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Herbert Franke and the Postwar Transformation of Continental European Sinology: A Brief Appreciation

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 42, 2012
pp. 1-4 | 10.1353/sys.2013.0015

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As best I can remember I first got to know Herbert Franke in 1960, at the conference in Suffern, New York organized by my mentor Arthur Wright who together with Denis Twitchett edited the resulting volume, Confucian Personalities (1962). Arthur, like the rest of us, valued Herbert's work and personality, and we all benefited from his keen insights. In 1971, at the Sung I conference in Germany which featured the essays collected in John W. Haeger, Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China (1975), I again had the pleasure of joining him. Thereafter, we met, for a last time, again in Germany, at the 1986 Conference on Lebenswelt und Weltanschauung im Frühneuzeitlichen China (Lifeworld and Worldview in Early Modern China).

Herbert and I were always friendly but not really close. However, I can supply two anecdotes, one each from the two conferences in Germany, that I think capture the nature of our friendship while they simultaneously cast some revealing light on him as an individual. In every sense, he was a man of consummate humanity.

While we were in Germany in 1971, Herbert entertained all the conference participants at his home. Given that we were at that time en route to Japan, I had brought along my family, including my eleven-year-old son David, who asked me to translate a banner prominently displayed in the room of Herbert's son. It proclaimed "An asshole enters this world every second." Amused but also embarrassed, Herbert reminded me of this event when we met again fifteen years later! (Meanwhile, my David had had the time to take the lesson to heart.)

Also, on the occasion of this second meeting of ours in 1986, Herbert told me about his wartime service in the highest reaches of German intelligence. The ranks at that level were staffed by nonaligned experts because the work was deemed too important and sensitive to assign to Nazis. Herbert was charged with scrutinizing American journals and other sources and took great delight in informing his superiors that German prisoners of war were being well fed but enjoyed whipped cream (Schlagsahne) only on Sundays. This was of course at a time when the delicious taste of whipped cream was merely a distant memory in Germany! Whether we ourselves were eating Schlagsahne when he shared this episode, I cannot recall, but I do hope so! Herbert always struck me as an exceptionally clear-headed scholar with a nice sense of humor and rare human warmth.

Reflecting on the work of Herbert Franke as well as his life, I am struck by the similarities and differences between him and Étienne Balazs, the two of them being the giants of continental European "sinology" in the second half of the twentieth century. I place "sinology" in quotes because both men, while being master philologists, sought to redefine and broaden their discipline. Balazs did so as leader of the "Jeune Sinologues" and Franke accomplished this feat through his Sinologie (1953), which spans what was then the whole range of disciplines within China studies, concluding with a chapter on art and another on science, technology, and material culture.

Just as importantly, both men were intent on bringing all the resources of contemporary theoretical developments to the understanding of China and to assuring a major role for the study of China in our understanding of the world. Both were scholars of unusually wide range as well as depth. Thus, Franke introduces his Sinologie by referring to world history, and his own history of China (Das Chinese Kaiserreich (The Chinese Empire, 1968) written with Rolf Trauzettel for a series on world history, is dedicated in memory to Balazs, whom Franke greatly respected and whom he succeeded as director of the Song Project.

Franke and Balazs both studied in Berlin and wrote dissertations on economic history. Yet, Franke dedicated Sinologie to "my teacher Gustav Haloun" with whom he had studied in England. I do not know when and where Franke acquired his mastery of English, but it certainly reinforced his cosmopolitanism and led to such impressive English-language publications as the ones he produced.

The differences in temperament between the two scholars Franke and Balazs were as profound...

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