Frederic E. Wakeman Jr., a retired UC Berkeley expert on Chinese history who helped open China to Western scholars and wrote several books admired for their meticulous research and compelling style, died of cancer Sept. 14 at his home in Lake Oswego, Ore. He was 68.
Wakeman retired from UC Berkeley in June after spending his entire four-decade career there. He was the Walter and Elise Haas Professor of Asian Studies and a past director of the university's Institute of East Asian Studies.
His best known book was "The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in 17th Century China," a two-volume narrative history of a dramatic period in Chinese history that began with the suicide of the last Ming emperor.
Two years after it was published in 1985, it won the Joseph R. Levenson Prize of the Assn. for Asian Studies, which praised it as a "monumental" work that synthesized a broad range of Chinese, Japanese and Western sources.
Wakeman was an evocative writer who chose, "like the novelist he really wanted to be, stories that split into different currents and swept the reader along," said Jonathan Spence, the eminent China scholar at Yale University. "To me, Fred was quite simply the best modern Chinese historian of the last 30 years."
An activist as well as scholar, he played an instrumental role in building academic bridges between the United States and China during the 1970s and 1980s.
Through his work on various committees, including the U.S. Inter-Agency Negotiating Team on Chinese-American International Exchanges for which he served as education advisor, he enabled American historians and social scientists to travel to China and gain access to long-closed historical archives dating to the imperial era.
The scholarly exchanges "really opened up a whole revolution in Chinese studies," said Joseph W. Esherick, a professor of history at UC San Diego, who was one of Wakeman's first students.
The generation of scholars who benefited from the relationships that were forged by Wakeman and others began to investigate the quality of everyday life, regional differences and the historical contributions of non-ethnic Chinese.
"Fred really encouraged people to get into the archives and do empirical work and get a sense of the many-layered quality of existence in China that ... had been closed off" to researchers since the Communist takeover in 1949, said Madeleine Zelin, the Dean Lung Professor of Chinese Studies at Columbia University, who also studied under Wakeman.
Wakeman, who spoke fluent Mandarin and could read classical Chinese texts, was named after his father, Frederic Evans Wakeman, a successful novelist whose interests frequently led his family abroad.
Born in Kansas City, Kan., young Frederic hopscotched from New York to Bermuda, Cuba and France during his childhood. He once was taken out of school so that his family could retrace the second voyage of Columbus on the family's ketch.
He studied European history and literature at Harvard University and earned a bachelor's degree in 1959. After graduating, he tried to follow his father's steps into literature and wrote a novel, published in 1962 under the name Evans Wakeman, called "Seventeen Royal Palms Drive."
His focus shifted to history while studying at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. He earned a doctorate in Far Eastern history at UC Berkeley in 1965 and joined the faculty there the same year. He was promoted to full professor in 1971.
His scholarly interests ranged from social unrest in southern China after the Opium Wars of the early to mid-1800s to philosophical influences on the thought of Mao Tse-tung.
His books include "Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937" (1995), which details the life and politics of China's largest urban center during the Nationalist rule of Chiang Kai-shek, and "Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service" (2004), about Chiang's head of intelligence in the 1930s and '40s.
His most respected work was "The Great Enterprise," which displayed technical prowess, particularly in his translations of classical poetry, and a novelist's sensibility. Columbia University historian Prasenjit Duara said recently that Wakeman's footnotes were as enjoyable as the main text because they were written with unusual detail and drama.
In one such footnote, Wakeman described the bloody last moments inside the palace when the Ming emperor realized that rebels would soon overtake the Forbidden City:
"After saying that 'the great enterprise is over,' he tells his consorts that they must die. The empress bowed her head and said, 'Your concubine has served His Majesty for 18 years and has never disobeyed a single command.' Then she is said to have embraced the three princes, to have returned to her quarters, and to have hanged herself ... " Wakeman wrote before describing how the emperor next killed the princess and his concubines and ordered the suicide of his mother, the empress dowager. Such passages, Duara observed, demonstrated Wakeman's "passion for the historical moment."
A former president of the American Historical Assn., Wakeman is survived by his wife, He Lea Wakeman; a daughter, Sarah Wakeman of Providence, R.I.; sons Frederic of London and Matthew of Kensington, Calif.; two grandchildren; and a sister.