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Society & Culture

In Commemoration of Ezra Vogel

Apr 23, 2021
  • Mark Elliott

    Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History, and Vice Provost for International Affairs, Harvard University

Thanks to the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and the Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding at Peking University for organizing tonight's, or this morning's, or – if you're in Berkeley – this afternoon's event. It's an honor to be here today, and I want especially to thank Dean Yuan for her heartfelt remarks about our colleague. I think you have certainly known Ezra longer that I did, and your story reminded me of something I think I will miss maybe more than anything else about Ezra, which is his warm smile. He always smiled right from the heart; you could see it in his eyes and I see it still. So thank you for that reminiscence. 

One of the great stories of Harvard's international engagement in the 20th century was the dramatic expansion of the university's activities relating to East Asia, which firmly established Harvard as the premier institution in North America for scholarship in this area. It is hard to exaggerate the role played by Ezra Vogel in this important chapter of Harvard's growth. He was a leader of various academic centers, including the Center for East Asia Research, which later became the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. As the leader of the Program on US-Japan Relations and later the Harvard Asia center, of which he was the founding director, he shaped the direction of Harvard's research on East Asia and ensured that it was firmly grounded in real world affairs. His own work as a scholar share this same practical quality, as did his many contributions as a public intellectual, and his generous mentorship of generations of students and scholars. One of my very first teachers of Chinese studies when I was an undergraduate was herself a student of Ezra, so I kind of think of myself as one of Ezra's grand students. 

One might think of Ezra as a mover and a shaker, and certainly his influence extends very far and very wide across the public sphere, academic circles, and widely in society. But I expect that Ezra himself would most want to be remembered not as a mover or a shaker, but as a builder; a builder of ties between people across Harvard, between Harvard and other universities like Peking University; a builder of connections between the university and the public sector, particularly government, and a builder of bridges between peoples. He was as selfless in these efforts as he was tireless. Harvard mourns his passing, and will miss his experience and guidance, especially in the time of major global challenges. I can say that as Harvard's senior international officer, I often turned to Ezra for advice and guidance in my thinking about what lay in the best interests of the university specifically at Harvard, and broadly higher education in the United States. I will miss his wise counsel. 

Ezra was famous for his work ethic, something we all admired about him. I came to Harvard for the first time twenty years ago, at which point Ezra had already retired. But his retirement was a retirement in the name only. You could not tell the difference between when he was still in regular employment and in his emeritus status. He never ever slowed down. He never showed any signs of wanting to stop the work that he was doing: so passionate was he, so engaged was he in that work, and so convinced was he, correctly, I think, of the importance of that work. It was already impressive when at the age of 80, he published his famous biography of Deng Xiaoping. It would have been enough for many people, but not for Ezra. He went on to publish another enormous book, a survey of relations between China and Japan just a few years ago. And as many of us know, he was still working on other projects when he passed away. Normally we don't say that at the age of 90, somebody was taken from us too soon, but in Ezra's case, it is all too soon. He had much more still to give. I find it hard personally. I find it hard to believe he's gone and I keep looking for an email in my inbox, because he would write to me as he would write to all of us on a regular basis. We could always count on hearing from him, and I keep thinking there's an email for me, and it's going to show up any time. Ezra was so generous, generous in his encouragement and his praise of people. He always made you look better than you looked, look smarter than you were. He always shows genuine interest in your work, and especially in younger colleagues. He gave tremendous encouragement and support and gave you the confidence you needed to believe you could do what you had been asked to do. He never lost that genuine quality. 

I want to say lastly that we will long remember his many accomplishments and many contributions. We would not be able to do the work we are doing today if not for the groundwork that he had laid in so many areas. We know, looking ahead at the future, that we have a lot of work to do in the area of US-China relations. Nevertheless, let's all take Ezra's inspiration as a guide for the work that lies ahead, and do what we can to realize the dream. Thank you again. 

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