Source: Asian studies in Belgium – Pierre-Henry de Bruyn, University of La Rochelle, France, and Paul Servais, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium (2009). See the original text here
Oriental studies were first taught and studied in Leuven, Belgium, as early as the beginning of the 16th 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, ruled by Charles V.
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. Alhough the Collegium Trilingue was formally independent of 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.
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. However, until the mid-1930s, the courses remained scattered over two faculties and did not lead 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 were mainly considered 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 programme the philological instruction of all ancient languages and critical instruction of the history of the ancient peoples of the Orient.”
Far Eastern Studies in the broad sense took a step forward due to the monumental contribution of Professor Etienne Lamotte. This scholar, appointed professor in 1932, distinguished himself in the study of Buddhism. Equally at home in Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan as in classical Chinese, he poured out impressive translations and studies of Buddhist scriptures, thus building himself and the institute a world reputation. The 1960s were a decade of upheaval and tremendous change for the University. In 1966-1967, the University was divided into two entities: a Dutch-speaking university, which remained in the historic town of Leuven, and a French-speaking university, which moved to a new site in the French-speaking part of Belgium and was renamed Louvain-la-Neuve. The Orientalist Institute was divided along the same linguistic lines. As most of the professors concerned with the Far East were French-speaking, the Far Eastern section moved to Louvain-la-Neuve, where Lamotte continued to teach. The Orientalist Institute expanded its programme to a 4-year curriculum in 1974. In 1978, it gained the status of a full department within the Faculty of Letters and started a 4-year programme of Far Eastern Studies. When China opened its doors in 1979, a programme of Sinology was established with Professor U. Libbrecht (retired since 1993) at its head. Since then, the programme has witnessed considerable expansion. At present, apart from the general programme—consisting of courses in Chinese language (both modern and classical), history and philosophy—students are offered the opportunity to specialise in either culture and history or economy. The classes are taught mainly in Dutch.
PRESENT ORGANISATION AND FUNCTIONING
- Université Catholique de Louvain
- University of Leuven
- The Belgian Institute of Chinese Studies established in 1929 following an initiative from China. During its 80 years of existence, the Institute has developed three types of activities: a library, educational activities such as courses and conferences, and publication of Buddhist and Chinese texts.
- The Belgian Society for Indology, in which the University of Ghent plays a leading role with its department of languages and cultures of South and East Asia.
- The Centre for Japanese studies of the University of Ghent
- The Centre for International Cooperation and Development Studies of the Free University of Brussels
· After Monseigneur Lamotte died, Chinese studies at the Université Catholique de Louvain almost disappeared, but recently this field has entered a progressive reconstruction process, not so much in the field of Classical Sinology but rather in studies of contemporary areas.
At the University of Leuven, three fields of research are currently represented:
- Classical Chinese philosophy in the Zhou and Han dynasties
- Cultural exchanges between China and the West since the 17th century
- Modern Chinese (including applied research on teaching Chinese)
In the other institutions, the subjects under study include: Sanskrit and Tocharian culture, Jain philosophy, early Buddhism, the status of religion in modern times with a focus on Buddhism in modern East Asia and modern Japan, intellectual history and philosophy in modern Japan and China.
Asian languages such as Prakrits, Hindi, classical Chinese and Japanese are also taught.
The only two sinologists in teaching positions in a French-speaking university in Belgium are: Eric Florence at the State University of Liege, a specialist on issues of migration, who contributed to the foundation of a Confucius institute in Liege in 2006; and Françoise Lauwaert at the Free University of Brussels, who gives two courses on China (historical anthropology of the Chinese world and contemporary Asia) and courses in classical laguage. She is also attached to the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Belgique.
The situation in the French- and the Flemish-speaking parts of the country are thus different, even though both parts, with very different financial and institutional environments, have leading personalities who are striving to improve the state of Asian studies.