What Wm. T. de Bary Has Taught Me

DeBary copy.jpg

Professor de Bary in front of the C.V. Starr Library, taken in 1999 

Two days ago I posted a message speculating that the hiring policies of top US universities with respect to Mainland Chinese historians might be a legacy of the Cold War. These was mere speculation, with nothing much to go on except for my survey of top elite institutions in the US (to be sure, I left out several), showing that indeed, there is a conspicuous lack of China historians of Mainland origins in these institutions.

In the process of thinking about this matter, I recalled an incident that took place during a preceptorship with the venerable Wm.Theodore de Bary, a legendary figure in the field of Asian Studies. Once, after giving a "guest" lecture on the Republican Era for the Asian Civ course run by Dr. de Bary, he admonished me for focusing on the negative attributes of the Nationalist government and neglecting their positive achievements.

At the time, I was reading a lot of literature about the Shanghai Green Gang and their relationship with the Nationalist government, as well as their baleful influence on Shanghai society. Fred Wakeman's book _Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937_, which offers a rather severe indictment of Nationalist government policy during the Nanjing Decade (1927-1937), had just come out, and I focused on his research and on others such as Brian Martin, the leading Green Gang scholar in Western scholarship.

Since much of my lecture was focused on Shanghai (my area of study), my spin on the Nationalists was correspondingly negative. Yet of course he was right: a more balanced appraisal (and less Shanghai-focused) of the Nationalist legacy would have undoubtedly brought out some of their accomplishments in the fields of education, science, industry, engineering, and so forth.

Not only that, but I was being admonished by a man who had lived through that era and who had firsthand knowledge of the Nationalist legacy. Born in 1919, Dr. de Bary began his career in Asian Studies as an intelligence officer for the US military.in the Pacific Theater (this info comes from Wikipedia). Like John King Fairbank, another doyen of Chinese Studies, he had lived the era and knew what he was talking about.

Unfortunately, I did not get to know Professor de Bary that well while at Columbia. I didn't take any courses with him, and my only real exposure to him was through the course that I precepted for him in 1994. Yet he has left an indelible imprint on my own teaching philosophy and methodology.

My own Chinese Civ course at UNSW makes ample use of the books he edited, the _Sources of Chinese Tradition_, and I prefer his method of focusing on the "great books" and "great minds" in Chinese history, and using primary sources almost exclusively to challenge students to read and interpret these sources on their own, with de Bary's and his colleagues' brief synopses as guidelines.

I have also incorporated some of Professor de Bary's own observations into my course as well. His _East Asian Civilization: A Dialogue in Five Stages (Harvard 1988) has an excellent chapter on the Neo-Confucian Stage of East Asian history, which I have used in my Chinese Civ course. It is one of the more approachable secondary readings I have offered for this course. He begins by making the following observation:

"As I said earlier, Buddhism was a missionary religion; its spiritual drive and zeal naturally fit the expansionist movement Reischauer describes. But Confucianism had no such proselytizing aim or apostolic mission, and one might wonder how it could generate a comparable elan. The answer, I believe, lies not only in recognizing the difference between Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism, but in seeing how the third stage of East Asian civilization differed from the second. In short, this was not an expansionist phase, but one distinguished rather by the degree of its intensive internal development--economically, socially, and culturally. In this situation, with less scope for missionaries and cultural emissaries than for teachers, scholars, and officials, Neo-Confucianism furnished the most plausible rationale for East Asian civilizations preoccupied with their own inner development--self-centered in the positive sense of being inner-directed, conservative of their energies, and concentrated in their efforts. To my mind, Neo-Confucianism is also the key to understanding how later on, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the inward-looking civilizations of East Asia would appear to the expansionist West to be ingrown, self-contented, smug, and isolationist, while the West would seem to East Asians the very embodiment of uncontrolled aggressiveness--power on the loose, bound to no moral or spiritual center." (page 44)

 In my opinion, this is one of the more profound statements about modern world history made by any scholar.  Like any interpretation, it is debatable, which makes it interesting--nothing would be interesting historically if it were taken as stone cold fact.  There is of course the question of China's expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries, which de Bary attributes to the realkpolitiks of the Manchu Qing rulers, Kang Xi, Yong Zheng, and Qian Long, who strove to promote their own self-images as "sage kings" and patrons of Confucianism (whether or not they truly internalized Confucian principles is another matter entirely). 

When discussing the "inward turning" philosophy of Neo-Confucianism (daoxue or xinxue in Chinese) with my students, I like to use the analogy of the Star Wars saga, to which they can all relate.  In a British film on nightclubbing called _Human Traffic_, one of the characters gets into a drug-addled conversation with another about Star Wars.  He says "The Emperor wants to control outer space.  Yoda wants to control inner space.  That's the fundamental difference between the good and the bad sides of the Force."  The original Star Wars, as many fans know, was strongly influenced by the Kurosawa film _The Hidden Fortress_, which depicted the Tokugawa samurai as ethical warriors.  The Tokugawa samurai were heavily influenced by daoxue philosophy.  My own pet theory is that Yoda is himself a Neo-Confucian sage.  The Force is about directing one's energies inward in order to tame the "savage beast" and cultivate the innate goodness (ala Mengzi) that flows within us all.

It seems to me that Prof de Bary, whether or not he recognized the Star Wars analogy, cottoned on to this principle early on in his career and has since been one of the Western's world leading advocates of the ethical power of the Confucian (and Neo-Confucian) way.  His latest book _Nobility and Civility_ (Harvard 2004) which I haven't yet had the opportunity to read, is apparently an attempt to link East Asian, particularly Confucian values, to the problems of the contemporary world.

My fondest memory of Dr. de Bary, and the one that is imprinted most deeply in my mind, is when he brought out a scroll during his lecture on Neo-Confucianism for our East Asian Civ class.  The scroll, written in beautiful Chinese calligraphy by a friend of his (if I recall rightly), contained the word ren 仁, perhaps the most important term in the Confucian lexicon.  The term has been translated as "humaneness" "humanity" and "benevolence," and expresses the proper relationship between two human beings.  It is fundamental to all Confucian thinking.  Why I remember this episode fondly is that when presenting the scroll, he paused and looked at it with such complete admiration, his eyes lit up and his face broke into a broad smile.  Then he returned to his stern, grandfatherly countenance and resumed his lecture.