The Question of Hu

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Jonathan Spence’s novel The Question of Hu covers mid-eighteenth century travels from China to the western world of a Jesuit missionary, Father Jean-Francois Foucquet, and a Chinese scribe, John Hu. The interactions that occur consist of the cultural differences between Chinese and European customs. Hu’s personality becomes a large question Spence raises not only with the title but also throughout the story when Spence talks about Hu’s way of thinking. John Hu’s personality is described by both Father Jean-Francois Foucquet and the narrator as being both insane and oppressed, respectively. The reader is led to have a sympathetic view of Hu, even though the narrator does not come out and explain exactly how the reader should feel, because he is a Chinese scribe in Europe where little people can communicate with him through speaking. This feeling of sympathy is the reason The Question of Hu was written in the first place, given that we know about Hu because there were rumors that Foucquet had mistreated Hu so Foucquet wrote letters to nobility and senior members in the Jesuit church. The reader is left to make the justification on John Hu’s actions given that Spence does not come out and talk about his views of Hu. Hu’s actions are judged on a reader-to-reader basis by the major theme of the novel, cultural differences versus insanity.

John Hu’s place in history can be summed up by the first sentence in the preface of the story, “Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hu is that we know anything about him at all.” (Spence xvii) The question of why we know so much about Hu is that there were more than fifty Chinese who went westward during the eighteenth century, three of which were jailed in Canton under vague charges and stayed under arrest for eleven more years. Hu’s travels are no more historically important than those three that were jailed for eleven years. (Standeart 137) What we do know of Hu though is from letters written form Foucquet to...
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