A Message from the Director

Welcome to the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, a hub for the study of modern and contemporary East, Southeast, and Inner Asia at Columbia University. Since its founding in 1949, WEAI has been a pioneer in East Asian Studies, expanding research in underexplored areas, fostering a collaborative community of experts from across disciplines, and offering unparalleled insight into one of the world’s most dynamic regions.

From geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, to the rising influence of Southeast Asia’s booming economies, to soft power expressions like K-pop and anime, and to protest movements with international reach––what happens in East Asia has resounding implications across the globe. Particularly now, in the sclerotic post-pandemic world, with fraught US-Sino relations casting a shadow across the entire region, it is imperative that we do not let fear and ignorance fill the space where knowledge should be. Needless to say, our work to understand East, Southeast, and Inner Asia is more important than ever. 

As a scholar of Vietnamese history and US-East Asian relations, with a keen interest in current affairs, I look forward to engaging all corners of the WEAI community. The diverse interdisciplinary focus of our membership makes the Institute uniquely suited to address the complex issues of our times. The Institute was started as a scholarly response to address the lack of knowledge about East Asia during World War II. We are now in a vastly more connected world, but our role is no less critical. As a historian, I recognize the importance of examining old arguments, exploring new angles from which to reconsider established truths. I am excited to see where we head as we engage with the past, present, and future, and connect disciplines and perspectives in an effort to better understand and engage the world today.

Beginning with the Center for Korean Research (est. 1988), and continuing with the Modern Tibetan Studies Program (est. 2000), and the New York Southeast Asia Network (est. 2015), WEAI’s scope has expanded enormously since its founding, and can better address regional growth and gaps in our knowledge. In 2019, my colleague John Phan and I formally launched Vietnamese Studies at Columbia. It has quickly become a core component of WEAI’s programming. Most recently, we organized a two-city conference in Vietnam on the future of Vietnamese Studies, signing a number of MOUs with universities in the country to encourage educational collaboration. On February 8, Chinh Chu, Vietnam War refugee and the founder and director of CC Capital, will share his global business expertise and a firsthand account of the Vietnamese American experience in a major event at Columbia’s Low Library Rotunda.

Vietnamese Studies is a field of in-betweens, not fitting neatly into either East or Southeast Asian Studies, yet drawing from both. As Director, I hope to see more exploration of these in-between spaces as a means of bringing disparate fields together while also giving each area the individual attention it deserves. 

To that end, I am thrilled to announce a few of the initiatives currently underway. In addition to my own work to build upon Vietnamese Studies at Columbia and beyond, I am excited to announce the inauguration of the Japan Research Program. This new energy in our study of Japan is ever more critical now, as the country’s national security policy is rapidly evolving in response to major developments in the global political economy, international politics, and the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor Emeritus of Political Science, has been coaxed out of retirement to lead this Program, which will support research and policy studies relevant to contemporary Japan and US-Japan relations. Stay tuned for announcements on Japan programming and initiatives in the coming months. 

Additionally, we have exciting plans to build on Asia in Action, an initiative which highlights scholarly, professional, and artistic work that does not fit neatly within traditional academia. In particular, we look forward to collaborating with other departments on and off campus to bring awareness to issues in Asian communities beyond Asia, and to working with talented individuals who bring fresh perspectives to the fore. We hope to share more news on this very soon!

This spring semester we have another busy calendar of events. We continue our annual lecture series, cosponsored by the China Center for Social Policy at the School of Social Work, on the theme of “Urbanization, Well-being, and Public Policy: China from Comparative Perspectives.” We are also cosponsoring an event series with the Modern Tibetan Studies Program, “Women in Tibetan Studies,” which features women scholars whose research on Tibet covers history, art, religion, and more. 

As we prepare to celebrate the Institute’s 75th anniversary in 2024, I encourage you to keep an eye out for new initiatives and programs. Thank you for being a part of the WEAI community, and I look forward to seeing you on the 9th floor of the International Affairs Building!

—Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Director, Weatherhead East Asian Institute