SOAS University of London

In Memoriam: Prof. Rolf Gerhard Tiedemann 1941—2019

20 August 2019
R.G. Tiedemann

By Lars Peter Laamann

When I joined SOAS as an undergraduate student in 1987, the study of Christianity in China had been relegated to a sub-category of Western imperialism, and the mere mention of the term “missionary” produced reactions ranging from nostalgic wistfulness to outright hostility amongst the historians of the day. SOAS was trying to shake off its connotation to Britain’s colonial past and even during the 1990s, when discussing ideas for my later PhD topic, I was told categorically by a SOAS historian that “we don’t do missionary history”. Until Gary Tiedemann changed the parameters – setting a trend which, through his many PhD students, has generated a whole generation of researchers devoted to the localised study of Christian communities in China. For this was the real subject of fascination for Gary Tiedemann, namely to identify what went on in the minds of the Christian converts, of their non-Christian neighbours and, as one factor amongst many others, what motivated the missionaries who had travelled to destinations in eastern Asia which had never featured on Western maps, since there was no profitable trade to be made. In other words, Prof. Tiedemann (Chinese name: Di Deman 狄德滿) was contributing to the study of Christianity’s inculturation in China, and therefore of Christianity as an indigenous Chinese religion. There very concept of communal self-identification by means of implanted, i.e. missionary, religion was beginning to define itself precisely during the 1980s, a process which Gary Tiedemann engaged in with growing fascination. Not that he could claim to be the founding father of this revolutionary redefinition of missionary agency; scholars such as Erik Zürcher (Leiden), Daniel Bays (Calvin Univ.), Brian Stanley (Edinburgh) and Nicolas Standaert (K.U. Leuven) did the groundwork which so greatly inspired Prof. Tiedemann. His contribution would be to link the activity of the missionaries active in China via London – whose records form the core of the SOAS archives – with the study of inculturation based on the Jesuit missions of the 16th–18th centuries. This literally put SOAS on the map of global research into Christianity in China, testified by the continuous trail of PhD students who studied with Gary, the international links which he helped create and the countless research projects which he inspired.

The immediate reactions to his death from the most diverse places across the globe also pay testimony to the virtual “Gary Tiedemann family” which has sprung up in the wake of his academic activity. This is particularly true for the [Matteo] Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco (Prof. Wu Xiaoxin 吳小新), where he as Visiting Research Professor pioneered the digital use of archival information in the History of Christianity in China database project during the late 1990s. The same is true for his close contacts with the Centre for East-Western Cultural Exchange at the Central China Normal University 華中師範大學東西文化交流中心 in Wuhan (Professors Zhang Kaiyuan 章開沅, Ma Min 馬敏 and Xu Bingsan 徐炳三). On the basis of these contacts, I was able to present a lecture on the SOAS Special Collections archives there last October, which attracted an audience of around 150 historians from universities in the greater Wuhan region. These scholars are very much aware of the contribution which Gary Tiedemann has made to the study of Sino-Western history, and of the potential which SOAS holds as a research partner.

In addition to his interest in early modern Christianity in China, Gary Tiedemann had a parallel historical pursuit, namely the simple, disadvantaged and poor population, which in pre-modern terms – and certainly in China – meant the peasantry. The insight necessary for this grew out of the material deprivation during his own childhood and the rural, indeed pastoral, roots of his North-German pedigree. It is therefore not surprising that he co-edited with Graham Dyer the Journal of Peasant Studies. His understanding of the peasantry as the agents of political change also became clear in the choice of his doctoral research topic, namely the Movement for Righteousness and Harmony 義和團 (“Boxers”), who attacked all things foreign and Christian around 1900. It is precisely for this research that Gary Tiedemann is remembered in China today, with the greatest admiration at Shandong University 山東大學, where he was awarded (on the initiative of Professors Lu Yao 路遥 and Liu Jiafeng 劉家峯) with a full professorship following his retirement from SOAS in recognition of his research and of his teaching for their students. A panel at the conference organised at Shandong University on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the Boxer Movement in October 2020 will therefore be devoted to Prof. Tiedemann. Five years previously, in August 2015, he overcame the first serious symptoms of his cancer by presenting a paper on the Boxers at the 22nd International Historical Science Conference at Jinan University (Shandong). His sudden departure means that next year, alas, Prof. Tiedemann will be following the proceedings from well beyond the auditorium.

Given his encyclopaedic memory, his insatiable attention to detail and the scholarly networks which he managed to establish, it seems surprising that most of his publications date to the time after his retirement from SOAS in 2006. To those who observed the pressure he was under in terms of teaching and PhD supervision, however, this will come as no surprise. Once officially retired, Prof. Tiedemann produced a steady flow of articles and edited volumes. The combination of his empirical knowledge and of the many languages which he could read proved invaluable when the “Ricci Roundtable on the History of Christianity in China” (San Francisco: Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco) added a great number of meticulously researched biographies and historical entries to their database, courtesy Gary Tiedemann.

His Reference Guide to Christian Missionary Societies in China: From the 16th to the 20th Century (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2008, republished in Chinese as Xiwen yihetuan wenxian ziliao huibian 《西文義和團文獻資料彙編》 “Compilation of Western documentary material on the Boxers” (山東大學出版社 Shandong University Press, 2016) paid testimony for his knowledge concerning missionary history in China. But he will arguably be best remembered for the Handbook of the History of Christianity in China, Vol. 2: 1800 to the Present (Leiden: Brill, 2009), which encapsulates the sheer breadth of his insight (Gary Tiedemann wrote half of the entries himself). The same should be said about his doctoral thesis “Rural unrest in North China 1868–1900: With particular reference to South Shandong” (SOAS, University of London, 1991), were it not for the fact that this pathbreaking œuvre proved too bulky for publication. A edited Chinese translation of his thesis appeared less than a decade ago in China, namely as Huabeide baoli he konghuang – yihetuan yundong qianxi jidujia chuanbo he shehui chongtu 《華北的暴力和恐慌——義和團運動前夕基督教傳播和社會衝突》 (“Violence and Panic in Northern China: Missionary activity and social conflicts on the eve of the Boxer Uprising”, 江蘇人民出版社 Jiangsu People’s Press, 2011). The logical conclusion of his doctoral research was the fruit of his collaboration with Robert Bickers, The Boxers, China, and the World (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), which may soon be translated into Chinese by Shandong University Press in testimony to his influence on research concerning the Boxer movement.

Until his very last days, Gary Tiedemann busied himself producing conference papers, journal articles and book chapters, some of which reappeared in Chinese or German translation. A selection of his more recent articles (for a complete list, connect to https://rgtiedemann.com/cv/) is presented beneath:

“Communist Revolution and Peasant Mobilisation in the Hinterland of North China: The Early Years.” Henry Bernstein and Tom Brass (eds.), Agrarian Questions: Essays in Appreciation of T. J. Byres, Special Issue of The Journal of Peasant Studies 24, no.1–no.2) (London: Frank Cass, 1996), pp. 132–152;

“They also served! Missionary interventions in North China, 1900–1945.” Feiya Tao and Philip Yuen-Sang Leung (eds.), Reinterpreting East Asian Christianity (Hong Kong: Center for the Study of Religion and Chinese Society, Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2004), pp.155–194;

“Social Gospel and Fundamentalism: Conflicting Approaches in the Protestant Missionary Enterprise in China (1840–1911).” In The Catholic Church and the Chinese World: Between Colonialism and Evangelization (1840–1911), edited by Agostino Giovagnoli and Elisa Giunipero, (Vatican City: Urbaniana University Press, 2005), pp. 83–105;

“The Church Militant: Armed Conflicts between Christians and Boxers in North China.” Robert Bickers and R. G. Tiedemann (eds.), The Boxers, China and the World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), pp. 23–28.

“Foreign Missionaries, Chinese Christians and the 1911 Revolution.” Tripod 31 (2011), pp. 12–34.

“Comity Agreements and Sheep Stealers: The Elusive Search for Christian Unity among Protestants in China.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 35, no.1 (2012), pp. 3–8;

“The leading Christians of Jiangnan in the early Qing period”, Ferdinand Verbiest Institute (eds.), History of the Catholic Church in China: From its Beginning to the Scheut Fathers and the 20th Century, (Leuven: Ferdinand Verbiest Institute at the K.U. Leuven, 2015);

“Catholic Mission Stations in Northern China: Centres of Stability and Protection in Troubled Times”, in Lars Laamann & Joseph Lee, The Church as Safe Haven: Christian Governance in China, (Leiden: Brill, 2019), pp. 261–290

… in addition to a forthcoming chapter for an edited volume honouring the academic work of Brian Stanley.

May this brief summary of Gary Tiedemann’s dedication to the history of the peasantry and of Christianity in modern China serve to remember his contribution to the global reputation of our School. As importantly, may Gary always be remembered as a kind, patient and tolerant member of our community. He will be missed by many.

Lars Peter Laamann
SOAS, History Department



Gary Tiedemann’s funeral will take place on 29 August at the West Norwood Crematorium (London SE27). If you wish to attend, please write to LL10@soas.ac.uk, in order to facilitate his family’s funeral preparations. No flowers please, donations to the Royal Marsden Hospital instead.

For further information, contact:

sci@soas.ac.uk