Trailblazing historian was among the first U.S. scholars to enter China after the communist revolution
A Fulbright scholarship in 1981 allowed Charlotte Furth to visit China, where she taught American studies to students at Beijing University. (Photo: Irene Fertik.)

Trailblazing historian was among the first U.S. scholars to enter China after the communist revolution

During her 30-year career at USC Dornsife, Charlotte Furth’s achievements include a groundbreaking book on the history of Chinese women’s reproductive care.
ByMargaret Crable

Charlotte Furth, Professor Emeritus of History at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has died. She was 88.

Her groundbreaking book A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History 960-1665 (University of California Press, 1999), a history of women’s reproductive medicine in China that took nearly 20 years to complete, was one of the first scholarly works to take gender into consideration in the study of Chinese medicine.

Using medical texts, case studies, letters and handbooks, Furth outlined 400 years of medical care for conditions like pregnancy and menstruation, treatment that was often done in the home and by female midwives.

Furth was one of few women in her field for most of her career and often led the way for others to follow. When, in the ’80s, she consulted on a new version of the Cambridge History of China, she was one of only two women scholars invited to contribute. She suggested a chapter on women, but she was turned down. Later versions of the Cambridge History would add her original suggestion.

Furth’s work was inspired by frequent travels to China, including as part of a Fulbright Scholarship in 1981 as one of the first American academics to return to the country after the communist revolution.

From a stale field to more fertile grounds

Furth was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, to Isabella and Lambert Davis. For a time, the family lived in New York, where she met her future husband, Montgomery Furth. They were both in third grade.

The two maintained a correspondence after her family returned to the south a few years later and eventually married in 1956. They had two children, David and Isabella, who both survive her. Montgomery died in 1991.

Furth graduated with a bachelor’s degree in French literature from the University of North Carolina in 1954, then began studying for a PhD in French history at Stanford University. Finding the field crowded, with few fresh avenues for a dissertation, Furth decided to switch to Chinese history.

It was still a largely unexplored avenue for American scholars, and one increasingly in demand as the United States grappled with the emergence of the People’s Republic of China and the start of the Cold War.

After her graduation from Stanford in 1965, the Furths moved to Southern California, where Montgomery taught philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles and Charlotte taught history at California State University, Long Beach. She remained there until 1989, when she moved to the history department at USC Dornsife.

Her first book, Ting Wen-Chiang: Science and China’s New Culture (Harvard University Press, 1970), was a study of the Western-educated geologist and essayist Ting Wen-Chiang, who helped in efforts to create a modern culture in China before the communist revolution.

Among the first Americans in Communist China

In 1981, Furth was one of the first scholars to enter China on a Fulbright Scholarship since the program’s disbandment after the 1949 communist revolution.

With the thawing of relations between the two countries in the late 1970s, the program resumed in 1979. The Chinese government was still wary of allowing foreign academics free reign, however. Instead of granting the visiting scholars traditional research access, the government had them teach classes and roomed them in a fenced hotel guarded by soldiers.

Furth taught American studies to worker-peasant-soldier students, the children of peasants and soldiers, at Beijing University. Her students soon made it apparent they were interested in a classic, almost retro, American history class experience.

After one lesson, in which Furth had outlined the complex relationship between Native Americans and colonial settlers with a critical eye, her students stopped in during her office hours to explain they wanted “bourgeois” American history lessons, not a Marxist version.

She obliged, teaching them the more triumphant perspective on U.S. history outlined in Bernard Bailyn’s The Great Republic: A History of the American People, a staple textbook in American classrooms at the time.

Charlotte Furth had a reputation for generosity among her colleagues, hosting parties and lending out her spare bedroom to those in need. (Photo: Courtesy of Isabella Furth.)

Furth later recorded her experiences in a memoir, Opening to China: A Memoir of Normalization, 1981-1982 (Cambria Press, 2017), based on letters she had written home to her husband during her stay.

Colleague, mentor, friend

Furth was also an accomplished teacher, helping to develop the doctoral program in Chinese history at USC and mentoring PhD students. She regularly taught an ambitious undergraduate class on Dream of the Red Chamber, an 18th-century Chinese novel by Cao Xeuqin that contains more than 400 characters.

In 2012, she was honored with the Association of Asian Studies Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies.

She was generous to her colleagues, often hosting dinners and department gatherings at her home in the Cheviot Hillsneighborhood of L.A. “It was a beautiful house and you could feel in the atmosphere the learning, the conversations, the fascinating people who came by,” says Paul Lerner, professor of history, whom Furth mentored during his early years on the USC Dornsife faculty.

There was a steady stream of visitors staying in her guest bedroom, scholars who wanted a quiet place to write or a temporary place to crash. When Lerner went to Europe one summer, she let him leave his car in her driveway for several months.

Her interests were wide-ranging and she enjoyed exploring other’s research, even if it differed considerably from her own.

“We spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting the history of modern China with modern Mexico. We had a lot of conversations about our respective fields,” says Marjorie Becker, associate professor of history and English and an expert in Latin American history. “Charlotte was extraordinarily brilliant and generous.”

After retiring in 2018, Furth’s curiosity did not slow down. She joined The Plato Society, a group for those interested in lifelong learning, and wrote a history of a set of Chinese paintings that had hung in her parents’ house.

At her last lunch meeting with Brett Sheehan, professor of history and East Asian languages and cultures, she discussed the Russian American writer Vladimir Nabokov, the focus of study at the Plato Society that month.

“She was so smart; every conversation was stimulating and challenging,” says Sheehan. “Talking with her always gave you an electric charge.”