IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 21 | Institutes


Seminar for Languages & Cultures of Central Asia

It was Otto Spies (1901-81), holder from 1951 of the Chair of the Oriental Seminar in Bonn, with its concentration on research and teaching in the fields of Semitic and Islamic Studies, who, in the years 1958 and 1959, expanded his seminar by the addition of a Sinological Department and a Mongolian Department alongside that for Japanology. Professor Walther Heissig (1913-) was invited to come from Göttingen to become Head of the Mongolian Department. In 1964 the Mongolian Division was converted into an independent seminar, the Seminar for the Study of the Languages and Cultures of Central Asia, with Walther Heissig as director.


The newly established Seminar for the Study of the Languages and Cultures of Central Asia devoted the first years of its existence especially to the formation of a microfilm library, and a xerox library drawn from these microfilms. As time went on, this library brought together in facsimile form in one place all the manuscripts from the relevant European libraries (Paris, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Leiden, Oslo, and so on) and from libraries in Asia, which were of importance to the Seminar. At first it was manuscripts in the Mongolian and Tibetan languages which were made accessible as facsimiles in the Seminar, but soon these were joined by materials in the Manchu language, which were proving ever more indispensable. With its microfilm and xerox library, which now facilitated the study in their original form and in a single place of widely scattered manuscript materials, the Seminar laid the foundation-stone for its international relations, which have become increasingly numerous at this library level over the years.

As the Central Asian areas which belonged, or which still belong, to the national territories of the USSR and the People's Republic of China remained to all intents and purposes closed during the sixties and seventies, the international relations of the Seminar first took the form of relations with Western, i.e. non-socialist countries: France, Italy, England, the Benelux countries, Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden in particular), as well as with the USA, Japan, and Taiwan, and their centres for the study of Central Asia (Institutes or Oriental Schools, or Schools of Oriental and African Studies, for example In Paris, Venice, Rome, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Bloomington, Seattle, Tokyo, Kyoto, Taipei). Students from the USA, Japan, and Canada studied at the Bonn Seminar, and scholars from these countries worked by invitation in the Seminar library.

Research expeditions to Iran and Afghanistan at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies temporarily led to close academic contacts between the Seminar and, for instance, the University of Kabul and its Anthropological Research Department (these were unfortunately broken off because of the war situation). Research visits by colleagues and members of the Seminar with Tibetological interests to North India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh, which began in the seventies, and which, within the framework of various research programmes and projects, continue up to the present, were reflected and still are reflected in research visits and guest professorships at the Bonn Seminar on the part of Indian colleagues.

The slow opening up of the Soviet Union and China, and also the establishment of diplomatic relations between the then Mongolian People's Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, expanded the contacts of the Seminar over the years in a big way, as it were. Since the middle of the eighties Mongolian students from China, mostly from the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, time and again have studied at the Bonn Seminar, while research visits by younger Mongolian colleagues from the present-day Mongolian Republic or from Inner Mongolia, financed through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Humboldt Foundation or the German Research Council (DFG), are now likewise commonplace at the Seminar, and the same is true of the presence of Chinese students from the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, who pursue their doctoral studies alongside each other in the Bonn Seminar.

Through visiting professorships and research visits on the part of colleagues from Russia, Poland, and Hungary the opening up of Eastern Europe has facilitated contacts with relevant institutes of universities in those countries (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest), and has also provided improved possibilities of making use of archives there, which are still not easily accessible. As far as archives are concerned, in the People's Republic of China (Peking), colleagues in the Seminar have quite recently, and against all expectations, even been accorded the real possibility of filming historical manuscript material which has long been hidden away or has remained unknown up till now, and to develop collaboration with, for instance, the 'First Historical Archive of China in Peking' or with archives in Shenyang (Mukden, in Manchuria). Significantly, collaboration with scholars in St Petersburg in the field of research into Palaeo-Asiatic languages has led to a situation in which the Seminar now counts as the most important centre for research into Palaeo-Asiatic languages outside Russia.

The achievement of independence by former member republics of the USSR at the beginning of the nineties ­ the present-day independent Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan ­ has brought students from these states to Germany. Some of these students have taken their doctorates at the Seminar. Through these students it has become possible to establish contacts with institutions within various universities in the countries concerned, and also to plan or to initiate collaboration within their research programmes. The same is true of those republics within Russia, such as the Republic of Buryatia, which today enjoy quasi-independence. Collaboration with university institutes with an interest in Mongolistic or Manchu-Tungusic Studies is being embarked upon here.

Dialect atlas

For years now, through the medium of annually organized surveys, the Institute for the Mongolian Language of the Inner Mongolia University in Hohhot has been working with the Bonn Seminar, on a dialect atlas of the Mongolian language of Inner Mongolia. The dialect material which has so far been recovered, and that within a relatively strict scheme of reference, originates from an area which corresponds roughly to the size of Western Europe.

The establishment of an interdisciplinary Special Research Field (Sonderforschungsbereich, SFD) 'Oriental Studies with Special Reference to Central Asia' in 1969 proved to be of domestic significance. This institution was based in the Seminar for fifteen years, and in many respects it influenced the direction in which the Seminar was to develop. The financial resources of the Special Research Field has made possible the promotion of the expansion of the libraries of the participating Seminars and the considerable intensification of international academic collaboration and so on within the framework of co-operative work and of symposia. One of the main focuses of research within the SFB has been its very diversified Epic Research Project, which led to an equally diversified interdisciplinary and international research programme, which is still active producing materials.

Prof. Walther Heissig retired in 1980 and was succeeded by his pupil, Prof. Klaus Sagaster. Special attention was paid to Tibetan lamaism during this stage of the development of the Seminar. Prof. Michael Weiers took over the leadership of the Seminar in 1990. The establishment of a diploma course: 'Regional Studies Central / Middle Asia' at the Seminar and a sweeping change in the situation with regard to sources for Central Asia as many important Archives had become accessible were decisive in making it possible in recent years to come to grips, with support from the Philosophical Faculty, with Central Asian Turkology and Manchu-Tungusology, which are indispensable to Central Asian studies.

The subject of the study of the languages and cultures of Central Asia is to be seen, against the background of this fact, both as philology and as directed towards a type of study which depends upon field research. In its methodology the subject adapts itself, according to speciality, to the linguistic, historical, religious and geo-sciences, and also to pre and early history and ethnology, the methods of which are to be modified as aspects of Central Asian Studies may require. Embracing a geographical area from the China Sea as far as regions to the west of the Caspian Sea, and from the high mountain ranges of Inner Asia as far as North Siberia, the subject finds itself configured internally in the subsections Manchu-Tungusology, Mongolistics, Tibetology, Central Asian Turkology, with Palaeoasiatic Studies as a fringe area. Ideally, all the sub-sections should be dealt with in the light of their historical and modern significance, but this will only be possible with the provision of adequate support.

In this conception, this subject is represented in the whole of Europe only in Bonn, and it views its centre of gravity, as far as research is concerned, as residing in basic research, that is, in rendering accessible written and recovered source material and data from the regions of Central Asia which are relevant to the subject, and in the exploitation of the same in respect of matters of historical, current affairs, geographical, ethnographical, linguistic, literary, and religious scholarship. Within the framework of the various sub-sections everywhere there are direct links with complexes of ' problems in subjects such as Japanology, Sinology, Indology, Uralic Studies, Islamic Studies, Byzantine Studies, Slavistics, East European Studies, Historical Geography, Comparative Religious Studies, and General Linguistics, the investigation and adaptation of which as teaching material will require close collaboration in each case. *

Professor Veronika Veit
Seminar für Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft Zentralasiens
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität Bonn
Regina-Pacis-Weg 7
53113 Bonn, Germany
Tel.: +49-228-73 7465
Fax: +49-228-73 7458
E-mail: upp700@uni-bonn.de

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 21 | Institutes