The Centre of Oriental Studies is the major institution of Asian studies in Lithuania as well as an academic core unit of Vilnius University. The Centre focuses its studies on the regions of Asia and Near East and serves a link among the Lithuanian researchers of the East. The objective of the Centre is to prepare specialists in the field of Asian studies needed for scientific research, the development of cultural and business relations as well as to promote better understanding of the Eastern cultures in Lithuania, and to foster the collaboration between the East and the West.
The present Centre of Oriental Studies has functioned since 1993. Its foundation date, however, goes back to the early 19th century, when Vilnius University was the heart of the studies of Oriental languages in Lithuania. Thanks to the activities of non-formal student societies of Filaretai, Filomatai, Shubravcai a romantic fascination with the East frequently developed into serious scientific research.
The Department of the Eastern Languages was founded as early as 1810; however, there was no one who could take over the Head's position. In 1822, famous Vilnius intellectual, a University adjunct Kazimir Kontrimas handed a memorandum to the Educational curator (governor) of Vilnius District on the establishment of the Institute of the Oriental Languages at the University of Vilnius. The Institute had as its goal teaching of Mongol, Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian. Moreover, to promote learning of Bengalese, Sinhalese, Sanskrit, and other languages Kontrimas sought to send students for training to India and Ceylon.
It was a particularly notable endeavour for Departments of Oriental Studies at other European Universities of the period were still at the stage of inception. On the turn of the 19th century various Western European Countries had started a scientific study of the Orient. To promote a more authentic understanding of the East in the West they published translations of seminal works in reigion, philosophy, and poetry by Arabic, Persian, Indian and other oriental writers.
Had Kontrimas' idea of the Institute of the Eastern Studies been accepted, Vilnius University would have been among the first European institutions to study the Orient and would currently have a rich research tradition. However, for unknown reasons the project was not accepted and talented University's students were forced to scatter around the world.
Only in 1822 was the Arabic Language incorporated into curricula, to be followed by Persian four years later. However, this was a short-lived achievement interrupted by the closure of Vilnius University. Nevertheless, several University's alumni became specialists of world significance: Joseph Kovalevski pioneered Mongol studies at Kazan University, Russia, and later became its Rector; while famous specialist in Arabic studies J. Senkovski headed the Department of Arabic and Turkish at St. Petersburg University.
During the independence period between WW I and WW II Oriental studies in Lithuania did not get duly attention and support and survived thanks to a few devoted scholars. One of them, Egyptologist Marija Rudzinskaitė-Arcimavičienė (1885-1941) taught at the Faculty of Humanities at Lithuanian University and accumulated a rich collection of Egyptian art at Kaunas Museum. Famous travelers A. Poška and M. Šalčius contributed to spreading the name of Lithuania while visiting and collecting anthropological material in a number of Asian countries. Philosopher S. Šalkauskis researched the revival of Lithuanian national culture in terms of the synthesis of the ideas on the cultural values between the East and the West. The results of his research found their application in the works by well-known painter and composer M. K. Čiurlionis, poet J. Baltrušaitis, and writers V. Storosta-Vidūnas and V. Krėvė.
In the period between the World Wars Vilnius University under the name of Stephan Batory University resumed Oriental studies and shared its facilities with such Polish scholars as famous Japonologist Bronislaw Pilsudski.
In the Soviet times and under the control of Moscow's authorities Lithuanian schools of higher education were not able to set up academic institutions of Oriental studies. Their only way out was to send students to study at Russian Universities. It was not until after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990 that the new wave of interest in Oriental studies spread over the country. The Centre of Oriental Studies was founded in Vilnius in 1993 setting as its major goal promotion and learning of oriental languages, culture and history. The Centre received generous support from social partners as well as state institutions, such as Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Defence, State Department of Migration, State Department of National Minorities and Cultural Communities, State Department of Tourism, and The Red Cross. As a result of this support, the academic year 2000 added to its curriculum the Bachelor of Arts Program of Comparative Asian Studies. Since then the Program has given rise to specialists in Arabic / Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian studies. In 2006 a new BA degree studies program in Iranian Studies was started and since year 2008 a new Turkology Studies program is administrated.
The Program aims to prepare qualified specialists with a broad spectrum of academic knowldege in the field of Humanities. Among its educational objectives are analysis and research of cultural evolution in the major geographical regions of Asia, intercultural communication, and prospects of collaboration with Asian countries.
Given the current lack of specialists in the area the significance of the Centre cannot be overestimated. As is known, language barrier and unawareness of the peculiarities of the foreign culture are the most common obstacles in business and tourism. Moreover, thorough knowledge of Oriental culture is essential in dealing with Asian refugees who choose Lithuania as their transfer point as well as coping with the concentration of Asian cultural and religious communities in big cities. For this reason, the students of the Centre of Oriental Studies enjoy great opportunities to promote collaboration between Lithuania and Asian countries in all spheres of life and to adequately assess swift changes in the life of Asian regions in view of the global events.
The Comparative Asian Studies program in the Humanities subdivision aims at providing its students with fundamental knowledge of the selected region and its characteristic featues, teaching its spoken language, investigating the peculiarity of the region's problems and developing analytical approach to the subject. To help students improve their knowledge and have an opportunity to get training in the region of their selected language, the Oriental Centre is actively involved in international programs of studies abroad.
From 2006 a new postgraduate "Contemporary Asian Studies" program (MA) is implemented at the Centre. Besides, the Centre works toward incorporating Iranian, Tibetian, Korean, and Mongol studies into its curriculum. In 2002, the Oriental Centre set up the Eastern Languages School which since then has invited everybody willing to study Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Sanskrit, Turkish, and Korean languages. As part of its activities, the Oriental Centre also offers wider public lectures given by famous visiting scholars from Lithuania and abroad.
The centre enjoys lively research of six research groups and issues an annual scholarly journal Acta Orientalia Vilnensia. The Centre also organizes annual international scientific conferences of the series Asian Studies: Problems and Research and conducts translations of classical Asian texts. Supported by foreign libraries and the representation offices of Asian countries, the Centre possesses the richest collection of oriental sources in Lithuania, provides advice services to state institutions, fosters academic relations with European, American, and Asian colleagues, and actively participates in international research projects.