Princess Beatrix at opening of conference on Chinese Buddhism
Princess Beatrix was a guest at the opening of the conference on ‘Chinese Buddhism and the Scholarship of Erik Zürcher’ in Leiden on 12 February. Buddhism researchers from all parts of the world came together to reflect on the work of Leiden sinologist Erik Zürcher.
Guide in China
Princess Beatrix knew Zürcher (who died in 2008) personally. He acted as her guide in China during a state visit and they kept in contact afterwards. The initiator of the conference was Professor Jonathan Silk, the only Professor of Buddhism Studies in the Netherlands. He gathered together 22 of Zürcher’s articles and book reviews in ‘Buddhism in China: Collected Papers of Erik Zürcher’, the collection that was the starting point for the conference. Silk presented Princess Beatrix with a copy of the volume. She commented on how touching she found it that the lectures were full of personal reminders of Zürcher.
Giving new generations access to articles
During his welcome speech, Silk emphasised the importance of Zürcher’s publications. After his mammoth dissertation on the ‘Buddhist Conquest of China’ in 1959, Zürcher published dozens of notable articles on Chinese Buddhism, but these were not compiled into a new book. Silk felt it was a shame that the publications – some of which were published only in Dutch or Japanese – were spread far and wide, and in 2007 he asked Zürcher, who was then close to eighty, for permission to compile the articles together into a volume of his works: ‘To make sure new generations of students and researchers have access to them.’
Father and son
Zürcher’s son Erik-Jan Zürcher, Professor of Turkish Language and Culture in Leiden, gave a brief speech. He was six years old when his father obtained his PhD, and he has vivid memories of the writing process. ‘My father read, wrote and typed from early morning to late in the evening. The floor of the living room was littered with papers and my mother sometimes also helped with the typing.’ Zürcher gave his son a copy of his PhD dissertation with the inscription: ‘For Erik-Jan, the book that was the reason you spent the first five years of your life with a father who worked too hard.’ For us it was quite normal to have a father who was always working at home, Erik-Jan Zürcher comments. He is delighted that his father’s intellectual heritage has been brought together. ‘For the first time, researchers can trace the development of his ideas back over a period of fifty years.’
New light on Chinese Buddhism
This development took a surprising turn, as Stefano Zacchetti, Professor of Buddhism Studies at the University of Oxford, mentioned in his lecture. It was remarkable that the young Zürcher had been able to publish such a pioneering dissertation. But the first sixteen years after his dissertation Zürcher published mainly on other subjects and little about Chinese Buddhism. It was only from the late seventies that he again wrote a large number of significant articles in this field. Zürcher examined old diplomatic sources that shed new light on the role of Chinese Buddhism in international relations. According to Zacchetti, it was through Zürcher’s astute analysis of the documents that it became clear how important Chinese Buddhism was as a historical and cultural factor influencing Asiatic history.
First copy presented to Zürcher’s widow
Herman Pabbruwe, Director of Koninklijke Brill publishing house, presented the first copy of the work to Zürcher’s widow, Henny Zürcher-Bolten. Zürcher was a key figure in the development of Asiatic Studies at Brill, according to Pabbruwe. Zürcher’s PhD dissertation was published by Brill and Zürcher himself spent seventeen years as editor-in-chief of Brill’s journal T’oung Pao, the world’s oldest magazine on Chinese studies.
Dozens of Buddhism researchers from such far-flung places as Oxford, Tokyo and Taiwan came to the conference. The opening was also attended by Buddhist monks and eminent sinologists such as Bettine Vriesekoop. The conference will continue up to and including 14 February
(12 February 2014)
Leiden sinologist Erik Zürcher (1928 -2008) obtained his PhD in 1959 on ‘The Buddhist Conquest of China’, a study of the way Buddhist teaching spread and changed in China in the early middle ages. Indian monks introduced Buddhism here in the first century after Christ. Zürcher was Professor of the History of East Asia at Leiden University from 1962 to 1993, and Director of the Institute of Sinology in Leiden, from 1975 to 1990. .