The recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, a Los Angeles Times book prize and numerous other honors, Spence wrote more than a dozen books on China, along with reviews, essays and lectures. He was best known for "The Search for Modern China,'' an 870-page publication that began in the 17th century, at the peak of the Ming dynasty, and continued through the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
As suggested by the book's title, Spence approached China as if writing a detective story, deciphering for Western readers one of the world's largest, most populous and complex countries. Drawing upon scores of previous books and original papers, he documented China's history of extreme upheavals and lasting traditions. He noted the "patterns of generational deference and concepts of obligation'' and the rebellions designed to shatter them, whether the sacking of Beijing in 1644, the 1911 fall of the last emperor or the Communist triumph of the late 1940s.
"We can see how often the Chinese people, operating in difficult or even desperate circumstances, seized their own fate and threw themselves against the power of the state,'' he wrote. "We can see how in 1644, again in 1911, and then again in 1949, disillusion with the present and a certain nostalgia for the past could combine with a passionate hope for the future to bring the old order crashing down, opening the way for an uncertain passage to the new.''
Spence's book was praised by critics, reached The New York Times' best-seller list, remains widely used in classrooms and is often credited with popularizing Chinese studies.
"He narrates history that is always lively, always concrete, always comprehensible, no matter how complex the issue,'' wrote the Times' Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who added that the book "will undoubtedly become a standard text on the subject.''
Spence's other works included a short biography of Mao Zedong for the Penguin Lives series; "The Chan's Great Continent,'' which looked into how Westerners perceived China, and "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,'' about one of the first Jesuit missionaries to China. A 1996 book, "The Chinese Century: A Photographic History,'' was co-authored by Spence and Annping Chin.
Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, to Helen Alexander, and two stepchildren.
Born in Surrey, England, Spence grew up in a family of book lovers: his father was an editor, his mother a reader of French literature. He was an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge, where he edited the student newspaper and co-edited the student magazine Granta, now one of the world's most prestigious literary journals.
After graduation, he received a fellowship at Yale and befriended the China scholar Mary Wright, who became a mentor. Through Wright, he met the biographer Fang Chao-ying and was granted special access to papers in Taiwan from the Qing dynasty, material used in his dissertation and his first book, "Ts'ao Yin and the K'ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master,'' which came out in 1966, the same year he joined the Yale faculty.
"I was able to hold in my hand the original writings of the emperor of China,'' he said in a 2010 interview with Humanities magazine, the in-house publication of the National Endowment of the Humanities. "It was something that is still very emotional for me, and it was a major moment for my thinking about the past.''
Spence was among Yale's most popular teachers and much of "The Search for Modern China'' expanded upon his classroom talks. One former student, the award-winning journalist and China scholar Susan Jakes, would recall Spence speaking at a measured and mesmerizing pace, touching upon grand themes and precise details.
"The lectures had the feel of finely crafted short stories, and at times full-length novels. They were beguilingly titled 'The View from Below,' 'All in the Translation,' `Into the World,' 'Bombs and Pianos' _ and they built in intensity to end in startling revelations or quietly delivered lines of poetry,'' Jakes wrote in 2008 for the web site www.thechinabeat.com.
"His lectures held out the promise that China and its past could be, if not quite within our reach, than at least a little closer than they seemed. ... I am sitting in Shanghai as I write this, quite as certain as one can be about historical causes and effect, that had I not found my way to that lecture hall in the spring of 1995, or if Spence had been lecturing on astrophysics or on Luxembourg, I would not be here.