History of the SRIFIAS

The history of the study of Inner Asia in the West begins in Central Europe. Starting in the early nineteenth century, Hungarian explorers and scholars ventured into Inner Asia in search of clues to their own national origins. The first, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, began his travels in 1820 and eventually became the founder of Tibetology. The term “Inner Asian studies” (Hungarian belsőázsiai kutatások; German innerasiatische Studien) first appeared in the masthead of the journal Turán (Bulletin of the Hungarian Center for Oriental Culture, published 1913-1944), brainchild of the Hungarian Count Béla Széchenyi, who had led a scientific expedition to the region in 1877-80. In the first three decades of the 20th century, discoveries of Inner Asian antiquities by the Hungarian-born British explorer Marc Aurel Stein made signal contributions to knowledge of Inner Asian civilizations, culminating in Stein’s multi-volume report on “Innermost Asia” (1928). In 1940, Louis Ligeti founded and became the first occupant of the Inner Asian Chair at the University of Budapest, the first chair of its kind.

Owen Lattimore, an American, began using “Inner Asian Frontiers of China” as his research rubric in the late 1930s. A decade later, one of Lattimore’s followers, George Taylor, built Asian studies at the University of Washington into a set of programs staffed in part by Orientalists who had recently fled the upheavals and war in Europe. In 1948, two of these scholars, the German Sinologists Hellmut Wilhelm and Franz Michael (a student of Lattimore’s from Johns Hopkins), founded the Inner Asia Project for research and teaching, the first of its kind in the United States. They were soon joined in Seattle by the Russian linguist Nicholas Poppe, who brought expertise in Altaic languages, particularly Mongolian.

Bringing Ligeti’s teachings to Indiana in the 1960s, Denis Sinor made similar use of the surge of interest in area studies at American universities to promote awareness and appreciation of Inner Asia as a distinct world area defined by more than its location “beyond” well-known civilizations such as China and Russia. Sinor nurtured a number of lasting programs and institutions that helped to formalize Inner Asian studies in America, including three at Indiana University: the RIFIAS, the Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies (now the Department of Central Eurasian Studies), and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center.