From the President

Interpreting the Past in a New Present: Brief Encounters with History and Historians in China

Eric Foner, September 2000

AHA President Eric Foner in Beijing with the officers of the Association of Chinese Historians. From left to right: Wang Xi, Zhang Haipeng, Jing Chong-ji (president), Eric Foner, Qi Shirong, Gong Shuduo, and Zhang Chunnian.For three weeks this past June, together with my wife and 12-year-old daughter, I visited China at the invitation of a group of universities. At Nankai University in Tianjin, Beijing University, Shanxi Normal University in Xi'an, the University of Nanjing, and East China Normal University in Shanghai, I lectured on the history of the idea of freedom in the United States, the changing status of black Americans since the Civil War, and recent trends in American historiography. I also spoke at the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and met with officials of the Association of Chinese Historians, the AHA's Chinese counterpart. The visit was arranged by my former student Wang Xi, a native of China who received a PhD in American history from Columbia in the early 1990s and is now a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Each summer, he returns home to teach.

From a personal perspective, the visit was indeed a memorable experience. "You will see the past, the present, and the future (perhaps) of China," Wang Xi told us at the outset. He was referring to Xi'an, the eastern portal of the Silk Road and home of the underground terra-cotta army, one of the wonders of the ancient world; Beijing, with its impossible traffic and pollution, its Forbidden City, and, of course, Tienanmen Square; and Shanghai, with its sleek, postmodern skyline and bustling commercial culture. On the other hand, as a French journalist reminded me at the end of our visit, "Don't think you have seen China." We did not go into the countryside, where the vast majority of the population still lives, nor did we see the factories where Nike sneakers and other goods are produced for the American market by workers earning only a few cents per hour.

Needless to say, a three-week visit to five cities hardly qualifies one to be an expert on China. My experience did, however, offer insights into today's Chinese historical scholarship and the thinking and outlook of the hundreds of students who attended my lectures and engaged me in lengthy and candid question and answer sessions. I suppose the first thing American historians are likely to ask is: how free is intellectual activity in China? The answer, I suppose, is: not free enough, but considerably freer than in the past. In a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, the historian Warren I. Cohen writes that recent reforms have "unquestionably meant greater economic, intellectual, and individual freedom for most Chinese." My visit reinforced this impression.

There are limits to intellectual inquiry, but these are to some extent counterbalanced by the vagaries and inefficiencies of censorship, access to the Internet, and a growing assertiveness, at least within the classroom, of both students and teachers. Some historical subjects, such as the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, remain pretty much off limits in terms of publication, but they are discussed frankly in classes. And many controversial or proscribed historical documents have been posted online and are widely known within the university community. Direct criticism of the regime can land one in difficulty, but 100,000 copies of a book taking the government to task for corruption were recently printed in Shanghai and sold openly for a month before being suppressed. Interest in the United States and the historical development of its democratic institutions is widespread. Wang Xi's book (in Chinese) on the history of American constitutionalism was rejected by three publishers as too risky, but has just been released by the prestigious Peking University Press (to the surprise of some of his Chinese colleagues). My own book, The Story of American Freedom, will soon appear in Chinese translation.

Both students and professors insisted that they can say anything they want in the classroom. And in public and private discussions with students and historians, I was impressed by the vigor of intellectual give-and-take and the apparent lack of fear of eavesdropping or reprisal for comments harshly critical of the government. I found the students, graduate and undergraduate alike, well informed about contemporary American life and American history. The questions they raised after my lectures were not very different from what I have come to expect from American audiences. Here is a sampling: How does a democracy protect the rights of minorities? Do laws restricting the use of drugs violate individual freedom? What are the implications of the "linguistic turn" for the study of history? How should one interpret the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms? Why do black Americans still lag behind whites in wealth, life expectancy, and education? What influence did French intellectuals have on the development of the idea of liberty in 18th-century America? Who chooses the textbooks used in American classrooms?

Certain topics came up at every university I visited. One, surprisingly, was the O. J. Simpson case, which Chinese students seemed to recall in far greater detail than I. This opened the door to discussions of "burden of proof" and "innocent until proven guilty," the difference between criminal and civil trials, and the advantages a wealthy defendant possesses over poor ones. Another was the Microsoft case; like Simpson, Bill Gates seems to have achieved international celebrity. "Whose freedom is being protected by the breakup of Microsoft?" one student asked; others were interested in the history of American antitrust litigation. Finally, there were many questions about "multiculturalism," a term numerous students had encountered but which seemed rather mystifying to most of them.

Another recurrent area of discussion concerned the "problematique" of historical study, especially after the evident collapse of Marxism as an organizing paradigm for thinking about history and society. More than once, I was asked whether I believed in historical inevitability (I don't), and what underlying premises can replace the abandoned teleology of Marxism. Does the idea of modernization provide an alternative model, or merely substitute one predetermined path of development for another? How can historians produce coherent narratives when the course of history is uncertain? These questions—and they do not have easy answers—reflected a sophisticated effort to think about the intellectual foundations of historical scholarship.

Lecturing in China inevitably brought to mind my stint a decade ago as Fulbright lecturer in American history at Moscow State University, just as the Gorbachev era was drawing to a close. Certainly, in the economic realm, China seems to be managing the transition from communism to capitalism more successfully than Russia. The standard of living remains low, but in the cities at least, food is plentiful and the innumerable shops are thronged with Chinese patrons. In 1990 in Moscow, decent food was only available at foreign-currency stores and the city's overpriced private markets, and state stores displayed almost empty shelves. Four years later, when I returned for a conference, the USSR was no more and intellectual freedom more or less reigned supreme, but the economy had been subjected to a dose of Harvard shock therapy with the result that a few Russians had become very rich and the mass of the population had been plunged into dire poverty. In 1990 daily life had been unbearably grim. In 1994 friends told me that I had lived in Moscow during a golden age.

Cognizance of the Russian disaster probably helps account for the Chinese government's reluctance simply to abandon all economic controls and open the economy to the rapaciousness of unbridled capitalism. It also may explain why Chinese students, although fully imbued with the desire to make money, seem somewhat more skeptical of the market as a panacea for all problems when compared with their Russian counterparts of 1990. When I was in Russia, the philosopher of choice among reform-minded students was Friedrich Hayek; in Beijing, students talked about Isaiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill, and Jürgen Habermas. One student pointedly asked me to describe the responsibility of intellectuals in the face of rising social inequality. Like Russian students a decade ago, Chinese students admire the United States for its individual freedoms, but unlike them, they are also aware of some of our society's shortcomings. This somewhat skeptical stance toward the United States is perhaps exacerbated by a surprisingly widespread resentment at America's human rights pronouncements, which seem, even to strong critics of the Beijing government, a consummate exercise in hubris. More than once, I was asked, "What gives the United States the right to set itself up as the international monitor of human rights?" especially in light of our own failure to live up to our professed ideals. I didn't quite have an answer, other than to talk about the history of the American sense of mission, and the need to balance relativism against universalism—an awareness of different societies' different courses of historical development against the belief that gross injustices are the concern of all mankind.

Whatever their skepticism about the American model, virtually everyone I met expressed the hope for more academic exchanges and more exposure to American historical scholarship. Chinese scholars desperately desire new perspectives on the study of history. Moreover, despite the country's economic advances, it remains very poor, and universities operate with limited resources. There is much interest in American history, but apart from excellent library collections donated to Nankai and Beijing Universities by the USIA, recent books are in very short supply. The Internet does allow access to far more primary documents than in the past, but few students can afford a personal computer. When I met with the president and four vice-presidents of the Association of Chinese Historians, they were surprised and envious to hear of the AHA's relatively large budget, staff, and range of activities. Their organization, which lacks a permanent staff, relies on the volunteer work of its officers.

"The twenty-first century is the century of China"—more than once during my visit, I encountered this popular but enigmatic slogan. Certainly, China is in the midst of astonishing changes, but their ultimate consequences are impossible to foretell. How, one student asked, and not rhetorically, can a country where hierarchy is ingrained in family life, the workplace, and politics, develop a genuine culture of democracy? "Our greatest crisis," a scholar at Nankai University remarked to me, "is moral—the old ideology is dead, and there is nothing to take its place except love of money or patriotism" (the latter being avidly promoted by the government as a new source of social cohesion and political legitimacy).

As China moves toward a market society, many older persons lament a decline of community, neighborliness, and family solidarity; while the younger generation, at least among the privileged elite able to attend university, embraces the promise of material progress, the idea of privacy, and far greater scope for individuality than has ever been possible before.

Whatever the future of this vast, troubled, but resilient land, knowledge of history—of its own past and that of very different societies and cultures—remains indispensable to those trying to understand and shape China's transformation.

—Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.) is president of the AHA.