The world wants and needs to know about China, but there is only so much Chinese scholars can say and there are severe limits on the official sources their Western counterparts have access to. Roderick MacFarquhar, who had long taught at Harvard University and has died aged 88, was therefore special, his wide-ranging professional experiences imbuing him with a pragmatism that enabled him to obtain information others could not. His writings on communist China, especially of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s rule, gave insight and understanding in the West where before there had only been mystery. MacFarquhar was a giant among intellectuals on China, respected by Chinese and Westerners alike. His three-volume work, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution , was unparalleled in its depth and breadth and remains a standard reference for scholars of the tumultuous period in Chinese history from 1966 until Mao’s death a decade later. It, and about a dozen more books written or edited over six decades, created a portrait of the nation that Chinese were unable to read about, and most in the West had no inkling of. Unfortunately, the political atmosphere on the mainland means that his volumes are treated sensitively. Roderick MacFarquhar: leading historian of the Cultural Revolution But he was never barred from visiting China, even though his writings put the nation under a harsh spotlight and he contended that a version of democracy was best for the country. Born in British-ruled India and educated at Oxford and Harvard, he was first a journalist, then for five years, a member of Britain’s parliament before becoming an academic in the 1980s. The confluence of journalism, politics and scholarship gave him expertise in carrying out interviews and obtaining documents, books, texts of Mao’s speeches and journalistic accounts. He was pragmatic in what he wrote and his deep interest in leadership and personalities meant he focused on factional fighting rather than, as many other Western historians had done, the violence of the times. He gained trust and was able to maintain contact with his Chinese peers. He was constantly in demand by those wanting insight into China. Others should aspire to his approach.