as the emperors he disdained. Spence superbly illuminates Mao, a leader who, at a watershed moment in history, turned the classic Chinese concept of reform through reversal into an endless adventure in upheaval. Mao examines a chilling enigma for historians, students of human nature, and Americans fascinated more than ever by China.

Penguin Books; Reprint edition (29 Aug 2006)
Addison Wesley (4 Mar 2002)

The Search for Modern China

Jonathan Spence

In this widely acclaimed history of modern China, Jonathan Spence achieves a fine blend of narrative richness and efficiency. Praised as "a miracle of readability and scholarly authority," (Jonathan Mirsky) The Search for Modern China offers a matchless introduction to China's history.

W. W. Norton & Co.; 3rd Revised edition edition (5 Feb 2013)


Jonathan tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

China’s Past: a Harbinger of its Future

Viewed from the perspective of competition, few nations have run the race as well as China in the modern era, spurring endless speculation and debate about its future role on the global stage, both politically and economically. Yet, despite its incredible pace of change, China continues to carry echoes of its past.

China juggles its memories and territorial histories and relationships on many fronts as it faces the future:

  • as the defender of an apparently irrelevant revolutionary ideology,
  • as a new kind of regional powerhouse,
  • as the ambiguous heart of a global diaspora,
  • as one of the world’s major new competitors for shrinking supplies of fossil fuels, and
  • as the present guardian of an unprecedented amount of foreign exchange and investment.

Jonathan Spence explores how history has shaped modern China. His extraordinary insights into China’s unfolding future make him an invaluable presenter for senior business leaders and audiences seeking deep understanding of this emerging global power.