In Memoriam: Wm. Theodore de Bary (1919-2017)

Wm. Theodore de Bary, 1919-2017
Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for Columbia College Today.

Wm. Theodore “Ted” de Bary passed away on July 14 at the age of 97. Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and author of some of the most important foundation texts in the field of Asian Studies, de Bary was a longtime member of the AAS and served as President in 1969-70. I asked Columbia professor Carol Gluck if she would write a tribute to de Bary for #AsiaNow; she not only agreed to share her own memories of being his student and colleague, but also enlisted two others who had known de Bary to contribute to the post as well. Below, you’ll find Carol Gluck’s essay, “W. Theodore de Bary, Doctor of Humane Letters,” followed by remembrances by Donald Keene, longtime friend of de Bary’s and Professor Emeritus of Japanese literature at Columbia, and Larry Chengliang Hong, Columbia College class of 2017, a student in de Bary’s final seminar this past spring. Thanks to all three of them for sharing with #AsiaNow readers their thoughtful reflections on the life and career of this great scholar.
—Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, #AsiaNow Editor

W. Theodore de Bary, Doctor of Humane Letters
By Carol Gluck

The death of Ted de Bary has brought his life all the more vividly to mind—a life of extraordinary dedication and accomplishment, as the obituaries and tributes duly noted in their accounts of his scholarship, teaching, and service to the field.  He died on July 14, 2017, a few weeks shy of his 98th  birthday, having published his latest book, The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for a World Community, in 2013, submitting the final grades for his co-taught undergraduate seminar “Nobility and Civility” this past May, and in the midst of contemplating new ways to expand the long list of Asia-related publications and translations that he had overseen for more than half a century. In short, Ted de Bary continued with passion and persistence to the end of his long life the efforts he began as a young instructor at Columbia University in the late 1940s. He worked tirelessly to bring Asian history, culture, and thought—civilization, as he called it—into the undergraduate curriculum and the wider realm of humanistic scholarship and at the same time to foster a “civilized conversation” about meaning and values that spanned the division of East and West. More than a profession, Asian studies was his vocation, one that he pursued with unflagging commitment and integrity.

I am a member of a generation between that of Ted de Bary’s oldest and dearest friend Donald Keene and one of his most recent students Larry Hong, both represented here. For years I have recognized how much I, and so many others, owe to his inspiration and example. It began for me in the classroom in the late 1960s in his year-long graduate lecture courses on Chinese and Japanese thought. I marveled at the way he succeeded in presenting each different thinker or trend, whether Confucian, Buddhist, Shinto, nativist, nationalist, as if from the inside, first inhabiting the texts and contexts in order to understand why the authors saw the world as they did, and only after that to think critically about them. How did he, the living intellectual and moral exemplar of Confucianism—Confucius on the Hudson, we fondly called him—manage to give all the diverse and divergent aspects of East Asian thought such incisive and respectful readings?  This display of what George Eliot called “sympathetic imagination” remained a pedagogical model for many of us for years to come.

As the founder in 1948 of what became Columbia’s Committee on Oriental Studies (later the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East), Ted de Bary practiced the same kind of humanistic empathy in the study of South Asian and Islamic thought, insisting that the canonical texts of Asian tradition, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, be incorporated into the mainstream of undergraduate education. As a product and eloquent supporter of Columbia’s West-based Core Curriculum, he created parallel courses in Asian Humanities, primarily literature and culture, and Asian Civilizations, mostly history and thought. For these courses he began to develop the expansive collections of primary texts known as the Sources, of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese tradition, used by scholars and students around the world. The editorial effort demanded by these team-produced volumes was often herculean, and it lasted for decades. 

During those years, Ted de Bary continued to rally the cause for including Asia in the undergraduate Core Curriculum, holding steadfast against those who thought (as one Columbia dean put it) that the new exchange program with Oxford and Cambridge would usefully expose students to an “exotic civilization.” As a result of de Bary’s efforts, generations of Columbia undergraduates first encountered Asia in classes in Asian Humanities and Civilizations, and were vocally grateful for it at the time and in the decades since. And because Ted de Bary never saw Asia as either exotic or even Other, he always insisted on thinking about Asian and Western ideas in conjunction with one another, which is how “Nobility and Civility” came to be a world-spanning inquiry into social and cultural values and why his last book urged a global intellectual conversation.

In seminars the de Bary teaching style was Socratic, and like Socrates, however adept he may have been at eliciting dialogue, there was no doubt who was master in the room. Yet it never seemed that way. In the 1970s I team-taught an Asian Humanities class with him, a form of co-teaching he had championed from early on. I watched in awe as he brought forth ideas from the students that they didn’t know they had and made them think it was the Asian classics that had inspired them, when in fact it was Ted de Bary. Of course, he knew the texts almost by heart, but it appeared to the class that—thanks to them—he was just discovering what they were about. The prices of the paperbacks we were reading were a sign of the continuity of the great chain of learning he had fostered in Asian studies at Columbia: the students’ copies of the Analects and The Tale of Genji cost $16.95 (now they are $28.00), mine $12.95, and Professor de Bary’s, only $2.50. Purchased unimaginably long ago, close to the age of the sages, I thought.

Ted de Bary was a prodigious scholar whose more than thirty books—where did he find the time?—argued for a revolutionary, even radical moment in Ming Neo-Confucianism, and what he called a liberal tradition in East Asian Confucian thought, with strong commonalities and connections among China, Korea, and Japan. He wrote about education, human rights, leadership, and the relationship between self and society. He devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to service to Columbia, where he had been an undergraduate and graduate student, and was later professor, Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Provost, University Professor, founder of the Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Society of Senior Scholars, the University Lectures, and recipient of an honorary degree for his lifelong contributions.  

He was a founding figure, together with John King Fairbank, Ainslie Embree, John Whitney Hall, Marius Jansen—all former Presidents of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS)—and others, in the academic expansion of the field of Asian studies in the decades after the Second World War. Theirs was a towering generation who established or supported many of the institutions we have come to take for granted, from organizations and publications to fellowships and U.S.-Asian scholarly relationships. I recall testifying before Congress on behalf of the Title IV fellowships sometime around 1970, Professor de Bary having decided to bring two graduate students along as a kind of congressional show-and-tell about the value of the funding. In 2011 AAS established the Wm. Theodore de Bary and Ainslie T. Embree Fund for Education and Outreach in recognition of their contribution as “early champions of the integration of Asian studies into the core curriculum.”

Ted de Bary was a young socialist as a teenager in the 1930s and later held to liberal values of the good society, rejecting both radicalism on the left and reactionary conservativism on the right. His 1970 AAS Presidential speech, delivered in the wake of the 1968 university risings, was entitled “Nonpolitical but not Unconcerned,” alluding to the protests of the Concerned Asian Scholars while asserting that keeping the AAS open to all points of view did not mean “moral neutrality,” which by his lights would violate the principles of “responsive and responsible scholarship.” Recognized over the years for just this kind of scholarship, Ted de Bary received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2013, the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government in 1993, and the Tang Prize for Sinology in 2016. The citation for the National Humanities Medal commended his fostering of a global conversation, helping to bridge differences and build trust—no small achievement for a scholar of Chinese Confucianism.

All these things that Ted de Bary accomplished deserve praise and celebration, but so too does the way he conducted every part of his life. His family stood always at the heart of it, his wife and four children and their families. He never accepted any honor or even an after-dinner toast without thanking his wife Fanny for making everything possible, which was generous but also accurate. He supported his students with enduring warmth and attention, and it should be said, he supported the women in his life—his wife, daughters, colleagues, and students—with a natural generosity of spirit that, at least in the academy, was in those days (my days) a rarity indeed.  He grew vegetables, abided by his faith, cared for his family, maintained friendships, nurtured students, worried about the world, and followed his vocation all with the same devotion to human values, openness to learning, and moral action. Ted de Bary was a Doctor of Humane Living as well as a Doctor of Humane Letters in the truest sense of those words.

“Always In the Highest Level”
By Donald Keene

I first met Ted de Bary in February, 1942. The place was a building of the University of California where some thirty young men were waiting to be invited into the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School. I thought at first that I knew no one in the group, but I suddenly noticed that Ted was among them. I knew him slightly because classmates had pointed him out and told me he was the outstanding student in the college; but I had never had the courage to speak to him. This time, I found the bravery to tell him that I too was from Columbia. This unexciting statement would gradually grow into seventy-five years of unbroken friendship.

The school had been started by the Navy before the outbreak of war with Japan. The students then were mainly sons of missionaries and others who knew Japanese, but their number was limited; it would be necessary to teach people with little or no Japanese to write, read, and speak Japanese in a very short amount of time and make them into translators and interpreters. It was generally believed that Japanese could not be learned outside Japan, and for this reason the Navy had searched for students who had displayed ability in learning foreign languages. They were told that if they graduated from the language school they would receive the rank of officers. Some men were eager to learn Japanese, but others hoped chiefly to become navy officers rather than army privates.

Ted, who had been greatly interested in Asia from undergraduate days, was an ideal candidate for the Japanese school and was at once accepted. The teachers were mainly Nisei who soon became our friends, making the many hours of study enjoyable. However, there were tests every week and students who failed to meet the goals of the school were likely to be discharged. Ted, of course, was always in the highest level. 

After graduation in eleven months (instead of the eighteen originally planned) Ted and I received commissions and were sent to Hawaii. We worked in different offices, but lived in the same Honolulu house with other language officers. At times we were sent to places where the fighting was. Ted was transferred to Kiska in the northern Pacific and later to the battlefield in Okinawa.    

After the war ended Ted first spent some time in Japan, but was asked to remain in the Navy for work in Washington. His rank was raised and he might have reached a very high rank, but after several months he decided to return to the study of Asia at Columbia. The Japanese language that he learned in the Navy school, along with the translations he made of Japanese texts and even the conversations with Japanese prisoners, were of immense value to him even as he turned to the study of philosophy.  

I studied mainly Japanese traditional literature. People sometimes were surprised that people with such different interests were such close friends, but it was important that we studied under the same teacher. Our teacher was Tsunoda Ryūsaku, a Japanese scholar who, opposing the military dictators in Japan, had remained at Columbia throughout the war. Ted had the greatest admiration for Tsunoda and learned much from him. Ted’s first book, a translation of Saikaku’s novel Kōshoku ichidai onna (Five Women Who Loved Love) was based on his work in Tsunoda’s classes. It is a marvelous translation that has not been superseded by a new version.   

Tsunoda’s lectures were often devoted to the Confucian thinkers of the Tokugawa period, who may have been his subject in 1948, the year that Ted took the course. If so, this would have aroused greater interest in Confucianism than in any previous course he had attended. His decision to go to Beijing in 1949, the following year, was to study Confucian thought. It was not, however, a good time for study in China. There was fighting between the Communists and the Nationalists, and Ted was among the Americans who made their way out of Beijing when the Communists surrounded the city.   

He returned to Columbia where he was made a junior professor, soon becoming a professor and later the head of the Department of Chinese and Japanese. Under his guidance a new Korean section helped the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures to become one of the best in America.

The headline of the New York Times obituary on July 17, 2017 read, “Wm. Theodore de Bary, Renowned Columbia Sinologist,” followed by the statement that he was a “distinguished scholar of China.” I find it impossible to question Professor de Bary’s scholarship on China, but I believe that was it only half his work. His writing included all of Asia, most notably Japan. “Sinologist” does not do justice to his range and depth.

His death is a great loss to me and to the field of Asian studies.

An Ambassador of Ideas”
By Larry Chengliang Hong

I happened to be in New York last summer, when Professor [Rachel] Chung kindly asked if I would be interested in helping out with a documentary project about Professor de Bary. Little did I know that Professor de Bary would later become not only an essential part of my Columbia life, but also a towering inspiration for me. Professor de Bary’s project—dédiabolisation of China, bridging the gap between the “East” and the “West,” and educating the next generation of students about the overarching importance of classics (broadly defined)—would become my project. This is the kind of transformative effect Professor de Bary had on people, and having had the privilege of meeting Professor de Bary’s family and other students, many of whom went on to become distinguished educators in their own right, I know that I am not an isolated case.

Central to Professor de Bary’s lifelong vision, if I might be so bold, is that all great civilizations—and Chinese civilization certainly counts as one of them—need to be understood on an equal footing and in their own terms; this vision, however, does not automatically translate to the apocalyptic “clash of civilization” thesis. Rather, through careful and context-specific study of classics from each civilization, one develops a more refined sensibility that is attuned to the multiplicity of global demands, enabling mutual exchanges across different cultures to enrich, rather than ossify, human thought. In line with such an “intercultural” vision, Professor de Bary devoted his whole life to being an ambassador of ideas, traversing cultural boundaries and correcting prejudiced lenses through his tireless teaching and prolific scholarship.

I was privileged to have been among the last students of Professor de Bary’s famous “Nobility and Civility” class, an inter-departmental course founded and co-taught by Professor de Bary that in recent years has become a fixture of the more revolutionary wing of the Columbia curriculum. At the high age of 97, our professor still came to class every Wednesday, suited up as he had since his college days, fully attentive to the comments of every student. He had become quite reticent in what we now know to be his last year of teaching, which is a pity, but in the one time he let his thoughts roam during the semester, it was patently clear to everyone in the room that our professor had not lost one bit of his sharpness. From the professors who have co-taught that class with him, I learned that at his prime, Professor de Bary’s teaching style was like that of the Confucian sage—invitational, adaptive, somewhat cryptic but always thought-provoking.

With the passing of Professor de Bary, the world has become a lesser place. His intercultural vision lives on, though, as his many generations of students (myself included) will hasten to attest to. 

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday