How to Make Time Real: From Intellectual History to Embodied Memory
What can you dream to make Time real again? I have read in a book that dream is the mother of memory, And if there is no memory . . . oh what is Time? -- Robert Penn Warren, "Dream"
EVERY HISTORIAN has to reenvisage time. Each one of us has to reconstruct the full fleshed, gritty experience that anchors our subject in the fast flowing river of temporal events. The importance of this grounded temporality was not immediately obvious to me when I arrived at Stanford University in 1971 for graduate study in Chinese history. The campus was on fire with ideas -- especially with the idea of student revolution. My own subject of research was the May Fourth movement of 1919 -- a seminal moment in the Chinese students' revolution. The combination was heady. Geographical distance from China, proximity to the passions of the day, all combined to make intellectual history a dizzying drama of ideas centered on Individualism, Liberalism, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and of course, Revolution.
Years later, and very gradually, a sobering change took place. The modesty of our teachers at Stanford when faced with the vast subject of Chinese history became more intelligible, more precious as my generation began to study in China. There, in 1979-80, I began to encounter octogenarian survivors of the May Fourth movement, to record their recollections, to glimpse the fractured mirror of their broken lives. In that mirror ideas that had been brightly colored before took on a darker hue. The gray of compromise, of unfulfilled idealism, and of a dogged commitment to truth telling replaced the red and black certainties of Revolution. The scruffy edges of memory slowly replaced the sharp outlines of intellectual history.
Arriving in Beijing in February 1979, I carried with me Joseph Levenson's warning that intellectual history cannot be just a history of ideas,