Sinologie in Würzburg

Obituary for Prof. em. Dr. Dieter Kuhn


On Thursday, March 21st 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.

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, 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.

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. 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.

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 continued to present us with new research results.

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.

This is a shortened version of the obituary. The full version can be found on this page.