Ezra F. Vogel (1930-2020), Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences, Emeritus, at Harvard University, passed away on Sunday, December 20, 2020 at Mt Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA, at the age of 90, due to complications from surgery. Below, colleagues and friends pay tribute to Professor Vogel’s extraordinary life and career.
Jerome A. Cohen
Two reliable sources have just told me the sad, shocking news that my old friend and dear former colleague Ezra passed away yesterday after surgery in Cambridge. No details have been provided, but this surely was not long foreseen. We were supposed to join forces in a January 21 program for the National Committee on US-China Relations. Ezra, as many know from personal experience, was not only a wonderful scholar of East Asian studies but also a marvelous mentor and friend to generations of Harvard students and others, as well as an important public intellectual. So many will miss his warmth, humor and generosity.
I never had the benefit of a Harvard East Asia education and only met Ezra in August 1963 when I was starting a research year in Hong Kong en route to teaching at Harvard. John Fairbank put us in touch since he had just dispatched Ezra to Hong Kong for a similar year. Ezra got there a bit earlier than I and was kind enough to solve my housing problem by telling me there was an apartment available across the street from his own on Marigold Road in Kowloon. Our families spent a friendly year together while Ezra and I interviewed refugees for our respective books. Ezra’s older son David and our eldest Peter still are friends in Cambridge.
Trying to muster humor on this grim day, I recall the time Ezra asked me to give a lecture on law to his class on Chinese society in William James Hall. Since I lived nearby and always had my charming dog Simhala walk me to the law school every day, I made the mistake of bringing him with me that morning, tying him up outside the building. As I started to hold forth to about 80 students in the auditorium, I spotted Simhala coming down the center aisle like a late student. He promptly ascended the stage to the evident amusement of the students and started pacing back and forth across the stage. I utterly failed to capture the students’ attention and watched in frustration as their eyes shifted from left to right with Simhala’s movements. Ezra was seated in the first row, observing the spectacle with his usual bemused tolerance. Neither of us knew what to do. At that moment, however, Simhala, who must have been listening to the lecture, fell asleep, like some of the students, and the crisis was resolved! Ezra was too kind to ever mention the incident again. He will be greatly missed.
William P. Alford
I would like to add my deepest admiration for and immense gratitude to Ezra.
He was an extraordinarily generous and caring person, and it is hard to imagine this university without him. Whether younger colleague or student or visitor, he always found time and had genuine interest and astute advice for others. Although methodologies or even views on China may have differed, he was unfailingly thoughtful and engaging.
I especially adored his genuine humility and self-deprecating humor. As I wrote earlier to Charlotte, I am reminded of the time many years ago (25 or more) when Ezra introduced a talk by Liu Binyan by saying something to the effect that the world described them each as journalists, meaning it as praise for Liu but the opposite for himself. I thought and think it said so much for him that he could poke fun at himself that way.
I am so appreciative of the many conversations we had and how much he cared for the students we shared. He was a person of great wisdom and humaneness – and I count myself as privileged to have know him.
Joseph W. Esherick
In the early 1970s, I was a young assistant professor at the University of Oregon and an active member of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. CCAS was a broad coalition of Asian scholars, brought together by our opposition to the War in Vietnam and opposed to American imperialism abroad and the Western scholarship that seemed to normalize it. In the China field, this brought us into conflict with the most important funding source for grants and conferences, the Joint Committee on Contemporary China (JCCC) of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. In the eyes of many CCAS activists, the JCCC was the enemy, funding the senior scholars and conservative scholarship that we opposed, and CCAS advocated a boycott of the JCCC. In 1973, Ez Vogel promoted an informal meeting in New York to open dialogue between older and younger scholars, and between those with different views on the future direction of the field. He invited my future colleague at UCSD, Paul Pickowicz, and me to meet in New York with members of the JCCC.
I still have a thick file of correspondence as Paul and I debated whether or not to attend the meeting, which would become the first time that I met Ezra Vogel. In New York, I witnessed Ezra’s lifelong commitment to bringing together scholars with divergent views to address problems of common interest. I have little recollection of the meeting itself, but it seems to have resolved some of the issues behind the boycott and reduced the temperature of the dispute. Ez was certainly instrumental in making a young scholar like me comfortable among the elders of the field.
The same commitment to fostering dialogue lay behind his long effort to bring Chinese, Japanese, American and other scholars together to discuss the Sino-Japanese War. As one of the few academics who read and spoke both Chinese and Japanese and had written important books on both counties, Vogel sought to promote dialogue on the most contentious issue between China and Japan. At the time, narrow nationalism was rising in both countries, with Japanese ministers visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and China building a vast memorial to the victims of the Nanjing Massacre. But Ez fought mightily for dispassionate debate among scholars, even hoping that some consensus might be reached.
As one who was marginally involved in both of these efforts, I recall them as examples of the sort of contribution that made Ezra such an important humane force in the field. He believed in bringing people together and relished the dialogue of divergent views. Especially in the case of the Sino-Japanese War, the effort seemed utterly futile, Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Given the intensity of sentiment on both sides and the state support for irreconcilable textbook histories, there was no hope for a common understanding of that brutal conflict. But to me, Vogel’s enterprise was more like Camus’ Sisyphus: accepting the likely futility of the exercise, but nonetheless finding meaning in the effort.
There was one more important aspect to Ezra’s personal contribution to the Asian Studies field. His own scholarship made clear analytical arguments, many of which had important and provocative implications. Japan as Number One argued that the United States could learn from Japanese industrial policy; One Step Ahead in China explored the emergence of a new market economy in southern China after Mao; and Deng Xiaoping presented the argument that Deng was as important as Mao Zedong in shaping contemporary China. Each of these were influential but also enormously controversial books. The Deng Xiaoping biography was sharply criticized for glossing over the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
As a scholar, I might agree with many of these criticisms. But a Chinese colleague recently send me a comment from an interview of Vogel that has been widely circulated and favorably received in the PRC. “As I write, I want to be correct, but not use words that will cause trouble. There are many ways to be correct; there is an art in this. Obviously, I do not want to mislead people, but I also don’t want to antagonize people.” [Chinese, as sent to me: 我在写作的时候要考虑的是，不希望在措辞上惹麻烦，但是又要正确。你知道，正确的写法可以有好多种。这里面是有技巧的。当然，我并不是想骗人，但我不想激怒什么人，所以用的词要合适、正确，又不让人反感] It seems to me that this same attitude informed both his scholarship and his interactions with others. It was important to express clear convictions in a way that would promote dialogue and not arouse antagonism.
In recent years, when I have visited Cambridge, I have always found an opportunity to visit Ezra at his home on Sumner Street. The visits have usually been extemporaneous, proceed by a phone call, which he personally picked up. Sometimes Charlotte (who was my classmate at Harvard-Radcliffe in the 1960s) would join us. Our conversations would range across the full breadth of modern East Asian history and politics, though he was always as interested in hearing what I was doing as in discussing his own work. In those talks I gained some appreciation of both the breadth of Ezra’s knowledge and the ease with which he conversed about complex problems that so often provoke sharp disputes. With Ezra, the point was always to explore different views, perhaps to debate, but above all to relish the diversity of the human condition and our multiple interpretations of it. The same spirit obviously infected his endless welcoming of visiting scholars and students from around the world. It is only to be hoped that somewhere, somehow, that same spirit will live on in Cambridge and around the globe.
David M. Lampton
Ezra Vogel was a wonderful person, generous of spirit and full of empathy. As I was launching my dissertation in the early 1970s at Stanford, Ezra, to whom John Lewis introduced me by letter, offered to open his interview files on health care to me. In so doing, he expressed a collegiality and generosity that were his character and legacy—he did not know me at all. He changed my life and my research modus operandi. I will always be grateful. Later in life, among many other contributions, Ezra was a stalwart in working with young scholars through the National Committee as they entered the field and tried to have impact in the public square. It goes without saying that his towering written contributions shaped several generations of scholarship and public life.
Liu He 刘鹤
I am very sorry to learn the news of Professor Vogel’s passing. Please accept my heartfelt condolences.
Professor Vogel is a good friend of China. His contribution to the friendship between China and the United States is highly recognized. His book on Deng Xiaoping has left a deep impression on me.
惊闻傅高义教授千12 月20 日，以90 岁的高龄在医院辞世。 美国失去了一位学识渊博，致力千东亚文化研究的著名学者。您 及您的家庭也失去了一位最至爱的亲人。在此，请允许我致以深 切的哀悼之情。
我和傅高义先生曾有多次接触、面谈，最后一次，即是在今 年中国疫情发生的前夜。每次接触，他都以一位和蔼可亲的长者 与我和周围的朋友妮妮交谈，不知老之将至地做采访、笔录工作。 其谦逊客观的美德，在我脑海中始终挥之不去。在他专业的学术 生涯中，他写出了一系列涉及日本和中国的煌煌著作，他呼吁中 美、中日两国人民增进了解，和平相处。他写的《邓小平时代》 更倾注了他关心中国，希望中国和平发展的拳拳心愿。正如傅高 义先生之子斯蒂芬·沃格尔所言：“尽管他认识到许多人都缺乏 理想，但他还是会洞察每个人和每个国家的优点，这是他自己无 法抑制的一种能力。”说的真好啊！
我知道，傅高义先生最后想要写的一本著作，就是要写我的 父亲胡耀邦。这是他观察中国改革开放史的一个独特视角。为此， 他不顾自己年事已高，还去了我的老家浏阳和我父亲的墓地做调 查采访，并动笔写下了这本著作的第一章节，在此，我深表感谢。
中国人民失去了一位关心中国改革开放事业的文化使者，表 达心中悲痛的人，并不只是我一个中国人。 愿夫人和您全家节哀保重！在圣诞之夜，送傅高义先生远行！ 专此布达。
Professor Vogel was one of the most important and significant scholars on East Asia studies of his generation. Academic people in the field of China Studies and East Asia studies all over the world have benefitted much from his stimulating ideas and important researches on East Asia.
Professor Vogel was an old friend of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS). His friendship with SASS dates back to the 1980s, when he visited the then SASS President Prof. ZHANG Zhongli. Since then, SASS scholars had the opportunities for numerous stimulating conversations with Prof. Vogel in many occasions, which significantly broadened our academic insights. In 2013, on the Fifth World Forum on China Studies held by SASS, he was awarded for his pioneering work in China Studies and immense contribution to China-US relationship. He made a lasting impression on all of us for his warmth, generosity and wit.
America and the world have lost one of its finest intellects. His passing away is mourned by Chinese social scientists. I, together with all my colleagues in SASS who honored academic guidance from Professor Vogel, would like to extend our deepest condolences from Shanghai to his family, friends, and loved ones. May he rest in peace.
Ni Feng 倪峰
We were shocked and terribly saddened to learn about the passing of Professor Ezra Vogel. Professor Vogel was an outstanding and prolific scholar on China, and he was an old friend of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and of the American Studies circle in China. Through his tireless efforts, Professor Vogel made significant contributions to better mutual understanding between Chinese and American scholars and to the development of China-U.S. relations. We in China will remember him forever. He will be truly missed. Please be sure to extend our sincere condolences to Professor Vogel’s family. Professor Vogel will be with us forever. May he rest in peace.
惊悉傅高义教授去世，我们深感悲痛。傅高义教授是杰出的美国 中国研究专家，著作等身。他是社科院美国所和中国关国研究界的老 朋友，他为增进中美两国学者间的相互了解，为中美关系的发展做出 了不懈的努力和杰出贡献，我们将铭记。 谨以此向傅高义教授的去逝表示哀悼！并向傅教授的家入表示慰 间！ 傅高义教授千古！
尊敬的哈佛大学费正清中国研究中心： 惊悉傅高义教授去世，我们深感悲痛。傅高义教授是杰出的美国 著名中国问题专家，著作等身。他是当代中国研究所的老朋友，为增 进中美两国学者间的相互了解，为中美关系的发展做出了不懈努力和 杰出贡献，我们将永远铭记。 谨以此向傅高义教授的逝世表示深切哀悼！并向傅教授的家人表 示诚挚慰问！ 傅高义教授于古！
Professor Ezra Vogel, a scholastic giant in the study of East Asia, was an inspiration to so many around the world. He had profound influence in academia and beyond. Here I share a couple of small gestures, which served as great encouragement to me as a young political scientist studying China’s post-Deng globalization. Shortly after my first book was published, in early 2012, I boldly gifted Professor Vogel a signed copy when he visited Philadelphia to give a talk on his new book on Deng Xiaoping. I didn’t expect him to read in it right away, but he did, on his way back to Cambridge. He wrote that he liked my book and found my research design and sectoral focus informative. Later, in the fall of 2015, Professor Vogel wrote with regrets that he would miss my talk at Harvard comparing China and Russia because he would be away on a trip to Asia. I will remember him fondly as a first-rate scholar, who was always learning and always taking the time to show support to the next generation.
Even though I only met Professor Vogel in the past several years, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from him and his example. One of the interactions that left the deepest impression on me was in the fall of 2018. I attended a talk by Meg Rithmire that Professor Vogel chaired. After it was over, everyone had left the room except for a few of us post-docs and graduate students lingering around the remaining free food. Professor Vogel circled the room introducing himself, saying “Hi, I’m Ezra Vogel. What are you studying?” We all knew who he was, of course! He was genuinely interested in and paid attention to every person, no matter how junior.
At Professor Vogel’s Wednesday lecture series, I was amazed every time at how he brought out the best in the speakers’ work – and in the speakers themselves – with his candid but caring commentary and questions at the end of their presentations. It was incredible that he continued to run the series, and to participate so actively in so many events on campus, especially given the many other demands on his time and energy.
At the end of my post-doc Professor Vogel kindly agreed to serve as a discussant for a quite rough manuscript about China-Japan exchanges during the 1980s. He combined some deservedly critical remarks with entirely undeserved generosity, hosting me for tea at his house before the paper workshop, sharing chapters from his then unpublished book on China-Japan relations, and emailing a contact in Japan on my behalf before I visited there for the first time the following month. I began studying Japanese at Indiana and plan to spend a semester in Tokyo next year to continue that project, thanks in large part to his example and encouragement at the very beginning.
My relationship with Ezra began soon after my arrival at Harvard in the Regional Studies-East Asia Masters program in the fall of 1973. Milton Yinger, a professor at Oberlin (where I had just spent a year after 2 years teaching in Taiwan as an Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association representative) who taught a course I took on “Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Asia and Africa” had told him to check me out. Before Oberlin, Yinger had taught at Ohio Wesleyan University in Ezra’s hometown of Delaware, Ohio, and, I forget how, he had known Ezra as a high schooler and recruited him to that school. They maintained a close relationship though Ezra stayed at Ohio Wesleyan. Maybe the fact that we were two Jewish boys from Ohio had something to do with it.
Ezra immediately invited me to join a study group of Sociology PhD students working on Asia. That was the first of many turning points in my life that he engineered. The core of the group comprised, in alphabetical order, Debbie Davis (whom I had met in Taiwan and was at Boston University), Dick Madsen, Bob Snow and Merry “Corky” White. We met pretty much weekly over lunch. The first year we read Chinese stories (in English) for what they revealed about Chinese society – a fundamental China watching skill. The second year we interviewed Overseas Chinese who had gone back to visit family. It must have been around 1977 that Ezra asked the group if we would give him feedback on a manuscript he was working on about Japan. We read it and said that it was so uncritical about Japan that no one would believe it. Of course, this became Japan as Number One, a book that catapulted him into a different level of fame and fortune.
In spring of 1974 Ezra asked if I was interested in going into the PhD program in Sociology. I had intended to go for the History and East Asian Languages program. Other than Yinger’s upper division seminar I had never taken a Soc class. I told Ezra that whenever I considered taking one, my friends had said, “Sociology is bullshit. It’s just fancy words for things everybody knows; don’t waste your time” and I was too intimidated to sign up. With patience and sagacity, Ezra deferred to my opinion. He added that he thought my personality was more suited to Sociology and that I would pick it up quickly. The second year I had some unpleasant experiences with (unnamed) History faculty and realized that I really liked and preferred the Soc students as people and intellectuals, and how lucky was I to have Vogel recruit me, so I asked if the offer was still open. He readily agreed and through some magic I didn’t have to retake the GRE and successfully applied to the Soc program.
The spring of 1974 saw another Vogel engineering feat: he called me in the dorm one night and said “your Chinese is pretty good, isn’t it?” “Well, not bad.” “And you studied martial arts, didn’t you?” “ Yeah, well…” “How would you like to work as an interpreter for a Chinese wushu delegation coming to the U.S. this summer?” My knees buckled. I had been in Taiwan when the Ping-Pong and Acrobat groups had been in the U.S. so missed any chance to work with them, though my Chinese was nowhere near as good as those of the people they got. So I had a second chance to work with “real” Chinese. What’s more, he also managed to get me a job with the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the PRC, helping to plan and escort a trip for Chinese agronomists that same summer. So this began my long relationship with the National Committee on U.S.-China relations – and Jan Berris – that hosted wushu.
When it came time to develop my dissertation prospectus, I had planned to do something on the sociology of exchanges with China. But that coincided with a downturn in U.S.-China relations and Ezra said, “you’re interested in development and dependency theory, and all the literature is about Latin America; nothing on Asia. You know Taiwan well, have lots of friends, why don’t you do your dissertation on Taiwan?” So I did, which proved to be another turning point.
I returned to Harvard in 1978 planning to write the dissertation and teach both in Sociology and East Asian Studies. Then the chance to apply for the first group of students to study in China came up. I told Ezra I was too old (30) to get it but he said no, they were looking for “older, more mature” students so I would be a strong candidate. I was indeed selected and put everything else aside to spend a year in Shanghai at Fudan University, starting in February 1979. That year coincided with a remarkable opening and transformation of the country.
In December 1979, Ezra and Charlotte, newly married, escorted a Pan Am tour group to China. I invited them to a New Years Eve party at the home of Chinese friends. It was an unforgettably warm and riotous evening.
There was one example of not quite accurate advice. In January of 1981 I escorted a group from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, starting with a conference in Wiiliamsburg. At the conference, Mike Oksenberg asked me if I was applying for “the Berkeley job.” I had no idea about that and asked Ezra, who was also there. He said that Berkeley Sociology was recruiting a junior position for someone to do China, but that they wanted someone more senior, like Dick or Debbie, and I was just writing my dissertation. The group actually went to Berkeley and when they were resting after lunch, I went to the Department and asked the Administrative Assistant about the job. She urged me to apply. I reported back to Ezra who, of course, supported the application, even if he thought I was underqualified. The rest is history.
I won’t go on about my personal relationship, but want to highlight some aspects of Ezra that have shaped my professional thinking and practice, though certainly at a much lower level than my mentor.
First was his joy of engaging with students. His informality and lack of pretension were striking, though I needed a push from his loyal assistant, Anna Laura, to call him “Ezra.” Our lunch group was both personally and intellectually stimulating. It evolved into a foodie group. Corky was doing a sideline gig as a chef and we began to hold more and more elaborate Chinese New Years banquets with everyone chipping in their favorite dish. Ezra held a graduate seminar in the attic of his house and, with a giant jar of instant coffee nearby, would sit on the floor as he ran the class. He was also committed to building a community of his students. I was very lucky to be in Cambridge with this very special group and we remain close well over four decades later. Related to this was his generous support of all kinds, in particular, sharing his guanxi with people who would be helpful in research and career development.
Second was his joy of engaging more broadly, with a wide range of people and opinions. I guess he was suited for a job in Intelligence as he truly valued listening to diverse opinions from different points of view. Our China group with his Japan students organized a celebration of his 70th birthday and retirement with an event that drew people from all walks of life, a testament to the breadth of his influence.
Third would be his insistence on deep immersion in all aspects of the society one studied. Above all else was language. His ability to juggle Japanese and Chinese and continue to be tutored in both up to the end was astounding. He gave academic lectures in both languages. Mastery of language was an important step towards fieldwork, and he insisted that his students do intensive fieldwork in the societies we studied. Of course, with limited access to China many people such as he himself worked in Hong Kong, but even then, as he did in the 1960s, it was critical to have language competence, as well as knowledge of history, politics and culture.
Fourth, related to that was his reminder that we are dealing with real people and should meet them in their own culture. I organized a panel in his honor at an AAS annual meeting, probably in 2000 when he turned 70, that I called “Don’t Forget There Are People Out There.’” I saw it as a reminder that while we’re collecting “data” through interviews and participant observation, never to forget that these are real people and not just a more robust “N.” He was also frankly discouraged that so much of current research on China by grad students was based on formulating and testing a model rather than a deep dive into unraveling a puzzle or asking profound questions.
Fifth was his work ethic. I can’t imagine how he managed to write so much on so many topics while also keeping up a grinding schedule of talks, seminars and travel. When I stayed at his house in March 2019 he excused himself and said he had to finish going over the edits for his China-Japan book. He had already told me of his several future projects.
Sixth would be his concern with the future. This meant not only the societies he studied and their interactions (e.g., his last book on China and Japan), but also the training and cultivation of the next generation of area specialists. His enthusiastic engagement with the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program was proof of that. One reason he retired at the tender age of 70, he said, was to make way for the next generation and not block its advancement. Only a few weeks before his death he sent many of us drafts of a paper he was writing with Graham Allison for the incoming Biden administration with suggestions on relations with China, an issue that concerned him greatly. His work at building institutions at Harvard to support Asian Studies is another testament to his focus on the future.
Finally would be his boundless curiosity. That underlay all of the other traits just mentioned. The conversation with him never flagged. He was always looking for new ideas, new information, new questions and ways of seeing. A nonagenarian with the curiosity of someone a fraction of his age – how often do you come across that?
In the Media
Ezra Vogel, leading expert on East Asia, dead at 90, The Harvard Gazette, James Evans, 01/05/2021
A son of the West whose passion pointed East, China Daily, Zhao Xu
«Hommage à Ezra Vogel, le grand spécialiste du Japon et de la Chine», Le Figaro, Philippe Le Corre, 01/05/2021
哈佛费正清研究中心主任撰文追忆傅高义：去世前心系中美关系, 澎湃/The Paper, 彭珊珊, 12/22/2020
忆傅高义：美国著名的“中国先生”走了, 人民日报/People’s Daily, 李晓宏, 12/22/2020