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Harriet Mills

LRCCS Mourns the Passing of Harriet Mills

April 2, 1920 – March 25 2016

The Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies mourns the passing of Harriet Mills, Professor Emerita of Chinese Language and Literature.  Professor Mills passed away peacefully in her sleep on March 5, 2016 at her retirement complex in Mitchellville, MD at the age of 95. She will be missed.

Born in Tokyo in 1920, she grew up in China the daughter of American missionaries. She attended the American school (Hillcrest) in Nanking through ninth grade, then finished high school as a boarder at the Shanghai American School from which she graduated with honors in 1937. She was a Durant Scholar at Wellesley and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1941. She completed an MA in Chinese at Columbia University in 1946, and her doctorate in Chinese in 1963. She joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1966 and retired in 1990.

We include a link to remembrances from Kenneth J. Dewoskin and Paul Ropp honoring their former colleague and teacher and  a link to an obituary for her that was first published in the New York Times on March 29, 2016.

Harriet Mills was an important part of our graduate student experience at the University of Michigan in the early 1970’s.  She was my third year Chinese teacher, my first year in graduate school.  It was a tough year, in part because it was the first really rigorous course in Chinese I had taken, and in part because the course met every day at 8 AM during Michigan’s long, dark, and cold winters.  She managed to get my Chinese language skills in order and put me on a solid path for further study.  She also engaged her students as people who merited her respect if they did the work. Lester Ross (M.A. 1972 and Ph.D. 1978 in Political Science, Michigan; J.D. 1990, Harvard)

I got to know Harriet as a mentor and cat lover.  As for the cats, she had several, and they had the run of her house, entering and leaving at will through a swinging cat door. She rescued at least one abandoned cat that we knew of, getting it to live in her garage in the middle of winter until she could find new cat lovers for him.  That turned out to be us and we loved Neko (f/k/a Raoul) and he loved us.  Indeed, Neko was our son’s first word.  Claudia Ross (Ph.D. 1978 in Linguistics, Michigan)

Harriet Mills was a fine, fine teacher of Chinese language, and the author of a three-volume series of textbooks called Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese.  She had high standards – you had to work hard to excel in her class!  Her textbooks were the best I ever used (among 12 courses I took in Chinese language at Michigan and at Columbia University back in the late 1960s) or heard of, because for each new character introduced, there would be multiple compounds to illustrate the range of meanings and usages of the character.  Fifty years later, I still remember many – well, some – of those compounds and phrases!  Besides language, the texts illustrated traditional culture ( the “three inventions”), modern writers (Lu Xun, her favorite), and Chinese Communist Party history and ideology.  As a US diplomat in Taipei, Beijing, and Shenyang, I continued to refer to those textbooks for many years after taking her courses.  I was also honored to be her Teaching Assistant for a year – essentially grading student exercises and tests based on the same textbooks.  I didn’t have much contact with her after leaving Michigan, but do recall having lunch with her in Beijing during one of my assignments at the US Embassy there.  Her precision, respect for the language, and keen intellect were models for me and other students to follow.  Morton Holbrook, AM, Far Eastern Studies (Chinese), 1967; Teaching Assistant, Chinese language, 1968-69; currently Director, Hong Kong America Center, Hong Kong, 2013 to present.

I was very sad to receive the notice about Harriet Mills. She was an amazing person, with amazing experiences, from whom I learned a great deal. Elizabeth Perry, Ph.D. in Political Science, 1978.

I also studied Chinese with Harriet Mills. I remember those 8 am classes, five days a week.  I learned a great deal from Harriet, and not just about language. From time to time she would make a comment about China, unexpected and sharply perceptive. Those little comments were an education.  Although she was a critical and demanding teacher, she communicated a real concern and warmth towards us. I would like to mention also that Harriet was very supportive of her female students. She spoke to us woman to woman. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, but for me it was especially important, because Harriet was the one and only female professor I had in all of college or graduate school. Marty is right that she deserves credit for the successful careers of many of her students. I count myself as one of the students who owes a debt to her, both professionally and personally. Thank you, Harriet. Terry Sicular, Professor of Economics, University of Western Ontario.