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Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

Farewell, URPP!

Founded as a temporary institution in 2006, the URPP Asia and Europe will close at the end of August 2017. In order to review this 12 year period and to celebrate achievements in research and collaboration, the URPP invited its current and former members, members of collaborating institutions, as well as the interested public to a farewell day on May 21, 2017, at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich.

Roman Benz

Mareile Flitsch, director of the Ethnographic Museum and a participating professor at the URPP, began by welcoming the guests at the farewell day. She described the URPP as a success story of collaboration regarding Asia and Europe—collaboration that has involved people from various countries, universities, institutes, and disciplines.

Lasting values

The President of the University of Zurich Michael Hengartner then praised the work of the URPP over the last twelve years. He briefly mentioned the funding instrument of the so-called University Research Priority Programs (URPP), which had been established in 2005 to sharpen the profile of the University of Zurich with an eye toward international competition: “Existing strengths in research have to be promoted and developed into international beacons of excellence.”

In 2006, the URPP Asia and Europe started as the last program during the initial round of funding. Like the other URPPs, it was designed to cooperate across disciplines and to work on a specific thematic area across faculty boundaries. Hengartner emphasized that University Research Priority Programs can only receive two four-year extensions. For this reason, the URPP Asia and Europe ends after the maximum duration of 12 years: “That we celebrate a farewell today is due to formal reasons; it has nothing to do with a lack of success—quite the contrary." To illustrate this success, Hengartner presented some key figures. Over the past twelve years, more than 25 professors, 31 postdocs, and 68 doctoral students have been active at the URPP. 32 dissertations and 7 habilitations have been completed. More than 100 books, more than 300 articles, and more than 300 contributions in anthologies have been published. Furthermore, the members of the URPP organized more than 100 events during the last twelve years.

Hengartner raised the question of what would remain of the URPP after its termination. He noted that the idea of sustainability was very important to the University of Zurich and, in his opinion, the URPP would certainly have lasting value. Through its research activities, the publications and advancements in knowledge achieved by the URPP would remain important for a long time. Hengartner added that the URPP had also impacted the University of Zurich’s institutional structures by contributing to the foundation of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies in 2013. The participating disciplines (i.e. Indian studies, Islamic studies, Japanese studies, Chinese studies, and gender studies) had already worked together closely within the framework of the URPP Asia and Europe. Furthermore, the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program Asia and Europe would continue to exist in affiliation with the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies. Hengartner concluded that “as part of the first funding round, the URPP Asia and Europe has, in a way, been an experiment, but it was more than a successful one.”

Some characteristics of the URPP

After President Hengartner’s remarks, the current academic directors of the URPP Asia and Europe—David Chiavacci, professor of social science of Japan, and Raji C. Steineck, professor of Japanology—addressed the guests. Steineck mentioned that an additional aspect of the URPP’s success story was the appointment of seven junior researchers as professors at the University of Basel, the University of Alberta in Edmonton, as well as others. Furthermore, the URPP had complemented the University of Zurich’s generous funding by acquiring third-party funds in the amount of nearly 11 million Swiss Francs. The Gebert Rüf Stiftung and the Humer Foundation for Academic Talent were the URPP’s biggest private funders.

Chiavacci spoke of the URPP’s specific characteristics. At the outset, he mentioned its thematic diversity, which encompassed art reception, feminism, secularization, civil society, translation issues, modernity, digital media, and the concept of concept. Secondly, he mentioned the URPP’s transdisciplinarity: “The URPP was more than the sum of its parts.” He said that critical study of hitherto unknown theoretical approaches or new methodological perspectives had proven very fruitful, and that such study occasionally led to questions about an academic discipline’s self-conception. The URPP had never intended to overcome disciplinary divisions, but rather to stimulate research by providing new perspectives. Thirdly, Chiavacci spoke about the successful networking that had taken place both inside and outside the University of Zurich—for example, the new connections with the Centre for African Studies in Basel, with the Taiwan Studies Center at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, and with many individual researchers from Switzerland and abroad. Chiavacci concluded by thanking all those who had contributed to the success of the URPP, especially the University of Zurich’s executive board, the third-party funders, the URPP’s advisory board, as well as the professors who had taken the initiative to establish the URPP. These professors are Andrea Büchler (private and comparative law), Robert H. Gassmann (Chinese studies), Ulrike Müller-Böker (human geography), Ulrich Rudolph (Islamic studies), Konrad Schmid (Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism), and Christoph Uehlinger (history of religions and comparative religion).

Japanese art and Tamil literature

After the welcoming speeches, Raji Steineck and Martina Wernsdörfer, a curator at the Ethnographic Museum, opened the exhibition “Little Bridge.” It presented works by Yamamoto Iku, who is a prominent representative of calligraphy and painting in the modern Japanese style. Inspired by her own exhibitions in Portugal and France, Ms. Yamamoto began writing poems in Latin script and in various European languages. She clings to the basic principles of Japanese calligraphy, which include not only the use of ink and brushes, but also the vertical notation. She aims at making Japanese calligraphy a first-hand experience to interested Europeans. Ms. Yamamoto was present during the farewell day. In a workshop, she introduced the guests to the art of Japanese calligraphy.

The Experi-Theater provided insights into the Tamil literatures of South India and Sri Lanka. The company’s actors recited Tamil short stories, which were translated into German by Eveline Masilamani-Meyer and Nina Rageth, doctoral student at URPP Asia and Europe, and which were published in a book entitled “Bananenblätter und Strassenstaub” (Eng. “Banana Leaves and Street Dust”). Between the recitations, the two translators commented on the criteria for selecting texts for their publication, as well as on some translation problems that emerged. In contrast to German, the Tamil language shows a distinct diglossia between the formal and literary language, on the one hand, and the colloquial language of everyday use, on the other. This diglossia is particularly present in Tamil short stories, where authors often use the colloquial language for their protagonists’ speech.

Islamic philosophy

After the extensive apéro where guests enjoyed a range of culinary options, Ulrich Rudolph delivered the main lecture. He highlighted what he considered one of the URPP’s main achievements: a new way of cooperation and joint reflection, or perhaps just a new way of asking questions. “We learned to ask questions that we had never asked before.” Sometimes, this interdisciplinary cooperation fostered doubts about the apparent certainties of one’s own discipline, accentuating the fragility of one’s knowledge foundation. Based on examples from his own field of Islamic philosophy, Rudolph pointed out that such doubts are neither new nor specifically European. In search of an initial foundation for all knowledge, the Iranian Islamic scholar Abu Ḥāmid al-Ġazālī had entertained radical doubt around the year 1100. He mistrusted teachings received from earlier scholars, the reliability of sensory perception, and the validity of the axioms of understanding, since human understanding could err during sleep or dreams. In his autobiographical work “Al-Munqiḏ min ad-ḍalāl” (Eng. “Deliverance from Error”) from 1107, he concluded that a “light from God” formed the foundation of knowledge and trust in the principles of understanding.

More than 500 years later, René Descartes (1596–1650) also addressed the issue of radical doubt. In his work “Meditationes de prima philosophia,” the famous “cogito ergo sum” formed the foundation of certainty and confidence in the possibility of knowledge. But also in Descartes’ case, the human ability to understanding is dependent on God, as only His existence guarantees the truth of logical and mathematical laws.

Rudolph noted that the solutions offered by Descartes and al-Ġazālī differed. Yet the similarities are striking. Both of them questioned traditional assumptions and ostensible matters of fact and sought to find a stable foundation from which knowledge could be rebuilt. In Rudolph’s opinion, the study of Asia and Europe is valuable because it brings together knowledge from different times and places. [1]

Musical finale

The farewell day ended with a concert by “Amine & Hamza – the Band Beyond Borders.” Amine and Hamza M’raihi are two Tunisian musician brothers, playing respectively the oud and the qanun, the two major instruments of classical Arabic music. Together with musicians with a French, Swiss-Indian, Polish and Swedish background, they played a rousing concert, influenced by Arabic, Persian, and Indian music, as well as by jazz and flamenco.


[1] A full version of the lecture will be published under the title “Auf der Suche nach Erkenntnis zwischen Asien und Europa: al-Ġazālī, Descartes und die moderne Forschungswissenschaft” in: Asiatische Studien 72/1 (2018).

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 41–43)