“The Question of HU” by Jonathan D. Spence


The Question of Hu is a tale that focuses on the story of two men; Jesuit Jean-François Foucquet and John Hu. It was written by Jonathan D. Spence. Foucquet is a French man who wishes to translate Chinese religious texts. He intends to convince the Christian community that Chinese religious texts are the words of the Christian God. He sets out to China and recruits a Chinese catholic by the name of John Hu. Foucquet hopes that translating the Chinese texts will encourage the spread of Christianity in Asia. (Spencer, 8) John Hu is supposed to assist him in copying these texts. The two men leave for France.

Hu is shocked by the culture of French society. He encounters strange things such as windmills and is unable to control his reactions. In one instance he sees a windmill and climbs it so that he can analyze its construction. One day he “borrows” (Spencer, 69) a horse that a man has left unattended. He insists on sleeping on the floor against the will of his hosts. Such behaviors cause Foucquet and other French people to conclude that Hu is insane. His captors do not understand why he is behaving in such a “strange” manner. They decide to take him to a mental asylum. Hu does not understand why he has been locked up. Hence the question; why have I been locked up? (Spencer, 89)


This book poses the question on the qualification for insanity. The book has an argument and a counter argument. Jesuit Jean-François Foucquet is perturbed with the behavior of his guest. He does not attempt to learn the cultural differences. Foucquet assumes that Hu is insane and makes arrangements for his incarceration at a mental asylum. When Hu sees a windmill, he is interested in its design and climbs it.

Foucquet sees this as an act of insanity but decides not to take further action. (Spencer, 109) One day a man alights from his horse and ties it. He walks into a building. John Hu goes down the stairs of the building he was in. He unleashes the horse and gallops away with it. The man and French society hold the view that Hu has stolen the horse. When Hu is confronted, he asks why a man cannot use an item that another person is not currently using. This highlights the difference in French and Chinese cultures. Hu only intended to use the horse and not steal.

Hu behaves unusually during the journey to France. He also eats disproportionate amounts of food at a time. His hosts consider his actions with dismay. Foucquet treats Hu as a child and a servant. Hu is aware of these efforts to undermine him and he therefore behaves in a rebellious and unusual manner. Foucquet considers Hu’s behavior as “Chinese madness” (Spencer, 42). Hu does not condone integration of men and women.

Hu declines to interact with women since this is against his Chinese culture. In the asylum, Hu is given a blanket that he can use to warm himself. (Spencer, 209) John Hu tears the blanket into shreds. He argues that the blanket was his to use as he pleases. He feels that it was his right to tear it to shreds. He is also expressing his rebellion. Jesuit Jean-François Foucquet thinks that Hu has the ability to assimilate into French culture. Foucquet disregards Hu’s customs and beliefs. Hu’s religious and cultural convictions are disregarded and his interest in exploration is seen as insanity. John Hu is oppressed and surprised at the culture shock.

He is hesitant and feels uneasy. “”Hu stands a moment at the doorway to the reception hall, looking in….” (Spence, 47) Jesuit Jean-François Foucquet also wants him incarcerated so that he can use him in his work. It is surprising that Foucquet wants to know Chinese religious text but is unwilling to learn or tolerate Chinese culture. This story highlights issues of lunacy, social status and control. (Spencer, 174)

John Hu can be considered to be insane. He acts in a manner that would qualify as insanity in several societies. Although he intends to demonstrate his rebellion, he manifests it in a manner that is obviously unacceptable. He shows little courtesy to his hosts. It is therefore not surprising that he is treated in a lowly manner and finally committed to a mental institution. When he steals the horse, he should know that his actions may not be condoned in a new society. Hu does not always exhibit Chinese culture. Some of his behavior is simply a show of rebellion. John Hu should thus not be surprised when he is locked up.

Hu is mischievous, disrespectful and manner less. (Spencer, 115)He should have first studied the behavior of his hosts and done his best to assimilate with them. Hu behaves in a manner that would probably draw him condemnation in his own culture. For example he eats disproportionate quantities of food. He also stays late outside and makes his hosts worry. Many of his actions are quite rash. He refuses to apologize for his actions even after being scolded. Hu does not show remorse for his actions but continues to indulge in them. He leaves Foucquet with no choice except having him “locked up”. Hu is locked up for two years. Hu surprisingly asks a man at the asylum, “Why have I been locked up?” (Spencer, 239)


The Question of John Hu ponders over the difference in various cultures. It looks at the definition of insanity and differences in culture. It shows how misinterpretations can cause undue conclusions to be made. In this case, John Hu is committed to an asylum although his actions are more rebellious in nature than insane. This book also shows how ones behavior can cause other people to make incorrect conclusions. (Spencer, 54)

Work Cited

Spencer, Jonathan D. The Question of Hu. New York: Vintage, 1989.