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[120th Anniversary Special] Baron Alexander von Staël-Holstein : a dedicated Sanskrit scholar

MAY . 02 2018
Peking University, May 2, 2018: In his “A Personal Tribute” in memory of Baron Holstein, William Lewisohn, the author of In Search of Old Peking, commented that the late Baron “was representative of a type that is fast disappearing: a gentleman of the old school in the best sense of that term”. Indeed, the Baron devoted his whole life to the abstruse study of Sanskrit and Buddhist manuscripts. He came to Peking in 1917 and settled there for the rest of his life. Despite the wars and upheavals in China during that time, the Baron managed to keep his academic research unaffected and contributed greatly to Sanskrit studies in China and around the world. He is “the academic knight between east and west”, as Professors Wang Qilong and Deng Xiaoyong calls him in their English version of the Baron’s biography.

Baron Alexander von Staël-Holstein

Traveling and studying

Baron Alexander von Staël-Holstein was born in 1877 in a Russian Baltic province. His family was an old and renowned Baltic nobility which owned large estates in the former Russian state of Estonia. From childhood, he spoke both German and French, apart from his mother tongue Russian. At the age of 9, he went to the “Gymnasium” in a small town of Pernow where he received classical education. There he studied Latin for eight years and Greek for six. At the age of 20, he decided to go to Berlin for the study of Sanskrit, which greatly astonished his family members. At the University of Berlin, he learnt Sanskrit and Avesta from two prominent Indologist professors, Albrecht F. Weber and Karl Friedrich Geldner. He stayed there for seven semesters and later went to the University of Halle-Wittenberg where he finished Der Karmapradipa, II. Prapathaka, Inaugural Dissertation and received his Ph.D.

An old German proverb says that “Jeder Baron hat seine Phantasie”, meaning every baron has his fantasy. For the Baron, his fantasy is to continue his study of Sanskrit and Buddhism. After returning to Russia, he took part in the “Russian M. Litt. Examination” so that he could teach at the Imperial University. However, after passing the exam, he did not rush to take the teaching position. Instead, he continued his travelling. He went to the George-August-University of Göttingen where he learnt from professor Franz Kielhorn and professor Heinrich Lüders. One year later, he went to Oxford for further studies and stayed there for one year. During his vacation at Oxford, he even went to Benares in India and studied at the State Academy of Sanskrit Studies there. Brahmins there did not know any European languages and the Baron considered it a great opportunity to be immersed in an environment with Sanskrit being the only language for communication.

In 1904, the Baron returned to Russia and worked as an attache in the Imperial Russian Foreign Office. He was transferred to Bombay and naturally took advantage of the opportunity. “In very vivid style he describes his journey through India, his visits to well known places, and his conversations with the Hindu scholars in Sanskrit”, the Baron’s friend Serge Elisséeff, a Japanese studies scholar, thus describes how the Baron enjoyed his stay in India. In 1909, the 33-year-old Baron started to teach at the Imperial University, where he still devoted his whole time, outside the few hours spent in teaching, to studies and research in Sanskrit and Tibetan.

Settling in Peking

In 1917, he came to Peking with the intention of studying the Tibetan and Mongolian documents preserved there. The visit was planned to last for two years but it turned out to be a permanent sojourn. The reason, in his biography written by Wang and Deng, could be the Bolshevik Revolution which erupted in October, 1917. The Baron lost all of his income and was only left with a small part of the large real estate holdings his family once had.

The financial difficulty urged the Baron to look for a fixed teaching position in Peking as soon as possible. This was when his connection with Beida was formed. It was hard to conclude when exactly he started to teach at Beida. But as early as 1920, the Baron was registered as a teacher at the Department of Philosophy. He became the professor of Sanskrit in 1925. At Beida, he offered two courses on Sanskrit and Hinduism. His friend Elisséeff says that the baron “deeply believed that China needed him in order to prepare well trained Sanskritologists”. And he did have great influence on the academia in China.

One of his contributions is “The Phonetic Transcription of Sanskrit Works and Ancient Chinese Pronunciation” in 1923. In this paper, the Baron argued for the first time that Chinese linguists should “study the Chinese ancient languages in a historical -comparative method that has been widely used in the study of Indo-European language.” (27, Wang & Deng) Inspired by the paper, Wang Rongbao, a Chinese scholar, tried to reconstruct the pronunciation of ancient Chinese in “On the Ancient Pronunciation of the rimes” (歌戈鱼虞模). The article attracted much attention from Chinese scholars, pointing out a new way of studying ancient pronunciation. Wei Jiangong, a Chinese linguist, commented that those who study ancient pronunciation paid too much attention to the dead materials and too little attention to other languages. The new direction in the research proposed by Wang was to study ancient pronunciation by comparing it with the pronunciation of Sanskrit, thus bringing about a heated discussion. Apart from Wang Rongbao, the Baron’s proposal also influenced Luo Changpei, another linguist who talked about the Baron’s influence on him in his book The Northwestern Dialects of Tang and Five Dynasties (唐五代西北方音).

Another of his major contributions is The Kāçyapaparivarta. It is a detailed interpretation of the original Sanskrit text contrasted with its Tibetan and various Chinese translations. The book revealed to Chinese scholars the danger of studying Sanskrit texts from Chinese translations only. Liang Qichao, a famous Chinese scholar, said that the book could increase the young scholars’ interest in studying Sanskrit and also provide an opportunity for translators to see the change in the translation of the Sanskrit text. “As far as these two points, the Chinese scholars has learnt a lot from him”, Liang commented.

Ups and downs in Peking

When first settling in Peking, the Baron lived a rather awkward life with no financial security. His life never returned to what it was before the Bolshevik Revolution. For one thing, his salary as a professor at Beida was often delayed due to governmental financial difficulties. In his letter to the Baron on July 12, 1927, Chen Daqi, dean of Beida, wrote that “owing to the financial difficulties prevailing in all government institutions…the arrears for the last twenty-two months have amounted to Eight Thousand and Eight Hundred Dollars.” The Baron’s salary was 400 dollars a month, surely a high salary at Peking at that time. However, in his letter to George T. Chase, professor at Harvard, the Baron wrote that Beida failed to pay his salary for three years from 1925 to 1927. It was not until he returned from Harvard in 1929 that Beida paid him about 1000 dollars.

Apart from the delayed salary, the Baron’s financial difficulties also came from the fact that he was a fervent collector. He had to borrow money sometimes from his friends to buy antiques or books. In Hu Shi’s diary, the Chinese scholar and Baron’s friend recorded vividly that once the Baron came to him and talked about how he could not afford books which cost 260 yuan. Hu Shi helped him borrow 100 yuan from another friend and buy these books.

The Baron also met with frustrations when publishing his The Kāçyapaparivarta. He had almost finished the book as early as 1922 when he gave his draft to the Commercial Press for publication. However, it was not until 1926 that the book was finally published. Near the end of his correspondence with Wang Yunwu, chief editor at the Commercial Press, the Baron so anxiously looked forward to the publication of the book that even though there are a few mistakes the Commercial Press had failed or forgotten to correct, he wished that the book should be published as soon as possible. Indeed, the correspondence had lasted so long that the Baron felt it necessary to see the book published in the most expedient manner.

The Baron’s financial situation was improved greatly after he was invited as visiting professor to Harvard University, sponsored by the Harvard-Yenching Institute. He arrived at Harvard in 1928 and was appointed Professor of Central Asian Philology a year later. As Elisséeff remarked, the new nomination and new support was an important event in his private and academic life. After returning to Peking, he married at the age of 52.

Influence on Beida and affection for Peking

The Baron is the first master in Sanskrit and Buddhism that Beida has ever recruited. However, after the Baron passed away, Sanskrit studies seemed to disappear at Beida. It was not until 1946 that the Department of Oriental Languages, Sanskrit Studies included, was established at Beida by Ji Xianlin who just returned from the George-August-University of Göttingen.

The academia of Sanskrit studies seems to be rather small, as can be easily deduced from some research into the connection between the Baron and Ji. Ji’s mentor at the George-August-University of Göttingen was professor Waldschmidt, student of professor Lüders. Professor Lüders, back in 1902, 
taught the Baron for two semesters, meaning that Lüders was the mentor of both the Baron and Ji. What’s more, Ji was introduced to Beida by Chen Yinke. And Chen studied at the Baron’s privatissi-mum for nearly ten years from 1926 to 1935 (except for the year when the Baron was at Harvard), reading Sanskrit manuscripts along with the Baron.

The Baron also helped cultivate many other Sanskrit scholars through the Sino-Indian Institute, which was established by him in 1927. Through the Institute, the Baron kept in close contact with numerous scholars from around the world. When talking about the Baron’s worldwide reputation, Lewisohn commented that “no Orientalist of any standing ever passed through Peiping without calling on him”. It might be a relief for the Baron to see how the coming generations, represented by Ji, established the Sanskrit studies at Beida and in China after China regained its peace after many years of wars and instability.

One might wonder how a temporary stay in Peking turned out to be a permanent sojourn for the Baron. It is probably that Peking was the place where the Baron said he could find most of the materials necessary for his research. But a more important reason could be that the Baron has developed a deep affection for Peking. He said that Peking was for him “the last stronghold in the whole world where one could still find some traces of those forms and manners of polite inter-course that made all the difference between civilization and barbarism.” “Where can one go to nowadays in this world?” he asked.

The Baron passed away on March 16, 1937, leaving behind him his wife and two children, and the Sanskrit studies he had devoted his whole life to.

The Obituary published in The North-China Daily News on March 17, 1937

The Baron’s portrait in Life at Beida 北大生活 published at 1921


王启龙, 1964, and 1962 邓小咏. 《钢和泰学术评传》. 北京大学出版社, 北京, 2009.
王启龙, 1964. 《钢和泰学术年谱简编》. 中华书局, 北京, 2008.
Elisseeff, Serge. “Stael-Holstein's Contribution to Asiatic Studies.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 1938, pp. 1–8.
W. Lewisohn. “Death of Peiping Philologist”. The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette. Mar. 24th, 1937
Wang, Qilong, and Xiaoyong Deng. The Academic Knight between East and West: A Biography of Alexander Von Staël-Holstein. Cengage Learning Asia, Singapore, 2014.

Reported by: Yan Shengnan
Edited by: Xu Liangdi