A History of East Asian Studies at Leeds

Founding Professor Owen Lattimore: Contribution to Leeds and Area Studies

I do not hesitate to suggest that by exploiting diversity Britain can, with less money, but more thinking, initiate new concepts, new approaches, new methods in international studies and area studies...

- Owen Lattimore in his lecture Britain’s Opportunity in Asian Studies

In his 1970 public lecture “Britain's Opportunity in Asian Studies”, Lattimore outlined his vision for the future of Asian Studies in Britain, stressing the need for a break from the traditions of the past. Whereas a few years living in an embassy in a foreign country used to be enough to make one expert, Lattimore stressed the need to get inside communities and understand them from a position of equality and mutual respect.

This approach is similar to actor-oriented research, which is currently popular in sociology. Lattimore's insistence on a firm grasp of the languages of the countries and regions being studied still influences area studies at the University of Leeds, and is a major reason why the Department has always stressed the mutually-beneficial link between language and discipline-based studies.

It was not just in the field of methodology and its relationship with language study that Lattimore made an impact. The establishment of the Mongolian Studies programme in 1969 resulted in Leeds becoming a hub for Mongolian students and visiting scholars, strengthening the ties between the two countries. Lattimore's work building strong relations between Mongolia and the UK was recognised in 1979 when he was awarded the Order of the Polar Star, the highest honour the Mongolian government awards to foreigners.

Indeed, the Mongolian People’s Republic was so impressed with Lattimore's work that the State Museum even named a newly discovered dinosaur after him. Lattimore was often invited back to the University after his retirement to give guest lectures on Mongolia. There is no doubt that Lattimore's boundless enthusiasm and life experience helped to make the department at Leeds a leader in both Chinese and Mongolian Studies. This was formally recognised by the University in 1984 when it awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

It is extraordinary how different a research project in Area Studies may look if you approach it having in mind only ‘what are we going to do in this country?’ or are ready to ask also, ‘what do the people here want?’ In other words there is a difference between studying people simply in order to tell them what to do and studying them in order to learn what they really want.

- Owen Lattimore in his lecture “Britain’s Opportunity in Asian Studies