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Jonathan Mirsky, Journalist and Historian of China, Dies at 88

todaySeptember 26, 2021 7

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Dr. Mirsky managed to dictate his article by phone. The next morning he cycled back to Tiananmen, where he saw soldiers shoot parents who were trying to enter the square to look for children who had not returned home. He said he also saw soldiers shoot doctors and nurses who had come to the scene to help the injured. (Many China scholars still regard as unresolved how many people were killed in the crackdown and where they died; estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands.)

“Tiananmen Square became a place of horror,” Dr. Mirsky wrote in his front-page article on the day of the crackdown, “where tanks and troops fought with students and workers, where armored personnel carriers burned and blood lay in pools on the stones.”

Dr. Mirsky was named international reporter of the year at the 1989 British Press Awards for his Tiananmen coverage.

Jonathan Mirsky was born on Nov. 14, 1932, in Manhattan to Alfred E. Mirsky, a prominent biochemist, and Reba Paeff Mirsky, a musician and author of children’s books. He studied at the Fieldston School in New York and received a bachelor’s degree in history from Columbia University. He studied Mandarin at the University of Cambridge and in 1958 moved with his wife, Betsy, to Taiwan, where he studied Chinese and Tang Dynasty history for four years.

Dr. Mirsky’s first marriage ended in divorce, and in 1963 he married Rhona Pearson, a British neurobiologist. After he received a Ph.D. in Chinese history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, he began teaching at Dartmouth College, where he was the co-director of the East Asia Language and Area Studies Center.

As a professor, Dr. Mirsky was an active participant in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. He traveled to Southeast Asia multiple times and conducted lengthy interviews with North Vietnamese government officials. He participated in meetings and sit-ins, and he was arrested in 1972, along with other Dartmouth faculty members and students, for blocking a bus carrying draftees.

Dr. Mirsky failed to receive tenure at Dartmouth. So in 1975 he and his wife moved to London, where he eventually became a journalist. In addition to working as a China correspondent for The Observer, he wrote over the decades for a range of publications, including The Independent and Literary Review.

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