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Bernhard Karlgren (15 October 1889, J√∂nk√∂ping - 20 October 1978) was a Swedish sinologist, philologist, and the founder of Swedish sinology as a scholarly discipline. His full name was Klas Bernhard Johannes Karlgren, and he adopted the Chinese name "Gao Ben Han" simplified Chinese: ťęėśú¨śĪČtraditional Chinese: ťęėśú¨śľĘpinyin: GńĀo Bńõnh√†n).


Education and first journey to China

Karlgren published his first scholarly article at the age of 16 on the dialect of the province of Dalarna. Later he studied at Uppsala University from 1907-1909, where he majored in Russian under Professor J. A. Lundell, a Slavicist interested in comparative phonology, and decided that he wanted to apply the methods of comparative historical phonology to Chinese, which had not yet been so studied. Since Chinese was not yet taught in Sweden, Karlgren went to St. Petersburg, where he studied Chinese with Professor A. I. Ivanoff for two months. In 1910-1912, Karlgren lived in China, where he studied Chinese and prepared phonological descriptions of 24 distinct dialects.

Career as sinologist

Karlgren returned to Europe in January 1912, first staying in London, then in Paris, before arriving in Uppsala, where he produced his doctoral dissertation in 1915. (Although his dissertation was written in French, most of his subsequent scholarly works were in English.)

In 1939, Karlgren succeeded the founding director Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874-1960) as director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (√Ėstasiatiska Museet), a post he held until 1959. This public museum was founded in 1926 on Andersson's pioneering discoveries of prehistoric archaeology made in China in the 1920s, and later expanded to cover later periods as well as other parts of Asia. Karlgren had been in close contact with Andersson for many years, and also succeeded Andersson as editor of the museum's journal, the Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (BMFEA, 1929-) and continued in this position until the 1970s. Karlgren himself first published many of his own major works in this annual journal, or as books in the monograph series of the museum.

In 1946, Karlgren began a far-reaching attack on the then rather loosely argued historiography of ancient China. Reviewing the literature on China's pre-Han history in his article Legends and Cults in Ancient China, he pointed out that "a common feature to most of these treatises is a curious lack of critical method in the handling of the material". In particular, Karlgren criticised the unselective use of documents from different ages when reconstructing China's ancient history. "In this way very full and detailed accounts have been arrived at‚ÄĒbut accounts that are indeed caricatures of scientifically established ones."


Karlgren was the first scholar to use European-style principles of historical linguistics to study the Chinese language. He was also the first one to reconstruct the sounds of what is now called Middle Chinese and Old Chinese (what he called "Ancient Chinese" and "Archaic Chinese" respectively). Karlgren suggested that at the very earliest stage recoverable, the personal pronouns were declined for case.

Indeed, Karlgren attempted to unearth Chinese history itself from its linguistic development and diffusion. As he writes in his English adaptation Sound and Symbol in Chinese (1923), Chapter I: "Thus, though Chinese traditions give no hint whatever of an immigration from any foreign country, and though there consequently is no external chronological point d'appui, we are nonetheless able to state, from internal evidence, that the Chinese tradition which places the reign of the emperor Yao in the twenty-fourth century B.C. is correct; that the Chinese even in those remote times were skilled astronomers; that they put down in writing in the Chinese language records of memorable events, and in all probability wrote their accounts soon after the events; in short, that a well-developed Chinese civilization‚ÄĒresting undoubtedly on foundations many centuries old‚ÄĒtogether with the Chinese language, existed on Chinese soil two thousand years before Christ."

Although important as pioneer efforts in historical Chinese linguistics, Karlgren's original findings have been moved beyond. Today the phonological systems proposed by Karlgren have largely been superseded, as their weaknesses are obvious: "Karlgren saw himself as reconstructing phonetics, not phonology, and paid little attention to phonological structure. As a result, the systems he reconstructed often lack the symmetry and pattern which are in the phonological systems of natural languages."[1] Nevertheless, Karlgren's groundbreaking works laid the foundation of modern Chinese historical linguistics and many of his works are still used as valuable works of reference.[2]

Selected works

  • √Čtudes sur la phonologie chinoise. 1915-1926.
  • Ordet och Pennan i Mittens Rike, 1918, adapted as Sound and Symbol in Chinese, Oxford, 1923. Reprinted 2007: Toronto: Global Language Press, ISBN 978-0-9738-9240-6.
  • Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese 1923.
  • "The Authenticity of Ancient Chinese Texts", Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1929.
  • "The Early History of the Chou Li and Tso Chuan Texts", Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1931.
  • "Word Families in Chinese", Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1933.
  • "New Studies on Chinese Bronzes", Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1937.
  • "Grammata Serica, Script and Phonetics in Chinese and Sino-Japanese", The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1940.
  • "Huai and Han", The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1941.
  • "Glosses on the Kuo Feng Odes", The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1942.
  • "Glosses on the Siao Ya Odes", The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1944.
  • "Glosses on the Ta Ya and Sung Odes", The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1946.
  • "Legends and Cults in Ancient China", The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1946.
  • "The Book of Documents", The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1950.
  • "Compendium of Phonetics in Ancient and Archaic Chinese", The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1954.
  • Grammata Serica Recensa. 1957

In Swedish he published numerous popular works on Chinese language, culture and history. In the 1940s, he published three novels under the pen name Klas Gullman.


  1. ^ William H. Baxter, A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1992, pp. 3-4.
  2. ^ Lothar von Falkenhausen. Review of Göran Malmqvist, "Bernhard Karlgren: Ett forskarporträtt". China Review International 8, no. 1 (2001): 15-33.

Further reading

  • G√∂ran Malmqvist, Bernhard Karlgren: ett forskarportr√§tt [Bernhard Karlgren: Portrait of a Scholar], Stockholm: Norstedts. 1995. A biography of Karlgren with bibliography of his work.
  • Hans Bielenstein, "Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978)", Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 99, No. 3. (Jul. - Sep., 1979), p. 553. A brief obituary. Available through JSTOR.


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