Professor Denis Twitchett

Prodigious historian of China


Denis Crispin Twitchett, Chinese scholar: born London 23 September 1925; Lecturer in Far Eastern History, London University 1954-56, Professor of Chinese, Soas 1960-68; University Lecturer in Classical Chinese, Cambridge University 1956-60, Professor of Chinese 1968-80; FBA 1967; Gordon Wu Professor of Chinese Studies, Princeton University 1980-94; Principal Editor, Cambridge History of China 1977-2006; married 1956 Umeko Ichikawa (died 1993; two sons); died Cambridge 24 February 2006.

Denis Twitchett was a prodigiously able and energetic scholar who pioneered English-language research on the financial and legal administration of dynastic China. Through his own abundant publications and editing of others' work, Twitchett made an unprecedented contribution to the field of pre-modern Chinese history.

He exemplified an ideal for his own and later generations of scholars working on the Tang empire in China (AD 618-907): an ability to integrate the information contained in conventional dynastic sources with the fresh discoveries of archaeologists and others from the beginning of the 20th century. He was a master both of the copious documentation that has been transmitted on the medieval Chinese state and of the massive archive of documents recovered from Cave 17 at Dunhuang, the great desert oasis staging post on the Silk Road to Western Asia. Twitchett's command of the secondary literature covering this field, in European languages, Chinese and Japanese, was also superb.

He approached the history of Tang administration initially through Japanese scholarship, and his debt to the best Japanese analyses of Tang primary sources was considerable and openly acknowledged. In the empirical and highly detailed studies of such scholars as Hino Kaisaburo, Aoyama Sadao and others, he found an outlook fully compatible with his own. His own early, closely focused and meticulous articles on such topics as Tang Buddhist monastic estates and extant fragments of Water Board ordinances, and his first book, Financial Administration under the T'ang Dynasty (1963), set an entirely new standard in English language scholarship on East Asian history. Their incisive analyses have stood the test of time.

He had many other interests. In 1983, he published a monograph on the early history of printing in China (Printing and Publishing in Medieval China). He was an expert on Chinese criminal codes and on the judicial procedures and legal institutions of medieval China. On a famous occasion, he once lectured at Harvard at short notice and, as was his custom, without notes, giving his audience a succinct summary of Tang criminal law.

His reading in Tang poetry was extensive, not simply because it provided abundant historical information of the kind he applied to his own research but also because he appreciated the variety and individuality of the many poetic voices that have survived from the Tang period. The scholar who once empathised that "it is always difficult to be a Chinese" was deeply drawn to the complex tensions and frustrated world of the major Tang lyric poets.

Twitchett's later interests moved towards institutional history. His writing on the political aspects of the Tang empire derived authority from his effortless command of the often highly technical language of its civil bureaucracy. His third book was an analysis of the official sources for Tang history (The Writing of Official History Under the T'ang, 1992). In great detail, he showed that the urbane and apparently seamless narrative of the voluminous Old Tang History was the result of a long and often factionally distorted process of information collection, editing and re-editing. Behind this process lay the élite institutions of the period, the central government ministries, the ritual agencies, the imperial library, the music bureau, the History Office, a Tang dynasty innovation founded in 629, and, in some cases, the emperors themselves.

Another interest was the handbooks on emperorship associated with some of the ablest sovereigns of the Tang dynasty, including Taizong (r. 626-649), Gaozong (r. 649-683) and the Empress Wu (r. 690-705). The results of this later research were published in his mid-Seventies and included exhaustively annotated translations.

Twitchett's greatest editorial achievement was the Cambridge History of China, initially planned in 1966 with the late Professor John King Fairbank of Harvard as a series of six volumes, but subsequently much extended. In this project, which occupied him until the end of his life, Twitchett's wide reading, extensive connections in Japan, Europe and North America and shrewd judgement bore fruit. He inherited a commitment to the British periodical Asia Major, originally edited by Walter Simon, his predecessor as Professor of Chinese at Soas. Under his guidance, publication of Asia Major continued first at Princeton and then, from 1996, at Academia Sinica in Taiwan. He also edited the Times Atlas of China (1975).

Denis Twitchett hated any form of pomposity and was unerring in identifying cant. He was impatient of the dogmatic scholarship that emanated from the People's Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution, and was unwilling to visit the China of that period. He had a highly developed social conscience and was sympathetic to social and racial minorities. Perhaps this was what lay behind yet another theme in his writing, the later interest he showed in the history of the powerful and independent empire of the Tibetans in the Tang period as well as that of the Liao Dynasty (AD 916-1168).

Born in 1925, Twitchett was educated at Isleworth County School, winning a state scholarship to read Geography at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. The Second World War intervened: he attended Liverpool University in 1942-43 as a naval cadet, reading Medieval History and Geography. He underwent six months of training in Japanese at Bletchley Park, followed by service in the Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy as a Japanese-language officer.

From 1946 Twitchett studied Modern Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London, and the following year moved to Cambridge to read for the Oriental Studies Tripos under Gustav Haloun. In 1950, he was awarded the E.G. Browne Prize in Oriental Languages and was elected a Scholar of St Catharine's.

As a research student reading for a PhD, Twitchett studied first under Haloun at Cambridge and then, formatively, under the great Japanese historian of Chinese law Niida Noboru at the Toyo Bunko Kenkyujo in Tokyo University; his PhD was awarded from Cambridge in 1955. He was Lecturer in Far Eastern History at Soas, 1954-56; from 1956, he was Lecturer in Classical Chinese at Cambridge; then from 1960 Professor of Chinese at Soas. In 1968 he was appointed Professor of Chinese at Cambridge, leaving in 1980 to become the first Gordon Wu Professor of Chinese at the University of Princeton.

He visited Japan at intervals throughout his career and retained an affection and admiration for many aspects of Japanese scholarly life and culture. In Chinese East Asia, he eventually found a brief haven in Academia Sinica in Taipei. He visited its Institute of History and Philology in November 1996, and stayed for three weeks, being treated with great courtesy. There he delivered the Fu Ssu-nien Memorial Lectures, the first foreigner to do this, and these three lectures remain an important statement of his scholarly position. He was elected FBA in 1967, and was made a Senior Scholar of Princeton in 2005.

Twitchett believed in Chinese Studies as an independent subject, in the sense that research access to Chinese records, the vast Chinese cultural and historical archive, required a long training in a series of specific linguistic, bibliographical and textual skills and in cultural traditions. He was bitterly disappointed at the failure of his efforts in the early 1970s to establish a pre-university school to provide prospective undergraduates reading Chinese at UK universities with a preliminary foundation in the language.

His reading within the larger field of Chinese studies was voracious. For Denis Twitchett, to be what he termed drily a "non-producer" was a damning reproach.

David McMullen

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