In 1935, the German sinologist and Divine Word missionary Father Dr. Franz Xaver Biallas (1878-1936) established Monumenta Serica - Journal of Oriental Studies at the Fu-jen Catholic University (in Beijing). The Journal was to provide a unique forum for studies of western scholars living in China and East Asia at that time, thus promoting a deeper understanding of Chinese culture in the West, and to further the exchange of ideas and close cooperation between Chinese and Western academics.
Monumenta Serica featured studies in the language and culture as well as ethnology and prehistory of China and the whole of East Asia. This twofold focus was expressed in the name of the Journal: While the Latin expression "Monumenta Serica" means "Chinese relics" or "Records of Chinese culture", the Chinese name Huayi xuezhi 華裔學志 can be translated as "Scholarly Journal on China and Neighbouring Countries". The later name was chosen by the then-president of Fu-jen University, Chen Yuan (1880-1971).
Fr. Biallas was succeed as editor by the Frs. Dr. Hermann Köster S.V.D. (1904-1978) and Dr. Rudolf Rahmann S.V.D. (1902-1985). With its board scope of scholarly activities, the editorial office of the Monumenta Serica journal soon developed into an Instiute of the same name. The political and social turmoil caused by the civil war between nationalist and communist factions forced the Monumenta Serica editorial staff to leave the Chinese mainland in 1948.
For more than four decades, from 1949 to 1991, Fr. Dr. Heinrich Busch S.V.D. served as editor-in-chief and director of the Institute. During this time the Institute moved from Tokyo (1949-1955) to the Catholic Nanzan University of Nagoya, Japan (1957-1962) and later to the campus of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) before settling down on the S.V.D. campus in Sankt Augustin (near Bonn, Germany) in 1972. There, it is located close to several other scholarly institutions of the Society of the Divine Word: Anthropos Institute, Steyler Missionswissenschaftliches Institut e.V., Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule, and Missionspriesterseminar.
Corresponding to an increasing interest in present-day issues, especially the situation of religions in China the bimonthly bulletin China heute. Informationen über Religionen und Christentum im chinesischen Raum was founded in the Monumenta Serica Institute in 1982. In the course of the publication activities the idea of a China Zentrum to promote contacts with China, especially the Chinese Christian Churches took shape. This was established as a separate institution on the S.V.D. campus in 1988 by members of the German Catholic Missionary Council. The Monumenta Serica Institute and the China Zentrum e.V. closely cooperate, e.g., in organizing conferences, publications and exhibitions.
In 1992, Fr. Prof. Dr. Roman Malek S.V.D. took the helm as director of the Monumenta Serica Institute as well as editor-in-chief of the journal Monumenta Serica and the Monumenta Serica Monograph Series. He served in these positions for nearly twenty years until April 2011, when he was forced to resign due to a stroke. In addition, he served as the first director of the China Zentrum in 1988, a position he held until 1998.
Fr. Malek restored the annual publication rhythm of the journal and edited a general Monumenta Serica Index to Volumes I–XXXV (1935–1983) in 1993. With inexhaustible editorial zeal he extended the publications of the Monumenta Serica Monograph Series and in 2004 founded a second book series called Collectanea Serica designated for a readership with a more general interest in China. All in all, Fr. Malek was responsible for publishing more than seventy titles within the institute’s two monograph series. The current design of both series was also created by him.
In August 2002, Fr. Malek renewed the historical ties between the Monumenta Serica Institute and the Fu Jen Catholic University, Taiwan, when the two organizations established the Monumenta Serica Sinological Research Centre on the Fu Jen campus.
Under Fr. Malek’s aegis a number of international academic conferences took place at the invitation of Monumenta Serica: in 1992 on the German China missionary Johann Adam Schall von Bell S.J., in 1997 on Judaism in China, in 2003 (in cooperation with the University of Salzburg) on the Church of the East (jingjiao) in China and Central Asia, and in 2009 on the Polish China missionaries Michał Boym S.J., Jan Mikołaj Smogulecki S.J., and Andrzej Rudomina S.J. The proceedings of these conferences were all published within the institute’s journal and monograph series.
Fr. Malek was also a scholar of great renown and influence in the fields of Chinese religions and the history of Christianity in China as is testified in his festschrift Rooted in Hope / In der Hoffnung verwurzelt: China – Religion – Christianity / China – Religion – Christentum dedicated to him on the occasion of his 65th birthday in 2016.
From 2011 to 2012 Piotr Adamek took on the responsibility of acting director and editor-in-chief of the Institute. In 2012, Zbigniew Wesołowski was appointed as editor-in-chief while Piotr Adamek continued to serve as director until his transfer to Taiwan in 2019.
Since 2019, Zbigniew Wesołowski also serves as director of the Monumenta Serica Institute.