The institutional history of Chinese Studies began in 1878 when the first sinological professorship in Germany was established in Leipzig. Research and teaching in the period from 1878 to today show a development from a philologically and ethnologically oriented discipline to today's diverse field of Chinese Studies, which deals with Chinese societies in their manifold manifestations in a differentiated way.

enlarge the image: schmale Steinberge in einem Naturschutzgebiet in Hunan
Surreal sandstone cliffs in a Hunan national park. Photo: Thorben Pelzer

Chinese Studies in Leipzig from 1878 until today

Chinese Studies in Leipzig has the longest tradition compared to all other German universities. This tradition is characterized by an eventful history with many shifts and ruptures.

The first sinological professorship in Germany was established in Leipzig in 1878. Hans Georg Conon von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) was appointed extraordinary professor (Extraordinarius) for East Asian languages. His main work is the “Chinesische Grammatik mit Ausschluss des niederen Stiles und der Umgangssprache” (“Chinese Grammar, Excluding the Lower Style and the Colloquial Language”), published in 1881 and reprinted in 1953.

After von der Gabelentz moved to the University of Berlin in 1889, August Conrady (1864–1925) was named his successor in 1897. In 1922, Conrady was appointed full professor (Ordinarius), thus establishing in Leipzig the third sinological chair in Germany after Hamburg (1909) and Berlin (1912). The East Asian Seminar of the University of Leipzig had already been founded in 1914. Conrady’s key merit was to have understood and taught Sinology beyond the linguistic framework as the study of Chinese culture more broadly understood.

Erich Haenisch (1860–1966) succeeded to the Chair in Sinology in 1925. One of his most important works is the textbook "Lehrgang der chinesischen Schriftsprache" ("Course of the Chinese Written Language"), which was published in 1929-1933. Seven years later he returned to Berlin. Eduard Erkes (1891–1958) worked as an unscheduled extraordinary professor in Leipzig between 1928 and 1933. When National Socialist rule began in 1933, he was dismissed for political reasons.

André Wedemeyer (1875–1958), since 1931 non-scheduled associate professor of Japanese studies, was appointed associate professor of East Asian philology and director of the East Asian Seminary in 1934. His retirement was delayed due to the political situation and the beginning of the war, so that he led the East Asian Seminar until the end of the war. The outbreak of the Second World War also had an immense impact on the teaching and research activities of the East Asian Seminary: the number of students decreased and the budget of the Seminary was very low. During the night of December 3/4, 1943, the East Asian Seminary and its library, comprising about 20,000 volumes, were destroyed in Allied bombing raids. As a result, Wedemeyer put together a sparse working apparatus from the preserved remains of his private library and the seminar library and continued the lessons during the first difficult post-war years in his own apartment. In 1947 went into retirement and Eduard Erkes was appointed director of the East Asian Seminary and in 1948 professor of East Asian philology. In addition to his research achievements, Erkes’s greatest contribution to the Institute was probably to have rebuilt sinological teaching and research at Leipzig University after the catastrophe of the Second World War.

Due to the war losses, in 1950 the holdings of the seminar library comprised only about 1,000 Chinese-language and about 500 European volumes. Eduard Erkes advocated an extension of the Leipzig East Asian Seminar to include various Southeast and East Asian languages and cultures. In 1950, Johannes Schubert was entrusted with a teaching assignment for Tibetan, in 1952 he was appointed professor and in 1960 professor with a chair for Tibetology.

The transformation of the East Asian Seminary into the Institute of East Asian Studies in 1951 was followed by a comprehensive expansion of the sinological subject areas. Besides classical language and philology, Chinese history, art history, religion, philosophy, geography, and modern literature were taught. Increasingly, modern China, its language, and its processes of social change were given greater weight. After the development was initially interrupted by the death of Erkes in 1958, the orientation towards thematic breadth in Leipzig Sinology continued in the 1960s. As part of this process, theoretical and methodological relations were established with other disciplines, such as history, philosophy, economics, or general linguistics. During this time the East Asian Institute was headed by the Tibetologist Johannes Schubert and, after his retirement in 1966, by the sinologist Fritz Gruner.

In accordance with the staff’s double qualifications, sinological teaching became increasingly complex and interdisciplinary. The following publications, among others, characterize this development phase:

  • Piasek, Martin, Chinesisch-deutsches Wörterbuch, Leipzig, 1961.
  • Felber, Roland, Die Entwicklung der Austauschverhältnisse im alten China vom des Ende 8.Jh. bis zum Beginn des 5. Jh.v.u.Z. (Zuo-Zhuan-Periode), Berlin, 1973.
  • Lewin, Günter, Die ersten 50 Jahre der Song-Dynastie in China: Beitrag zu einer Analyse der sozialökonomischen Formation während der ersten 50 Jahre der chinesischen Song-Dynastie (960 – ca. 1010), Berlin, 1973.
  • Moritz, Ralf, Hui Shi und die Entwicklung des philosophischen Denkens im alten China, Berlin, 1973.

Disregarding the long tradition of Chinese Studies in Leipzig, the political decision was taken at the end of the 1960s to concentrate Asian Studies in the GDR at Humboldt University Berlin. As part of the Third University Reform, many employees had to move to Berlin from 1968/69 onwards. Student education was temporarily discontinued. Like all university institutes, the Institute og East Asian Studies was dissolved in 1969. The remaining staff was grouped in the division “South and East Asia” of the newly founded “Africa/Middle East Studies Section.” It was first led by the Indologist Margot Gatzlaff, from 1976 by the Burmanist Eberhardt Richter, and from 1988 by the sinologist Ralf Moritz.

In April of 1976, an agreement on scientific cooperation was concluded between the Asian Studies Sections at HU Berlin and the African and Middle East Studies Section in Leipzig. As a result, Leipzig-based scholars also taught in Berlin.


Only in 1984 a chair for Sinology was again established and filled by Ralf Moritz (*1941). Moritz’s research and teaching were primarily concerned with the history of Confucianism and the philosophy of China..

After the peaceful revolution, Sinology could be studied again as a major at Leipzig University. Rainer von Franz was appointed to a second professorship in Modern Sinology in 1992. In the following year the Institute of East Asian Studies was founded anew. and in 1996 a professorship for Japanese Studies was established with Steffi Richter (*1956). In addition to Sinology and Japanology, Indonesian Studies was also represented with an extraordinary professorship (Erich-Dieter Krause). This position was discontinued after the retirement of Prof. Krause in 2000.

From 1998 on, Ralf Moritz and Steffi Richter together with Gesine Foljanty-Jost, a Japanologist from Halle, published the series “Mitteldeutsche Studien zu Ostasien” (now: "Leipziger Ostasien-Studien"). After the retirement of Ralf Moritz and Rainer von Franz, Philip Clart (*1963) assumed the chair "Culture and History of China" in 2008, while Stefan Kramer held the chair “Society and Culture of Modern China” from 2009 to 2013. In 2017, Elisabeth Kaske succeeded to the professorship for “Society and Culture of Modern China.”

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