Thursday, December 20, 2012

Richard Baum

Richard Baum's career as a China-watcher had more than a whiff of Indiana Jones about it.  He made his first major breakthrough by, ahem, stealing a file of documents out of the Taiwan National Library.  Not for keeps: he just wanted to copy the stuff for his own research use.  But in later years he liked to tell how it made his hair stand on end to think of the risk he had run and (perhaps better not to think about) what might have happened had he been found out.

Career-making, maybe, but also very much in character.  Baum spent a lot of time in China; he liked to work in close where he could hear the crack of bodies.  And for a country so noted for formality and face, he was cheerful, direct, unpompous--all qualities which, one comes to suspect, helped to keep his Chinese subjects wrong-footed just enough to ease his path in his scholarly work.  Thanks to his escapade in the Taiwan library (he did return the papers), he was virtually the first western scholar to get a careful look inside the famously secretive word of Chinese Communism.  A later book is said to be the definitive work on the transition after the death of Mao.

Richard Baum died December 14. He was 72. Here's the obituary from his home base, together with a talk by Baum. Here's a friendly appreciation, together with another entertaining video.  Here's a Fivebooks interview on China in transition.  Here's a chatty, funny, hair-raising set of lectures in which he summarizess his lifework.

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