Joseph Richmond Levenson
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Levenson, Joseph Richmond
sex: m; b. Jun 10, 1920 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA – d. Apr 6, 1969 in Guerneville, California, USA; country/nation/culture: US-American; field of study: history of ideas, history of mentalities, history of political thought; ref.: none; contrib.: Don J. Wyatt
 Main Works
- Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and the Mind of Modern China, 1953
- Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy, 1958-1965
- European Expansion and the Counter-example of Asia. 1300-1600 (ed.), 1967
- China: An Interpretive History, from the Beginnings to the Fall of Han, 1969 [Franz Schurmann]
- Modern China: An Interpretive Anthology, 1971
- Revolution and Cosmopolitanism: The Western Stage and the Chinese Stages, 1971
Joseph Levenson was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard College, with a summer of study abroad spent at the University of Leiden in 1939. Levenson graduated from Harvard, magna cum laude, in June 1941. Upon the entrance of the United States into the Second World War, he enlisted in the United States Navy Reserve in early 1942, and thereafter spent a year in its Japanese Language School at the University of California and the University of Colorado before embarking on a four-year tour of duty in the Pacific. Having enlisted as a yeoman, Levenson was discharged from the navy in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant senior grade. Levenson then returned to Harvard, taking the master's and the doctorate degrees in history in 1947 and 1949, respectively. After time spent from 1948 to 1951 as a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, he secured his first and only teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley. At the time of his death, Joseph Levenson was Jane K. Sather Professor of History (after 1965); he was the cousin of J. C. (Jacob Clavner) Levenson, Edgar Allan Poe Professor of English at the University of Virginia (after 1967).
No factor influenced the intellectual development of Joseph Levenson more profoundly than his firsthand encounter with East Asia, an experience that he shared in common with all other members of the cohort of American historians of China of his generation. Levenson's sojourn in the "mysterious East," like that of his contemporary Benjamin Schwartz, resulted not from choice but from chance, as a condition of his voluntary immersion through enlistment in the strife of the Second World War. During his time in the navy, Levenson saw front-line action in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines. His experience of East Asia therefore differed categorically from that of those foreigners in East Asia of the preceding generation, who had mostly traveled to the region to function either as merchants or Christian missionaries. Levenson bore little connection to either of these groups. Moreover, his devout adherence to the non-proselytizing faith of Judaism especially precluded him from encountering East Asia on exactly the same terms as had so many of the missionaries and their descendants who had preceded him. Nevertheless, Levenson's experience surpassed most of theirs in moving him to formulate an interest in the area that was expressly scholarly and distinctly intellectual.
Despite his initial introduction to Japanese language and culture, like many Westerners before him, Levenson quickly substituted those of China. Levenson made China his primary object of inquiry because of his discovery that so much of the heritage of Japan had emanated primordially if not always directly from Chinese civilization. Near the end of his life, when queried on his initial attraction to Chinese history, Levenson remarked on its "distinctiveness" and the fact that, as a largely unexplored field from a Western standpoint, it promised "no boredom" (A. McDonald, Jr., "The Historian's Quest," 77).
If there is a single starting point for all of Joseph Levenson's work then it is probably his focus on the fitful, labored, and ultimately inadequate response of traditional Chinese intellectuals of the Confucian persuasion to the introduction of Marxist ideology in particular and their ill-preparedness for the confrontation with modernity in general during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. This focus led directly to his first book, an expansive and insightful reworking of his Ph.D. dissertation on the important reform-minded intellectual Liang Qichao (1873-1929), who endeavored to move China along a gradualist path to democratic progress.
Much of Levenson's scholarship is noteworthy for its concentration on questions involving the conflict between what he called "history" and "value." In a 1953 chapter essay, "'History' and 'Value': Tensions of Intellectual Choice in Modern China" (A. F. Wright, ed., Studies in Chinese Thought), Levenson argues that even while "history" and "value" are incompatible, reflective individuals are invested in both, and the tension lies precisely in any thinker's natural proclivity to stifle all conflict between the two. In concrete terms, Levenson saw this tension best exemplified in the plight of the modern Chinese communist revolutionaries, who (in the interest of "value") needed to obliterate all vestiges of the past that impeded the realization of a transformed future while they simultaneously sought (in the interest of "history") to link themselves whenever appropriate with that very same obstructionist past. Levenson maintained that, at least for China, Marxist historical theory was the means whereby this inherent conflict of interests could be accommodated and thus could achieve resolution.
Although he was regarded during his lifetime as a brilliant historian, Joseph Levenson frequently drew criticism from his contemporaries for his methodology. Not only were the conclusions that he drew in his scholarship controversial but his method of deriving those conclusions was widely misconstrued, and he was therefore frequently challenged to defend it. Much of the misunderstanding stemmed from a failure of critics to recognize or fully appreciate Levenson's methodological goals, which were those of achieving commanding breadth (sometimes at the expense of great depth) and decisive interpretive integration. To achieve these goals, he was not averse to taking sudden detours in time separated by as much as a few centuries; summoning forth occurrences, individuals, or ideas eclectically from a variety of time periods; or availing himself selectively of histories other than China's. He was convinced that the more histories historians had at their disposal, the better they would be enabled to discern "what was significant about a particular history" under study (M. Meisner and R. Murphey, "Editors' Introduction," 5-6). Thus, we may consider Levenson's method as having typified that of the comparative historicist; his principal aim was to raise the history of China to high relief within a world historical context by means of its comparison with other histories.
Further explication of the method of Joseph Levenson is best realized through a consideration not only of his approach to doing history but also the particular misconceptions about Chinese history he sought to discredit. Foremost among these misconceptions that Levenson strove to counter was that of the myth of an "unchanging" China. Also important to him was disabusing casual as well as professional observers of the related fallacy that the Chinese, under their then new communist leadership, were incapable of making the advance toward modernity if this passage either wholly or mostly contradicted the values of the past. Levenson's extraordinary effort devoted to dispelling persistent myths about Chinese history precipitated that aspect of his work that was deemed most heretical, and this was his tendency always to emphasize disjuncture over stasis. Persuaded of its preeminence, Levenson stressed the importance of great rupture between "modern" and "traditional" China over and above that of the many very substantial and lasting elements of continuity between the two, and for this emphasis on discontinuity he paid the heavy price of being often criticized.
When he died in a tragic boating accident in 1969, Joseph Levenson had enjoyed a gainful scholarly career of less than twenty years. But no other modern intellectual historian of China has yet to surpass him in influence. When alive, on the basis of his scholarship, Levenson was the recipient of many prestigious fellowships. These included the Fulbright (1954-55), the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences (1958-59); the Guggenheim (1962-63); and the American Council of Learned Societies (1966-67). It therefore is perhaps fitting that two prizes—one for book scholarship in Chinese studies under auspices of the China and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies and another for excellence in undergraduate teaching under auspices of Harvard University—continue to be awarded in his name, year after year, to deserving scholars.