Berthold Laufer

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Berthold Laufer
Annual report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year .. (1933) (17811378703).jpg
Born(1874-10-11)October 11, 1874
DiedSeptember 13, 1934(1934-09-13) (aged 59)
Scientific career
InstitutionsAmerican Museum of Natural History
Columbia University
Field Museum

Berthold Laufer (October 11, 1874 – September 13, 1934) was a German anthropologist and historical geographer with an expertise in East Asian languages. The American Museum of Natural History calls him, "one of the most distinguished sinologists of his generation."[1]


Laufer was born in Cologne in Germany to Max and Eugenie Laufer (née Schlesinger). His paternal grandparents Salomon and Johanna Laufer were adherents of the Jewish faith. Laufer had a brother Heinrich (died 10 July 1935) who worked as a physician in Cairo.

Laufer attended the Friedrich Wilhelms Gymnasium from 1884 to 1893. He continued his studies in Berlin (1893–1895), and completed his doctorate in oriental languages at the University of Leipzig in 1897.[2] The following year he emigrated to the United States where he remained until his death. He carried out ethnographic fieldwork on the Amur River and Sakhalin Island during 1898-1899 as part of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. He was fluent in more than ten non Indo-European languages.[2]

The Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History webpage on Laufer China Expedition (1901-1904) states that he:

"led the Jacob H. Schiff expedition to China where he was to make a comprehensive ethnographic collection and to conduct scholarly research on the history and culture of a sophisticated people that had not yet experienced the industrial transformation. Laufer made an extinsive collection of representative objects used in daily life, agriculture, folk religion, medicine, and in the practice of such crafts as printing, bookbinding, carpentry, enamelware, ceramics, and laquerware. He also collected antique bronzes and Han Dynasty ceramics. Laufer's interest in the theater led him to make the most extensive collection of Chinese puppets in North America including shadow puppets, rod puppets, and glove puppets in several regional styles, and to record performances on wax cylinders. The collection also includes costumes, musical instruments, and stilts for the Yang Ko folk drama."[1]

On this expedition, he took a famous photo of a man smiling while eating rice.

He worked as assistant in Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History (1904–1906), became a lecturer in Anthropology and East-Asiatic Languages at Columbia University (1905–1907). The rest of his career he spent at the Field Museum in Chicago.[3] In 1930 Laufer was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of his research.[4] He served as the president of the History of Science Society in 1932.[5]

Laufer died on September 13, 1934, after falling from the 8th floor fire escape of the Chicago Beach Hotel in Chicago, where he lived. He had been recovering from the removal of a tumor at the time, but his widow claimed he was in good spirits, and the Coroner's jury returned an undetermined verdict.[6] He bequeathed his personal library and correspondence, including more than 7,000 volumes in Chinese, to the Field Museum library.[2]

From "Lasting Impressions: Chinese Rubbings from the Field Museum" Brochure (The Field Museum of Chicago):

When Berthold Laufer came to The Field Museum in 1908, he was one of the few scholars in America who could speak and write the Chinese language fluently. He made the study of the Chinese language and culture his life's work. "I have come to love the land and the people," he once wrote. "I feel myself to be better and healthier as a Chinese than as a European." As Curator of Asian Ethnology in the Department of Anthropology at the Field, he made two major expeditions to China in 1908 and 1923, and his acquisitions form the core of the Museum's Chinese collections.

In addition to his studies in Chinese culture as such, Laufer used his knowledge of ancient Chinese writings to shed light on ancient Iran. Very few writings have survived from ancient Iran. Surviving ancient Chinese writings contain valuable information about ancient Iran, which Laufer was the first to study systematically, and which he published as Sino-Iranica: Chinese contributions to the history of civilization in ancient Iran, with special reference to the history of cultivated plants and products (1919).

In March 2020 the 385 wax cylinders Laufer recorded in Shanghai and Beijing in 1901 and 1902—comprising the earliest sound recordings of Chinese music—were made available to the public by the Indiana University Archives of Traditional

List of works[edit]

Written in English[edit]

Written in French[edit]

Written in German[edit]


  • Kleinere Schriften von Berthold Laufer. Hartmut Walravens, editor, Sinologica Coloniensia; Ostasiatische Beiträge der Universität zu Köln, Bde. 2, 7, 13. Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden, 1976-1992 (3 Volumes). A collection of many of his essays and many relevant documents.
  • Sino-Tibetan Studies. Hartmut Walravens and Lokesh Chandra, eds., 2 Vols., Rakesh Goel, New Delhi, 1987.

Further reading[edit]

  • Hartmut Walraevens, Popular Chinese Music a Century Ago: Berthold Laufer's Legacy, Fontes Artis Musicae, Vol. 47, 2000, p. 345-352.


  1. ^ a b Gregorev, Nina. "Laufer China Expedition | Anthropology". Retrieved 2017-07-25.
  2. ^ a b c "Berthold Laufer Collections". Field Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
  3. ^ obituary Journal of the American Oriental Society 55.4 (1934): 349-362
  4. ^ "Field Museum News". June 1930. Archived from the original on 2021-06-08. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  5. ^ The History of Science Society "The Society: Past Presidents of the History of Science Society" Archived 2013-12-12 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 4 December 2013
  6. ^ Walravens, Hartmut (1976). Kleinere Schriften von Berthold Laufer: 1 Publikationen aus der Zeit von 1911 bis 1925. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. XVIII–XIX. ISBN 9783515026512.

External links[edit]