Jun 18, 2019 07:20 PM

Obituary: The Professor Who Reintroduced Western Political Thought to China

Xu Datong
Xu Datong

For those studying Western politics in China, the five-volume Chinese-language “History of Western Political Thought” is a must-read.

The books, widely used as university textbooks, were the work of renowned scholar Xu Datong, who died June 9 of an illness in his hometown of Tianjin in northern China. He was 91.

The books are significant because they were the first Western political science reading material that authorities approved after the Cultural Revolution ended in the 1970s. Xu started working on the books in 1985, paving the way, as some said, for the study of Western political science in China.

Xu, born on Sept. 16, 1928, came to political science after he began studying at North China University (now Renmin University of China) in 1949. He went on to teach in the university’s law and political science departments in his 20s. In 1973, he became a faculty member at Peking University.

He lost his parents in the devastating Tangshan earthquake in 1976, during which his wife was also injured while at work. Due to family reasons, Xu decided to return to his hometown in 1978 and teach at Tianjin Normal University. He was a senior professor.

While Western politics was Xu’s specialty, he always reminded his students that the study of Western politics didn’t mean they should ignore Chinese political science. On the contrary, their studies should be based in the foundation of Chinese traditions and Chinese political thought.

Known as a lover of Peking opera, Xu joined the Peking Opera club during junior high school and became adept in less than a year, according to a 2015 report in English-language publication Chinese Social Sciences Today.

His love for the art form was so strong that he would go on to publish “Peking Opera and I” and “Peking Opera Box Office in Tianjin.”

During his career, Xu published around 40 research papers and 20 books, according to Chinese media reports, including “Lectures on Traditional Chinese Politics and Culture.”

Xu was an “unconventional” academic who encouraged students to think outside the box, said Gao Jian, a fellow professor at Tianjin Normal University. Despite his reputation, Xu welcomed students to challenge his views and offer differing opinions during his lectures. As Gao put it: “Xu wanted students to exceed him in terms of academic achievement.”

One former student recalled that Xu enjoyed teaching undergraduates as well as graduate students. He took special pride in guiding younger students into academia.

Contact reporter Jason Tan (

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