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June 23, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright June 23, 2008 Charles W. Hayford. Used by permission.


In the third lecture of the Chinese Vistas series, “American Dreams,” Jonathan Spence talked about American dreams of China and, more tantalizing, Chinese dreams of America. He sees a series of “paradoxes” from the American Revolution to the present which set Chinese and American dreams at odds.

In the question period, another paradox emerged, one between different uses of history. The lecture was broadcast from the Asia Society on Park Avenue in New York, where the initial questions came from Richard Holbrooke, President of the Asia Society and heavyweight diplomat, and Henry Kissinger, an even heavier weight (Spence had written about him, so it must have seemed strange). The questions asked if China had been more xenophobic than other countries, if industrialization would change Chinese mentalities, if China would be expansionist, and so on.

After responding to several questions, Spence started his answer to another by saying “I don’t know.” This was refreshing but perhaps it was also a tactful rebuke to the type of questions he was getting. Spence is not a present minded policy advisor, he is a public intellectual who writes about history to address questions of general meaning. Another Qing historian was recently asked what he told policy makers who sought his advice. He replied “as little as possible.” One of the few authentic lessons of history is that history does not offer “lessons,” much less predictions or tips on the horses, only stories of complications and confusion.