Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies (RIFIAS)

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RIFIAS and Inner Asian Studies


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RIFIAS and Inner Asian Studies

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What is Inner Asia?

Inner Asia, or the interior of the Eurasian landmass, comprises in historical terms the civilizations of Central Asia, Mongolia, and Tibet, together with neighboring areas and peoples that in certain periods formed cultural, political, or ethnolinguistic unities with these regions. In the past the Inner Asian world was dominated by pastoral nomadic communities of the great Eurasian steppe, and its history was shaped by the interaction of these societies with neighboring sedentary civilizations. In the 20th century, the Inner Asian peoples were located within the borders or sphere of influence of either the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China. The breakup of the USSR brought statehood and social transformation to much of the region. Today Inner Asia comprises the five independent Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan; the republic of Mongolia; the Xinjiang Uygur, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet Autonomous Regions of the People's Republic of China; and adjacent parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, and Siberia in the Russian Federation. Areas pertinent to the study of Inner Asia for ethnolinguistic and historical reasons include the Tatar, Bashkir, and Kalmyk Republics in Russia and the Manchu homeland in northeast China.

History of Inner Asian Studies

The history of the study of Inner Asia in the West begins in Central Europe. Starting in the early nineteenth century, Hungarian explorers and scholars ventured into Inner Asia in search of clues to their own national origins. The first, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, began his travels in 1820 and eventually became the founder of Tibetology. The term "Inner Asian studies" (Hungarian belsőázsiai kutatások; German innerasiatische Studien) first appeared in the masthead of the journal Turán (Bulletin of the Hungarian Center for Oriental Culture, published 1913-1944), brainchild of the Hungarian Count Béla Széchenyi, who had led a scientific expedition to the region in 1877-80. In the first three decades of the 20th century, discoveries of Inner Asian antiquities by the Hungarian-born British explorer Marc Aurel Stein made signal contributions to knowledge of Inner Asian civilizations, culminating in Stein's multi-volume report on “Innermost Asia” (1928). In 1940, Louis Ligeti founded and became the first occupant of the Inner Asian Chair at the University of Budapest, the first chair of its kind.

Owen Lattimore, an American, began using “Inner Asian Frontiers of China” as his research rubric in the late 1930s. A decade later, one of Lattimore’s followers, George Taylor, built Asian studies at the University of Washington into a set of programs staffed in part by Orientalists who had recently fled the upheavals and war in Europe. In 1948, two of these scholars, the German Sinologists Hellmut Wilhelm and Franz Michael (a student of Lattimore’s from Johns Hopkins), founded the Inner Asia Project for research and teaching, the first of its kind in the United States. They were soon joined in Seattle by the Russian linguist Nicholas Poppe, who brought expertise in Altaic languages, particularly Mongolian.

Bringing Ligeti's teachings to Indiana in the 1960s, Denis Sinor made similar use of the surge of interest in area studies at American universities to promote awareness and appreciation of Inner Asia as a distinct world area defined by more than its location "beyond" well-known civilizations such as China and Russia. Sinor nurtured a number of lasting programs and institutions that helped to formalize Inner Asian studies in America, including three at Indiana University: the RIFIAS, the Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies (now the Department of Central Eurasian Studies), and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center.

RIFIAS Activities

Major research efforts undertaken by the RIFIAS have included projects that produced the Modern Mongolian-English Dictionary, edited by John G. Hangin; John R. Krueger's Tuvan Manual (both works are published in the Uralic and Altaic Series); and Yuri Bregel's edition and English translation of the 19th-century Khivan chronicle in Chaghatay Turkic, Firdaws al-Iqbal (published by Brill in 1988 [text] and 1999 [translation]).

By far the largest project undertaken through the RIFIAS to date has been the Bibliography of Islamic Central Asia, edited by Yuri Bregel. The project, funded initially by the National Council for Soviet and East European Research, involved the efforts of scholars at Indiana University and at cooperating institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Russia. Parallel with the compilation of the bibliography, the RIFIAS acquired and cataloged a massive collection of microfilms and photocopies of publications and manuscripts, the Central Asian Archives. The three-volume bibliography, published in 1995, comprises over 30,000 entries on the history and civilization of Islamic Central Asia down to 1917, arranged by subject.

In the 1990s, Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellows resided in Bloomington and used the RIFIAS to undertake substantial study of previously unpublished, and in many cases previously unknown, source material on Inner Asia's history and culture. Publications resulting from these projects include The Life of 'Alimqul: A Native Chronicle of Nineteenth Century Central Asia, edited and translated into English by Timur K. Beisembiev (RoutledgeCurzon 2003).

The RIFIAS Library continually acquires and makes available publications and other research materials on Inner Asia, both new and out-of-print. The Library's catalog became available on line in 2003. Currently the RIFIAS is participating in a major project to digitize and post on-line copies of the bulk of its Central Asian Archives holdings, with financial and technical support form the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center and the Digital Library Program. The RIFIAS also organizes conferences, lectures, and other activities connected with Inner Asian studies on an on-going basis.


"Inner Asia" has a range of meanings among different researchers and in different countries. The definition the RIFIAS uses is a product of evolution. Denis Sinor defined Inner Asia broadly (synonymous with Central Eurasia) as the homelands of the Altaic peoples (Mongolian, Turkic, and Manchu-Tungus) and the Uralic peoples (Finno-Ugrian and Samoyed). (He also noted that the Indo-European peoples share the same region of origin and ought to be included as early Inner Asians, strictly speaking.) The RIFIAS, like other institutions, has traditionally held a less broad working definition of Inner Asia. The first paragraph on this page and the titles in the RIFIAS series Papers on Inner Asia give a general idea of our present range of inquiry in Inner Asian studies.

In Russian, "Sredniaia Aziia"  (Central, literally "Middle," Asia) means the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, and Tajikistan, sometimes including Eastern Turkistan (Xinjiang) as well;  Kazakhstan is named separately because of geographical scruples (part of it lies in Europe). Russian "Sredniaia Aziia i Kazakhstan" corresponds to the region commonly called "Central Asia" in English. Russian "Tsentral'naia Aziia" (Inner, literally "Central," Asia) denotes Mongolia and Tibet. Thus, our term "Inner Asia" corresponds to Russian "Sredniaia i Tsentral'naia Aziia" (however, under the influence of Western languages since 1991, Russian "Tsentral'niaia Aziia" is now sometimes used to mean "Central Asia" or "Inner Asia" in general). German makes a distinction between "Zentralasien," meaning Mongolia, Tibet, Eastern Turkistan, and Manchu lands, and "Mittelasien," meaning the republics of Central Asia. The less common term "Innerasien" corresponds to our sense of "Inner Asia." In French, "Asie Centrale" can mean both "Central Asia" and "Inner Asia"; Mongolia and Tibet by themselves are termed "Haute Asie" (High Asia).

The terms meaning "Inner Asia" in the languages of Inner Asian peoples are all modern loan translations of European, mostly Russian, terms.

"Central Asia" normally denotes the western, Islamic part of Inner Asia, but it is sometimes used as a synonym for Inner Asia. The Library of Congress subject classification system is organized in this way, so that readers in academic libraries who are looking for materials on both Inner Asia and Central Asia should search under the subject heading "Asia, Central." One of the leading periodicals in Inner Asian studies is Central Asiatic Journal. Also, books on Inner Asia published in the series Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch der Orientalistik (Leiden: Brill) appear in the section entitled "Uralic and Central Asian Studies."

Other Resources

Besides the RIFIAS and its Library, a number of institutions and organizations promote research on Inner Asia. The American Oriental Society has an Inner Asia section, and the Association for Asian Studies promotes study of the region through its China and Inner Asia area council. The groups listed below offer web resources and, in some cases, publications devoted to Inner Asia:

Program in Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, Harvard University

Central and Inner Asia Seminar, University of Toronto

Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, University of Cambridge

Seminar für Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft Zentralasiens, University of Bonn

Central Eurasian Studies Society

The Mongolia Society

Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, Indiana University

Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University

Indiana University
Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies
Goodbody Hall 344
1011 East 3rd Street
Bloomington IN  47405-7005
phone:  812-855-1605 (office)
812-855-9510 (library)
fax:  812-855-7500
e-mail:  rifias @
Last updated: June 2005
Comments: rifias @
Copyright 2003, The Trustees of Indiana University