This presidential address was read at the annual meeting in New York City, December 29, 1968. Published in the American Historical Review 74, no. 3 (February 1969): 861–79.

Assignment for the ’70s

When William L. Langer addressed us in 1957 he deplored the “tendency … of historians to become buried in their own conservatism…. We must be ready, from time to time,” he said, “to take flyers into the unknown….” As our “next assignment” he urged historians to use “the concepts and findings of modern psychology” and psychoanalysis.1 Since 1957 this assignment has had influence because its author perceived and encouraged a latent possibility in historical thinking. As one of Mr. Langer’s many students, I wish to borrow his term and suggest an assignment that I am sure is already in the minds of many of us and yet perhaps can be more explicitly formulated and more clearly recognized.

This assignment for the ’70s is presented within a rather stark framework of three assumptions. I assume first that we have entered an era of world crisis both within and among the nations, in which Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and other peoples will all be increasingly entangled. Let us retain the hope that this will be a stage on the way to national and world reorganization and happier times. The world crisis has certain common origins and common features, beginning with the growth of scientific and material technology, accompanied by growth of populations, communications, cities, economies, national polities, military firepower, and the like, which in turn have created complex problems running all the way from famine and insurgency to pollution, traffic jams, teen-agers, factionalism, and breakdown of consensus. Our human propensity for technological innovation seems out of control, both within the nations and among them. It breeds revolution at home and war abroad. Technological progress, which we once so admired, now has us by the throat.

Second, I assume that our organized human capacity to respond to this explosive growth and revolutionary change is showing ominous limitations. Our problems may be formulated on many levels and in terms of each of the various disciplines, from ecology to psychiatry to political philosophy. They come down to the question how to identify problems and how to change our institutions and ideas rapidly enough to cope with problems that we can recognize. “Institution” is a protean word I shall not attempt to define except as “habituated group behavior”; by “ideas” I mean, for our purposes, mainly habits of thought. My point is that the world crisis puts a premium on our capacity to change our customary assumptions, traditional values, inherited images, and cherished mechanisms as part of our general effort at growth and change in our institutional and intellectual behavior. We historians, as at best creators or at least curators of our image of the world and our place in it, have a special role to perform.

Third, I assume that within this broad and dire context, China presents a special world problem requiring special treatment. If China were not the most distinctive and separate of the great historical cultures, if the Chinese language were not so different and difficult, if our China studies were not so set apart by these circumstances, our China problem would not be so great. But the fact is that China is a uniquely large and compact section of mankind, with a specially self-contained and long-continued tradition of centrality and superiority, too big and too different to be assimilated into our automobile-TV, individual-voter, individual-consumer culture. China is too weak to conquer the world but too large to be digested by it. China’s eventual place in the world and especially America’s relationship to China therefore bulk large on the agenda for human survival. If China builds up an ICBM stockpile in the years ahead, nuclear deterrence will become more and more “a perilous triangular affair.”2 This will be something new because China in our experience has usually been only promises unrealized—promises of trade that never really developed, of Christianization that never got very far, of parliamentary democracy that aborted. But missiles today are real. America may desperately want to turn inward, but nuclear missiles face outward. They hold us in a common destiny with our most distant adversaries. Our precarious coexistence will never be quite blind, but it may easily become myopic. The American historical image of China and of America’s interaction with China thus may help or hinder our survival.

By stating these three assumptions—that we are all in a world crisis of growth and change, explosive “development” and violent “modernization,” at home and abroad, that we historians must strive most of all to update our thinking so as to improve American institutional and ideological behavior, and that we must confront our China problem intellectually as a special case in need of rethinking—I have of course tried to pre-empt a position without proof and lay the basis for an argument that may seem logical though actually ignorant and biased. This, however, is a privilege customarily accorded to those who give presidential addresses. They have to start somewhere. It is easiest in mid-air, at a high level of generality.

I propose to deal with the role (or nonrole) of Chinese history in professional historical thinking in America, including the function of the China “expert” and how to get rid of him. We historians can help to lead American thinking in many ways, but the historical profession first has a job to do in its own thinking about China, a job that China specialists cannot do for it. This job is simply to get a truer and multivalued, because multicultural, perspective on the world crisis, on our own role in it, and on the role of the Chinese as the most indigestible and unassimilable of the other peoples. China is the most pronounced case of “otherness” on which we need perspective. Our relationship with China poses most concretely the problem of observing ourselves as we observe and deal with others. This leads us to the bifocal question: What image have we of our self-image? What do we think we think we are doing in the world?

The first practical question is: where has Chinese history been since the founding of the American Historical Association eighty-four years ago? The answer seems to lie in the interaction of four academic spheres—Sinology, history, social science, and area study. Let us begin with the peculiar bifurcation that has grown up between Sinology and history.

Chinese history began among us as part of Sinology: the study of Chinese civilization through the Chinese language and writing system. Organized Sinology in the United States antedated organized history by forty-two years. The American Oriental Society began in 1842, the American Historical Association in 1884. J. Franklin Jameson tells us that the founding of the AHA was inspired partly by the example of the American Oriental Society.3) In short, we Americans were never unaware that there was a lot of history over there in China; only it had to be got at through Sinology, the study of Chinese characters, an experience so psychedelic and indescribable to outsiders that it did to Sinologists what the Chinese writing system has always done to the Chinese people—convinced them of the pre-eminent uniqueness and separateness of all things Chinese. And so Sinology and history have grown up as separate institutions in American life, running parallel. In size of membership, they have of course been unequal, in about the classic proportions of the rabbit and the horse.

We can see Sinology and history going through four rather parallel phases of growth. The first phase was one of distinguished amateurism. The American Oriental Society, incorporated by the Massachusetts General Court in 1843,represented in America the European interest in Orientalism generally, which had contributed originally to the Enlightenment and was later marked, for example, by the founding of the Société Asiatique in Paris in 1822.4 But the American Oriental Society had from the first a distinctive sense of mission. Its aim was to cultivate “learning in the Asiatic, African, and Polynesian languages,” partly to assist the translation of Scripture. Orientalism in America was tied in with evangelism. AOS membership included missionaries in the Near East, India, and the Far East.5) Among them was the first American missionary to China, E. C. Bridgman, who reached Canton in 1830 and began publishing the first American Sinological journal, the Chinese Repository, in 1832. His junior colleague, Samuel Wells Williams, produced his two volumes on China, TheMiddle Kingdom, in 1848. Williams was a gifted amateur historian of the same mid-century vintage as Francis Parkman, William H. Prescott, and George Bancroft.

A second phase of growth, one of scientific professionalism, came with the organization of American learned societies in the 1870’s and 1880’s, including the AHA, which was chartered by Congress in 1889.6 The idea of history as a science, popular at the end of the century, was paralleled in Europe by the growth of professional and scientific Sinology, especially at Paris where the leading journal T’oung Pao began publication in 1890. The accumulation of factual bricks to build an edifice of learning (or at least pile up a heap of knowledge) created the tradition of micro-Sinology, which was nourished by the Chinese tradition of k’aocheng hsueh, establishing textual facts for facts’ sake. But America lagged behind Europe in this professional Sinology.

In the next phase, roughly the first third of the twentieth century, both history and Sinology were challenged by social science and suffered a comparative slowdown. The old scientific history accumulated by “conservative evolutionists” no longer explained enough. As the “skeptical experimental attitude of science” continued to undermine inherited values on every level, the rise of the social sciences put historians on the defensive.7 They responded by trying to make history a social science. The 1920s saw the rise of foundation funding, the entrepreneurial facilities provided by the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council, and the growing impact of the social sciences on historical thinking, which became more problem oriented. By the 1930’s it was argued that the historian’s present-day subjective values entered so deeply into his history writing that he could only produce, as Charles Beard put it, “written history as an act of faith, thinking within a “framework of assumptions” inside a “climate of opinion.” The New History meanwhile had broadened out and greatly diversified. In the 1930’s the AHA had some 3,500 members.

In Chinese studies there had been a few notable pioneers like Arthur W. Hummel at the Library of Congress and, at Yale, Kenneth Scott Latourette, President of this association in 1948. But Sinological training in America had marked time. Only from about 1930 was professional training in Chinese and Japanese supported by the ACLS, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harvard-Yenching Institute.8 The American Oriental Society still had only a few hundred members.

Despite its earlier beginning, American Sinology had taken a generation longer than history to become professional. It was also slower by a generation to respond to the impact of social science. The marriage of Sinology and social science came only as a shotgun wedding during and after World War II. Area study was born of this union, but the American Oriental Society was not even a midwife. The lead was taken by the ACLS, during the war by the Office of Strategic Services, and later by the Association for Asian Studies, which dates from 1948. Today the AAS has 4,000 members, and its annual spring meeting draws 2,500, who mill about struggling to hear 125 papers.9 The AAS has even more committees than the AHA. Since area study is a device by which historians can provide a meaningful context for the application of social science thinking, Chinese history has flourished under AAS auspices. Once interdisciplinary area study got started in the 1940’s it became plain that traditional Sinology, the study of China as a whole civilization, had always been interdisciplinary, and this was indeed one reason why it had remained so separate from professional history in America. The subtitle of Williams’ Middle Kingdom of 1848had been A Survey of the Geography, Government, Education, Social Life, Arts, Religion, etc., of the Chinese Empire and Its Inhabitants, much like the syllabus of an area survey course today.

A fourth and final phase may be discerned in the parallel growth of history and Sinology, a phase of self-conscious maturity and coalescence. Since World War II, in John Higham’s phrase, we have seen a “renewal of history,” a “revival of confidence in historical knowledge.”10 As Roy Nichols expressed this two years ago, we historians now realize we have our “own intellectual birthright…. a discipline and a series of unique functions of our own…. we have an intellectual capacity of our own, not fully realized, which we can develop.”11 In short, history is not just one of the social sciences. History and natural science together provided the background of learning and of methodology out of which the social sciences emerged. History has been enriched by the social sciences, but the historian’s task of synthesis remains distinct and sui generis.

Looked at as modes of thought, history, the social sciences, and area study including Sinology seem now to have all met and intermingled. They are no longer in separate intellectual channels, and one cannot follow any one stream without getting into the others. The dynamic, indeed volcanic, outpouring of new work in so many fields of history today has its counterpart in a flow of new work in Chinese studies. Needless to say, the unprecedented attention to Asia in our AHA program this year testifies to this new maturity and sense of global balance.

Yet here we run into our institutional backwardness, the stubborn barriers maintained by old habits of thought and customary behavior. What are the facts of our national situation? The same factors that have caused Chinese history to flourish have kept it outside the established channels of the historical profession. Special funds from foundations and from government have led to special development programs. Graduate students are separately financed and separately admitted to separate degree programs with separate requirements. Their intensive language training, like the rigors of an old-time fraternity initiation, make them members of a cult, set apart. They feel both separate and more than equal. Chinese history today is largely dealt with through the Association for Asian Studies, just as American history is so extensively dealt with through another area association, the Organization of American Historians. But there is a difference. The OAH and the AHA are related like daughter and mother (or perhaps daughter-in-law and mother-in-law). But the AHA and the Association for Asian Studies have been complete strangers; until this year there has been no institutional connection or contact of any kind between them. This institutional bifurcation is too big a fact to be classified as an accident.

I suggest that despite our best efforts, the problem of China’s separateness is still very much with us; that American studies of the Chinese culture area and of Chinese history have developed in institutional channels separate from European-American history, not merely because of the language problem and cultism in the field of Chinese history but also because of the historical profession’s self-sufficiency, its ability to survive and even seem to flourish without benefit of Chinese history. In short, historians in America have been, like historians elsewhere, patriotic, genetically oriented, and culture-bound. (Foreign area specialists are of course culture-bound too, but they are obliged to recognize it and worry about it.) Thus it is an inherited habit of mind among us to recognize the split between Western, that is, Old World-New World, history and that segregated, peripheral afterthought, the history of the “non-West,” wherever that is. One might better call it the “non-us.” The “non-us” is of course the non-minority of mankind. Our bifurcated institutional structure, like the separate structures of the AHA and the AAS, thus embodies and perpetuates our bifurcated thinking.

This crippling habit of mind attributes special wisdom to the possessor of exotic learning, the “expert,” who in turn plays up to his audience in a vicious circle which, like so many vicious circles, is often rather fun. I know this because I have functioned publicly as a “China expert,” a tide I wear like a hair shirt, which, nevertheless, like a hair shirt on a holy man of old, has certain compensatory advantages. As a “China expert” looks into the hopeful eyes of sincere and culture-bound American audiences, he tries to meet their need for reassurance that someone knows. He learns to make plausible sense out of their conviction of ignorance and his own scanty information. If you tell them, “China is very big and very, very old,” some will always nod their heads. I am referring, of course, to the art of punditry. After all, for anyone who has been president of the Association for Asian Studies, a veritable pooh-bah among the pundits there, it is no trick at all to confront the historical establishment here and be a true pundit among the pooh-bahs. One begins with a touch of the exotic. Che shih ti-i-tz’u wo-men ti Mei-kuo Li-shih Hsueh-hui ti hui-chang tsai mei-nien ta-hui chiang i-tien Chung-kuo-hua. In other words, “This is the first time our AHA President at the Annual Meeting has spoken a bit of Chinese.” In many American academics this kind of stunt should have produced three thoughts, in addition perhaps to a sense of unease or even annoyance: first, says the listener to himself, “I do not know Chinese”; therefore, second, “I cannot know about China”; and so, third, “I shall leave Chinese matters to the China expert.”

If this in any degree approximates your reaction, we now have before us a second fact too big to ignore: the history of Europe and America is our common heritage; it explains us. But China is still exotic, outside our European-American culture, and so we leave China to the “experts.” This is intellectual abdication.

Someone may argue, “If I do not read Chinese and Japanese, how can I have scholarly thoughts about East Asia? It would be secondhand scholarship, out of linguistic control and so second-rate.” Let me ask in reply, “Do you ever have scholarly thoughts about Greece and Rome and medieval Europe even though you do not actually read Greek and Latin for the purpose? Have you ever ventured to influence a student’s thinking about Plato or Caesar or St. Thomas Aquinas while referring to their writings only in English translations?”

The problem here is not: What languages do we read? The problem is: What is our intellectual and historical horizon? What are the boundaries of our curiosity and interest? Must we look back only to our own European and American origins? Must we be so culture-bound?

Here someone may say, quite realistically, “Europe and America, the Old World and the New World, are the majority civilization, the mainstream of history. China has been a minority civilization, an exotic side current, a largely self-contained backwater, not really important.”

For your hard-core, proselytizing China specialist, this is of course a salutary thought. There are two answers to it, one pragmatic, one academic, each valid. The pragmatic answer is for men of affairs, in terms of the overused and now shopworn concept of national interest. Our last three wars have all involved us with the Chinese culture area. Our international world and the Chinese fourth or fifth of mankind have to coexist. Survival depends upon it. China is by tradition a profoundly isolationist country, far more stay-at-home than we migrating, mobile Americans can imagine. But modern Communist-nationalism has militant potentialities, and missiles know no boundaries.

This argument of Chinese history for survival is a Sinified updating of the familiar theme of history for use, history the handmaiden of statesmanship, so often voiced in AHA presidential addresses since 1885. 1 would not deny its applicability here. Trouble ahead has become a safe bet. Calamity bowling at funding time is almost reflex action among us. It took World War II to put Chinese studies on their feet in this country. In the last ten years the Ford Foundation has invested in this field more than twenty million dollars—a large sum by academic standards and almost a full working hour’s worth of our annual military expenditure. Like it or not, Chinese studies for national defense represent on our campuses a kind of nuclear blackmail we cannot avoid.

The academic argument as to why Mr. Everyman must now become his own East Asian historian is perhaps less newsworthy but intellectually more compelling. The Chinese culture area—China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam—is simply very interesting. Its long history represents perhaps a third of organized human experience. The intellectual and aesthetic challenge of East Asian studies should be irresistible to anyone concerned with the evolution of human affairs. I shall not take your time with a hopeful recital of the potential East Asian contributions to all fields of learning, both in the social sciences and in the humanistic sciences: in the fine arts, in religion and philosophy, in literature and thought, in social and economic organization, in the art of government and the art of living. Much has been written on this theme of what East Asian studies have to offer us.

This humanistic argument is, I suggest, part of our traditional academic rhetoric, part of a still larger theme, the promise of what Asia can offer, the image of Asia in American expansion, the lure of the transpacific in the American westward movement, the Asian influence on American life, whether on Ralph Waldo Emerson and transcendentalism, or on Ernest Fenollosa and his circle in the fine arts. This larger theme is of course our latter-day version of the European image of Asia, the lure of the East, the riches of Cathay and the spice trade, the land of Prester John, the tales of Marco Polo, the Pekin Jesuits’ influence on the Enlightenment, and all the rest.

Without venturing further into this realm of images and influences, I suggest that the civilization of the West has always been aware of the civilization of the East, by turns fascinated and terrified by it, and often responsive to it. In early modern times the small have-not powers of the northwest Eurasian peninsula were triggered to explode over the world partly because the fabled lands of Asia were bigger and richer. We Westerners have all had Asia on our horizon in this fashion. Today the pragmatic motive of national interest and the humanistic motive of intellectual interest are both widely accepted in American education as arguments for bringing East Asia into our schools and colleges. As regards China, two principal efforts are being made, one in world history, one in Chinese history. Both are admirable, but they will not, either singly or together, prepare us for the 1970’s.

Consider first the effort at comprehending China through world history. Much is being done in world history courses in high schools and in survey courses in colleges. For example, William H. McNeill’s excellent volume, The Rise of the West, in addition to this reassuring main title has a more accurate subtitle, A History of the Human Community.12 Because of its broad scope, it is being used as an introductory text for Asian history. The chair at the University of Chicago named for the medievalist James Westfall Thompson, President of this association in 1941, is now held by Professor Ping-ti Ho, who was born in Tientsin and is a member of Academia Sinica in Taipei. These are signs of the times. Our historical teaching and research are both reaching out over the world. The research of Americanists has long since encompassed both sides of the Atlantic in studies of the colonial period, its political thought, the Enlightenment, the democratic revolutions, the transatlantic migration, and the like. United States foreign relations are researched in all the European archives. Many among us are trying to take a next step: to move from an integrated European-American history to an intercultural and interconnected world history. But this is not an easy step to take. It cannot be taken merely by area specialists, intent on the uniqueness of their areas, but only by historians able to steer their way across the 360-degree ocean of human experience. Historians who try this must be part social scientists, though in the end the social sciences can provide only bits and pieces, and historians must put the picture together.

World history can be pursued at the level of instruction. But what can be done at the level of research? I am all in favor of world history, but if we look at the reality as well as the rhetoric, how is world history going to be developed, aside from the writing of textbooks? What is the world history on which one can actually do research? And who is going to do it? I need not remind you that professors tend to reproduce their kind until death or retirement prevents them. Our institutional inertia inheres in the way one generation of professors raises up another in its own, slightly idealized image. For the world crisis of the 1970s, to push for world history in general education is not enough. It offers only a prospect of gradual osmosis of ideas, a “trickle up” theory, that our leadership eventually will be so well educated in things Asian and Chinese, for “ample, that they will have the wit and wisdom to avoid disaster in our Asian relations—a thin hope indeed.

Comparative history is of course a field of great promise. But a bridge must have two ends. Comparative history involving China can be no stronger than our work in Chinese history.

In Chinese history, so much has been accomplished in recent years that I can now contribute most by noting the difficulties that set a low ceiling on our prospects. Number one is the language: no one can simply “read Chinese.” If asked, “Do you read Chinese?” one answers, “No, only some kinds of Chinese.” This is because the Chinese writing system has a different vocabulary of special terms for each special branch of learning or literature, yet each vocabulary may use the same characters, which are therefore laden with ambiguity, with the result that the special vocabularies have to exist in the mind of the beholder. They are not self-evident in the script. The number of persons in the world who have had a proper classical immersion fitting them to read classical Chinese is undoubtedly dwindling year by year—both on the China mainland where education has been torn down to be rethought and on Taiwan where humanistic studies are undernourished. In Japan, Korea, and Vietnam the phonetic components of the writing systems continue to be used more and more and the old Chinese characters less and less.

Many weaknesses stem from this difficulty of the writing system. Reading widely in the many styles of classical Chinese is quite beyond the capacity of most of us. One cannot easily scan a work for content. One cannot become as familiar with Chinese literature as were the Chinese of a given era, and so one cannot easily reconstruct their thinking. The degree of error in the creative reconstruction of the past, always great enough, is greater in the case of China.

The sensible remedy for the problem of the Chinese language is a two-platoon system: every American post in Chinese history should be staffed by two men, each of whom in turn can fully devote himself to reading and translating Chinese while the other one takes his turn teaching and recommending students, going to meetings, and keeping up with the New York Times. Deans and department chairmen may see a certain infeasibility in this proposal. But the Chinese-language problem is a fact. Only such an allocation of man-hours to work on the language will enable us eventually to discuss Chinese thought and behavior at the level of knowledge and sophistication now expected in European and American history. On the present basis we can turn out monographs and we can use monographs to write surveys, but we shall never become as steeped in the record, as past-minded, as, for example, a Charles McIlwain a Perry Miller, or a Harry Wolfson, if I may cite only examples from my own acquaintance.

A second difficulty is that the modernization of Chinese historical scholarship has been stunted by war, revolution, and dictatorship. It cannot lead the way for us, except possibly in Taiwan or Japan. The Chinese historical record, meanwhile, is still focused on the court and central government. Study of provincial and local history has barely begun. Nonofficial biographies are few, and historical personalities remain almost unknown. Chinese history is still profoundly underdeveloped.

From all this springs a third difficulty: that we are more than usually in danger of finding what we seek, of posing a Western question and collecting evidence to answer it, ignoring the actual Chinese situation. On this basis we may find China a great case of nondevelopment—nondevelopment of science, nondevelopment of nationalism, failure to develop parliamentary democracy, nonindustrialization, and nonexpansion. If we approach China looking for similarities to ourselves, we can almost find a nongrowth, a China that was “unchanging” because it did not change as we did.

This, unfortunately, is a built-in tendency among our social sciences: Economists looking for China’s development find few statistics, faulty base fines, and many noneconomic factors at work, which they must of course leave to others.Political scientists agree that Mao’s revolution, the most massive in history, can be classified as a stage in “political development.” It is indeed. Behavioral scientists studying China from outside through a controlled press, defectors’ testimony, and travelers’ reports find themselves in the position of those medieval surgeons who were obliged to operate under a sheet. The basic fact is that in the case of China social scientists lack that large and reliable accumulation of historically processed learning—statistics, monographs, institutional studies, biographies, political narratives, literary translations, and modern criticism—which in Europe and America formed the intellectual matrix in which the social sciences got their start in the nineteenth century. This can produce real myopia. For example, the members of the Social Science Research Council at their annual September meeting a few years ago, lacking this perspective on their own historical origins and being apparently all the more firmly culture-bound by their belief in the so-called universality of scientific principles, prudently voted that Chinese history before 1911 was not their proper concern. They were not against it; they were merely unable to see its relevance to their work.

Where are we to look for intellectual leadership and new ideas in our confrontation with China in the 1970s? World history in school and college is not enough. The field of Chinese history, much as its devotees approve of it, cannot produce ready answers for statesmen. Social scientists who like to produce such answers are quite capable of leading us, with great rationality, into well-organized and comprehensive disasters. Politicians can do the same without even recognizing the cultural differences that have been their undoing.

Let us profit by our inadvertent war in Vietnam as an object lesson in historical nonthinking. The history of Vietnam has never been part of history in the USA. Indeed, it has not even been part of American Sinology or East Asian studies. By a curious oversight Vietnam has not been included until recently in the Chinese culture area, where it genetically belongs. For example, old Vietnamese books in Chinese characters (like the old literature of China, Korea, and Japan) were not included in the Harvard-Yenching Library, presumably because Vietnam was part of the French Empire, beyond the American horizon. Suppose that our leaders in the Congress and the executive branch bad all been aware that North Vietnam is a country older than France with a thousand-year history of southward expansion and militant independence maintained by using guerrilla warfare to expel invaders from China, for example, three times in the thirteenth century, again in the fifteenth century, and again in the late eighteenth century, to say nothing of the French in the 1950s. With this perspective, would we have sent our troops into Vietnam so casually in 1965? A historical appreciation of the Buddhist capacity for individual self-sacrifice, of the Confucian concern for leadership by personal prestige and moral example, even of the Communist capacity for patriotism, might also have made us hesitate to commit ourselves to bomb Hanoi into submission.13)

The assignment I suggest for the 1970s is the study of American-East Asian relations. It requires a combination of skills, but the lead must be taken by Americanists. After all, it is America that now heads the Western expansion into the East. It is our trade that flows to and from Japan, our Seventh Fleet that stabilizes the Western Pacific. The United States seeks no territory, but its capacities make its influence the most expansive that history has seen, whether measured by the diffusion of Coca-Cola and Life-Time magazines, or of Boeing 707s, or the free distribution of arms and aid. China’s expansiveness, which presumably motivated our Vietnam intervention, is in comparison with our own expansiveness like chiu-niu i-mao, “a single hair among nine cow-hides,” in short, miniscule.

What has been the relation of Vietnam to China, in fact and in our minds? How far was our Vietnam intervention a psychological compensation for the so-called “loss” of China? What makes us tick as we do, at three minutes to midnight? Our historians on the whole do not tell us. (A China “expert” may tell you but he won’t know.) We need another dimension to our self-knowledge, for we in America need watching and self-control even more than our adversaries, if only because we have greater capacities.

Americanists have studied the American end of our expansion: the rhetoric of manifest destiny, ideas of mission and empire, business interests and the Open Door for trade. Is it not time for a further step, the study of American activities abroad, our interaction with foreign peoples like the Chinese and Japanese, and the impact of all this experience abroad on our growth at home? The basic fact is that we have interacted with East Asia as well as with Europe. Those who move into new surroundings experience more than those who stay habit-bound at home. Thus Europe’s discovery of Cathay in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced a vast European literature, contributed to the Enlightenment, energized the European economy, and led on to colonialism and imperialism, while life in China continued in the same period comparatively unaffected from outside. If expanding Europe could be so influenced at many levels by its contact with China, what of America? Was expanding America in the nineteenth century somehow less affected, less responsive to novel experience abroad?

The conventional wisdom replies that while the British expanded into India and the Far East, the Americans expanded across their own continent. The western frontier helped shape the American character. Ever since 1893,“the significance of the frontier in American history” has inspired an inundation of literature that seems now to have been for the most part parochially inward looking, explaining and indeed celebrating America’s uniqueness and isolation.

Yet in this literature it is casually recognized that American expansion from the Atlantic seaboard went both overland and by sea. Indeed, the New England diaspora of the early nineteenth century found a considerable outlet in the China trade. A first theme to pursue might well be the role of the old China trade as an integral part of the American westward movement. By mid-century Thomas Hart Benton and others were invoking the old dream of “a passage to India,” in urging America’s expansion to the Pacific for trade with Asia.14 But while Benton was orating, others were acting.

As a single example, put side by side two books, one by Thomas C. Cochran on American railroad leaders and one by Kwang-Ching Liu on early American steamboating on the Yangtze.15 One focuses on the American Middle West, the other on Shanghai—two different worlds. But if one mixes them and adds a pinch of the Dictionary of American Biography, he gets the story of Russell & Company and the CB & Q, or how the opium trade helped build our railroads. Let me cite four persons only. John Murray Forbes joined the Boston firm of Russell & Company at Canton in 1830and made a fortune. The firm became the leading American competitor of the British in tea and opium, very close to the richest Canton hong merchant and agent for his investments abroad. After returning from Canton, Forbes in 1846financed the Michigan Central Railroad, and thereafter he put together the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy system. John Cleve Green of New York joined Russell & Company at Canton in 1833, became head of the firm, cleaned up in opium, retired in 1839, and joined Forbes in financing the Michigan Central and the CB & Q. Green’s brother-in-law, John N. Alsop Griswold of New York, became Russell & Company’s partner at Shanghai, working closely with Chinese merchants from 1848 to 1854.He returned and became president of the Illinois Central in 1855 and was later chairman of the CB & Q. His successor at Shanghai, George Tyson, partner of Russell & Company from 1856 to 1868, helped inaugurate steamboating on the Yangtze. He returned to become a director and general auditor of the CB & Q. There were others. A cousin, Paul Sieman Forbes, head of Russell & Company in the United States, built steamships both for the Yangtze and for the US Navy, while investing his China profits continually in middle western railways.

For a whole generation of New Yorkers and Bostonians it was easier and more profitable to go to Canton or Shanghai than to Denver or Salt Lake City. In the early half of the nineteenth century, the China frontier was often more inviting for trade than the American frontier, just as the British had found in the eighteenth century. Yet with some notable exceptions the role of the China trade in America’s growth has long been neglected. One can best read about it still in Samuel Eliot Morison’s classic, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783–1860, published forty-seven years ago.16

When we turn from trade to evangelism, we find the same pattern of American expansion overseas but a general failure of historians thus far to integrate it with continental expansion at home. Religious activities in the nineteenth century—the Second Great Awakening, revivalism and the camp meeting, home missions, and the westward movement of major denominations—have all been studied. But, surveys of our westward expansion and our expansionist sentiments say surprisingly little about missionaries, as though religious expansion were a specialized subsector of the American experience, not as noteworthy as economic and political expansion.17

Perhaps I should explain that my grasp of American history has the enthusiastic, sense of discovery typical of a Ph.D. candidate preparing for his general examination, although like all such candidates, I should prefer to postpone my general examination until next April, or perhaps October, or possibly December. But in absolute terms I already have more conclusions about American history than I shall ever reach about Chinese history because so much more knowledge and sophistication have accumulated in the American field. From this bystander’s, “but-the-emperor-has-no-clothes,” point of view, the missionary in foreign parts seems to be the invisible man of American history. His influence at home, his reports and circular letters, his visits on furlough, his symbolic value for his home church constituency seem not to have interested academic historians.18

Let me cite only two superficial indicators of this general neglect. The first is Nelson R. Burr’s Critical Bibliography of Religion in America,19 where foreign missions are dealt with under “Movements toward Unity” in a subsection on “Foreign Missions and Unity” in a mere sixteen out of twelve hundred pages. These pages, moreover, list mainly records and works from missionary sources. Few academic studies of foreign missions seem to have been made, least of all on their impact at home.

In fact, of course, foreign missions to the Ottoman Empire, India, and China—Asian lands rich in heathen—developed along with home missions to western America. For example, among the Congregationalists the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was organized in 1810, the American Home Missionary Society not until 1826. The American Board got its first missionaries to Oregon and to Canton in the same decade, the 1830’s.20 Methodist circuit riders moved across the Alleghenies and through the Middle West with the fringe of settlement. They were in California by 1849, but by 1847 Methodist missionaries had already reached Foochow in China. There they found people in the cities unresponsive and soon placed their hopes in “an expansion movement westward,” itinerating among the villages of rural China.21 Apparently a missionary set down anywhere would automatically start moving westward.

Subsequently, the demand for evangelism within the USA seems to have grown faster than foreign missions. American church membership grew from about 7 per cent of the population in 1800 to about 36 per cent in 1900.22 But a new surge of foreign missions came at the close of the century. The end of the open land frontier in the 1880’scoincided with the rise of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. The early twentieth century saw a concentration on China as the principal overseas extension of the American frontier.

This neglect of missionaries in American historiography can be seen even in the recent and stimulating symposium, The Comparative Approach to American History,23 in which leaders of the profession compare the American experience with that of other peoples under headings such as the Enlightenment, the Revolution, frontiers, immigration, mobility, slavery, Civil War, industrialization, imperialism, and the like. This volume vigorously attacks the shibboleth of America’s uniqueness by putting our self-image in a broader world perspective. But it makes no reference to the long-continued American experience of religious missions overseas, evidently because they remain as yet unstudied. Yet where is there a greater opportunity for comparative study? Missionaries went out from most of Europe and the British Commonwealth as well as from the United States; they came from various sections, as well as various denominations, with all their regional-cultural diversity; they worked in the most diverse lands abroad, encountering widely different societies and institutions. Mission history is a great and underused research laboratory for the comparative observation of cultural stimulus and response in both directions.

The new field of American-East Asian relations must grow in the 1970’s also from the East Asian end. In this, American-Japanese relations may take the lead because Japan’s modern historiography is more developed than China’s. At any rate, it is good news that the AHA now has a Committee on American-East Asian Relations. This committee aims at the miscegenation of two subhistories, those of East Asia and of American foreign relations. This combination is necessary because East Asian studies have had little or no way to support the study of American relations with East Asia, while scholars of American foreign relations have hesitated to deal with the linguistic and cultural difficulties of East Asian history. In the American fashion our AHA committee, headed by Ernest May, has inaugurated a conference program and has sought foundation aid to help us buy our way out of this stalemate and produce young crossbred scholars who can look at both ends of the American-East Asian relationship and try to meet in the middle.24 It is high time.

Today the greatest menace to mankind may well be the American tendency to overrespond to heathen evils abroad, either by attacking them or by condemning them to outer darkness. The study of American foreign missions and their long-continued conditioning influence at home needs no special advocacy in an age when we get our power politics overextended into foreign disasters like Vietnam mainly through an excess of righteousness and disinterested benevolence, under a President who talks like a Baptist preacher25) and who inherited his disaster from a Secretary of State who was also a ruling elder of the Presbyterian Church. Plainly the missionary impulse has contributed both to the American swelled head and to its recent crown of thorns. No people could enjoy so great a conviction of moral righteousness in their activities abroad without long-continued and systematic practice. Washington and Peking today, for all their differences, have two things in common: that new “equalizer” among statesmen, nuclear technology; and a belief that morality sanctions violence.

We historians must update the old Chinese strategic maxim: chih-chi chih-pi, pai-chan pai-sheng (“If you can comprehend yourself and comprehend your adversary, you can win every time”).26 It is peace with China that must be struggled for and won. Americanists and East Asia specialists must join in a common assignment to comprehend both sides and their dynamic interaction.

John K. Fairbank was Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and Director, East Asian Research Center at Harvard University. He was co-editor of The Cambridge History of China(1978) with Denis C. Twitchtt, a comprehensive set of volumes covering the history of Chinese dynasties.



  1. William L. Langer, “The Next Assignment,” American Historical Review, LXIII (Jan. 1958), 284. For a survey of recent work, see Bruce Mazlish, “Clio on the Couch: Prolegomena to Psycho-history,” Encounter, XXXI (Sept. 1968), 46–54. A recent study in Chinese psychohistory is by Robert Jay Lifton, Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York, 1968). In preparing this paper I have been indebted to Dorothy Borg and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for helpful advice and comment. []
  2. Ralph Lapp’s phrase in “China’s Mushroom Cloud Casts a Long Shadow,” New York Times Magazine, July 14, 1968, 50. []
  3. “Moses Coit Tyler publicly stated that the first suggestion of such an organization had come to him from President Daniel C. Gilman, who pointed to the value accruing from the meetings of such bodies as the American Oriental Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.” (J. Franklin Jameson, “The American Historical Association, 1884–1909,” American Historical Review, XV [Oct. 1909], 4. []
  4. Europe’s view of Asia in the sixteenth century is magisterially surveyed by Donald Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe (2 vols., Chicago, 1965), 1, the first of six projected volumes from 1500 to 1800, but the organized Western study of the East in the nineteenth century is a subject that is still neglected. For a pioneer survey, see V. V. Barthold, La découverte de l’Asie: Histoire de l’Orientalisme en Europe et en Russie, tr. from the Russian ed. of 1925 and bibliographically updated by B. Nikitine (Paris, 1947), esp. Chap. x. []
  5. The first AOS presidential address by John Pickering in 1843expressed two articles of the American faith that still flourishes: “That mighty empire which has been for ages encased within its own walls, is at no distant day to be opened and come into communication with the rest of the … world. In that country also America may justly boast of able scholars, who have mastered all the difficulties of the language.” (Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1 [1849], 42–43. []
  6. Amid the copious literature on the growth of historical studies in America, I have learned most from certain recent works that give structure to the subject and extensive citations of other works: John Higham et al., History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965); W. Stull Holt, Historical Scholarship in the United States and Other Essays (Seattle, 1967); Thomas C. Cochran, The Inner Revolution: Essays on the Social Sciences in History (New York, 1964). []
  7. Higham et al., History, 150; Cochran, Inner Revolution, 2. []
  8. Mortimer Graves of the ACLS, with the support of David Stevens of the Rockefeller Foundation, took the lead in organizing a national Committee on the Promotion of Far Eastern Studies. Fellowship support from the Rockefeller Foundation was augmented by that from the Harvard-Yenching Institute under Sergei Elisseeff. []
  9. See relevant issues of the Far Eastern Quarterly, I–XV (Nov. 1941–Sept. 1956), continued as the Journal of Asian Studies, XVI (Nov. 1956). []
  10. Higham et al., History, 132. []
  11. Roy F. Nichols, “History in a Self-Governing Culture,” American Historical Review, LXXII (Jan. 1967), 423–24. []
  12. William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago, 1963). []
  13. “American officials did expect reason and mutual concessions to prevail in 1964 and 1965…. They believed that Hanoi would … be frightened off by the flexing of our muscles, or be tempted to share in the lucrative rewards of economic cooperation. (Bill Moyers, “One Thing We Learned,” Foreign Affairs, XLVI [July 1968], 662. []
  14. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), Bk. I. []
  15. Thomas C. Cochran, Railroad Leaders, 1845–1890: The Business Mind in Action (Cambridge, Mass., 1953); Kwang-Ching Liu, Anglo-American Steamship Rivalry in China, 1862–1874 (Cambridge, Mass., 1962). []
  16. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783–1860 (Boston, 1921). Notable works like those of Kenneth Wiggins Porter, John Jacob Astor: Business Man (2 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1931), and Foster Rhea Dulles, The Old China Trade (Boston, 1930), were also published a full generation ago. []
  17. This strikes me as a general feature of the extensive and useful work thus far available. As a typical example, the wide-ranging study by Edward McNall Burns, The American Idea of Mission: Concepts of National Purpose and Destiny (New Brunswick, N. J., 1957), refers frequently to the writings of the expansionist (and home missionary), the Reverend Josiah Strong, but does not look at the possible influence of “foreign missions” or “missionaries,” which are not even in his index. Again, Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898 (Ithaca, N. Y., 1963),devotes eight pages to Strong’s writings, but barely touches on missionary influences in the 1890’s (pp. 304–308). Examples could be greatly multiplied. The main point seems to be that mission archives have not been used for monographic studies. []
  18. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (7 vols., New York, 1938–45). Volumes IV–VI are on the period 1800–1914; in them he notes the interaction of missionaries with their environment, but does not pursue the overseas missionaries’ influence at home. []
  19. Nelson R. Burr, Critical Bibliography of Religion in America (2 vols., Princeton, N. J., 1961). []
  20. For a study of early missionary ideas and activities, see C. J. Phillips, “Protestant America and the Pagan World, The First Half Century of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1810–1860,” doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1954. James A. Field, Jr., drew this reference to my attention. []
  21. W. C. Barclay, Widening Horizons 1845–95 (New York, 1957), 367–68. R. S. Maclay wrote: “Our way is gradually opening to the western portions of this province, and thence to the central and western provinces of China.” Similarly, Nathan Sites “delighted in pioneer work … far up the river to the westward [p. 380].” []
  22. Latourette, History of the Expansion of Christianity, IV, 177. []
  23. The Comparative Approach to American History, ed. C. Vann Woodward (New York, 1968). []
  24. Major themes and a wealth of archival as well as published sources are set out in Kwang-Ching Liu, Americans and Chinese: A Historical Essay and a Bibliography (Cambridge, Mass., 1963). Great opportunities, for example, lie ahead in the comparison of broad themes in American and Chinese thought: rural utopianism as against urban evil, American nativism and Chinese xenophobia, conflict between nature and technology, between the garden of nature and “the machine in the garden” or, in China, the machine intruding from abroad, and so forth. Though vastly misleading if abstracted from their historical-intellectual contexts, such themes, when compared in Chinese and American thought, can someday help to fit both peoples into the larger context of human experience. []
  25. “They came here … the exile and the stranger … to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land … it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind…. The American covenant called on us to help show the way for the liberation of man. That is still our goal…. If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries we barely know, that is the price that change has demanded of conviction.” (President L. B. Johnson, inaugural address, Jan. 1965; see Richard Harris, America and East Asia: A New Thirty Years War? [London 1968], 19. []
  26. In hyperliteral terms: “Know ourselves, know them; hundred battles, hundred victories, a favorite slogan of the late nineteenth-century movement for “self-strengthening” by Westernization. []