In Remembrance of Professor Douglas Reynolds, My Advisor and Mentor

One day in March 2020, I received a long email from Professor Ed Krebs who told me that my M.A. advisor and friend Doug Reynolds had passed away in hospice on March 11, 2020. Doug was already extremely weak in his final days but “no surprise, he interacted with smiles and good comments,” Ed said. 

Just like his old friend Ed, Doug was gentle and always smiling. He was also always serious and curious about research. When I took his course as a young MA student at Georgia State in 2001, I shared a thought with him about a paper I was going to write. To be more precise, it was a bold assumption. He responded quickly: “Write it! You can publish it!” At the end of the semester, I submitted the term paper and found he was a little disappointed. “No, no, no,” he shook his head, saying, “this is not publishable.” I was not all not embarrassed because I knew I was but an apprentice of historiography and even an intellectually aimless young man at the time. Now I understand it is true that there is always a gap between a good idea and a solid paper, which needs to be filled by a scholar through efforts. 

When we first met at the end of 2000, Doug said he was born in Wuhu, Anhui province, China in 1947. “Then you should be a Chinese citizen,” I said. He smiled cheerfully. His parents were missionaries and anthropologists, and after 1949 they left China for the Philippines, where they continued their work. Doug then grew up in the climate of Asian culture. 

In October 2016, when I last met him, he still mentioned his parents when I told him I was doing research on Chinese anthropologists in the 20th century. Who knows how many souls have they saved, he joked.  

When I was his student in 2001 and 2002, Doug was between two marriages and he often stayed in his office very late, besieged by piles of books and papers. We talked about the California School and Chinese historians such as Lei Yi and Yuan Weishi. I once asked him, though he was not involved in the debate of this sort, what his opinion about the dispute over China’s “public sphere” was. He replied, David Strand’s article has “decisively” buttressed the assumed existence of such a sphere.  

He never tried to hide his experience of being questioned by colleagues. In a conference held in China, he shared his concept of a “Golden Decade” of Sino-Japanese Relations since 1901, and he emphasized this concept in Chinese: huangjin shinian in our conversation. Some Chinese historians were not happy, which I totally understood, because they thought the term was an exaggeration. Doug was relaxed and reflective when recounting this experience; I believed he was pondering the standpoint of his challengers.    

His meticulous study of this decade was reflected in his China, 1898-1912: The Xinzheng Revolution and Japan (Harvard University Press, 1993), which was translated into Chinese and published by Jiangsu People’s Publishing House in 1998 as one of the books in its “Series of Overseas Sinologist Studies.” In this book, not only did Doug forcefully argue the Golden Decade thesis, he also redefined “revolution” as gradual yet deep paradigm shifts rather than merely violent overturning of old political institutions. In our conversation, he explained why he insisted on the use of Xinzheng rather than any of its less than satisfactory English translations like New Policy, New Politics, etc. He believed the term was untranslatable and it was a revolution, as he redefined it, not a reform. 

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Atlanta Chapter of the US-China Friendship Association organized a forum to share scholarly wisdom with the public. I believe Doug was invited, but he recommended me to do his job while he sat in the audience, maybe because he thought I could talk better as a Chinese student. I then sit along with professors Liu Yawei and John Garver to talk about the possible impact of the September 11 attacks on the Sino-US relations. Today when I look back, I still think Doug was liberal and open enough to a allow a graduate student to take his place in such as forum, and I wish I did not embarrass him. 

Doug took Chinese historians’ research seriously. Whenever he had an opportunity to go to China, he would try to read the reprinted digest of research articles published by the Renmin University. At the invitation of an American press, Doug selected, translated, and edited a volume of Chinese-language research articles as an important source for American historians to engage with the research of their Chinese colleagues. 

I had dinner with Doug Reynolds in Atlanta, 2004.

In 2010, when we suddenly met in a world history conference in Beijing without prior contact, we were both surprised and pleased, but he still shared with me his endorsement of a Chinese-language article on the appointment-on-donation channel of late Qing bureaucracy. He was impressed by this article and cited it in his second book. 

His second book East Meets East: Chinese Discover the Modern World, 1854-1898 was originally the dissertation of his ex-wife, Dr. Carol Reynolds. Doug was reworking it when we met in 2010 and the book was published by Asian Studies Association in 2014, with both authors’ names.

With his revising and expansion, the published book was 744-page long. During the process, he occasionally discussed with me about the translation of some original writings, and I could feel he truly loved those late Qing Chinese intellectuals with transnational experiences and cross-cultural reflections: Luo Sen, He Ruzhang, Huang Zunxian, Wang Zhichun, Li Shuchang…he found them idiosyncratic, thoughtful, and loveable. I may also audaciously mention here that Doug cited my book on late Qing reformer Zheng Guanying and he accepted my assertion that Zheng Guanying marked the rise of a “new type of Chinese intellectual” in late 19th century urban China.

The author’s photo on the back cover of the book was taken by me in the world history conference banquet in Beijing in 2010. He liked this snapshot a lot, and used it not only on the back of his book but also on his personal webpage on GSU’s website.

There was an anecdote during our Beijing meeting. He told me that a Chinese friend just had his father passing and he needed to send condolences. When mentioning the grief and wailing of the friend, Doug expressed his suspicion to me: why people must be overwhelmed by excessive grief if an old and sick parent is going to die anyway, and why not just “let him go?” 

When hearing the death of Doug, I was also thinking, in his last days in this world, did Doug want his families and friends to control the posthumous sadness and just let him go and his soul return to childhood? 

In the summer of 2012, Doug passed through Northwestern Pennsylvania, the area where I live and work and he stopped by.

Reynold's photo appearing on the back cover of East Meets East. I took the snapshot in Beijing, 2010.

He brought me two Chinese-language books as a gift, one about late Qing intellectual history and the other about Sino-Japanese cultural exchange, the two topics that he had been devoted to for decades.  

I treated him in a local Chinese restaurant, and in the chitchat, I mentioned the Banlangen granules popular among Chinese as a “cure-all” medicine. Overhearing the conversation, the waiter approached us, saying he has it. After he produced his Banlangen in a small pack, Doug didn’t mind trying it with warm water, although he had never heard of it. 

But he knew something I did not know. His way of dealing back and leg pains was to practice a kind of age-old Chinese exercise of breath control and body movement called Baduanjin, which I knew very little. He thought Baduanjin was more effective than Western medicines. Excited, he left seat to show me the gesture of Baduanjin. Sometimes I felt he was more “Chinese” than many “real Chinese.”   

That being said, sometimes he was not quite Chinese though. He did not understand why Chinese people would respect Sun Yat-sen so much, and I guess that was because his deep immersion of the study of the Golden Decade prior to the 1911 revolution led him doubt the historical meaning of such a revolution and drastic historical break. This is a complex issue. I can’t say I totally agree with him and I do respect Sun Yat-sen a lot, but I understand his skepticism. 

Another thing that makes him unique was perhaps the way he treated his marriages. When entering the second marriage, he wrote to colleagues and friends a letter explaining in detail his marriages. As a man growing up in China, I cannot imagine who would and even need to explain the choice of the second marriage partner like writing a research paper. He mailed to me three wedding photos with three styles of wedding dresses: Western, Chinese, and Japanese. I felt this trio perfectly symbolizes the three dimensions in his spiritual world. 

He was always candid. When I shared with him my puzzlement about the generic narrative strategy of the Chinese memoirs published in the West which emphasize the sufferings in China and the Western salvation, Doug said he felt Americans had the tendency of hearing other people’s suffering, being moved, and feeling they saved these miserable people.

In the fall of 2016, he told me in an email that “my days are numbered” but he was “calm.” I flew to Atlanta to visit him over a weekend in October, thinking this might be the last chance to see him. Finally, it turned out to be true; this was our last meeting. For the first time, I stayed in his house, which was simple yet enlivened by his existence. He was obviously frail but still smiling and even practiced a little Baduanjin in the backyard. It was in this meeting that I mentioned my study of Chinese anthropology and he mentioned his parents.

Doug Reynolds in his backyard during my visit, 2016.

I had a new discovery in his home. I never knew until this visit that he had collected more than ten thousand Mao Zedong badges—perhaps he could have greatly improved the house if he did not squander money and energy on those Mao badges! —because we almost always talked about late Qing but never Mao. Now he was considering where to donate these badges and how to convince the receiving institution to meet his requirements as the donor.

He contacted his friends Elizabeth Perry, Joseph Esherick… all sinologists of his generation. His collection was professional and qualified as research, which he shared in a conference, and I saw in his home Chinese-language books on how to collect, appraise, and classify Mao badges, which he marked and noted.

In his home I brought up a trilogy on Maoist China that I was reading. Doug shook his head, saying he did not read this author because he did not think he wrote solid research books. I disagreed at heart, because I did not think those books were not solid, technically. However, my understanding was that this was all about where you stand and your sensibility. From Doug’s point of view, he simply did not like anyone to write the post-1949 history of China in an ostensibly negative way. In this sense, historical research requires high level rationality and cool-headed analysis, but beyond the research process, a historian is still a human being with his emotions and values. 

We kept contact by email after I returned home. He shared positive news with me, from his satisfaction with the medical treatment he was receiving to a Chinese student who was studying Yuan Shaikai under his guidance. New books, new ideas, new opinions, or new perspectives of old questions could reinvigorate him right away. In one email, he told me that he had told GSU that they must have a specialist to teach Chinese history after his retirement, because the 21st century would be a “Chinese century.” He was so optimistic that I thought he would fully recover from cancer.   

Doug for me was more than an academic advisor, but a mentor in the sense of the meaning of life and the mixed meaning of life and academic research. He had had a fulfilled life and career. As his daughters aptly said of their father in their email to his friends, “He loved to dance. He loved to sing. He loved to explore. He loved to get lost in his research and make discoveries. He loved a good naughty joke. He had a great sense of humor. He was fascinated by people of all walks of life.”