The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Roderick MacFarquhar, journalist and politician who became a China scholar, dies at 88

Roderick MacFarquhar in 1996.
Roderick MacFarquhar in 1996. (Gwendolyn Stewart)
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Roderick MacFarquhar, a British journalist and onetime member of parliament who was also one the world’s foremost experts on China’s Communist revolution led by Mao Zedong, died Feb. 10 at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 88.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Rory MacFarquhar.

Dr. MacFarquhar (pronounced mac-FARK-er) fell into his specialty almost by accident, hoping to use journalism as a springboard into British politics. During the 1950s and 1960s, while working for Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper and later the BBC, he became one of the first Western journalists with a deep understanding of China.

By the time he was elected to the British parliament in 1974, he had gained renown as a leading authority on modern China and its impenetrable wall of mystery, silence and revolutionary fervor.

During a 60-year career, Dr. MacFarquhar wrote or edited more than a dozen books, including “The Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Chinese Intellectuals” (1960) and “China Under Mao” (1966). His three-volume “The Origins of the Cultural Revolution” (1974, 1983 and 1997) has become a standard reference for scholars.

“This great intellectual effort,” a reviewer for the Economist wrote, “has produced the most sparkling gem of modern Sinology . . . At the end of this three-volume study the reader can only conclude that the communist victory of 1949 was a tragedy for China.”

Dr. MacFarquhar’s final book, “Mao’s Last Revolution,” written in 2006 with Swedish scholar Michael Schoenhals, was a frank and critical examination of China’s brutal Cultural Revolution, in which an estimated 1 million people were killed in the 1960s and 1970s.

“He was an amazing confluence of scholarship, journalism, politics and intellectual curiosity,” Orville Schell, a writer and authority on China who is director of U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, said Tuesday in an interview. “His works are titanic, and his presence in Chinese studies was titanic.”

Schell noted that he keeps Dr. MacFarquhar’s books “on my desk next to the dictionary and the Bible.”

After losing a bid for reelection to the British parliament in 1979, Dr. MacFarquhar devoted himself to the study of China.

“His time in British politics made him pragmatic,” Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London, told the South China Morning Post. “He made the study of China’s Communist Party human rather than just looking at it like an impersonal machine.”

In the 1980s, Dr. MacFarquhar became a professor at Harvard University, where he led the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, named for his mentor, John King Fairbank, considered the pre-eminent historian of modern China.

Although he was never entirely fluent in speaking Chinese, Dr. MacFarquhar could read it easily and used a wide range of sources — official documents, smuggled memoirs, posters, interviews, journalistic accounts and speeches by Mao — to create a portrait of modern China that was forbidden to the Chinese themselves.

“The problem is that the Chinese could do it much better than we could,” he said in 2006, “but they aren’t allowed.”

Unlike some Westerners who were drawn in by the early promise of Mao’s proletarian revolution, Dr. MacFarquhar was a skeptic, and never more than when he studied the savagery of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976.

“Whereas party violence had normally been carefully controlled and calibrated, now the rules had been suspended,” Dr. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals wrote in “Mao’s Last Revolution.” “Freed from parental and societal constraints, youths, both girls and boys, had been unleashed to perpetrate assault, battery, and murder upon their fellow citizens to the extent their barely formed consciences permitted.”

Reviewing the book in the Weekly Standard, historian Ross Terrill praised the book because “it tells the known truth about the Cultural Revolution at a time when the Beijing regime cannot bring itself to do so.”

Roderick Lemonde MacFarquhar was born Dec. 2, 1930, in Lahore in what was then British India (now Pakistan). His father was a British diplomat who later became a high-ranking United Nations official.

Dr. MacFarquhar grew up in India and Scotland, served in the British military and graduated in 1953 from the University of Oxford. Not wanting to serve an apprenticeship in provincial newspapers, he decided to become a specialist.

“There had been a Chinese revolution; I thought papers would need to know about it,” he said in a 2017 oral history with the University of Cambridge, “and I decided to learn Chinese as purely a means to a means to an end; I never had a misty feeling about Ming vases or anything like that.”

He received a master’s degree in East Asian studies in 1955 from Harvard, where he studied with Fairbank and later helped edit “The Cambridge History of China.”

After working for the Daily Telegraph, Dr. MacFarquhar joined the BBC and became the founding editor of the China Quarterly. In the 1970s, he was the host of the BBC program “24 Hours.” After five years in the House of Commons, he completed a doctorate at the London School of Economics in 1981 and held several academic fellowships before landing at Harvard in 1984.

He led the Fairbank Center from 1986 to 1992 and again from 2005 to 2006. He continued to teach well into his 80s. He also contributed essays to the New York Review of Books.

His wife of 36 years, the former Emily Cohen, an expert on China, died in 2001.

Survivors include his wife since 2012, Harvard scholar Dalena Wright of Cambridge; two children from his first marriage, New Yorker magazine writer Larissa MacFarquhar of Brooklyn and economist Rory MacFarquhar of Washington; and two granddaughters.

Dr. MacFarquhar was often asked to comment on changes in China over the years and its changing relationships with the United States and the world. One thing its citizens needed, and that its leaders were reluctant to provide, was a reckoning with its past, he said.

“A nation’s psyche is a very difficult thing to assess and talk about,” he said in 2006, “but I suspect the Chinese need to come to terms with their history. What you haven’t had is a national assessment.”

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