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In Memoriam: Gene Cooper, 1947-2015

Eugene Cooper was an accomplished China specialist and longtime USC professor of anthropology. He passed away this weekend.

October 20, 2015
Eugene Cooper, USC professor of anthopology
The field of China studies and certainly the China community of Southern California is poorer today than just a few days ago. Eugene (Gene) Cooper joined the anthropology faculty at the University of Southern California in 1980 after earning his doctorate at Columbia University and teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and Hong Kong University. He was in the midst of his fourth decade teaching here when he passed away this past weekend. Gene was widely-cited scholar and a nurturing mentor. He was a proud family man and active in efforts to increase community awareness of China and of the Chinese American experience. 
Few people who spent any time with Gene Cooper could ever forget him. He loved to talk and was relentlessly upbeat, incredibly perceptive, and exceedingly generous with his time and expertise. For years he taught the introductory course for all East Asian Studies graduate students. One of his many fans from this class was Chelsea Mason who wrote this in an email message, “I fondly remember his engaging seminars and his mentorship on my thesis, and how he pushed us all to go deeper in developing our ideas.” In an H-Asia post, two of her classmates quoted Jenny Cool on Prof. Cooper, “Smart-as-a-whip, Brooklyn-bred, revolutionary spirit, it is hard to believe you are gone, painful to write of you in the past tense.... For me, and generations of undergraduate, MVA, MAVA, and Ph.D. students, you were a diligent and stimulating advisor, reading and responding to our work, with interest, insight, speed, and wit.” Gene’s generous mentorship extended to USCI postdoctoral students. He attended their practice job talks and offered advice on the effective marketing of one’s ideas and experiences.  USC recognized this invaluable service by giving him the 2008-2009 Mellon Award for Mentoring.
Gene was a productive and influential scholar on folk customs and their socio-political and economic contexts. His wrote many articles and his books included The Woodcarvers of Hong Kong: Craft Production in the World Capitalist Periphery (1980) and The Artisans and Entrepreneurs of Dongyang County: Economic Reform and Flexible Production in China (1998). He also wrote an engaging tale about his experiences trying to carry out research in China entitled, Adventures in Chinese Bureaucracy: A meta-anthropological saga (2000), and he co-edited an anthropology textbook. 
Some of the spark and curiosity that made Gene special comes across in the interview we conducted with him on his last book, The Market and Temple Fairs of Rural China: Red Fire (2012). Please take a moment to watch this short video.  
But Gene’s audiences extended far beyond USC. He, of course, lectured widely, but also appeared on Chinese television singing Chinese songs. In 2005 he won second place in a week-long televised “Arts of Our Land” talent competition. Those performer instincts served him well as an anthropologist, using his language skills and obvious appreciation for Chinese culture to bond with artisans, fairgoers, and many others. 
In addition to his scholarly writing, Gene was frequently sought out by reporters for his insights into a wide range of topics from the rising popularity of mah-jongg and the potential of lunar new year becoming a mainstream American holiday to business matters including cell phone use and restaurant prospects. In 2008, he participated in an institute symposium on the Beijing Olympics, offering a great commentary about sports and U.S.-China relations. You may enjoy reading the US-China Today version of it. 
Gene knew quite a lot about the attraction of China for young people. He, of course, had fallen under the spell in the 1960s. And when one of our student journalists was writing about skateboarding in China, we were able to turn to Gene’s son, Raph Cooper, who launched China’s first skateboard company. 
Our deepest sympathies go to Gene’s wife and his children. Gene Cooper was a tremendous colleague, mentor, and community member. All of us who knew him were fortunate to have him in our lives.   
For those wishing to comment on Gene's work or how he touched their lives, please go to our Facebook page, tweet us @usc_uschina or write to us at