In Memoriam: Lyman P. Van Slyke

Photo of Lyman P. Van Slyke standing at a podium against a black wall.
Lyman P. Van Slyke accepting the 2016 AAS Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies award in Seattle, Washington.

Lyman P. Van Slyke—known as “Van” to his friends and colleagues— grew up in a small mining town in northern Minnesota and graduated from Carleton College in 1950. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned as a naval air intelligence officer on the aircraft carrier Valley Forge during the Korean War. When his ship was not engaged in combat missions, he visited Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. This exposure led him to pursue Asian Studies, and he entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley in 1955. His advisor Joseph Levenson grounded him in rigorous research and collegial debate, and he gained a mastery of Chinese language, including two years of study in Taiwan.

With this Ph.D. in hand, Van Slyke joined Stanford University’s faculty in 1963. His arrival coincided with the founding of the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies (IUP) in Taipei, a consortium known as the Stanford Center, which became the pre-eminent program for intermediate to advanced training for American graduate students. He served as the IUP’s executive secretary for more than three decades, and was instrumental in raising funds for the IUP’s relocation from National Taiwan University to Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1997.

Van Slyke’s research focused on Republican China as well as United States-China relations in the twentieth century. His first book, Enemies and Friends: The United Front in Chinese Communist History (Stanford, 1967), delved into the importance of flexible political alliances during Mao’s quest for power. He showed how winning over friends and neutralizing enemies evolved from “tactic to strategy to ideology.” John Fairbank praised the book for its clarity and sophistication and its advancement of study of the Chinese Communist Party.

History mattered for Van Slyke because he believed it held lessons for the present. In the late 1960s when Americans were calling for a reevaluation of U.S. policy opposing diplomatic recognition of the PRC, he edited and wrote new introductions for reprints of two essential U.S. Government documents from the 1940s: The Chinese Communist Movement, a War Department report issued in 1945, and The China White Paper, the State Department’s seminal 1949 history of U.S. relations with China, helping to sweep away historical distortions of anti-communist ideologues.

Tobie Meyer-Fong, Terry Lautz, Lyman P. Van Slyke, and Roger Thompson at the AAS 2016 Annual Conference in Seattle, Washington. Photo courtesy of Terry Lautz.

Together with Harold Kahn, his longtime Stanford colleague who was a specialist in traditional Chinese history, they mentored generations of students who went on to distinguished academic careers at colleges and universities across the United States and in Asia.

Van Slyke’s undergraduate survey courses on modern China and U.S.-China relations were among the most popular classes at Stanford. Serving as the first director of Stanford’s interdisciplinary East Asian Studies MA program, he recognized the need for substantive knowledge of China, Japan, and other areas of Asia in professions beyond academia. A number of his students would take up leadership roles in government, education, journalism, nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, and business.

Van Slyke regularly spoke to civic groups, service clubs and adult learning forums, and led thirty-five Stanford Alumni Association study tours to China. He reached wider audiences with the publication of Yangtze in 1988.  The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Reading Yangtze: Nature, History and the River, indeed, is rather like taking a real river journey in the company of an expert and literate guide.”

A modern-day Confucian generalist, he combined knowledge of a vast array of things Chinese to bring its culture and history to life. He embraced the opportunities presented to him to become a leading scholar of twentieth-century China, a builder of critical infrastructure for Chinese language training, and the mentor of a cadre of well-prepared acolytes.

His contribution was not a new school of thought, but of women and men dedicated to the same human-kindness (仁 ren), intellectual inquisitiveness, and collegial examination of issues that produces friendships as well as professional and intellectual advances. He received the AAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies in 2016 for his impact on generations of scholars, both in the U.S. and in Asia, and for his work to increase public understanding of China.

Van Slyke’s modesty was evident in his response to the AAS award. He noted that his students had become valued colleagues, peers, and friends—esteemed mentors in their own right. He went on to refer to the Chinese idiom Qing chu yu lan 青出於藍—literally “deeper blue than the indigo plant from which it comes.” He explained it has “the understood meaning of students who surpass their teachers.”  And this, he said, “is as it should be—students SHOULD surpass their teachers.”

Lyman Van Slyke’s legacy is people who forged new paths in studying, educating, and engaging with China. What greater achievement can there be than pupils who magnify the brilliance of their sage?

— Submitted by Michael Ipson and Terry Lautz