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Twitchett, Denis Crispin (1925–2006), historian, was born on 23 September 1925 at 147 Mellison Road, Tooting, London, the elder son of Crispin William Twitchett (1897–1979), architectural draughtsman, and his wife, Gladys Claire, née Goff (1898–1969). At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at Fernside, Broadwater Road, Balham, London. He was educated at Isleworth county grammar school and was awarded a state scholarship to read geography at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. His life course was then altered by the Second World War. He became a naval cadet in 1942 and subsequently underwent Japanese language training at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, before service at Bletchley Park and in the Royal Naval intelligence division as a Japanese language officer.

On demobilization Twitchett returned to SOAS to study modern Chinese in 1946–7. He went on to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he took a first in oriental studies in 1950. Staying on for his doctorate he was funded to spend time in Japan studying under Professor Niida Noboru, a distinguished scholar of Tang history at Tokyo University. He thus gained a familiarity, unusual among Western scholars, with the excellent Japanese scholarship on Chinese history. Another result of this sojourn was that he met Umeko Ichikawa (1925–1993), daughter of Shosuke Ichikawa, a Tokyo dyer, whom he married at Ealing register office on 18 February 1956. They had two sons.

Twitchett's first post was as a lecturer in Far Eastern history at SOAS from 1954. He was university lecturer in classical Chinese at Cambridge from 1956, returning to SOAS as professor of Chinese in 1960. He was appointed to the chair in Chinese at Cambridge in 1968. He became a fellow of the British Academy in 1967, and took up two visiting professorships at Princeton (in 1973–4 and 1978–9) before moving there as Gordon Wu professor of Chinese studies from 1980 to 1994.

Twitchett was a prolific scholar who produced much important work on the Tang dynasty (618–907). He had completed his doctorate, a study of government and finance under the Tang, in 1955, and that research formed the basis of his first major book, Financial Administration under the Tang Dynasty (1963, second edition 1970), a volume soon regarded as a classic on this formative period in Chinese history. Like his other work it was marked by the conscientious use of traditional Chinese sources, including material from the Dunhuang site. However, he was probably best known for his role in planning and editing the Cambridge History of China with Professor J. K. Fairbank of Harvard University. This monumental fifteen-volume work was intended to cover the history of China from earliest recorded history to the first years of the economic reforms in the People's Republic after the death of Mao Zedong. By the time of Twitchett's death twelve volumes had appeared. This series, for which the contributors were the most distinguished scholars in their fields from all over the world (ironically with the exception of the People's Republic of China), did much to ensure that the history of China, long neglected in the history departments of universities in the English-speaking world, made a belated appearance on the undergraduate syllabus, if only as an option.

Twitchett's other books included Confucian Personalities (1961) and Perspectives on the Tang (1973), both co-edited with Arthur Wright; The Birth of Chinese Meritocracy: Bureaucrats and Examinations in Tang China (1976); Printing and Publishing in Medieval China (1983); The Writing of Official History under the Tang (1992); and The Historian, his Readers and the Passage of Time (1997). Returning to his earlier training in geography in the 1970s Twitchett also co-edited both the Times Atlas of China (1974) and the impressive China section of the Times Atlas of World History, which dealt with China from the prehistoric Peking Man to the turbulent cultural revolution. He was a general editor of the Cambridge History of Japan and retained both academic and personal links with the country, where he was always happy to return to the beer and sushi bar culture.

Twitchett was one of the first of a generation of scholars of China who had come to Asian studies through service in the armed forces. His thorough training in classical Chinese and the history of China was undertaken far from the country's twentieth-century realities. He recognized that China's contemporary weakness was, comparatively speaking, a recent phenomenon and he sought to set it against the background of the history of the rise and fall of Chinese empires. His lifelong scholarly interest was in economic and political institutions, tax collection, and technical innovations such as the development of coinage and of printing: all key factors in the power and longevity of the vast and culturally complex empires of medieval China. He never achieved fluency in the modern vernacular and his lack of sympathy for contemporary China and its revolutions created a distance between him and some of his colleagues. However, he worked hard to increase academic interest in China and exerted considerable influence behind the scenes on the development of Chinese studies in the West and on careers and posts. He retired to Cambridge and died at Addenbrooke's Hospital from heart failure on 24 February 2006. His two sons, Peter and Nicholas, survived him.

Delia Davin

Sources  

The Times (15 March 2006) · News@Princeton (7 April 2006) · The Guardian (19 April 2006) · The Independent (19 April 2006); (5 May 2006) · D. McMullen, PBA [forthcoming] · WW (2006) · personal knowledge (2010) · private information (2010) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£468,429: probate, 17 Aug 2006, CGPLA Eng. & Wales