Author: Jacob Goldstein and Christina LeBlanc
On November 1, Occidental College hosted renowned Yale University professors Jonathan Spence and AnnPing Chin. Both Spence and Chin spoke on U.S.-China relations and the growth and development of contemporary China.
Spence, a Sterling Professor of History, came to Occidental as part of the Brown Bag lunch lecture series. The event was held in Johnson 200 and was sponsored by the Office of Global Affairs, the Diplomacy and World Affairs Department, the History Department, and Remsen Bird funds. Spence’s lecture was entitled “The Next Superpower: U.S.-China Relations from a Historian’s Perspective.”
A noted historian and author, Spence has published several books on Chinese history and Chinese international relations. He used the lecture in part to promote his latest book, China Rising: A Historian’s Perspective.
Spence underplayed his knowledge of China. “I’ve had a lifelong passion to study this country and understand it a little bit,” he said.
Spence spoke on the history of U.S.-China relations, breaking down the relationship between the two nations into three components: the strategic and military dimension, the nature of the government dimension and the relations toward international trade dimension. He concluded his lecture by sharing his predictions for the future of U.S.-China relations.
Spence focused primarily on the strategic and military dimension. He detailed U.S.-China interactions from the early eighteenth century, listing the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and the Korean War as two turning points in the relationship between the countries. He also posed the argument that U.S.-China relations have always been based on the display of military hardiness. “The door to respect came from China’s ability to withstand American military,” Spence said.
Moving chronologically to the recent past, Spence noted that U.S.-China relations took a dramatic turn during the Cold War period. “Since the 1970s, there’s a sense of grudging respect in regards to China’s military,” he said. Spence also noted that whether or not China will be labeled a “superpower” in the future is largely contingent on the nation’s international trade agreements. He stressed that China has spent the last decade making trade agreements with countries in Latin America and Africa, areas with limited U.S. economic involvement. “This is new territory that hasn’t been talked about before,” Spence said.
A question and answer session followed the lecture, allowing Spence to speak about a wide variety of topics relating to China’s history and contemporary Chinese foreign policy. He also touched on contemporary Chinese foreign policy, speaking in depth on his predictions for the future of Tibet.
Later that afternoon, Spence and his wife AnnPing Chin (also a professor at Yale University) delivered a dialogue entitled “Understanding China in the 21st Century.” The event was co-sponsored by the Global Affairs Office and the Occidental College Library and took place in the Jeffers Room in the library.
The dialogue was held in an informal format, with both Spence and Chin seated casually conversing with one another. In honor of the new wing of the library, Spence and Chin focused their dialogue largely on the progress towards the accessibility of knowledge in 21st-century China, focusing on the increasing availability of books.
Spence spoke of his first visit to China in 1974 (while Mao Zedong was still alive) and the lack of resources available to the public. Under Mao, the texts available during the period were strictly regulated to communist literature. Spence and Chin have both returned to China in recent years and proclaimed that the different access to knowledge is profound. Chin stated that today in China, people who simply cannot afford books go to the bookstore and read books they cannot buy. “So many of them would just sit all day,” she said.
They also spoke on the type of books in highest demand in 21st-century China. Citing Bill Gates’ biography as one of the more popular titles in China, Spence stated that the stories of “lots of people with astonishing wealth” are being translated into Chinese to satisfy the demand for stories of success within the Chinese population.
This greater variety of literature available post-Mao has also caused a rush of new translations of older Western classics to be made. Chin and Spence spoke of the increasing popularity of famous Western philosophers—in particular the works of Heidegger and Hegel—which gained immense popularity once available to the public.
Chin also explained the increase of women’s education during the 1920s-1950s and how this has shaped intellectual growth within China. She noted that “a lot of these women became extremely ambitious,” becoming the top scholars in their respective fields, and many immigrated to the West to teach.
Spence and Chin ended their dialogue by speaking on their experiences in China meeting with local students. They explained that they seek out students wherever they travel. Through talking about the experiences of three students at three different universities in China, Chin and Spence demonstrated the direct effects and achievements of the greater availability of literature and scholarship on Chinese society. The stories of the three students displayed the resources available at these colleges, such as ancient Chinese poetry and literature that were not available under Mao’s rule.
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