Professor R.G. Tiedemann, 1941 – 2019

Professor R.G. Tiedemann, born Rolf Gerhard but known as ‘Gary’ to his friends and family, passed away on 1 August 2019 after living with illness for a number of years.

RG Tiedemann and his familyGary wrote about his origins on this site here. Normally reticent to give details of his life, this story was heartfelt but characteristically modest and missing some key parts of his story. He was born in wartime rural Germany, and his childhood was marked by poverty and hardship. Although he had to spend some of his early years in care, it was there that he came to know Harald, his best friend for all his life. He left school in his teens and spent much of the next decade travelling around the world, including places no longer on the tourist map – Libya, Syria, Iraq, rural Pakistan, as well as India, Nepal and the South Pacific.

20190803_175933But it was Wisconsin, USA that he settled on permanently, with his Uncle Nick and many cousins in Antigo and Milwaukee. As he mentioned himself, this meant that he was drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War but the hardship of army training and likely deployment to battle turned into a blessing – he was able to resume academic studies that went on to lead to a career as an academic and a love both for the history of China and for Liliana, who would become his wife.

Liliana and Gary married in Liliana’s hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina but, for his academic career, Gary had to move to the UK, where his journey to become Dr then Prof. R.G. Tiedemann would continue. Alongside his Masters and PhD he taught for twenty years at SOAS, University of London, and then went on to teach and research at institutions in San Francisco, Oxford and in Shanghai, Wuhan and Ji’nan, China. His specialism was Christianity in China, specifically in Shandong, and the Boxer Uprising (拳亂). Professor David Buck (UWM) and Charles Curwen (SOAS) were among his great influences, as well as great friends.

Although he spent most of his life living in London with Liliana and their son, Martin, Gary remained defiantly proud of being German and never took British citizenship. His attitude to the current direction of Britain and Europe, particularly the idea of applying for ‘settled status’, was very much one of ‘Bollocks to Brexit’. He spoke Spanish, French and Mandarin, as well as English, German and his beloved Plattdeutsch, but mostly he didn’t speak very much at all. He lived for his research but loved walks among bluebell woods and drives through the country, the music of Bach and the Antiques Roadshow, and an odd fascination with gooseberries. He continued to travel right up until his final months, including to Venice, Madeira, Germany and Hong Kong in the last year and a half.

Professor Tiedemann’s academic legacy will live on, not just in his contributions to books and journals, but most of all among the undergraduates and postgraduates he taught and mentored. In later years he was particularly proud of his students Lars Peter Laamann and Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, and was honoured by the dedication they wrote to him in their 2018 work, The Church as Safe Haven:

…the recognition that people from all over the world, in particular the simple peasant, share the same experiences and awareness is one of the most Tiedemannesque revelations the patient listener will take away from an encounter with his mind.

Funeral details will be confirmed at a later date. The family have requested no flowers; details of charity donations will be released.



  1. Lauren F. Pfister, Prof. Emeritus, Religion and Philosophy Dept., Hong Kong Baptist University says:

    Thank you, Martin, for such an articulate and insightful tribute to your father! There were many times he joined us in our home in Hong Kong before our retirement, during which times we often talked for hours over various details that had captured his attention, on in response to questions that we were pursuing in shared interests and research projects. Also, he had such a skill at humourous understatement and wordplay . . . we (my wife, Mirasy, and I) delighted in his company.
    We were able to visit one last time at “The Beaches” this past June 24th, and experienced his special joy of travelling in the countryside as we sought to find a suitable place to share dinner with your mother and ourselves. (Though he wanted to go to a place far into the countryside, they were closed due to hosting a special event, and so we returned to a place closer by to Croyden . . . whisking around those narrow country roads with the sensibilities of a professional driver!)
    With you, your mother, many friends, and his students (former and current), we will be missing his presence among us in many ways!

  2. Song-Chuan Chen says:

    I have very fond memories of Professor Tiedemann. I first met him in 2007 at a conference when I was a PhD student. I mentioned in our very first conversation that I could not find a rare book about a group of missionaries in China. When I got back to Cambridge after some further travelling, the book had arrived in my mailbox! Whenever I think about Gary, I felt that warmth that he gave to others so generously. He personally made a difference to this world. Gary, you are and will be missed by many!

  3. Just heard this today. What a shock! We only corresponded last year. I feel blessed to have known Professor Tiedemann and his writing. He will be missed!

  4. I guess I’m one of the many, many people who met Professor Tiedemann in the course of their work and remember how polite, generous and informative he was.

    Both Professor Tiedemann and the late Keith Stevens gave a huge amount of encouragement while I researching the life of British adventurer William Mesny – yet another subject he was an expert on.

    I didn’t know him well, but we met several times – most recently at an RAS meeting last year – and corresponded fairly regularly. He will be missed.

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