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Jonathan Spence, Yale historian who specialized in China, dies at 85


Here's the reality of the world's most important international relationship. The United States is both a trade partner and global rival of China, which is a country that Americans do not necessarily understand very well at all. One person who tried to change that was Jonathan Spence of Yale University, who has died at the age of 85. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this remembrance.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The first generation of scholars to teach Chinese history as a separate topic at American universities didn't get started until the 1930s. The second, including the British-born Spence, started in the 1960s. At the time, the history of China was hardly a mainstream topic in the U.S.

MARK ELLIOTT: It was pretty obscure.

KUHN: Mark Elliott, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, says Spence helped to change that.

ELLIOTT: He succeeded in demystifying China and the Chinese past, and making it intelligible and relevant and meaningful to people.

KUHN: He did this partly through his popular course at Yale titled "The Search For Modern China," also the name of his bestselling 1990 book.

DENISE HO: He had this ability to make the lives of thinkers and revolutionaries come alive, but also the lives of people who are unknown.

KUHN: Denise Ho took Spence's class. She's now an assistant professor teaching Chinese history at Yale. She says she was inspired by Spence's humanism and empathy, as well as his mastery of historical narratives.

HO: These narratives brought China to life for us, which made us then learn the language and want to go overseas and tell those stories ourselves.

KUHN: Elliott says Spence pioneered the use of original Chinese documents as sources, many of which were inaccessible before China opened up in the late 1970s.

ELLIOTT: He was able to bring people to life because he had - you know, he had their words on the page.

KUHN: Spence also used literary techniques to make his writing more vivid, such as one book about 19th century China written in the present tense. Elliott says this was a gamble. And...

ELLIOTT: A different kind of a narrative challenge. And I know of a couple but I don't know of very many historians who are able to pull that off.

KUHN: Elliott says Spence's accomplishments in teaching Chinese history have only become more important, as China's impact is increasingly felt in the U.S. and around the world.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.