The Chinese have been tough on dissenters of late: the Cultural Revolution, the crackdowns in Tibet and Tiananmen Square, and the numerous Falun Gong arrests. But those punishments pale in comparison with those detailed in Treason by the Book, scholar Jonathan Spence’s new work about treason in 18th-century China. Emperor Yongzheng liked to dispatch enemies of the state by cutting them into pieces and displaying their severed heads in the streets. But not all traitors met that horrific fate. Spence’s book focuses on Zeng Jing, who goes by “Summer Calm, the Leaderless Wanderer of the Southern Seas.” The son of a farmer from southern China, Zeng was confronted with nasty rumors that his emperor was, well, a mean drunk who kept countless concubines, plotted against his brothers, and was quickly ruining the country. It was against this backdrop that a conspiracy was hatched among the peasants to revolt against Yongzheng and the fledgling Manchu dynasty. But Yongzheng was able to unravel the plot when a damning letter written by Zeng fell into the wrong hands. Peasant Zeng recanted his words and was fortunate enough to earn a pardon. Using various historical documents, Spence presents the scenes and characters in explicit detail and paints a vivid picture of 18th-century China. Check out Spence’s lecture at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 8, at the Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW. $15. (202) 357-3030. (Dave Mann)