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Former students and colleagues remembered Philip A. Kuhn ’54, once director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and professor of History and East Asian Languages, for his contributions to Chinese studies and mentorship of graduate students.
Kuhn passed away earlier this month at the age of 82.
After teaching at the University of Chicago for 15 years, Professor Kuhn came to Harvard in 1978 to fill a teaching post for modern Chinese History after John K. Fairbank ’29, founder of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, retired. Kuhn served as the Director of the Fairbank Center for six years from 1980 to 1986 and previously chaired the East Asian Languages and Civilizations department.
Current professors and former students remembered Kuhn specifically for his pioneering work in the field of Chinese history studies.
“He moved Chinese history at Harvard in fascinating new directions,” said Michael A. Szonyi, current director of the Fairbank Center.
Szonyi pointed to Kuhn’s leading role in using the historical archives of China, which were not widely available to foreign scholars until the 1970s and 1980s. Kuhn formed friendships with Chinese scholars, thus introducing “a whole generation... to the Chinese intellectual world through Philip,” Szonyi said.
William C. Kirby, former director of the Fairbank Center and student of Kuhn, said Kuhn’s graciousness towards Chinese delegations in the 1980s also helped with Harvard-China relations.
Matthew W. Mosca, a former graduate student of Kuhn's and current assistant professor at the University of Washington, said Kuhn’s scholarship was especially well-crafted.
“He took intimate amount of pain and care with his published research,” Mosca said.
One of Kuhn’s books, “Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768,” was widely-read in mainland China when a translation became available in 1999.
“His work really hasn’t aged in life. I think people will continue to read it for many decades to come,” Mosca said.
To students and colleagues who read his work, Kuhn was an exemplary scholar who openly shared research experience and mentored graduate students.
“I still remember reading ‘Rebellion and Its Enemies,’ his book on China, when I was an undergrad student,” Szonyi said.
Prasenjit Duara, a former graduate student of Kuhn's and professor emeritus of history and East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago, said Kuhn was a generous mentor and described the extra time he spent teaching Chinese even during the summer.
“I will remember him first and foremost as a mentor who really helped me understand what it was to become a professional historian in every sense of the word,” Duara said. “I will remember him as a person of professional and moral integrity.”
Kuhn’s personal character also left a lasting impact. Both Szonyi and Kirby attested to Kuhn’s “wicked” and “extraordinary” sense of humor and his affinity for word puns.
Friends and family will host a memorial service for Kuhn on April 8 in Memorial Church, Szonyi said.
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