Joseph Levenson
Joseph Levenson wrote about China's struggle with modernity

J.K. Fairbank’s Student’s Work Resonates in China

A new translation of Joseph Levenson’s iconic book has caught the attention of China’s intellectuals

August 21, 2023 — Why is the Chinese translation of a very old history of China, written by an American scholar in the middle of the 20th century, causing a sensation on social media among intellectuals in China? Joseph Levenson, who died in 1969, was one of John King Fairbank’s most distinguished students and one of the great 20th century American historians of modern China. His signature work, Confucian China and its Modern Fate, has just been published in Chinese by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press. Chinese scholars have been sharing the link and adding comments on douban, the popular Chinese culture app. Why?

“This is connected to the question of how China should interact with the outside world; we are still making the transition from the Middle Kingdom to global citizen,” says Ge Zhaoguang, an eminent historian whose book, What is China?, grapples with Chinese identity. “Has Confucianism entered the museum? Reason tells us China must change, but emotionally, China can’t let go of its traditions.”

Levenson wrote about the loss of the civilisational absolutes embedded in Confucian traditions following the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the struggles of Chinese thinkers in the first half of the 1900s with the problem of how to define what “China” was in the modern world – was it (or should it be) a “civilizational” entity (tianxia 天下) or was it merely a nation-state (guojia 国家) among many? As Harvard China historian Mark C. Elliott says, Levenson was concerned with “a search for meaningful historical ground on which the modern Chinese nation can be built—a search that began in the early 20th century, took a radical turn under Mao (when Levenson was writing,) and is quite evidently ongoing.”

In the “Reader’s Guide” to the new translation, Elliott, Wen-hsin Yeh, Geremie Barmé, Tim Cheek, Gloria Davies, and Madeleine Dong explore the big questions addressed by Levenson’s work. They write: “The problems raised by Levenson – of reconciling nationalism and culturalism, of placing China in the current of world history, and the general issue of continuity and rupture in history and politics—remain unresolved still and are perhaps even more urgent today than in Levenson’s time.” A condensed version of their essay was published in the July edition of Dushu.

The new translation of Confucian China and Its Modern Fate, by Liu Wennan, is one of five volumes by and about Levenson planned for publication by CUHK over the next several months.