Maurice Meisner, historian of modern China, dies at 80

Feb. 2, 2012

by Susannah Brooks

Maurice Meisner, Harvey Goldberg Professor Emeritus of History, passed away at home in Madison on Monday, Jan. 23. He was 80.

“Mauri was, for many years, an important cornerstone of our Chinese history program,” says Florencia Mallon, Julieta Kirkwood Professor and chair of the history department. “He will be missed by many colleagues and former students.”

During more than half a century of research, Meisner watched events unfold as he filed them away for future study. An idealist, his central concerns included the “path to utopia”: the tensions between an urge for transformative action and the restraints of history.

His teaching reflected these changing times, covering the reign of Mao Zedong, China’s admission to the United Nations, “ping-pong diplomacy,” the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and China’s rise to industrial might. The field experienced a surge of interest after President Nixon’s visit to China in 1971. Meisner responded by building a major graduate program in Chinese history, emphasizing training in intellectual history.

Living during the era he studied, Meisner often found his work in need of substantial revision. The first edition of his book “Mao’s China” was finished just a few weeks before Mao’s death in 1976, requiring hasty additions to the manuscript. A second edition, published in 1986 as “Mao’s China and After,” corrected errors that came to light thanks to new information from the early years following Mao’s death. The book also analyzed the “unanticipated and far-reaching changes” that took place with the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But Meisner readily admitted that his revised conclusions had proven erroneous, and set out to refocus his work yet again. A third edition, published in 1999, explored the origins and social consequences of Chinese capitalism. In order to carve out space for 15 more years of critique, Meisner had to completely reshape his existing prose.

Born in Detroit on Nov. 17, 1931, Meisner received his MA and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. After two years at what is now Wayne State University, he had been admitted directly to his graduate program, allowed to bypass his bachelor’s degree by examination. He came to UW-Madison as associate professor in 1968, after various fellowships at Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley and other institutions.

In 2009, more than a dozen of Meisner’s former students honored his fifty years of scholarship with a major international conference. Last June, three of these students gathered at Meisner’s home to present him with the newly published book that came out of the conference. Catherine Lynch, Robert Marks and Paul Pickowicz, all established professors, created “Radicalism, Revolution, and Reform in Modern China: Essays in Honor of Maurice Meisner.”

Meisner’s title of Harvey Goldberg Professor, received in 1992, honored Meisner’s distinguished career with a professorship named for his own colleague and friend. Just as Goldberg’s famous “Contemporary Societies” course integrated historical and contemporary concerns, Meisner remained a vocal commenter on public affairs throughout his career, with editorials appearing in major newspapers across the country.

Edward Friedman, professor of political science, studied the same events from a different perspective.

“He was not merely a historian; he was a stylist,” says Friedman. “One of the reasons his work had impacts far and near, in China as well as in America, was because he wrote prose as if it were poetry. He did not write like an academic. I envied him his extraordinary power for clear and vivid expression.”

Friedman and Meisner’s equally passionate views led to many disagreements, some extending past campus boundaries. Still, Friedman never stopped respecting Meisner’s intellect.

“He was always interested both in what would make for a just society and what blocked people from achieving a just society,” says Friedman. “To some, this critical approach made his work on 20th century China seem too kind to the Mao era and too mean-spirited to the Deng era. To others, it made him seem wise – both on the sources of human hope and on a course which could lead to no good end.”

Meisner is survived by his spouse, Lynn Lubkeman, and four children: daughter Anne and sons William, Jeffrey and Matthew.

A memorial gathering took place on Sunday, Jan. 29.

Memorials may be made to Second Harvest Foodbank, 2802 Dairy Drive, Madison, 53718; or the Goodman Community Center Food Pantry, 149 Waubesa St., Madison, 53704.