Franz Schurmann, 1926-2010

September 23, 2010

An academic expert on China and global politics who was also a pioneering journalist has died.

Franz Schurmann, the son of a German mother and a Slovenian father, was born in New York on 21 June 1926 but grew up in Connecticut. He was a natural linguist and rapidly acquired a knowledge of the languages spoken within the family and the local immigrant communities. He was eventually to become competent in no fewer than 12 languages.

He briefly attended Trinity College in Hartford, but his education was interrupted by the Second World War, when he was drafted into the US military's language school and then served as a censor on a Japanese newspaper after the US occupation of the country. His linguistic skills and passion for newspapers were to prove crucial to his wide-ranging scholarly work.

Although not even a graduate, Professor Schurmann secured funds through the GI Bill to embark on a PhD in Asian studies at Harvard University. After focusing initially on Chinese, he soon branched out to study in Japan and spent two years exploring Afghanistan - a journey that led to The Mongols of Afghanistan: An Ethnography of the Moghôls and Related Peoples of Afghanistan (1962) - before going on to Istanbul to pick up Persian and Turkish.

This led to a post in the department of oriental studies at the University of California, Berkeley. During his time at Berkeley, where he remained until he retired in the mid-1990s, he ran the Centre for Chinese Studies and served in both the history and sociology departments.

A deep first-hand knowledge of Asia enabled Professor Schurmann to go well beyond Cold War cliches in books such as Organization and Ideology of Communist China (1968). It also gave him a special status among the movement calling for an end to the Vietnam War, to which he contributed with The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam (with Reginald Zelnik and Peter Dale Scott, 1966).

More surprising to his radical colleagues, he went on to publish a largely admiring account of The Foreign Politics of Richard Nixon (1987).

Although he worked at Berkeley for almost 40 years, Professor Schurmann devoted much of his energies to the Pacific News Service, which he co-founded in 1970 with the aim of providing an alternative perspective on the Vietnam War. It later made an ideal outlet for his trenchant analyses of major issues ranging from globalisation to water shortages and Islamic fundamentalism.

Professor Schurmann suffered from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, and died on 20 August. He is survived by his long-term partner, Sandy Close, and two sons.

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