Members of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute community and the larger Columbia University community have been paying tribute to the late Wm. Theodore de Bary, the John Mitchell Mason Professor Emeritus and Provost Emeritus, who helped pioneer the study of the Asian humanities in the United States and who was a dedicated teacher and mentor to generations of Columbia students. Professor de Bary, who passed away July 14, 2017, received his undergraduate and graduate education at Columbia and taught at the university from 1949 through the spring semester of 2017. In 2014, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama for fostering a global conversation based on the common values and experiences shared by all cultures.
“Ted de Bary was a truly great citizen of Columbia on every level — as an accomplished student, visionary scholar, and respected academic leader,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger. “By bringing classic Chinese and other Asian texts to our undergraduate Core Curriculum he showed how Columbia could build on its unique intellectual tradition by continuing to expand our perspectives on the world. To the last, he was a beloved teacher and friend who remained devoted to his alma mater.”
“The Weatherhead East Asian Institute notes with deep sadness the death of our colleague Wm. Theodore de Bary, who did so much, over a remarkably long and distinguished career, to establish and support the study of East Asia at Columbia University,” said Madeleine Zelin, Acting Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. “We join with friends, colleagues, and students throughout the university, and indeed throughout the world, in mourning the loss of a pioneering figure in Asian studies.”
Donald Keene, Shincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University and Professor de Bary’s longtime friend and colleague, wrote a tribute to de Bary that is available in its entirety here. “I first met Ted de Bary in February, 1942,” he wrote. “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.”
Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History at Columbia University, wrote a tribute to Professor de Bary that is available in its entirety here. “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,” she wrote. “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.”
Jennifer Crewe, Associate Provost and Director of Columbia University Press, wrote a tribute for the Columbia University Press blog. In it, she noted “Ted de Bary’s contributions to Columbia University, Columbia University Press, and America’s understanding of the East are immeasurable. All of Ted’s books mentioned in the recent New York Times obituary, and many more, were published by the Press. His extraordinary idea in the 1950s, to introduce and to teach the Asian humanities to Columbia students, was realized in part when he began to commission translations of key historical, philosophical, and literary source texts from China, Japan, and India.”
Larry Chengliang Hong, a 2017 Columbia College graduate who took one of Professor de Bary’s last courses, wrote a tribute to his professor that is available in its entirety here. “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,” he wrote.