To most of us, on this graduation day in this tercentennial year, it seems normal that the president of Yale University should have just returned from a sociable visit to China, conferring with Yale alumni and educational leaders, while the United States president should be reflecting on China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization, trying to handle the complex diplomatic fallout from a downed spy-plane incident, and perhaps conferring with his cabinet on China’s chances of hosting the Olympics in 2008. But to me, these issues underline how far those of us concerned with China have journeyed after the last few years.
When I first arrived at Yale in 1959, as an exchange “Mellon Fellow” from Clare College, Cambridge, China was a completely elusive, unreachable land. All we knew was that the land was firmly under the grip of its leader, Mao Zedong, and had embarked on an extraordinary experiment in radical communization known as the “Great Leap Forward.” There was no way of getting to China to check the details, and if we wanted to do research in Chinese archival holdings, our only choice was to go to Taiwan. To most of those I first met at Yale, China was still so firmly in the socialist camp alongside the Soviet Union it was not permissible to talk about a “Sino-Soviet Rift.” To do so would bring one’s own loyalties into question.
In 1959, however, to my great good fortune, Yale hired professors Arthur and Mary Wright from Stanford to preside over the building of a new program in Chinese history at Yale. Within a few years, these two gifted teachers and administrators had won Yale a major place in the ranks of international China studies. They built skillfully on foundations in Chinese language teaching built up by George Kennedy and John de Francis, and earlier roots of mission history laid by Samuel Wells Williams and Kenneth Scott Latourette. Their vision was wide enough to encompass positions in Chinese economics, sociology, political science and anthropology, as well as in history of art and religious studies.
Ever since the late 1970s, alas after both of the Wrights had died, Yale students and scholars have been able to travel regularly to China in order to conduct their research and do intensive language work. Numerous Chinese scholars have also visited Yale, and now many come each year as undergraduates to Yale College. The resulting flowering of Chinese studies has been a delight for me and has made me more joyful each year that way back in 1959 I got the chance to come here. So, welcome back, President Levin, welcome to the complexities of Chinese/United States relations in the new century, President Bush, and welcome to all those either graduating from Yale or coming to join us. We will try to ensure that you have a chance to study this fascinating civilization in all its bewildering diversity, wherever you may go.
Jonathan Spence is Sterling Professor of History, specializing in Chinese studies.