Charlotte Furth (1934-2022)

Picture of Charlotte Furth (1934-2022)

Charlotte Furth, Professor Emerita of Chinese history at the University of Southern California, died on June 19, 2022, in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 88.

Furth received her B.A. in French from the University of North Carolina and her Ph.D. in Chinese history from Stanford University. Her early work was in the intellectual history of early twentieth-century reformers in China. Her first book, Ting Wen-Chiang: Science and China’s New Culture (Harvard University Press, 1970), explored the life and thought of British-educated geologist and intellectual Ding Wenjiang, whose commitment to science coexisted with what Furth terms his “Confucian ethic of social responsibility.” Her essay on intellectual change from the late Qing to the May Fourth Movement, published as a chapter of The Cambridge History of China, looked at the changing cosmologies of Kang Youwei, Yan Fu, Liang Qichao, and others whose debates about “the spiritual East versus the materialist West” were echoed in the utopianism of subsequent revolutionaries. Furth’s work on the edited volume Limits of Change helped to established what has now become a foundational premise of twentieth-century history: that conservative Chinese thinkers, rather than being mired in a stagnant tradition, were fully engaged in fashioning a (conservative) Chinese modernity. As an ensemble, these works traced the complexity of Chinese intellectual attempts to grapple with and shape a time of disquieting change.

In the 1980s, Furth turned her attention to gender and sexuality in the late imperial era, eventually devoting herself to the history of medicine and its role in structuring gender norms. Almost two decades in the making, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History 960-1665 (UC Press, 1999) explored the thinking and practice behind fuke, women’s reproductive medicine, through medical case histories, classical writings, handbooks, and elite essays. The purpose of fuke was to protect women’s reproductive capacities to ensure the continuation of patrilineal families. The book offers a sophisticated introduction to Chinese medical theories, as well as a riveting analysis of the social arrangements structuring doctor-patient contact and the daily practices of women midwives. It also addresses contemporary debates about the body. As Furth explained it, “I had to grapple with the interpretive assumption common among scientists that the human body is a natural universal, and the one among feminist scholars that one understands female social gender through the sexed body. It was particularly challenging to provide an account of a largely unfamiliar historical world of bodily experience that would be intelligible for English readers while retaining its integrity.” A Flourishing Yin won the “Women in Science” award from the History of Science Society, as well as a Faculty Recognition Award from the USC chapter of Phi Kappa Phi. Furth continued to contribute to the cultural history of Chinese science, co-editing volumes on case-based reasoning as a form of empirical science in a late imperial China and on the emergence of modern public health regimes.

Furth began her teaching career in the Department of History at California State University at Long Beach, where she taught for 23 years, and subsequently served for 18 years on the faculty of the University of Southern California, from which she retired in 2008. In 1981-82 she taught as a Fulbright Fellow at Beijing University in a special program to retrain “worker-peasant-soldier” students whose educations had been truncated during the Cultural Revolution. Her memoir of that year, Opening to China: A Memoir of Normalization, 1981–1982, published in 2017 (Cambria Press), “is an eyewitness account of an almost forgotten inflection point between China’s Maoist past and its transition to a global superpower.” She wrote that critical of her “history from below” approach to teaching U.S. history, one of her students told her, “Here in China we are familiar with the Marxist interpretation of American history. What we want from you is the bourgeois version.” Furth concluded that “As a native of the advanced industrial and political United States, I was expected to profess the mainstream values of its citizens, and tell the story of American progress uncontaminated by self-critical reflections on American imperfections.”

In the course of her career, Furth was also a Visiting Professor at Bard College, and held research or visiting fellowships at Harvard, Princeton, the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, and both the Sun Yatsen Institute and the Institute of Modern History of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. In 2008 she received the USC Mellon Award for Excellence in Mentoring Faculty. She served as a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Asian Studies, AAS Nominating Committee Chair, and AAS Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women. For eight years she was co-editor of Late Imperial China, and was a member of the editorial boards of the journals East Asian Science, Technology and Medicine, Asian Medicine, and Tradition and Modernity. In 2012 she received the AAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies

Charlotte Furth is survived by her children, David and Isabella, four grandchildren, and an extended network of family and colleagues. A scholar who opened up new domains of inquiry, a mentor who inspired and engaged with younger scholars, an energetic promoter of inquiry across disciplines and areas, and a gifted editor, she will be remembered for her brilliance, insight, and generosity.

—Submitted by Gail Hershatter, University of California, Santa Cruz

This remembrance is drawn in part from Charlotte Furth’s June 24, 2022 obituary in the Los Angeles Times.