Tributes to Rudolf Wagner (1941-2019)

The Fairbank Center remembers our Center Associate, friend, and colleague

We are sad to announce that our colleague and friend Rudolf Wagner, Senior Professor at the University of Heidelberg, passed away on Friday, October 25, 2019, at the age of 77.

Professor Wagner was a Center Associate at the Fairbank Center, having first come to Harvard as a Harkness Fellow from 1969 to 1971, and later in 1984 as a Visiting Professor at the Fairbank Center. He spent his career between Germany, the U.S., and China, serving most recently as Senior Professor and Co-Director of the Cluster of Excellence on Asia and Europe at the University of Heidelberg. In his retirement, Professor Wagner spent several months in residence at the Fairbank Center each year.

He played an active role as Center Associate at the Fairbank Center, bringing intellectual eclecticism, sharp wit, and good humor to the China studies community at Harvard. He will be sorely missed by all of us here. On behalf of the Center, Director Michael Szonyi has sent condolences to Rudolf’s wife, Professor Cathy Yeh, and his family.

Tribute from Barbara Mittler

On October 25th, 2019 Rudolf G. Wagner died, surrounded by his family. He was 77 years old.

Heidelberg has lost one its great inspirations, one of the great European sinologists, who built one of the most important China libraries in Germany and Europe and became Spiritus Rector of Heidelberg’s Excellence Cluster Asia and Europe in a Global Context. From these beginnings, he built the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies and from it an entire Asia Campus has come into being, CATS, the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies.

Rudolf G. Wagner was, if one may say so, a living specimen of “transcultural dynamics”: going back and forth between not just Harvard and Heidelberg, but Taipei and Beijing, Tokyo and Paris, and a variety of other places, too, he has been a constant presence to many of us, nevertheless (and he will continue to, in our memories). His frequent emails from anywhere and everywhere, tenor “get this, read this, buy this,” have been an unceasing stimulation.

Harvard University, Fairbank Center 60th Anniversary, October 7, 2017.

He has made us expand our visions and trajectories by fostering a spirit of openness, of discussion and often fierce, but always fair debate–full of bon mots, in the truest sense of the word–that involved the body and mind and that always included good food, good music, good art. He made us go to Théatre du Soleil, he took us to exhibitions of panopticons and much more, and he always reminded us, not to “never forget class struggle” (although that was also one of his concerns) but, “never to forget the Heidelberg opera.” He taught us multiple–and always intensive–ways of seeing, feeling, hearing.

The range of Rudolf G. Wagner’s work is impressively wide in terms not only of its chronological scope, but also its rich subject matter and geographical expanse: as wide as the Clusters’ that he once founded–and far beyond. He figures as one of the most influential thinkers in the field of Transcultural Studies. His research has been pioneering throughout; Rudolf’s inspiring intellectual leadership has made it clear that transculturality must be seen as the norm rather than the exception in human societies, and long before the advent of global capital and modern media connectivity. Rudolf G. Wagner has set the example through his own research which carried this postulate from a purely programmatic assertion at a meta-level to the thicket of detailed research, the results of which are available in numerous publications on a range of themes centered on China and the world–the use of metaphors to describe the agency of the nation, the workings of the press, encyclopedias, or the entertainment world. His publications frequently bring alive the main actors of the transcultural worlds he investigates: sometimes he calls them “barbarians,” sometimes “walking niches,” sometimes “cultural brokers.” But he moved on to much more timeless actors: trees, water, the wind, the earth, took center stage in his research. His ceaseless productivity–where stunning breadth goes hand in hand with rich detail–has demonstrated in the most effective way the enormous potential of transculturality for research in the Humanities and the Social Sciences and opened a dialogue with the Natural Sciences. This rich harvest has inspired discussions in domains far beyond Sinology, and in Germany and the world. He went too early for many of us: on its way toward new directions, the Institute of Sinology, the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, and CATS as a whole will miss his generosity, his openness, and his disputatious nature dearly.

This tribute first appeared on MCLC