Citations and Speeches

Citations

100th Congregation (1978)

William Gerald BEASLEY
B.A., Ph.D., FRHistS, F.B.A.

The Public Orator Professor Peter Bernard Harris, B.A., B.SC. (Econ.), PH.D., D.Litt. (PCE), wrote and delivered the following citation:

Mr. Chancellor, I present to you Professor William Gerald Beasley for the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

William Beasley is an English historian (not in fact the same as a historian of England) who has made his speciality the study of our East Asian world and holds a Chair of the History of the Far East at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Mr. Chancellor, there was a young history lecturer (if Kingsley Amis is to be believed in his story Lucky Jim), who would answer the telephone with the self-identification, 'History Speaking'. And yet, in a more profound sense, a careful professional scholar of history like William Beasley could lay such a claim. Professor Beasley attended school at Magdalen College School and subsequently began his undergraduate career at London University's University College, wherein rests the body and soul of Jeremy Bentham.

At that point in time, in 1940, he entered to serve (like Guy Sayer) in the Royal Navy. Not all of Professor Beasley's career involved life afloat. He found himself as a sailor-student at the U.S. Navy's Language School at Boulder. There, from 1943 to 1944, he acquired the rudiments of the Japanese language and so began the essential part of his life's work. For what was more obvious for him than to marry the study of the language to the techniques of the historian. After the war, he studied in Japan itself, mostly at Tokyo University, during the fifties and sixties.

He had not yet left the Navy, Mr. Chancellor, when fate in the persons of Their Lordships at the Admiralty allowed him, early in 1946, to visit Hong Kong, then for the first time. Back in Britain, Professor Beasley quickly resumed an academic career, and, in 1947, he joined the staff of the School of Oriental and African Studies, becoming Professor in 1954 at the early age of thirty-four. Since that time, he has been Acting Head of the Department of the Far East, Chairman of the Centre of Far Eastern Studies, and is currently Head of the Department of History at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He played an important part in setting up the Contemporary China Institute, which is well known to us in Hong Kong as an important centre of fundamental work on the study of China and its problems.

A glance at his publications, Mr. Chancellor, will indicate where his interests lie. While for the most part they concern Japanese historical studies they also include some aspects of the history of China. His study of the Meiji Restoration (1972) was awarded the John K. Fairbank Prize of the American Historical Association.

Eurocentric scholars, Mr. Chancellor, have placed us in somewhere called the 'Far East', and this is perhaps one of the stereotypes which we have to bear.

Japan, Mr. Chancellor, has had to sustain a number of stereotypes. Puccini gave us Madame Butterfly, Gilbert and Sullivan the Mikado, Ruth Benedict the paradox of the Chrysanthemum and the Sword; modern futurologists (like Herman Kahn) tell us that the twenty-first century may be Japan's century, and economists add the ultimate sardonic comment 'Japan Incorporated'. Beasley's Japan has been, as near as scholarship can make it, the real Japan, free of stereotypes and as close to scholarship as scholarship itself can go. His is the Japan of the learned monograph which he himself sees as the appropriate instrument of academic enquiry; for, the value of the scholarly monograph is that it is 'detailed, critical and limited in topic'. History is, both in China and Japan, he notes, often written 'to narrate events in accordance with the facts and show men the history thereof. Of course, the Chinese and Japanese approaches to government have often been different and he notes 'the relation between an Emperor, who did not rule, and his hereditary officials, Kampaku or Shogun, who did'. Again, the receptiveness of the Japanese to Western influences has been remarkable, and so has the characteristically Japanese blend of feudal and imperial rule.

In writing in and of Japan, Professor Beasley tells us that historians have been inhibited by a number of obstacles to the objective writing of history. These included certain sensitivities about the imperial role in the past. But what the Japanese (or indeed any other nation) know of their own history is often that perceived through the eye of the beholder. After all, Japan is the home of the Rashomon story, with its ravishing revelations. Professor Beasley's professionalism recalls a profound observation; 'God cannot alter the past,' said Samuel Butler, 'that is why he is obliged to connive at the existence of historians'. Such a comment reminds us of the responsibilities which the writer of history must shoulder, never forgetting the taunt of Voltaire that history is no more than a pack of tricks we play on the dead.

Mr. Chancellor, we honour the historian; we also honour the man. He has held a large number of important public appointments. He had served as British Chairman of the Anglo-Japanese Mixed Cultural Commission, and, since 1967, has served as Fellow, then Vice-President, and currently Treasurer, of the British Academy. We in Hong Kong know him however, through his earlier membership of the University Grants Committee (as it was then), a body which serves Your Excellency in two capacities, governmentally as it were, as well as our Chancellor.

Mr. Chancellor, the authors of 1066 and All That (a veritable Miscellany of Ignorant Views), argued that history is not what you thought happened. It is 'what you can remember'. This is our Hundredth Congregation, an especially memorable historical occasion. It is fitting, therefore, that we should use a historical occasion to honour a historian. For his services to the better understanding of our region's history, as well as for his services to our Unviversity's academic advancement and planning, I call on you, Mr. Chancellor, to present William Gerald Beasley with the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.