Joseph R. Levenson: A Retrospective

This piece is a remembrance of Joseph R. Levenson on the tenth anniversary of his death. Levenson, a specialist in Chinese history taught at the University of California, Berkeley

On April 6, 1969, Easter Sunday, two canoes set out on the Russian River, a few miles east of Guerneyville in Northern California. The river was running very high and very fast. The group travelled about a mile without incident until, while rounding a turn in the stream, both canoes struck a tree that had been mostly obscured by the flood. The lead canoe tipped its passengers and then righted itself, floating out of reach of the boaters. The second wrapped itself around the tree and stayed there, a bizarre Christmas ornament one holiday late. Rescuers in Guerneyville picked up five of the six canoers within three hours of the accident. The next day they recovered the body of the sixth. Joseph Richmond Levenson, Sather Professor of History at the University of California, my father.

They said of Joseph Levenson when he died, "He showed how a lifetime of effort might yield really nourishing answers, but transcending his speciality is what he contributed to humanistic knowledge generally." John K. Fairbank, Higginson Professor of History Emeritus, Levenson's Harvard undergraduate tutor and graduate advisor, rendered final judgdment: "Joe's was no ordinary career--its record is that of genius at work."

Ten years after he died my memories have begun to fade; the photo on the wall, the row of books on my shelf remain. But he has become the most important moulder of the way I think, the way I would like to live. Throughout his life he brought passion to certain basic questions intertwined in his life and work. When he tried to bring his specialty onto the beaten track, into the realm of universal human concern, he asked the questions that touch the heart of personal dilemmas I am still trying to resolve.

Levenson was born in Boston in 1920. After a stint at Boston Latin, he entered Harvard in 1937, majoring in European history. The war sent him to Japanese language school, and eventually to Japan itself, but when he returned to Harvard in 1946 Levenson turned to China, the country that held his concern for the rest of his life, earning a Ph.D. in 1949. Looking back on this choice, Levenson said in 1968, "In Chinese history there were big open spaces and the promise of a road that went the long way home...The interest in China is an interest in the fact that the questions which confront China are more and more becoming the same questions which confront us...which in a cosmopolitan world we all share."


In the book that emerged from his dissertation, Levenson addressed a problem that became one of the main intellectual themes of his subsequent work. The book, Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and the Mind of Modern China, examined the life and though of Liang (1873-1929) as a lens through which to view "what his milieu expected of him and could offer him." In his role as intellectual historian, Levenson viewed himself as far more than a recorder of Liang's stated thoughts.

From the ways that Liang though while the traditional culture of Imperial China crumbled about him, from the constructions he put on thoughts that had been expressed in other times or places, Levenson hoped to extract insights on the dilemmas faced when cultures clash. When he stated the thesis of his work in his introduction, Levenson set up the dialectic that expressed those dilemmas as dynamic forces withing the individual and his society:

Every man has an emotional commitment to history and an intellectual commitment to value and tries to make these commitments coincide...Chinese had loved their civilization not only because they were born into it but because they thought it good. In the nineteenth century, however, history and value were torn apart in many Chinese minds.

The crisis came when a moribund Confucianism found its links to the realities around those who treasured it becoming more and more tattered. And for Levenson, the record of Liang's attempts to reconcile his intellectual alienation with his emotional bonds to Confucianism was the record of the death of that tradition.

Unfortunately Levenson's era was fraught with tensions which conspired to make his asking any questions extremely difficult. In the early fifties Levenson, like Liang, found himself caught in an objectionable political current that swept him along against his will. His association at Harvard with Fairbank, then suspected by the McCarran Committee of having something to do with Communists at home and abroad, aroused the suspicion of California's loyalty-oath-bearing legislators that Levenson, too, might harbor secret Communist sympathies. Further outcry arose after Levenson's first interview with the University of California in 1949, when he is supposed to have answered the question "How did the United States lose China?" by responding, "I never knew that we owned China." His appointment to Berkeley's faculty ultimately had to be quietly hidden within the university's budget.

Once safely ensconced at Berkeley, Levenson was greeted by a critical response to his first work that ranged from bland encouragement to outright viciousness. The radical nature of Levenson's work--his relativism, his concern for the context and social bases for thought and his use of dialectics evoked the wrath of the senior American Sinologist then writing, Arthur Hummel. Hummel wrote that Levenson was merely "out to get his man," and that the book "really tells us more about the wayward, corrosive thinking of our time than it does about ... 'the first mind of new China.'"

Levenson's later work, though often highly praised, remained a focus for controversy, some of which persists in scholarly journals today. The implications of his method and vision, what he expected of the historian placed heavy demands on those who wrote (and read) history, demands that became clearer as he completed his largest work, Confucian China and its Modern Fate.

In this trilogy, history and value remain central themes. The first volume of the trilogy picks up where Liang Ch'i-ch'ao left off, taking "the problem of intellectual continuity," the persistence of ideas in changing contexts in space and time, to a society-wide level. No longer tied to the life of a single man, Levenson dispensed with conventions of narrative history, choosing instead to write three books as a web, jumping centuries and cultures to find the comparisons that would treat the same theme from a myriad of settings. From treating crises of intellectuals in an intellectual system, in the second volume Levenson moved to the crises of intellectuals within institutions--the monarchy and the bureaucracy.

The third volume resolves the lines of tension between ideas and individuals, individuals and institutions, with an exploration of how a culture lays its ghosts to rest--how the past beomes history. Levenson wrote, after the fact

In my concluding volume, I felt, if I could grasp what it means to say that the historical lacks significance, I could attribute to that stubbornly phenomenal human record the significance which the classic [western] poetry/history idealistic condenscension would strip from it. And so I wrote the history of how something became history, as modern men became modern in making their past past, while keeping it or restoring it us theirs.