75. Joseph Levenson's Role In My Development As A Scholar And Writer

75. Joseph Levenson’s Role in My Development as a Scholar and Writer

(Note: this was written for translation and publication in China. It overlaps somewhat no. 73, “Respecting China,” which was written around the same time, September, 2009.)

Joseph Levenson (1920-1969) was arguably the most brilliant, and surely the most controversial, historian of China in his generation. His published writings are fairly few, partly because his life was tragically cut short; but they have stimulated a lot of thought and argument, and exerted a strong influence on many China scholars, one of them myself.

I knew Levenson by reputation before I met him. He was a prominent member of the team of high-powered Chinese historians assembled by John Fairbank for his series of conferences and publications on Confucianism, the major events of that period in Chinese studies in the U.S. Fairbank had formed a “Committee on Chinese Thought” within the Far Eastern Association, and Levenson was a member of that, along with such other leading figures as Arthur Wright at Stanford (later Yale) and Frederick Mote at Princeton. Their first conference was held in 1952, in Aspen, Colorado; at it, Levenson gave a paper on “’History’ and ‘Value’: Tensions in Intellectual Choice in Modern China”—a typical Levenson topic. His seminal article “The Amateur Ideal in Ming and Early Ch’ing Society: Evidence from Painting” had been presented at the second Confucianism conference, in New Hampshire in 1954, and again in 1956 at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Colloquium Orientologicum. In 1957 it was published in John Fairbank, ed., Chinese Thought and Institutions, Chicago, and in 1958 in the first volume of Levenson’s own Confucian China and Its Modern Fate. After my return to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1956 from a year-long stay in Japan as a Fulbright scholar, followed by travels in Europe, I read Levenson’s paper (I can’t remember where) and was deeply impressed by it,. During my year in Japan I had come to know Professor David Nivison of Stanford University—he was a senior scholar in the program while I was only a junior scholar, and he and his family were able to rent a house that was central-heated by a furnace, while my wife Dorothy and I lived in a cheap, unheated row-house. During the cold Kyoto winter we sometimes went to visit the Nivisons simply to be warm. But friendship grew, and David Nivison, after our return to the U.S., managed to get me invited to the third of the highly important series of conferences on Confucianism that were then central events in China studies.

This third Confucianism conference was held in 1958 at Aspen, Colorado, and brought me together for an exciting week with quite a few of the leading figures in  Chinese studies: Fairbank, Wright, Mote, Nivison, Benjamin Schwarz of Harvard, Denis Twitchett, and others including scholars from Japan and Europe. The paper I delivered was titled “Confucian Elements in the Theory of Painting.” I had devoted half of my doctoral dissertation, finished in that year, to a first attempt in any western language to formulate in some detail the theory of literati painting—the theory, that is, underlying the scholar-amateur movement in painting that grew up in the 11th century among the shidafu, later to be known as wenren, who dominated Chinese culture. I was later to say to David Nivison, only half jokingly, that attending a conference with so many of the notables in Chinese studies meant so much to me that if the conference had been on Daoism I would have written a different paper demonstrating the Daoist origins of literati painting theory. Among the participants was Joseph Levenson. I may have met him before that—I don’t remember clearly—but really got to know him, and watch him in action, at that conference.

And Levenson “in action” was really impressive to watch and hear. He could talk in long, complex sentences virtually ready for publication. (Arthur Wright claimed that he made them up ahead of time and memorized them.) He spoke rapid-fire, with energy and excitement In his voice. The manner and pace of his speech was in marked contrast to that of Nivison, who spoke slowly and deliberately, with long pauses while he thought. Levenson would sit listening to him. attentive but tense, obviously chafing, anxious for him to finish, eager to speak himself.

I got to know Levenson better after I had moved back to Berkeley—where I had been an undergraduate in the late 1940s, and now, in 1965, returned as a full professor. Joe was my colleague and friend, along with, in the History Department, David Keightley (early Chinese history and archaeology) and Frederick Wakeman (himself a Levenson student, specializing in later Chinese intellectual history). It was a distinguished and exciting group; I told people at the time that being with Joe Levenson was part of my reason for leaving the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I had enjoyed little intellectual stimulation, and moving back to Berkeley.

Levenson’s wife Rosemary was rich—Arthur Wright had told me that she belonged to one of the wealthiest Jewish families in Europe, the Montefiores—and they lived, with their children, in a castle-like house on the hillside near the Claremont Hotel, overlooking the whole San Francisco Bay. Their children were more or less the same age as ours—their Tom and our Nick, their daughter and Sarah—and we got together sometimes as families.

Then, already in 1969, came the tragedy. Joe and his family were vacationing near Guerneville, camping by the Russian River, which was flooded by heavy rains. They made the terrible mistake of going canoeing on the river, and the canoe carrying Joe and his two boys overturned. The boys were wearing life-jackets, and were washed onto an island from which they were rescued. Joe was wearing none, and although a good swimmer, was swept away by the rushing water and drowned. His body was found days later, nine miles down the river.

A memorial volume made up of writings dedicated to his memory, titled The Mozartian Historian:  Essays on the Works of Joseph R. Levenson, was edited by Maurice Meisner and Rhoads Murphy and published in 1976. I contributed to it an article titled "Style as Idea in Ming-Ch'ing Painting." (A Chinese translation of this is included in the anthology of my writings soon to be published by the Art History Department at the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou.) ADD PROPER BIBLIOGRAPHICAL CITATION. It must have seemed an odd tribute, because it began by pointing out an issue on which Levenson had gone wrong, in his “Amateur Ideal” article: he had accepted Dong Qichang’s claims, in inscriptions on some of his paintings, that he was “imitating” this or that old master, as indicating that his paintings of this kind were truly derivative, lacking in originality. Levenson had used this misreading to construct one of his famous paradoxes: how could Dong’s Southern school theory, based as it was in Southern school (sudden-enlightenment) Chan, underlie a production of imitative, uninspired painting? I argued that the fault was not Levenson’s—he could not have been expected to know the truth about Dong’s “imitations”—but that of us art historians, who had failed to write the interpretative studies that would have set him right. It was an argument for more serious engagement with intellectual issues by historians of Chinese art. Levenson, judging from the footnotes to his article, had read most of what was accessible on the subject at that time—writings by Osvald Siren, an article by Victoria Contag in German, a book by Naitô Konan in Japanese, and of course some Chinese writings. But none of this told him what he should have known about Dong Qichang’s “imitations.” His misunderstanding was thus no fault of his.

Levenson’s writings were controversial already during his lifetime, and have come  under heavier criticism since his death for both their methodology and their conclusions. He is now seen by some as exemplifying a 1950s-60s tendency to set an unchanging China against a progressive West, and to argue as though China would never have emerged from its centuries-long complacency if the foreign intrusion had not occurred. (Levenson’s book Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China had been published by the Harvard U. Press in 1953.) Levenson, in this view, greatly over-emphasized the impact of the West on 19th-century China, before the 1890s. The historian Paul A. Cohen presents him this way in the section “Joseph Levenson and the Historiography of the 1950s and 1960s” in his book Discovering History in China (New York, 1984, pp. 61-79.) He acknowledges (p. 63) Levenson’s “feelings of profound admiration for Chinese civilization,” but adds: “It was not this civilization itself, but the refusal of modern Chinese conservatives to acknowledge its death, that aroused his impatience.” I am not myself sufficiently versed in Chinese historical writings and their methodology to have a useful opinion on this matter, and can only call attention to it.

About what I myself learned from Levenson, however, I can be entirely positive: it was essential to my development as a scholar.  And it was just those controversial directions in  his scholarship and writing, his “tendency always to emphasize disjuncture over stasis” and his “effort devoted to dispelling persistent myths about Chinese history” (to quote from a biography of him posted on the web), that impressed me and won me over to attempting that way of dealing with Chinese painting history, which I felt then (and continue to feel now) badly needed an approach of that kind. Chinese artists were commonly seen in a romantic Western view as free agents who could paint whatever they pleased in any style they pleased. Levenson’s early example of linking intellectual issues and the artists’ socio-economic status to styles in painting, misdirected in some ways as I believed it to be, was a model for me.

In 1976, at a symposium in Ann Arbor organized by my colleague Richard Edwards in conjunction with his (and Ann Clapp’s) exhibition of paintings by Wen Zhengming, I gave a paper titled “Life Patterns and Stylistic Directions: T’ang Yin and Wen Cheng-ming as Types.” I had been working on my book on early and middle Ming painting, which would be published in 1978 as Parting at the Shore, and had noticed a clear correlation between the artists’ biographies, as they were presented in Chinese sources, and the kinds of paintings they did, in both subject and style. I began my short paper by citing a common popular distinction between the “lumpers” and the “splitters,” and placing myself firmly among the latter. And I presented the evidence for how the two types exemplified by  Tang and Wen correlated closely with definable characteristics in the subjects and styles of their paintings, and how the same was true of other Ming artists whose lives, as presented in Chinese biographical writings, fitted into one or another of these two types. I invited those who were skeptical to find exceptions to the pattern I defined. Nobody did, or has later. (My original paper is not available on my website, but a revised and expanded version of it, with some lesser points reconsidered but the main conclusions unshaken, published in 1993, can be downloaded and read there as CLP 14. A Chinese translation of that is included in forthcoming anthology of my writings mentioned above.) The paper caused quite a stir, since it went against what many of my colleagues wanted to believe, but presented solid evidence against their continuing to believe that way. It was the beginning of a relationship with my field of study that has been in some part confrontational, even adversarial, not only because I am temperamentally that way (the truculent Irish) but because of a strong belief that Chinese painting studies badly needed some shaking-up, and particularly some injection of arguments that went against the prevalent assumption of a “Great Harmony” that unified it, and that recognized the tensions and conflicts within it.  

By 1978 I had nearly finished my book on late Ming painting, The Distant Mountains, and also had been invited to Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer in Poetry for that year. In the spring of 1979 I delivered the six Norton lectures under the title “The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in 17th Century Chinese Painting.” These were published as a book in 1982, and The Distant Mountains in the same year. The Harvard book won the College Art Association’s Morey Prize for best art history book of 1982; the late Ming book was top runner-up, as I was informed by the committee. It was a peak in my career. And, as readers of the books know, both were heavily affected by the model of Levenson’s  dialectical method. It was acknowledged in the opening Compelling Image lecture without a mention of Levenson’s name (at least in the printed version—my memory is that I did mention him in the lecture as delivered) when I spoke of “studies of Chinese social and intellectual history now offering excellent examples of a dialectical approach. . “, and in the Distant Mountains opening when I observed that the brilliance of late Ming painting “should not be surprising if we believe (with the late Joseph Levenson) that, in intellectual and cultural history, tension is a condition of health and that the periods of greatest creativity are those in which the issues are clearly defined and carry urgent meaning for the people engaged in them.” Again, adopting this approach contradicted the beliefs of many in our field: one younger colleague devoted a substantial part of his writing and publication to trying to correct my wrongheaded positions, arguing that the “Sung-chiang/Suchou confrontation” treated at length in both books never really took place, that Dong Qichang held only admiration for Qiu Ying, and so forth. The view of China as a harmonious Great Unity is tenacious.

It was in fact Levenson’s model, I now realize, that pushed me into writing, throughout my career, about large issues in Chinese painting in ways that went against the great central orthodoxies that have so regularly dominated in China, culturally as well as politically, and that have been able to marginalize or even bring to an end the movements or developments they opposed. These orthodoxies, I have come to believe, have often worked more as obstacles than as aids to our understanding. I have come in recent years to the belief that China’s great curse, over the centuries, has been its collective reluctance to challenge these orthodoxies, to recognize and value opposing movements, to permit dissenting voices. Firm in that belief, I have deliberately taken the position of a dissenting voice, calling attention to artists who were excluded from the canon, arguing against those large “central truths” that too often prove to be concealing other, equally valid truths, trying to shed light into areas of painting that have deliberately been kept dark. These projects, even when carried out with my limited language capacities and my faulty outsider’s understanding, have seemed very much worth doing.

As for Levenson’s achievement: many of my colleagues, Chinese and other, are better versed than I am in historical methodology, and understand these issues in the construction of it far better than I do; they will have their more informed views on the soundness or weakness of my presentation of him. I cannot claim to be a true disciple of Levenson, as Wakeman and others were. But that I learned important lessons from him, and that his example had a profound effect on my thinking and writing, is beyond dispute. This essay is intended as another tribute to him.

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