Societies and Institutes
The Oriental Institute (Prague)
T G Masaryk, President of the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic, who had studied Arabic at the Oriental Academy in Vienna, was persuaded by the Arabist Alois Musil to establish some sort of Oriental society to foster cultural and economic relations with the Orient. This was formally recommended in a letter of 15 Nov 1921, and the Institute officially came into being with a legislative act of 22 January 1922. It was not staffed until 25 November 1927, when the President nominated the Institute's first 34 Fellows, from among the Czech, Slovak, and German Orientalists then resident in Czechozlovakia (including Alois Musil, along with A Grohmann, B Hrozny, and F Lexa and others, two from the category of "geographers and travellers," and several from business and financial circles, including the Minister of Trade, Rudolph Hotowetz). All this being prepared, the constitutive meeting of the new Institute took place on 1 March 1928. It divided itself into two sections, Research and Economic, the latter to monitor economic conditions in eastern countries, and their relations with Czechoslovakia. The Economic section proved a fiscal boon, since it was the conduit for considerable government money which supported diplomatic and cultural relations, and scholarships for study in the East. Hotowetz became the first President of the Institute, with Hrozny as Vice-President, a measure of the relative importance of the two sections.
Construction delays postponed the occupancy of the Institute's intended quarters, the Lobkowitz Palace, until February 1930. Meanwhile, the first issue of the scholarly quarterly Archiv Orientalny had appeared in 1929. Once in the new quarters, the Institute's library was officially inaugurated in May 1931. The first Research section comprised 17 Fellows, plus 17 outside Active Members; these were later supplemented by Corresponding Members from other countries, including L D Barnett, H Jacobi, A Meillet, and F W Thomas.
Orderly administrative changes in 1938 (Bedrich Hrozny succeeded Rudolph Hotowek as President) were almost immediately overtaken by events. War broke out in 1939, closing the universities which were the chief basis for the Institute's members. Czechoslovakia came under a German occupation government, with the notorious Heydrich at its head. In 1943, the Institute was affiliated to something called the Reinhard Heydrich Foundation, and Adolf Grohmann was put in charge. The Institute was moved from the Lobkowitz Palace to more cramped quarters, but its library did survive the war. The only activity permitted to Institute members during those years was language teaching, the evening courses especially being quite popular with the public. Space was a problem, and some Japanese classes were held for a time at the Japanese Embassy, which itself went through several relocations.
The end of the war brought new possibilities, and also a new generation. The Ministry of Education (18 May 1945) relocated the Institute to a building vacated by the Maltese Order, and here, on 28 May, occurred a meeting of Orientalists, convened by the Revolutionary Committee of the Oriental Institute. Jaroslav Prusek, a leading figure in the new generation, spelled out a program to revitalize Czechoslovak Oriental studies, and convert the Institute into a full-fledged scholarly institution. The old Economic Section was abolished, a popular monthly magazine Nova Orient was inaugurated, alongside the previous scholarly quarterly Archiv Orientalny, and the wartime language classes were formed into an independent School of Oriental Languages. New statutes formalizing these changes were adopted on 31 March 1948. Vincenc Lesna continued as Director, with Hrozny as the head of the Steering Committee, and Prusek as his Deputy. The new direction was finalized in 1952, when the Institute was incorporated into the newly founded Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, with Prusek now Director.
There followed a period of rapid development, not without occasional interference from the Communist government of postwar Czechoslovakia. New branches of study were added (African Studies, Caucasian, Dravidian, Burmese, Siamese, Philippine Languages, Indonesian, Mongolian, Vietnamese, Tibetan) and a new journal New Orient Bimonthly, aimed at foreign readers, was begun. Classical language study was abandoned in favor of modern languages, sociolinguistics, modern history and literature. In all this the vision and the hand of Prusek may be clearly seen. It was very much his style that the Chinese Library was named the Lu Xun Library. It and the parallel Korean, Japanese, and Tibetan collections grew at a rate previously unknown.
Russian invasion in 1968 brought this relatively liberal Czech Communism to a sudden end, and replaced it with what was called "normalization." This meant repression on the standard Stalin or Heydrich model. Many scholars went abroad; many who remained were dismissed from the Institute in the political purges of 1970 (among them Fass, Miltner, Palat, and Pokora), and their places taken by Party hacks, first under Vaclav Oplutil (1971-1973) and subsequently under Jaroslav Cesar (1973-1990). The new agenda was the study of revolutionary processes in Asian and African countries, the ideological confrontation with Maoism, and other doctrinaire Soviet topics; a Latin American department was founded, along with one for the study of imperialism and the USA. Another department had charge of translations from the current Chinese press. The few scholars left at the Institute were able to do some competent if covert work.
The Velvet Revolution of November 1989 ended this period of Stalinist "normalization." Czechoslovakia regained control of itself, and the Oriental Institute embarked on its own housecleaning. The hacks and incompetents were dismissed. A committee was set up on 19 Dec 1989 to redress the wrongs done to the former scholarly fellows of the Institute, and the Institute itself was restructured to take account of its lessened staff and reduced budget. The redesigned Institute was incorporated into the also restructured Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in 1992. A rapid succession of Directors and reorganizations followed, but with some substantive progress: in 1994 the Institute was given the library of John King Fairbank, and in 1996 it received a large donation of books from the Korea Foundation in Seoul.
The Institute currently consists of three divisions: Africa and the Near East, South Asia, and East Asia. It continues to publish Archiv Orientalny and several popular magazines and scholarly monograph series. The Institute also provides consulting, translation, and interpreting services to the Czech government. Its research fellows are affiliated with various faculties in Charles University or the State Language School in Prague, at Masaryk University in Brno, or at other institutions. The Institute sponsors conferences, long-term scholarly exchanges, and a program of teaching and lecturing abroad. Since 1992 there has issued an annual Yearbook in English, giving information about staff, activities, eminent visitors, research projects and grants, and a bibliography of publications by Institute fellows.
11 June 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Sinology Page