In Memoriam: Former Fairbank Center Director, Professor Philip A. Kuhn (1933 - 2016)

February 15, 2016
In Memoriam: Former Fairbank Center Director, Professor Philip A. Kuhn (1933 - 2016)

We are saddened to report the news of the death of our friend and former Director Philip Kuhn.

Born on September 9, 1933, Philip Kuhn was the elder son of Ferdinand and Delia Kuhn, to whom he dedicated his first book, Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China; Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press). After attending Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington D.C., Philip received his A.B. from Harvard College. After receiving an M.A. from Georgetown University, he returned to Harvard University to complete a Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages under the guidance of John K. Fairbank.    

After teaching at the University of Chicago for fifteen years from 1963 to 1978, Philip returned to Harvard University as Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations (later Emeritus) after John K. Fairbank’s retirement.

Philip served as Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies (then the East Asian Research Center) from 1980 to 1986. His tenure left a lasting impact on the Fairbank Center, notably with the establishment of the An Wang Postdoctoral Fellowship that continues to this day.   

Philip leaves his own legacy with us in the form of his pioneering research on China, in particular Chinese social history and the “impact-response” school of Western scholarship on China. As Mirian E. Wells wrote in a review of Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990):

 is a 
those outside academia...Kuhn had the reputation in the China field to merit reviews by luminaries such as Frederic Wakeman Jr. and Jonathan Spence. In part this is due to a 
 scholars—but much 
 Kuhn’s stature. All
 in all, he has given us 
a vivid, identifiable past, and made not one case, but several, for interpreting this 
slice of
more immediate way.

Philip’s contribution to Chinese studies continues to be realized through the groundbreaking work of his former students who continue to redefine the boundaries of the field and still play an active role in the intellectual life of the Fairbank Center.

Philip is survived by his two children, Anthony and Deborah W. Kuhn. We will keep the Fairbank Center community informed of plans for a memorial in his honor.


Below, current Harvard faculty pay tribute to Philip’s friendship and lasting impression on the field of Chinese studies.

Michael A. Szonyi, Director of the Fairbank Center (2016 - present)

Philip Kuhn was a great scholar, but I will remember him most for his kindness to me and my family and for his wit.  His groan-worthy puns enlivened his interactions with everyone and encouraged us to take ourselves just a little less seriously.  His death is a great loss to our community.

Ezra Vogel, Professor Emeritus, former Director of the Fairbank Center (1973-75, 1995-99)

Phil Kuhn was a historian's historian, a favorite among John Fairbank's students who in turn trained a generation of scholars studying modern Chinese history. Phil Kuhn set very high standards for historical research, beginning with himself.

William Kirby, former Director of the Fairbank Center (2006-07, 2008-10, 2011-13)

I had the honor of knowing Philip in many roles. When John Fairbank retired, Philip came to town and treated Fairbank’s students (like me) as his own, and he made us his own. He was a careful reader of dissertations and an unstoppable supporter of our students.

A decade or so later I became Philip’s colleague in our History Department. We taught together a number of graduate pro-seminars and readings courses on the intellectual lineages of the field of modern Chinese history. That Philip was first and foremost a historian, and deeply learned, and a China historian second, made all the difference.

A decade later still I was dean of the Faculty and Philip was chair of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. I think I still reported to him. His powerful mind, sharp wit, and unspeakable puns made him a faculty leader of the College and University he loved and served.

Philip was, like Fairbank, his mentor—whose work he understood better than anyone—a demanding and supportive teacher of the next generations of China historians. Philip's students are defining the field anew in at least three continents. His original mind and his relentless intellectual curiosity live on through them.

Elizabeth Perry, former Director of the Fairbank Center (1999 - 2002)

Philip Kuhn was one of those rare scholars who wrote little and yet said a very great deal.  REBELLION AND ITS ENEMIES re-oriented the modern China field from a fixation on "China's response to the West" to a fascination with the internal dynamics that unraveled the imperial system. SOULSTEALERS, by contrast, showed how seemingly bizarre folk beliefs could work to sustain autocratic rule.  Philip was not only a brilliant and influential scholar; he was also a generous colleague.  His overly kind review of my own first book helped lend it credibility among historians; his invitation to teach at Harvard as a visiting professor in 1982-83 introduced me to the rich research resources of this university; his sage (and entertaining!) advice as a former director of the Fairbank Center spared me many a misstep.

Mark C. Elliott, Vice-Provost for International Affairs, former Director of the Fairbank Center (2010-11, 2013-15)

To be in Philip's company was to be with someone who delighted in the keen observation of people and politics.  Behind the wry smile at some human foible—whether of a Chinese bureaucrat or of a Harvard colleague—lay the deep and sympathetic humanitarianism of a true junzi.  Great as his contributions to the study of Chinese history were, he wore that academic authority lightly, preferring either to roll up his sleeves in earnest alongside his many students, or to share a wicked pun with friends over a meal (always Chinese food).  Like his teacher, John Fairbank, he was utterly committed to the very highest standards of historical scholarship, to the broad integration of Chinese studies into the American academy, and to Harvard.

See also: 2016, February, 15