Memorial to My Long Time Friend, Professor Jonathan Ocko
by Fang Liufang
My friendship with Jon began in the Autumn of 1986 when he visited the Law Department of Renmin University seeking papers on China’s newly promulgated Principles of Civil Law for a meeting scheduled on Oct. 2, 1987 at Duke Law School. Someone introduced Jon to me and I tried my best to understand why a historical scholar was interested in crossing academic disciplines to China’s civil law.
One year later, Jon sent me an invitation letter, along with four of my colleagues in the Department of Law at Renmin University, to attend a meeting at Duke. Though my colleagues were at first excited, they soon wondered whether it was worth the trouble of seeking approval, both from the university authorities and the Ministry of Education, as there was hardly adequate time to make the appropriate travel and visa arrangements. Complicating matters, Jon had appointed us as individual visitors rather than give Renmin University the discretion to select candidates.
After patiently listening to our various concerns surrounding the travel procedures, Jon used all possible means at his disposal to solve our problems, ultimately in a very efficient way. On behalf of Duke Law School, he wrote to persons in charge at Renmin University and the Ministry of Education convincing them of the importance of this meeting. Due to Jon’s persistence, patience and wisdom, a delegate of four Chinese law professors finally succeeded in departing from Hong Kong to Chicago on the morning of Sep. 30, 1987 and arrived in Durham at 9:00 p.m. the same day. I can clearly remember the moment we saw Jon and several Chinese students welcome us at the airport. Jon said, “All of us are glad to see this dream came true. You are the first delegation of law professors from Renmin University to Duke.”
During the meeting, what impressed me the most was the fact that on the American side all initiatives for activities came from individual professors rather than from their institutions and the sponsor was a private foundation instead of a government agency. In response to my comments Jon told me that sustainable academic exchange was naturally developed bottom up through the involvement of individual scholars because the institution itself had neither the capability nor curiosity to engage in academics. Jon practiced this philosophy in all programs that he led.
Jon's true passion was the history of China. From his doctoral dissertation on Qing era administrative reform, his observations on “interpretive community,” his findings on Chinese contracts and his comparisons of China and India, Jon’s academic works are far more than a narrative description. Jon's body of work formed an integrated whole composed of historical stories, the interpretation of context, new messages deciphered from silent texts and not least of all his personal efforts to understand China. In some sense, Jon was using history to recommend an open ended understanding of China's modern emergence by drawing attention to the cultural legacy the nation carries on its back.
Jon’s work always sheds light on our understanding of modern China because social phenomenons rooted in history often survive through political and economic changes. For example, the Chinese translation of Jon’s paper I Will Take It All Ways Beijing: Capital Appeals in Qing Era has been frequently cited in academic research on topics ranging from China’s “letter and visiting system,” the rule of final disposition and justice in China, and even the recent centralization of capital punishment by China’s Supreme People’s Court.
In communications with Jon, one could not help but be impressed by his honesty, intelligence and generosity.
Jon sponsored my colleagues, Professor Zheng Qin and Professor Tian Tao, for their collections of contracts in pre-modern China. Jon shared with his colleagues not only documents he collected but also his findings and interpretations of those documents. In questioning the universal wisdom of correlation within contracts, property, law and transaction costs, Jon used China’s case as a strong argument.
In editing the Journal of Law and Contemporary Problems, Jon helped with the Chinese-English translation, the citation supplement, style adjustments and even the promotion of selected articles. In my personal contact with Jon relating to the publication of my articles on Chinese partnerships and China’s corporatization of state owned enterprises, I truly learned a lot from him.
Every time we met Jon would share with me his observations on the U.S. educational system, including issues relating to tenure track, age discrimination, varying universities' trouble with sexual harassment allegations and so on. In our last meeting on June 23, 2014 in Beijing, Jon expressed to my wife and I genuine delight with the newly approved Ph.D program in the History Department of NCSU and the revision of his teaching materials for his class on Chinese contract law in Duke Law School. I would like to say that Jon was one of the most diligent and devoted professors I have ever seen.
Though departed from this world, John is alive in our hearts as his legacy is ingrained in our memories. The incredible capacity of our memory is developed by an endless effort to retain the data we never wish to lose. In this way, again and again, we revisit our time with Jon and he lives on within us.