Anthropologists and Their Traditions across National Borders

Anthropologists and Their Traditions across National Borders


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803253360
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2014
Series: Histories of Anthropology Annual
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Regna Darnell is the Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and First Nations Studies at the University of Western Ontario. She is the author of Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology (Nebraska, 2001) and Edward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist (Nebraska, 2010). Frederic W. Gleach is a senior lecturer of anthropology and the Curator of the Anthropology Collections at Cornell University. He is the author of Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures (Nebraska, 1997).

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Anthropologists and Their Traditions Across National Borders

Histories of Anthropology Annual, Volume 8

By Regna Darnell, Frederick W. Gleach


Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-5688-0


"China to the Anthropologist"

Franz Boas, Berthold Laufer, and a Road Not Taken in Early American Anthropology

Laurel Kendall

"I shall place the ethnography and archaeology of this country on an entirely new and solid basis, that I shall conquer China to the anthropologist. China no longer the exclusive domain of travelers and sinologues, both narrow-minded and one-sided in their standpoints and researches, China to all who have anthropological interests" (Laufer to Boas, 12 August 1903, 1903-13, DAA, AMNH). Thus did Berthold Laufer address his mentor, Franz Boas, the founding father of American anthropology, with a euphoric vision of future anthropological researches in China. A century later, Laufer has been eulogized as the premier Sinologist of his generation, best known for his studies on Han period ceramics (1909), jade (1912a), and ancient bronzes (1922) and a list of wide-ranging, original, erudite, and sometimes eccentric publications from Nestorian inscriptions (1911a) to singing crickets (1928), Chinese theater (1923) to Chinese hermaphrodites (1920), with historical reconstructions of the introduction of vaccinations (1911b), corn (1907) and tobacco (1924) into East Asia. His association with American anthropology, indeed the very existence of an early anthropological project in China, is largely forgotten. As an anthropology graduate student, I found Laufer's name on a course syllabus, an article on the origin of the word "shaman" (Laufer 1917), but did not recognize him as one of our own, much less a protégé of Franz Boas, whose students included nearly all the luminaries of early twentieth-century American anthropology (Handler 1990). Maurice Freedman's summation of the history of China anthropology makes no mention of Laufer, describing China anthropologists as relative latecomers to the discipline (Freedman 1979).

Boas biographies give, at best, passing mention to the Jacob H. Schiff expedition that sent Laufer to China. Douglas Cole notes that the "Chinese enterprise" was part of a major project that loomed large in Boas's AMNH years (1999:207–208, 287). George W. Stocking Jr. observes that Boas "worked rather hard" to raise funds from the business community and "capitalize on public interest in the Far East," suggesting that this was something of a temporary fall from grace (Stocking 1974:285). Stanley A. Freed's recent history of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History devotes less than two pages to Laufer and the Schiff expedition in contrast with two full chapters devoted to the Jesup North Pacific expedition, which preceded it (Freed 2012:310–311). John Baick (1998: 24–83) describes Boas's efforts in the business community as part of a social history of New York elites around 1900 and their brief infatuation with Asia. John Haddad (2006) and Roberta Stalberg (1983) give descriptive accounts of Laufer's activities in China and Boas's support of it; Steven Conn (1998:80–81) makes passing reference to the global reach of Boas's ambitions. Regna Darnell (1998:160) notes Boas's attempts to broaden the geographic scope of anthropology at Columbia by conscripting Laufer to teach there. But no one has yet considered this project as part of a larger Boasian vision of what American anthropology might be or become, an anthropology that from the moment of its professionalization would have been cognizant of "peoples with history" (cf. Wolf 1982). The full import of the Boas-Laufer collaboration is lost in a disciplinary might-have-been, an anthropology that might just possibly have sidestepped its now very dated (but in popular culture tenacious) association with the study of "simple societies" and "primitive peoples."

Boas envisaged a major Asian Studies enterprise with New York City as its hub, collaboration between the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Columbia University with Berthold Laufer as the premier anthropologist in the mix. The story of this failed enterprise and its subsequent consignment to the dustbin of disciplinary history is worth revisiting because it cuts against the grain of what we think we know about early American anthropology, a history that, with few exceptions (e.g., Oppenheim 2005), has not considered East Asia as part of the story.

Critiques of early anthropology and of anthropological collecting as its salient enterprise have assumed, following Stocking's assertion, that "anthropology through most of its history has been primarily a discourse of the culturally or racially despised" (1985:112) and Clifford's description of the western museum as a colonial contact zone "usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (1997:192). Yes, in 1900, Chinese residents of the United States were counted among the "racially despised," and Boas was supremely cognizant of this, but he worked "rather hard" in another direction. Boas described the work of collecting and exhibiting as a means of impressing upon the general public "the fact that our people are not the only carriers of civilization, but that the human mind has been creative everywhere" (quoted in Jacknis 1985:107). Boasian humanism was very far from an Orientalist act of collecting and representing as an assertion of "European superiority over Oriental backwardness" (Said 1978:7), imperialism's "imagined ecumene" (Clunas 1997:414–415; Breckenridge 1989:196), or, as was the case with most other foundational anthropological collections, a hierarchical demonstration of cultural achievement with western civilization at the apex (Conn 1998:90). China in 1900 had been humiliated by a series of western incursions, acquiescing to a system of treaty ports to abet foreign commerce. When Laufer arrived in Beijing in December 1901, the foreign troops that had occupied the capital city in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion had only recently departed. But in contrast with prior anthropological subjects, the "China" of Boas's and Laufer's conversations was a still sovereign imperial power and a sophisticated "civilization" in the language of the day, a place that, in their thinking, the American public ought better to know and appreciate. "Respect" was a central concept in their project and conversations.

The Jacob C. Schiff expedition to China was a consequence of the meeting of two unique individuals, a soon-to-be-archaic style of anthropological fieldwork, and a particular historical moment. It rested on a wobbly triangulation of interest between Boas's humanistic regard for nonwestern cultures, his perception of the pragmatic interests of his potential backers, and Laufer, the brilliant but mercurial researcher in the field whose results were intended to seduce future support but who also had his own research agendas. This is the story of an ambitious and ultimately failed project, what they set out to do, how Laufer tried to carry it out, and how it ended, with some speculations on the consequences of this failure for the discipline of anthropology.

The Plan

By 1901, when he dispatched Laufer to China, Boas was already developing the nascent anthropology program at Columbia. Along the way, he was also rethinking American anthropology as an intellectual commitment to cultural relativism, with the premise that all peoples have "cultures" of equal value independent of any social evolutionary ranking (Sanjek 1996). A visionary with a research agenda, Boas had already successfully convinced AMNH president Morris K. Jesup to fund the ambitious Jesup North Pacific expedition (1897–1902), five years of research by multiple teams of international scholars. With the official objective of proving that the Americas had been peopled via the Bering Strait, the expedition effectively garnered a huge resource base of object collections, physical and linguistic data, and published ethnographies, although its contribution to the Bering Strait question was negligible (Freed, Freed, and Williamson 1988; Krupnik and Vakhtin 2003). That Boas delayed in producing a synthesis of the expedition research with a definitive answer to the question of the peopling of the Americas would be a source of growing tension between him and Jesup, his primary backer. Jesup's mounting impatience would cast a shadow over Boas's efforts during and immediately after the Schiff expedition (Freed 2012:446–448).

As with the Jesup expedition, Boas's plans for an anthropological enterprise in Asia were strategic and wide-ranging. With the conclusion of the Spanish American War in 1898, the United States gained possession of the Philippines, adding colonial interests in Asia to its already well-established commercial interests in China and Japan. Baick describes a critical moment when "a number of New York institutions made China and Japan a priority" (1998:2) and sought institutional support for cultural and scholarly projects—from museum collections to Chinese language instruction. This task required "convincing a broad cross-section of the city's cultural leadership that 'knowing' East Asia was a crucial step in the elevation of the city from a commercial center to a cosmopolitan capital" (Baick 1998:4). In this period, Boas articulated an urgent interest in creating both practical knowledge and cultural understanding of the subjects of the United States' enlivened Pacific interests (East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH). Like many a future academic seeking private or government funding to innovate, expand, or sustain an Asian studies program, Boas made his appeal on the grounds that professional knowledge of Asia was a necessary component of commerce and diplomacy. He observed that "special schools of Oriental culture, museums, and universities that include these subjects in the scope of their work" were already established in Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg, and he devoted a summer of European travel to visiting several of them and assessing their facilities with a practical eye toward creating a similar institution in New York (Boas to Schurz, 6 November 1901, East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH).

In developing a language to justify this project, Boas tacked between the broad humanistic perspective of his own scholarship—the cultural relativism for which he is best-remembered today—and pragmatic appeals to the business interests of potential donors, as if the connections were seamless. In a report prepared for the Asiatic Committee, he stated that Laufer would make "collections which illustrate the popular customs and beliefs of the Chinese, their industries, and their mode of life" on the assumption that these collections "bring out the complexity of Chinese culture, the high degree of technical development achieved by the people, the love of art, which pervades their whole life, and the strong social ties that bind the people together.... These will demonstrate the commercial and social possibilities of more extended intercourse. We also wish to imbue the public with greater respect for the achievements of Chinese civilization" (Boas to Jesup, 27 December 1902, East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH, my emphasis). This language appealed to Jacob Schiff (1847–1920), a New York banker and philanthropist with business interests in China who responded favorably to Boas's appeal for funds to send Laufer to China: "Personally, I am much taken with your idea, for even without being a territorial expansionist, one can readily see that if we wish to expand our commercial and industrial activities, we should know more than we do now of the customs ... of the people with whom we desire to trade and come into closer contact" (Schiff to Boas, 24 December 1900, East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH). Schiff provided $18,000 for a three-year expedition. Boas considered the Schiff expedition the cornerstone of an ambitious edifice of East Asian scholarship. There would be a program of instruction at Columbia University emphasizing language, history, literature, cultural life, and commerce, a research library at Columbia, and museum collections for teaching, research, and public education at the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. AMNH would sponsor broad anthropological studies in Asia and use the resulting collections to introduce Asian cultures to an American popular audience.

In an age before the professionalization of institutional fund-raising, and with limited support from his own trustees for research, it was up to Boas to secure patronage for this and other projects (Jacknis 1985:83–84). With Jesup's blessing, he engineered the creation of the East Asiatic Committee, a group of prominent businessmen and cultural figures with interests in Asia who would meet periodically at the American Museum of Natural History from 1900 to 1905. Jesup chaired the committee, and Boas himself was secretary and prime mover (East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH; Baick 1998:24–83). Prospective members received this invitation:

Owing to the ever-increasing importance of the relations between America and the countries and peoples of eastern Asia, it is highly desirable that we should have a better knowledge of them. At the present time there is no place in the United States, in fact on the whole of this continent, where it would be possible to pursue studies in relation to eastern Asia. The experience of foreign countries, more particularly of Russia, France, and Germany, shows that the only method of attaining this object is to introduce the study of east Asiatic countries and civilizations.... Owing to the importance of foreign trade with New York, there ought to be no city in the United States in which an interest in the development of a knowledge of foreign countries should be keener. (Villard invitation, 11 April 1900, East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH)

The appeal is practical, urgent, and with just a hint of a competitive edge in its evocation of "the experience of foreign countries," a well-crafted pitch.

The Committee would include financiers, bankers, railway magnates, the president of Columbia University, a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the leader of an association of patrician art aficionados. The agenda was clear: convince potentially sympathetic leaders of the business community that it was in their common interest to develop university and museum resources for both specialist and public knowledge of Asia. Reference to "the ever-increasing importance of our intercourse with eastern Asia," to the need for better knowledge of those who live there, and to New York's prominence in foreign trade appear with mantra-like frequency in Boas's solicitations (East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH).

Throughout the work of the Committee, Boas was emphatic that the China expedition was just the beginning of a larger Asian studies enterprise, more than "simply making an interesting museum collection ... we are trying to work towards a more far-reaching plan.... [A] foundation must be laid particularly in India and in China" (Boas to Schiff, 31 January 1901, East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH). He had been incubating this idea for some years, exchanging Native American artifacts for material from the Dutch East Indies (Accession file 1898–50, DAA, AMNH), enlisting missionaries as museum collectors (Hasinoff 2010)—most successfully C. C. Vinton in Korea (Accession files 1901-78, 1908-32, DAA, AMNH)—and seizing upon opportunistic circumstance, as when Bashford Dean, on a zoological expedition to Japan, collected Ainu material in Hokkaido (Accession file 190177, DAA, AMNH). Laufer also collected Japanese material en route to and from his Siberian fieldwork for the Jesup expedition (Accession file 1898-36, DAA, AMNH). As an intended sequel to Laufer's project, Boas developed a research strategy for "pretty thorough work in the Malay Archipelago" (Boas to Jesup, 15 March 1901, East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH), drafted a prospectus, located a potential scholar to carry out the work, and continued to beat the drum for the project in his correspondence with members of the Asiatic Committee throughout the Committee's existence (East Asiatic Committee, 1894–1907 Correspondence Files, DAA, AMNH). In China, Laufer was also cognizant of the larger enterprise, writing to Boas of his encounter with a Mr. Unger, based in Yokohama, who can commission "some Japanese" to make a collection on the Luchu (Ryukyu) Islands (Laufer to Boas, 7 March 1902, 19024, DAA, AMNH). He reports a meeting with Dr. Reid, a missionary based in Seoul, who spoke "about a curious kind of very ancient crude pottery recently excavated around Seoul" and "asked him to secure some of such pieces for the museum" (Laufer to Boas, 19 September 1901, 1901-69, DAA, AMNH).


Excerpted from Anthropologists and Their Traditions Across National Borders by Regna Darnell, Frederick W. Gleach. Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Editors’ Introduction
1. “China to the Anthropologist”: Franz Boas, Berthold Laufer, and a Road Not Taken in Early American Anthropology
Laurel Kendall
2. A. M. Hocart: Reflections on a Master Ethnologist and His Work
Charles D. Laughlin
3. Malinowski and the “Native Question”
Mark Lamont
4. Radcliffe-Brown and “Applied Anthropology” at Cape Town and Sydney
Ian Campbell
5. "The Department Was in Some Disarray": The Politics of Choosing a Successor to S. F. Nadel, 1957
Geoffrey Gray and Doug Munro
6. An Elegy for a Structuralist Legacy: Lévi-Strauss, Cultural Relativism, and the Universal Capacities of the Human Mind
Regna Darnell
7. Lévi-Strauss's Approach to Systems of Classification: Categories in Northwest Coast Cultures
Abraham Rosman and Paula Rubel
8. Lévi-Strauss on Theoretical Thought and Universal History
Michael Asch
9. Historical Massacres and Mythical Totalities: Reading Marshall Sahlins on Two American Frontiers
Lars Rodseth
10. Anthropologists as Perpetrators and Perpetuators of Oral Tradition: The Lectures of Kenelm O. L. Burridge and Robin Ridington, Storytellers
Lindy-Lou Flynn
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