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  • Wm. Theodore de BaryAugust 9, 1919–July 14, 2017
  • Peter K. Bol

Wm. T. de Bary passed away in 2017 in his ninety-eighth year. He was one of the several academic leaders of the post-World War II generation who worked to establish East Asian studies in the United States and in particular the East Asian humanities. Through his own scholarship, his collaboration with Wing-tsit Chan, and his advising of graduate students he largely made the field of Neo-Confucian studies. He was also a truly dedicated teacher in the "great books" tradition and continued to teach at Columbia into his final year. There is a story, which I believe, that a university sought to entice him away from Columbia with an offer it thought too good to be refused: he would not be required to teach. That was the end of it for Ted; he would not serve at such a university. I am not sure if there was an order of precedence, but these were the three things Ted as a scholar cared the most about: Chinese thought, teaching, and Columbia.

Ted orchestrated the contributions that made possible the Sources series for China, Japan and India. The late Irene Bloom co-edited the greatly expanded second edition of Sources of Chinese Tradition. Sources was, I think, his effort to create an equivalent for China of "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West," the survey of political, moral, religious and philosophical thought that was one of two enduring core courses at Columbia. Yet Columbia students also had to take the other one, "Literature Humanities," a survey of Western literary and aesthetic traditions. As far as I can tell, that side of China's past did not interest Ted, perhaps because it was too culturally specific. Certainly the division between the intellectual and the literary was not of his making, yet perhaps it helps explain what drew him to the study of Neo-Confucians, who were so clearly on the intellectual side of things and who saw rather little value in the literary. Anthologies that capture the tensions and interplay between the intellectual and the literary in China's past still await.

Ted was not an historian, as he occasionally would remind those who were. The series of books he wrote on Neo-Confucianism, beginning with Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-And-Heart (Columbia [End Page v] University Press, 1981), were historical in that they dealt with thinkers in the past; and yet he was right in suspecting that they would disappoint historians. I am not sure he thought all that much of historians in any case. It was not necessary to seek explanations for why Neo-Confucianism had spread, it was enough to know that it had, and that it evolved from its Song origins, gaining a degree of what he saw as individualism and humanitarianism in late Ming, as he described it in his contribution to Self and Society in Ming Thought. And yet one would not turn to his work to understand Neo-Confucianism as a philosophical system either. He was interested in the values of the elite, their articulation, and their instantiation in practice. In the Chinese case Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism demanded attention not because it was an intrinsically superior or a uniquely Chinese mode of thought, but because here was a society in which the governing elite consciously defined itself in terms of shared moral values, values which could transcend historical context. He saw Neo-Confucianism, and Confucianism in general, as a successful solution to a common human problem, one still worth reflecting on today: how to cultivate a political elite that thought itself responsible for the common good and was capable of both serving and resisting autocratic power. The Trouble with Confucianism (Harvard University Press, 1991) is a statement of his ultimate appraisal of the place of Confucianism in world history and a recognition of its problem with giving voice to the common people. His discussion of this work and the critical responses by leading scholars of the day in China Review International 1.1 (Spring 1994: 9–47) stands as an introduction to his mission...


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