James Polachek 1944-2020

Madeleine Zelin's picture

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

It is with deep sadness that we write to report the passing of James Polachek in April of COVID 19.  Jim attended the Horace Mann School in New York, received his BA at Harvard and his PHD at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied under Frederic Wakeman, Jr.  Jim was known for his sharp wit, his linguistic brilliance and his great talent as a researcher and writer.  Jim’s early work focused on Qing history and the changes in literati culture and politics that were a prelude to the dramatic challenges facing China during and after the Opium War.  His book, The Inner Opium War, was published by the Council for Asian Studies/Harvard University Press in 1992 and has remained an essential resource for scholars of Qing and modern Chinese history.  Jim held professorial positions at Columbia University and Princeton University.  After leaving academia to enter the private sector he worked in finance in Japan and as an international markets analyst at Baring Securities.  During the 2000s Jim returned to academic pursuits, combining his love of music (he was an accomplished violinist) and his interests in the evolution of modern China in studies of music in Chinese movies and the use of music and pageantry in the 2008 Chinese Olympics.  He suffered from declining health in recent years.



Stephen Vlastos and Madeleine Zelin


I have learned with great sadness of the passing of China historian James Polachek. Jim, as he was known to his friends, was a singular guy: brilliant, witty, mercurial, and a talented writer, musician, and artist. I met Jim via introduction by the late Frederic Wakeman, Jr. I was finishing up my dissertation; Jim was eager to step back into scholarship after two decades in international business consulting. Fred noticed that the opera aficionado networks about which I was writing overlapped with the poetry circles that Jim had explored in his The Inner Opium War. He gave out my email address to Jim, thus launching a friendship that spanned seventeen years.


When Jim first reached out to me, I was a more than a little awed. The lore of Jim preceded him. He had received his Ph.D. in Chinese history at UC Berkeley and then gone on to teach at Columbia and Princeton before leaving the field. Jim was a renaissance man. He could have gone on to be a concert violinist but chose Chinese history instead. Jim’s facility in Chinese was storied among his generation of China scholars. His book, linking literary pursuits and high court politics on the eve of the First Opium War, was pathbreaking.


Throughout the course of our friendship, we met in person no more than four times, the last of which was at the retirement celebration for Fred Wakeman (at which Jim’s own cohort of 1970s Berkeley China PhDs teased him mercilessly for having been a Maoist—as opposed to what, a Marxist?). Jim, it seems, was a maverick among mavericks.


Through emails, and phone calls when we had too much to say to squeeze into an email, our friendship was built out of close reading of each other’s works in progress. He read and commented on my dissertation—and later manuscript—chapters; I read his writing on the narrative effects of sound and music in Fifth Generation Chinese films (a manuscript that deserved to become a book), and later his blogging on ethnic minority cultural tourism in southwestern China. Jim did not mince words, but his trenchant insights and generosity more than made up for whatever discomfort his withering comments might induce. He once (rightly) called me out for using the phrase, “minor key,” when what I was writing about had nothing to do with music. As an accomplished musician, he knew. When my book came out, he asked me to send him the most critical reviews, which I dutifully did, and together we parsed the critiques for what I could learn from them. For my part, I lent him an ear and a pair of eyes and I provided a connection to the world of academia. I never considered myself his intellectual equal, but I think got better through our good-natured sparring.


Sometimes, our conversations drifted from scholarship to politics or to our personal circumstances. I talked about caring for my parents with debilitating end-of-life illnesses. He spoke about his sometimes-strained relationship with his beloved and beautiful daughter. When I got married, he generously gifted me with a high quality reproduction of his painting of a winter vista from the Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician (拙政園) in Suzhou; it hangs framed on my wall.


Our communications slowed after my son was born. He had no interest in baby pictures (been there, done that), and the spare time that I had given to Jim outside of teaching, research, and writing was now swallowed up by my new attentions as a mother. Occasionally, I would get an email from Jim with a link to his new website. I might write him a sentence or two in response. Later, the phone number and email address that I had for him no longer worked.


A little over a year ago, I suddenly heard from him again. He told me he’d had some health problems but that he was on the mend. He had moved. I asked if I could share a photo or two of my son. He graciously welcomed it, explaining that he liked photos of kids once they showed personality; it was just the baby pics that cloyed. After several messages back-and-forth, life and work intervened, and our emails again ceased. I wish now I had told him how much his friendship meant to me. I will miss him. 走好,Jim.


James Polachek's daughters would appreciate any memories, anecdotes, comments, ephemera relating to James, good and bad, that you would be willing to share. Please contact his daughter Jen at jenmonroe726@gmail.com. Thank you.