Professor Walter Simon CBE FBA

Professor Walter Simon, Chinese studies, sinology, China

Around eighty years ago, pre-WWII, distinguished scholar Walter Simon fled Germany and helped by the Academic Assistance Council come to the UK, where he took up a post as a lecturer at the School of Oriental Studies.  His arrival coincided with the new director, Ralph Turner (who served from 1937-57); and one of his colleagues was Evangeline Edwards (who was appointed Professor of Chinese in 1939).

A year or so after Simon joined, the school expanded in 1938 from School of Oriental Studies (SOS) to School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).  It was also entering the turbulence of wartime, and a number of physical upheavals when the university moved first to Cambridge, then in July 1940 to Broadway Court, London, and eventually to its current location.  Over the next three or so decades, Walter Simon was to serve as a lecturer, reader and professor of Chinese, retiring in 1960.

Michael Loewe, in his obituary notice for Professor Walter Simon, who died on 22 February 1981 aged 87, wrote:

‘… he was always a stimulating companion, whose presence was marked by a wholesome sense of humour and fun.’

Loewe recounted that Simon’s early training was in romance and classical philology at the University of Berlin (1911-14), that he had worked as Librarian at Kiel and then Berlin, and studied Chinese language and sinology ‘at the feet of Otto Franke’.  He described the range of his research interests, and publications that included:  Charakteristik des judenspanischen Dialekts von Saloniki (1920); Tibetan par, dpar, spar and cognate words (1962); and  ‘perhaps the most outstanding of his published contributions to bibliography’:  Manchu books in London:  a union catalogue, in collaboration with H G H Nelson (1977).

War then peace were factors in the growing demand for training in Chinese language.  ‘Before his time,’ writes Loewe, ‘British sinology had consisted of the names of a few scholars, and some of the main contributions, such as those of Arthur Waley, had been achieved outside the universities.’ The textbooks and manuals written by Simon or in collaboration with others were vital ‘when opportunities to visit China were rare or non-existent, and when contacts with Chinese individuals were difficult to establish outside the classroom’.

Thanks to his work and example, Chinese studies became a recognised part of undergraduate study in universities.

‘Simon’s active and enthusiastic response, in collaboration with Evangeline Edwards, was to leave a permanent mark on Chinese language teaching.’

Amongst many achievements, Simon is credited with ‘broadening the scope of Chinese studies’ and showing ‘how a place might be found for Chinese civilization in a wide range of disciplines’.  In recognition for these services, Simon was awarded an FBA in 1956, a CBE in 1961 and the Royal Asiatic Gold Medal in 1977.

(Source:  Obituary notice:  Professor Walter Simon CBE FBA, by Michael Loewe, published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland No. 2 (1982) pp 44-47, published by the CUP).

Further information

Michel Hockx:  The role of SOAS in 178 years of Chinese Studies in the UK

Degree programmes in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of China and Inner Asia


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