The Mary Backus Rankin East Asian Reading Room in Mergenthaler Hall contains a major collection of scholarly works on China and East Asia, donated to the program by Dr. Rankin. This is a non-circulating collection.
A student of John King Fairbank at Harvard, from which she received her PhD in 1966, Mary Rankin is one of the most important American historians of late imperial and modern China. She has also been over several decades a devoted friend of East Asian studies at Johns Hopkins, a mentor to our faculty and graduate students, and a pillar of Chinese studies in the wider mid-Atlantic region.
Mary’s dissertation and the book that came out of it, Early Chinese Revolutionaries: Radical Intellectuals in Shanghai and Chekiang, 1902–1911 (Harvard 1971), essentially transformed our understanding of China’s Republican Revolution of 1911. Prior to this time, that revolution was understood primarily as the work of the heroic “father of his country,” Sun Yat-sen, and of the Revolutionary Alliance, the antecedent of today’s Nationalist Party, that Sun organized and led. Expansion beyond an appreciation of Sun’s personal role had been limited to a few studies of some of Sun’s closest allies, such as Huang Xing and Song Jiaoren. By focusing her research on the incendiary activities of groups of young people, mostly students, who were quite outside of Sun’s orbit, Early Chinese Revolutionaries opened our eyes to the fact that 1911 was a far more diverse and complicated phenomenon than we had assumed. The book also helped pave the way for a new social history, not only of the revolution, but of modern Chinese history more broadly.
It did one more thing of great importance. Central among the young revolutionaries upon whom Mary focused, in this book and even more in her related 1968 article “The Tenacity of Tradition,” was Qiu Jin (1877–1907), a woman. Mary’s article was in fact a landmark in what one later scholar called “engendering the Chinese revolution”—awakening scholars to the critical part played by women in the processes of Chinese history, revolutionary and otherwise. Both because of her own femininity and her choice of a feminine protagonist, Mary served as inspiration for innumerable young female scholars of modern China who would follow in her wake.
Mary’s second monograph, Elite Activism and Political Transformation in China (Stanford 1986), solidified her leadership in the field of late imperial social history, and is in my opinion one of the most important works in that field published in the past half century. Philip Kuhn in 1970 had demonstrated how militia leadership in the face of the Taiping threat had shifted the balance of power in local society decisively away from local officials—paid representatives of the central imperial authority—into the hands of local literati landowners. Taking off from this, Mary’s book showed how this local elite power was progressively solidified in the era of postwar reconstruction, and over the next half century was coordinated, expanded, and politicized, so that by 1911 imperial rule could be dispensed with, less as a hated undemocratic imposition, than as simply superfluous to the effective governance of the localities and the nation. A few years later, Mary convened a conference and edited a volume, Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance (California 1990, co-edited with Joseph W. Esherick), which brought together work by a dozen or so younger scholars—myself included—who had been profoundly influenced by her work in the conduct of their own, interrelated studies of local history.
This latter volume is but one testament to Mary’s legacy as a mentor. Ironically, for one who by choice never held a regular faculty position, Mary has been arguably the most influential teacher in the field of Chinese social history. She has done this through a number of means. First was her ready willingness to read and comment in detail on work in progress by younger scholars. Second was her service for more than a decade as co-editor of the vanguard journal in the field, then known as Ch’ing-shih wen-t’i and now as Late Imperial China. And third was her hosting of a monthly meeting of area specialists in this field for discussion of new scholarship, convened most often in “Rankin’s salon,” that is, the living room in her Georgetown home. This salon served as incubator for some of the most important new work on Chinese history produced during the past several decades. With Mary’s departure to Montana, that incubator will be missed, but we hope that the new Reading Room named in her honor will have something of the same effect.