Prof. Harriet C. Mills (1920-2016)

Ryan Dunch's picture

Dr. Frank Shulman has passed on the sad news that Harriet Mills, Professor Emerita of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, died on March 5 in Mitchelville, Md. She was 95.

An obituary of her was published in the New York Times on March 29, 2016, placing emphasis on her experience of captivity in China between 1951 and 1955, and the question of brain-washing related to her experience.

For a summary of her career and academic contributions, see the short citation from the Regents of the University of Michigan after her retirement in 1990.

Readers who wish to post memories of Prof. Mills are encouraged to do so.

Respectfully submitted,
Ryan Dunch

Harriet Mills was my teacher in 1984-1985 at the University of Michigan. She was very tough, but a wonderful teacher, especially if she thought you were working hard. She had no patience for apparent slackers. She helped me to recognize "Chinese socialist boilerplate" in written materials from the PRC, useful practice for my future reading of Qing documents as a graduate student working with Philip Kuhn (who also passed away earlier this year). I was fortunate to take part in an independent reading class she led for a few students in spring 1985. The topic was late-Qing fiction, and I still remember how delightful it was to discuss some very charming and lively novels with her (孽海花、文明小史、二十年目睹之怪現狀).

When I asked her for a recommendation for graduate school, she said "I don't know you well enough -- why don't you come to my office hours and tell me about yourself." We chatted for about an hour about my hopes and dreams, and I guess she must have written a pretty good letter.... Whenever I visited Ann Arbor after that, we got together to update each other on our lives.

As Ryan Dunch points out, Harriet Mills was most famous for having been imprisoned in China. She talked about that occasionally in class. I remember best when she told us about how being in prison perfected her Chinese. She said she laughed out loud at the response of one of her interrogators to her explanation of why she had visited the US consulate in Beiping so frequently in 1949 (she said it was not because she was reporting on her alleged spying activities, as they inferred, but because she wanted to learn the latest news about the Communist advance). As I recall, she said that the person interrogating her replied:


Formed in two seven-character, almost-parallel phrases, this translates roughly as "Possibly maybe this could conceivably be so, but however I am afraid that it is not necessarily the case."

The image of my teacher sitting in prison laughing at the curious roundabout phrasing chosen by a Chinese police officer was very striking, and I have remembered it these 30+ years.


Harriet Mills was the head instructor in my first-year intensive Chinese course at the University of Michigan in the summer of 1967. She was always very formal, never called me anything but Mr. Ropp, and she had no tolerance for anyone who came to class unprepared. Sometime that summer I heard that she had been in prison in Beijing in the early 1950s, but she never would talk about it. Then, after we had been to Taiwan for year in 1968-69, and while I was studying for my PhD exams, I think it must have been 1971 (unless it was later when I was writing my dissertation in the spring of 1973) she gave a remarkable talk at one of the beer and pretzel nights sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies. She spoke in great detail and with almost shocking candor about her imprisonment and the effect it had on her entire life.

She had grown up in a missionary family, and once she found herself in prison she was pressured to confess that she had been a spy for the US. She was living with Chinese women prisoners who were mostly illiterate, and part of her work was to teach these women to read and write. Her Fulbright colleagues, Allyn and Adele Rickett, were also imprisoned at the same time but they had no contact with each other. She was questioned, sometimes under duress, sleep deprived, and at times with her hands tied behind her back, and made to write out her confession. At first she resisted, but she gradually came to admit that yes, she had hoped the Nationalist armies would prevail, and yes, she had gone to diplomatic parties and receptions and exchanged the latest gossip with other Westerners in attendance. And she had to admit, during her youth she had once remarked that yes, she would like to live in China after she grew up because she liked having her shoes shined. So she gradually started to identify more and more with her captors, and one of the most important factors was her work with the illiterate women she shared the cell with. These women were imprisoned for petty theft, for prostitution, or for having husbands who were Nationalist Party members. Teaching these women basic literacy was very exciting as she saw them slowly transformed from feeling like despairing failures to having a sense of hope that they might contribute to a help build a new society in China.

She said a major turning point came one night when she was sleep deprived and feeling very weak and was told that Allyn Rickett had confessed to being a spy. He had served in the US armed forces (I forget which branch—his story is in Prisoners of Liberation that he wrote with his wife Adele). She said, at that point, her willpower collapsed and she made a false confession. Then she said, astonishing everyone present, “That night I lost my self-respect and I’ve never quite gained it back.” She went on to say, the day her Chinese guards walked by the cells carrying bayonets made in China (to replace the American bayonets they had been carrying), “I felt a great swelling of pride inside me!” She also said the energy her Chinese cellmates poured into the task of learning to read and write made her feel guilty for not having worked as they did in her comfortable youth in China. (That also helped explain her utter impatience with lazy American students!

One day, out of the blue, she was told to gather her belongings, and she was taken to stand before a judge. For all she knew she was about to be sentenced to death. The judge proceeded to say she had been a reasonably good prisoner, and had confessed to her wrongdoing, even though she may have understated some things. He then said she was sentenced to five (or four, whichever it was) years in prison which she had already served, so she was now free to leave China by train to Hong Kong. She said her first thought was to say “No, I want to stay in China and help build the new society.” But she quickly realized if she did that she would never see her family again, so she agreed to leave.

Once she arrived in Hong Kong and it was clear she identified with the Chinese government, she was described by reporters as “badly brainwashed.” She went on to say that although she was mistreated in prison, the prison authorities also pointed out the torture rings in the ceiling which had been used by the Nationalists, and she was never subjected to beatings or any other kind of physical abuse. She then also noted that the Ricketts, after going through a similar experience, had become politically active in ways she never did. So in some ways she continued to feel guilty for not acting more on her convictions. Robert Jay Lifton describes her (using a pseudonym) in his book on Thought Reform and ties her susceptibility to “brain-washing” to her stern Presbyterian background and its emphasis on sin and guilt. And while there is no doubt some truth in that connection with Protestant Christian guilt, I think Lifton totally missed the point that Harriet saw some valid and uplifting transformations in her fellow women prisoners.

So I’ve always felt gratitude for having had her as an instructor, and for the chance to know her and to hear her remarkable story. I don’t think she had anything at all to feel guilty about!