Remembering Fred C. Blake (1942-2017) China Scholar & Cultural Anthropologist

Margaret Bodemer, Ph.D.'s picture

Charles Fredric Blake  柏桦 (September 3, 1942-April 19, 2017)  

Charles Fredric Blake (1942 – 2017) was a Cultural Anthropologist and China Studies scholar. He majored in Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i (B.A. 1964) and earned an M.A. at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (1966), then his doctorate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (1975). He served on the faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa from 1974 to 2017.  He reflected that teaching in the academy combined with research and writing had always been a blessing. He taught up to two weeks before his passing, unaware that the fatal disease of hepatic amyloidosis had quickly progressed to its terminal stage.  Fred calmly wrote his own epitaph in the hospital during his final days: “I died of a rare, fatal, incredible disease before I was able to complete my work.  I was always driven by the question of what is the meaning of a being that is human?  What is the meaning of human being?  I looked for answers in the social relationship of production and exchange.  I approached death as I approached life, with a sense of comedy and irony.” Fred chose as his last resting place the peaceful and lush hilltop with tranquil views of the Meramec River below,  which his parents had also chosen for their last resting place in his hometown of St. Louis because of its family memories. St. Louis is where he was raised and where he nostalgically yearned to return.

Fred was born on September 3, 1942 in El Paso, Texas, where his father was stationed during WWII. He recalled that his first memory from El Paso was the smell of  burning fuel in the small engines that drove model race cars and model planes in circles around the tow-line holder. His father Charles Joseph Blake and his mother Garnet Agnes Fischer Blake had long, celebrated lives and an affectionate marriage.  They were supportive of their children’s every endeavor. Fred was the eldest of three children in the family. When he was not quite three years old, his family moved back to St. Louis. Fred spent his early years in suburban Webster Groves and Kirkwood. He always expressed a deep affection towards St. Louis and spent many summers helping his father with home construction projects, and later taking care of his parents in their senior years. The most sentimental gift he mailed to his wife was the feathers of a turkey and a blue jay from Pere Marquette Lodge, conveying his feelings towards the Midwest where he grew up.

Fred was always proud of his father’s WWII service as a regimental surgeon and dentist in the First Division, Eighth Cavalry Regiment. Fred attributed his own initial desire to be a naturalist, and later an anthropologist, to his upbringing — his father constantly working at dentistry, designing, producing, and using tools for his numerous building projects; his spontaneous conversations with his mom involving family history, daily life, community, society; and after he left St. Louis, voluminous family letters which provided wonderfully entangled discourses on daily happenings, the tumultuous world at large, personal histories, and thoughts. He considered his experience of his father’s multiple pursuits and identities, as hugely important for his own manner of approaching and understanding the world. Fred similarly integrated in himself different facets of personalities. He had the scholarly temperament of humility, sensitivity, gentility and self-pathos. On the other hand, he was strong in his beliefs, very persistent, and bore a low tolerance for mistreatment. Importantly, Fred tried to be generous towards others and dealt with things in a good-humored way. He detested any form of self-aggrandizement or self-congratulatory behavior, which he viewed as pretension.

Fred’s scholarly career was guided by seeking meaning for his fellow humans, encompassing all races, genders, and nationalities. He felt strongly that all people were equal and should have equal rights and opportunities. As a young man he sympathized with the Civil Rights movement and rode a chartered bus from St. Louis to join part of the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama march for voting rights in 1965 shortly after civil rights activists had been beaten and killed in previous marches. Later, after returning to Honolulu, he became active in protesting nuclear weapons and weapons-testing in the 1960s. In 1966 and 1967, Fred joined the Peace Corps and was posted to Agrigan, the northern-most, furthest away inhabited island in the Marianas, where he taught local children English and lived alongside local families. During his stay in this remote part of the world, he listened to news beyond its confines on a little battery-operated shortwave radio, even hearing the chimes of Peking radio broadcast during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.  This broadcast served as an unheralded prelude to another of Fred’s cultural odysseys. Over the subsequent decades, he conducted research of various lengths in southern, central, and northern China, which were mostly accomplished during sabbaticals. Most of his field work and research projects were conducted on a “shoestring” style, which gave him much satisfaction as it kept him close to the earth and local inhabitants. These cultural experiences in the Marianas and China were an important influence on Fred, and he often reminisced about them, sharing many stories with friends and colleagues. They meant more to him than research sites; they were his real life world and life experience.

Fred’s academic work focused on interpersonal relationships and reproduction, exploring how people make, unmake, and remake their worlds under historical and social formations that they do not themselves choose. He always strove to understand processes of human meaning-making, analyzing such processes in phenomena such as gender, mortality, fetishism, sacrifice, and alienation. Many times this led him to a persistent interest in humor and the ludicrous. His academic career and achievements are summarized below.

1. Ethnicity among Han Chinese (1960s)

His interest in ethnicity was spurred by his participation (1964-1966) in the American Civil Rights Movement. He held that the answers to ethnicity are NOT found in innate biological differences or even in objective cultural differences, but rather in the functional organization of society. He studied the Hakka Chinese as an ethno-linguistic group in Sai Kung, among Hakka traders living on boats in Kowloon Bay, as to how they and other groups of Cantonese and Hokkien speakers organized their differences in local society and developed common cultural understandings.  His monograph Ethnic Groups and Social Change in a Chinese Market Town (1981) was based on three years of field work and was among the first ethnographies to address the issue of ethnicity among “Han Chinese.”

2. Social history: the origins of American Chinese communities (1970s)

Fred studied the origins of Chinese communities in the Midwest (focused on St. Louis, MO). He spent many late nights over many years amassing several thousand pages of data from microfilms of newspapers and other media through interlibrary loans. His manuscripts about Alla Lee’s life world, the first Chinese citizen of St. Louis (1857-1880), attempted to read between the lines in order to grasp the reality of Alla Lee’s obscure life from snippets of newspaper items written in an era when racism was the dominant discourse of American social life (2000).

3. Gravestones and epitaph research (1970s, 1980s)

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Fred added a historic component to his research. In the 1980s, he studied gravestone epitaphs in St. Louis, combined with newspaper and private archives, and the living memories of the older generations. He also extended his gravestone research to other communities, making photographic archives of stones from old cemeteries in Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, and the two principal Chinese cemeteries in Honolulu (Lin Yi in Mānoa and Ket On in Pauoa). He published “The Chinese of Valhalla: Identity and Adaptation in a Midwestern American Cemetery” (1993), using gravestone epitaphs to reconstruct the original pioneer community of Chinese in St. Louis.

4. Foot-binding and gender (1980s)

In the 1980s, Fred began a re-examination and ultimately a re-thinking of the historic Chinese custom of foot-binding. As with his later exploration of the Chinese custom of burning ritual paper money, he directed his attention where others had not: on the social and economic logic underlying these practices commonly labelled as irrational. He re-examined foot-binding as an historical system of economic production and reproduction, and concluded that foot-binding was primarily dependent on  mother-daughter relationships, rather than male-female relationships. It is a form of discipline undertaken by women themselves and a ritual pedagogy about how to survive and thrive in a world authorized by men and in the process hiding the labor power of women. His article was published in the journal Signs (1994) and subsequently reprinted in Great Britain (2000) and published in China (1999). He also wrote the entry “Footbinding” for the Oxford Encyclopedia of the History of Women (2008).

5. Sacrifice, humanizing, and burning money (1990s, 2000s)

Starting in the 1990s, he conducted fieldwork and research in Beijing, Shanghai, Fujian Province, Guangdong Province, Sichuan Province, Hunan Province, Hubei Province, Hebei Province, Hong Kong, and Hawai’i. He explored the cultural logic and the social-economic formations of the practice of burning paper money while addressing larger anthropological questions concerning the nature of value. His methodology integrated Chinese (Yinyang dialectic) and Western analytics to develop a theoretical framework that he called a “materialist aesthetics.” He shed light on paper money through ideology and reification of the “sacrifice.” Fred also disclosed a ludic spirit at work in the paper money custom and Chinese life world. His study was among the first to critically use the internet and the Chinese blogosphere as an ethnographic resource in the study of contemporary China. His monograph Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld appeared in 2011 and is being published in Chinese in 2018 by the Chinese publisher Jiangsu People’s Publishing House.

Fred regarded anthropology as a calling, an avocation and a way of life, not just a profession. Nor did he regard his work in anthropology as purely scholarly or academic, but also a life of action mostly in the margins of society. The dawn of his intellect was enveloped in local prehistory and history of Midwestern North America — Osage and Mississippian peoples, and successive waves of European, African, and Asian immigrants, refugees, indentured and slave labor. For him anthropology was how he experienced the irreducible givens, the wholeness, Logos. It had always given him a way to seek to answer BIG questions, even if the answers were tentative. The principal attribute of this process entailed learning different ways of becoming human, of making a living, of making a world. Fred had also “academicalized”  his own life world, keeping volumes of research notes, personal diaries, photos, slides and film negatives. His personal writings, especially letters and email correspondence were more like anthropological accounts or ethnographic descriptions of his daily life and relationships. These writings were always thorough, graceful, illustrative, sensitive, and reflective. They were analytically highly detailed accounts of his life and living, reflecting a person who cared for his life and had been constantly thinking and exploring what a life possibly involved in a meaningful way.

As a teacher and mentor, Fred served on numerous PhD committees and MA committees in Departments of Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, History, American Studies, China Studies, Schools of Music, Public Health, and Education. Every one of his PhD students found employment in academic-related institutions; most include publications in the field of anthropology on their academic resumes. His pedagogy emphasized method, theory, history, and analytical and critical reading. It took passion and knowledge to adhere to delivering well-grounded professorial lectures and facilitating discussions. He eagerly encouraged his junior and senior graduate students alike in his seminars and inspired them to engage in creating their own understandings of the material and engage others. His interactions with students were down to earth, encouraging, and understanding. Many graduate students knew Fred as one of the “three sages” at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in the early to mid 2000s, who joined each other for lunch in the department lounge. They often invited graduate students to join them, and those who did thoroughly enjoyed engaging with them informally. They had many opportunities to query each professor about fieldwork, teaching, writing as well as general “life advice.” Together with his dear colleagues, Jack Bilmes and Andrew Arno, Fred provided collegiality and good humor during those days of seemingly endless dissertation writing.

Fred made significant contributions to the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. He mentored and hosted many students from the U.S., China, Taiwan, and Vietnam among other places. He received a Certification of Appreciation in the spring of 2016 from the East-West Center in recognition of  his valuable contributions to the East-West Center Associate mentoring program. He also taught as visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1999), Central University for Nationalities, Beijing, China (August-December 2007, May-June 2010) and Jishou University, Hunan, China (August-November, 2007). His introductory classes and seminars introduced western Anthropology and research to many Chinese students and colleagues. His teaching in China had been part of a larger project to translate English language ethnographies into Chinese, including The Forest People by Colin Turnbull (2008) and The Crow Indians by Robert Lowie (2009).  Fred also participated in several Annual Chinese Advanced Forums on Anthropology and Ecologic Anthropology between 2007 and 2013. His talks often adapted to Chinese academics’ interest in contemporary theoretical trends in American Cultural Anthropology and American Anthropological Studies on Ethnicity in China. His conference proceeding papers were translated into Chinese and published in top academic journals in China.

Fred had been engrossed in writing, researching, and teaching, which were profoundly meaningful and enjoyable for him. He was never content to “let it go” when something really interested him. Even during the short twenty days when he was hospitalized before his passing, he still was reading and writing until the very last few days even though the doctors told him that amyloidosis was incurable.… He simply was too preoccupied in what he had been doing throughout his whole life. When his illness reached a critical moment, he asked his wife to go home to bring Levi-Strauss’ book Structural Anthropology, his notepad, and a good pen so he could continue working. However, disease-induced cognitive problems persisted, and his recognition of this profoundly saddened anyone who knew him as a scholar, teacher, and family man. It also elicited deep respect towards an ever-active mind that sought knowledge and meaning to the very last days of his life.

Melancholy, Fred felt his work would be left uncompleted by his passing away, as he wrote in his epitaph. But for those of us whom he influenced, his work lives on. One of the newspaper clippings Fred kept on his file from his correspondence with his father was from Bertrand Russell “The wise man should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what he can not longer do, and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.” Fred had been trying to answer some big and important questions, answers to which are intrinsically time-consuming. He also subconsciously incorporated his own life experience and relationships into his academic thinking and analyses.  His life has thus been prolonged by his everlasting academic pursuit.

The legacy of Fred’s active academic thinking and riveted interests in Cultural Anthropology will continue to be appreciated by us who crossed paths with him — who studied with him, worked with him, and shared our life with him.

Li Blake & Margaret Bodemer (

I would like to add a separate note to express my personal appreciation for this detailed and moving tribute to Fred Blake. Our intermittent efforts as H-Asia editors to post obituaries based on public domain reports are worthwhile, no doubt, but a poor substitute for a firsthand memorial by friends and colleagues of the person. Thank you, Li Blake & Margaret Bodemer.

Correction: The authors have asked me to note that there was an error in the title line on their original post to H-Asia. Dr. Blake's name was C. Fred Blake, not Fred C. Blake.