Merle Goldman and husband Marshall
Merle Goldman and her husband Marshall

Remembering Merle Goldman: Giant Among Scholars, Lifelong Friend of the Fairbank Center

Merle Goldman, a huge figure in the field of contemporary Chinese intellectual history who for decades was a central figure at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, died on November 16 at the age of 92.

Merle specialized in the work of writers and dissidents confronting the government, and many of China’s leading independent thinkers routinely made their way to her office at the Fairbank Center for discussions about the country’s future. Merle was also a tenured full professor in Chinese history at Boston University, where she taught from 1972 to 2001.

From Left: political scientist Su Shaozhi, investigative journalist Liu Binyan (standing), political theorist Wang Ruoshui, Merle Goldman, and former student leader Wang Dan

To the Fairbank Center community, Merle was much more than a world-renowned scholar. With her open and welcoming personality, she was a magnet over the years for countless visitors to the Center. 

From 1970 to 2014, when she kept an office at the Fairbank Center, Merle helped inspire an impressive community of scholars and colleagues to join together for lively lunchtime discussions about China, Japan, and the world. Once a month, through the generosity of Merle and her husband Marshall, the New England China Seminar would gather visitors from throughout the six-state region and beyond for dinner at the Center, accompanied by before- and after-dinner talks about China.  

Merle, standing second from right, with Fairbank Center professors and scholars. Ezra Vogel, standing, is second from left; Rod MacFarquhar is seated on far right, with Philip Kuhn to his left. (Co-author Nancy Hearst in standing on the far right.)

Professor Bill Kirby aptly remembers Merle as “the organizational energy in the Fairbank Center and our chief mobilizer of talks and seminars.” He adds, “She was the most generous of people, much admired and much loved here and abroad.”  

We recall countless evenings at Merle and Marshall’s Charles Hotel condo when they would host scholars and friends passing through the area for an evening of take-out Chinese food, a refrigerator full of Honest Tea, the requisite Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and the chance to catch up with old friends. The highlight was listening to Merle’s recollections as a student of John K. Fairbank—and the sound of Merle’s knife tapping on the side of a glass: “Let’s have one conversation here,” Merle would say, as voices fell silent and Merle would call on one person to speak.

We also remember the 1990 joint 60-year birthday party for Merle and Ezra Vogel and Rod MacFarquhar, all the same age, in the cafeteria of the old Coolidge Hall. Sadly, none of them are any longer with us.

Merle’s scholarship on intellectuals in China was unmatched. Her research focused on the relationship between China’s intellectuals and the authoritarian regime of the Chinese Communist Party. Her 1967 book, Literary Dissent in Communist China, highlighted the repression of intellectuals even as many other academics were glorifying China’s attempt to reinvent society. Her other publications include: China’s Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent (1981), Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China; Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Decade; (1994), and From Comrade to Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in Communist China (2005). In 1998, she co-authored the enlarged edition of China: A New History with her predeceased mentor, John K. Fairbank.

Merle was also a pathbreaker for women scholars, as she entered the China field at a time when few women pursued PhD degrees or academic careers.  Professor Liz Perry, a longtime colleague, recalls a story Merle shared about her very first invitation to an academic conference, which she received shortly after having completed her PhD. “Excited as she was by the opportunity, she had no choice but to decline the invitation as the date of the conference was also the due date for the baby she was then carrying,” Perry writes. “When Merle sent her regrets, explaining that she was scheduled to give birth at the time of the conference, she received a curt reply from the conference organizer: ‘Dr. Goldman, it is your wife, not you, who will be giving birth. Come to the conference!’ Not having actually met Merle, the senior male conference organizer simply could not imagine that the newly minted PhD (with a gender-neutral name) whom John Fairbank had warmly recommended might be a woman.”

The Fairbank Center would not be what it is today without Merle’s endless and enthusiastic support and generosity. She played an essential role in creating the community, and she is already sorely missed. 

Perhaps something noted by her children on numerous occasions best sums up how Merle felt about the Center. Of course she loved her family, they would say, but she really loved her colleagues at the Fairbank Center. 

And we loved her, too.

Click here for the Washington Post obit: