Prof Juha Janhunen’s office is just as a Asian scholar’s office could only be. On the table there is a porcelain tea set, on the wall hangs a large map of Asia, and the covers of his books are adorned with the languages of the East.
One can also see the room as a rare bastion of the scholarly tradition. The University of Helsinki is the world’s summit of Altaic studies, Prof Janhunen claims. Asia’s economic growth has enhanced academic interest in areal studies. Business is chasing after researchers in Chinese studies.
What about the lesser known East Asian languages and cultures, which are Janhunen’s own focus? What insights, observations and questions might arise in journeying from Anatolia to the Altay Mountains? What does that immense patchwork of cultures encompass?
The west of the Altaic map stretches to Turkey, while the east extends to the borders of China. In the north it goes beyond Mongolia and Siberia, and the south includes Afghanistan and Tibet.
‘Many people might think this region marginal, but in terms of world history it has been very significant,’ Janhunen says.
Central Asia has always been a crossroads in terms of its flow of peoples, cultures and superpower politics. Across the region ran the fabled Silk Road, which united the Mediterranean and China. Nowadays the region is of interest for its oil production.
Mannerheim on horseback
On the wall of Prof Janhunen’s office is an old black and white photograph which bears witness to the tradition of Asian areal studies in Finland. In the photo is a man on a great research journey, the linguist G. J. Ramstedt, for whom the University of Helsinki founded the Chair of Altaic Studies in 1917 — perhaps the first such professorship in the whole world.
‘I could make a good argument that the roots of Altaic studies are in Finland. The term Altaic studies was first used by the Finnish linguist and ethnographer M. A. Castrén in the 1840s,’ Janhunen explains.
Originally Russia supported the tradition of Asian studies in Finland. The Academy in St. Petersburg funded among other things the Finnish research journeys into Asia. That is how the University of Helsinki has built up a vast library for Altaic studies and collected abundant ethnographic material. The most famous collection is the research data gathered by Marshal Mannerheim during his Asian journey at the beginning of the last century.
Endangered and incendiary
The concept of Altaic studies has changed since the days of the trailblazer G. J. Ramstedt. His belief that these languages are genetically related is no longer tenable. According to the prevailing view, the structural similarities of these languages are due to long reciprocal interaction. This language group consists of a good 60 Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic languages. Japanese and Korean are also counted among this group.
Prof Janhunen himself trained as a linguist first in Finno-Ugrian studies. He defended his doctoral thesis on speakers of the Samoyed languages in Siberia, related to Finnish.
‘From the beginning of my studies I participated in every course offered on East Asian languages. Then it was possible to study Japanese, Chinese and Korea at the University of Helsinki.
‘I was lucky to become a departmental assistant right after graduation. Ever since then I have been working at the university.’
Janhunen has made his name researching the endangered languages of Siberia and the ancient distribution of languages of Eurasia.
‘It is often believed that migrations are a matter of incoming peoples who drive the earlier inhabitants into exile. In fact these upheavals generally hapen through language shifts. People stay at their same residence, but they change their language.’
In addition to his home university, Janhunen has studied and done research in Japan, Hungary and Russia. Nowadays his work focuses not just on Siberia, but also Mongolia, Tibet and Mongolia. At the moment the most important of these projects is on a politically sensitive region, the borders of China and Tibet. The University of Helsinki’s Amdo Qinghai project seeks to detail the shifts in the border provinces’ populations, languages and cultures in a changing China.
A nice small space
According to Janhunen, the continuing value of this research tradition is not always understood in contemporary society. People believe that first-rate research generates a fat wad of cash.
‘The research tradition grows slowly from teacher-student relationships, the turning over of generations and the gradual accumulation of data.’
Janhunen also maintains an international division of labour. Universities ought to focus on fields that are already strong.
‘Altaic studies is a small and exclusive field. But the tradition has been continuous, and that this the important thing. For example, my teachers Aulis J. Joki and Pentti Aalto were once students of Ramstedt.’
Interest in Altaic studies is growing in the world. For example, a few years back Janhunen joined in founding a society for Altaic studies in China.
From the peoples and cultures of Central Asia rises a colourful brilliance, in which history and religions are tightly bound to present-day problems. Ethnicity is an excellent detonantor of political problems.
The fall of the Soviet Union gave birth to several new states in Central Asia, and in these new states questions of nationality and language are a sensitive affair. If the official truth is strong, even research can be tainted by politics. Knowledge which touches on the past can change the politically central definitions of peoples.
‘The uniformity of a nation necessitates that a nation has always been in the same place. But the countries of the world are much younger than languages, and countries have not necessarily ever had a connection originally to language borders.’