BEIJING — Roderick MacFarquhar, a consummate scholar of Communist China whose writing on Mao’s power politics influenced how people around the world understood China, died Feb. 10 in Cambridge, where he had long taught at Harvard University. He was 88.
His son, Rory, said the cause was heart failure.
Dr. MacFarquhar specialized in the origins of the Cultural Revolution, the decade of turmoil that terrorized China beginning in 1966. His three-volume work, “The Origins of the Cultural Revolution,” came to be considered a classic.
The research for those books, which were based on dense official texts, public speeches, and Mao’s own words, opened a world hidden to the West and illuminated an era of China’s past that still seems almost unfathomable.
At Harvard, Dr. MacFarquhar taught history and political science, and was known there for his wit and informality. In one class he asked his teaching assistants to pose as Red Guards, Mao’s paramilitary youth, and act out boisterous self-criticism sessions. He then coaxed the class to shout over and over, “Mao Zedong, Wan Sui!” — “10,000 years for Mao!” — so that everyone felt the fervor of the movement that shook China. The “CultRev” class packed the biggest lecture hall on campus.
“Rod was a thinker — he studied big questions, and big ideas,” said Minxin Pei, a historian on China and one of his early students. “He was very interested in political purges, and the Cultural Revolution was one of the biggest political purges ever.”
Unlike many historians who dwelled on the violence of the Red Guards after the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, Dr. MacFarquhar concentrated on the elite factional fighting that started in the 1950s.
He had worked as a journalist and served as a member of Parliament in Britain for five years in the 1970s, jobs that instructed him in the workings of politics.
By concentrating on Mao’s brutal political chess-playing, Pei said, Dr. MacFarquhar helped illustrate the leader’s state of mind and laid bare the calamity of the Cultural Revolution, which nearly ruined the country.
Though his work put China under hard scrutiny, and though he made clear that he thought some kind of democracy was best for the country, Dr. MacFarquhar was not viewed as aiming to undermine the Communist Party.
He was able to keep contact with his peers in China, including academics and editors of the official government newspaper, People’s Daily, when they visited the United States and streamed into his Harvard office, said Michael A. Szonyi, director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, with which Dr. MacFarquhar was long affiliated.
Dr. MacFarquhar was director of the Fairbank Center from 1986 to 1992, and again from 2005 to 2006. Under his watch, the center attracted a diverse set of people curious about China — businessmen, diplomats, journalists — who sought debate as well as scholarship as an avenue to understanding a country that was increasingly important to the United States.
After the 1989 crackdown, he accepted Wang Dan, the student who had led the protests on Tiananmen Square, to study at the Fairbank Center.
He was “my doctoral tutor, my closest teacher, the West’s authoritative voice on the study of China’s Cultural Revolution,” Wang said last month.
The Chinese government allowed the first two volumes of Dr. MacFarquhar’s Cultural Revolution trilogy, covering 1956-1957 and 1958-1960, to be translated into Chinese for publication in China in the 1980s.
By the time the last volume, covering 1961-66, came out in English in the late 1990s, the political atmosphere had soured in the aftermath of the Tiananmen protests, and the book never went to press in China.
Roderick Lemonde MacFarquhar was born on Dec. 2, 1930, in Lahore, then a major city in British-ruled India, the son of Sir Alexander and Berenice (Whitman) MacFarquhar. His father was a member of the British Indian Civil Service.
Roderick made a first, fleeting trip to China at age 7 — visiting a snow-clad Great Wall — when he accompanied his parents on a round-the-world ship voyage. He went to a Scottish boarding school and graduated with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Keble College, Oxford University, in 1953.
Wanting to be a journalist, he briefly worked at The Telegraph of London. But to do well in journalism he believed he needed a specialty.
From his childhood, he knew a lot about India, and that seemed an obvious choice. However, “I felt too many people knew about it,” he said in an interview in 2017 posted by the University of Cambridge in England on its website.
The communist revolution had recently occurred in China. “People would need to know about that,” he said, “so I would learn about China.”
He never, he said, “had a misty feeling about Ming vases or anything like that.”
Dr. MacFarquhar became affiliated with the Fairbank Center after its founder, John K. Fairbank, had in 1955 started taking a handful of students to study Chinese language, history and politics.
After receiving his master’s degree in East Asian studies that year, Dr. MacFarquhar went on to write his first book, on Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign of the mid-1950s, which had given intellectuals a brief period of greater freedom.
In 1960 he founded The China Quarterly, an academic journal on Chinese politics and economics published by the University of Cambridge. He briefly merged his two passions, politics and China, with a trip to China in 1972 as part of the entourage of the British foreign secretary, Alec Douglas-Home.
He was elected to Parliament as a Labour candidate in 1974 but was defeated in Margaret Thatcher’s conservative tide of 1979. He joined the Harvard faculty about five years later.
He died in a Cambridge hospital. In addition to his son, Rory, who is director of global economic policy at Google, Dr. MacFarquhar leaves his wife, Dalena Wright; a daughter, Larissa MacFarquhar, a writer for The New Yorker; and two granddaughters. His first wife, Emily Jane (Cohen) MacFarquhar, a journalist, died in 2001.