In memory of Professor Jonathan Spence

1. My first meeting with Professor Spence was in March 2008, before starting my graduate studies at Yale. The meeting was part of the Campus Visit Day program for the admitted graduate students. Well, not really. A meeting with him was not part of the official program; Professor Spence was supposed to be leaving for China on the second day of the two-day event. Knowing that he would be retiring soon (we already knew that 2008 fall would be his last graduate seminar), I did not expect to see him.

Oh, how wrong I was. In the middle of his busy schedule, Professor Spence somehow managed to squeeze in a dedicated time slot to meet me, share his thoughts, passion, and time to talk with me.

I confess I cannot remember what we talked about. And I know why. Yes, I was nervous, but more importantly, I was basically “fanboying” to have met him. But even though I cannot remember what we said, I can still remember the excitement and enthusiasm I expressed, and more importantly, the warmth and welcoming feeling he offered to me. His last words were something around, “I look forward to meeting you this fall,” and indeed, it came true. So, maybe I do remember some of our conversations, after all. I am glad I do.

2. In spring 2009, there was a conference dedicated to Professor Spence, titled “INSIDERS AND OUTSIDERS IN CHINESE HISTORY.” The first line of the conference invitation read,

“No scholar in the last half-century has done more to stimulate Western interest in Chinese history than Jonathan Spence…”

I respectfully disagree with this statement. To limit the scope to the “Western interest” would be a disservice to Professor Spence.

The first history book I read as an undergraduate was a Korean translation of The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Korean Translation: 『마테오 리치, 기억의 궁전』), and I was fascinated by his writing, to the degree that I changed my major from English Language and Literature to East Asian History. I even remember writing a blog post in c. 2003, (now lost) dreaming of becoming an inspiring writer on history like him. And eventually, I was able to join the Yale history department and participate in the last graduate seminar he offered in fall 2008. So I, among many other Koreans who were moved by his books, stand as living evidence of how wrong that invitation statement was. Professor Spence’s influence went way beyond the “Western” interest.

I regret that I never had the opportunity to share this story with Professor Spence himself. And I know I will have to live with that.

May you rest in peace.

2022.01.04

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