SOAS University of London

In Memoriam: Roderick MacFarquhar (1930-2019)

15 February 2019
IMG - Roderick Macfarquhar

By David Shambaugh*

With the passing of Harvard University Professor Emeritus Roderick MacFarquhar, international China Studies has lost a true giant in the field, and the SOAS community has lost an esteemed colleague and cherished friend of many decades. In its obituary, The Telegraph (for whom he was once a staff writer), fittingly described him as “a man of charm, courage, and sincerity… the ultimate internationalist.”[1] Professor MacFarquhar died at 88 in a Cambridge, Massachusetts hospital from congestive heart failure on February 10, 2019.

Ties to SOAS

Rod’s main tie to SOAS was linked to the field’s flagship journal The China Quarterly. Rod was the founding editor of the journal, which was launched with the January-March 1960 issue (as I hold that issue in hand the cover reads succinctly: No. 1, Five Shillings). In his editorial introduction to the inaugural issue, MacFarquhar presciently observed: “The present fact of Chinese power is sufficient justification for launching this journal. We cannot afford to wait for the Chinese to send a Sputnik into orbit before realizing that China would repay closer study.”[2]

The CQ operated for its first eight years, as he later described it, as “somewhat of a guerilla operation,” “located first in an aerie in Langham Place (Summit House) and then in grottier quarters off Oxford Street.”[3] But by 1968 Rod “decided it needed the trappings of solidity which only an academic base could provide. With the projected creation of the Contemporary China Institute (CCI) at the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS was the obvious place for the journal to go.”[4] The late and eminent SOAS Sinologist Stuart Schram, Professor of Politics with Reference to China in the University of London, was setting up the CCI,[5] and he was welcoming of MacFarquhar’s entreaties. The deal was done and the formal transfer of the journal’s operations to SOAS and the CCI (the forerunner to today’s SOAS China Institute) took place in March 1968.

But editing the CQ was hardly MacFarquhar’s only occupation at the time. From 1955-1961 he was a journalist on staff of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, he maintained an affiliation with St. Antony’s at Oxford (where he commuted regularly), and he ran a monthly China luncheon discussion group at Chatham House (which became the staple for Asia hands in London—drawing together the worlds of academe, media, corporates, diplomats, and the intelligence services). Moreover, in the 1966 general election MacFarquhar successively contested and won the Labour seat from East Ealing. Despite these other demands on his time, he continued to devote the necessary time to editing the CQ. Yet, the multiple pressures on him were building and Rod knew that it was a time for a transition—so he persuaded his friend and fellow Keble College alum David Wilson (Baron Wilson of Tillyorn), to leave the FCO and succeed him as CQ editor.

Thus, although MacFarquhar “midwifed” the CQ transition to SOAS and the CCI at the time, he did not actually himself join the SOAS staff in 1968. However, a decade later in 1978, MacFarquhar did become a SOAS Governor. Rod maintained his ties to SOAS for many years thereafter. Professor Schram was a close colleague and friend, whom Rod brought to Harvard following Stuart’s retirement from SOAS in 1989. He was also a close friend and colleague of Professors Christopher Howe, Hugh Baker, Ken Walker, Robert Ash, Elizabeth Croll, and other China studies luminaries on the SOAS faculty.

When I was fortunately offered the position of Lecturer in Chinese Politics in 1987, Rod was one of the first persons I consulted about the pros and cons of accepting the position and moving to London—he was resolutely encouraging and persuasive, even providing advice on West Hamptead neighborhoods where to search for a flat. It was a decision I will never regret and have Rod to thank in part for it. When Rod subsequently passed through London he would often take me out for a meal and chat. Then in 1991, when I was appointed as the sixth editor of The China Quarterly, I recall a lengthy dinner discussion with Rod at a Soho restaurant, at which he imparted sage advice for navigating in my new position. This included the institutions and personalities in the China field around the world, as the position demands such ties. Rod was very “paternal” when it came to “his baby” The China Quarterly, and unfailingly supportive. In 1995 I decided to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the CQ’s founding and invited the previous five editors (Rod, David Wilson, John Gittings, Dick Wilson, and Brian Hook) to join in a wonderful commemorative event at SOAS.[6] My successor, Julia Strauss, now Professor of Chinese Politics at SOAS and the ninth editor of the CQ, convened a similar event on the special occasion of the 50th anniversary of the CQ. Again, all the former editors converged on Russell Square and Rod flew across the Atlantic from Harvard and contributed an article (“On Liberation”) to the commemorative issue.[7]

Thus, while his only official tie to SOAS was his stint on the Governing Body during the late-1970s, Professor MacFarquhar had longstanding ties to the institution and many who have worked there. If it were not for him, one of the School’s most significant attributes (The China Quarterly) would never have materialized.

An Extraordinary Life & Career

Roderick MacFarquhar was born in Lahore in British colonial India, where his father served in the Colonial Service and the Indian Civil Service. In his teens, young Rod was sent off to Edinburgh, where he attended Fettes College. After graduation he served his national service as a second lieutenant in a tank regiment in Egypt and Jordan. After returning to England he entered Keble College, Oxford where he earned a PPE undergraduate degree in 1953.

At this time in his life he sensed that there were major events and puzzles unfolding in Asia (a.k.a. the Far East), as a result of the communist revolution in China, the outbreak of the Korean War, and unfolding national independence movements in Southeast Asia. But he was particularly interested in the changes emerging in communist China. So off he went to America, enlisting in the newly opened Master’s program in Far Eastern Regional Studies at Harvard, under the direction of Professors John King Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer. MacFarquhar completed the M.A. degree in 1955, but Fairbank would become his lifelong mentor and colleague—ultimately asking him to co-edit and take over the seminal Cambridge History of China.

From there, MacFarquhar’s professional life took several twists and turns. He first returned to London and was appointed the China correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, which he did from 1955-1961. He then moved to the BBC’s Panorama television programme for two years from 1963-1965, before entering politics. He stood for election four times, winning twice (1966, 1974) and losing twice (1968, 1979). His time in Parliament included stints as Parliamentary Private Secretary for the Minister of State for the FCO (David Ennals), and member of the Select Committee on Science & Technology.  During this busy time in his life, Rod continued to “moonlight” in journalism, as a co-presenter for the BBC World Service’s “24 Hours,” remained involved with Chatham House, and spent time as a visiting senior research fellow at Columbia University in New York (then the leading location for the study of the communist world). Rod’s transatlantic ties were cemented with leading American academics and officials.

MacFarquhar’s orientation increasingly inclined towards academe and his fascination remained with China. Having earned a doctorate from the LSE and having several significant books under his belt by the mid-1980s, he was recruited to join the Harvard faculty as Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Government in 1984. There, he served as Director of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research from 1986-1992 and again from 2005-2006, as well as chairing the Government Department from 1998-2004. MacFarquhar was a highly skilled academic infighter and institution builder. Rod was a real cornerstone at Harvard. He was a regular participant in public lectures, luncheon seminars, and other events. Although he was regularly on campus, and had enormous administrative responsibilities, amazingly he remained extraordinarily productive as a scholar and writer. He single-authored, co-authored, and edited multiple volumes, and wrote frequent articles for the New York Review of Books. His trilogy The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, which chronicled China’s political evolution from 1949-1966, will never be surpassed. His Mao’s Last Revolution (co-authored with Swedish scholar Michael Schoenhals) is similarly definitive. His textbook The Politics of China, now in its third edition, remains the staple in courses on the subject.

MacFarquhar’s scholarship was distinguished by its extraordinary precision and meticulousness. His footnotes were as noteworthy as his texts. He wrote as he spoke—with great precision. He was a riveting speaker, exceptionally articulate and normally speaking without any notes or text (occasionally a rough outline of a few points scribbled on a napkin or slip of paper). This reflected a steel-trap memory and amazing recall. But, both as a writer and a public speaker, he always told and wove together a good story. Politics was similar to Shakespearian theater for him—and he brought all the characters and their plots alive. When it came to studying China he was not a normal Sinologist, never being particularly attracted by the culture (“I was never drawn to Ming vases” he would say). For MacFarquhar, it was the internecine Hobbesian struggles among ruthless Chinese communist leaders that fascinated him the most. The canon of his life’s works are an encyclopedia of these epic struggles. While fascinated by these struggles—or perhaps because of them—he remained unemotional and clinical in his analyses. His broad view of China’s body politic was that it was riddled by a cancer of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and his prognoses followed from his diagnoses, i.e. he was solidly of the view, particularly post-1989, that the CCP’s days were numbered…and he was not afraid to say so. This was not a man afraid to speak truth to power. This standpoint did not endear him to the Chinese party-state, which ambivalently held him at an arms’ length yet permitted him to visit China (something he did not do all that often).

Personal Qualities

I conclude this memorial essay for my esteemed departed colleague by recalling some of his personal qualities. Rod was extremely erudite, deeply educated and knowledgeable about so many things, and was worldly, charming, gentlemanly, intellectually engaging and probing, a good listener, and possessed of sharp wit and sarcastic humor. He was a devoted husband and father, and a friend to many. He shall be greatly missed by many. All of those in the SOAS community and beyond have lost a rare individual.

* The author is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science, and International Affairs, and Director of the China Policy Program, at the George Washington University. He is the author of more than 30 books on China, the most recent being 'China's Future' and 'The China Reader: Rising Power'. He served as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, and Reader in Chinese Politics at SOAS from 1987-1996, and Editor of The China Quarterly from 1991-1996.

(Photo courtesy of Harvard University)


[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2019/02/14/roderick-macfarquhar-mp-daily-telegraph-journalist-broadcaster/
[2] Roderick MacFarquhar, “Editorial,” The China Quarterly, No. 1 (January-March 1960), p. 2.
[3] Roderick MacFarquhar, “The Founding of The China Quarterly,” No. 143 (September 1995), p. 695.
[4] Ibid.
[5] The CCI was established with seed funding from the U.S. Ford Foundation (which was providing $30 million in funding to establish numerous China studies centers in the United States—SOAS and the ANU were the only non-American institutions to receive such start-up funding).
[6] Our respective recollections of our times as editors appeared in issue No. 143 (September 1995)
[7] The China Quarterly, No. 200 (December 2009).

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