The way Spence tells his life story, luck played a big role in his success, too. Take the scholarship he was offered as he completed his degree – an exchange programme between Yale and Clare College, Cambridge. It wasn’t even one he had applied for: it came by way of an invitation. And it was only after he arrived at Yale, on his first trip across the Atlantic, that he decided to study China. Yale had a whole section with scholars dedicated to Chinese history, literature, politics and economics. The holistic way the culture was studied appealed and he immediately took to the husband and wife team of Chinese historians Mary and Arthur Wright.
Then came another lucky break. An anonymous donor offered a fellowship in the area of Chinese studies – did he want to use it and go through to a PhD? He jumped at the chance and chose to study in Australia, with Fang Chao-ying, a scholar who had fled China in 1946.
[…] He spent a year in Canberra, at the Australian National University, meeting Fang weekly to read and discuss 17th- and 18th-century texts from im-perial China. It was a period of intense study and the more he learned the more fascinated he became. And this is where he got really lucky. When the nationalists fled the mainland, they took with them imperial archives. Fang just happened to be friends with a scholar who had recently been made the director in charge of the archive in Taiwan. Although the records weren’t open to the public, there was a chance Spence, who had begun to learn to read Chinese at Yale, might get to see them. [Source]
Spence became the first western scholar permitted to study the archives and his research resulted in his PhD dissertation: “Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kang Hsi”.