Frederic E. Wakeman, Jr., Historian of Late Imperial and Modern China, University of California, Berkeley, 1965-2006  

Frederic E. Wakeman, Jr., Historian of Late Imperial and Modern China, University of California, Berkeley, 1965-2006

Ann Lage
November 2019
Oral History Center

The Oral History Center is pleased to announce the launch of the oral history with noted China historian, Frederic Wakeman.  Conducted over eleven interview sessions in the two years before his death in 2006,  the oral history is part of an ongoing series of interviews with scholars in UC Berkeley’s Department of History.

Fred Wakeman spent his academic career at Berkeley, commencing with graduate studies here in far eastern history under the guidance of Professor Joseph Levenson. Immediately after completing his PhD in 1965, he was appointed assistant professor of history, and he served in the department for forty-one years, until his retirement in 2006.  But despite his fealty to this place, he was very much a citizen of the world throughout his life, as he recounts in his oral history. He vividly describes his peripatetic childhood .as the son of a novelist and screenwriter living in Bermuda, Mexico, Cuba, Spain, France, and the US Midwest, Northeast, and South, and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gene Tunney, a racketeer godfather, and purported spies and con men. As a youth, he mastered several languages, read widely, made himself at ease in many cultures, and developed the fascination with the world of intrigue that suffused much of his scholarly work. He studied European history and literature as an undergraduate at Harvard and Soviet studies and political theory at the Institut d’etudes politiques in Paris. He then wrote a novel and flirted with the idea of joining the CIA,  before settling on pursuing a graduate degree in China studies at Berkeley.

Over his four-decade career, Wakeman wrote groundbreaking histories of late imperial and modern China, meticulously researched, deeply analytical, and written with the graceful narrative style of a master novelist. Strangers at the Gate, his doctoral dissertation, engaged in local history, a new departure in China studies. With History and Will, he examined Mao’s intellectual roots in European and Chinese thinkers. Delving into newly discovered historical archives in China, he pursued his monumental work, twenty years in the making, on the Ming-Qing transition, the two-volume narrative history, The Great Enterprise: the Manchu Reconstruction of the Imperial Order in 17th Century China. Discovery of an incredible source of social and police history in the archives of the Shanghai Municipal Police led to his trilogy of books, Policing Shanghai, Shanghai Badlands, and Red Star over Shanghai. In 2003, he published his fourth book focusing on Shanghai and reflecting his interest in espionage, Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service

On campus Wakeman chaired the Center for Chinese Studies from 1973-1979 and was director of the Institute of East Asian Studies from 1990-2001. He was instrumental in opening scholarly exchanges between the US and China in the 1970s. His oral history describes the excitement of meeting Chinese historians in 1979 and the transformation that ensued in the study of Ming-Qing history when the first group of American scholars was led to the secret and unimaginably vast archive of government documents on the Ming-Qing era: 

It was again one of those occasions where people who we thought were dead or had disappeared, or whatever, suddenly were saying, “I’m Xie Guozhen.” My God! Or, you know, “I’m Wang Qingcheng,” or “I’m . . . Zhaang Zhongli.” You know, very famous people. . . . it was absolutely thrilling. we were all completely atingle with excitement. And the second day there, the person who was assigned to be our, the Chinese call peitong, the person who accompanies you, who was a very, very vigorous, strong intellectual who had made his way through the Cultural Revolution, without—he had been labeled a Number Nine Stinking Intellectual; he’d survived that, and he was a wonderful man who’d been a secretary of Guo Moro, the great Chinese poet and writer and historian. He told me, in confidence, he said, because I was the head of the delegation, he said, “We’re going to take you to see the Ming-Qing archives. I said, “Really!” I was so excited. . . we didn’t know these things had been preserved . . .

Hidden in a compound on the grounds of the Forbidden City,:they are led into vaults,   “You go into these vaults and it’s, ‘My God!’ and it began to dawn upon us. This was—we had our work cut out for us!”

As he notes in the oral history, the study of modern Chinese history was forever altered by the ensuing research in these documents. Wakeman’s The Great Enterprise was based largely on this Forbidden City archive. 

In response to our project’s interest in the history of the Department of History, Wakeman reflected on the department’s all-male cohort hired at Berkeley in the late fifties and early sixties, a variegated group with tolerance for different historical approaches and insistence on rigorous standards for promotion to tenure. He contrasts the camaraderie of this group with the department’s gender and cultural battles in the early and mid-1980s, resulting in sometimes bitter personnel fights. His oral history also traces hiring in the China area, which made the Berkeley department a major US site for training historians of China.

Wakeman vividly describes campus protests of the Vietnam war era and the effect of campus political battles on the history department and the Center for Chinese Studies.

Our final interview took place in April 2006. Fred Wakeman retired in June and was awarded the Berkeley citation, the university’s highest honor. He and his wife, He La Wakeman, moved to their home in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Within just a few months, Fred died of cancer, on September 14, 2006, at age 68. We are grateful to have these recollections of his remarkable career.  Fred Wakeman’s research, writing, and teaching, coupled with his public service on the campus and as chair of the Social Science Research Council and committees to expand scholarly exchanges, had a major impact on China studies at Berkeley, in the US, and internationally.