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Stanford Professor Emeritus Harold Kahn, who specialized in Chinese history, dies at 88

Harold Kahn, who died Dec. 11, helped distinguish Stanford’s History Department for its scholarship in East Asian studies

Photo Courtesy of George Qiao

Harold L. “Hal” Kahn, a professor emeritus of history who taught at Stanford for over 40 years, died at his home in San Francisco on Dec. 11 of natural causes. He was 88.

Kahn, a specialist in 17th- and 18th-century Chinese history, was known for his engaging teaching style and sense of humor and for his loyalty toward everyone in his life, according to family members and colleagues.

“He was a true intellectual,” said Terry L. Karl, professor of political science and Kahn’s longtime friend and neighbor. “He never owned a TV set, and he read more than anyone I know. He was incredibly witty and just a wonderful human being, deeply caring of his friends and family.”

A generous mentor, inspiring colleague
Originally from Poughkeepsie, New York, Kahn earned a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He taught history at the University of London before joining Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences in 1968.

Together with history Professor Lyman Van Slyke and Professor of Chinese Albert Dien, Kahn helped distinguish Stanford’s History Department for its scholarship in East Asian studies, creating a generation of leading U.S. scholars in Japanese and Chinese history.

Kahn was especially known for his witty, rigorous style of teaching and his detailed letters of recommendation. He received the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1986.

“Hal was a lively, energetic and inspiring professor,” said Gordon Chang, professor of American history, who took some of Kahn’s courses as a graduate student at Stanford. “I will always remember him being there for me as a friend and someone I could consult with about anything.”

Kahn inspired others around him with his dedication to students.

“Hal put so much into the teaching and training of his graduate students,” said Estelle Freedman, professor of United States history. “He was one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. He was more than a mentor. He was a teacher, uncle, advice-giver. I learned a huge amount from the way he worked with students.”

Freedman said Kahn would routinely help students outside his field and open his home to those who couldn’t go home for the holidays. For several decades, almost every Thanksgiving, Kahn would prepare pies, turkey and numerous dishes by himself and invite students, family and friends.

“It was wonderful to witness the joy he took in feeding all those people,” Freedman said.

As a scholar, Kahn dived deep into archival resources as part of his research, which was unusual among Chinese historians at the time, Chang said. Kahn’s 1971 book, Monarchy in the Emperor’s Eyes: Image and Reality in the Ch’ien-lung Reign, won the Commonwealth Club First Book prize.

After Kahn retired in 1998, the Department of History honored his achievements by creating the Kahn-Van Slyke Award for Graduate Mentorship and the Harold Kahn Reading Room, which contains a part of Kahn’s library.