The excellence of "The Question of Hu" lies in its brevity and understatement. Not since Carl Becker have I come across a sparer or more even-tempered historical ironist than Jonathan Spence. His book evokes so many reflections and deep emotions in the reader that it is all one can do not to skip the story line altogether and hunker right down to its implications.
The tale of Hu opens in late December of 1721. A French Jesuit, Jean-Francois Foucquet, is preparing to depart China after 20 years of unremitting labor, during which time he has amassed a treasure of erudition and linguistic skills, books and manuscripts and, not least in his own eyes, of progressive opinions about the value of the Chinese rites.
For Father Foucquet stands resolutely on what Vatican II will see as the side of the angels: He has spent his life studying ancestral Chinese religion and hopes, through careful argumentation and elaborate commentary, to convince his skeptical superiors in Rome that the Chinese version of Catholicism--with its own rites and customs--is not contaminated with Taoist superstition, and may--indeed, must--be permitted to flourish.
To help with the endless task of copying manuscripts, Foucquet badly, and quickly, needs a Chinese secretary. On the eve of departure, he hurriedly interviews one, John Hu, a 40-year-old widower and a Christian convert. Hu is dark-skinned, physically unappealing, and "with a despairing look to him," but there is no time to look further: "It was either this Chinese or none at all." Hu sails with Foucquet virtually on the morning tide.
The venture is misbegotten. From start to last, the story of Hu in France is a nightmare for Foucquet. Not only will the would-be secretary not learn French, he won't even copy Chinese, as he was hired to do, but rather throws himself with willful abandon into seeing what there is to see. On the other hand, Hu shows no sign of adapting to the culture he sees. He finds a lone horse tethered to a post, takes it and sets off across the countryside. When questioned by Foucquet in Chinese, Hu counter-queries: Why, if a horse isn't being used, may someone else not use it?
As the reply shows--and the Jesuit is never sure if Hu's reasoning is ingenuous or not--the Chinese, when he chooses to speak, is not at a loss for words or logic or appealing motive. Hu, for example, takes his Christian faith with a literal seriousness that is the source of constant inconvenience and embarrassment for his master. He gives away his clothes and possessions to beggars, kowtows before crucifixes, hopscotches over church floors so as not to step on cruciform decoration and treats the nuncio as if he were the Chinese emperor. Hu also holds to weird hunches and superstitions, throws open windows in winter, moves furniture about bizarrely and harangues Parisian crowds in Chinese, indeed becomes something of a familiar oddity in the Marais.
With devastating use of litotes, Spence limns the disrupting effect of a Hu on the busy, buttoned-down life of a Jean-Francois Foucquet SJ, a life no less self-centered, for being work-centered. No scholar or bibliophile would fail to squirm at Spence's descriptions of Foucquet's possessiveness for his books, his ideas and, above all, his tranquillity. On the other hand, it is clear that Hu's behavior would try (even if it mightn't best) a saint's patience--say, a C. S. Lewis'. And Foucquet is no Lewis. Within six months of their arrival in France, the priest is aching to be rid of the Chinese and scheming with nuncios, police lieutenants-general and bishops to help him become so.
In time, Hu, still French-dumb, is shipped off at whip point to the lunatic asylum at Charenton, there to languish for two years. Eventually, another Chinese-speaking Jesuit shows more patience with him and does not think Hu mad. (For all that, Hu is furious at not being paid his wages.) Hu's release is obtained, though in fairness to Foucquet--who is now a bishop, by the way, and having to justify his treatment of Hu--Hu acts no less queerly on release than at Charenton or before. Although he says he wishes to go home, he has to be forced aboard the boat carriage, and boat, to return to China.
The story ends well, with Hu sitting under the banyan trees, in the evening sun, telling tales of the West--but certainly not in French.
However absorbing the narrative of the book--and it's sculpted with true mastery of the historian's craft--the story, per se, never distracts from reflecting on the serious business at hand: the intersection of two profoundly different cultures (though one frankly doubts that Hu's actions wouldn't have been deemed odd in China, too); on what is sanity and what is madness; on the subtlest shades of right and wrong, and even, for that matter, on the behavioral consequences of deep (or shallow) Christian faith.