Our LSA and the Bicentennial series features tales from the College that complement the University's year-long recognition of its first 200 years. Look for more stories in the series throughout 2017.

Some people become known for their place in history as much as for who they were. For many who knew Harriet C. Mills, her life was defined by her love for China. For others, it was her eyewitness accounts of transformational moments of Cold War history.

Mills learned to speak Chinese fluently as a girl while living in China with her missionary parents. She returned as a Fulbright scholar, and was staying in the country when the Korean War broke out in 1950. She and her fellow scholars tried to leave, but on July 25, 1951, Mills was arrested for espionage and sent to a Chinese brainwashing prison.

In China, brainwashing was known as thought reform, ideological remolding, or ideological reform, according to researcher Robert Jay Lifton. Chinese authorities implemented this technique to force intellectuals to hew to Marxist and Leninist philosophy, including scholars like Mills. During her imprisonment, Mills was often restrained and subjected to hours of intense interrogation. Her family, the United States government, and the Red Cross lobbied hard for her release, and after more than four years, she was liberated and walked to freedom into what was then the British colony of Hong Kong.

Mills’s 2016 obituary in the New York Times focused on her incarceration, but the people who knew her at U-M remember Mills’s teaching, research, and efforts to advance women’s careers. In his eulogy, Kenneth J. DeWoskin, professor emeritus of Chinese language and literature, credits Mills with pioneering methods of Chinese language instruction.

“Those years in Beijing honed her language skills to a uniquely high level,” DeWoskin says. ”She regarded her long interrogation sessions as language drills, among other things. While it would be an exaggeration to say this shaped her classroom demeanor, she ran her classes with a determination and discipline that was unparalleled.”

Tiananmen Square—whose name translates as "Gate of Heavenly Peace"—in 1988, the year before Chinese troops clashed with pro-democracy protesters there. Mills was in China when the crackdown occurred.
Photo by Derzsi Elekes Andor 

Associate Professor of Chinese Language and Literature David Lee Rolston worked with Mills before her 1990 retirement. “Harriet appeared very formidable,” he says, “but was charming and sweet after you got past the exterior.” When the two saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Emperor together, he recalls, the pair sang along with the film.

Dr. Elleanor Hazel Crown, who first met Mills when she came to U-M in 1967 to pursue a Ph.D., recalls Mills as a fun-loving cat lady. The two spent many Friday evenings “chatting over a gin and tonic while my 18-pound cat purred blissfully in her lap.” Mills and Crown were also travelling companions.

“I will always remember the trips we made together—two American women speaking Chinese on the streets of Mexico City,” Crown says. “I also remember the holidays we shared, often with her sister, Angie, and their mother, Cornelia.”

Mills cared deeply about her scholarship and about her students. “The students either relished the challenge she presented in classes or were quite intimidated by her,” Crown says. “Most of them eventually learned that she was really a softy at heart.”

Barbour Scholar and Ph.D. candidate in psychology Ziyong Lin (above, left) participates in a panel discussion for current graduate students and Rackham alumni. “I’m very curious about the stories of past scholars," she says. "Even though it is much easier than it used to be for international students, there still are a lot of challenges. I can only imagine what life was like for the early scholars and find it inspiring to see how people decided to come to another continent to pursue their dreams.”
Photo by Austin Thomason, © Michigan Photography

Despite her experiences there during the Korean War, Mills eventually returned to China.

“During the 1980s,” Crown says, “Harriet became interested in the woodcuts that were a part of the movement fostered by writer Lu Hsun, who was the subject of Mills’s dissertation, and others to identify and reform the ills in Chinese society.” Mills was again awarded a Fulbright fellowship to China, and she was traveling around visiting archives when the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests erupted. Fearing the worst, Mills’s mother said, “‘I can’t go through this again.’” But this time there was no reason to fear.

Those who knew Mills also remember her efforts to support women’s academic ambitions. As a member of a U-M committee that aimed to increase the number of women pursuing doctoral degrees, Mills contributed to a 1974 report titled “The Higher, the Fewer,” which was presented to the dean of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies.

The report identified systemic obstacles that deterred women from pursuing advanced degrees, such as childcare, lackluster recruiting efforts, and very few programs tailored to part-time and nontraditional students. The report substantiated its findings with statistics, and made suggestions that could help improve women’s representation.

Emeritus Geography Professor Ann Larimore, a longtime friend of Mills’s and a collaborator on the report, recalls the hostility directed toward women who applied to doctoral programs. “There were departments in LSA that accepted women master’s students to train them as high school teachers,” she says, “but they would not accept them as Ph.D. students because they were women."

Mills could address this inequity with authority, Larimore says, because Mills had experienced it herself.

“She was a young women’s college graduate going on a Fulbright, one of the first to China. She had been raised in China by missionary parents and was completely comfortable in Chinese culture and Chinese language,” Larimore says, which were highly suspect accomplishments in the Cold War era. In spite of this, Mills persevered and flourished, becoming a respected scholar and teacher. Mills was also an integral contributor to Rackham’s Barbour Scholarship Program, which provides U-M scholarships to women from Asian countries seeking graduate degrees, which is celebrating its own centennial this year.

Larimore understands the outside interest in Mills’s experiences in China, but she doesn’t want that experience to be what Mills is remembered for—especially at U-M. Her mark here is what Mills did for women at the University. That legacy, she says, is much more important.

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Top image design by Erin Nelson