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China for the Anthropologist: Franz Boas, Berthold Laufer, and a road not taken in early American Anthropology

Berthold Laufer (1874-1934)


AMNH 70/9469 Marionette collected in China by Berthold Laufer


In 1903, Berthold Laufer wrote from Xi'an, China to his mentor, Franz Boas at AMNH: "I shall conquer China . . . [for] the anthropologist. China, no longer the exclusive domain of travelers and sinologues, both narrow-minded and one-sided in their standpoints and researches, China to all who have anthropological interests" (AMNH: Laufer to Boas, 12 August, 1903).

A century later, Laufer is best known for a list of wide-ranging, original, erudite, and sometimes eccentric publications, but few would recognize him as an anthropologist, much less as a protg of Franz Boas whose students included nearly all the luminaries of early twentieth century American anthropology (Handler 1990).

The discipline of anthropology has also forgotten Boas' ambitious vision for an anthropology of East Asia within a nascent area studies. This study explores the story of Boas' failed Asian project and its subsequent consignment to the dustbin of disciplinary history and underscores the awkward fit between the study of complex East Asian societies and the discipline of anthropology as it was practiced for much of the 20th century.

Looking backward from a recent period in which the discipline of anthropology has critically rethought and broadened its own interests and approaches, the story of Boas and Laufer's quixotic enterprise is not devoid of irony.

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