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Madness in “Question of Hu” by Jonathan Spence Essay

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Updated: Sep 16th, 2020


John Spence’s book titled “Question of Hu” came out in 1989. It is considered a historical novel, as it takes place in a real historical setting, but with fictional characters. The story is centered around two heroes – Jean-Francois Foucquet, who is a French Jesuit that had been studying Chinese language, texts, and culture for 20 years in order to find similarities between Chinese writings and the scripture and use it as a foundation for China’s conversion to Christianity. Hu, on the other hand, is a Christian convert. He is poor, disheveled, and a widower. The book tells us about Hu’s adventures in Europe, and Foucquet’s attempts to keep him out of trouble. Throughout the whole story, Hu is portrayed as a bit of a madman, whose condition grows worse as time passes. However, the purpose of these writings is to challenge the readers’ notions of what madness is, as Hu’s condition is multi-layered and riddled with nuances that vouch either for his sanity or for madness. Despite Hu’s actions being bizarre and often appearing unmotivated, the core reasons behind them are a cultural clash, religious zeal, and hierarchical confrontation between him and Foucquet.


Before we analyze Hu’s alleged “madness,” an important question must be answered first. What is madness? Depending on the source, different answers are given. The medicine defines insanity as a disease of the mind, caused by biochemical reactions in the brain. Psychology defines insanity as a condition caused by emotional and physical actions, which alters the perception of reality in a person. Sociology defines madness as an inability to function in society and adhere to its rules. The third definition is obviously flawed – if we use it in the scope of our research, the conclusion will be that any person visiting a foreign country is mad, as they will not be aware of cultural nuances, laws, and habits. This definition of madness, however, is also the most common one.

Hu’s tragedy is in the fact that both he and the Europeans he met on his journey are culturally insensitive. Europeans do not feel the need to educate themselves in Hu’s culture, as they are in their country, while he is a visitor. Hu does not educate himself in European culture because he assumes that it does not differ much from China. This is why some of Hu’s actions seem irrational and bizarre not only to Europeans and Foucquet but to the readers as well. The incident where Hu steals a horse is often used as an example of this, though I believe it is a wrong comparison. While Chinese society was very different from European society in many ways, it did not shun the concept of property. A good example of differences between European and Chinese culture would be the payment incident, which occurred near the end of the book. Foucquet did not want to pay Hu as he spent two years in an asylum instead of working for him. From a European standpoint, that is correct. However, in regards to the Chinese system and understanding of contracts, Hu may be right. This is why many of Hu’s attributed symptoms of madness can be signed off as cultural ignorance, which is not an indication of madness. Hu was not considered insane in his own environment.

Some of Hu’s actions are motivated by nothing other than religious faith. It is a well-known fact that the first converts to any religion are the ones who believe in it most ardently. They are not raised in it against their will; it was their conscious choice to accept it. Hu was a zealous Christian in a way that he took Jesus’ teachings too seriously. When he gave his clothes to the poor, he actively practiced the Bible. Perhaps, it was a bit extreme. From a religious point of view, however, it was a noble act, not an act of madness. Europeans did not see it that way, as they did not practice what their missionaries preached. To them, Christianity was more of a tradition than a way of life.

Not all of Hu’s actions could be explained by cultural differences and religious zeal, however. Some of these include the incident with horse theft, Hu tearing up a blanket offered to him, and his aggressive behavior towards Foucquet during their boat trip to Europe. However, there is a reasonable explanation for such behavior as well. If we look at the nature of the relationship between Foucquet and Hu, we could see that it is not a relationship based on equality. While the Jesuit seems to be genuinely well-intentioned and concerned for Hu’s safety, his actions could be viewed as overbearing. Foucquet treats Hu as an ignorant child rather than a 40-year old man and prefers to control and lock him up rather than explain and understand his motives.

Hu proves to be a stubborn man with a very acute sense of pride. He understands that Foucquet and others want to control and use him, so he rebels against their influence through these seemingly irrational actions. In the episode where Hu tears the blanket given to him – he makes a statement. He does not tear the blanket because he could not help himself. The man chose to tear it because it was his. Thus, Hu’s act is a revolt against others making decisions for him, and a claim to be able to make decisions by himself, even if they seem irrational and “mad.” Through this image, the author tries to convey the struggle of 18-century workers against the overbearing and controlling ruling class.

Thus, Hu’s actions are hyperbolized reactions of a person thrown into an unknown, different, and hostile environment. Upon his return to China, the man stops acting irrationally, as he is now in his natural environment. He is no longer in a position of servitude, and people around him do not see him as mad. Hu’s words suddenly gain eloquence and power, as he is able to convince others that Foucquet was mistreating him and did not pay him his due. Children treat him nicely, even referring to him as “Uncle Hu,” which shows that back home he is considered a normal, ordinary man, rather than a menace and a danger to society.


Using Hu as an example, Spence challenges society’s norms and definitions of what is right and wrong, sane, and insane. He shows how a perfectly sane person could end up being locked in an asylum due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, misunderstandings, and miscommunication. His tale reflects on many important aspects present in our society, such as cultural intersection, definitions of right and wrong, and societal consequences of the shallowness of Christian faith.


Meynen, Gerben. “Legal Insanity: Explorations in Psychiatry, Law, and Ethics.” International Library of Ethics, Law, and New Medicine 71, no.1 (2016): 4-13.

Spence, Jonathan. Question of Hu. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

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