By GAIL FINEBERG
Kluge Prize-sharing scholars John Hope Franklin, 91, and Yu Ying-shih, 76, were honored at the Library of Congress on Dec. 5 for their lifetime achievements in their respective studies of African-American and Chinese history and culture.
After receiving the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, which Librarian of Congress James H. Billington presented in a Coolidge Auditorium ceremony, the two spoke at length, reviewing their long careers and expressing their hopes for the future.
A history professor and prolific writer, Franklin said he had been fortunate to participate in “an exciting and rewarding educational experience over the past three-quarters of a century.
“At the same time I have been able to witness a partial transformation of our society into something more in keeping with the expressed aspirations of our Founding Fathers,” said Franklin, whose inclusive history-rewriting enterprise began in a Library of Congress study room 67 years ago with his realization that Jeffersonian ideals had not applied, in practice, to African-Americans.
Yu, who has taught in the United States for more than three decades and written more than 30 history books spanning more than 2,000 years of Chinese history and culture, said, “If history is any guide, then there seems to be a great deal of overlapping consensus in basic values between Chinese culture and Western culture. After all, recognition of a common humanity and human dignity is what the Chinese Tao has been about. I am more convinced than ever that once Chinese culture returns to the main flow of Tao, the problematique of China-versus-the-West will also come to an end.”
The full text of both speeches and a webcast of the proceedings are available on the Library’s Web site at www.loc.gov/loc/kluge/prize/winners.html.
In his opening, welcoming remarks, Billington thanked John W. Kluge for his generosity in establishing the $1 million prize, which was created at the Library and awarded for the first time in 2003. Kluge is the founder and longtime chairman of the Library’s private-sector support group, the James Madison Council, and he is also the benefactor of the Library’s John W. Kluge Center for scholars. In addition to Kluge, Billington thanked members of the council and members of Congress for their enduring support of the Library.
The Librarian described the Kluge Prize as “a unique international award” that “covers all languages, all cultures and the broad fields across cultures of the humanities and social sciences—disciplines conspicuously not included in the Nobel Prize.
“Tonight we honor John Hope Franklin and Yu Ying-shih, two scholars who have each produced an enormous amount of scholarship and presented it in a wide variety of formats to a wide variety of grateful audiences.
“Each of these two has played a leading and groundbreaking role in bringing into the mainstream of scholarship important and previously neglected aspects of the history of their respective native lands. Moreover, the scholarship of each has affected both the consciousness and the conscience of the broader public in a unique way in both cultures during the second half of the 20th century.
“They have both seen, in addition, that deep values lodged at the very core of their respective cultures provide a basis for understanding, correcting and moving beyond past abuse and neglect toward a better future,” Billington said.
John Hope Franklin
Franklin, Billington noted, “has been the leading scholar in the second half of the 20th century in establishing African-American history as an inescapably key area in the study of the American past. He has been both a pathfinder and a model for other scholars. For the broader public, a long and complex history of race in this country has been opened up over the course of 63 years by this amazing man.”
Franklin taught at many universities and is emeritus professor of history at Duke University, which established the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies in his honor.
In addition to producing scholarly works, Franklin “has reached a broader audience with a celebrated textbook [“From Slavery to Freedom,” 1947], a biography, an autobiography and his personal leadership in a lengthy dialogue on race that ranged all over America in the final years of the 20th century,” Billington said.
In his address, Franklin recalled his long association with the Library. “I have a feeling that the Librarian of Congress and his staff have kept a wary eye on me for the past 67 years,” he said.
“I came to the Library of Congress for the first time in 1939 with every intention of rewriting the history of the United States in a way that would be palpably inclusive. It was not easy for a 24-year-old graduate student to persuade Willard Webb, the study room supervisor, that I qualified for a study room for whatever I was doing.”
Franklin prevailed, and during the course of his research Webb asked Franklin about his interest in Thomas Jefferson, whose “Notes on Virginia” the young scholar often had open on his desk. “I merely replied that his negative influence was enormous, although the average observer did not see beyond his obvious influence as a Founding Father and the author of our hallowed Declaration of Independence. I was not yet prepared to share with Mr. Webb my view of Jefferson’s enormous influence in arguing that African-Americans were inferior to whites in many ways,” he recalled. Franklin gave several examples from Jefferson’s “Notes.”
On the night he received the Kluge Prize, Franklin thanked “Webb and his successors and Billington and his predecessors,” and also the Kluge Center, for their “permission to explore the wellspring of American history from the 17th century to the present.”
“I have spent days at a time, weeks at a time and months at a time enjoying the resources of what I call the eighth wonder of the world, the Library of Congress,” he said. Franklin lamented that African-American scholars spent much of the 20th century “knocking on the door of American scholarship and seeking entry. Only here and there did the door open, and all too often it was opened grudgingly, if at all.”
However, he said, unlike the intellectual W.E.B. DuBose, who finally retreated to Ghana, those who are dissatisfied with conditions in this country should not even desire to go elsewhere. “Our past is here. Our loyalty is here. Our presence is here. Our investment of more than three centuries is here. Our future is here,” he said.
In the course of studying U.S. history for more than 70 years and attempting “to reexamine the ideologies that undergird our system,” Franklin said, he had become resigned to the certainty of some in American society that their positions were “clear and correct.”
“I have also struggled to understand how it is that we could seek a land of freedom for the people of Europe and, at the very same time, establish a social and economic system that enslaved people who happen not to be from Europe. I have struggled to understand how it is that we could fight for independence and, at the very same time, use that newly won independence to enslave many who had joined in the fight for independence.
“As a student of history, I have attempted to explain it historically, but that explanation has not been all that satisfactory. That has left me no alternative but to use my knowledge of history, and whatever other knowledge and skills I have, to present the case for change in keeping with the express purpose of attaining the promised goals of equality for all peoples,” Franklin said. “In this way we can, perhaps, realize the goals that grow out of the tenets to which we claim to have been committed from the beginning.”
Franklin said he had discovered he could use his knowledge of history to aid the civil rights struggle to effect change. In 1948, Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, sought his help in a suit to break the color barrier at the University of Kentucky.
Again in 1954, Franklin was asked to assist counsel in the Brown v. The Board of Education case that integrated public schools. During the Selma-Montgomery march, he joined historians and others “to impress high and arrogant powers to relent in their extreme and excessive use of racial and social bigotry in their effort to maintain the status quo.”
In his concluding remarks, Franklin said, “I can only hope that my work will be a part of the legacy, not only of my students and others who find it possible that we can, under certain circumstances, do something that is effective and supportable. But I also hope that one can find something valuable in my words, and that some have found some validation of their own work in what I have I have tried to say and do.”
Introducing Yu, the Librarian said Yu has been described by his peers as the most widely read contemporary historian writing in Chinese and, “these are quotes, ‘the greatest Chinese intellectual historian in our generation.’”
“Working deeply with original texts,” Billington said, “[Yu] has rescued the rich Confucian heritage and much else in Chinese culture … from caricature and neglect.” Following Confucian thought across the centuries, “Yu has covered the entire multimillennial history and range of Chinese thought and experience,” the Librarian continued.
The author of more than 30 books, all written in Chinese, Yu has stimulated younger scholars to “rediscover not just the richness but the variety of Chinese intellectual tradition, something which would have been seriously lost during the period of the so-called cultural revolution in China,” Billington said.
Yu’s work is read and discussed widely throughout the Chinese-speaking world, Billington said, “as much on the mainland as in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of East Asia.”
He noted that Yu has been a history professor at the University of Michigan, Harvard, Yale and, most recently, Princeton, where he is emeritus professor of history.
“I feel enormously honored to be a co-recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize in 2006, for which I am grateful,” Yu said. “After much reflection, however, I have come to the realization that the main justification for my presence here this evening is that both the Chinese cultural tradition and Chinese intellectual history as a discipline are being honored through me.”
Yu said when he first became seriously interested in the study of Chinese history and culture, in the 1940s, “the whole Chinese past was viewed negatively, and whatever appeared to be uniquely Chinese was interpreted as a deviation from the universal norm of civilization’s progress, as exemplified in the historical development of the West.” As a result, he said, studies of aspects of the Chinese cultural tradition, from philosophy, law and religion to literature and art, “often amounted to condemnation and indictment.”
So began his lifelong quest to understand the Chinese cultural identity and his own. “As my intellectual horizon gradually widened over the years, the truth dawned on me that Chinese culture must be clearly recognized as an indigenous tradition with characteristics distinctly its own,” he said.
He said the crystallization of Chinese culture into its definitive shape took place in the time of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.), “a crucial moment in the ancient world better known in the West as the Axial Age.” During the same period, other ancient cultures—India, Persia, Israel and Greece—also experienced a spiritual awakening.
In the time of Confucius, he said, “the all-important idea of Tao (Way) emerged as a symbol of the world beyond vis-à-vis the actual world of everyday life.” But, he said, the transcendental world of Tao and actual world of everyday life relate to each other in a way that is different from other Axial Age relationships of the other-world to the actual-world. So, he said, it is essential to understand Confucian and Taoist ideas on their own terms—as well as in comparison to Indian Buddhism and Western culture since the 16th century.
Yu said he was always interested in periods of change, when one historical stage moved to the next. He found that broad and profound changes in Chinese history transcended the rise and fall of dynasties. The Western notion that changes in Chinese history could be charted by dynastic cycles “is highly misleading,” Yu said.
As for the question of how Chinese and Western systems of values compare, Yu said, “the best guide with regard to whether Chinese culture is compatible with the core values of the West can only be provided by Chinese history.”
He proceeded to point out that the first Jesuit missionaries to China in the 16th century encountered a Chinese religious atmosphere that was tolerant—so tolerant, in fact, that the Jesuits readily made converts and the Chinese Tao was expanded to include Christianity. In the 19th century, he said, “open-minded Confucians enthusiastically embraced values and ideas dominant in the modern West, such as democracy, liberty, equality, rule of law, autonomy of the individual person and, above all, human rights.”
As for human rights, Yu said, “Recognition of a common humanity and respect for human dignity are both articulated in Analects, Mencius and other early texts.” As early as the first century, C.E., he said, imperial decrees prohibiting the sale or killing of slaves cited the Confucian dictum “Of all living things produced by Heaven and Earth, the human person is the noblest.”
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.