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UC Berkeley Press Release

Frederic Wakeman, Chinese history scholar, dies at age 68

– Frederic Evans Wakeman Jr., an eminent University of California, Berkeley, emeritus professor of Chinese history, died at his home in Lake Oswego, Ore., on Sept. 14. He was 68.

The cause of death was cancer, said his wife, He Lea Wakeman.

Frederic Wakeman
Frederic Evans Wakeman Jr. (Photo courtesy of He Lea Wakeman)

During the 1970s and '80s, Wakeman played a pivotal role in the opening of scholarly exchanges between the United States and China, according to Joseph Esherick, professor of history at the University of California, San Diego and one of Wakeman's former students.

In 1978, as educational adviser of the U. S. Inter-Agency Negotiating Team on Chinese-American International Exchanges, Wakeman helped ensure that the Chinese desire for scientific and technical exchanges with the United States would be matched by an opening of research opportunities in China for American scholars in the social sciences and humanities, Esherick said.

In subsequent years, Wakeman served on and chaired many of the committees that worked to expand cultural and scholarly relations with China.

But it was as a writer of influential books that Wakeman's influence was the greatest. His historical writings ranged from the 17th century origins of the last Chinese dynasty to the philosophical foundation of Mao Zedong's thought.

Considered by colleagues to be a meticulous researcher and a master of many languages, Wakeman was known for his detailed narratives of the complex social, political and personal dynamics that lay behind the critical turning points in Chinese history.

"Wakeman is one of the finest historians ever to work at UC Berkeley and one of the campus' greatest scholars of any discipline in the current generation," said David A. Hollinger, chair of the campus's Department of History.

Wakeman's first monograph, "Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861" (1966), was a pioneering work of local history that explored the social unrest affecting the Canton region in the wake of the Opium War. His 1973 book, "History and Will: Philosophical Perspectives of the Thought of Mao Tse-tung," explored the philosophical influences on Mao's thought - from Zhuangzi to Marx, from neo-Confucians to neo-Hegelians - probing sources ranging from the textbook Mao used in college to his poetry during the Cultural Revolution.

Wakeman's most famous work was "The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth-Century" (1985). This two-volume narrative history of court debates and literati culture was honored in 1987 with the Joseph R. Levenson Prize of the Association for Asian Studies, which called it "a monumental work [of] extraordinary scope, ambition, and narrative power... a true history written with an awareness of world events and global connections."

In recent years, Wakeman's work focused on the political history of 20th century China, with particular attention to Shanghai and the modernizing Chinese states' preoccupation with issues of public security.

"Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937" (1995), "The Shanghai Badlands: Wartime Terrorism and Urban Crime, 1937-1941 (1996)," and his most recent book, "Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service" (2004), explored the nature of Nationalist Party rule in the years before the Communist revolution.

"Fred to me was always an enchanting mixture of troubadour and secret agent," said Yale University professor Jonathan Spence. "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."

Upon his retirement from UC Berkeley in June 2006, Wakeman was honored with the campus's highest award, the Berkeley Citation. Wakeman taught at UC Berkeley for his entire career, beginning in 1965.

Wakeman received many honors for his scholarly contributions. He was elected a fellow of the American Philosophical Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served in 1992-1993 as president of the American Historical Association, and from 1986 to 1989 as president of the Social Science Research Council.

Born in Kansas City on Dec. 12, 1937, Wakeman left the American heartland when but a few months old, and his youthful schooling was distinctly international. His father, Frederic Evans Wakeman Sr., was a successful novelist who led his family on a peripatetic life so that the young Frederic attended school in New York City, Cuernavaca, Bermuda, Santa Barbara, Havana, France and Ft. Lauderdale. Adjusting easily to instruction in Spanish and French, Wakeman picked up smatterings of Italian and Portuguese during summer vacations and learned some Latin at his British grammar school in Bermuda.

In 1955, Wakeman entered Harvard College, where he majored in European history and literature, adding German and Russian to his repertoire, and graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He turned to Chinese studies while studying at the Institut d'etudes politiques in Paris, then earned his Ph.D. in Far Eastern history at UC Berkeley in 1965, mastering Chinese and Japanese in the process. Along the way, in 1962 he published a novel, "Seventeen Royal Palms Drive," under the name of Evans Wakeman.

Wakeman is survived by his wife, He Lea Wakeman, of Lake Oswego, Ore.; three children, Frederic Wakeman III of London, England, Matthew Wakeman of Kensington, Calif., and Sarah Wakeman of Providence, Rhode Island; two grandchildren; and his sister, Sue Farquhar of Blacksburg, Va.

A memorial service will be held on the UC Berkeley campus in early November.