It was with great sadness and shock that we recently learned of the passing of Professor Eugene Cooper just before publishing this piece. “Coops,” as he was affectionately known in academic circles, was a vocal supporter of our mission at Hippo Reads, as well as the ultimate example of what it means to be a public scholar.

For me, Coops was a professor, mentor, and above all, a dear friend. As evidenced in this post, he didn’t just challenge the status quo, he reshaped it. In his many decades studying China, he was witness and recorder of a country in transition—and he was always there at the center of it all, able to be heard and also not to take himself, or life’s inevitable ways (and open manholes!), too seriously.

As my thesis advisor during my graduate studies at USC, Professor Cooper eagerly supported my wacky research subject—baseball in China—directing me to resources even years after my degree was completed. Whenever I returned to USC, I made a point to stop by his office where Coops would regularly toss me a book or two from his towering stacks. Curling his long white mustache, he’d say, in his still-lingering Brooklyn accent, “Here’s a worthy read for you!”—and off to new research I’d be sent.

In this post, Prof. Cooper writes, “After all, we were on the cutting edge of social science research conducted by foreigners in China, blazing a trail that others might follow in the future.” From all of us China scholars to follow, thank you, Coops. Your foibles with the Chinese PSB, documentation of a country in transition, and support of streams of students eager to know the China of your scholarship, forged the way for academics eager to build bridges between China and the rest of the world. Whether singing folk tunes on Chinese national television or meeting a student in your office, you were gracious, creative, and above all, a rabble rouser to the end.

Last year, when I reached out to ask Coops for some anthropological insights on a section of my novel, he readily replied with details about China’s marketplace culture, along with a wink and a note: “A novel, eh? I expect to be acknowledged as a consultant…” When the book is published, he will be recognized not just a consultant and mentor, but, also a dear and deeply-missed friend.

At Hippo, we are grateful to publish this final piece, a glimpse into Prof. Cooper’s long and colorful relationship with China and further testament as to the need for both serious academic scholarship and a light-hearted perspective in such a complicated, yet beautiful world.

—Kaitlin Solimine, Co-Founder, Hippo Reads


“I should go demonstrate outside the county government offices demanding more freedom for foreigners,” I said in half-jest to my Chinese colleagues. It was the eve of May 4, 1989, the 80th anniversary of the 1919 May 4 movement when students protested China’s treatment at Versailles at the end of World War I.

It was 1989, and now Beijing students were demonstrating against corruption in the Communist party and for greater freedom of expression. For me it was also the end of two rather difficult seasons of ethnographic field work in Dongyang County in China and I was closeted in a hotel with my collaborator, Professor Jiang Yinhuo, and a local expert from the United Front Office on the county’s history, who was also the author of the definitive book on the Dongyang woodcarving craft which had been one focus of our research over the last two years.

I made the remark when we were watching then Prime Minister Zhao Zhiyang’s speech to China’s youth on TV the night before May 4, and while men appreciated the spirit in which the comment was made, they seemed concerned I indeed might try it.

The following morning, on May 4, the head of the county Foreign Affairs Office stopped by the hotel for an uncharacteristic, unscheduled visit. I suspected he had been informed of my “threat” to demonstrate outside the county offices, and came over to make sure I was otherwise occupied. He whiled away the morning with small talk, perhaps just wanting to prove, on the eve of our departure from the county, that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

But for me it was much too late. Over the past two years he had done everything possible to obstruct, constrain, restrict, and interfere with our research on China’s artisan and small industrial enterprises, of which Dongyang was something of a model of success.

The county’s Foreign Affairs Office must have had precious little experience of any kind,  since until 1986 the county had been a duiwai bu kaifangde defang, “a place not open to foreigners. I was the first “foreign affair” to be handled them. Therefore, their inclination to do things by the book might have been understandable: After all, we were on the cutting edge of social science research conducted by foreigners in China, blazing a trail that others might follow in the future.  

Our bothersome presence though was drawing to a close, though, and I was just waiting for the Foreign Affairs Office bureaucrats to call about the final report presenting our investigation’s preliminary results to county authorities, presumably over a celebratory dinner.  Professor Jiang and I had prepared a presentation in which we praised the flexibility of provincial policy in letting the private sector develop, and would remark on the dramatic and dynamic changes in the county to the great benefit of the large majority of its citizenry.

The phone rang. It was the County Public Security Office gonganju “requesting” me to come to their offices—alone—for a taolun, “discussion.” This was not their underlings, but the county Public Security Office—clearly a surprise. Was this “the” report then, or would we also be expected to make still another for public consumption?

I went upstairs to tell Prof. Jiang where I was going, in the event I was detained, or heaven forbid, never heard from again (one never knows with public security). He was in his hotel room talking to none other than the Foreign Affairs Office chief himself, who claimed to know nothing about my summons to Public Security.

When I arrived across town county public security office, I was escorted to a room by the same uniformed officer who’d inspected my passport back in March when I’d arrived, but failed to find irregularities with my passport and deny me entry. In the room a half a dozen scruffy looking plainclothes men sat in chairs along the walls, and I, alongside the desk next to a window.

The officer began by politely asking what my impressions of Dongyang were, and did I have any suggestions/criticism. Requests for criticism are seldom taken literally by Chinese, who would, under normal circumstances, politely decline.  Given my location, political caution would have been advisable, but I was not constrained by my culture, and I was protected by my passport, so I threw caution to the wind, and let him have it—with both barrels.

I told him my impressions of Dongyang would have been different if his office had treated us better—if they had not reneged on the promised length of our stay in the county, not limited the scope of our research, not imposed so many restrictions. If he were so concerned about my impressions of the county, I said, he could have seen to it that Prof. Jiang and I were treated with respect rather than suspicion, and should have deluged us with data, historical materials, statistics, and documents, so that we would have had difficulty assimilating all of it. But no, instead they had been mean-spirited and small-minded, and prevented us from gathering materials that might have made our research more successful, and our impressions of the county more favorable.

I did tell the group that I had very favorable impressions of the laobaixing, the ordinary folk, but came away thinking that Dongyang was a very difficult place to get anything done. Throughout  my tirade, the inspector furiously wrote down all my comments.

When I finished, he defended their actions, claiming that if Zhejiang University Foreign Affairs Office had been more specific, mentioning all our interests—enterprise performance, economic statistics, habits and customs, historical developments, senior centers, etc.—then county authorities wouldn’t have restricted us so. There may have been some truth in that, but then again a foreigner is never privy to what’s sent by his sponsoring unit.

“It would be the same for a Chinese researcher in America,” said a man along the wall. I was no flag-waving American, defending it at all costs, but that’s when I really lost it. I told him in no uncertain terms just how wrong he was: How I had personally invited, secured visas for, and hosted several Chinese scholars visiting the US, and could personally testify that they had conducted research in Los Angeles’ Chinatown with no supervision at all, by anyone, at any time. How so long as a foreign researcher did not overstay the time limits on his visa, he might literally die in the streets of an American city with no one taking any notice. A chorus of disbelief rippled around the room at such laxity by American security. “I haven’t come here to argue  about America,” I said, cutting off the debate.

Then my interrogator began to laud all my strong points: how well-educated, clever and resourceful I was; how well I spoke Chinese; how I had withstood the difficult material circumstances of my six months in the county without even catching cold; etc., all as a prelude to a series of questions to which it was clear he already knew the answers.

–  Did I give Mr. X (a former functionary of the Nationalist party and “counterrevolutionary” in Q village $60 US last year?


– Was I carrying a letter for him to America?


– What sort of information had Mr. X given us?

Genealogical material about village inhabitants, information on traditional habits and customs, I said.

They must have given poor Mr. X a good going over when they discovered we had talked to him, another one of many he had endured in successive campaigns over the years as an officially labeled counterrevolutionary.

– Did I help the youthful primary school teachers in Weishan town with their English at the coffee shop?

Yes, so what?

–  Did they pay me any money?

Of course not.

– How did I meet them?

The husband of the proprietress introduced us.

– Had I been to other coffee shops?

Yes, are they not public facilities? Was he not aware that we “foreigners” liked to drink coffee?

– What pictures had I taken?

Countless numbers.

– Did I not do $3,000 worth of business with the Dongyang Arts and Crafts Experimental Factory?

Yes, was it not their policy to encourage foreign trade?

All my answers were carefully noted.

It was really quite bizarre.

Why were they doing this? To demonstrate to me that there were no secrets from Public Security? To see if my account confirmed what they had been told in their debriefings of the people we had talked to? To catch me in a lie? To catch those people in lies? To have a record of their unswerving adherence to the regulations, and of my resentment of it, in case they be called to account in their handling of the affairs of this foreigner?

Despite my satisfaction at having gotten out all my anger and frustration, and survived to tell the tale, I left the office feeling violated, degraded and humiliated, concerned for the well being of all the people who had cooperated with us in any way, anxious that their contact with me had very likely resulted in an unpleasant debriefing from Public Security—or worse.

But that was the end of it, at least for me. We were not asked to make any further reports to the county authorities, and Prof. Jiang and I departed for Jinhua and Hangzhou on the following day.  I had spent five years of my life making the preparations to conduct this research. Looking back on the data we had managed to gather, we didn’t achieve what I had set out to do, which was to get an intimate picture of one small community going through its daily life for an extended period of time. What we got was very much briefer visits to several communities, and an admittedly useful grand tour of the county and its enterprises, but only for very brief visits and interviews.

Back in Hangzhou, demonstrations were in progress in support of the now hunger-striking Beijing students in Tiananamen Square. Hangzhou residents from every walk of life were out marching in the streets in support of their demand for greater freedom and an end to corruption. But during the next few days it became apparent that the striking students had reached an impasse with party leaders clinging to the old line of “let’s be good boys and girls and go back to class, stop this hunger strike and then we’ll see.”  

By the time the army rolled in to clear the square on June 4—nearly a month later—I was already in Hong Kong, safely watching events unfold on TV, and privileged able to leave according to schedule a few days later to the States.

Having just recently suffered at the hands of the bureaucracy they were protesting against, I identified with them even more. But I also couldn’t help but think that in the aftermath of the crackdown, county authorities might have congratulated themselves on the way they treated me, the foreigner, sticking to their regulations. In the ensuing heightening of political tension they might have been called to account for their actions, and so they had done their job, in accord with the letter of the regulations—and had the foreigner’s complaints noted in detail to prove it.

Professor Jiang and I had hoped to stretch the envelope for foreign academics in China, conducting research on the highly successful rural artisan and small industrial enterprise sector. If we did not succeed in full, at least we familiarized the Foreign Affairs Office of Dongyang county with the quirks and foibles of the soon-to-be many more foreigners, investors and entrepreneurs, who would be flooding the county as it continued to “open up” under economic reform.

Should foreign researchers reconsider whether doing ethnographic research in China is worth the effort?

In his book “China Along the Yellow River,” Chinese sociology professor Cao Jinqing  set out to conduct research in the countryside and describes treatment similar to that visited on Prof. Jiang and myself.  I had previously thought what we experienced was because I was a foreigner, but Prof. Cao clearly shows that Chinese researchers face similar obstacles.

On the other hand, in the ensuing years, some Chinese based in the West have gotten more access. Yan Yunxiang did research in a village where he had been “sent down” to the countryside as a youth; Adam Chau got great access to the operation of a temple through his relationship with the main monk.


Five years later, in 1994, Professor Jiang and I returned to Dongyang in July to present our completed book manuscript to county authorities. During those five years, economic reforms had remained in place, the political climate had loosened considerably, and the county town was literally being transformed. I was almost as curious to check out its new face as I had been on my very first visit back in 1986. Thus, after checking in to the newly renovated Dongcheng Hotel, I went out for a walk around town while Professor Jiang waited at the hotel for our old nemesis from the Foreign Affairs Office to arrive. I took a walk down South Street to get my bearings, and while it was much the same, massive areas behind it, as well as several places right along the street recalled scenes from the bombed out cities at the end of WW II.

The whole corner where one entered the plaza in front of the Cultural Center was rubble, as was the market which had stretched parallel to South Street in front of the Cultural Center. And West Street, which branches off South Street at the county government headquarters in the center of the old walled city, had all been torn down and was in the midst of rebuilding. All the little stalls I had captured on film five years before were now a part of history, and four or five story buildings were going up on both sides of the street. Originally built to pre-industrial dimensions, West Street had now been widened to allow two-way automobile traffic. Wuning town was being made over from the bottom up.

So awestruck was I by the feverish activity all around me, looking up at the new buildings taking shape on both sides as I walked down West Street, I accidentally stepped into an open manhole.

Yup! Falling forward against the far lip of the open manhole, I gave my knee and thigh a nasty raspberry, fortunately escaping serious injury, but proving I suppose that the Foreign Affairs Office chief had always been right. Foreigners can’t take care of themselves. If you let them wander alone for even a few minutes, they’re likely to step into an open manhole.


About The Author

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Professor of Anthropology and East Asian Studies, University of Southern California

"Gene" Cooper earned his Ph. D. in Anthropology and East Asian Studies at Columbia University in 1976. He taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Hong Kong University before arriving at USC in 1980. He has consulted with business, industry and the legal profession, on Chinese rural industrial production, the import/export sector, and Chinese habit and custom.His most recent research is on the market temple fairs of Jinhhua municipality, Zhejiang province, China.