An interview with
Position & Affiliation: Professor emeritus of Central Asian Studies, University of Bonn
Date: November 23, 2018 in Oelinghoven, near Bonn, Germany
Interviewed by: Anna Sehnalova
Transcription: Rachael Griffiths
Childhood and upbringing
Thank you for agreeing to the interview.
It’s an honour, a pleasure.
Well, for us it’s an honour. Could we start with your childhood? Where do you and your family come from? When and where were you born?
I was born in present-day Czechia, in the north of Bohemia, in a small town called Niemes in German and Mimoň in Czech. My father was a secondary school teacher, also teaching Czech. He went to school for 1 year in a Czech school. Well, I had a happy childhood. I still remember a little bit.
I was born a Czechoslovakia citizen, so my birth certificate is in Czech. Then in 1938, the Germans invaded the country; I still remember it. I was only 5 years old or so, but it made a big impression on me.
In 1941 we moved to Aussig an der Elbe, in Czech Ústí nad Labem. And from there, in 1945, we had to leave the country and came to Cottbus in Eastern Germany.
How do you remember your childhood? What kind of child were you? What hobbies did you have?
Which hobbies? Well, for example, I was playing the drums at 6.30 in the morning in our street. People were not very amused about it.
Yes. I had a good childhood. I was supposed to go to kindergarten. Well, I agreed to have a look. They presented me with some Knäckebrot with butter, it was very tasty. And then I thought well it’s quite nice here, but I prefer to play at home in my street with my friends. There were no cars in those days, you see. It was a very good childhood, I must say.
And then the war started, but we did not suffer, actually. I mean there was always food. My mother’s brother was a farmer, so we always got some additional food. So, we did not starve. I could tell you many more things, but I don’t think it’s so important now.
How many siblings do you have?
1 sister. Only 1 sister. She was 5 years older than me. She is already dead.
And you had a German schooling?
Yes, a German schooling because our place was, I think about 90% German. We had Czechs but the problem was that more and more officials came from Prague, from the Interior. I mean we do not speak about politics now but that this was the outcome of nationalism.
So, the Germans had the feeling that more and more rights were taken from them. That is at least what I remember and also what my parents said. But on the other hand – I’m jumping a little – until 1938 there were always close relations between the Czechs and the Germans. I think life, living together, was possible.
As a teacher, my father went several times to Moravia. There was a holiday camp for German and Czech children, I think until 1937, perhaps even 1938. The Czech children were taught by the German teachers, I mean in a holiday way, and vice versa. And my sister also [went] there, at least 2 times.
My mother was the daughter of a farmer, and they had guest children, Czech guest children, who were supposed to learn German. And my mother and her brothers, and, I think, also her sister went to the interior of Bohemia and stayed with a Czech family. I still remember the name of this family. And they became friends.
What was the name of the family?
Holan. Is it not a good way to establish good relations between peoples?
But there was politics. During the years more and more Czech officials came to the areas where Germans lived. And on the other side of the border, there was a German Empire in those days. We need not talk about it for very long, but it was one of the reasons for this conflict.
And then the Munich treaty. The British and the French made a treaty with Hitler without asking the Germans in Czechoslovakia. What information did these Germans have? They thought the powers made this agreement, so everything was okay. The result is known.
You continued your schooling throughout the war?
In Aussig an der Elbe?
Yes. I went to a Gymnasium there for 2 years.
The family’s relocation to Eastern Germany
And then you went to, what became, Eastern Germany?
Yes. Interestingly enough we came again to a Slavic surrounding because Cottbus is the capital of Lower Lusatia. It is where the Sorbs live. Our village was a Sorbic village, and our hosts where we lived were Sorbs. The old people, they spoke very heavy German still.
How was it coming to a new environment? It was a German environment but a different German environment to what you grew up in, probably?
Not so different, I would say. No. It was more or less the same culture. The same language, although our cultural feeling was more Austrian. We were so-called refugees. That meant we had some difficulties, but on the other hand, we had a lot of help from local people. I have no bad memories, I must say.
Could you choose the place that you could go?
You were allocated?
Yes and no. Right at the beginning we could not choose the place because we were evacuated and came to Cottbus. And from there all these refugees were distributed to different villages. I mean, to the town and the surrounding villages. But then after some years, my father got employment as a teacher of agriculture in the town of Cottbus, so my parents moved there.
Have you ever returned to Bohemia?
Twice. Once my wife Ursula and I went with my parents to the place where I was born. And we were a little bit nervous because of my parents. Particularly, because of my mother who was a farmer’s daughter. I still remember when we went to the village where she came from, she finally said, “Well I am very happy that I saw it again, but this is no longer my home country”.
Memories of the University of Leipzig
So, what happened then when you moved to Germany?
Well, I went to school in Cottbus. I had my Abitur examination and then I went to Leipzig for studies. The reason for that was Eduard Erkes, Professor of Chinese Studies, Sinology, at the University of Leipzig. In those days we had these little booklets about the history of, for example, China. Our teacher [at secondary school] asked us if somebody would be willing to read this booklet and to tell us, in short, its contents. And I thought, well it’s quite interesting. So, I did it. And then I got interested in the history of China.
I looked for the name of the author, it was Eduard Erkes, a professor at the University of Leipzig. So, I knew that there was something like Chinese Studies. This was the reason that I took Chinese Studies for my university studies. All my classmates went to Berlin for their university studies. I was the only one to go to Leipzig.
In Leipzig, in those days, there was an East Asian Institute. The director was Professor Eduard Erkes. In this institute, there were 2 teachers: 1 for Mongolian and 1 for Tibetan. So, I thought that that was very interesting, and I started Mongolian. And then I took Tibetan with Dr. Johannes Schubert.
Who was the Mongolian teacher?
Dr. Paul Ratchnevsky. Perhaps you don’t know his name? He studied in Paris, where he was a pupil of Paul Pelliot.
How do you remember Dr. Schubert as a teacher? And as a person?
Oh, he was a very kind person. Very learned. Very near to his students. We had only 1 Tibetan text, I mean only 1 copy. And we had to read it. And he read it from the other side, upside down. I was very much impressed by him. I still have the book that he donated to me. I still remember that he lived in a flat, on the fifth floor, very high. Without an elevator. And he said, “Well I deliberately do that because I must keep myself fit.” And then he went to the Himalayas. I have very good memories of him.
What did the programme look like? How many students were there? What textbooks did you use?
We didn’t have any textbooks. I must confess, I can’t remember what he gave us. I mean, simple sentences. It could be that we read something from Jäschke’s Tibetan Grammar, but I don’t think [so]. I think he had his own texts.
We were very, very few students. In Mongolian, there were two. And in Tibetan, I don’t remember, but I think also not much more. Three, perhaps.
Who were your classmates?
Well, there was Manfred Taube, but he was senior to me. Erika Taube, you know may have heard of her? She was in the class under me, in Chinese Studies. She did not do Tibetan. I must confess, it escapes my memory now.
Why did you find it interesting to study these languages and cultures?
Well, it started, for example, with Greek. It must be in my genes. Because I remember I could choose my secondary school myself, without being forced by my parents in any way. There were, I think, 3 choices. And 1 of them was a gymnasium, and I took it because I could learn Latin and Greek there. And that was somehow fascinating. Different culture. Interesting language. I can’t explain it. I think it was always like that—you suddenly feel a liking for a certain field. Either Mathematics or God knows what. And the same with Oriental Studies, with Chinese. I told you how I came to Chinese Studies. Then there was Mongolian and Tibetan, and it sounded so fascinating and attractive. Which it was. So that is, I think, the reason.
What did your classes look like? Was it only the language you learned?
No. In Chinese Studies, it was mainly Palaeography, History and Literature. Erkes gave a 3‑term course in Chinese History. I still have the type-written manuscript which was hectographed and distributed among the students. Then we read Chinese classics. The professor wrote the texts on the blackboard, translated and explained them, and we would make our notes. So, it was not us who had to translate, but he did it. The result was that we, in 1 term, could read 1 whole text. That was very interesting, not only methodologically.
Then we had also [classes on] Chinese palaeography. A long, long course of Chinese palaeography. I still remember we used to come, my class used to come, a little bit late to this lecture because we had another lecture [beforehand]. So, there was a Professor of Mathematics there who had learned Sanskrit and now he was learning Classical Chinese, and he reserved a place for me. Then he was looking at my writing, I was a beginner, and once while I was copying a complicated Chinese character with, I think, 16 strokes, he said, “Excuse me, may I tell you that you forgot 1 stroke”.
We learned a lot, I think. It was a good time. I also did Indian Studies with Professor Friedrich Weller and Dr. Ulrich Schneider.
Was it common to learn several Oriental languages at the same time?
Yes. We had, for example, Chinese Studies and then you could take other Asian languages. Even Indian or whatever. I studied in Leipzig for 2 and a half years, so we had to pass examinations after the academic year in Chinese history and language and (Communist) Social Science.
At the end [of the degree] was the state examination, Staatsexamen. I did not reach this stage in Leipzig.
How did you finish your studies?
In Bonn. I had to leave the German Democratic Republic in March 1954 for political reasons. I went to West Berlin and from there to West Germany, to Göttingen and then to Bonn. Between Göttingen and Bonn, I had the chance to spend 2 terms in Copenhagen.
Education and study environment in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)
How was it partially growing up and studying in Eastern Germany?
Well, it was not so bad. I was lucky. My father was a so-called intellectual, and in the beginning children of intellectuals were not allowed to enter a university. My sister, for example, was not allowed to study. But I was younger, 5 years younger, and the politics had changed. So, I could choose my field of studies without any influence. I even got a grant, so I did not depend on my parents financially.
The system was very good and if you passed your examination, you got a grant.
So, it was very social for the students?
It was very social. And some professors helped the students even if they obviously were not followers of the party ideology. I will give you an example. One of these professors was Eduard Erkes. He was a member of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), but his main interest was his Institute of East Asian Studies which he wanted to flourish without consideration of political issues. At the end of the academic year, we had to pass examinations in Chinese language and history (with Erkes) and Political Science (with Professor Josef Schleifstein). When announcing the results of the examination, Professor Erkes said, “Mr. So-and-so, language grade 1, history grade 1”, then somebody had in both fields only 2, although the grades went from 1 to 5!). That means that the poor fellow must have been rather bad. Then in the end Professor Erkes said, “Well ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy about the excellent result of the examination. None of you must now be afraid of getting a bad grade in Political Science.” This was Eduard Erkes. His students, his colleagues, and his institute were more important than party ideology.
And you also had to learn Russian? At high school?
Of course, at school. Well, like your parents of course. I still remember we started, I think, 7 times with lesson 1. This was possible since we always got new teachers. But in the end, this could not be defended anymore. And therefore, we started 7 times with lesson 14. I heard from other people from other so-called socialist countries that it was the same there.
Your Russian language teachers were German?
Most probably. I remember that we had 1 teacher, a lady, who was a Petersburg German. As far as I remember, the other teachers of Russian were also Germans, but I am not quite sure.
Then I had to leave, and it was not a good time for me. For you it is interesting, of course you know Jaroslav Průšek, he was giving a lecture in Leipzig and during this lecture, 2 gentlemen in leather coats came and took me.
Oh, I see.
Further studies in Göttingen and Copenhagen
It was during Jaroslav Průšek’s lecture. And then I came to Göttingen, rather quickly, which is also in relation to the problems now with the refugees, interestingly. I left Leipzig on March 15th and started my studies in Göttingen on May 2nd.
So quickly and it was a whole process, you see. But it was so well organised.
How did you manage to escape? It probably wasn’t easy?
It was not actually difficult, because there was no wall, but there were controls around Berlin and the trains. I took a bag with some underwear and a booklet by Bertold Spuler, Die Mongolen, pretending to go to the state library in Eastern Berlin, in case the police came, and I had to tell them a story, but nobody came and then I took the train to West Berlin, which was possible without difficulties. There I was.
And then you applied for citizenship, how did it work?
It was like that. Only to give you an example, [of] the organisation in this bad time. Many people are blaming it, but it was like that, that I had to be interviewed by representatives of the German Union of Students, in West Berlin, in the camp.
So, I was interviewed, and they asked me what I was going to do now. Well, I had to earn money because I was alone, I had some relatives in Austria, but, I mean, I had no money. I said I wanted to study in Göttingen because I was looking where I could do Chinese, Mongolian and Indian studies. I did Indian studies also. Tibetan was not represented in Göttingen. Because in Göttingen, there was Heissig, and I wanted to study with him. So, they said, Jawohl, here are the application forms for Göttingen University, they had them there, the forms. You sit down, you write and then if you are recognised as a political refugee, you will be entitled to get help within a special program, which meant in Western Germany, everybody has to contribute to the consequences of having lost the war. Those who had lost their property, they get money from the others for those who had kept their property; that was the basic idea. I was entitled to get this help and then they said, “But it will take about 2 months until it works and during this time you will get money from us.” So I could start without working, I mean earning money. 1 and a half months later, it was amazing. It was amazing. I mean I did not get much; you don’t expect much really.
How did you get from Berlin to Göttingen?
That was by plane, I mean to Hannover, and then I had to go to another camp, to finish the process. I had to pass my final secondary examination for a second time. I could not prepare myself, it worked, a long story, but it worked.
Where did you do the exam again?
Well, in Hanover, in the capital of [the former] Frederick [Prussian] state.
In Göttingen, I could continue my Chinese, Mongolian and Indian studies. Chinese with Professor Hans Stange, Mongolian with Dr Walther Heissig and Indian with Professor Ernst Waldschmidt and Dr. Siegfried Lienhard. Tibetan was not represented in Göttingen. The main reason why I went to Göttingen was the possibility to continue Mongolian Studies, a field which was rather rare in Western Germany.
It was a good time in Göttingen. It was my best time during my studies and [there were] good teachers. Walther Heissig, said, “You should go to Copenhagen [University] to do further studies in Mongolian with Professor Kaare Grønbech. He was a Turkologist, also teaching Mongolian. He was ill when I went there. He also died, unfortunately, during my stay there. But he had a very good assistant, Dr. Kaare Thomsen Hansen, and I could do Mongolian with them. And I could even do Tibetan with Dr. Erik Haarh.
How do you remember Erik Haarh as a teacher and as a person?
As a teacher, he was very serious and very good and a very kind person. I remember him in the best way. He was a good teacher. I forgot which Tibetan texts we read. Perhaps I still have some notes, but right now I do not remember.
Who were your classmates in Göttingen and Copenhagen? What did the programme look like? How did you study?
Well, in Göttingen I had classes in Chinese, [and] in Mongolian with [Walther] Heissig. I still remember the first time we had a class; he was checking me and then he said, “Well, it’s okay.” He wanted to know what I knew. We were only 2 [students]; one student of Egypt Studies, Günther Schmidt, and me. My main field in those days was Chinese Studies because there was no curriculum for Mongolian Studies. It was only a Nebenfach (minor subject).
I still remember we only had 1 text, I don’t know what it was, but only 1 copy of a Mongolian text. Heissig was sitting here and Günther was sitting there, and I was sitting in the middle. I was supposed to read but I could not, the reason was that Heissig was smoking a pipe and Schmidt was smoking cigarettes. By the end of the month, Günther had run out of money and was smoking the worst kind of cigarettes (blows). I simply could not see anything and hardly breathe because of all the smoke.
Reflections on different university experiences
From your experience, was there a difference between universities in Eastern and Western Germany at that time?
No. No refers to Oriental Studies. Of course, in Eastern Germany, we had to attend courses in Marxism and Leninism. We had a very good teacher, a philosopher, who during Nazi times spent his exile in England. Not in Russia. We had 6 hours of Marxism-Leninism per week, 4 hours of lectures and a 2‑hour seminar.
What was the name of the teacher?
Professor Josef Schleifstein. He was internationally known and was deliberately placed as a teacher in the Faculty of Philosophy and Theology in Leipzig.
Otherwise, the teachers that we had in Leipzig were still of the old brand. There was the Japanologist, Professor André Wedemeyer. I did not do Japanese, but he also gave a beginner’s course in Classical Chinese. Then there were Professor Weller, Dr. Ratchnevsky, Dr. Schubert and even Professor Erkes. They were all of the old brand. There was no politics in their teaching.
Then I had one teacher [Siegfried] Morenz. He was a Professor of Egypt Studies but also taught the religious history of the Near East. Therefore, I attended his classes. He was the only one who wrote me a letter when I had left Leipzig saying I could contact his colleague in West Berlin to help me, which was very brave in those days.
And then classmates. In Leipzig, my classmate in Mongolian was Siegfried Seumel. There were others in Chinese and Indian Studies, for example, Rolf Trauzettel and Erika and Manfred Taube. It was typical for the political system that half of my classmates in secondary school went to the West and half of my classmates at the university also went to the West. My classmate in the university, Ralf Trauzettel, became a Professor of Chinese Studies in Bonn. And Dr Schneider became a Professor of Indian Studies in Münster. So, it was a real brain drain.
After I had left Leipzig, Professor Erkes was of course contacted by the Secret Police, the notorious Stasi (Staatssicherheit). And he told them that if they continue this politics, all his students will go to the West.
What did they reply?
It is not said. I think they did not reply at all.
It was similar in the Czech Republic. The Jews and the Germans were lost, and then the clever Czechs.
It is unbelievable. You can only have shame about what has happened. Just now we had discussions about the end of World War I. They signed a treaty, and it was so bad for Germany. I am not a historian but almost inevitably it started this development, I would say.
In Czechoslovakia, we did not feel that the economic situation was bad. I still remember this time only dimly. But in Germany, it was obviously dramatic, during the crisis in 1923 and later. Then Hitler managed to introduce some reforms which instigated the economy, and many people followed him. What later happened can simply not be excused. The persecution of the Jews is inexcusable. They said that so many people didn’t know about it. Frankly, I doubt…
I’m sure that many people did not know but when the war was over, I was 12. Just 12. And I remember 4 examples that were proof that something was wrong. I still remember the places. Strangely, I have it in my visual memory. I don’t know with whom I was, perhaps it was my father. We met a lady, and I was introduced to her, and I was told she was an honorary Aryan. So, she was a Jew but declared to be an honorary Aryan because of her merits for the Hitler regime.
Then when I went to school there were houses on my road, and I was told these were the houses of Jews, but people said that they had moved to Madagascar, I think. And I thought, why to Madagascar? Then I saw a man, near the marketplace in Aussig an der Elbe, in a black suit with a yellow star on his jacket: a Jew. He was loading charcoal somewhere. To me, this seemed not normal. And then in our house, there was a family from Bremen. Real Aryans, I still remember them, blonde. The man was rather tall, and he was in the SS. People said he had to show places for execution but he himself was of course (!) not involved in the executions.
And then the grown-ups didn’t know about it? No. But this has nothing to do with Oriental Studies.
But it’s part of your history and the environment. So, how was Copenhagen? Did you continue your studies there?
Yes, Mongolian and Tibetan. And old Turkish.
No. I did not attend Indian Studies in Copenhagen, no.
Who was your Turkic Studies teacher?
It was Kaare Thomsen Hansen, the assistant of Grønbech, who also taught Mongolian.
Why did you decide to combine the languages? Now it would be quite unusual.
Unfortunately, I would say. Well, the reason was a very simple one. In Leipzig, in the East Asian Institute, Mongolian and Tibetan were offered.
May I ask you what the reason for this might be? It seems that in some departments in Germany, but also Poland, Hungary and Prague, Mongolian and Tibetan studies are usually taught together.
In Leipzig, I think the reason was that Professor Erkes wanted to create a big East Asian Institute. Not confining it to Chinese Studies and Japanese Studies, but also the minority studies. There was Dr. Schubert, who was working as a Librarian in the University Library, and there was Dr. Ratchnevsky. And then Professor Erkes wanted to send me to Hamburg, to Western Germany, to study Old Turkish with Professor Annemarie von Gabain, because he also wanted to introduce Ancient Turkish Studies in his institute. But then I had to leave Eastern Germany, so I could not go to Hamburg.
Can I ask you which year did you go to Western Germany?
It was in 1954. March 1954.
And to Copenhagen?
In 1956. 1956–1957. From there I went to Bonn, because of [Walther] Heissig. I already had the topic for my dissertation, with Heissig as my supervisor. The text of my dissertation was kept in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. A biography in Mongolian.
What was the topic?
The biography of the First Changkya (Lcang skya) Khutuktu. During my stay in Copenhagen, Dr. Heissig was offered a position in Bonn. So, I came to Bonn and I’m still here. I finished my studies, the main field was Mongolian and the second field, or secondary fields, were Chinese and Indian Studies.
Would you say there was any difference between German and Danish academia at that time?
No. I would say no. It was rather free, you could choose what you wanted. I deliberately wanted to do Tibetan and Mongolian there, but I think it was the same. In Prague too, and in Austria. The Central European System: Austria, Poland, it was the same, I think.
Have you finished your Masters?
No, we had no Masters.
So how did it work? What did you finish in Bonn?
That was after how many years of study?
I had 8 years. I was a little bit slow.
So, you went from undergraduate to the doctorate?
Yes. There was no Master’s in those days.
You had to pass a certain series of exams?
Yes and no.
To go into the next year?
No. In Eastern Germany you had examinations but not in the West. You studied and then you had your “Rigorosum”. This was the first examination. In my opinion, that was not so good because one was not trained sufficiently for examinations.
For example, Heissig asked me in the Rigorosum about the topic of my dissertation and I could not tell him. I was not able to speak. He should have given me a little hint so that the machine starts running, but he would say, “You know this, you know this.” But no. Well, it went well but I thought that some examinations before this final examination would have been quite a good idea.
So, you had an examination along with your viva?
Ah, I understand what you mean. No. There was nothing like a defence of the dissertation.
There was an examination of different topics in the field. We had to translate a text and then answer questions. For example, there was an examination in Chinese Studies. The professor, Peter Olbricht, was a good examiner. We had a nice talk. After that, I realized that he had pushed me through the whole field, and I had not noticed it because we were just talking.
And then the Professor of Indology, Paul Hacker, gave me 4 pages, narrowly printed, of Sanskrit text. We had agreed on this text before, which was a whole book, and I could not read it in full during all the other preparations for the examination. Later on, when I myself had students, I knew how much you can do in 30 minutes or 45 minutes of oral examination. But he gave me 4 pages to just translate.
Teaching at the Institute of Central Asian Studies in Bonn
You had no examination in Tibetan Studies?
No, because there were no Tibetan Studies in Bonn.
Why did I continue my studies in Bonn?
During my stay in Copenhagen, Dr. Heissig came to Bonn. What had happened? In Bonn, there was an Institute of Oriental Studies. The Director was Professor Otto Spies. Oriental Studies now means Arabic, Persian, and Turkic Studies. But at that time, the Institute also included Chinese Studies, Japanese Studies, and Mongolian Studies. Indian Studies were separate. Otto Spies was ready to make Chinese and Japanese Studies “independent”, and he really managed to create chairs for Chinese Studies and Japanese Studies, with the lecturers (Dozent) Peter Olbricht and Otto Karow as full professors. But Spies wanted the lecturer Walther Heissig to become a full professor as well, with his own institute.
Heissig was a Mongolist. But could the institute be an institute of Mongolian Studies? The Ministry in Düsseldorf, which had the final decision, said that Mongolian Studies is too narrow. This is true since compared to Chinese Studies, Iranian Studies, and Slavic Studies it would have been too small. Therefore, they proposed to create an institute which covers the study of the languages, history, and cultures of the countries between China, Iran, Siberia, and India. And so, the Institute of Central Asian Studies of Bonn University (Seminar für Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft Zentralasiens der Universität Bonn) was created in 1964. In my opinion, this was a very good decision. Heissig became a full professor, and I was lucky enough to become his assistant.
And then, of course, a curriculum was needed. There were Mongolian Studies and then a second one, Tibetan Studies because Heissig was also teaching some Tibetan, but he did not like it very much. Then he told me, as his assistant, “Sagaster, you will teach Tibetan.” So, I had to teach Tibetan.
Well, I said, “Yes, Professor.” What could I do? I mean, I liked it, of course. In a way, I was honoured. Then sometime later Heissig was blaming me. He said, “You completely forgot [about] Mongolian Studies. You only do Tibetan Studies.” I told him, “But you ordered me to do Tibetan Studies.” And he was laughing like anything. In fact, I did both [Tibetan and Mongolian Studies].
Did you like teaching?
Very much. It was great fun. I had good students. I even had a student of Icelandic Studies, imagine! That was possible in those days. Icelandic Studies was Germanic Studies and his speciality was Icelandic, old Icelandic and also, perhaps, modern. His secondary field was Tibetan. He did his master’s and doctorate with me and after his examinations, I asked him whether Tibetan Studies were of some use for him. He said something interesting: “Of course. I came to know quite a different culture. And you know, studying Tibetan brought me new ideas for my own field.” Later on, I asked his Doktorvater (Ph.D. adviser), “How is Mr Schulte?” He said, “He is now a professor in Norway. So, there is no harm in studying Tibetan.” Therefore, also a combination of Icelandic and Central Asian Studies is obviously useful.
There would probably be less freedom for such a combination in the Central European university system now…
Yes, less freedom. I don’t think it’s so good. For example, I gave a class on the Rgyud bzhi. I’m not a specialist in [Tibetan] medicine but it came about because of a Ph.D. student of medicine who was very interested in Tibetan medicine. In those days it was also possible to combine Tibetan Studies with Medicine, as a secondary field. I think this is no longer possible.
The usefulness of combining Medical and Tibetan Studies was also proved by Dr. med. Elizabeth Finckh from Hamburg, who was very much interested in Tibetan medicine. She asked my colleague in Indian Studies, Claus Vogel, who also did Tibetan, and me whether we could read the manuscript of her book on Tibetan medicine. She had written a long introduction on Tibetan religion, philosophy, embedding medicine, and the system of Tibetan religion. We were reading it and thought this was typical of what is written by a layperson. There was no harm, but as she was asking us, we told her to take it out. Shorten it. She was very grateful. Through this, I became interested in Tibetan medicine.
I’m jumping a little bit, but now you have these short-term employments. I know this from my daughter who is a Turkologist and also went through this. One short-term employment after another and you are always shivering and thinking “How can I continue?”
When I did my Habilitation (advanced postdoctoral thesis to qualify for professorship), I became a Privatdozent. I was put at the bottom of a list for becoming a Diätendozent. Don’t ask me about the origin of this term. But this was a permanent position, not as a professor but as a Dozent.
First, I was at the bottom of the list. Then I climbed because the people at the top [of the list] became professors, so one became higher and higher on the staircase. Even if a scholar of Nuclear Physics was after me, he would not have got the position before me. That was the system. Now it is no more.
So you had to wait a bit? For those above you to become professors before you could?
Yes, but it worked. I remained in Bonn and became a Dozent and later a professor.
After my retirement, something happened. I mean, we always had this combination of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies. Nobody was forced to do both. Some people did Tibetan or who only did Mongolian, but you could combine. Manchu Studies and Turkic Studies were also possible. We never had the position of Professor of Turkic Studies because of financial reasons. Heissig did not achieve it and I also did not achieve it. It was simply not possible for financial reasons. However, we had guest professors for Turkic Studies.
In theory, the whole area of Central Asia was possible [to study]. And then, there came a university reform and my colleagues decided to abolish the idea of Central Asian Studies as a larger field. What remained were Mongolian Studies and Tibetan Studies. In my opinion, until now it worked, but it is not ideal because both are practically separated under the roof of one department. The idea of Central Asia as a larger field of studies has been abolished and I’m afraid, I hope I’m not right, that one day people will say, “Oh, Tibetan Studies are no longer necessary”. Fortunately, at present the chair will be still preserved. But I was very nervous, I thought it would be a good opportunity to abolish it. Because Tibetan Studies are in Hamburg, Berlin, and Munich, why should there be Tibetan Studies in Bonn as well? And Mongolian Studies have already been abolished.
When was this?
It was in 2012. They were abolished. We had a professor from China who went back to his country. I understand why because the conditions here were not appropriate anymore. And then Mongolian Studies were dead. By a miracle, they were revived.
Imagine, even Slavic Studies at the University of Bonn have been abolished. Even the intervention of Gorbachev had no effect. It was around 2012, recently.
When you started teaching it was Central Asian Studies? And within it was both Mongolian and Tibetan Studies?
Yes, these were the 2 official curricula. But one could also do Manchu and other fields.
Then it changed? And so now we have independent Tibetan Studies?
Yes, but still under the roof, as before, of the Department of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies, as it is called.
Was it the same before?
No, it was the Institute of Central Asian Studies (Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaften Zentralasiens).
What did you teach and how did you teach it? Which materials did you use?
Well, I gave introductory courses. Then we had seminars, we were reading different texts: historical texts, literature, medicine. For example, we had seminars on modern Tibetan history, on the Perestroika in Mongolia, and I gave lectures on Tibetan history and literature. Of course, over the years there were many topics.
Fieldwork in Baltistan and traces of the Gesar epic
You were teaching what we usually call classical Tibetan? There wasn’t much modern language in the curriculum?
No, not so much modern because, you see, I never had the chance to practice modern Tibetan to be fluent in the language. But we had a Tibetan lecturer, Jampa Phukhang Khentrul. Of course, we read some modern texts, I have forgotten what we read, but I cannot say that I was qualified to teach modern Tibetan adequately.
I should tell you about my fieldwork in Baltistan, in North-Eastern Pakistan. My problem was that I could not do fieldwork in Tibet itself, not in China, and not in Mongolia because I was a political refugee. I always regretted that. But then a chance came. Since 1972 we had a special research programme for Central Asian Studies, including Chinese and Indian Studies related to Central Asia. This was financed by the German Research Association (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). This meant that we got money to employ researchers in addition to the staff, which was not very big, of course. The Chinese and Indian Institutes joined, and there were several research programs like epic studies, iconography, material culture, and so on.
The main topic of epic studies was Gesar/Geser/Kesar, and Gesar studies should cover the whole area where the epic was spread: in Mongolia, Tibet, Ladakh – and Baltistan. There was evidence that the Gesar epic was also present there, in Muslim Tibet since the ethnographer Professor [Karl] Jettmar of Heidelberg University had recorded a Balti version of the Kesar epic.
So, Professor Heissig, the head of the research programme, proposed that I go to Baltistan, together with the Indologist Dr. [Renate] Söhnen in order to record Balti versions of the Gesar epic. And so, we went to Baltistan for the first time in 1980, the second time in 1981, and then in 1983 also. My wife Ursula joined in 1981 and 1983. Ursula used this opportunity to collect material of Balti material culture. We got research permits within the Pakistani-German Karakorum Highway programme. Professor Jettmar and his Pakistani colleague, Professor Ahmed Hassan of Islamabad Dani had found inscriptions in different languages along the Karakorum highway south of Gilgit and then also on the highway between Gilgit and the Chinese border. Now they could make full documentation of the inscriptions in a special project. We could combine our project, I mean officially, with this project. It was not a trick, but it was easier to do it this way. On the Pakistani side, they knew that. And so, we went to Baltistan.
Dr. Söhnen recorded a version from the west of this little country, and I recorded other versions. I realised very early [on] that there was no use recording only Kesar stories because they were sometimes related to other stories. So, I said to myself, well, I have this storyteller, so let him tell whatever he knows. This was the reason that I also recorded the story of the King of Yemen, the King of Rum and even the King of Egypt and others. By the way, Egypt is a direct neighbour of Baltistan.
Yes, of course. One storyteller told me, “Well now I should tell you the story of Kesar going to Hor (in the North of Kesar’s country), but the other man already told you this story. I take you now to Egypt”. So, I recorded all that I could because, sometimes parts of the Kesar stories became independent stories or other stories were integrated into the Kesar epic. And so, it came that I could do some fieldwork.
Did you like it?
Very much. I must say, shame on me, I could not yet publish it all. The reason is that since 1990 I got the chance to go to Mongolia very often. And my Balti studies had to suffer. Now I am trying to finish. I had Balti scholars here who translated the stories because I simply needed native speakers. I transcribed some examples phonetically, but it is impossible to transcribe the whole material. It is so voluminous, but I hope to proceed in working and to still publish most of it. Some of the storytellers were talking so quickly or so indistinctly that only native speakers could really understand [it]. I laugh sometimes when I read these translations. One of my friends who made the translations, Mr. Mohammed Iqbal of Islamabad, an elderly gentleman, very knowledgeable, wrote, “Well, and now the people, listeners, they join the song of the storyteller. And one can simply not understand one word because of the noise of the commentaries which they make during the recitation.”
Then I also asked the storytellers questions. For example, “Is Kesar still alive?”
“Ah yeah, of course. He’s still alive. He lives in Soghzgo Broq in Nubra Valley/Ladakh. His wife Brukmo is a faithful Muslim. And Kesar himself is a dirty Buddhist. And he will be defeated in the last battle between Islam and Buddhism. Defeated by Imam Mehdi and Jesus Christ.”
Then they said, “He is producing weapons for this apocalyptic battle during the day. During the night Brukmo is destroying all of them and then he has to make them again.”
Then I asked, “If Kesar is such a dirty Buddhist, an enemy of Islam, why do you tell his story?”
“We tell this story in order to be aware of the most dangerous enemy of Islam.” And then “We tell this story because it is so interesting.”
Travel to India in the 1960s, memories of Dharamsala and meeting the Dalai Lama
It is very interesting. Was Baltistan your first trip to Asia?
No. I first went to Asia in January 1964. Long ago. There was an International Congress of Orientalists in Delhi. I even saw Nehru, half a year before he died. He came to give the valedictory address, with the red rose on his jacket. This was very moving.
My visit to India had a very special meaning because when I was studying Indology in Bonn, I had a classmate, much senior to me, from Delhi, Dr. Sita Nambiar. She was a friend of my [then] future wife. My wife, Ursula, took care of her right after she arrived in Bonn as part of an international student organisation which took care of foreign students. In those days we had many Indian [students]. She took care of her, and they became very close friends. Through this Indian lady, I came to know my future wife. Of course, Sita was very proud because this was her work. At that time, she was already married to an Indian gentleman whom she met in Bonn, working in the Indian Embassy. I wanted to visit them, and I stayed in their house. They were very, very nice people.
After the conference, I wanted to go to visit the Tibetan settlements in the Himalayas, particularly Dharamsala. So, I went there and went to Dharamsala. There I stayed in the Government rest house. It was January, there was snow, and it was cold. I was the only guest in the house. Well, no problem but nobody had received me, although my visit had been announced by our Tibetan lecturer Jampa Phukhang. Later on, it turned out people were waiting for me. But it was the wrong bus or God knows, but it did not work.
Jampa Phukhang had written a letter to Dagyab Rinpoche, who in those days was the head of the cultural department of the Dalai Lama. I had the letter with me and wanted to deliver it to the Rinpoche.
First, I went to a restaurant to have momos and showed the letter [and said], “Dagyab Rinpoche, how can I reach him?”
“Oh yeah, we will take care of it.” They delivered the letter, and then they even took me to Dagyab Rinpoche’s office. The Rinpoche was sitting there with a poker face. The reason was his English was not good and my Tibetan, spoken Tibetan, was practically zero. So, we could not speak much. I felt really uncomfortable.
Then I went back to the rest house, and I thought no, I won’t stay here. I wanted to pack my things and take the next bus. But suddenly a Tibetan came [and said], “Hurry up, hurry up. The Rinpoche invites you to stay with him. “The bus (from Lower Dharamsala to Upper Dharamsala) is just leaving.” I thought, well if he invited me, I obviously had the wrong impression, it cannot be so bad. So, I took my things, and I was pulled into the bus, which was already running, and we went to Upper Dharamsala. Then I stayed in the Rinpoche’s house. He even gave me his bedroom, a little room, very modest. I had my first butter tea, and it was very, very good.
Then Dagyab Rinpoche said, “Well, don’t you want to visit the Dalai Lama?”
I said, “Is this possible?”
He said, “Why not?” They were friends, you see. “I will announce your visit. No problem.”
Of course, it was tempting. But I said, “How should I behave?”
He said, “Well, you should behave quite normally.”
“But what should I do?”
He said, “One thing is important, you must offer a khatag.”
I said, “But I don’t have a khatag.”
“My goodness, I have lots of them.”
“But how to present it?”
He said, “Well, you have to roll it up, draw it, and with the open side in front you offer it. And that’s all.”
We tried, it worked. So, I said, “Will you come with me?”
“You’re a grown-up person, you can go alone. Why should I come with you?”
So, I went to the Dalai Lama’s house. It was not yet the present residence. It was a very simple but large house. I was waiting and then a gentleman came, Kazi Sonam Tobgyal, the interpreter of the Dalai Lama. We went and then we came to a veranda. On the other side, I saw a monk standing. When I was looking closely, I realised it was the Dalai Lama who had come to receive me. I immediately wanted to take out the khatag, but it did not work because there was it in my coat pocket a button, and the fringes of the khatag got stuck. I could not take the khatag out.
Then the Dalai Lama said something, from the other side. I did not know that he had a rather deep voice. So, I thought that he was angry. But he was not at all angry. I think he thought, “My goodness boy, don’t be so nervous and come on over.” And then I took out the khatag and the button was jumping through the air. I wanted to fold it but it did not work. You see, everything went wrong. I think the Dalai Lama was very much amused. Then we had a long talk. The interpreter – the Dalai Lama did not yet speak English in those days, very little – said, “You were lucky. This was much longer than usual.” Because he wanted to know so many things, for example how Jampa Phukhang was getting along in Bonn. So, this was my first meeting with the Dalai Lama. It was my first visit to Asia.
How do you remember the Tibetan exile community at the time?
Nothing in particular. Later I came to Dharamsala again. I went to the children’s camp being taken care of by the Dalai Lama’s sister. However, I had the feeling that the Tibetan refugees were welcomed by the Indians. That is also what they said, the Indians were very fair.
I remember when I went back by bus from Dharamsala to Pathankot, I don’t know when, during my first visit or later, my neighbour was an Indian gentleman. We started talking and he asked if I visited the Dalai Lama. I said yes, I could visit him. He was a little bit disappointed and said, “Well you, as a European coming here, you get an audience with the Dalai Lama. But we Indians, we do not have this chance so easily.” Then I said, “You know, you come to Rome and you wish to see the Pope, you will see the Pope. But I myself as a poor Catholic, will not have this chance.” I think my neighbour was comforted.
Then there was a very interesting thing. It was also in the late 1960s, I think. The vice-president, at that time vice-director of the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala, came to Bonn to collect money.
What was his name?
Gyatso Tsering. He is no longer alive, as far as I know. The library was not yet built.
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives?
Yes. Well, he wanted to collect money for the construction of the library building. I said, “What should we do?” So, we went to the Foreign Office, which was conveniently within walking distance of our institute in Bonn. There they said, “No, we cannot give money.” It was not in their schedules. “But here is a list of welfare organisations. You go there and perhaps you will get something.”
Number 1, alphabetically, was Arbeiterwohlfahrt, the Worker’s Welfare. And the main office was in Bad Godesberg, a part of Bonn, so we went there. We were received and I said, “Well, this gentleman is Tibetan, and they want to build a library. They need some money.” I don’t know how I phrased it exactly but that was the meaning. They said, “Well, we will ask the secretary-general to come and you can talk to him.” And then the secretary general came. Gyatso Tsering explained his wish and the secretary general said, “This is culture. No. For this, we have no money. But couldn’t it be something else? Some social help or so.”
Gyatso Tsering was clever, he said, “Of course.”
The secretary-general said, “We have a project in Southern India, near the Tibetan camps. We could integrate the project for the Tibetan refugees into this Indian project. But, unfortunately, we cannot give so much money. I mean, would 100,000 DM (Deutsche Mark) be of some use?”
My guest was very happy and immediately accepted this offer. It was quite a lot of money in those days. Then it turned out that the lady who received us was in charge of this Indian project. And later on, she told me that it was the Tibetan project she liked best. She said it was so useful. For example, the women still had thick clothes. It was a hilly area in the south of India, but it was not a Himalayan climate. So, they were taught not to wear such thick clothes, and to brush their teeth, and things like that. The outcome was a little book in Tibetan. I still have it somewhere.
The story goes on, it was in 1973 when the Dalai Lama visited Europe for the first time.
The Dalai Lama’s visit to Germany in the 1970s
He came to Bonn at some point. Was this then?
Yes. The pharmacologist, Professor Werner Schulemann, a collector of Tibetan art, and Professor Heissig prepared the visit. Then something not so good happened. Some people from our institute protested against the visit of the Dalai Lama to the institute, in the university, because they were afraid of China. It would be bad for relations with China. Well, we did not have one single Tibetan book from China in those days. They went to the rector and the rector said he would not receive the Dalai Lama in the university. In those days I was not in Bonn, I came very late. So, it was done.
But Arbeiterwohlfahrt were willing to receive the Dalai Lama. Other institutions, [for example] the Divine Word Missionaries (Steyler Missionare) of Sankt Augustin near Bonn, also received him. Arbeiterwohlfahrt even gave a big reception. All the lord mayors from the Ruhr districts, Social Democrats, came. Even Katja Epstein, you will not know her, she was a famous singer in those days, participated and presented a song. The Dalai Lama was obviously very much amused. There was a very good atmosphere. Then, I did not trust my eyes, a lady appeared with such a hat; it was Annemarie Renger, the president of the West German Parliament.
I thought this was quite impossible, because the president of Parliament is number 2 in the state hierarchy, after the president of the republic. The chancellor is only number 3. I asked my acquaintance, this lady, “How could she come?” She said that it was a little problem because she was severely criticised. And you know what she said, she said, “Yes, I know. I am the president of Parliament, but I am also a member of Arbeiterwohlfahrt. And in this capacity, I came, and nobody can prevent me from doing that.”
The government did not receive the Dalai Lama, for political reasons. When I went to the Foreign Office during these days, I asked them, “The university did not receive him, well why?”
They said, “The university is independent, we cannot do anything. But we do not have anything against the visit of the Dalai Lama. It is documented by the fact that we gave him the visa.”
That was the first visit of the Dalai Lama to Bonn.
I think Jaroslav Poncar was taking photographs of him, as his personal photographer?
When the Dalai Lama again came to Bonn, he was received in our institute. It was his first time at the university, his second time in Bonn. Many professors and other people came to our institute, but the students had to stay behind. I thought it was not very nice.
Then the Dalai Lama came for the third time, his second time to the university. I asked whether he would be willing to give a seminar to the students. He said yes. And he met the students, and they could ask him questions. So, they were happy. I think he liked it also. And he also gave a public lecture in the great hall of the university.
More memories of Baltistan in the 1980s
Could you say more about Baltistan and how you remember it from the 1980s?
Yes, of course. In those days Baltistan was still a country almost untouched by modern civilization. There was radio, but no television, and it was still difficult to reach there. You could fly there by Fokker Friendship, along the Nanga Parbat, but hardly by road. Now the Chinese had built a highway along the river Indus through the very narrow and deep valley from Gilgit to Skardu, the little capital of Baltistan. I was lucky to have the chance to attend the arrival of the first truck coming from Gilgit.
In 1981 I again went to Baltistan, with my wife Ursula and my son Matthias. Times had already very quickly changed. During this stay, we also went to a valley in the North-East of Baltistan, the Saltoro Valley leading to the Siachen glacier where there were many storytellers. We were lucky enough that the “Superintendent Police” of Baltistan, Ali Ahmed Jan, a prince of Nagar, came with us. He was very interested in our project and, knowing the people there, wanted to help us in this far-off area, using the opportunity to have a look at the situation there. He was a very nice person. People said, “He is fit for any profession except one, the profession of a policeman.”
The superintendent urged us to pass by the last small town in Eastern Baltistan, Khaplu, as quickly as possible, because he was afraid of being called back to Skardu for this or that reason. On foot, we reached the village where there lived many storytellers. After 2 days, a messenger came and called the superintendent back to Skardu. Indians were seen on the Siachen glacier, high up. This side of Baltistan was completely open. The border to Ladakh itself was closely watched, also by the United Nations soldiers. But this side was open because it was so high, and nobody imagined invaders could come. But some Indians were seen and so the chief of the police was ordered to look for them.
After 3 days or so he came back from Skardu with some policemen equipped with very old guns. The superintendent said [to me], “Can I have your map? I have no idea where to go.” I had an American satellite map; one could buy it here. He had no map, nothing.
I said, “Well, by all means take it.”
Then he said, “Well, goodbye. Perhaps we will meet again. It depends on who will shoot first.” And then after some days, he came back with his people because the Indians had disappeared. From then on, the area became a closed area. The military came to Skardu, and a jet connection was established. And that was the beginning of the Siachen conflict between India and Pakistan. I can say, as I was a witness, it was not the Pakistani side that started the conflict. It was the Indian side, quite clearly.
The storytellers were willing to recite. It was a very nice time. Many listeners always came. Once, the storyteller stopped because there were only a few [people]. The last one left to go to the toilet, or somewhere. The storyteller immediately stopped, as I was nobody for him. He knew that I would not understand. He was very nice. It was a very good experience of oral recitation. How it works. Also moving. I had a storyteller who was 93, they said. In any case, he was very, very old, that was clear. He recited for me, I think, for 1 and a half days or so. Very long. And then he said, “Now I stop. I am tired. Now I want to go to the home of my son.”
But he said, “When you come next time, I will tell you the story of the King of China since I have many more stories. But now no more.” I could understand, of course. Then, when I came again 2 years later, he was dead.
My first storyteller was 14, in the rest house in Skardu. We were talking and then I had the idea to ask him, “Do you know the story of Kesar?”
He said, “Yes, I can even recite 1 chapter. I heard it from a man from my village.”
“How did you learn it?”
“Well, I heard this story and then I knew it by heart. I recited it for the storyteller, and he said, ‘Yes, it’s okay’.” And the boy did it in the way of an old storyteller. It was very interesting.
Then there was another kitchen boy. He told me another story. He was even younger. Because in those days they had no iPad, no iPhone, no mobile, nothing. They were still listening to stories.
Fieldwork in Mongolia
Can you tell me about your time in Mongolia?
Well, I went many times to Mongolia after 1990, very often with the Italian Mongolist Dr. Elisabetta Chiodo, who was working in Bonn. We collected written materials and attended conferences. We were even asked to edit a collection of manuscripts found in the ruins of the old, ruined town Kharbukhin Balgas dating back to the 1600s. This collection was edited by Dr. Chiodo within the frame of a special research project. The manuscripts are very important. For example, they contain very early information about Geser in Mongolia. I don’t know whether you need details about my time in Mongolia.
Well, if there has been something important or influential on you…
Well, I could see the renaissance of Buddhism and Genghis Khan. I also went to Inner Mongolia to the Genghis Khan sanctuary in Ordos. This was very, very interesting. I was in Mongolia also immediately during the revolution of 1990. By chance, I was in Ulaanbaatar when protesting people gathered in the central place, and one didn’t know whether the police and the military were behind the Government Building and would come and shoot. But nothing happened.
In the same year, there was a conference on the anniversary of the composition of the Secret History of the Mongols. Practically it was a celebration of the renaissance of Genghis Khan and Buddhism. It was amazing that the people, as well as artists, still knew the old iconography and symbolism. So, one could see how Mongolia arose from communist times.
You have been working throughout your life on Mongolian manuscripts. Why did you find it so interesting? Also, why did you find it important to see the relationship between Tibetan and Mongolian cultures?
Well, because Mongolia was strongly influenced – of course it is common knowledge – by Tibetan culture. But it has its own features to bring in. Many Mongolian monks contributed to Tibetan literature. Now the Mongols hold the opinion that Mongolian Buddhism is something different from Tibetan Buddhism. So, they want to show their own identity, religious identity.
I also once met a high lama who returned from India to Mongolia. Now he’s dead. There’s a certain conflict between the strict Tibetan way of Buddhism and the Mongolian [way], which is clearly to be felt. Now I am very cautious in my statements because I could not visit Mongolia for many years. So, I do not want to speak about the present. But I just published in the series Die Religionen der Menschheit the part on Mongolian Buddhism, dealing not only with Buddhism in Mongolia itself but also in the Altai Mountains, Buryatia, and Kalmykia.
Now we have a project editing tape recordings of Mongolian epics and stories. These are mainly materials collected by Walther Heissig and kept in the Academy of Sciences and Arts in Düsseldorf, the so-called Heissig collection. It is again Dr. Elisabetta Chiodo who is working on it because I still have to deal with my Balti material, otherwise, I will never finish [it]. The Mongolian materials will be put online, it is almost ready now. [The online edition is now available: Oral Tales of Mongol Bards https://mongoltales.cceh.uni-koeln.de]. These are stories, and romances, influenced by Chinese literature, for example, Mongolian renderings of Chinese heroic stories like the story Journey to the West. All this work is done in cooperation with the University of Cologne, the Department for Electronic Humanities. There are still more recordings, but there is always the problem of finding money to do it.
Memories of Pavel Poucha
Would you mind repeating the story with Pavel Poucha?
Of course. So, we had a meeting of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference in a little castle near Bonn (BIAK). It was the first time that colleagues from the Soviet Union [and the Eastern Bloc] were allowed to participate. When making the preparations for the lodgings we were thinking of putting one of these colleagues into a room where they say Napoleon stayed. But then doubts came and we thought perhaps it was not a good idea, it could be a political issue. So, better not, so whom? Then, we knew Professor Pavel Poucha would come from Prague and perhaps he would like to stay there. We offered him the room and he was very happy.
The conference went from Sunday evening to Friday noon. One day Professor Poucha approached me and said, “You know, I have a problem.”
“Oh Professor, what problem do you have?”
“Well, you know, the Czech airlines operate only on Tuesday and Friday from Frankfurt. The conference ends Friday at noon but I would have to leave earlier.”
I realised immediately what his wish was. So I said, “Professor Poucha, it would be an honour if you would stay with us in our house until the coming Tuesday. No problem.” So, he was very happy.
The weekend came, but then I had a problem because it was election time and Willy Brandt was going to give an election campaign speech in Bad Honnef, the little town where we lived in those days. So, I said to Professor Poucha, “Would you mind if I left you alone this evening because Willy Brandt is going to come to Bad Honnef?”
“No, of course not, but could I join you? It would be the first democratic election party since 1938 which I can attend.”
I said, “Of course, it would be nice if we could go together.” So, we went together. Of course, there was a lot of election propaganda material which could be collected, and he was looking “Oh that is interesting, and that would be of interest for my wife, and that would be of interest for my mother” who must have been at least 120 years old. And he took a great heap. And then, when we came home, he went to his room and said “I have to pack. Tomorrow, I have to leave.” And then after some minutes he came and said, “You know, I took so many pamphlets and I think I cannot take them all. The problem is not that they are heavy. The problem is the Czech border control because they would not be happy to see so much propaganda material from the West.”
I said, “Well, just leave what you want. I can dispose of it.” Then the next morning he came and said, “Well, you know, it is too interesting. I take all” and then it turned out that there was no problem with the border police. He could take all [of it]. His wife and his mother were most probably very happy about it.
I have a few concluding questions, which we ask everyone. The first one is: what has your career in Tibetan and Mongolian studies given you personally?
Well, it’s my life. What else can I say?
What did you find the most interesting? And the most challenging?
To become acquainted with quite different ways of thinking, with other cultures, but this is almost commonplace. For me, the most interesting [thing] is that cultures which are far from ours are basically the same as ours. The ways of thinking and behaving, there’s not so much difference. It always depends on you – how you confront yourself with a foreign culture. I never had difficulties. Only once, but this was a very nice experience. It was in India. I was invited by an Indologist who studied at Heidelberg and lived in Delhi with her mother. I was invited and I managed to buy some flowers, as we do. I brought these flowers, and the old lady was very much surprised since she did not know this custom.
And there is also an example of mutual understanding. It was in India, but the same could have happened in Mongolia too. Once, when I stayed in the house of our friends, Sita and Krishna, in Delhi, Sita said, “Sorry, I must leave you alone in the evening because the gardeners of my college have a meeting.” She was a professor of Indian Studies at the University of Delhi, so she had to go there. The gardeners would have been insulted if she did not come. Like Pavel Poucha [mentioned above], I asked, “Could I join you?” and she said that was fine. So, it turned out that the gardeners were reciting the Ramayana. This was a very strong experience for me, even if I could not understand the words of the songs. The atmosphere was so intense. It turned out that they were very honoured that a foreigner would join their meeting. The next days they came, and I could record some of the singing.
Are there still topics or interests you would like to pursue?
No. Well, there would be many. I want to finish these Balti things and then the organisation of the Mongolian things because there are many more materials. It is not always what I wanted to do. I am, for example, very much interested in symbolism. I myself did not do so much with manuscripts, but I have done quite some work with the Shéja Rapsel (Shes bya rab gsal) by the Pakpa Lama (‘Phags pa bla ma). It was very, very interesting. I gave lectures and I thought it was, not for me but for others, a dry topic. It was strange that the people liked it, they found it so interesting. This view of the world, it is simply fantastic.
Then I am very interested in the problem of translation and terminology. I had seminars on translations of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan and Mongolian, and translations of Christian texts into these languages. How do you translate “God”? For the Mongols, God is burqan, the Buddha. And in Tibetan, it is clearly not lha. “God” is translated as Könchok (Dkon mchog; “Jewel”). They were deliberately thinking about the best way to convey the meaning. And there are so many terms, for example, “Baptism”. It is fascinating how they managed to convey the ideas from a really different background. I wrote a few articles about it, for example, on the translation of the Lord’s Prayer.
We are conducting this project for contemporary and future students of Tibetan and Mongolian studies, would you have any advice for them, and us?
My advice would be to read as much as you can. I have the feeling, and it is also what I was told, that many people simply do not read enough. They cannot listen to the teacher and do only what is required for the examination. The examination is, of course, necessary. If you only think of the examination, you will never become a scholar. You must be curious. I mean, curiosity is the main point. Therefore, I find it a little bit deplorable that, for example, we have a common library in our Institute of Oriental and Asian Studies for all the Oriental disciplines, from Islamic to Japanese Studies. The library is no longer easily accessible. Formally every “Seminar” had its own library and students had always access. They could go and they could look for one particular book. Then they saw it on the shelf and also the next book, “Oh, interesting.” You take it out and have a look. But times have changed. One should read and one should be curious. If you are not curious, you should not study the field you have chosen. That applies, I think, to all fields: in science, everywhere. That is my main advice. Also, to ask, to contradict, and to discuss. That is not a great philosophy, but true.
I’ve been out of teaching now for many years. After my retirement, I went to Göttingen, where I was teaching Mongolian. I think this is the most important thing. Otherwise, why do you choose such a field? Yes, you must be a little bit crazy to do that, of course. Or you will become a lawyer. Nothing against lawyers, not at all.
When teaching, and this is not so much of relevance for university [teaching], but when you give lectures to a lay public — it is very difficult to find the right way between being more scientific or of popular understanding. I remember I had to give a lecture about Buddhism at an adult educational centre (Volkshochschule). I was trying to be as clear as possible, but you cannot be too simple. So, I tried not to be too simple. And then after that, 2 ladies came and said that they did not understand one word. I was shocked. It only happened once, I must say. I still remember that the famous Mongolist Professor Nikolas Poppe from Seattle, formerly St. Petersburg, could explain things in such a way that you would understand. Once, when he was a guest professor in Bonn, he gave, as part of the series of lectures “Peoples and Languages of the Soviet Union”, a lecture about the grammar and structure of the Turkic languages. I knew Poppe but thought the topic, for a public lecture, was difficult. It was perhaps the best lecture of the whole series. Fascinating. He had the gift of explaining things and making them interesting. It was really remarkable.
I think the basic concept is curiosity.
Thank you for allowing us to interview you.
It has been my pleasure.
(Taken from Weirong, Shen, and Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz. 2013. “Festschrift Für Professor Dr. Klaus Sagaster Zum 80. Geburtstag.” Historical and Philological Studies of China’s Western Regions 6)
In the introduction to a recent volume on the Mongolian-Tibetan interface, Hildegard Diemberger mentions Klaus Sagaster as the scholar who has done “[p]erhaps the most substantial work” in this field of study.1 What in recent years is discovered anew in International Tibetan studies as an exciting venture into more or less unknown research terrains, has in fact been a long established tradition in both German and Russian scholarship. Since its establishment in 1964, the Seminar für Sprach-und Kulturwissenschaften Zentralasiens at the University of Bonn belonged to this tradition of studying the entangled histories of the Tibetan and Mongolian cultural regions, a tradition that its former director, the mongolist and tibetologist Klaus Sagaster, decisively shaped. On March 19, 2013, Klaus Sagaster will celebrate his 80th birthday. As his long and distinguished career is well known to his colleagues and friends, already having been told in detail in the felicitation volume published on the occasion of his 65th birthday, the interested reader is referred to this volume. This short foreword therefore takes off where the account in the previous felicitation volume stopped. Since his retirement in 1998 from the chair for Central Asian Studies at the University of Bonn/Germany, Klaus Sagaster has continued to engage actively in the ﬁeld of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies. It is mainly due to his active support that some important research projects in Mongolian archeaology, history and literature have been realized in Germany (always with international collaboration) in the last ten years. In 1997 Sagaster, who during his long career had cultivated close contacts to colleagues in Mongolia, was asked by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences to lend his support to the new excavations in Karakorum (Kharkhorin), the old capital city of the Mongolian empire. He thus played an active role in the ensuing endeavour to start a cooperative archaeological project under the patronage of the Mongolian and German governments to excavate the former Mongolian capital. That project brought together scientists from the University of Bonn and the Commission for General and Comparative Archaeology with their Mongolian colleagues. The project also provided the basis for the exhibition “Dschingis Khan und seine Erben” realised by the Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle Bonn, receiving nation-wide attention and media coverage. The exhibition was accompanied by an international conference in which Sagaster was also actively involved. Apart from these more
spectacular activities which brought Mongolian studies to the attention of a broader public audience, Klaus Sagaster was able to complete some important research projects. The long term project of the description of the Mongolian manuscripts on birch bark from Xarbuxyn Balgas, which was brought to its conclusion with the publication of the second volume of Elisabetta Chiodo’s edition, owes much of its success to the support of Professor Sagaster who managed to secure the ﬁnancial support of the German Research Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. Sagaster also secured the support of the German Research Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, respectively, for a project about “East Mongolian folk literature”, based on the Heissig collection of Mongolian oral literature which is preserved at the North-Rhine Westphalian Academy of Sciences in Düsseldorf. And it was again Sagaster who in recent years repeatedly invited Mongolian colleagues for an extended stay at Bonn University, thus strengthening the existing ties to Inner-Mongolian and Mongolian scholars. His latest project, newly launched with funds provided by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and entitled “Der Held und der Barde. Kontinuität und Veränderung in der mündlichen Literatur der Mongolen”, once again focuses on the oral culture of the Mongols.
In 2006 Klaus Sagaster was elected honorary member of the Societas Uralo-Altaica in Göttingen (Germany), and in 2008 he was honoured by the Permament Altaistic Conference of Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana, USA). The last two years, however, were overshadowed by the uncertain future of Mongolian Studies in Germany. In the wake of the University reforms of the last decade, the once thriving discipline had suffered greatly, like other so called “small disciplines” (“small” in regard to student ﬁgures, not in regard to scientific output) have. When early this year, the Rectorate and the Faculty of Humanities of Bonn University finally decided to close down Mongolian Studies, Klaus Sagaster was on the forefront in the attempt to rescue the-meanwhile-sole remaining professorship of Mongolian Studies in the whole of Germany. The fate of Mongolian Studies in Germany has even drawn the attention of the Mongolian government. At the time of writing this foreword, it seems that the efforts will bear fruit and the long and distinguished tradition of Mongolian Studies at Bonn University will be continued. These recent events demonstrate that Klaus Sagaster, to whom Mongolian and Tibetan Studies owe so much, never was one for the “ivory tower” (Elfenbeinturm) of science, but always willing to reach out to the wider public. To our academic teacher we dedicate this felicitation volume and wish our bagsh many happy returns of the occasion.
Bern, in the summer of 2012 Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz
Beijing, in the summer of 2012 Shen Weirong
1 Uradyn E. Bulag and Hildegard G.M. Diemberger (eds.), The Mongolia-Tibet Interface. Opening new research terrains in Inner Asia. Leiden/ Boston: Brill, 2007, p.1.
- 1951–1959 Studium der Sinologie, Mongolistik, Indologie, Tibetologie und alttürkischen Philologie an den Universitäten Leipzig, Göttingen, Kopenhagen und Bonn
- 1959 Promotion an der Universität Bonn
- 1969 Habilitation
- 1970 Wissenschaftlicher Rat und Professor
- 1982 Universitätsprofessor C4 für Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft Zentralasiens an der Universität Bonn
- 1982–1989 1. Sprecher des Sonderforschungsbereichs 12 “Orientalistik unter besonderer Berücksichtigung Zentralasiens” an der Universität Bonn
- 1993–1996 Mitglied des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats des Bundesinstituts für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien in Köln
- 1994–2003 Geschäftsführender Präsident der Societas Uralo-Altaica e.V. Göttingen
- 1997 Honorarprofessor der Universität der Inneren Mongolei in Huhhot, China
- Seit 1995 Ordentliches Mitglied der Nordrhein-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften
- 2006 Ehrenmitglied der Societas Uralo-Altaica e.V. Göttingen
- 2008 Preisträger der Permanent International Altaistic Conference, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
Literatur, Geschichte, Kultur- und Religionsgeschichte Tibets und der Mongolei