Sinologie in Würzburg

Nachruf Dieter Kuhn

Obituary for Dieter Kuhn

On Thursday, March 1st 2024 the renowned sinologist and long-term professor at Würzburg University, Prof.em. Dr. Dieter Kuhn passed away.

Dieter Kuhn was born in 1946 in Karlsruhe, Germany. He completed the diploma of business administration for industrial textile production before he pursued a Master of Arts in the fields of Sinology, Manchu Studies, and Art History at the University of Cologne. After his graduation he advanced to conduct doctoral studies in Sinology, East Asian and European Art History. He received his PhD with a dissertation on the ‘Traditions of the Joiners’ Craft’ from 1264 – The earliest technical description of looms, which he published in 1977 (Die Webstühle des Tzu-jen i-chih aus der Yuan Zeit. Sinologica Coloniensia 5. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 1977.)

His expertise in textile technology remained a constant source of inspiration for further extensive studies on material Chinese culture throughout his academic career. His mono-graphs on the history of textile technology in China include Chinese Baskets and Mats, published in 1980, Zur Entwicklung der Webstuhltechnologie im alten China (Würzburger Sinologische Schriften. Heidelberg: Edition Forum 1990), an historical overview of Chinese loom technology, as well as his authoritative volume titled Textile Technology: Spinning and Reeling. It was published by Cambridge University Press in 1988 as volume 5, part 9 in the series Science and Civilisation in China, initiated and directed by polymath Dr. Joseph Needham of Cambridge University, a milestone in the study of China’s history of science and technology in the 20th century. For his merits, Kuhn was appointed Honorary Associate of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, in 2003.

As principal investigator and head of the research project ‘Silk Manufactures of the Ming and Early Qing Period’ funded by the German Research Council, Kuhn and his collaborators explored the economic and institutional organization of the imperial textile workshops of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Most recently he was invited by Yale University Press to co-author and edit the encyclopedic state-of-the-art survey Chinese Silks, published in 2012 as part of the Sino-American publishing project ‘Culture and Civilization of China’ by Yale University Press, New Haven, and Foreign Language Press, Beijing. The volume received in 2012 the R.L. Shep Ethnic Textiles Book Award of the Textile Society of America. These and further monographs and a plethora of research articles, which are too numerous to list here, established his international reputation as one of the foremost scholars in the history of Chinese textiles, textile technology and material culture.

textile technology and material culture. Much of Kuhn’s early research was conducted at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan in 1975-1976. In 1977 Joseph Needham invited him to join his ‘Science and Civilisation in China Project’ at Cambridge University as research associate. A few years later, in 1980, Kuhn was appointed assistant professor of East Asian Art History at Heidelberg University. In this period of his career he became technical editor of the exhibition catalogue on Ming and Qing painting of the Liaoning Provincial Museum (Lothar Ledderose (ed.), Im Schatten hoher Bäume. Malerei der Ming- und Qing-Dynastien (1368-1911) aus der Volksrepublik China, published in 1985). In 1986 a Heisenberg fellowship and a research fellowship by the Max Planck Society brought him an invitation of the Academia Sinica to Beijing University after he had completed his ‘Habilitation’ at the Free University of Berlin in the previous year. In the 1980s conducting academic research by non-Chinese citizens at the national flagship university was a rare privilege. Visiting research institutions, museum collections, excavation sites and discussing with Chinese colleagues was only possible with supportive letters of introduction by Chinese colleagues of renown. Kuhn had the support from and enjoyed the intellectual exchange with such famous scholars as Xia Nai, Su Bai, Hu Daojing, Pan Jixing and Deng Guangming among others, who dominated their respective fields of Chinese archaeology, technology and history during their professional life.

Due to his excellent international reputation Kuhn was very soon afterwards, in 1988, appointed full professor to the chair of ‘Philology of the Far East’ at the University of Würzburg. Although he was repeatedly invited to take up positions at other universities in later years, - tempting as such changes might have been - he decided to stay at the University of Würzburg and continued to build the department he had helped to shape and to raise into a center for study and research about East and South Asia until he retired in 2011. Kuhn made only one exception to his presence in Würzburg: In the spring of 2010 he followed an invitation by the East Asian Studies Program of Princeton University to teach as visiting professor and participate in the research cluster ‘New Directions in the Study of Early Modern Asia’.

Starting in the 1980s Dieter Kuhn contributed substantially to open new horizons for the study of the middle period of imperial China by focusing on archaeological evidence. In 1987 he published a monograph on the Song Dynasty (Die Song-Dynastie (960-1279) – eine Gesellschaft im Spiegel ihrer Kultur). In the internationally excellently reviewed book he took a fresh and thought provoking approach to the history of a then often misrepresented epoch of Chinese history with a focus on material culture and objects discovered in archaeological excavations.

In association with the research project titled ‘Tombs of the Song Period’ which resulted in six monographs that internationally established the field of Song and Liao period tomb culture and encompassed studies of tomb architecture, funerary inscriptions, and burial customs, he authored the monographs A Place for the Dead. An Archaeological Documentary on Graves and Tombs of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Die Kunst des Grabbaus. Kuppelgräber der Liao-Zeit (907–1125), published in 1997 and How the Qidan Reshaped the Tradition of the Chinese Dome-shaped Tomb, published in 1998. The research results opened new views on the economy, the social stratification, and the history of burial customs of the period. His interest in this era of watershed-change in Chinese history is ongoing and culminated in his invited contribution to the Harvard Series ‘History of Imperial China’ titled The Age of Confucian Rule. The Song Transformation of China published in 2009. The book is now a widely assigned textbook among academic institutions in the United States and the Chinese translation quickly became a bestseller among history publications in the People’s Republic.

With his intelligible and clear writing Kuhn makes his research accessible to both, specialists in the field and the general public. One recent example targeting a broad audience is Kuhn’s ‘History of East Asia until the Year 1800’ (Ostasien bis 1800, published in 2014 by Fischer as volume 13 of the Fischer New World History series in 21 volumes). The book provides a comprehensive survey of the political, economic and cultural developments, transformations and interchanges in the three dominant East Asian cultures of China, Japan, and Korea.

As an emeritus he remained highly productive and continued to publish articles and monographies among which An Epic of Technical Supremacy: Works and Words of Medieval Chinese Textile Technology (Abegg-Stiftung 2022) rounded up his longstanding research on textile technology.

But Dieter Kuhn did not just write books to share his scholarship. In 1993 his expertise in Chinese art history won him the invitation by the city of Dortmund to organize an exhibition and produce the related catalogue on the ‘Golden Age of China, the Tang Dynasty’, 618 CE-907 CE. The exhibition celebrated the partnership between the sister-cities of Dortmund and Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, and for centuries in the first millennium the capital of the Chinese empire. This exquisite art show was the most comprehensive presentation of Tang-period objects in Germany and presented many artifacts classified as national cultural treasures for the first time outside of China. As one of the most successful exhibitions on Chinese art in Germany, it attracted more than 140 000 visitors.

The appreciation of and fascination with antiquity and antiques in Chinese imperial history was another field of inquiry pursued by Kuhn. The international conferences on ‘The Present of Antiquity’ (Die Gegenwart des Altertums, conference volume published in 2001) and Perceptions of Antiquity in Chinese Civilization (international conference volume published in 2008) that he organized in Würzburg in 1999 and 2004 respectively, not only brought together scholars from various disciplines but spearheaded questions that the field of Chinese studies of the pre-modern period has begun to answer in seminal publications only in the past decade, years after he had initiated the intellectual discussion.

But it is not only China’s pre-modern history that fascinates Kuhn. When his tasks as an administrator required his close attention to redesigning the Chinese Studies program at the University of Würzburg in order to meet the new educational mission of opening German academic institutions to European and international students who needed a curriculum that included present and contemporary issues in Chinese history, Kuhn decided to explore and include more recent periods of China’s history in his research. The best approach in his experience was – to write a book! In the end it were two: He is the author of the first German language monograph on the events of World War II in China based on Chinese and Japanese primary sources, titled Der Zweite Weltkrieg in China, and published in 1999. Inspired by his interest in China’s Republican Era a factual history of the Republic of China followed in 2004 Die Republik China von 1912 bis 1937: Entwurf für eine politische Ereignisgeschichte in two volumes (The 3rd revised edition was published in 2007).

Kuhn’s research, his teaching, as well as his administrative competence enhanced the visibility of the Sinology Department of the University of Würzburg beyond the university and Germany in what one might call ‘the Republic of Letters of the Digital Age’. Kuhn’s conviction that the study of China in the Humanities and Social Sciences was relevant to the education of today’s students but also to serve the public interest generated a dynamic development in the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Würzburg. Under his guidance, it developed from one of the smaller institutes among German universities into a department with three full professor positions and one of the highest numbers of graduates in Germany. This success is due to Kuhn’s introduction of innovative study programs, such as

  1. Modern China, the first Bachelor program in the field of Chinese Studies in Germany that started in 2002 (first accredited in 2006), and included one full semester at Peking University;
  2. The first master program in Chinese Studies in Germany fully taught in English that started in 2007; and
  3. The master programs China Business and Economics (in close cooperation with the Faculty of Economics).

Furthermore, Kuhn was the driving force when establishing the departments of Japanology and Indology at the University of Würzburg.

In 2016, the University of Würzburg awarded him for his merits its highest academic award, the Roentgen Medal.

Dieter Kuhn’s substantial academic accomplishments are documented by the long list of publications which cover an impressive field of research topics in Chinese Studies, briefly introduced above. A scholar of his academic stature with matching administrative skills is hard to find and as rare as the proverbial Qilin, the Chinese unicorn.

Dieter Kuhn’s academic legacy is nothing short of remarkable: Within the field of Chinese Studies he has defined new perspectives in the field of Chinese Studies and has made long-lasting contributions to the innovative design of academic programs in Chinese Studies at German universities. Former students have become academic teachers in Europe, the US and China. And since he retired he continues to present us with new research results.

In short: Throughout his career Dieter Kuhn promoted, preserved and personified the classical values of a scholar, while never falling short on his responsibilities towards the public.

His death after a fulfilled life as academic and teacher leaves a difficult to fill gap in the field and among all those that have known him.