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Joseph R. Levenson: A Retrospective

By Thomas M. Levenson

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.

Levenson sought, in his study of China, "ties that bind a world." And so in Confucian China he treated not the problem of Confucian China's decline into irrelevance, into history, but an understanding that would reinforce Levenson's understanding of comparable problems in other traditions. For some, this resulted in a distressing call for historical relativism, for the basic comparison that juxtaposes the historian's own time with every other. Only with confidence in himself, Levenson held, could a historian make sense of the past--the historian had to "take one's own day seriously, retaining the moral need to declare oneself and stand somewhere, not just swim in time.

But for some of his readers, what appeared to Levenson to be a universal problem of the individual's relation to his past, became instead merely Levenson's problem as a Jew in America, cut off from his own culture and roots. In discussing one Chinese attempt to reconcile present with past, Angus McDonald complained that "the synthesis that the Chinese had found in the thought of Mao... was beyond him [Levenson] as a Jew in exile." The limits of the Jewish experience (limiting the comparisons that Levenson could make from within his own culture), McDonald held, prevented Levenson from responding to the burning political issues of his day, the antiwar movement at home, the Cultural Revolution in China.

But this view ignores the subtleties of Levenson's relativism. Other histories were not important because their historical experiences had one to one correspondences with one's own experience. The crucial question was not, "How is this the same as what he knows or is?" but, as Levenson wrote in the third volume of the trilogy, "Why should a generation comparable enough to his own to be judged in his vocabulary not be analogous to his own?... Why should earlier men, who deserve to be taken as seriously as he himself, diverge so far from his standards?"

Levenson's own experience as a Jew was crucial to his life and work. In the introduction of what was to have been his retirement book on Judaism, Levenson proudly reaffirmed his commitment to a Judaism with links to the past that McDonald believed cut him off from the present. To be a Jew in America was for Levenson a choice of standards from which to view not only his own time and culture but any other--"To choose well in life is nothing less than to choose life itself."

But Levenson's conscious choice of life as a Jew was essential to his ability to analyze any other choice. Other histories, other problems became important not because they all blended into one pseudo-historical stew, but because the people living them faced comparable, not identical, choices.

And so in the Vietnam War era, Levenson turned to the question of provincialism and cosmopolitanism, what Frederic Wakeman has called "a key issue still in the People's Republic today: how much can be taken in bits and pieces without altering the basic system." In the lone volume of an uncompleted trilogy, and a few articles, Levenson concentrated on the dilemmas of a people in whom provincial and cosmopolitan tendences were then colliding in the massive outbreak of the Cultural Revolution.

Raising cultural questions about that revolution struck a note out of sync with the times. With the Vietnam war setting up history and value tension for many Americans, examining the Cultural Revolutionary goal of creating new man in terms of China's nearness or distance from a cosmopolitan vision seemed a passive abdication of the political imperative of the time.

But for Levenson the political movements in China and in the United States were not separable from the struggles of people defining their relations to their pasts and the worlds around them. Levenson publicly stated his opposition to American involvement in Vietnam from 1965 on. But he was moved more by the larger question, which persists in China still as it did in his own choices to live as a Jew, an intellectual and an American: is there a happy medium between a feckless cosmopolitanism (hampered by the "fact that the cosmos was somebody else's"); and a terrifying isolation that cut off both the foreign and the past?

Levenson answered--his critics and his question--with a cry of hope found in the text of lectures that were never given:

And yet, is China really on the beach now, out of range of the cosmopolitan tide? What do they signify, those few Chinese devotees of the Western stage? The Cultural Revolution snuffed them out, after their short and lonely life....But in their insignificance, their restriction to the periphery of the Chinese world, is their significance. The loneliness of these dramatists in China is like China's in the world at large, a China sitting solitary, her ties back to the Chinese past attenuated, her bridges across to the alien present barred...The provincialism of the culture of the Cultural Revolution is a mark of loneliness, too, a cutting off from their past and the contemporary world around them. They try to speak to the world, as our men of the foreign theater tried to speak. Some people are listening. Maybe some peoples are listening. One way or another [the choice of ways is fearful], China will join again on the cosmopolitan tide. Cultural intermediaries, Cultural Revolutionaries--neither will look like stranded minnows or stranded whales forever.

After ten years I do not remember him well. And the memories hold only childhood glimpses; I was always too young to even care yet about ghosts with which he wrestled. But after ten years my inability to build a complete picture of the man seems somehow irrelevant. Paraphrasing the folk story with which he concluded Confucian China and its Modern Fate, we cannot perform that task, but we can tell the story of how it was done.

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