Sinological Profiles
Berthold Laufer
11 Oct 1874 (Köln) - 13 Sept 1934

Berthold Laufer

Laufer was born into a wealthy Cologne family, with all the advantages thereunto appertaining. On their father's and mother's birthdays, the Laufer children would put on plays they had written themselves. Berthold was a great admirer of Shakespeare; he studied piano (his favorite composers were Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt) and frequented the opera, these being further traits of 19th century life among the German elite: one thinks of the households of the Mendelssohns and the Rankes in Berlin. Laufer was also fascinated by marionettes, a theme that would later run through his scholarly work. His father hoped for him a career in law or medicine (and his brother did become a physician, practicing as far away as Cairo), but Berthold had somehow determined instead on archaeology, and this the family finally accepted. The training was suitably arduous. Laufer spent 1893-1895 in Berlin, working on Buddhism under Franke, Chinese under Grube (who had been a student of Gabelentz at Leipzig), Malay under Gabelentz himself (Gabelentz had come from Leipzig to Berlin in 1890), Tibetan under Georg Huth, a Leipzig graduate and a recent appointee at Berlin, and Japanese under Lange. During the second year (thus were resources divided in those days; see Eberhard) he studied simultaneously at the Seminar for Oriental Languages. His first publication, in three issues of his hometown newspaper (the Cologne Gazette for 1895), was a series of translations of "Japanische Märchen." Like Huth before him, he completed his Berlin work at Leipzig under Conrady and others, and from Leipzig, in 1897, he received his doctorate for a thesis critically analyzing a Tibetan text. In 1898 appeared a spate of publications in German periodicals, on such subjects as sources for Tibetan religion, the Tibetan language, Buddhist art, Indian fables in Mongolian versions, and the form of Mongolian folksongs. All this did much to advise the world of learning that a new recruit had arrived.

Morris K Jesup

Morris K Jesup, who had made his million in railroad banking, had founded the American Museum of Natural History in 1869, and was himself its Director. Not content to wait for other people to donate their objects or report their discoveries, he organized and financed the expedition which under Peary's leadership reached the northernmost point in Greenland; that point was suitably named Cape Morris Jesup. He then switched oceans, to plan an ambitious expedition to study the Northern peoples on both sides of the North Pacific, with a view to clarifying possible early migrations, as well as learning more about those cultures in their present state. As Boas himself described it to the New York Times on 13 March 1897, when things were still in the planning stage:

There are few problems that are of greater importance to our knowledge of the early history of the American race than its relation to the races of the Old World.

The whole affair ran from 1897 to 1902, and publication of the results, many of them under the supervision of Boas, occupied the next three decades. Boas led on the Canadian side of the water, with a team including natives of the Northwest Coast cultures, some of whom he had previously trained in anthropology, and used as both collectors and informants. The core of the Museum's collection of Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, Nootka, and Tlingit artifacts, to name no others, was formed from the Boas results. The Asian portion lacked the services of the linguistic prodigy von Zach, who had been invited to participate. Instead, Boas invited Laufer, who accepted, leaving Germany in 1898. Laufer himself led the portion devoted to Sakhalin Island's Nivkhi (Gilyak), Evenk (Tungus), and Ainu peoples, and the Nanai (Goldi) and Evenk of the Amur region of Mongolia. Two Russian colleagues, who had turned to ethnography during a previous political exile in Siberia, led the remainder of the Asian investigations: Waldemar Borgoras studied the Chukchi and Yupik (Siberian Eskimos), and Waldemar Jochelson the Koryak, Yukaghir, and Sakha (Yakut). The result of all this was hundreds of boxes of artifacts, constituting what is still the most important collection for this area outside Russia. There were also publications, including a piece by Laufer on Mongolian folksongs and their transformation into Turkish songs (1898), displaying his constant interest not merely in objects, and not merely in ephemera such as songs, but in the transmission of both tangibles and intangibles across cultural boundaries.

Laufer's work for Jesup was concluded in 1899. Two years later, he led the 1901-1904 Jacob H Schiff Expedition, whose object was an investigation of history and ethnography in China. From this, Laufer returned to a position as Assistant in Ethnography at the American Museum (1904-1906). In 1905, not content with one set of duties, he also lectured in anthropology at Columbia, receiving a position as Lecturer in Anthropology and Eastern Asiatic Languages for the following year, 1906-1907. Academe however did not lure him from his museum prospects, and in 1908 Laufer went to the Field Museum in Chicago, refusing all subsequent offers (some at greatly increased salary) to move elsewhere. He had found his niche.

Field Museum

As we have seen in the financing of Laufer's early fieldwork, the museum world is not self-contained; it is also a world of patrons and sponsors, of dealers and collectors. To this ambience Laufer readily adapted. How many other major Sinological figures include among their published works a memorial notice for J P Morgan (1913)?

At Chicago, he again began with an expedition, leading the Blackstone Expedition to Tibet and China in 1908-1910, and in 1923 taking part in the Marshall Field Expedition to China. Among the results was an enormous amount of object culture, which back at the Field Museum it became his duty to catalogue and interpret. Amidst it all, his great pride was the Chinese jades, the subject of a still standard work published in 1912.

Something of Laufer's interest in cultural boundaries, as well as his personal intellectual style, comes out in the front matter to Sino-Iranica, another fundamental study (there are those of us who consider this, and not his work on jade, his most important contribution), published seven years later in 1919. Here is the opening paragraph:

If we knew as much about the culture of ancient Iran as about ancient Egypt or Babylonia, or even as much as about India or China, our notions of cultural developments in Asia would probably be widely different from what they are at present. The few literary remains left to us in the Old Persian inscriptions and in the Avesta are insufficient to retrace an adequate picture of Iranian life and civilization, and although the records of the classical authors add a few touches here and there to this fragment, any attempts at reconstruction, even combined with these sources, will remain unsatisfactory. During the last decade or so, thanks to a benign dispensation of fate, the Iranian horizon has considerably widened: important discoveries made in Chinese Turkistan have revealed an abundant literature in two hitherto unknown Iranian languages, - the Sogdian and the so-called Eastern Iranian. We now know that Iranian peoples once covered an immense territory, extending all over Chinese Turkistan, migrating into China, coming in contact with Chinese, and exerting a profound influence on nations of other stock, notably Turks and Chinese. The Iranians were the great mediators between the West and the East, conveying the heritage of Hellenistic ideas to central and eastern Asia and transmitting valuable plants and goods of China to the Mediterranean area. Their activity is of world-historical significance, but without the records of the Chinese we should be unable to grasp the situation thoroughly. The Chinese were positive utilitarian and always interested in matters of reality: they have bequeathed to us a great amount of useful information on Iranian plants, products, animals, minerals, customs, and institutions, which is bound to be of great service to science.

German though he was in style and training, Laufer readily acknowledged Paris as the center of world Sinology in his day. Of the ancient system of Chinese transcriptions from foreign languages, on the accuracy of which his own word-identifications depend, he cautions his readers:

I have only to ask Iranian scholars to have confidence in our method, which has successfully stood many tests. I am convinced that this plea is unnecessary for the savants of France, who are the most advanced and most competent representatives of the Sinological field in all its varied and extensive branches, as well as in other domains of Oriental research.

In the end, and on the way to the end, truth for Laufer was not a matter of nations, but of individual results . . .

If on several occasions I feel obliged to uphold V Hehn against his botanical critic A Engler, such pleas must not be construed to mean that I am an unconditional admirer of Hehn; on the contrary, I am wide awake to his weak points and the shortcomings of his method. But wherever in my estimation he is right, it is my duty to say that he is right.

He urged the importance of his results, but despised the aid of popular myths:

It is essential to realize that the great Iranian plant-movement extends over a period of a millennium and a half, for a learned legend has been spread broadcast that most of these plants were acclimatized during the Han period, and even simultaneously by a single man, the well-known general Chang K'ien. It is one of my objects to destroy this myth.

In his recent study of Chang K'ien, Hirth admits that of cultivated plants only the [grape]vine and alfalfa are mentioned in the Si ki. He is unfortunate, however, in the attempt to safeguard his former position on this question when he continues to argue that "nevertheless, the one hero who must be looked upon as the pioneer of all that came from the West was Chang K'ien." This is at best a personal view, but an unhistorical and uncritical attitude. Nothing allows us to read more from our sources than they contain.

At the end, or almost the end, of his Introduction, Laufer articulates the wider dimension of the 135 specific studies of which the rest of Sino-Iranica consists:

It should be borne in mind, however, that my object is not to outline merely the history of this or that plant, but what I wish to present is a synthetic and comprehensive picture of a great and unique plant-migration in the sense of a cultural movement, and simultaneously an attempt to determine the Iranian stratum in the structure of Chinese civilization,

And, this being the museum ambience, the last sentence of the Introduction reads:

The generosity of Mrs T B Blackstone and Mr Charles R Crane in contributing a fund toward the printing of this volume is gratefully acknowledged.

Intellect is a luxury, and this is one of the ways that luxury is sustained and made fruitful in our workaday world.

Laufer died on 13 Sept 1934, in a fall from the 8th floor fire escape in the Chicago Beach Hotel, where he lived. He was at that time recovering from an operation to remove a tumor, though his widow described him as being "in good spirits" at the time.

His regular workday, as he himself once observed, consisted of sixteen hours, half at his Museum office and half at home. Despite which, he left behind at his death many an uncompleted manuscript, including a planned second enlarged edition of his generally recognized masterwork, Jade. The list of his published books and studies fills many pages (the most complete list is in Latourette), of which the items listed below are only a tiny sample.



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