Gary Tiedemann obituary

Other lives: Scholar of Christianity in China

My father, Gary Tiedemann, who has died aged 78, was a scholar of Christianity in China and an expert on the Boxer uprising, the 1899 peasant rebellion. After 20 years as a historian at Soas University of London he went on to teach at a number of institutions around the world, most recently as a professor at Shandong University, China.

The son of Hertha (nee Kroos) and Hinrich Tiedemann, an agricultural labourer, he was born Rolf Gerhard Tiedemann in wartime Germany, and described his birthplace, Hartenholm, as “a tumbledown hovel in the outer margins of a remote village in Holstein”. His earliest memories were of seeing firebombed Hamburg burn in the distance and his childhood was marked by hardship and poverty – his mother was ill and the family’s difficult circumstances meant much of his early life was spent in care.

Gary, as he was known, spent much of his 20s travelling the world, working on and off, but in 1962 he settled in Wisconsin, US, home to an uncle and cousins.

He was called up to the US army during the Vietnam war and underwent training with the Medical Training Unit in Texas, but by a quirk of fate he avoided deployment into battle. He was called as a witness to a court martial, and literally missed the boat.

Instead he was encouraged by the army to pursue an education. After evening classes at San Antonio College, he embarked on a degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he discovered a love of Chinese history. He also met Liliana Osés, a student on an exchange programme there, whom he married in her native Argentina in 1971.

Gary and Liliana settled in the UK, living in north London and later in Croydon, so he could pursue a master’s and a PhD at Soas (awarded in 1992). He began teaching, first at Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire), then, from 1985, in the history department of Soas. Although a dedicated tutor, he did not enjoy the politics of British university life and his passion was his work, which focused on Christian missionaries in China, particularly Shandong province, and the Boxer uprising.

Gary spoke several languages, including his beloved Plattdeutsch (low German) dialect.

In later life he worked in San Francisco, on sabbatical from Soas, at the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History, and spent extended periods in China, teaching at Shanghai University, Central China Normal University in Wuhan and, from 2012, as professor of Chinese history at Shandong University. He made his most recent trip, to Hong Kong, last October. He was still working until shortly before his death and continued to take great pride in supporting PhD students.

He is survived by Liliana and me.

Martin Tiedemann

The GuardianTramp

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