Founding Professor Owen Lattimore

Owen Lattimore

 “Teacher and researcher, explorer and ethnographer, geographer and historian, one of the leading Western students of China, the West’s leading scholar of Mongolia and inner Asia – these are but some of Owen Lattimore’s claims upon us.”

- Professor Esmond Wright (University of Glasgow), speech on the conferment of Owen Lattimore’s honorary doctorate

“My knowledge of China and Mongolia and Central Asia was not built up by having pull with the right people, but by traveling in the far interior, by studying Chinese and Mongol until I could read and speak and be completely independent of an interpreter, and by making my way on equal terms among merchants, caravan traders, soldiers, bandits, peasants, shepherds, landlords, grain dealers and others who would be nameless to a ‘visiting fireman’ economist or political scientist or diplomat. Then, on this foundation of real life, I built a superstructure of geographical, historical and sociological study.”

- Owen Lattimore in Ordeal by Slander

Early Life and Career

Owen Lattimore was born in the United States in 1900, but when he was only a few months old the family moved to Shanghai. He spent his formative years in China and witnessed the fall of the Qing Dynasty before being sent back to Europe for schooling at the age of twelve. Lattimore went to secondary school in England but his family could not afford to send him to university, so after graduation he returned to China to work.

“Four years of navigating the countryside for Arnhold and Company taught Lattimore much about politics, economics, banditry, landlordism, and peasant unrest. At the time he viewed his early years in Tientsin as a kind of purgatory. Later he realized that his travels gave him the equivalent of a Ph.D. in economics.”

- Robert P. Newman in Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China

Lattimore secured a position with the British import/export firm Arnhold and Company and for four years worked across northern China securing the safe passage of products through warlord territories. During his travels Lattimore became obsessed with the caravans and Mongolian way of life, and as soon as he had saved enough money he joined one of the caravans to Xinjiang on the western frontier of China. Lattimore had just got married, and his new bride Eleanor travelled across Siberia by sled to meet him for their six-month honeymoon in Central Asia. This led to more than half a decade of independent research in China, Mongolia and Central Asia.

In 1934 Lattimore was living in Beijing and began editing the journal Pacific Affairs, published by the Institute of Pacific Relations. Lattimore courted controversy by publishing pieces representing conflicting ideological backgrounds, including some from the Soviet Union and Japan. In 1937 Lattimore visited the headquarters of the Chinese communists in Yan’an as a translator, and met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

“Dear Mr. Lattimore… as an American, you can say a great number of things, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a Chinese to say with good grace. When they are said by an American who has lived most of his life with us and who speaks with evident sincerity, they sink deeper and have a profound influence.”

- Mayling Soong Chiang in a letter to Lattimore during WWII

In 1938, Lattimore was offered a job as a lecturer in the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Within one year he was promoted to director of the School. With the onset of WWII and the Japanese invasion of China, President Roosevelt asked Lattimore to travel to Chongqing to advise Chiang Kai-shek. Lattimore became a friend of the family and one of Chiang’s most trusted American confidants for the remainder of WWII.

The McCarthy Trials

Lattimore worked at Johns Hopkins University for 25 years. He was a popular lecturer, and his position as adviser to Chiang Kai-shek during WWII had elevated him to the status of a cult figure in the University. However, despite this popularity, his lack of formal academic training meant that he was not taken seriously in some academic circles.

In 1950, amid increasing anti-communist rhetoric in the USA, Senator Joseph McCarthy accused Lattimore of being a communist spy. These accusations were completely unfounded, but he was still charged with seven counts of perjury. The charges were so tenuous that David Harvey, who researched Lattimore's life, called them “vengeful harassment”. The charges were eventually dismissed, but in an atmosphere of extreme paranoia, some trustees of Johns Hopkins began to call for Lattimore's dismissal.

“Then I got a piece of paper and drafted a reply, realising that it would have to hit the front pages and hit them crisply. Clearly, this was going to be a fight to the finish, and a knockdown, drag-out fight. I had as yet no conception of the personality of McCarthy; but if he was a man who was willing to make a totally unfounded charge of espionage, this was going to be a dirty business.”

- Owen Lattimore in Ordeal by Slander

Time at Leeds

Denied study leave and tenure, Lattimore's time at Johns Hopkins became increasingly difficult. So when in 1961 the publication of the Hayter Report led to the UK government funding the establishment of the Department of Chinese Studies at Leeds, Lattimore, with his vast experience, was an obvious candidate to head this new department. In 1963 he accepted an offer to become its first professor.

“It's as if, in a weird way, Baltimore were the sleepy English village where nothing ever happened, and Leeds the driving, creative American city, with people thinking and doing all the time."

- Owen Lattimore, quoted in Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China

Lattimore launched himself into academic life at Leeds, making arrangements for the creation of a Chinese Studies library and quickly establishing excellence in Chinese language tuition. In October 1963 he gave his inaugural lecture “From China Looking Outward ”, advocating a new brand of Chinese Studies that takes Chinese perspectives as its point of departure.

“…the student of modern China, even when doing his research and teaching outside of China, should cultivate an intellectual method of seeing China from within, and looking from China outward at the world.”

- Owen Lattimore in his inaugural lecture at the University of Leeds, “From China Looking Outward”

The broadcast of his inaugural lecture on the BBC was a resounding hit. Some members of the American public who had read in right-wing newspapers the unfounded allegations that Lattimore was a Soviet spy wrote to the University expressing alarm that a university of Leeds’ eminence would “subject your undergraduates to the indoctrinations of a man like Lattimore.” But the general response to his appointment was overwhelmingly positive.

Lattimore’s professorship at the University of Leeds was exciting and successful. His department grew to more than fifty undergraduate students, several postgraduate students, two Leverhulme Trust Sino-Soviet fellows, and the recent British Chargé d’Affaires in Mongolia who worked as a research fellow for a year.

Lattimore implemented an innovative two-pronged approach, aiming to train students in both Chinese language and culture, and in a single discipline. This was a departure from the way that Chinese was taught in the more traditional departments, and resulted in the University of Leeds becoming the leading UK institution for the study of modern China. Lattimore’s pragmatic approach, grounded in a deep and personal understanding of the Chinese way of life, produced highly trained graduates who were prepared to interact with China directly.

“He had never been able to go to university, so he had really gained all his knowledge in the University of Life.

- Judith Nordby, lecturer in Mongolian Studies at the University of Leeds and former student of Lattimore

“There is no one on earth who could have the presumption to examine him… Holders of Ph.D’s are available by the hundred; true scholars of the quality of Owen Lattimore are rare indeed.”

- Professor Mary C. Wright (Yale) discussing Lattimore’s lack of formal academic qualifications

Early in his tenure Lattimore was invited to interpret for the Queen when the UK established diplomatic relations with the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1963. In 1965 he finally received his first university degree, an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow; he was also appointed to the Council of the Royal Geographical Society.

Lattimore continued his passion for Mongolian Studies in both research and teaching, travelling to Mongolia and producing a documentary. He laid the groundwork for the establishment of Mongolian Studies at the University, the first programme of its kind in the UK. In 1969 he was given the honour of being appointed the first foreign member of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

In March 1970 Lattimore retired from the University of Leeds to return to Virginia in the U.S. with Eleanor, his wife. Tragically, Eleanor died suddenly on their flight to New York. Lattimore was adrift without her and after a short period in the U.S. he returned to take up a post as a visiting professor at the University of Leeds, before moving on to the University of Cambridge.

Contribution to the University of Leeds and Area Studies

“I do not hesitate to suggest that by exploiting diversity Britain can, with less money, but more thinking, initiate new concepts, new approaches, new methods in international studies and area studies...”

- Owen Lattimore in his lecture Britain’s Opportunity in Asian Studies

In his 1970 public lecture “Britain's Opportunity in Asian Studies”, Lattimore outlined his vision for the future of Asian Studies in Britain, stressing the need for a break from the traditions of the past. Whereas a few years living in an embassy in a foreign country used to be enough to make one expert, Lattimore stressed the need to get inside communities and understand them from a position of equality and mutual respect. This approach is similar to actor-oriented research, which is currently popular in sociology. Lattimore's insistence on a firm grasp of the languages of the countries and regions being studied still influences area studies at the University of Leeds, and is a major reason why the Department has always stressed the mutually-beneficial link between language and discipline-based studies.

It was not just in the field of methodology and its relationship with language study that Lattimore made an impact. The establishment of the Mongolian Studies programme in 1969 resulted in Leeds becoming a hub for Mongolian students and visiting scholars, strengthening the ties between the two countries. Lattimore's work building strong relations between Mongolia and the UK was recognised in 1979 when he was awarded the Order of the Polar Star, the highest honour the Mongolian government awards to foreigners. Indeed, the Mongolian People’s Republic was so impressed with Lattimore's work that the State Museum even named a newly discovered dinosaur after him. Lattimore was often invited back to the University after his retirement to give guest lectures on Mongolia. There is no doubt that Lattimore's boundless enthusiasm and life experience helped to make the department at Leeds a leader in both Chinese and Mongolian Studies. This was formally recognised by the University in 1984 when it awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

“It is extraordinary how different a research project in Area Studies may look if you approach it having in mind only ‘what are we going to do in this country?’ or are ready to ask also, ‘what do the people here want?’ In other words there is a difference between studying people simply in order to tell them what to do and studying them in order to learn what they really want.”

- Owen Lattimore in his lecture “Britain’s Opportunity in Asian Studies”