William Theodore de Bary, professor at Columbia University and recipient of the Tang Prize in Sinology, passed away at his home on Friday (July 14). He was 97.
De Bary was awarded the Tang Prize in 2016 “for his pioneering contributions in Confucian studies” and “establishing the field of Neo-Confucianism in the West.”
Born in Bronx, New York, in 1919, de Bary first encountered Chinese culture as an undergraduate student at Columbia University, where he had taken a class with professor and future-dean Harry Carman, who noted the absence of Asian classics in the curriculum.
After serving in the military as an intelligence officer in the Pacific theatre in World War II, de Bary began his PhD studies in 1947, choosing Huang Zong-xi’s Waiting for the Dawn as his subject. He then studied at Beijing University as a Fulbright fellow in 1949, but was shortly thereafter forced by political circumstances to return to Columbia.
Upon his return, he was invited by Carman to spearhead a program to bring the Asian classics into the curriculum. He understood that, like the classics of the Western tradition, of which a large portion are in ancient Latin or Greek, these Asian classics were separated from the modern undergraduate student by time and distance, by culture and language. He brought together a team of translators who were charged with rendering the works in English and providing important commentary that would provide students with the context necessary to understand the times and forces surrounding these important texts. The result was the Sources series. His 1960 Sources of Chinese Tradition has remained a mainstay of Sinological studies for over 50 years, and has offered a thorough portrayal of different aspects of the social, political, intellectual, and cultural traditions of China to students in the English-speaking world.
While he is recognized for his contributions to Sinology in particular, he in no way limited himself to the study of China and its history. He has edited or contributed to collections of classic and modern texts from Japan, Korea, and India. He takes an even more global, modern focus in his original works, such as Nobility and Civility and The Great Civilized Conversation, where he shows how in this globalized, and still globalizing, world, the great traditions of the East and West are not mutually exclusive, but often address the same perennial problems of life.
What was important for de Bary was not declaring a victor in some cultural competition, but finding the human within the great conversation of cultures. Thinking and having real debate on what our values are, and what they mean to us, is as valuable now as it was to the students of Confucius or Socrates over two thousand years ago. In our modern age this conversation continues, which is in no small part due to the dedication of William Theodore de Bary.
This dedication shone through in every facet of his long life. He attended Mass every week; he was known at Columbia for never missing a home football game. Just this May, as he finished grading papers for the last course he was to teach, he was notified that one of his courses for the next semester had been overbooked. He remained a beloved teacher, and an ardent student, to his last days.
The Tang Prize Foundation expresses its sincerest condolences to the family, friends, students, and colleagues of Professor de Bary.