In Memoriam: Gene Cooper

Moss Roberts

Of Brooklyn origin, charter member of the Columbia University Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS) in 1968 and later an advisory board member of Critical Asian Studies, Gene Cooper (born May 18, 1947) died in late October 2015. Gene earned his PhD in Anthropology at Columbia while studying Chinese in the East Asian Languages Department, where he was my student in the summer 1969 third year class. In 1980 he joined the faculty at the University of Southern California as a Professor of Anthropology. There he earned the respect and affection of colleagues and students in the course of a 35 year career. A prolific scholar, Cooper’s last book was The Market and Temple Fairs of Rural China: Red Fire (Routledge, 2012), a study of market temple fairs in Jinhua municipality in Zhejiang province based on extensive fieldwork and research conducted during the 2006-07 academic year at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey.

I knew Gene first that summer of 1969.  We quickly became friends and comrades in the local CCAS chapter, drawn together by the barbaric irrationality of the American invasion of Indochina, and by the absurdity of Washington's effort to ostracize China internationally and justify the Indochina war as a defense against Chinese Communism.  We were subsequently together on the second CCAS trip to China in March 1972.  I saw him in New York City only occasionally after that.  

Gene was a light-hearted musical soul who brooded in sadness over the injustices he witnessed, and glowed with song as he sang to his own string accompaniments. According to the obituary published on the USC News website, he once won second prize in a Chinese television contest, performing a Chinese rendition of the folk song "Lifting the Veil."

His colleagues and students at USC contributed memories to the obituary, including:  

"To his colleagues and friends he was . . . an irreverent, irascible character, in the best sense of the term . . . Although Gene never hesitated to speak his mind, he was also one of the most principled, caring individuals I knew. An exceptional teacher and mentor . . . Gene’s teaching and dedication to the discipline of anthropology touched the lives of people worldwide."

Another colleague added, "'Coops looked like you’d expect an anthropology professor to look,' one of my students remarked. But it was more than a look. He embodied all a professor should be — brilliant, tough, caring, passionate — and funny as hell. He was always game for a stimulating conversation, as quick to defend an ideal as to champion a colleague."

Gene Cooper will be missed.

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© Arthur Jones, PhD