His particular focus was in explicating the thoughts of the great Chinese sage Confucius as they were interpreted over the centuries. The Journal of Chinese Religions in 1987 praised his explorations of how the Confucian belief system became “a major component of the moral and spiritual fiber of the peoples of East Asia.”
Professor de Bary offered detailed evidence that Confucian thought, as reinterpreted in 17th-century China, had a radical core that justified revolutionary action. It was a view diametrically opposed to that of China’s most consequential revolutionary, Mao Zedong, who saw Confucius as the consummate reactionary.
In a 1988 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor de Bary wryly noted that Mao, after decades of censoring any mention of Confucius, had to revive the philosopher’s memory in the 1960s in order to revile him.
“Ever since, he has continued to haunt the scene,” Professor de Bary said. “Like Harry in Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘The Trouble With Harry,’ Confucius has refused to stay buried.”
William Theodore de Bary was born on Aug. 9, 1919, in the Bronx. His German-born father and American mother divorced when he was young, and his mother raised her own five children and three of her sister’s as a single parent. He formally changed his first name to Wm., he said, to distinguish himself from his father, also named William. A great-uncle was Heinrich Anton de Bary, a noted 19th-century German botanist.
As a teenager, Ted de Bary, as he was known, and a friend started a branch of the Young People’s Socialist League and visited Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House with other student leaders to discuss how young people could help the Allied effort in World War II.
Columbia was in his orbit almost from the start. He grew up in Leonia, N.J., a town — directly across the Hudson River from the university campus — that was a favorite place of residence for many Columbia faculty members and employees.
When he entered Columbia College on a full scholarship, a neighbor, Frieda Urey, the wife of the Nobel Prize-winning Columbia chemist Harold Urey, was kind enough to make him a matching set of curtains and bedcovers to take along.
At Columbia, he was president of the student body and won a bagful of academic honors and scholarships.
His academic work was inspired by the historian Harry J. Carman, who challenged students in his Contemporary Civilization course to pursue Asian studies. Columbia was one of the few colleges then offering Chinese, so Mr. de Bary signed up.
After graduating in 1941, he began pursuing Japanese studies with Edwin Reischauer at Harvard on a fellowship. But before the end of his first semester there, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Mr. de Bary was recruited by naval intelligence.
He went on to serve at Pearl Harbor and later in Tokyo and Washington. Offered a job at the State Department, he turned it down and returned to Columbia to pursue a master’s degree and a doctorate. In 1949 he studied in Beijing on a Fulbright scholarship and was among the Americans airlifted out of the city when it was surrounded by Mao’s revolutionary troops.
When he returned to New York, Professor Carman, by then dean of Columbia College, asked him to teach Asian courses that would parallel the Western Civilization and Humanities course. Even before he finished his Ph.D., Mr. de Bary began publishing books from original Chinese, Japanese and Indian sources. Over the years, more than 50 were published.
As a young professor he became head of Asian studies, and under his stewardship the department became a national leader in the teaching of Chinese language and culture.
In 1968, as chairman of the university senate executive committee — which included faculty, student, administrative and alumni representatives — he helped lead Columbia through weeks of student protests over the university’s ties to military research during the Vietnam War and the construction, on park land, of a university gymnasium that offered only limited backdoor access to Harlem residents.
When protesters boycotted classes and ransacked his office, he denounced them. Some protesters called him a “liberal fascist.”
In 1971 he was named executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, Columbia’s highest academic office. He served until 1978.
When some suggested abolishing the School of International Affairs to stem financial bleeding, he strengthened it. He was also a leader in preserving nearby Barnard College as a separate institution rather than merging it with Columbia, as some had advocated.
Professor de Bary founded the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia in 1976 and went on to direct it. And he started the Society of Senior Scholars, through which retired professors teach undergraduate and graduate students.
His wife, the former Mary Fanny Brett, who was called Fanny, died in 2009. They had met in 1939 at a tea dance at Barnard and were married in 1942. A daughter, Mary Catherine de Bary Sleight, died in 2010.
He is survived by two other daughters, Brett de Bary, a professor of Japanese literature at Cornell, and Mary Beatrice de Bary Heinrichs, a teacher at the Academy Hill School in Springfield, Mass.; a son, Paul, a lawyer and financial adviser; eight grandchildren; a step-grandchild; and three great-grandchildren.
After formally retiring in 1989, Professor de Bary continued to teach with emeritus status, accepting no pay. His daughter Brett said he graded the last papers for his spring courses, Nobility and Civility and Asian Humanities, in May.
He was awarded the National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2013. Last year he was given the prestigious Tang Prize in Sinology for, the citation read, “his pioneering contributions in Confucian studies” and “establishing the field of Neo-Confucianism in the West.”
And he continued to write. In 2013 he published “The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for a World Community,” his last book, which he called “an intellectual biography” that addresses one of his central concerns: bridging cultural divides as a means of human advancement.
“For centuries,” Professor de Bary wrote, “a conversation has been going on in both Asia and the West about the values that could sustain a human community, but there has been only limited exchange between the two conversations.
“Today,” he continued, “the challenges of the contemporary world are such that the civilizing process can only be sustained through an education that includes (at least in part) sharing in the traditional curricula developed on both sides, based on classics now recognized as not only enduring, but world class.”