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Carol Lee Hamrin


China and the West

Jonathan Spence's Jefferson Lecture

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There was also a sense of something missing in the conclusion to this year's Jefferson Lecture, insofar as the series is intended to "present matters of broad concern in the humanities in a public forum." Spence noted early on how Westerners and Chinese in the late 17th century "were able to share certain beliefs and priorities that show how the idea of a 'Meeting of the Minds' could be a genuine force for exploration and possible change, but also for harmony and adaptation." At the end, he commented that the three men shared certain basic ideas about human knowledge, including "the importance of linguistic precision, the need for broad-based comparative studies, the role of clarity in argument, the need for thorough scrutiny of philosophical and theological principles, boldness of explication, and clarity …. And the values they shared remain, well over three hundred years later, the kind that we can seek to practice even in our own hurried lives." For me, this narrow interpretation of the values underlying scholarship in the humanities was deeply dissatisfying. It seems unconsciously to reflect the continued tyranny of the Enlightenment paradigm that honors science and downplays religion.

My companion at the Jefferson lecture commented that there were likely more references to religion on this occasion than in most NEH-sponsored lectures. And certainly, Jonathan Spence in his many published works gives more attention than do most China scholars to the thought-life of religious figures such as Jesuit and Protestant missionaries and the Chinese ruler of the pseudo-Christian Taiping Kingdom. And yet, his cultural studies, like others in the field, seem strangely indifferent to the power of community life in prayer and worship and transcultural religious fellowship. His early book To Change China, written at the height of the Mao era of Chinese "self-reliance," depicted the failure of many Western diplomatic, business, and mission efforts in China. We may need to redefine failure as seed planting in light of China's current global economy and unprecedented mass revival of the Christian faith. Nonetheless, the book is one of my favorites and should be required reading for every American who sets off for China with a grand project in mind.

Understanding the complexities of China's long history and rapidly changing 21st-century society is a work in progress, of course, and Jonathan Spence's depth of historical insight and balanced contemporary appraisals have contributed greatly to the positive evolution of China studies. Most scholars like myself have never sat in his classes, but still sit at his feet as each new volume emerges from his fertile mind.

Carol Lee Hamrin is Research Professor at George Mason University, a Chinese affairs consultant, and senior associate with the Global China Center in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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