IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 19 | Regions | Central Asia


Johan van Manen
The founder of Tibetology in the Netherlands

The now largely forgotten Dutch Orientalist Johan van Manen collected a wealth of material in the fields of Tibetology and Oriental Studies. Thanks to him numerous manuscripts, block-prints, and other objects, are now preserved in Leiden. Only few people know this. Hence this introduction to the public so that we should remind ourselves of the Dutch Orientalist Johan van Manen and the sterling service he rendered Tibetology in particular and Indology in general.

By Yang Enhong

People know little about the research of Tibetology in the Netherlands and far fewer know of Johan van Manen, the founder of Tibetology there. I am honoured to have had a chance to visit the University of Leiden and the International Institute for Asian Studies from November 1998 to May 1999, which enabled me to become acquainted with him and his work. During this period, I first came across the name of Johan van Manen when glancing over the rich Tibetologic material here. This chance encounter aroused my curiosity about this person: a Dutch Orientalist, who had been working in India in the first decades of the twentieth century. I would like to thank the Tibetologists Dr Henk Blezer and Drs Peter Richardus and the Sinologist Drs P.N. Kuiper who have helped me to find material on and to correct my article re-introducing Johan van Manen. Peter Richardus is the author of a biography of Van Manen (Richardus, 1989) and was the first man to introduce Van Manen to the public.

M.A.J. Van Manen (16 April 1877 - 17 March 1943) was born into a well-to-do family at Nijmegen. As a youth he became a follower of Theosophy and was eager to introduce Hinduism and Buddhism to the public in the West. He travelled to Adyar near the South Indian city of Madras to serve as a secretary to Charles W. Leadbeater of the Theosophical Society in 1910. From then on he devoted his life to the cause of Oriental Studies. He acted as the General Secretary of the Theosophical Society and Deputy-Librarian at Adyar (1910-16), as the Librarian of the Imperial Library (1918-22), and as Assistant-in-Charge of the Anthropological and Ethnographic Galleries of the Indian Museum at Calcutta (1922-23). Having been elected General Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1923, he dedicated himself to improving the research and daily work of this Society for the next sixteen years. He passed away in India in 1943.
Van Manen had a good knowledge of languages having command of Tibetan, various Indian languages, Sanskrit, and Chinese. His spoken Lhasa dialect was very pure, compared to that spoken by other foreigners. He did much research while engaged in collecting material on religion, cultural relics, and folklore. His field of interest was very extensive including Buddhism, Hinduism, linguistics, and geography, as well as the research about the Dao De Jing, by the Chinese philosopher Lao Zi. .
The bulk of the materials collected by Van Manen is now preserved in the Kern Institute Library and the National Museum of Ethnology, both at Leiden. His legacy comprises 2105 Tibetan manuscripts and block-prints, 500 South Indian palmleaf manuscripts in Sanskrit (Kern Institute Library), as well as 350 objects, mainly Tibetan Buddhist scroll-paintings and Himalayan ethnographica. He regularly organized exhibitions in Calcutta, introducing the materials to the public and offering them to scholars to facilitate their studies. .
Van Manen made good friends with the Tibetan Phun-tshogs Lung-stogs and sKar-ma Sumdhon Paul as well as with a Chinese called Ts'an-chih Chen. They all worked together during his stay at Darjeeling from 1916-18. Van Manen asked them to write their autobiographies, now published as a valuable source of data (Richardus, 1998). In addition, he asked a Tibetan named Phun-tshogs Lung-rtogs to copy twenty-eight Tibetan manuscripts on to Western paper. These included two volumes (five books) dealing with the Tibetan epic of King Gesar. These old versions are now of enormous benefit to the research into this epic. Van Manen used to spend the whole of his time at his office, year in year out when he worked in Calcutta. He wrote some 30,000 letters to keep in contact with the members of the society and drew up all the official documents while serving as General Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. .
Only twice did he return to his homeland during the thirty-six years of his sojourn in India. The first was for health reasons and to visit his eighty-year old mother. He spent four months in the Netherlands in 1927. The second visit was also for health reasons, and it lasted six months in 1936. Preserving his moral integrity in order to give full play to his professional knowledge, when still a young mand, he gave up drink and became a vegetarian. Reading was his only real interest. Keeping a promise was almost sacrosanct to him. He always said: 'A man a man, a word a word'. Being of a friendly disposition, he always helped others when necessary, especially Tibetans. He used to say: 'Hatred is not conquered by hatred, but by love, this is the spirit of an understanding mankind'. .
Her Majesty the Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands conferred the rank of Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau on Johan van Manen on 20 August 1937. By so doing the Dutch Head of State gratefully acknowledged everything he had done to add lustre to the name of the Netherlands abroad. It is to be hoped that Van Manen also considered this honour a recognition of his great merits in one of those rare fields in this world which knows no boundaries, the fruits of which have since been harvested by national as well as foreign scientists. .
Now more than half a century has passed since his death, people have forgotten the name Johan van Manen. His collections are preserved here in Leiden for the benefit of all who want to use them. We should be grateful to people such as him for contributing to the conservation of human cultural heritage, for the culture of humanity knows no boundaries. Today, as I read this material, I have grown steadily more aware of Johan van Manen's great qualities as I read this material. I think it is important to research these materials, but it is also important to research van Manen himself. .
We should remember and honour him: Johan van Manen, a Dutch Orientalist.


  • Richardus, Peter, The Dutch Orientalist Johan van Manen - His Life and Work, Leiden: Kern Institute, 1989
  • Richardus, Peter, Tibetan Lives -Three Himalayan Autobiographies, Curzon Press, 1998

Professor Yang Enhong is attached to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and was an affiliated fellow (KNAW) at the IIAS from 1 November 1998 to 1 May 1999. E-mail: yangenh@public.fhnet.cn.net.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 19 | Regions | Central Asia