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Book Review & Craft: The Question of Hu

Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu (Vintage, 1989) is an account of a French Jesuit missionary Foucquet who brought a devout Chinese Catholic named Hu over to France as a scribe in1722. Spence gathers the clues to answer whether Hu was insane, or was it in fact a cultural misunderstanding?

Luckily for creative nonfiction writers, Jonathan Spence is an historian who believes in the importance of storytelling. The viewpoint is mainly from the perspective of Foucquet, who kept a meticulous journal. So, the question of whether Hu was behaving irrationally is one-sided at best.

At the back of the book are copious notes of the source of primary material, including letters which Spence often cross-referenced with other material to build an impressive body of evidence.

While the author does give ample evidence to support what the priest Foucquet may be thinking, there is little textual support for Hu, who did not leave any personal writings from which to speculate.

This absence, however, does not deter Spence from making assumptions about what Hu may have been thinking.

For example, Spence did not hesitate to write about what is going on in the mind of Hu, even without hard evidence: “Hu’s vision opens: A vision begins to form at the center of his being.He will travel to Rome himself and meet the Pope.” And when Hu saw a flogging of a sailor, Spence wrote, “Hu seems to think the same thing might happen to him.”

Spence even attributes quotations to Hu when he asked for a lifeboat: “Give me a lifeboat in which I can sail to the town,” he says to Foucquet.“I will persuade the governor to listen to our needs.”

There is no mention in the notes as to how he secured the quotation. Perhaps, it was written in Foucquet’s account of Hu asking him for a boat, but the direct quotations are most likely Spence’s own invention. Would this be considered overstepping the line of nonfiction into the realm of fiction?

Spence uses the present tense in the main narrative, but chose to use the past tense to give background information pertinent to the story, including Foucquet’s relationships within the church, another scribe named Fan (who seemed to be a much more capable scribe than Hu), and some general historical context between France and China.

For example, in giving information about Fan and the church in Canton, Spence sets up with “But even when Perroni [head of the church] is away there is no lack of excitement” at the end of one paragraph and then begins the next paragraph with “For instance, only last year Louis Fan was here, after his astonishing ten-year sojourn in Europe.” The paragraph continues with the illustrious career of Fan, an antithesis to Hu’s story. What a set-up to urge the reader on.

In addition, to highlight Father Foucquet’s background, Spence sets it up ingeniously:

Foucquet won’t be fifty-seven until 12 March 1722, but he is in his fifty-seventh year, and the minor exaggeration is pardonable, for he has certainly had a long and active life. From then on, Spence uses the past tense in describing Foucquet’s 20 years of illustrious career in China.

Using non-technical language, Spence is a master of scene building. In one, the readers feels as if they are right next to Hu on a deck of a ship being attacked by pirates:

Hu sees the men take up their weapons and he himself seizes a cutlass. Waving it in the air with menacing gestures, he marches proudly round the upper deck, a small figure, fierce as he can be in the gathering twilight.

In reconstructing some of the scenes and instead of using past modals such as “could have” or “would have” ad nauseum, Spence confronts this cluttered language using another option.

In one scene in which Hu steals a horse, Spence switches the point of view from Hu to the singular and more ambiguous “one”:

Hu has never ridden before, but soon he has the hang of it. The streets of Port Louis…are grand for lone gallopers—one can ride all round the town below the ramparts…One can clatter through the narrow streets…One can find a burst of speed in the open training fields.

In this way, the reader mentally pictures Hu, the “one”, doing the riding, while still allowing Spence to maintain his credibility. This technique, used effectively in some scenes in any creative nonfiction piece could be useful to replace the modal form.

Despite being institutionalized for several years at Charenton Hospital, Hu does eventually leave Europe and return home near Canton. The last scene in the book is the one of the more touching as if Hu has come full circle in his life from apprentice to master:

Hu sits in the evening sun. He looks at the dropping banyan trees, the rice fields now harvested and bare, the sluggish water of the familiar creeks, the barren lines of hills. “Uncle Hu, Uncle Hu!” the children cry, their eyes wide with expectation, their thin, confident voices rising echoless up into the sky. “Uncle Hu, tell us what it’s like over there, in the west.”

Hu pauses a moment, and closes his eyes.

“Well,” says Hu, “it’s like this.”

This scene and others in the book are a testament to Spence's ability to tell a good story with engaging and memorable scenes--the heart of any good book.

So, was Hu suffering from mental illness? With scenes of Hu's seemingly erratic behavior mixed in with scenes of Hu's wisdom in the style of Sancho Panza, the question is left open, and in the end, it will be the reader to decide.

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