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Hong Yung Lee
In Memoriam

Hong Yung Lee

Professor of Political Science, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
Born in colonial Korea in 1939, Hong Yung Lee grew up during a turbulent period in Korean history. His childhood was marked by political events triumphant and tragic: from Liberation in 1945 to the Korean War (1950-1953). Perhaps because he came of age during the corrupt and ineffectual rule of Syngman Rhee, it is not altogether surprising that his initial choice of career was journalism, which he studied at Yonsei University. Later, his search for truth and ideals, alongside his lifelong commitments to democracy and anti-colonialism, would take him to the study of political science.            

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Lee worked with Professor Tang Tsou, under whose tutelage he would write his dissertation on one of the defining political phenomena of the 1960s: the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Lee’s dissertation, The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was revised during two years of postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1973 to 1975 – and proved to be a pathbreaking and long-lasting contribution to our understanding of Chinese politics in general and the Cultural Revolution in particular. Harnessing original 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 member of the Berkeley faculty, 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. Lee 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, a massively detailed and exhaustively-researched analysis of the transformation of erstwhile revolutionaries into routinized bureaucrats.            

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. His level of scholarly productivity is especially impressive given that he suffered frequent bouts of ill health in the last decade of his life.

Perhaps because Lee 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 he was warm and charming to colleagues and students over his three decades in Berkeley. He took great pride not only in the political and 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 died on October 24, 2017, and is survived by his wife, Whakyung, his daughter Sunyoung, and her husband Duncan Williams.

John Lie
Laura Nelson