Sunday February 23, 2020

February 13, 2019
by Chi Wang

Professor MacFarquhar delivering remarks at the 75th anniversary celebration for the Chinese Section of the Library of Congress in 2003

Professor MacFarquhar delivering remarks at the 75th anniversary celebration for the Chinese Section of the Library of Congress in 2003

I was saddened to hear of the passing on February 10 of Roderick MacFarquhar, one of the most well-respected and knowledgeable China scholars. It was a great loss to Harvard, academia, the entire field of China studies, and to myself personally. I was so honored to know Rod, to exchange ideas with him, and to share in our passion for understanding the complexities of China’s modern history.

I first met Professor MacFarquhar many years ago – before he founded The China Quarterly or joined the Harvard faculty. He was a frequent visitor to the Chinese Section of the Library of Congress, where I worked. During his time there, we developed a close friendship.

His curiosity, dedication, and Chinese language research skills enabled him to construct a picture of one of the most infamous periods of history – China’s Cultural Revolution. This period of turmoil had been hidden to outside observers by the bamboo curtain and an effort by China’s leadership to minimize its remembrance. MacFarquhar did more than just shed light on a tumultuous chapter in China’s history. He also examined the political maneuvering that contributed to its emergence, thus providing insight into the inner workings of Chairman Mao’s China.

When most think of the development of U.S.-China relations, thoughts turn to ping-pong diplomacy, Dr. Kissinger’s secret visit to China, and President Nixon’s historic trip. They picture President Jimmy Carter announcing the normalization of diplomatic relations, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and Deng Xiaoping wearing a Stetson as he toured the U.S. Of course, these individuals all played pivotal roles. The importance of academics like Professor MacFarquhar, however, should not be overlooked.

The Red Scare of the 1950s left many diplomats and experts who had intimate knowledge of China blacklisted. How, then, could American leaders learn about this country they were in the midst of a Cold War with? Even more importantly, how could the leadership slowly come to realize China was different than the Soviet Union and might actually prove to be a useful ally against the greater Soviet threat?

In the aftermath of the Red Scare, it was left to academics to ensure we stayed informed about China. Many scholars, such as John K. Fairbank, who had been attacked chose to continue their scholarship despite the scrutiny they faced. MacFarquhar studied at Harvard with Fairbank and later went on to head the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. He became an invaluable resource during the delicate years following the U.S.-China rapprochement.

It is a often said that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. It is similarly said that it is one of the most complex. The U.S. and China face fundamental differences in ideology, history, and priorities that add complications to even the most basic of interactions. Without a deeper understanding of China and its worldview, the relationship becomes exceedingly difficult to navigate. It is the tireless dedication, scholarly approach, and comprehensive analysis of experts like Roderick MacFarquhar that help provide that knowledge.

I sincerely hope that in remembering the incredible contributions Roderick MacFarquhar made during his lifetime, we also recognize the important role China scholars play in bilateral relations. As the U.S.-China relationship experiences increased tension, we should turn to our experts for advise and continue to foster the type of scholarship and expertise MacFarquhar excelled at.