The History of Oriental Studies at the KU Leuven
Starting back in the 16th century
The history of Oriental Studies (in the broad sense of the term) in Belgium reaches much farther back in time than the history of the country itself, which in its present form won its independence as late as 1830. Oriental languages were first taught and studied in Leuven as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, in a period when the countries now called Holland and Belgium still formed a loose entity called the Low Countries, which were part of the Habsburg empire of Spain, then ruled by Charles V.
Since 1425 the city of Leuven had been the site of a university or Studium Generale as it was then called, whose foundation had been granted in a Papal Bull by Pope Martin V. Incidentally this was the first university in the Low Countries.
In 1517 the College of the Three Languages (Collegium Trilingue) was founded by Hieronymus van Busleyden, canon of Mechelen, a humanist, diplomat and friend of Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam. At the initiative of the latter, Busleyden bequeathed his fortune to a foundation for the establishment in Leuven of an institute for the study of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Though the Collegium Trilingue was formally independent from the Faculty of Theology, its main purpose was to provide theology students with a solid knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew as an indispensable means for a correct interpretation of the Bible.
In 1588 the Northern Provinces seceded from the Spanish empire and became a republic. The southern regions - roughly present-day Belgium minus Liege and Limburg - remained part and parcel of the Spanish empire, and were hence called the Spanish Netherlands. In 1713 these Spanish Netherlands became part of the Austrian Empire. The Austrian period marked the highlight of enlightened despotism and the Catholic University of Leuven, as a stronghold of the vested interests of the church, suffered considerably from official interference, especially under Emperor Joseph II (ruled 1780-1790).
But worse was to come, when the Austrian Netherlands were invaded and occupied by the troops of the French Revolution. In 1797 the university was summarily abolished. Leuven remained without its university under Napoleonic rule. During the short period of the reunification of the Northern and Southern Netherlands (1815-1830), King William I created three state universities in the southern part of the kingdom: in Ghent, Liège and Leuven.
After the independence of Belgium
After the united kingdom of the Netherlands had fallen apart and Belgium had won its independence in 1830, a reform of the educational system was implemented, which led to the abolition of the state university at Leuven in 1835. The Belgian bishops, who in the meantime had resuscitated the catholic university in Mechelen in 1834, were allowed to transfer their institution to the city of Leuven. Thus the tradition of the former university was revived under the name of Université Catholique de Louvain.
The Oriental Studies of the Collegium Trilingue, which had equally been closed down by the French Occupation, were restored to life by J.T. Beelen, a Dutchman, born in Amsterdam in 1807, who had chosen to remain in Belgium after 1830. In that year he was appointed professor in the Holy Scripture at the Faculty of Theology. In this capacity he taught Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. In the scheme of the Faculty of Theology, Oriental Studies almost naturally were destined to be an ancillary to the exegesis of the Bible. At the outset the same attitude very much prevailed in the Faculty of Letters, which normally should have been expected to push its areas of interest further east to include the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. Absence of colonial interests in these regions, however, at least partly accounts for the belated development of Indian and far Eastern Studies.
During the period leading up to the First World War, Indian, Iranian and many more languages were added to the curriculum of both the Faculty of Theology and the Faculty of Letters. On this ever growing list, neither Japanese language nor its culture were included until the year 1928. In 1927 Mr. Adachi Mineichiro, Ambassador of Japan to Belgium, had been promoted doctor honoris causa of the university as a token of its gratitude for Japan's generous help in the reconstruction of the university library after its destruction during the war. A few days later the ambassador informed the chancellor of the university that one of his fellow-countrymen had expressed his intention to endow a chair for the study of the history of Japanese civilization. The donor in question was Baron Satsuma Jihei, a well-known Tokyo industrialist, who had previously made his intention known to Baron Descamps, professor at the University of Leuven and vice-chairman of the Belgian Senate. The academic authorities immediately approved the proposal and decided to inaugurate the proposed chair as from the academic year 1927-1928.
Due to circumstances the chair could not be inaugurated until the beginning of the academic year 1928-1929. As first incumbent was appointed R.P. Pierre Charles (1883-1954), professor at the Gregorian University of Rome. The Jesuit Pierre Charles was a leading figure in what is commonly called the Louvain missiological school. He took a progressive stance in the debate on the need of adaptation in the missions. He advocated a greater sensitivity to the cultural background and the values of the local populations who were being converted. He was in favour of an autonomous native clergy and the foundation of a native church that would have its own religious personnel and its own formal language (e.g. architecture, art). The study of the language and cultural traditions of the population constituted the basis of this adaptation model, since he considered this a prerequisite for a successful apostolate. In this perspective, ethnography, linguistics, anthropology, history and other disciplines took on a new weight in the training of the missionary. Professor Charles was to fill the chair for the subsequent quarter century, until his death in 1956, with the exception of the war period (1940-1945), when the courses of the Satsuma chair were suspended.
The establishment of an Orientalist Institute
With the Satsuma Chair established, the university now offered a panoply of courses concerning in one way or another, the whole Asian continent. However, they remained scattered over two faculties and did not lead up to a regular degree in Oriental Studies as such. Some felt that the time had come to bring lecturers and courses together under one and the same roof. As the chancellor stated in his official announcement of the establishment of an Orientalist Institute in 1936: "During the first three quarters of the nineteenth century, the different branches of Oriental Studies mainly played the role of ancillary sciences, in the service of either scriptural and theological studies or classical philology. However these disciplines have long since become independent and we should have started uniting forces and efforts many years ago. This unification has now become a fact in the Orientalist Institute of Leuven, which will have as its program the philological instruction of all ancient languages and the critical instruction of the history of the ancient peoples of the Orient.".
Thus was created a new degree of "Licentiate of Oriental Philology and Philosophy", comprising two years of study. To be eligible for enrollment one had to have the degree of "candidate" of Philosophy and Letters or a certificate of equivalent studies. Besides a number of common courses one could choose for a specific area of the Far East. One had to study three languages from the area chosen. Requirements for a doctor's degree included an intensive examination over the major language of one's choice and the presentation and viva voce defense of a printed dissertation (thesis).
The new set-up hardly affected the status of Japanese Studies. They remained constricted in the one Satsuma Chair mentioned above. Nevertheless, Far Eastern Studies in the broad sense did make a step forward thanks to the monumental contribution of professor Etienne Lamotte. This scholar, appointed professor in 1932, distinguished himself in the study of Buddhism. Although he never ventured into Japanese Studies as such, he did make an indirect contribution when the program of Oriental Studies was expanded to a three years curriculum in 1963, by creating a course of modern Japanese. The new position was initially filled by his former student Dr. Hubert Durt, also a Buddhist scholar, but with a firm grounding in modern Japanese after prolonged studies in Japan. In the same year, however, Dr. Durt returned to Japan to settle permanently in his adopted country. A. Van Campenhout, a theologian who remained in charge of the Japanese language course until his departure to Japan in 1978, succeeded him.
To the modern Oriental studies section in Leuven
However, we have skipped an important episode. The sixties were a decade of upheaval and tremendous change for the university. In the years 1966-1967 the university was divided into two separate entities: a Dutch-speaking university, which remained in the historic town of Leuven, and a French-speaking university which moved out to a new site in the French-speaking part of Belgium and was renamed Louvain-la-Neuve. The unitary Orientalist Institute was divided along the same linguistic lines. Most of the professors concerned with the Far East being French-speaking, the Far Eastern section moved to Louvain-la-Neuve, where Lamotte and Van Campenhout continued to teach Buddhist languages and Japanese. The Satsuma Chair was also divided and, at Louvain-la-Neuve, continued to be filled by professor J. Masson, who had held it since 1955.
On the Dutch-speaking side the Satsuma Chair was filled irregularly. In 1971 Rev. E. Piryns gave four lectures about "Religions in Profane Japan. Implications for the Missions.". In 1975, Dr. C. Willemen gave five lectures on Buddhist scriptures in China and Japan. In 1979-1980 it was filled by Dr. W. Vande Walle, who gave a series of lectures about Japanese culture, including classical poetry, art and Bushidô.
The Orientalist Institute expanded its program to a four years curriculum in 1974. In 1978 it gained the full status of department within the Faculty of Letters and started a four years program of Far Eastern Studies, with the emphasis on Chinese studies, offering courses in Classical Chinese, modern Chinese and modern Japanese, besides a number of courses dealing with the history, art history and literary history of the Far East. Dr. Vande Walle was put in charge of the Japanese language course, which at first was to comprise two years. In 1979 a third level was added. In 1980, with the support of the Japan Foundation, a course on the culture of Japan was created and Dr. Vande Walle was appointed guest-lecturer. In 1981, again with the support of the Japan Foundation, he was appointed assistant-professor with tenure in charge of Japanese Studies. A new course on the history of Japanese literature was added to the curriculum. He also took charge of history and art history courses on the Far East, substantial parts of which he devoted to Japan.
This situation continued until 1986, when a full-flung four year program of Japanese Studies was founded, which over the years has attracted an increasing number of students. In 1995 a second chair was established to teach subjects related to present-day Japan. The curriculum was expanded to include courses on economy, politics and different aspects of Japanese society today, compelling the university to employ additional language lectors. In time, young researchers also joined the staff to prepare doctoral dissertations on a Japan-related topic. Thus in the nineties Belgium produced its first homegrown Ph.D.'s in Japanese Studies. In 1995 the section established a second chair to teach and research subjects related to present-day Japan. The curriculum was revised so as to include courses on the economy, politics and different aspects of Japanese society today. Dimitri Vanoverbeke was appointed to the chair. At present the Japanese section at the University of Leuven has ten persons on its staff, although some of them only part-time.
(note: the photographs included here are of the East Asian Library, which contains the Chinese, Japanese and Korean collections)