Straying Thoughts

Jonathan Spence, January 2004

Jonathan SpenceGreetings for the New Year! If my voice sounds muffled, it is because I am in early 17th-century China, near the east coast, just south of Hangzhou Bay. My quarry is elusive, and I have come to understand that he is far subtler than I am, and infinitely more learned. He carries an astonishing percentage of China's traditional culture in his head, and has the largest vocabulary of any one I have ever come across. But I have found out more about him than I had any right to expect, and by the end of this coming year I hope to share with the AHA membership some of what he has taught me about himself and China, in the form of my farewell presidential address.

If my heart and mind—like those of so many historians—are fixated on a shifting and fugitive past, I still have to live and breathe in an all too obtrusive present. And this present, which I do not understand very well, has developed astonishing techniques to inquire into that past. To me, at least, not all these techniques are easy to grasp, and there may be some other people in the same boat. I am hoping that through short essays in forthcoming issues of Perspectives, written by archivists, collection curators, cataloguers, publishers, librarians, and teachers of public history, we will be able to share in an accessible way some of the international dimensions of these new techniques that are helping us to deepen our knowledge of the past, and of how scholars in different cultures can illuminate their own pasts to each other. Knowledge has always been hard earned, and will surely remain so. But sharing need not diminish the power that knowledge confers.

—Jonathan Spence (Yale Univ.) is the incoming president of the AHA.