Skip to main content

Comments of NEH Chairman Jim Leach at Dinner Honoring Vice-Chairman Sun Jiazheng of the CPPCC

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Dinner Honoring Vice-Chairman Sun Jiazheng of the CPPCC Washington, DC
United States

March 26, 2012

Chairman Sun, Ambassador Zhang, Vice Minister Li, Deputy Secretary General Lin, Secretary General Xu, Director Hildreth, Ambassador Solomon, friends:

First, let me welcome our distinguished guest this evening who in addition to being Vice-Chairman of the CPPCC National Committee is also the President of the Chinese Federation of Literary and Art Circles.

I note Chairman Sun’s second responsibility in the literary arena because the great nineteenth-century poet of the common man, Walt Whitman, was so intoxicated with the notion that poetry could be an antidote to violence that he once wrote that his greatest dream was for “an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy…”

More than two millennia earlier Confucius suggested something analogous.  He said that “when music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.”

All this sounds rather naïve but there are few people on the planet that ever understood human nature better than Walt Whitman and Confucius.

I mention these great men of literature and philosophy because the most profound political observation of our age probably comes from a scientist.  Splitting the atom, Einstein once observed, has changed everything except our way of thinking.

Mankind has no choice, Einstein implied, except to recognize that the thinking of man must change.  Words and thought patterns matter.  When pieced together in the logic of works like Mein Kampf, they may be used to instill hate and divide, or they may, as in the poetry of Whitman and the wisdom of Confucius be used to uplift and unite.  These are our choices.

In making these choices, care has to be taken to reject the notion that there can be only one proper path determinable by one individual or one country.

Whether a person knows a great deal or very little, continual caution has to be taken about being certain of very much.  To know a lot may be a preferable condition to knowing little, but the best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes.  Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition.  That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why shared learning and shared experiences are such important parts of a civilized world polity.

It is also why culture is so important.  Politics is momentary; policies fleeting.  But due to its vast reach and historical pinions, culture is deep and long-lasting.

All countries and all peoples will have differences that will lead to disputes.  If there is no respect between cultures and no regard for peoples of differing backgrounds, these disputes will inevitably lead to conflict of one kind or another.  If, on the other hand, peoples of the earth can come to understand and respect each other’s cultures, the prospect is high that peaceful, mutually advantageous paths can be walked together despite existing differences.  

In this context, let me note that the President-designate of China recently visited Muscatine, Iowa, which is in the Congressional district I represented in Congress for three decades.   We now have something in common.  He lived in Muscatine for a few days.  I lived nearby for more than five decades.  A century earlier than either of us walked the bluffs overlooking the mighty Mississippi, a river boat pilot named Mark Twain also was a frequent visitor to Muscatine.  He wrote that the sunsets along the Mississippi were the most beautiful on the 25 mile stretch between Muscatine and my home town of Davenport where uniquely the river flows east to west. 

The President-designate has now been to Iowa twice.   If he is not careful, a rumor may start that he is preparing to run in the next Iowa caucuses.

Four precedents now exist of Presidents being short-time residents of both China and America prior to accession to office.  Herbert Hoover lived in China working for a British mining company during the Boxer rebellion and George H. W. Bush was America’s envoy to Beijing during a time of great transition in our relationship.  And preceding by a century Xi Jinping’s brief honorary residency in Muscatine, the first president of China, Sun Yat-sen, visited America, though we know little of his adventures.

As for men of letters, Mark Twain never visited China but he wrote that if he lived there at the time of the Boxer Rebellion he would have been on the Chinese side.

Let me conclude with a Twain-related anecdote, a hospitality warning to any who might want to retrace either his or the President-designate’s travels.  One evening Twain got alcoholically “plastered” in Muscatine.   The town records indicate that the sheriff escorted him and his drunken companions to the county line and ordered the “riff-raff” not to return until sobered up.

In hopes that the local Washington, D.C., constables are not watching the wine being poured, I would like to propose a toast to our distinguished guest – Sun Jiazheng; to the President of China – Hu Jin Tao; to the President-designate of China – Xi Jinping; and, most importantly, to the remarkable Chinese culture that in historical depth may be unrivalled in the world.