Hong Yung Lee came of age during a turbulent period in Korean history. Born in colonial Korea in 1939, his childhood was marked by political events triumphant and tragic: from Liberation in 1945 to the Korean War (1950-53). He came of age during the rule of Syngman Rhee – widely perceived to be corrupt and ineffectual – and it is not altogether surprising that his initial choice of career was journalism, which he studied at Yonsei University. A committed nationalist and democrat – anti-colonial, or anti-Japanese, sentiments and anti-communist convictions would be consistent benchmarks in his life – his search for truth and ideals would take him to the study of political science.
At the University of Chicago, Lee worked with Tang Tsou, under whose tutelage he would write his dissertation on one of the defining political phenomena of the 1960s: the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution – Lee’s Ph.D. dissertation that was revised during two years of post-doctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley (1973-75) – proved to be a permanent contribution to our understanding of Chinese politics in general and the Cultural Revolution in particular. Harnessing data sources, such as the Red Guard newspaper, Lee provided a foundational and granular analysis of the Cultural Revolution that had been occluded to the outside world.
After spending nearly a decade at Yale University, Lee returned to UC Berkeley. In his three decades as a tenured professor, he taught a generation of students about the politics of East Asia, especially China and Korea. His legion of Ph.D. students could be found at major universities around the world, but his pedagogical legacy was most notable in South Korea where many of his students became major scholars in their own right. He also chaired the Center for Korean Studies for a decade. Amidst his ever-escalating academic demands across the Pacific, he published a major monograph in 1991: From Revolutionary Cadres to Party Technocrats in Socialist China. It was a massively detailed analysis of the transformation of erstwhile revolutionaries into routinized bureaucrats, a product of massive and exhaustive research.
In the last quarter-century of his life, Lee worked steadily on his magnum opus: a comparative study of East Asian politics and culture. He sought to uncover the fundamental institutional frameworks of three major societies: China, Korea, and Japan. Although left unpublished, the manuscript was complete and will undoubtedly appear posthumously. Beyond his major synthesis, he worked widely and voraciously on numerous topics on East Asian politics, ranging from the study of North Korea to that of colonial Korea. The level of scholarly productivity is impressive especially given that he suffered frequent bouts of ill health in the last decade of his life.
Lee was, like almost all of us, a product of his upbringing. Given that he grew up in an era when political debates were matters of life and death, he could be exceedingly serious and polemical: heated exchanges were part and parcel of his intellectual and ideological convictions. Yet over three decades in Berkeley – undoubtedly facilitated by the downfall of his bête noire, communism - did mellow him: he was often warm and charming to colleagues and students. He took great pride not only in the political-economic successes of South Korea but also remained devoted to and celebrated UC Berkeley, especially the Institute of East Asian Studies, Center for Chinese Studies, and Center for Korean Studies, and the wider community of Asian Studies scholars and students. He was an outstanding scholar, devoted teacher, and esteemed colleague at his beloved UC Berkeley.
Lee is survived by his wife, Whakyung, his daughter Sunyoung, and her husband Duncan Williams.
C.K. Cho Professor of Sociology
University of California, Berkeley