Sad news in the field of Chinese history, one of the true giants has passed on. Fred Wakeman was one of the most influential and important American scholars of Chinese history. His first work, Strangers at the Gate, about the links between resistance against foreign threats and rebellion against the government in the wake of the Opium War, is a masterpiece both for its research and Wakeman’s brilliantly evocative writing style. He may be remembered best for his opus: the sprawling two-volume The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth Century China–a brilliant book that combines an immense amount of factual information with a novelist’s touch for nuance and development.
In the obituary released Wednesday by UC Berkeley, Jonathan Spence had this to say about Wakeman:
“Fred to me was always an enchanting mixture of troubadour and secret agent. His finest books were large in every sense: in length and in spirit, jammed with incident, relayed with emotion. He was a total story-teller, and tracking his tales through their webs of detail and their unexpected juxtapositions was always a fascinating task.
“He chose, like the novelist he really wanted to be, stories that split into different currents, and swept the reader along, into and out of long, action-packed footnotes, into which he tucked whole subplots as glosses on his main text. To me, Fred was quite simply the best modern Chinese historian of the last 30 years.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Wakeman and his wife this past Spring when they came to our university to give a talk about Mao. He met the graduate students for tea in the afternoon and listened to our research topics, offering advice and encouragement when asked. I was happy to talk with him a little about my dissertation and was both excited (and relieved) to find that he found it a topic worthy of further research. He even took the time to pepper YJ, who was in town that week, with a few questions about French law and local government. Professor Wakeman was warm, funny, and engaging.
He will be missed.
Upper right photo from UC Berkeley News Services