Publication Date

December 29, 2021

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


  • Asia


Asian American and Pacific Islander, Cultural, Political

James A. Gao

James Z. Gao, professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Maryland, College Park, died on October 26, 2021, at the age of 73. The cause was cancer.

Gao was born and raised in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province in southeast China. In 1983, he earned a master’s degree in political science from Peking University and taught at that university as an assistant professor until 1986. He then attended Yale University, where he received his PhD in 1994. From 1992 to 1998, he was an associate professor of history at Christopher Newport University, before he joined the history department at the University of Maryland, College Park. Since 1999, he was also a regular summer visiting research fellow at the Institute for Contemporary Chinese Studies at Peking University.

A founding member of the Chinese Historians in the United States (CHUS), Gao served as the organization’s first president in 1987–88. As he explained in his 2008 essay “From Margin to Cutting Edge: The Search for a Paradigm in Chinese Historical Studies” in the Chinese Historical Review, CHUS brings together historians who came of age and attended university in China before migrating to the United States for graduate training and employment. The essay was both a call for scholarly innovation and an account of his generation of Chinese historians’ situation at the early phases of their academic careers.

Gao’s scholarship was part of a creative and bold result of this challenging cross-fertilization of cultures, begun in an era of relative openness in China. His published works include Meeting Technology’s Advance: Social Change in China and Zimbabwe in the Railway Age (Greenwood Press, 1997) and The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou: The Transformation of City and Cadre, 1949–1954 (Univ. of Hawai‘i Press, 2004), a remarkable history of his hometown. This book drew on research in the city archives, those of the Communist Party, press accounts, and oral interviews. The result was one of the first archivally based accounts of the Communist seizure of power in a Chinese city in those years. Gao depicted a cultural clash between peasant-based Communist revolutionaries and an urban professional and intellectual middle class. Messages from Mao Zedong encouraged a “cautious realism of the early 1950s,” as well as calls for radicalism and transformation. Gao saw in the latter some roots of the Communists’ “utopian fanaticism in the later years.” The cultural politics and psychological attacks on “class enemies” in those early years foreshadowed the much harsher confrontations of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou, alongside Gao’s published articles, displayed a welcome integration of social with cultural, political, and intellectual history. It remains a work of enduring importance for historians not only of China but of revolutions in general.

Gao also wrote the 700 entries in the Historical Dictionary of Modern China (1800–1949) (Scarecrow Press, 2009). His manuscript Shanghai Market: Rice Consumers, Merchants, and the State, 1955–1964 was completed and under publisher review at the time of his death. In addition, his 15 scholarly articles examined issues including food rationing, photography of Chinese disasters, famine in the 1950s, consumerism, the history of rice in Shanghai, war and nationalism during the Korean War years, and rural revolutionaries in the cities.

Though his work will endure, his death is a great loss for the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, and for the historical discipline in general. Students recall a teacher who was both demanding and supportive. Colleagues recall his great warmth, intellectual engagement, integrity, and courage. His scholarship displayed a creativity, boldness, and importance that, as was the case with previous intellectual migrations to the United States, greatly enriched the American historical profession.

Gao is survived by his wife, Laura Liu, of Olney, Maryland, and his son, Weijing Gao, of New York City.

Jeffrey Herf
University of Maryland, College Park

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