Jonathan Mirsky, RIP

Journalist and China scholar Jonathan Mirsky died this week at the age of 88. Britain’s Guardian has just posted Jonathan Steele’s fantastic obituary with many links recounting his career, mostly in British journalism.

Jonathan taught Chinese and Chinese history at Dartmouth when I was an undergraduate. I got to know Jonathan (as we all called him) as the center of the antiwar movement on campus. He must have spoken at every one of the many antiwar events I attended between 1969 and 1973. In retrospect, I think he was wrong about the war, but he was a warm and knowledgeable teacher who was willing to engage anyone who sought him out.

At the time Jonathan was a fan of Mao’s China. After a comically failed effort to enter China in 1969, he finally made his way in for six weeks as part of a group of young China scholars in April 1972. He returned to campus with a number of authentic Mao jackets that he wore around town along with his corduroy trousers that fall. It was a fashion statement that advertised his reverent attitude to the Chinese authorities.

When Jonathan failed to received tenure at Dartmouth he went to work as a journalist in London. He used his expertise to cover China as the Observer’s China specialist and as East Asia editor of the Times. Covering China, he changed his mind about the virtues of the Communist regime. He become a formidably learned critic of the Chinese Communists’ atrocities and repression. In 1989 he was named International Reporter of the year, an award he won the hard way. He was badly beaten up in Tiananmen Square during the bloodbath that year.

He must have published as many as a hundred essays and reviews on China in the New York Review of Books alone. To get the flavor of these pieces, see his Standpoint essays “The long shadow of Tiananmen” (June 2009) and “Still haunted by the ghost of Mao” (July/August 2011). Jonathan subsequently filed a report on the NYRB blog proudly proclaiming that he had been “Banned in China” (“friends and colleagues are telling me what an honor it is to have one’s writing banned in the People’s Republic”).

A while back I noted Jonathan’s essay on Liu Xiabo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, in the New York Times Book Review and proposed a fitting headline for it: “Thomas Friedman, you pitiful fool.” In 2012 Jonathan had another excellent piece in the Times Book Review, this one on the Great Famine. Jonathan wrote:

In the summer of 1962, China’s president, Liu Shaoqi, warned Mao Zedong that “history will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be memorialized!” Liu had visited Hunan, his home province as well as Mao’s, where almost a million people died of hunger. Some of the survivors had eaten dead bodies or had killed and eaten their comrades. In “Tombstone,” an eye-­opening study of the worst famine in history, Yang Jisheng concludes that 36 million Chinese starved to death in the years between 1958 and 1962, while 40 million others failed to be born, which means that “China’s total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.”

Jonathan did not generally use his reviews as a forum for his pronouncements on the subject of the books he reviewed. Rather, he was a close reader who sought to convey the substance of the books. It reflects a quality that made him a generous teacher. Gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

I learned of Jonathan’s death via email from the New York Review of Books yesterday afternoon. In connection with his death NYRB has posted Jonathan’s 1990 review/essay “Lost Horizons” in accessible form. Jonathan’s ChinaFile page compiles many of his NYRB reviews and essays on China in accessible form.

We all know how much our political views are bound up with our sense of ourselves. Change doesn’t come easily. When such change happens to honorable men along the path of their adult lives, it gives their work a special power. This was certainly the case with Jonathan. RIP.

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