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Reviewed by:
  • Bernhard Karlgren: Ett Forskarporträtt
  • Lothar von Falkenhausen (bio)
Göran Malmqvist. Bernhard Karlgren: Ett Forskarporträtt. Svenska Akademiens Minnesteckningar; Svenska Akademiens Handlingar, vol. 21. Stockholm: Norstedts, 1995. 539 pp. ISBN 91-1-955092-8.

Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978) is a towering figure in the history of twentieth-century sinology. His contributions to Chinese dialect phonology, historical linguistics, the philology of the pre-Qin texts, and the study of archaic bronzes were pathbreaking in their time and in large part remain fundamental today. In this book, Karlgren's master disciple Göran Malmqvist (b. 1924 ), himself an outstanding scholar of Chinese literature and philology, delivers an exhaustive account of the man and his work. Addressing the Swedish intelligentsia in its own language, Malmqvist is primarily concerned with delineating Karlgren's stature as a national figure. With this target audience, agenda, and linguistic medium, acquaintance with the historical and institutional circumstances can be taken for granted; not so a knowledge of sinology. In summarizing and explaining Karlgren's scholarly contributions, Malmqvist therefore expounds extensively on the discipline's history, goals, and methods, and much of the book is given over to commented resumés of Karlgren's scholarly works. While not necessarily suitable for complete translation, the book is extremely interesting. In this review, I will summarize points of relevance to the international sinological readership.


Karlgren was born in Jönköping (Småland), which, with twenty-three thousand inhabitants, was then the ninth-largest city in Sweden. His family history describes a remarkable trajectory of social ascent. His paternal grandfather, Lars Magnusson, had been a well-to-do tenant farmer. His father and uncle, who adopted a family name instead of the patronymic when they became town dwellers, were both secondary-school teachers. In the next generation, all brothers who survived into adulthood became university professors. Marital alliances consolidated the family's hard-won adherence to the educated middle class: Karlgren's mother was a clergyman's daughter (for whose family such a marriage, [End Page 15] as Malmqvist points out [p. 24], must still have constituted a mésalliance); his own wife was the daughter of a postmaster; and two of his sisters married, respectively, a clergyman and an engineer. The following generation was set to enter the professional and administrative stratum of society; Karlgren's son (who died in early middle age) studied medicine, and his daughter, a lawyer, became a high-ranking government official and was married to a cabinet minister.1

The fifth of eight children (one of whom died in infancy), Karlgren lost his father at age fifteen and grew up in dire poverty. Nevertheless, he obtained an excellent classical education at his hometown's public schools. Even though some of his schoolmates ostracized him for his intellectual leanings, his family was supportive; he was particularly close to his elder brother, Anton, a scholar of Slavic philology. He followed Anton to the University of Uppsala to study under outstanding philologist Johan August Lundell (1851-1940), with whom both brothers developed a strong mentor-student relationship. It was at Lundell's instigation that Karlgren decided at the end of his first semester at Uppsala, in late February 1908, to take up sinology, a subject that had no tradition whatsoever as an academic discipline in Sweden.2 Malmqvist clearly spells out Karlgren's motivations for his choice. Foremost was the prospect of employment in academia; Lundell had mentioned to a group of students including Karlgren's brother that if "some eager lad were to travel to Germany to study Japanese and Chinese, it would be quite easy for him to become a professor here" (p. 82), and Karlgren, reporting the news to his fiancée, made it clear that he was tempted because he abhorred the prospect of a high-school teaching career—because "above all, this will not be adequate for my girl." The thought of trying out Lundell's philological methods in a vast and largely unstudied new field was, of course, attractive also; in addition, a shade of sibling rivalry with Anton over which of them had mastered the more exotic languages may have come into play (see pp. 341-342...


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