Roderick MacFarquhar: A Remembrance

When Roderick MacFarquhar passed away on February 10, 2019, I was left with a deep regret: that our friendship had been too short.

“He can be very intimidating. Don’t be put off by it; it’s just a mannerism,” Nancy Hearst, the librarian at Harvard’s Fairbank Center, warned me before taking me to meet him for the first time.

I had under my arm the manuscript of the memoir of Zhao Ziyang, the deceased former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, ousted in 1989 for refusing to carry out the military crackdown of the protesters in Tiananmen Square. I had planned to publish it to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, and I wanted MacFarquhar to write an introduction for the English version, which would be published as Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.

When Nancy brought my wife and me to his modestly-sized office in Harvard’s Department of Government, he was already standing in front of his desk.

Before I could go far into the material I had prepared for him, he abruptly stopped me. “So, why me?” he asked. Nancy was right, he was extremely blunt. “There are many scholars who know much more about this than I do: Andrew Nathan was involved in the Tiananmen Papers, Joseph Fewsmith knows every detail of Reform . . .” He continued on and on, giving a veritable who’s who of scholars of reform-era China.

I told him why: “I believe a person with a deep understanding of the Cultural Revolution stands the best chance of truly understanding Zhao Ziyang, the reformer.”

He paused, but not for long before saying, “My impression is that Zhao was just Deng Xiaoping’s sidekick. In fact, that would make a great title: ‘Zhao Ziyang, Deng Xiaoping’s Sidekick’!” My heart sank.

“But I am happy to change my mind if I see evidence to the contrary,” he finished.

Afterwards, Nancy tried to convince me that my patience would be rewarded, so I left the manuscript for him, still full of doubt. I couldn’t know that this is how we would begin a close friendship of 10 years.

A few months later, I translated Rod’s introduction into Chinese, and read it to one of Zhao’s sons. To my great surprise, the dispassionate text elicited an uncontrollable flow of tears. Someone finally understood his father for who he really was, despite his having been almost erased from history.

“Today in China, Zhao is a nonperson,” Rod had written. “In a less paranoid time in the future, perhaps he will be seen as one in that honored line of Chinese officials down the ages who worked hard and well for their country, but fell foul of the ruling authorities. Their names remain inspirational, long after the names of their venal opponents have been forgotten.”

The successful publication of Zhao’s memoir owed much to MacFarquhar’s introduction (which was included in both the English and Chinese versions). But for him, this was a footnote late in an already monumental career. His greatest scholarly achievement was something else: the study of the Cultural Revolution, as presented in his dense three-volume work, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution.

* * *

MacFarquhar was born in 1930 in Lahore, the son of a British Raj civil administrator. He was fluent in Hindi and had fond and lasting memories of his childhood in what was then India. After graduating with a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Keble College, Oxford University in 1953, he went on to obtain a Master’s degree from Harvard University in Far Eastern Regional Studies in 1955. His first career was as a journalist, writing for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph from 1955 to 1961, and reporting for BBC’s Panorama from 1963 to 1965.

It was, he told me, as a journalist that he became fascinated with the turmoil of the 1950’s as the Cold War was beginning to take form. “At the time, there were many well established journalists and scholars studying the Soviet Union, but not China,” he once explained. In 1953, Gao Gang, a Communist leader during the Chinese Civil War, mysteriously fell from the highest echelons of Communist Party leadership, and it intrigued him. This was the beginning of what would become a lifelong career as a China specialist, in journalism and in academia.

While his English accent remained on the posh side, Rod’s political views were center-left, mainly with the Labour Party. His attempt at launching a political career was met with only moderate success. After two losses in 1966 and 1968, in the 1974 general elections he won a seat as an MP for the Labour Party representing the Belper constituency. The decisive victory of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party in 1979 almost finished his political career, yet, he tried again in 1983, unsuccessfully.

“As a Labour MP with no inherited wealth, if you lose, you need to find a job,” he once said half-jokingly about how he ended up in academia. Indeed, history is littered with those who aspire to politics but are never granted the chance, among them Confucius, Machiavelli, and Max Weber.

Luckily for us, Roderick MacFarquhar also launched into a career that had him theorizing, documenting, and teaching, sharing his profound insights and analysis of politics with all. He was Founding Editor of The China Quarterly, was Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, and taught History and Political Science at Harvard for 28 years.

His academic career was centered on his relentless interest in modern China. When he published his first of the three volumes of The Origins of the Cultural Revolution in 1974, two years before the Cultural Revolution ended, he had already traced the 1966 cataclysm back to events in the tumultuous year of 1956, a remarkable understanding he gained just by reading everything he could find about China, which back then was mostly official state media.

Already, he had discovered the key to unlocking the ultimate mystery of the origins of the Cultural Revolution. His findings, he told me, surprised even himself: Of Mao Zedong’s pre-1949 revolutionary colleagues, not even one whole-heartedly supported Mao’s idea of “Continuous Revolution.” He documented how Mao, with seeming omnipotence, had crushed every one of his colleagues into submission, leading the country into a tragedy of monumental proportions.

In my view, MacFarquhar’s genius was not just in being the first to lay out a foundation for an understanding of the Mao era. What is so remarkable about his work is his depth of understanding on a subject most find incomprehensible, leading to conclusions that are contrary to common wisdom. For Rod, the Cultural Revolution was not a byproduct of Communist ideology or Stalinist institutions. It was caused by Mao, and by Mao’s insistence on his own ideas in opposition to his revolutionary colleagues who embraced Communist ideology and loved Stalinist state institutions and all the privileges that came with them, all of which Mao hated. In the end he failed, and his colleagues prevailed.

In fact, in The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, MacFarquhar never states this as a final conclusion, nor does he state clearly what the “origins” are. But he does give an abundance of evidence to allow the reader to come to this conclusion. To my surprise, Origins continues to draw criticism from some academics and general readers who feel a need to attribute the Cultural Revolution to authoritarianism.

After the successful publication of Zhao’s journal, I visited MacFarquhar again at his Harvard office. I decided to ask him the question that had been on my mind for many years. ”On various occasions, you summed up the era as ‘Mao against everyone else.’ Why didn’t you write this in your book, to make a very clear conclusion?”

His face lit up, the way it did when he was suddenly interested. “Because no one would have believed me!” He smiled at me. I could see what he meant: How could anyone believe, in 1974, that every senior Communist leader in China was against Mao Zedong?

I will always remember that smile, because from that moment, we became very close friends. Two years later, in the summer of 2012, I published the complete three-volume set of The Origins of the Cultural Revolution in Chinese for the first time in its entirety.

My wife and I visited Rod last summer at his house in New Hampshire, surrounded by the garden his late wife Emily created and his current wife Dalena Wright has continued to tend. It’s a house with quite a bit of history itself, with a large airy drawing room with creaking wooden floorboards where guests are entertained. Books can be found in every room, though a separate building converted from a barn houses an impressive personal library. A hanging clock chimes the hours, like London’s Big Ben.

When I came down from our guest bedroom one morning into the newest section of the house, the renovated kitchen, Rod was already preparing breakfast.

“Can I do anything to help?” I asked.

“No, you cannot.”

“Why not?”

“Because you are my guest.”

As I watched his slow and constant stirring of scrambled eggs, French style, he said, with lots of cream and butter, I returned to a topic from the night before, Khrushchev's secret speech of 1956.

“We can all agree that it marked the beginning of the decline of the communist movement worldwide. But I still don’t understand why. Wasn’t Khrushchev doing the right thing by correcting Stalin’s mistake?”

“Hang on a second, I need more cream.” He went to fetch cream from the large refrigerator behind him and returned to continue his patient stirring.

“The reason is that the Soviet regime was only ‘leadership friendly’ and not much more.”

“Hah, that’s interesting!”

His casual remark gave me profound insight into the nature of the Leninist state: that the power of such a state depends on the leader’s absolute command of loyalty and thus his ability to mobilize all social resources.

I picked up an empty wine bottle with a stained label, “Pétrus 1961,” from a collection of empty bottles on the counter nearby.

“So, of all the students you have taught, who is your favorite?”

“I wouldn’t tell you if I had one!” He smiled. “But I will tell you the story about that bottle of wine.

“When Emily passed away, I realized suddenly how short life is. Instead of ‘saving’ these great wines, I gathered the children and one by one, we drank all the best in my collection. We should enjoy living while we can. This bottle,” he pointed to the bottle in my hand, “I bought when I visited the Château Pétrus in the late 1960s. I asked and paid for a 1960, but when I later unwrapped it, I found they had given me a 1961, a celebrated year I couldn’t afford!”

“Well, what happened? Did someone mistakenly pull a bottle from the wrong rack? After all, 1961 is right next to 1960, right?” I laughed.

He smiled, “I would rather believe someone was intentionally being good to me.”

Roderick MacFarquhar, an extraordinary man, leaves behind him a light of wisdom and gracefulness that will always shine on the paths of those who knew him, and those who read his work.