1874 October 11 - 1934 September 13
Berthold Laufer (October 11, 1874-September 13, 1934) was one of the most distinguished Sinologists of his generation. Born in Cologne, Germany, to prosperous parents Max and Eugenie Laufer, he had every advantage from a young age. As a child he was notably interested in the arts and music, dramatics, and particularly marionettes.
After studying at the University of Berlin from 1893-1895, Laufer earned his Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig two years later. He was a brilliant academic, with a particular talent for languages, taking courses in Persian, Sanskrit, Pali, Malya, Mandarin Chinese, Mongolian, Dravidian, and Tibetan, with some of the greatest teachers of that generation
His father would have preferred that he study law. Charmingly, Laufer dedicated his thesis, a critical analysis of a Tibetan text, "in love and loyalty to my parents on their silver wedding anniversary." (1)
Before graduation, Laufer was already in contact with "Father of the Field" anthropologist and fellow German of Jewish-ancestry, Franz Boas, who had been living in the United States for a decade. He was soon invited to join the American Museum of Natural History’s Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897-1902), which Boas was directing in a massive effort to understand the earliest contacts between Asia and North America. Laufer was one of eight independent researchers, and was specifically assigned Sakhalin Island and the area around the mouth of the Amur River in Siberia. Although part of Russia, these areas had more connections culturally and linguistically to Japan; thus his knowledge of both languages was essential. He gathered significant linguistic, cultural and physical anthropological data over the course of more than a year. Laufer was hardly a robust man by any means, but he survived the harsh climate and challenging transportation – reindeer and dog-sled, horseback, open boats – and arrived back in New York in the winter of 1900.
In 1901 Laufer joined his mentor Boas in his new assignment, to lead the Jacob H. Schiff Expedition to China for the American Museum of Natural History, 1901-1904. This ambitious mission was one of the first American attempts to study the history and culture of a literate, technologically sophisticated civilization. Once again working alone, Laufer created a holistic anthropological study, which documented the industrial and social life of the Chinese people.
It was a colossal assignment in an enormous country. Jacob Schiff, a powerful Jewish-American leader, financier, and philanthropist, with special interests in East Asia, pledged $18,000, to be allotted at $6,000/year for three years. All travel expenses, shipping, and purchase of collections would come from this fund. Laufer himself was paid $1,000/year for his efforts. (6) That this total expenditure could not buy even one modest piece of Ming dynasty porcelain today is even more astounding when one considers that he ultimately collected over 7,500 objects, roughly half the Museum's Chinese collections.
Through 1904 Laufer traveled extensively in China, wrote copious notes and lively letters full of keen observations, and used the recent innovation of a Columbia phonograph recording device to document musical and dramatic performances on wax cylinders. His collecting was systematic and comprehensive, and he clearly relished it. In a letter to Boas in 1903, he wrote, "I have come to love the land and the people and have become so Sinicized that I feel myself to be better and healthier as a Chinese than as a European." (6)
Laufer acquired old and rare books along the way as a sort of traveling reference library: these holdings have become an important collection on their own, in the Rare Book Room in the Museum Library. (8)
Returning to the Museum in 1904, Laufer became an Assistant in Ethnology, with an increased salary of $1,500/year. He wrote an extensive Guide to the Chinese Hall (aka "Guide to the South West Gallery"), rich with intellectual and cultural insights, such as "wallpaper is a Chinese invention" and "pipes for women are longer than those for men." It reads almost as a guide to Chinese life rather than as a guide to an exhibition. Sadly, it was never published and now exists only in heavily-edited galley form. (7) Possibly this was due to lack of funding or to Museum President Morris Jesup’s 1906 decision that AMNH should be a natural history museum only, with no further collecting to be done in China. (9)
In 1907 Laufer joined the Field Museum in Chicago, first as an Assistant Curator of the East Asiatic Division then moving quickly up to becoming the full Curator of Anthropology. He joined more expeditions, including the 1908-1910 Blackstone Expedition to Tibet and China, and the 1923 Marshall Field Expedition to China.
Laufer worked at a break-neck pace, regularly writing 10-20 books and articles every year. He kept two desks piled with projects, turning his swivel chair back and forth between them. Although he considered his monograph on jade his major contribution, he knew more than anyone in his generation, and wrote with authority on subjects as diverse as the origin of Chinese writing to pigeon whistles and singing crickets. (1)
He was the outstanding Sinologist in his field, famous and in demand to socialize with upper-class collectors and international art dealers and curators, but also formal and introverted. In his correspondence with Boas he once wrote, "Chinese culture is in my opinion as good as ours and in many cases even better, above all in its practical ethics...If I regret anything, it is that I was not born Chinese." (10, p. 125)
Berthold Laufer died at age fifty-nine, the result of an eight-story fall from a Chicago hotel. His wife, Bertha Hampton, said that he had been recovering from the removal of a cancerous tumor, but was in good spirits. The Coroner's jury returned an undetermined verdict, but some biographers have stated that he took his own life. (1)
Laufer's life and work had an enduring impact on the fields of anthropology, museology, and text-oriented Asian Studies. Perhaps most importantly, he interpreted the words and voices of those whose heritage was on display and taught viewers to see an artifact in the same light as its maker. (10, p. 126)
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