Stuart R. Schram
February 27th, 1924 to July 8th, 2012
February 27th, 1924 to July 8th, 2012
"Stuart R. Schram, physicist and Mao scholar"
July 21st, 2012
Stuart Reynolds Schram was a Minnesotan who made his way to Paris, an Army nuclear physicist who became an expert in French political history, and a mind wide awake in a world remade by war and its cold aftermath.
Stuart R. Schram was born in Excelsior, Minn., on Feb. 27, 1924, the son of a dentist and the grandson of a railroad engineer. He received an undergraduate degree in physics in less than three years from the University of Minnesota and was drafted into the Army, where he worked in Chicago on developing an atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. He received his doctorate from Columbia in the political behavior of French Protestants, completing his research in France.
By the late 1950s, having worked on the Manhattan Project, published scholarly works in French and German, and taught himself Russian and Japanese, he turned his considerable intellect to a divisive and mysterious subject far across the globe and accessible to the West almost solely through written works and transcripts: Mao Zedong.
It was an ambitious and rewarding move. Over 50 years, Schram, who died on July 8 in France at 88, completed a seminal biography of Mao just before the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, and he spent much of the rest of his life translating into English exhaustive volumes of Mao's words, in the process shedding critical light on a rapidly changing China.
To other China scholars, Schram provided clear-eyed analysis of Mao at a time when many people were eager to reduce him to either an evil dictator or a visionary hero. Schram's works, they say, are touchstones in the study of how Mao adapted Marxism for consumption by one of the world's oldest cultures.
"He struck a middle ground between Cold War anti-Communism and armchair revolutionary paeans and praise," said Timothy Cheek, a China historian at the University of British Columbia. "He had this monster textual capacity where you just had read more than anyone else and on any given question you can cite a bunch of stuff."
Schram was working at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, or Sciences Po, when he began learning Chinese. He soon became an authority on China and Mao by using the principal source available: the written record. He completed "The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung" in 1963. Three years later, he produced the biography "Mao Tse-tung."
"Now you can go to the grass roots and talk to real Chinese," said Roderick MacFarquhar, a Harvard expert on China who knew Schram. "In those days, none of us could get into China. You couldn't talk to people in China, but what you could do was try to analyze what the leaders were thinking and doing."
Cheek said Schram's earliest works still stand up to scrutiny.
Even as Schram delved into Mao's early failures -- he suggested that he agreed with estimates that nearly 40 million people died from starvation resulting from Mao's Great Leap Forward of 1958 -- he was surprised by the damage done by Mao's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, colleagues said.
"Stuart had noted over the years that Mao was very proud of Chinese history," MacFarquhar said. "He was surprised Mao was willing to countenance this kind of destruction."
Schram also enjoyed applying his research skills to French wine and food, said his wife, Marie-Annick Schram. He eventually traveled to China every year and was in Beijing during the protests in Tiananmen Square.
"I think he had very mixed feelings about Mao," Marie-Annick Schram said.
In the late 1980s, MacFarquhar enlisted Schram to translate and edit a comprehensive 10-volume series of known Mao writings and speeches from before Mao took control of China in 1949. Seven volumes in the series, "Mao's Road to Power," have been published and three more are essentially complete, said Cheek, who worked on the eighth volume.
"It leaves us something that will endure when another generation's questions change," Cheek said of the series.
Schram died of complications from a stroke, his wife said. A son, Arthur, also survives him.