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.”
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.
Aside from his teaching and scholarly work, Kahn was passionate about anti-war activism and justice. During the 1970s, he spoke regularly against the Vietnam War.
Chang remembers marching with Kahn in several on-campus anti-war protests.
“I admired his feistiness,” Chang said. “He thought it was very important to not just be informed about the past but also to not be apathetic about current events and politics.”
Karl, who carpooled with Kahn to Stanford from San Francisco for about 40 years, said she and Kahn would often discuss morality and the ethics of war.
“He was a perpetual radical,” Karl said. “He always asked why the government is doing what it’s doing. He saw that questioning to be a big part of his job as an intellectual.”
Friends and family underscored Kahn’s unique, imaginative nature and love of new experiences and people. During one sabbatical, he went to New York to drive a taxi for a year.
His daughter, Stanya Kahn, recalled the weird, funny and inventive bedtime stories Kahn made up for her and her sister, Annika Kahn. Now a Los Angeles-based video artist, Stanya Kahn said her father’s creative thinking, his love of language and ability to see humor in almost anything has deeply influenced her and is reflected in her art practice.
“He was my core person,” she said. “He was erudite and also funny. He was endlessly curious about the world and taught me a real openness to people and their differences. He had a care for humanity that wasn’t just an intellectual one. He really liked to experience cultures and people from across the world and to connect.”
Kahn also enjoyed sports, including running, swimming and playing tennis. He loved backpacking and cooking so much that he co-authored several books on those subjects, including The Camper’s Companion and Backpacking: A Hedonist’s Guide.
“My dad broke out of the box on all levels, whether it was in his writing, his teaching style or the way he raised my sister and I,” said Annika Kahn. “He taught us how to be critical thinkers and to never limit ourselves in what we could achieve in life.”
Annika Kahn, who owns a global martial arts–based fitness company, said her career path was heavily influenced by traveling alongside her father in Asia when she was young. She fondly recalled her father’s patience and encouragement as he taught her at 6 years old how to use chopsticks on one of those trips.
“My dad was selfless and deeply caring for friends and family,” she said. “Even the night before he died, he was still looking after everyone, making sure everyone is going to be OK.”
Kahn is survived by his daughters, Annika and Stanya Kahn, grandsons Kourosh Kahn-Adle and Lenny Dodge-Kahn, sister Muriel Lampell, and his life partner, Maureen McClain.
Harold L. Kahn, Professor Emeritus of History at Stanford University died at home of natural causes on December 11, 2018. A specialist in Late Imperial China, Kahn taught at Stanford for over 40 years. Previously he was a Lecturer in history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His book, Monarchy in the Emperor's Eyes (Harvard University Press, 1971), won the Commonwealth Club First Book prize. A recipient of the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching at Stanford, Kahn was famous among students for his humorous and illuminating lectures. As a graduate advisor, he mentored a generation of Chinese historians and at his retirement the History Department created the Kahn-Van Slyke Award for Graduate Mentorship and the Harold Kahn Reading Room. Born in 1930 in Poughkeepsie, New York, Kahn earned a B.A. from Williams College, M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University. He spent a Fulbright year in Stockholm, drove a taxi in New York City, perfected the art of gourmet backpacking, and in the 1970's joined an auto-mechanic collective and the communal publishing outlet, The People's Press. He never lost a sense of wonderment and curiosity, as impressed with Karl Marx as he was with the Marx Brothers. A loving son, father, brother, grandfather and partner, Kahn is survived by his daughters Annika and Stanya Kahn, grandsons Kourosh Kahn-Adle and Lenny Dodge-Kahn, sister Muriel Lampell and family, and his dearest life partner Maureen McClain Kahn.
I really loved Hal Kahn! Together with Bart Bernstein, Martin Carnoy, Charlie Drekmeier, and Yosal Rogat, Hal was one of my main faculty mentors and protectors back in the A3M era. Without Hal's help, I might not have been permitted to return to Stanford after my long suspension from school and from campus between July 1970 and September 1971.
Hal was the kindest man I have ever known. He and Sandra welcomed me into their home for a few months in the winter of 1969/70. Sharp of mind and wit, his sense of humor was at times uproarious but never mean. He was gentle in his righteous anger about abuses of power on and off the campus. He also ran 50 km on his fiftieth birthday! I have long missed him.
I really liked Hal too. He was a terrific teacher and put Debby Satten and me up in Tokyo for a week back in 1972. Just a very good smart warm and funny guy.
I remember him lecturing on some flooding of the Yellow River, a flood which killed thousands of people, and in the midst of the talk, an earthquake hit. We were in an old campus building and the lights began to sway and dust started to drift down from the ceiling and he never missed a beat… Just said “Hmmm, we seem to be having an earthquake.” And continued on with the drownings... a very cool customer.
His best line in relationship to my family was delivered at the faculty senate when he suggested that my father, Robert McAfee Brown, immolate himself on the steps of Memorial Church in protest of the war. This would be a good strategy, he said. My dad told that story many times, always laughing.
Hal was a good guy.
Hal was a wonderful guy. Smart as a whip, a great analyst and a terrific teacher. He and Sondra had the most civilized divorce. The kids stayed in the house. Sondra and Hal would take turns living there for six months at a time.
He (Hal) was a special person. I knew him before either of us came to Stanford and both of us were studying China. Maybe it was in Taiwan. Anyway I’m sorry to have him gone. He was a great man.
He said he could not talk about the three things at the core of his being: food, baseball and words.
Instead, Hal Kahn, professor of history, waxed and waned on grandmothers, ties, fascists, backpacking and revolutionary spirit as he stood at a lectern in the side chapel of Memorial Church on Dec. 3. Kahn was the final speaker on the fall quarter lineup of the noon-time faculty lecture series, "What Matters to Me and Why."
Oranges also figured prominently in Kahn's remarks. After studying Chinese language and history for more than 30 years, he said, he can walk through San Francisco's Chinatown today and still is not able to read the labels on orange crates being unloaded off trucks.
"It's one of the many frustrations of my field," he added, to appreciative laughter.
Following a "shard" pattern of exposition, Kahn laid out the "archaeological remains" of his life and work in somewhat chronological order, beginning his talk with reminiscences of growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., during the Depression.
Kahn was surrounded by "whole housefuls of aunts and grandmothers and their old-world cronies, all of whom seemed to be named Mrs. Perlmutter," in his hometown, which he described as safe, comfortable and short on adventure.
"Young boys could ride their bikes to school, only occasionally getting knocked down and beat up by Jew-taunting yobs," he said. "Minority status seemed to us, growing up, to be a paradoxical thing."
Kahn recalled listening to the hysterical voice of Hitler on the radio, and he said the arrival in his home of "refugee cousins, unkempt, ill-dressed, mortified by their dependence and incomprehension" paralleled in some ways his own mortification at being asked to knit afghan squares for U.S. fighting men on the front lines in Europe.
Kahn described his sojourn at Williams College in the late 1940s as "when Countess Mara met repp stripes." Labeled a "turkey" and deemed "unfit for fraternities," he found quiet places to read books and engaged in polite subversion.
"Maintaining citadels of privilege in the academy seemed to us to be archaic and wrong," Kahn said, "Abolishing them seemed to be just about the right thing to do."
The politics of inequality didn't require a lot of theory or soul-searching, he added. "It seemed obvious. You fought against it."
On a scholarship to the University of Stockholm, Kahn said, he studied a non-utilitarian language, saw the early films of an obscure director named Bergman and read Strindberg. He also encountered his first fascist.
"He was a well-turned out gentleman with impeccable manners who gave me a ride one day and a lecture on the fecklessness of Swedish wartime neutrality and the unsuitability of Jews and Gypsies to the Nordic way of life."
On his way to Harvard to study political science ("a subject I detested"), Kahn said he was encouraged to study Chinese history.
"My entire life, it seems to me, has been a triumph of inadvertence. I had never studied history at any level, and the only thing I knew about China were the names Anna May Wong and Charlie Chan."
But John Fairbank, the founder of modern Chinese historical studies in the United States, convinced Kahn to try his hand at the emerging discipline. After all, Fairbank assured him, he already knew one tonal language.
Kahn spent 13 years as a graduate student, touching down in Taipei, Hong Kong, Kyoto and Tokyo, where leadership was thrust upon him one wet day.
"After two weeks negotiating with the metropolitan security police, I led a phalanx of 25 rain-drenched marchers through the streets to the American embassy, accompanied and protected by 150 baton-wielding police," he recalled. "We were protesting a visit by Henry Kissinger. I don't think he got the point."
Kahn also taught for three years at the University of London, where he was surrounded by the culture of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Nureyev and Fonteyn. There, too, he was witness to the "the famous battle of Grosvenor Square, which may have been the first expatriate shot in the war against the war in Vietnam."
Back home, Kahn became active in civil rights protests and housing activism. Arriving at Stanford in 1968, he said he was "pretty well formed politically, though not, certainly, intellectually. Doing Chinese history is a lot harder than doing protest politics."
At his first "sit-in in the sun," Kahn wore a three-piece suit and said he immediately was "taken for the enemy."
"I no longer own a tie, let alone a three-piece suit. That's California for you."
In almost 30 years of enjoying "the triumph of nature over culture in Paradise West," Kahn said he had found a second life as a backpacker and written several camping books.
As for the heroes of the revolution, he suggested that "if you laid them all end to end, you'd have the Bay Area's biggest horizontal Liars Club."
"I myself can claim only one distinction," he added. "I seem to have been the babysitter of the revolution. While others stormed the heights, I stayed home with the kids or brought them to the edge of the battlefield."
Some years ago, Kahn said, a former graduate student had published a book in which he acknowledged and thanked his teachers.
"He described me fondly as a 'reluctant radical,'" he said. "But I would prefer the label 'inadvertent radical.' I keep stumbling into the obvious. It's a posture I'm not ashamed of."
Stanford Professor Emeritus Harold Kahn, who specialized in Chinese History, dies at 88, by Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service, January 15, 2019. Link
Harold L. Kahn, SFGate, Published in San Francisco Chronicle December 23, 2018. Link
Hal Kahn's What Matters Speech: 12/10/97, by Diane Manuel, Stanford Report, December 10, 1997. Link