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Professor Roderick MacFarquhar is best known for his works on China under the rule of chairman Mao Zedong. Photo: Nora Tam

Roderick MacFarquhar: the scholar who wrote the leading history of China’s Cultural Revolution as it happened

  • Academic community bids farewell to British professor with a pragmatic and profound understanding of China’s past and present ties to the rest of the world

Professor Roderick MacFarquhar, a prominent Western specialist on China, particularly the Cultural Revolution, died on Sunday. He was 88.

Harvard University’s Fairbank Centre for China Studies, where MacFarquhar was director from 1986-1992, described him as a “great scholar and great man”.

The centre, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the family of the late British scholar and politician would hold a private memorial ceremony, and a public commemoration would be organised “in due course”.

MacFarquhar is best known for his works on China under the rule of chairman Mao Zedong, including the The Origins of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s Last Revolution.

MacFarquhar, who started writing on Communist China as early as the 1960s, finished the first of his three-volume The Origins of the Cultural Revolution in 1974, two years before the end of the decade of turmoil, which is still a taboo topic in China.

Cultural Revolution through the lens of a Chinese photographer

He later co-edited the latest two volumes of The Cambridge History of China, an ongoing series published by Cambridge University Press.

MacFarquhar was born to a British diplomat father in Lahore in 1930.

After serving as second lieutenant in the Royal Tank Regiment in the Middle East for two years, he went to Oxford University in 1950 to study philosophy and politics. He then went on to obtain a master’s degree from Harvard University in Far Eastern regional studies in 1955

He later worked as a journalist at The Daily Telegraph and for BBC Television. He was the founding editor of The China Quarterly, and was a fellow at Columbia University, the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, and the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

He also served as a member of the British parliament for five years in the 1970s.

Roderick MacFarquhar was a specialist in the Cultural Revolution, a decade of turmoil in China. Photo: Xinhua

In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, MacFarquhar compared the dark chapter with President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption drive, which has netted hundreds of thousands of cadres since 2013.

He said that like Mao, Xi launched his campaign to change the Chinese people. But Mao pressed on with the Cultural Revolution even after his political rivals had been purged because he was determined to transform China into a “revolutionary” country.

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London, said MacFarquhar’s studies on the Cultural Revolution greatly influenced researchers who came after him.

“His work on the Cultural Revolution was seminal,” Brown said. “He brought an historian’s order to chaos and showed this kind of history could be written.”

He also said MacFarquhar stood out from his fellow scholars because of his years in politics.

“His time in British politics made him pragmatic. He didn’t make lofty moral judgments on Chinese politicians. He strove to be objective,” Brown said. “He made the study of China’s Communist Party human rather than just looking at it like an impersonal machine. A huge loss.”

Still taboo in mainland China: the Cultural Revolution as seen through the lens of Li Zhensheng

Sun Peidong, an associate professor of history at Fudan University, who also studies the Cultural Revolution, agreed.

“His books were the first we read from Western scholars when we began studying the Cultural Revolution,” Sun, an academic in her forties, said. “His studies on the Cultural Revolution formed a cognitive framework for scholars of my generation.”

Sun, now a scholar-in-residence at the University of California, Berkeley, said MacFarquhar’s death was especially regretful amid the ongoing tensions in US-China relations.

“He has a profound understanding of US-China ties since the Mao era and great empathy for the destiny of the Chinese people,” Sun said. “His insights are particularly needed at the moment … His [death] is an irredeemable loss.”

Additional reporting by William Zheng


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Western specialist on China dies at 88