On July 15, 1975, Maurice Freedman, only 54 years of age, died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in London. He was Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University and a Fellow of All Souls College. He was also one of the most widely respected anthropologists of his generation and the acknowledged leader of an international community of scholars specializing in the study of Chinese society.

For 24 years, from 1946 through 1970, Freedman was associated with the London School of Economics. He enrolled at the School as a graduate student in 1946, was appointed a Lecturer in 1950, a Reader in 1957, and a Professor in 1965. During these, years he held visiting appointments at the University of Malaya, Yale University, and Cornell University, but he remained a member of the School until 1970 when he was named to succeed E.E. Evans-Pritchard in the chair of social anthropology at Oxford. A former colleague at the School writes: ‘His move to Oxford left a perceptible emptiness behind him’.1 His death leaves a more poignant sense of loss felt by friends and colleagues the world over.

Freedman’s first field research was carried out in 1949—51 and was reported in his classic monograph Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore (London, 1957). That book and a series of essays on legal and political questions opened and gave direction to a new field of studies: the social life of the overseas Chinese and their relationship to their host societies. This achievement alone would have entitled Freedman to an honourable position in Chinese studies, but it was only the beginning. Remarks made in his 1969 RAI Presidential Address indicate that within a year or two of his return from Singapore, Freedman began ‘to play with the notion of reconstructing traditional Chinese society .. . with special reference ... to its institutions of kinship and marriage’.2 Using his knowledge of the Singapore Chinese as background, he wrote Lineage Organization in Southeastern China (London,1958). That brilliant book provided the China field with the same kind of inspiration a generation of Africanists found in African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. The judgment is evidenced in all subsequent work on Chinese kinship. Almost without exception the authors begin with a question or a theme from Lineage Organization.

The anthropologist who has studied E.E. Evans-Pritchard on the Nuer or Meyer Fortes on the Tallensj will find in Lineage Organization much that is familiar. Freedman’s chapter titles suggest his debt to the African literature: ‘The Hierarchy of Agnatic Units’, ‘The Segmentary System’, ‘Ritual Differentiation’, and ‘Ancestor Worship and Lineage Structure’. But these are interspersed among chapters dealing with topics that were new to kinship studies, for example, ‘Social Differentiation Within the Lineage’, ‘Political Power and Economic Control’, and ‘The Lineage vis-a-vis the State’. While Freedman recognized the value of concepts developed by Africanists, he did not apply African models to Chinese society. He realized from the beginning that the study of Chinese kinship and the study of the Chinese state are inseparable.

Lineage Organization is all the more remarkable for the fact that it was written on the basis of ‘whatever published material on China I was able to find in London’.3 It was not until 1963 that Freedman had an opportunity to go to Hong Kong and study a Chinese lineage in situ. What he found confirmed in large part the analysis presented in Lineage Organization and thereby demonstrated how much anthropologists could learn in libraries and archives. This was important not only because the doors of mainland China were closed, but because anthropologists could not hope to encompass the whole of that society by means of traditional field research methods. If the parts were conditioned by the whole, and were not microcosms of the whole, they had to learn to sit in libraries, to interview missionaries, travellers, and the dead.

The Singapore study demonstrated Freedman’s skill as a field worker in the classical manner; Lineage Organization displayed his ability to reconstruct a society from fragmentary evidence found in libraries. Both of these qualities were again evident in his third major book, Chinese Lineage and Society: Fukien and Kwangtung (London, 1966), but there was also evidence of another quality of a rarer kind: the ability to combine a passion for ideas with a dispassionate reading of one’s own ideas. Since the publication of Lineage Organization in 1958, a number of young scholars had taken up Freedman’s hypotheses and put them to the test in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In his third book Freedman reassessed his analysis in the light of this evidence and produced a new synthesis. His readiness to revise his own thinking and gratefully acknowledge the work of others made us all feel that what we were doing was worthwhile. In his writing and his teaching he provided us again and again with yardsticks to measure our ideas and mark our progress.

When the history of anthropological and sociological studies of China comes to be written, Freedman will figure as both the Johnson and the Boswell of our times. He was the leading scholar of the period and its chief chronicler. Ever fascinated with ‘the rhythm and pace of the anthropological studies of China’,4 he first wrote a series of essays on contemporary developments and then, during the last few years of his life, began to re-examine the work of Marcel Granet and J.J.M. de Groot. Though he never declared his goal, one suspects that he was planning to write a history of sinological anthropology. He left in press a translation of Granet’s The Religion of the Chinese People and his papers include a translation of de Groot’s journal and extensive notes on his life.

Freedman’s unpublished work also includes the final draft of a lengthy contribution to UNESCO’s International Study of the Main Trends of Research in the Field of the Social and Human Sciences. Like all of Freedman’s work, the language is elegant and concise. In a few words he sums up and judiciously evaluates such diverse fields of study as structuralism, ethnohistory and social and cultural change. The last chapter is of particular importance, for it contains a statement of Freedman’s own view of the nature of anthropology. The concluding paragraph reads: ‘From time to time it may puff itself up in scientific pride, but its dominant mood is one of deep humility before the facts of human experience and of tenderness to its sufferings. Men who study men are part and parcel of their own material. “Don’t cant in defence of savages,” said Dr Johnson. His exhortation would have been justified if he had known that there were in reality no savages to be sentimental about.’5

In the UNESCO manuscript Freedman argues stoutly that anthropology should not be expanded into ‘great schemes of public education’: ‘it would be senseless suicide, motivated by the best of intentions’.6 But while critical of this and other attempts to apply anthropology, he did see it as having a mission. This was most evident in the time and energy he devoted to the Jewish Journal of Sociology and to the promotion of studies of Jewish social life. Himself a Jew, he argued that ‘a dispassionate study of Jews is good for Jews. In his view anthropology’s mission is the dispassionate study of man; such study is good for man because it dispels the kind of sentimentality that so easily turns to prejudice.

I think those who knew Maurice Freed-man will agree that it would be inapprop-riate to end his obituary on a mournful note. He was a vigorous, strong-minded man who inspired those qualities in other people. Let us remember him in the Chair, eyes alight, brows lifted, about to catch an idea that excites in a phrase that pleases.

Arthur P. Wolf

1.    ‘Prof. Maurice Freedman’, The Times, July 26,1975.
2.    ‘Why China?’ Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1969, p.8.
3.    Ibid., p.8.
4.    Ibid., p.11.
5.    Manuscript entitled Social and Cultural Anthropology, p.163.
6.    Ibid, pp. 162-163.
7.    A Minority in Britain (London, 1955), p.xi.

This obituary first appeared as: Wolf, Arthur P.. 1975. 'Obituary'. RAIN, No. 10, p. 11-12 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

WOLF, ARTHUR P.. 1975. 'Obituary'. RAIN, No. 10, p. 11-12 (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/maurice-freedman).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doadvancedsearch&filter=*&cw=OR&as_method=get&as_resultsmode=fullkeywords&f0=title&o0=CT&v0=Maurice%20Freedman&f1=author&o1=%3D%3D&v1=M%20Freedman