History of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong

The Hong Kong branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was founded in 1847, but ceased to exist at the end of 1859. Exactly a century later, on December 28, 1959, it was resurrected with the approval of the parent society in London - the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. The parent society was founded in 1823 by eminent Sanskrit scholar, Sir Henry Colebrooke and a group of likeminded individuals, and received its Royal Charter from King George IV in 1824 ‘for the investigation of subjects connected with and for the encouragement of science, literature and the arts in relation to Asia.’ Branches were formed in Bombay and Madras in about 1838 and in Ceylon in 1845. The Hong Kong branch followed in 1847, the North China branch in Shanghai in 1857, the Japanese branch in 1875, the Malayan branch in 1878 and the Korean branch in 1900.

The Hong Kong branch grew out of a Medico-Chirurgical Society founded in 1845. This Society, however, in accord with the contemporary spirit of enquiry and enthusiasm for better knowledge of Asia in general and China in particular, had contemplated setting up a Philosophical Society. The movement ended in the establishment of the Asiatic Society with laws drafted by Andrew Shortrede, Editor of the "China Mail", and based upon those of the Royal Asiatic Society. Sir John F. Davis, the Governor, by reason of his known literary and scientific achievements rather than his official rank, was asked to be President. He suggested that the Society should seek to be admitted as a Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society with which, as a founder member, he was in close touch and with whose active President, the Earl of Auckland, he had discussions on these lines before he left England. So, in January 1847, the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was founded, and all the members of the Medico-Chirurgical Society who wished to join were admitted without ballot or entrance fee on condition of their Society's apparatus and books being handed over to the new body. Besides the Governor and Shortrede, the first office-bearers included Major-General D'Aguilar; the Colonial Surgeon, Peter Young; the Colonial Treasurer, William Mercer; John Charles Bowring (of Jardines, eldest son of Sir John Bowring); and Thomas Wade, the celebrated interpreter and envoy to China, who later became famous as inventor of the Wade system for Romanization of Chinese. (As Sir Thomas Wade, he was to become the President of the Society in London in 1887.)

In his inaugural address as President of the new Hong Kong branch, Sir John Davis stressed the importance of directing the Society's attention to practical projects and to natural history, geology and botany, as well as to literary pursuits. Sir John suggested that he could persuade the Colonial Office to sanction the grant of a moderate piece of ground for a Botanical Garden. Sir John left the Colony in 1848 but, as the result of a stirring appeal by the missionary Rev. C. Gutzlaff at a meeting of the Society in August 1848, the project was approved, although it was not carried into effect until the governorship of Sir John Bowring (1854-1859). The garden was, however, placed under government control and not that of the Society, and remains to this day as a public oasis above Government House.

During the 12 years of its 'first' life, the Society was dogged to some extent by the personal animosities prevalent in Hong Kong in the early days, but it flourished under the inspiration of Sir John Davis, and also under Sir John Bowring, who enjoyed a considerable reputation in Europe as a scholar. As the Society's President he preferred to be called Dr. Bowring rather than by his official title, and the Society was animated through his personal influence and by his contributions to its discussions. The Society had no permanent home of its own, but in 1849, it was granted, by Sir S. G. Bonham, a room in the Supreme Court building. It published six volumes of Transactions, the first in 1847 and the last in 1859. The Hong Kong branch possesses a microfilm of these six volumes. With the death in September, 1858 of the branch's devoted Secretary, Colonial Surgeon, Dr W.A. Harland, followed by the departure of Sir John Bowring in May 1859, the Society collapsed. The efforts of Dr. James Legge, as well as those of the new Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, the Vice-Presidents and other prominent and influential people were of no avail.

The collapse of the Society came at an unfortunate time and deprived it of the prestige and momentum which it would undoubtedly have gained from the work of some of its famous members. Legge was on the eve of publishing his famous translation of Chinese classics, which eventually appeared only through the generosity of Joseph Jardine (and his successor Sir Robert Jardine) and of John Dent, the heads of the two largest merchant houses of the Colony. A little later, in 1865, T. W. Kingsmill had to resort to the aid of the Shanghai branch for the publication of his studies on the geology of Hong Kong.


The Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong was resuscitated as the outcome of a meeting attended by some 30 interested persons, held at the British Council Centre, on December 28, 1959. The meeting adopted a constitution approved by the parent Society in London, and formed an interim Council to hold office until a General Meeting should be held. The Inaugural Meeting was held on April 7, 1960, in the Loke Yew Hall of the University of Hong Kong. The Inaugural Address, "The Study of Asia: A Heritage and a Task", was delivered by Professor F. S. Drake, Professor of Chinese at the University. On January 23, 1961, Sir Robert Black presided over a meeting of the branch in his capacity as Patron, and thus restored a tradition after a lapse of a hundred years.


The circular dragon emblem has been used by the Society since the early 1960s and is based on a traditional Chinese paper-cut taken from Chinese Folk Design by W.M. Hawley (Hollywood, 1943).