September 3, 1942–April 19, 2017
Charles Fredric Blake passed away on April 19, 2017, in Honolulu. Born in El Paso, and raised in St. Louis, Blake was a cultural anthropologist specializing in China. After receiving his PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Blake taught at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa from 1974 to 2017. He was still teaching only two weeks before the sudden onset of hepatic amyloidosis that led to his unexpected passing.
Blake considered anthropology a calling and a way of life. His experiences growing up in the Midwest, his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, and his 1966–1967 Peace Corps service in Agrigan, Marianas, strongly shaped his intellectual development.
His academic work aimed to explain how people make meaning in their lives, explored through phenomena such as gender, mortality, fetishism, sacrifice, and alienation. He pioneered new research areas on China with his 1981 ethnography Ethnic Groups and Social Change in a Chinese Market Town, which was based on ethnographic fieldwork among Hakka-Chinese in the 1960s. With this monograph, Blake was among the first to address the issue of ethnicity among the “Han Chinese” and others. In the 1970s, he studied the social history and the origins of Chinese communities in the Midwest and subsequently published the first study of a Chinese cemetery using gravestone epitaphs to reconstruct the original pioneer Chinese community. Blake also re-examined foot-binding, in which he considered the custom as an historical system of economic production and reproduction, arguing that it was embedded in the complex mother-daughter relationship. His next project explored another long-standing Chinese custom, the ritual of burning “paper money” for the dead, and he explored the nature of value and the reification of “sacrifice.” This produced his 2011 monograph Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld, which integrated Chinese dialectics and Western analytics. Fred published widely in not only the United States, but also in China, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Blake was a teacher and mentor of great knowledge, humility, and encouragement. In 2016, he was recognized by the East-West Center for his significant contributions over the years in mentoring many students from Asia. In addition to his contributions at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, he also served as a bridge between Chinese and American scholars. From 1990 to 2013, he taught as visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Central University for Nationalities. Blake also was active in Chinese anthropology, lecturing and publishing articles, as well as leading a project to translate classical American ethnographies into Chinese including Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People and Robert Lowie’s The Crow Indians.
Blake always felt that a life combining reflection, teaching, research, and writing was a blessing. His unassuming passion can be seen in the epitaph he composed for himself in his final days. “I was always driven by the question of what is the meaning of a being that is human? What is the meaning of human being? I looked for answers in the social relationship of production and exchange. I approached death as I approached life, with a sense of comedy and irony.” Blake will continue to be lovingly appreciated by those who studied with him, worked with him, and shared life with him.
(Li W. Blake and Margaret B. Bodemer)
Cite as: Blake, Li W., Margaret B. Bodemer. 2017. “Charles Fredric Blake.” Anthropology News website, September 22, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.635