U.S. leading scholar of Asian thought awarded the 2016 Tang Prize in Sinology

  • William Theodore de Bary, 2016 Tang Prize Laureate in Sinology
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The 2016 Tang Prize in Sinology is awarded to William Theodore de Bary, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, for his pioneering contributions in Confucian studies.


Professor de Bary previously served as the Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost of Columbia University and chaired its Department of East Asian Languages and Culture. He’s also the inaugural director of the National Defense Language and Area Center. In his academic career spanning over seven decades, he has written and edited over 30 books with many of them making ground-breaking contributions that provide enlightening insight into Confucianism.


Besides his scholastic achievements, Professor de Bary has headed many academic projects including the translation and compilation of various texts. Students and scholars in the field of East Asian studies have all greatly benefited from his 1960’s Sources of Chinese Tradition, in which he has translated and annotated a vast number of Chinese classics and texts. This key publication offers a thorough portrayal of different aspects of Chinese social, political, intellectual, and cultural traditions to the English-speaking world. The continual publication of much enlarged editions of this work in 1999, 2000, and 2004 is a testimony to the significant contribution this sourcebook has made to Sinology. Even now in his nineties, he does not rest on his laurels and continues to teach at Columbia University.


Through his scholarship, Professor de Bary shows that Confucianism is by no means an obstacle to modernism; instead, it is the cultural heritage of the East. He emphasizes that while China lacks what in the West is known as “liberalism,” this does not mean China does not value freedom. His research demonstrates that Neo-Confucian teachings in late imperial China, particularly during the Ming Dynasty, contains values that he terms “liberal tendencies.” And throughout history, these values are propelled by Confucian and Neo-Confucian scholar-officials, who Professor de Bary regards as noble junzi (gentlemen) with a “prophetic voice” that are willing to take a stand against the abuse of political power.


He asserts that utilizing only a Western perspective as a compass for civilization is not in line with multiculturalism. Besides pointing out the vibrant history of Confucian and Indian traditions, Professor de Bary also holds an open and multicultural outlook, where he encourages a dialogue between different cultures as the best way to showcase the value of human rights of civil society and resolve key issues facing the world today. Confucian teachings of “restraining oneself” and “the Way and its relationship to all things” still apply today. He believes that in a chaotic world, there is no other better remedy than encouraging dialogue and exchange, and this has been the purpose of his scholarship.


Serving as a bridge between Confucian traditions and the modern world, Professor de Bary is a rare exemplar of a scholar known not only for his monumental scholarship and leadership in the field of Confucianism but also for his unflagging dedication to renewing and realizing a great civilized conversation to iron out differences and foster mutual understanding.