Sinological Profiles: Wolfram Eberhard

Sinological Profiles: Wolfram Eberhard

Sinological Profiles
Wolfram Eberhard
17 Mar 1909 (Potsdam) - 15 Aug 1988 (El Cerrito)

The Chinese Constellations

Wolfram Eberhard, the descendant of astronomers and astrophysicists on both sides of the family, himself embarked on the study of cultural anthropology. To this plan, due to his having read the publications of Richard Wilhelm, he added the study of Chinese. Having done his preparatory work at the Victoria Gymnasium in Potsdam (where he was exposed to Latin, Greek, and French, plus two years of English), he entered the Sinological Institute at Berlin University in 1927, and received his PhD in 1933, having worked under Thurnwald (his most influential teacher), Preuss, and Lehmann in ethnology, and Otto Franke, F W K Müller, and Erich Hauer in Sinology. Richard's son Hellmut Wilhelm, also working under Franke, was a fellow student. Reviewing a book by Eberhard in 1977, Wilhelm had this to say of what Eberhard was like at the time, and what he later made of that beginning:

In 1930, Wolfram Eberhard and I attended the courses and seminars of Otto Franke in Berlin, and eventually we both took our doctorates under him. Already as a student Eberhard's insatiable curiosity made him look beyond the limits of the field of Chinese studies, then called Sinology, to other disciplines. What he found there was valuable to him not only as comparative material but also as a source of research techniques and research methods. Many of these he adapted to his own use, and, further, applied to Chinese material as concepts and research aims that could lead to entirely new and fruitful interpretations. He can thus be called a forerunner of the inderdisciplinary approach that became so much the fashion in this country after World War II. (It appears to me that of all the disciplines into which Eberhard ventured, astronomy among them, folklore was always closest to his heart).

Eberhard's dissertation "Beiträge zur Kosmologischen Spekulation der Chinesen der Han-Zeit" suggests that he was still alive to the interest of astronomy, and he was later to collaborate with his uncle, the astronomer Rolf Müller, in several works on astronomy in the Han and Three Kingdoms period. At Hauer's suggestion, Eberhard also took up Manchu, Japanese, and colloquial Chinese, the last under Ferdinand Lessing at the Seminar for Oriental Languages. This digression had to be kept secret from his classically oriented mentors at Berlin University, but having a secure basis in modern as well as classical Chinese (not to mention his early training in Latin and English) was to be a great help in his later career.

The Lessing contact itself was immediately fruitful: after receiving his diploma from the Sinological Institute in 1929, he went to work under Lessing in the Berlin Anthropological Museum. In 1934, the year after his PhD, he married Alide Roemer, two years his junior, who had just completed her own diploma course in Chinese at the Seminar for Oriental Languages. With a grant from the Bassler Archive to collect ethnographica for that museum, the couple left in June of that year, though currency restrictions limited how much of the grant they could actually take with them.

West Peak of Hwa-shan

In Peking, Eberhard studied temples and collected folktales. He and his wife became guests of Hellmut and Maria Wilhelm, who had left Germany two years previously. Wilhelm found work for Eberhard: substituting for others in some German classes at the two Peking universities, and in Latin at a medical school eight hours by train from Peking. A son, Rainer, was born to the Eberhards in summer 1935. In the vacation period, Eberhard traveled across North China, gathering material which would later appear in one or another of his many books, notably his monograph on the Dauist temple of Hwashan. Alide for her part wrote up materials collected by a Chinese collaborator, Hv Fvng-ru, as "50 Pekinger Kinderspiele;" it appeared in Sinica Sonderasugabe for 1936. That fall, the colleagues for whom Eberhard had been substituting needed to resume their classes. The Eberhards accordingly returned to Germany, and in 1936 he found a post as curator of the Asia section of the Grassi Museum (Leipzig). This period saw the publication of Eberhard's classification scheme for Chinese folktales, which was published in Helsinki. But the pressure to join Nazi organizations increased, and it soon became necessary to leave once again. Through the assistance of another Nazi resister, Adam von Trott, who had received a diplomatic posting to China, Eberhard, though not himself Jewish, obtained a ticket for round the world travel from the Moses Mendelssohn Foundation in New York. With this, and finessing the question of a US visa, he traveled to and across the United States; at Berkeley, on the further shore, he gave two lectures in 1937. He and von Trott then sailed to China via Japan. Amid the exigencies of travel, Eberhard found time to write a historical novel, Kaiser der Idee. It was never published, and obedient to Eberhard's own wish, it remains unpublished among his manuscripts.

The novel's preface is dated 18 March 1937. There remained exactly 111 days before the Japanese invasion of China, but that event was already thick in the air, and remaining in China was clearly inadvisable. von Trott continued to try to raise support among Germans outside Germany for resistance to Hitler; by 1939 he was in England, talking unsuccessfully to Lords Lothian and Halifax about the British policy of appeasement. Against advice, he returned to Germany in 1940, and was eventually associated with the failed Stauffenburg plot against Hitler. He was hung in prison on 26 August 1944.

What about Eberhard?

View of Ankara

Coincidentally, Turkey at this time was modernizing its educational system, and needed Western instructors to staff the new institutions. This situation offered a haven for several displaced German and Austrian professors. Alide, back in Germany, accepted in Eberhard's name an offer of a ten-year contract at the University of Ankara. Still traveling on his world ticket, but circuitously so as to avoid the problem that he lacked the necessary entry permits, Eberhard reached Ankara via Hong Kong. There Alide joined him. The two spent eleven years in Turkey; their second son, Anatol, was born there in 1938.

The contract provided that the German and Austrian professors at Ankara and Istanbul should both lecture and publish in Turkish, at first with interpreters, and later on their own. As the only Sinologist in the country, Eberhard taught every conceivable Chinese subject at the University. He also managed to publish an important series of papers on folklore and fiction, not excluding Turkish folklore, in which he took a genuine interest. Alide herself became fluent in Turkish, and in Turkish as in English, hers was the decisive contribution. Later in Berkeley, she would tell Phyllis Schafer, who had also spent time in Turkey, "You speak Turkish like an Anatolian peasant." Phyllis was prepared to take it as a compliment. How good was Eberhard's own Turkish? He once told a student that the Turks drank rabbit's blood. Phyllis Schafer comments from direct observation,

Hmmm. Turks do serve tea in glasses, and they often held it up to the light to admire the color. If it was reddish the usual comment, highly favorable, was "Ah, tavsan kani!" "Ah, rabbit's blood!"

So the words were correctly identified, but it also helps to know when the informant is being metaphorical.

Eberhard's main project remained the working out of his theory of the development of Chinese civilization, in which the local cultures of China played a major part. To the local cultures, he devoted the three volumes of a trilogy, all of which appeared in 1942, at the height of the war, but under different auspices. Kultur und Siedlung der Randvölker Chinas, a study of the border peoples of China including Koreans, Syungnu, Tibetans, Jwang, Myau, Yau, and Ywe, was published by Brill in 1942. The study of local cultures within North China, Lokalkulturen im Alten China: Teil 1, Die Lokalkulturen des Nordens und Westens, was also published by Brill in 1942, but as a Supplement to v37 of T'oung Pao rather than as a book. The complementary study of South China (Lokalkulturen des Südens und Ostens) could not be published by Brill because of war complications; it was instead taken on by Monumenta Serica in Peking as their Monograph #3, still of 1942 date. That edition was limited to 700 copies, and as Eberhard later put it, "soon disappeared from the market." It was later greatly revised, translated into English by Alide, and reissued as The Local Cultures of South and East China (Brill 1968). Plans to reissue the preceding two volumes in English came to nothing, and the trilogy still stands in that hybrid form. It bears the mark of Eberhard's most influential early teacher. As he said in the Foreword to the English revised edition:

This book is based upon a hypothesis concerning the development of traditional societies, which to some degree might be called "evolutionistic," and which in some ways is derived from ideas first developed by R Thurnwald. The main point of focus of this hypothesis is the process of social interactions, with an attempt to separate social interaction from economic interaction. In the present age of "desegregation" and "integration" we tend to regard social interaction within a social system as "natural" and desirable; we also tend to believe that economic interaction requires and produces social interaction. In our involvement with these problems, we tend to overlook the fact that social interaction of all groups within a social system is a relatively new phenomenon and that "ghettos" of some kind or another were generally approved of and even regarded as desirable until quite recently.

An open collaboration, Die Mode der Han- und Chin-Zeit, published in Antwerp in 1946, bore the names of Alide and Wolfram Eberhard on the title page. Then and later, she always insisted that she was "not a Sinologist," but even behind the scenes, her intelligence, her own direct experience of the material, and her editorial skills, including her fluency in the required languages, were to be of constant benefit to Eberhard.

As he neared the end of his contracted time in Ankara, Eberhard hastened to sum up his thoughts about China as a whole, seeing it anthropologically, or "from below," rather than from within the usual elite and nativist framework. Perhaps not disagreeably to his hosts, he emphasized the importance of the Turkish peoples in Chinese history, not only in the mediaeval period, which no one would deny, but more scandalously in the origins of the Jou people themselves. Consistently with this theme, he allotted more space to the period of North/South disunion than to Tang, an unheard-of reversal of conventional emphasis. This was the History of China, first published in Turkish in 1947.


University of California at Berkeley

In 1948, with the world again at peace, with his contract at Ankara due to expire, and with Rockefeller Foundation assistance in in the background, Eberhard received an offer from the Department of Sociology at Berkeley. Sociology was a new department, created after two years of faculty discussion. Frederick Teggart (author of Rome and China) had established a strong tradition of socio-historical studies at Berkeley, centered in the earlier Department of Social Institutions. Eberhard's interests in folkloristic and ethnological studies were considered to be a good match for this beginning. To this Berkeley situation Eberhard accordingly came, just in time to catch the Loyalty Oath controversy of 1949. He symbolically set the terms of his relationship to the various Berkeley disciplines by making early contact with the gentlemanly and exclusive History of Science Dinner Club, which met in the O'Neill Room in the Men's Faculty Club. The Dinner Club had been founded and was then still chaired by the formidable Herbert Evans, the discover of "Evans blue" dye, of Vitamin E, and of several other items of note; there had been murmurings about his failure to receive a Nobel Prize. On 13 February 1951, Eberhard lectured to this body on the subject of "Astronomy in China During the Middle Ages."

Reviews of the German (1948) and English (1950) translations of his History of China, appearing during his early years at Berkeley, were sometimes hostile. Critics faulted his central yet undefined concept of "gentry society" and noted his cavalier treatment of Confucian orthodoxy (his take on Confucius, for example, is a caricature rather than a reconsideration of the traditional view). On the quantitative side, he was faulted for what amount to mistakes of haste or misinformation, or simply from working out of one's disciplinary depth. Following the publication of further studies of North China in particular (Das Toba-Reich Nordchinas, Eine soziologische Untersuchung, 1949, and Conquerors and Rulers, Social Forces in Medieval China, 1952), Pulleyblank, in a review article entitled "Gentry Society" in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (1953), noted a few especially embarrassing places:

Statistics, however, do not interpret themselves. In order to tell what is really significant one must possess an insight into one's period which can only come from a real mastery of the historical background. Eberhard's study is manifestly lacking in this. But the inadequacy, indeed the danger, of his approach when not grounded in sufficient historical knowledge is revealed most glaringly in his study on the 10th century. He has taken all persons mentioned in the Chiu Wu-tai shih and has distinguished among them eighty-eight great families which he compares with the one hundred great families which he found in a similar way from an analysis of the Wei shu. As in the earlier study, he lumps together Chinese and non-Chinese families, and those of 'gentry origin,' ie descendants of T'ang functionaries, with new families which had risen by 'pure violence,' ie descendants of (1) soldiers and (2) peasant insurrectionists. Whatever their origin, and without attempting to show what were the respective political, social, and economic bases of their prominence, he treats them collectively as the great gentry of the Five Dynasties and considers them mutatis mutandis as equivalent to the great families of Toba Wei. He then uses this assumed identity as proof that nothing had really changed through the T'ang dynasty. I am sure that Japanese and Chinese students of the social history of the period would unanimously reject this opinion, and it goes contrary to all I know of T'ang society.

And again:

Eberhard gives some figures of a most sensational kind for the population of North China in the 10th century. The Chinese population over which the Sha-t'o came to rule consisted, he says, of 19,000,000 households or 53,000,000 individuals. 'As a result of famines and other catastrophes as well as the never ending wars, the population diminished quickly to 12,000,000 families in 947 and 2,309,812 families in 960; even as early as 930 and 942 some districts were without any population at all, and efforts were made to get settlers from other parts of China.' He himself apparently felt some doubts for he adds in a note, 'These extreme data may also be the result of incomplete census taking and loss of territory. Further research seems necessary.' Unfortunately, the only research that is needed is to look again at his sources. His first figures refer not to the 10th century but to mid-T'ang as is clearly stated in the text [n5: Chiu wu-tai shih 58.4275bb. Eberhard's reference here to 55.4270da (p91 n2) is evidently a repetition of note 3 on p90]. Furthermore, 19,000,000 is a textual error for 9,000,000 [n6: cf Wu-tai hui-yao 25, p305]. The ratio of individuals to households would in any case make one suspect this. The population of China in 742 as given in the geographical chapter of the Hsin T'ang shu was 8,985,334 households or 51,035,543 individuals. There is no mention of the year 947 in the text Eberhard cites. The figure of 12,000,000 households occurs, but it refers to the time of Ch'in and Han (221 BC to 9 AD). How could Eberhard have connected this with a year a thousand and more years later? The answer appears to be that 947 is the year in which Later Han of the Five Dynasties replaced Later Ch'in (not Ch'in!). It is almost incredible that a Sinologist of standing could make such an error, but there seems to be no other explanation.

Sounds pretty bad. This, however, was not the last word. Eberhard himself replied in BSOAS, in 1955. On depopulation:

The population of China in 742 was given in the geographical chapter of the Hsin-T'ang-shu as 8,985,334 households or 51,035,543 individuals (p595). E Balasz has different data, and for 640 the data are 8,412, 871 and 48,143,609. The number of c54 million individuals given by the Chiu-Wu-tai-shih may be compared with the number given for 754 or 755. The number of families seems to be excessive, but it is interesting that in the census of 754, which is generally regarded as one of the best, a breakdown of taxpayers and tax-free citizens is given which shows a similar anomaly: households with an average of 1.44 members. My use of these 8th-century census reports for a comparison with the Sha-t'o population is based upon the fact that we have no trustworthy reports for the early 10th century, and also upon the assumption that the drastic reduction after the revolt of An Lu-shan was not the result of actual depopulation but rather of other factors. On the other hand, I would believe that the Wu-tai period brought considerable depopulation, at least in North and parts of Central China. Here Professor Pulleyblank questions the depopulation of certain districts (p595). But, as Chieh-chou originally had 2,993 households and 15,313 individuals in three districts, an abolition of districts and a reduction of the population to a thousand, i.e. one-third, of the total families, or to the size of a few villages, can be regarded as really catastrophic. Teng-chou, T'ang-chou, Sui-chou, and Ying-chou are situated in a densely populated agrarian area with irrigation, with a T'ang-time population of 182,364; 165,257; 105,722; 57,373. The text clearly indicates that cultivation of virgin soil is not meant, but by a five-year tax exemption people were induced to come to these provinces and to use former farmland. Wan Kuo-ting, discussing conditions at the beginning of Sung times, remarks that the devastations of the Wu-tai period were very severe, and reconstruction slow; even after 30 years of Sung rule some of the agrarian areas used only 20-30 percent, others 50-60 per cent of the land. He mentions that still in 995 the irrigation work in T'ang was in disruption, and plans to settle veterans there were again made; in 996 settlement in Teng and T'ang and other places was planned. This again proves that these districts were really depopulated.

The large picture versus the small detail, but with the large picture nevertheless grounded in such small details as exist for the modern analyst. Even more fundamental to the dispute was the analytical value of Eberhard's characterization "gentry society." He explains:

Professor Pulleyblank states that "[the term] 'gentry' seems to me to be hopelessly confused" (p259). The term 'gentry,' while admittedly not an ideal one, has also been used by a number of scholars . . . If there are difficulties in understanding the character and the functions of such a society, a comparison between the European aristocracy, as legitimized by their 'Gotha,' a list of c400 accepted gentry families, compiled officially in 634, is useful, if the essential differences between the two groups are kept in mind. The mere existence of such official lists, used for a regulation of marriages, proves that medieval China had a leading élite which possessed a clear consciousness of kind. Research shows that most of these families traced their genealogy back to Han times of even earlier, and the postscript to the text indicated that gentry families were those who could prove their genealogy by the official histories. This strengthens my arguments on the function of the Chinese officials in this question.

This gentry society was 'in theory an open society' (p589) in Popper's sense, institutionally speaking. It was a 'closed society,' functionally speaking, if we read more or less official documents and memoranda. It was a 'closed society,' functionally speaking, if in a given medieval period we analyse statistically the percentage of leaders who came from a non-gentry background. So far almost no data are available on social mobility in China, and no explanation for the stability of Chinese society existed. The theory of gentry society tries to give a preliminary answer. Doubtless it has to be enlarged in regional and in temporal directions, so that finer lines become visible and the rough outline given thus far can be modified. Professor Pulleyblank mentions the examination system in this connexion (p590). But neither K A Wittfogel nor I referred to T'ang times, simply because no research has been carried out. But by using different approaches we came to similar results. And Naitô Torajirô, on the basis of still other material, also stated the importance of genealogy rather than of official position or territorial holdings. The function of the early examination similar to ideas held in England for a long period, not to train or test administrative skills, as despotic systems might try to do, but to reproduce personalities who incorporated the cultural and social ideals of the élite, to educate 'gentlemen.'

The history of the early Confucian movement, as preserved in the Analects, which has precisely in view the production of 'gentlemen,' and the quite opposed statecraft theorists of the same period, who were explicitly concerned with skills and job descriptions and not at all with 'gentlemen' or indeed with culture in any sense, illustrate the value of this contrast for the Chinese classical period as well. That divide is one of the great continuities of the Chinese experience. To have pointed to it, and never mind if the pointer was a blunt and problematic term, was a service to understanding.

Marion J Levy had already published, though not within the Sinological mainstream, a balanced estimate of the contribution of Eberhard to the study of China as it had previously been conducted. This is from a 1954 review of Conquerors and Rulers in The American Anthropologist:

Professor Eberhard is a scholar who may with genuine reason be placed in the category of rare national treasures. Whatever his shortcomings may be and however much one may quarrel with him on individual points, he is nevertheless one of an exceedingly small number of scholars here who, at one and the same time, are interested in scientific social analysis of China and are capable of handling the vast but relatively untapped resources to be found in the Chinese texts, both ancient and modern. Even today, after some years of intensive academic concentration on the production of such competence, the number of men with linguistic training and ability in this area remains small, and the number with the inclination and training to use this competence in the field of social science is still smaller. Professor Eberhard has made himself a still rarer asset by concentrating in this volume on a period of Chinese history that is quite important for understanding modern social structure in China but is less obviously glamorous as a field of concentration than some of the better known dynasties.

Professor Eberhard is interested in the period from, roughly, the early Han to the Sung dynasty, but within this period he spends his effort on regimes picked for their relevance to a particular set of problems. With admirable scientific penchant, he seems to care little whether the regimes he studies loomed large in conventional histories. He is interested in cases on which comparative analyses may be carried out. The most obvious of these comparisons in the Chinese case is that between "foreign" rulers, who are of course always conquerors of China (though occasionally "invited" ones), and domestically produced rulers. He uses his comparative materials to examine the structure of power and responsibility in China between the period that can be called "feudal" in the usual technical sense and what he calls the modern period, in which according to his view a "middle" class emerges in China. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with his interpretations, the data he produces from the texts are interesting and his hypotheses about them are stimulating.

As much might be said, in retrospect, about Eberhard's sometimes outrageous History of China. It was provoking in the amusing sense (it was a relief to hear Confucius for once described in other than reverential terms), and also in the sense of stimulating thought. It fixed the non-Chinese peoples squarely within the history of China, and not safely offstage in a separate monograph, in another department. It was a sovereign corrective for the usual complacent and Sinocentric view of China. So indeed the relevant fraction of the reading public seems to have found it: a 2nd revised edition appeared from California in 1960, a 3rd in 1969, and a 4th, Eberhard's farewell to the subject, in 1977, the year after his retirement. That 4th revision was still in print as late as 1992.

Eberhard had from the beginning been accustomed to think beyond China in thinking about China. He took the world as his subject, and the broad approach of his early training on both sides of the ancient/modern line within Chinese studies not only underlay his own massive published output (some 35 books, 185 articles, and 300 book reviews and numerous shorter notes in Chinese, German, Turkish and English), but made him personally accessible across many otherwise tense disciplinary divisions. A significant number of his students at Berkeley came from other departments: Anthropology, History, and Oriental Languages. His generosity with his knowledge, and indeed with his data, was remarkable. Al Cohen recalls:

His enormous outpouring of scholarship also came from seemingly boundless energy, great skill in organizing data, and his ability to read very rapidly. He was known as a master of the punch-card and knitting-needle method of storing and retrieving data (in an age long before the computer database). He was also very generous in sharing his data with others. If I telephoned him with a question, he would ask me to wait, and within a very few minutes' worth of knitting needle thrusts, he returned to read me a list of primary and secondary references, with page numbers, referring to my query.

To his own and others' students, Eberhard was sometimes able to provide essential scholarly and also personal guidance through the hazards of their Berkeley degree programs. Their enduring gratitude is part of his personal legacy to scholarship.


Alide and Wolfram Eberhard in Taiwan, April 1960

What he himself taught, and what in his fieldwork he continued to do, was essentially the cultural anthropology on which he had originally embarked. He regularly punctuated his teaching with interludes for fieldwork, beginning with a Guggenheim Fellowship to Turkey, to collect minstrel tales and study tribal settlements on the Turkish-Syrian border. His Typen Türkischer Volksmärchen (1953, in collaboration with a Turkish colleague, Pertev Naili Boratav) shows a continued interest in the theoretical value of his Turkish researches. This was also the great age of development economics. Though that development hit classical Sinology hard, it was not necessarily uncongenial to an anthropologist, and Eberhard served as a consultant to the Asia Foundation for Punjab University projects on problems of village development in Pakistan, while a visiting professor in Lahore in 1957-1958 (during which time he wrote an unpublished paper on Colony Villages in the Punja, and Alide contributed an also unpublished paper on Youth Convicts in Lahore). Eberhard later advised on similar issues in Taiwan, Korea, and Afghanistan. From 1961 to 1977, he spent almost every summer in travel to some East or Southeast Asian country, chiefly to Taiwan, where in addition to his fieldwork he also taught and served as a consultant. His vigor could astound those who were based in more sedentary fields of scholarship. Al Cohen recalls:

Eberhard's energy seemed to be unlimited. An excursion with him through the streets and alleys of a Taiwanese city would leave someone half his age exhausted, while Eberhard was ready to continue on. He had an extremely keen eye for detail in field work, and always knew the best place to go at every juncture. . . After a long day of field work on the streets of Taipei, he always knew where to find a small Taiwanese-style tea house to relax with tea and snacks.

For a while, Eberhard and Professor George de Vos collaborated on the Chinese Life-Study Project: again we note the Area Studies approach, which had had its genesis in the accelerations and reorientations of the war years.

Wolfram Eberhard at 52

In his fifties, at the height of his powers and concerned to take a comprehensive view of China, Eberhard steadily attempted to communicate to the more conventionally situated tribe of historians what a wider definition of culture offered them, and also to refute the characteristic American idea that all societies had essentially the same shape. He argued for the possibility of difference between cultures, and thus for the need to discover, rather than to assume, what sort of thing Chinese culture actually was.

The questions raised in this book are largely questions that originated in the field of historical sociology - a relatively new field which utilizes sociological insights gained from the study of present-day Western societies. Medieval Chinese society was studied with the question in mind: given that Western society in situations of particular types behaved in particular ways, did China in similar situations behave similarly or differently? And if so, what were the reasons? (Conquerors and Rulers, 1962, Introduction).

With the growing interest in comparative sociological studies, two main lines of approach have developed. The majority of comparative sociologists, especially in the United States, assumes quietly that sociological regularities found through research in the United States are of general validity and should be rediscoverable in any other society. Apparent differences should be accounted for by faulty research approaches, such as comparing data which are in themselves of different character. A minority of sociologists, on the other hand, is of the opinion that although some of our general sociological laws may be generally valid for all human societies, some societies have specific properties that cause them to behave in specific ways and not follow the rules of behavior found in other societies. (Guilt and Sin in Traditional China, 1967, Introduction).

The latter work was favorably received in the anthropological community. Barbara Ward, writing in the British Journal of Sociology, put it this way:

The notion that in all societies the successful control of individual behavior depends largely upon the internalization of social norms is, of course, commonplace. The notion that in the process of internalization some societies depend predominantly upon inculcating feelings of shame is one of those sweeping generalizations which seem at first sight to be strikingly illuminating but which further reflection tends to reject as both over-simple and over-subtle. Mr Eberhard's latest addition to his many distinguished studies of Chinese social institutions is, among other things, a contribution to the general argument on this matter. . . . 'Tradition-directed' societies with large extended families in which children are subject to many 'socializing agents' have been considered likely to be predominantly 'shame societies,' whereas literate, urban societies tend to be 'guilt societies' because the children, living in small, nuclear families derive their moral training more or less from their own parents . . . By writers who have accepted this dichotomy China, as a 'tradition-directed' society whose ideal is the extended family, has been classed unequivocally with the 'shame societies.' . . .

By contrast, Eberhard's book is refreshingly undogmatic. He suggests that although shame does appear to have played an appreciable part in the socialization of Chinese children, its significance probably varied from one social class to another. More important, he draws attention to the strong emphasis upon concepts of sin and guilt which the modern sociological and social psychological literature has so far failed to bring out, but which anyone who has lived and worked in Chinese communities cannot fail to recognize. This is a valuable corrective.

Much more important, in my view, however, is his methodology. This is a literary study, but for once we have a Sinologist who is not above looking at a truly popular literature. Eberhard's main sources are 'some of the so-called shan-shu, books for moral improvement . . .'

And a more critical review by H G H Nelson in the journal Man (1970), ended thus:

These criticisms aside, the book is full of fascinating information on the shan-shu, a hitherto neglected area of the Chinese social scene, and of implicit suggestions for further research . . . And if it is true, as Eberhard points out, that the popular notion of the Chinese as a predominantly shame-oriented culture is derived mainly from non-Chinese observations, are we not now forced into a major reinterpretation of Chinese notions of honour and shame?

Ying-shih Yü gave an ostensibly mild review of Guilt and Sin in the Journal of Asian Studies for 1968, pointing out the interest of periods earlier than those on which Eberhard had concentrated (whose populace was not so much Chinese as Chinese/Buddhist in ideology), and concluding:

On the whole, it seems that the value of this stimulating volume lies in its suggestiveness rather than its conclusions. A more balanced and comprehensive treatment of the subject would necessarily involve not only further investigations of the shan-shu and short stories, but also of many other types of sources, especially philosophical works, religious scriptures, family instructions, and novels. In conclusion, it must be stressed that the author has rendered an excellent service by showing a path through which we may eventually hope to cover a whole new ground within the domain of Chinese studies.

Eberhard was slightly more reserved about the value of Yü's 1967 study Trade and Expansion in Han China, which he reviewed a few pages further on in that same issue of JAS, concluding:

. . . Chinese silk was indeed found in Noin Ula (p104), but the interesting feature is that the motifs of decoration are more Iranian than Chinese. Thus, again the facts are studied from the Chinese viewpoint alone, and not from both sides.

Perhaps I am expecting too much from this book. I admit that few people can be equally well informed about Chinese and Western sources, archaeological, old and new, but certainly I cannot agree with J K Fairbank, who called the book a "masterly survey of the full record thus far available." It is rather a preliminary analysis of Chinese data which will have to be complemented by a similar study based on the sources which we have for the Central Asian and Southeast Asian societies.

On the whole we have symmetry, more or less: both works are seen as having their chief value in the future. But as the lifelong champion of the importance of the non-Chinese peoples for the understanding of China, Eberhard was provoked beyond endurance by one feature of Yü's work:

Many questions originate from his new concepts, and this perhaps constitutes the greatest value of this book. The concepts also provoke strong criticisms. Let me begin the critical points by saying that I have rarely seen a more ethnocentric book than this one. To speak of all neighbors of China as "barbarians" is as offensive to us as the nineteenth century expression "Chink" was for Chinese. Some of these "barbarians" had civilizations which today we regard as equal to that of China; others contributed to the world goods and ideas of everlasting value, such as the "barbarian religion" (p113) of Buddhism. Yü continues to show the attitude held by ancient Chinese writers, an aptitude which, unfortunately, is not yet fully eradicated. I am not only protesting against this word. It is symbolic of his whole approach to his topic. For him, China stands alone, surrounded by "rapacious" (p100) barbarians, "greedy for Chinese goods" (p100), who "needed Chinese technical assistance" (p107) and were "generously rewarded with imperial gifts" (p104). Yü has, on the one hand, not attempted to study the available data on the nomadic tribes, their economic system and the disastrous effects the Chinese tactic of taking away their herds had on them. On the other hand, he did not use the necessary critical attitude toward his sources which, written by officials for officials, naturally denigrate their enemies and praise the Chinese, and which often did not contain the knowledge of the social structure of their neighbors - a knowledge which we now have, due to comparative studies. So the "barbarians" are miserable barbarians who should happily give up their culture, language, and social structure and be integrated into the all-embracing Chinese culture. This is the attitude which is still in existence today when we hear how lovingly Mongols, Tibetans, Lolo, Moso, Chuang and others, forget their freedom and are happy to see their "autonomous areas" integrated into regular Chinese administrative units. And when they attempt to regain their freedom, this is called "desertion" and "insurrection" (p84).

Not a word of this needs to be altered as of the present writing.

It was in 1967 that Eberhard began to sum himself up. In the Foreword to Settlement and Social Change in Asia, he put it this way:

This is the first of six volumes in which I propose to re-issue a number of papers which I wrote during the last thirty years. I have been urged to do this by my colleagues, as my papers are scattered widely in various publications, and some were in German and Turkish, or otherwise difficult to consult. . . .

He was also concerned to leave the signs of his own development intact:

In republishing earlier papers and studies an author is faced with the difficult problem of what to include and what to omit. I have excluded papers which had become entirely outdated by later research, while retaining others on topics which colleagues have further developed. The reader should bear in mind that these papers do not always represent my present state of information, but show rather the stages in the development of efforts to see and study the data from fresh angles.

And it was noted to what extent the "effort" was a team effort:

My thanks go to many persons whose names I mention in the essays. But for the entire work I owe much to my wife Alide who helped me during these twenty-eight years, with practically every article and study published here.

Subsequent volumes in the planned series appeared in, under different auspices and not quite in their intended order, and not all in English, in 1970 (Sternbilde und Weltbild im alten China, v4, and Studies in Chinese Folklore and Related Essays, v2) and in 1971 (Moral and Social Values of the Chinese, v3). Then intervened a lull whose major publication was his highly regarded work Hua Shan, the Taoist Sacred Mountain in West China (1974).

Then came a shock to the partnership, what one member of the Berkeley community of that time called "the grand explosion." It emerged that Eberhard had for some time been maintaining another wife in Taiwan. It was a betrayal, and the partnership came to an end: Alide and Wolfram were divorced.


Berkeley Faculty Club

Eberhard presently formed another Berkeley connection. Dorothea Raacke, who had been born in Brazil and grown up bilingual in German and Portuguese, had trained at Berkeley in the years when Eberhard himself was new at Berkeley, and under Herbert Evans, the founder of the History of Science Dinner Club, at which Eberhard had lectured in 1951 (Dorothea would later write a biography of Evans). Biology was going places at this period. The double-helical structure of DNA had been discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge (with important input from Rosalind Franklin at Kings College) on 28 February 1953, and proteins were a hot research item. From the Berkeley lab, Dorothea joined six other authors in submitting a paper (Amino-Acid Sequence of Alpha-Corticotropin) that was printed in Nature in 1955. From the Biochemical Institute at Uppsala, in the following year, she sent to the Biochemical Journal set of three solely-authored papers on Protein Synthesis in Ripening Pea Seeds:

Under conditions conducive to protein synthesis, the amount of protein nitrogen increases at the expense of soluble nitrogen; this has been shown by a great number of workers to hold true for developing seeds . . . This fact, however, does not provide any decisive information about the path of protein synthesis, and can be interpreted in the light of several current theories . . if the latter is true, polypeptide precursors ought to be detectable. . . .

The three were accepted. By the time they had been printed (1957), Dorothea had moved to Cambridge, where she became friends with Crick and subsequently with Rosalind Franklin, who was to die before the controversial Nobel for DNA was awarded to Watson and Crick of Cambridge, and Maurice Wilkins of Kings. The Journal of the American Chemical Society for 1958 carried another single-authored paper by Dorothea ("Electrokinetic Changes in the Starch Medium During Zone Electrophoresis").

Dorothea at that time was already engaged. Back in Berkeley, she married Japanologist Donald Shively, then teaching at Berkeley. In their house, high in the hills above Berkeley, she bore him two sons. In 1962 she followed him to Stanford, and in 1964 to Harvard, herself obtaining a faculty position in the Biology department at Boston University, where on at least one occasion Francis Crick came to give a guest lecture. She was herself active. With H I Robins she collaborated on a six-page joint paper ("A Simplified Procedure for the Simultaneous Isolation of 4S and 5S RNA" which appeared in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications for October 1968. A single-authored paper of four pages (A Model for Protein Synthesis Involving the Intermediate Formation of Peptidyl-5S RNA) was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1971. The impressive illustrations show "Corey-Pauling-Koltun space-filling models of the synthesis of pepidyl-5S RNA," and the text emphasizes that she was following a path that she herself had laid down:

I have previously pointed out [here a reference to the 1968 paper] that 5S RNA can assume a cloverleaf conformation similar to that of tRNA. Particularly, both have "stems" 11 nucleotides long, forming one complete turn of an RNA helix, which can be bound together by Mg++ bridges, causing the 3'-OH groups to lie close together. I therefore propose that the donor in the peptide elongation reaction is a peptidyl-5S RNA.

But that particular goal ended by being elusive:

In order to obtain peptidyl-5S RNA, it would thus be necessary to inactivate the peptide-bond forming enzyme as well as to desensitize transferase II. There are no known agents at present for the differential inactivation of the two transferases.

In December of 1971 appeared her only publication that is not a journal article, a 291-page retrospective entitled "Molecular Biology of DNA and RNA: A Review of Research Papers." Six years later she was still aiming at a definitive synthesis, as can be seen in a 20-page contribution to Perspectives in Biology and Medicine ("Protein Hormones and Eukaryotic Genome - General Theory of Hormone Action"). In addition to her own work, Dorothea was available to others: a paper by her departmental colleague Joanne K Kelleher, published in Molecular Pharmacology in 1977 ("Tubulin Binding Affinities of Podophyllotoxin and Colchicine Analogues") thanks, among others, "I D Raacke for advice and suggestions."

It was expert and it was persistent and it took the broad view. But in those leagues, it was not enough. Roger Hahn recalled Dorothea in later years as

"a rather testy and forceful lady who wanted to be recognized as a leader in her field of expertise. She was in my opinion a good worker in the field, but did not have any extraordinary insights."

By the time these papers appeared, Dorothy was already gone from Boston. In 1976, Dorothea and Shively divorced, and she returned to her home base in Berkeley. She was 51. She established her presence by giving a lecture to the still awesome Dinner Club that same year (the gender barrier had been lifted by the efforts of Roger Hahn in 1971). It may have been in this zone of professional overlap that she met Eberhard. There or elsewhere, she began with him a liaison that would last for the remaining seven years of her life. Nor did she enter that phase equipped with only her formidable qualities. One student recalls, of Frau Dorothea, "She was indeed a formidable character but she could also be charming and kind."

Wolfram Eberhard at 68

Eberhard retired from the Berkeley faculty in that same year, 1976, and returned to putting his intellectual house in order. He issued the 4th and final revision of his History of China in 1977, and resumed the series of his collected papers with China und Seine Westlichen Nachbarn (v5) in 1978. The assembling of his oeuvre did his reputation no harm, and the importance of his work came to be increasingly recognized. He had previously served as a visiting professor in Frankfurt (1956), Lahore (1957-1958), Heidelberg (1964), and Taiwan (1967). To that list, in his years of relative institutional freedom, he added Munich (1978-1979), and in a symbolic return to his own home institution, Berlin (1980). In 1980 he received an honorary doctorate from Lund University, the nearest Sinologists get to something like the Nobel Prize. In May 1981, already looking ahead to the inevitable, he donated a cubic foot of his papers and publications to the library of the State University of New York at Albany. In something of a final manifesto for the anthropological way of looking at things, he championed the importance of the little people, as compared to the elites who, if only by default, tend to be the slice of life on which the text-based disciplines concentrate. The 6th and last volume of Eberhard's Collected Works appeared under the title "Life and Thought of Ordinary Chinese" in 1982.

Beginning in 1983, illness began to slow him down. In that year Dorothea died of cancer. That same year, Eberhard completed his last major work, which in another return to his origins was ultimately based on some notes of his teacher Lessing: the Dictionary of Chinese Symbols. It was first published with color plates in Germany, and in monochrome and in translation France (1984) and the United States (1986). Reviews were generally favorable, if also largely genial. In 1985, Eberhard married Irene Ohnesorge, who nursed him through the remaining three years of his life. Says one colleague, "She took great care of him at the end."

Alide survived him by six years, dying on 3 August 1994. Hartmut Walravens ended his published tribute in Oriens Extremus by saying of her:

Alide Eberhard, diese sachliche, interessierte, warmherzige und kluge Frau, hat einen festen Platz in der Sinologie, obwohl sie ihn nicht anstrebte.

Thus came the members of the original team to rest, albeit on different shores.

Throughout his career, some of which was set in narrow places, Eberhard showed little hesitation in doing the next obvious thing. Not all the things have worn equally well. His Turkish theory of Chinese origins (1947) has not found enduring favor with a Sinological posterity, his use of collectivist rewrites along with directly collected material in his Folktales of China (1965) is calculated to raise eyebrows both in and out of anthropology, and his acceptance of symbol as transmitting culture (1983) may go down better with the art connoisseur than with the word philologist. It does not matter. What does matter is his insistence on seeing Chinese culture as a whole, though not as a unity, and above all not in isolation from other peoples. He communicated a sense of the edges of China, including the internal ones: the variety within the unity, and the ultimate humanity of both the variety and the unity. However exasperating it may be to Sinological readers, his work on Inner Asia is regarded by experts in that field as "a permanent contribution." On the personal side, with all due subtraction for the obvious shortfalls, Eberhard's ability to move with minimum friction in a complex and threatening world, and his willingness to help others negotiate those same reefs and shallows, entitle him to remembrance as a humane presence in that world.

E Bruce Brooks


  • Wolfram Eberhard. Beiträge zur kosmologischen Spekulation der Chinesen der Han-Zeit. Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität 1933.
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Typen Chinesischer Volksmärchen. Helsinki Academy of Sciences 1936
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Kaiser der Idee. [Unpublished novel, March 1937]
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Kultur und Siedlung der Randvölker Chinas. Brill 1942.
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Lokalkulturen im Alten China: Teil 1. T'oung Pao v37 Supplement 1942
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Lokalkulturen des Südens und Ostens. Monumenta Serica Monograph #3 1942
    • (tr Alide Eberhard) The Local Cultures of South and East China. Brill 1968
  • Wolfram Eberhard. History of China. 1947 (Turkey), 1948 (Germany), 1949 (America)
  • Edwin G Pulleyblank. Gentry Society: Some Remarks on Recent Work by W Eberhard. BSOAS v15 #3 (1953) 588-597
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Conquerors and Rulers: Social Forces in Medieval China. Brill 1962
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Folktales of China. Chicago 1965
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Guilt and Sin in Traditional China. California 1967
  • Wolfram Eberhard. Life and Thought of Ordinary Chinese. Asian Folklore and Social Life Monographs 106) 1982.
  • Wolfram Eberhard. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols. Routledge 1986
  • Alvin P Cohen and Sarah Allan (ed). Legend, Lore, and Religion in China: Essays in Honor of Wolfram Eberhard on His Seventieth Birthday. [San Francisco] Chinese Materials Center 1979. Includes a complete bibliography of Eberhard's publications up to that time.
  • Alvin P Cohen. In Memoriam: Wolfram Eberhard. Asian Folklore Studies v49 #1 (1990) 125-133
    • [variant]: Journal of Chinese Religions v18 (Fall 1990) 177-185
    • [variant]: Central Asiatic Journal v34 #3-4 (1990) 177-186
  • Hartmut Walravens. Alide Eberhard zum Gedenken. OE v38 (1995) 5-6
  • Martin Kern. The Emigration of German Sinologists 1933-1945. JAOS v118 #4 (1998) 518f
  • Alvin P Cohen. Wolfram Eberhard, in Kelly Boyd (ed), Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Fitzroy Dearborn (1999) 339-340
  • Roger Hahn. Berkeley's History of Science Dinner Club: A Chronicle of Fifty Years of Activity. Isis v90 (1999) Supplement S182-191
  • Eberhard Papers 1935-1957 (at SUNY Albany)

Al Cohen, Ed Cranston, David Farrell, Roger Hahn, Howard Hibbett, Phyllis Brooks Schafer, and Denis Sinor contributed to this profile.

9 June 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Sinology Page