Life and career
Son of Hermann Schlegel—a native of Saxony who had moved to the Netherlands in 1827 to work at the natural history museum of Leiden and became its second director—, Gustaaf begun to study Chinese at the age of 9 with Leiden japanologist J. J. Hoffmann initially, it seems, without the knowledge of his parents. Gustaaf made his first trip to China in 1857 in order to collect bird specimens, but his notoriety as naturalist was overshadowed by that of Robert Swinhoe who completed much field work in China ahead of Schlegel.
In 1861, after having learned the Fuzhou dialect, he moved to Canton to study Cantonese. In 1862, Schlegel took a job as an interpreter for the supreme court of the colonial government of Batavia. While working on this job, in 1866 he published a monograph on the Tiandihui (Heaven and Earth Society)—the first on the topic in Dutch—, and another one on prostitution in Canton. In 1869 he was awarded a doctorate from the University of Jena; his thesis was on the customs and pastimes of the Chinese, but this writing was apparently a formality because his reputation had been established by his previous publications.
Schlegel fell seriously ill in 1872 and was granted two years' sick leave to Holland. On his return, Hoffmannn met him and asked Schlegel to take his place in educating Dutch-Chinese translators. Schlegel accepted, and in 1873 he pursued the matter further writing a pro domo letter to the Colonial Minister, asking for the government to establish a university position. He was successful, and in 1875 was appointed as an "extraordinary professor" of Chinese at Leiden University, on the first position of its kind, and advanced to full professor in 1877.
In 1878 he married Catharina Elisabeth Gezina Buddingh. They had no children and divorced in 1890. The last years of his life were significantly affected by diabetes, as a result of which he lost sight in both eyes. He retired in 1902 and died next year. His chair at Leiden remained vacant until 1904 when Jan Jakob Maria de Groot accepted the position.
Works and legacy
Schlegel's 1866 monograph on the Heaven and Earth Society is considered the major breakthrough in its study, even in 21st century scholarship. Schlegel was fortunate that he had access to secret writings that had been seized by the police. Its impact extended beyond Dutch colonies; it was frequently cited in the writings of colonial officers in British Malaya as well.
Schlegel's magnum opus was his Dutch-Chinese dictionary, published in 4 volumes between 1882-1891. It won international acclaim, including the Prix Stanislas Julien (1887). Although the German press even bracketed this work in the same category of achievements as the Forth Bridge and the Eiffel Tower, it had little impact outside Dutch sinology. The publisher, Brill, had apparently printed more copies than were ever ordered, and these were shredded only in 1975. Despite Schlegel's pleas, Dutch did not become a language of international scientific exchange in his field. (C.F.M. de Grijs, a contemporary colleague of Schlegel is almost totally forgotten today because he only published in Dutch.)
Perhaps Schlegel's most lasting contribution is the founding in 1890, together with Henri Cordier, of the journal T'oung Pao, providing a joint publishing venue for the then leading Sinological centers of Europe. This journal has remained a leading Sinology journal to present times.
Schlegel also wrote extensively on the geographical accounts found in Chinese historical texts like the Book of Liang. His articles on this theme were published in T'oung Pao, initially in French in a series entitled Problèmes Géographiques: Les Peuples Étrangers Chez Les Historiens Chinois, and later continued in English as Geographical Notes. The first article in this series was on Fusang. His articles on ancient Chinese geography were later collected and republished as standalone books.
- E. Bruce Brooks (9 June 2004), Gustaaf Schlegel, Sinology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, retrieved 17 September 2011
- J.L. Blussé (2008-11-04). "Schlegel, Gustaaf (1840-1903)". Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland (Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands). Retrieved 2011-09-18. originally published in Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland 3 (Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands 3), The Hague, 1989
- Leonard Blussé (1989). "On Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water: Leiden University's early Sinologists (1853-1911)". In W. Otterspeer. Leiden Oriental connections, 1850-1940. BRILL. pp. 317–354. ISBN 978-90-04-09022-4.
- Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi (2004). Rites of belonging: memory, modernity, and identity in a Malaysian Chinese community. Stanford University Press. pp. 55 and 66. ISBN 978-0-8047-4486-7.
- Thomas F. Glick; Steven John Livesey; Faith Wallis (2005). Medieval science, technology, and medicine: an encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-415-96930-7.
- Joseph Needham; Ling Wang; Gwei-Djen (1971). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 4, Physics and physical technology. Pt. 3, Civil engineering and nautics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 541 and 815. ISBN 978-0-521-07060-7.