Sociaties and Institutes
Royal Asiatic Society
The Royal Asiatic Society (of Great Britain and Ireland) goes back to the high days of the British Raj. It was founded in 1823 (and chartered in 1824) under the leadership of the Sanskrit scholar Henry Colebrooke; it boasts Henry Rawlinson, Richard Burton and Rabindranath Tagore among its past members. During the 19th century, in the absence of significant academic programs at British universities, the Royal Society was a major focus for the scholarly study of traditional Asia. With the modest rise of Asian scholarship at British academic centers during the 20th century, the Society's role was proportionately reduced.
Soon after its own founding, the Royal Asiatic Society became the nucleus of a network of scholarly societies in Asia, which were officially recognized as Branches. Some examples:
- The Asiatic Society, which had been founded in Calcutta on 15 January 1784 by Sir William Jones, became in 1854 the first "branch" association of the Royal Asiatic Society, under the parallel title Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. Under its original name, it still continues in existence in Calcutta.
- A Medico-Chirurgical Society had been organized at Hong Kong in 1845; it was recognized as the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1847. It went out of existence in 1859, but was revived informally in 1950, probably due to the influx of members of the extinct North China Branch, and was officially recognized as the Hong Kong Branch on 28 December 1959.
- The Shanghai Literary and Scientific Society, organized in 1857, was admitted as the North China Branch (not all that north, but to distinguish it from the Hong Kong branch) in 1858. During its lifetime, it was the most active of all the branches, and published a valuable journal. Its very success may have contributed to the eclipse of the Hong Kong branch. It passed permanently out of existence as an incident of the Communist victory in 1949, some of its refugee members contributing to the reappearance of the Hong Kong Branch.
There is limited reciprocity in this international system, on which it may be said that the sun never sets. Members of the Asian branch societies "are entitled to attend lectures and use the Library while in London temporarily."
The Society currently has some 700 members, called Fellows; half of them are based outside Britain. It is run by a Council of about twenty elected Fellows. Its main activities are the publication of the Journal (via Cambridge University Press) and some other publications (via Curzon), the maintenance of the library, and the sponsoring of lectures and exhibits. It operates with a staff of seven (some part time) and an annual budget of £162,000 (as of 2000; this works out to about £8,000 per Council Fellow) from its own building, a large house at 60 Queens Gardens, Bayswater, London, not far from Paddington Station (to reopen after renovations in early 2006). The house contains a lecture and meeting room. Lectures are held monthly, at 6 PM, typically on a Thursday, and are followed by a reception.
There is also on the main floor a reading room for the library, whose holdings are scattered in different rooms on various floors, much like your average overbooked studious individual:
The library's strong and weak points quite naturally preserve the profile of the time when it was founded. The general scope is the humanities (excluding law, save in the case of Islamic and Hindu law, which were relevant to the administration of British India). Ancient history is excluded except (as in India and China) where it has a continuous connection with the civilization of the 19th century; thus, the Ancient Near East is not a focus. There is little emphasis on ethnology or anthropology, and the Society has a stated policy of disinterest in current events (the last fifty years). Nonmembers may use the reading room by special arrangement, and there is also a Library Fellows program, allowing regular use of the library without other incidents of membership.
The Society makes special awards from time to time, including the Royal Asiatic Society Award (every three years; replacing the Royal Asiatic Society Gold Medal) and the Sir Richard Burton Medal (but the winner has to give a lecture on Sir Richard Burton),
There are several more wisely focused awards: the Denis Sinor Medal in Inner Asian studies, and the Barwis-Holliday Award of £250 for the best article submitted to JRAS on a Far Eastern subject (recommended length: 6,000 words).
New members of the Society are to be proposed and seconded by existing members, though as a concession to the 21st century it is now also possible for insoucient persons to submit their own curriculum vitae plus the names of persons of known standing "who can vouch for their interest in Asian studies." Annual cost of membership for those domiciled outside the British Isles is US $50. Membership proposals are by no means lightly considered, and may require up to three months before being finally approved. "Who is this fellow Bertram Wooster?"
Nevertheless and notwithstanding, the cover design of the Society's journal is easily the handsomest in the Asian field. Whether this is another triumph of mediaeval "muddling through," or is the result of modern outsourcing, is not known as of this writing.
- JRAS (at Cambridge University Press)
- Royal Asiatic Society
- Asiatic Society (of Calcutta, founded 1784)
14 Feb 2005 / Contact The Project / Exit to Sinology Page