East Asian Studies at Columbia: The Early Years

The letter from Dean Lung (top) to Columbia President Seth Low that initiated Chinese studies at the University
A brief history of Columbia’s East Asian studies department by one of its most eminent pioneering scholars

Not least among the things that got Columbia off to an early start in Chinese studies was the letter (below) sent in 1901 by Dean Lung to President Seth Low, who was about to become mayor of New York that year.

Some have supposed that the “Dean” in this name was an academic title, a thought perhaps stemming from the widespread belief in the West that learning in China had been the preserve, if not almost a monopoly, of an edu cated Confucian elite. Actually, however, “Dean” was just an ordinary Chinese surname (usually rendered “Ding” or “Ting”), and it belonged to the manservant of a Columbia Trustee—a personal valet whose relatively humble status did not preclude his testifying to the deep respect for learning that Confucianism had engendered in most Chinese.

Whatever the “fund for Chinese learning” amounted to at Columbia in those days, it could not have been much. The first contribution to Chinese studies had been made only the year before by an alumnus and Trustee William Barclay Parsons ’1879C ’82E in the form of a gift of Chinese books to the library. That same year the eminent scholar in Indo-Iranian studies, Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson, urged President Low to set up instruction in Chinese studies, but it was clearly the initiative of Dean Lung, and the deep respect held for him by the Trustee General Horace Walpole Carpentier, that led the latter to contribute the substantial sum (for those days) of $226,000 to set up an endowment for Chinese studies. The endowment was established in memory of Dean Lung, as a tribute to this “Chinese person” who was not just his valet but also a friend, admired for his personal qualities and love of learning.

Prompted in part by this action, the noted Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas made a powerful plea in 1902 for Columbia and the American Museum of Natural History together to establish “a great Oriental School” that would “imbue the public with a greater respect for the achievements of Chinese civilization.” In “A Plea for a Great Oriental School,” Boas, referring to the collections being acquired for the museum by Berthold Laufer, said, “We hope by means of these collections to bring out the complexity of Chinese culture, the high degree of technical development achieved by the people, the love of art which pervades their whole life, and the strong social ties that bind the people together. . . .”

Then, expressing a view often repeated later in the century, he added, “Under present conditions a more extended knowledge of East Asiatic cultures is a matter of great national importance . . . and in order to deal intelligently with the problems arising in this area we require a better knowledge of the people and of the countries with which we are dealing. . . . It was hoped that the establishment of these collections [at the Museum] would give an impetus for the universities of our city, particularly Columbia University, to take up the establishment of an East Asian Department. This hope has been fulfilled at an unexpectedly early date. Through the gift of General Carpentier a Department of Chinese has been established at Columbia University. . . .”

Early scholars
Even with this endowment, however, the new department was slow getting started. Chinese studies of any kind hardly existed in America, and almost no qualified scholars were available. Instead Columbia turned to distinguished professors from Europe. Herbert Allen Giles from Cambridge University inaugurated the program with a series of lectures in 1902. He was followed by Friedrich Hirth, a German authority on ancient China, who occupied the Dean Lung chair until 1917. Thereafter a tenuous program was carried on by the short-term incumbency of scholars, mostly from a China missionary background, and by inviting professors who represented the leading sinological studies in Europe, including Paul Pelliot of Paris (1926), William E. Soothill of Oxford (1928), and Jan J.L. Duyvendak of Leiden, who visited six times between 1929 and 1946.

Meanwhile, other developments were taking place that would have a profound effect on Chinese-American relations. After the fiasco of the antiforeign Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the Manchu government of China adopted more progressive policies emphasizing cooperation with the West and Japan, including an expanded program of study abroad for promising young scholars, some of them supported by funds from the indemnity payable to the United States as part of the Boxer peace settlement. Many came to study at Columbia and later became major figures in Chinese government, diplomacy, education, and academic life.

Outstanding among these was Hu Shih, a student of John Dewey, who became a leader of the literary renaissance in Republican China; Chinese Ambassador to the United States; president of China’s premier university, Beijing University; and subsequently president of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. Following in Hu’s footsteps was Fung Yu-lan, another student of Dewey, who became the leading figure in Chinese philosophy down to 1949. V.K. Wellington Koo ’08C ’12GSAS ’17HON contributed greatly to the development of a modern Chinese foreign service, later becoming Chinese ambassador to the United States, foreign minister, acting prime minister of the Republic of China, and vice president of the International Court of Justice, the Hague; T.F. Tsiang, a graduate of the Department of Public Law and Government, served as China’s permanent representative at the United Nations. Also at the UN was another of the many students of John Dewey, P.C. Chang ’24TC, who was to play a leading part in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Chi Ch’ao-ting in economics became a major figure in the development of the social sciences in Republican China.

Wellington Koo (top), an early Chinese student at Columbia, went on to become Chinese ambassador to the United States, foreign minister, and acting prime minister of the Republic of China. Sir George Sansom, who began teaching Japanese history at Columbia in the late 1930s, became the first director of the East Asian Institute.
These are just a few members of a Columbia-educated generation who served importantly in the development of Chinese American cultural and diplomatic relations during a period when the serious study of China at Columbia was just getting under way.

In 1902, concurrent with the founding of the chair in Chinese studies, the Manchu government, as part of its new opening to the West, made a substantial gift of books to the fledgling Chinese collection, a set of the encyclopedic collection, Tu-shu chi-ch’eng, which included copies of much of the Chinese historical and literary legacy—a monument to the finest of classical scholarship that had been patronized by the Manchu regime, handsomely printed in an old-style, fine rice-paper edition. The acquisition of additional library materials went on through the twenties and thirties, with the support of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Rockefeller Foundation, to the point where Columbia’s Chinese collection became a major American resource along with the collections at the Library of Congress and Harvard. Needless to say, no serious study of China could be carried on without such a collection, the existence of which itself attracted both scholars and students. The aforementioned Fung Yu-lan, who became China’s leading philosophical historian and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Beijing University, later recalled fondly his early days “on the banks of the mighty Hudson,” when he worked his way through graduate study with Dewey as a library attendant of this new Chinese collection (then housed in Low Library).

The collection proved also to be a magnet for other East Asian collections—Japanese and Korean—that naturally found their place alongside the Chinese. In 1929, through the generosity of the Japanese Imperial Household and Baron Iwasaki (of the Mitsubishi interests), a Japanese collection was brought to the University and put in the care of Ryusaku Tsunoda ’62HON, who too had come as a student of Dewey. While curator of the collection, Tsunoda sidelined as a lecturer in Japanese cultural history, and, without ever being named as a formal member of the tenured faculty, became the father of many later American scholars of great distinction. (One of these, Donald Keene ’42C ’50GSAS, has contributed an article on the subject to this issue of “Living Legacies”—see below.) Soon after Tsunoda arrived in 1934, Sir George Sansom, a noted British diplomat and scholar, began his lectures at Columbia on Japanese history.

L. Carrington Goodrich
By this time the department had been renamed the Department of Chinese and Japanese and came under the leadership of L. Carrington Goodrich ’34GSAS ’62HON, who was to provide the stability and continuity of direction for the program (hitherto lacking) in the thirties, forties, and fifties. Goodrich, from a New England missionary family, had grown up in China before attending Williams College, and then served in the developmental work of the Rockefeller-supported China Medical Board until he decided in 1926 to pursue an academic career in the new program at Columbia. After making his way, through a succession of teachers and visiting professors, to the Ph.D. in 1934, he led in the assembling both of a growing China collection and a gradually expanded staff, including Chi-chen Wang in Chinese literature, Hugh Borton ’32TC in modern Japanese history, and Cyrus Peake ’32GSAS in modern Chinese history. Both Borton and Peake had studied in Columbia’s history department and served in the government during World War II.

Nevertheless, before and during World War II, the department remained small, the offerings in languages and history were limited, and typically classes were offered to only a handful of students—in the late thirties usually no more than half a dozen. The present writer started elementary Chinese under Goodrich as an undergraduate in 1938. I recall that the second-year class included myself; a classmate who did not continue with Chinese but later became a distinguished microbiologist; a couple of would-be China missionaries; Paul Robeson ’23L, who had become enamored of the Chinese Communist cause and wanted to sing militant Chinese songs; and a German woman, who turned out to be a spy for Hitler, using her studies at Columbia as a cover for espionage activities. As one can imagine, the work of the class was quite a mix, responding to such diverse interests, backgrounds, and levels; though serious enough, it was anything but the systematic, highly focused, intensive study that came to characterize postwar language study. But few in numbers though they were, students were highly motivated, very bright,or both, and so things somehow worked out.

“The Scholar must be stout-hearted and perseverant, for his burden is heavy and his journey is long.” The calligraphic inscription was written by Dr. Hu Shih in 1952 when he was raising funds to aid Chinese intellectuals who had become refugees from Communist China. The quotation is from The Analects of Confucius, where it is attributed to Confucius’ disciple Tseng Tzu. As capitalized by Hu, “Scholar” has the special significance of a man of learning and noble character who must endure great hardships in the service of Heaven and humankind.

—Wm. Theodore de Bary

Wang taught classical language and literature. As a liberated child of the Revolution and alienated from much of traditional culture, he tended to be somewhat cynical and less than inspiring as a lecturer. His forte was as a translator of modern literature, and though allergic to all talk of grammar, he would spend long hours in virtually tutorial sessions with those determined enough to benefit from his fine command of both Chinese and English.

As a scholar, Goodrich was a down-to-earth, careful historian with broad interests in material culture, cultural exchanges with Europe, and in both early and later periods of Chinese history. But—perhaps on the rebound from his culturally conflicted early life as a “missionary kid” in a China riven by revolution and civil war—he largely disqualified himself from engagement with the religious and political issues that so roiled the modern scene. He was given to meticulous scholarship on concrete, factual matters but also had a gift for clear, straightforward, unadorned prose that served him well in his best-known work: A Short History of the Chinese People (1943). The most famous Chinese scholar of the day, the aforementioned Hu Shih, called this book “the best history of China ever published in any European language.”

A kindly, generous, and courtly person, Goodrich was respected as the even-handed and conscientious administrator of the program in Chinese studies and became recognized at home and abroad as one of the founding fathers of Chinese studies in America. He was early elected president of the American Oriental Society, the Association of Asian Studies, and—for a long time—was head of the New York Oriental Club.

A major adjunct and accessory to Goodrich’s career as scholar, teacher, and administrator was his wife of 65 years, Anne S. Goodrich, who managed to combine roles as caring mother of a large family, a warm-hearted hostess in their Riverdale home to Goodrich’s students and colleagues, and a scholar in her own right, with published accounts of Chinese Taoist temples and monasteries in the Beijing area.

A flourishing program
Thus far is the history, in very brief, of the early years of Chinese studies at Columbia, to be supplemented on the Japanese side by Keene’s article on Tsunoda. The next stage in this development was the major expansion of the program in the fifties and sixties—a considerable enlargement in the staff, courses, and students of the department, as well as of companion programs in the professional schools. Much of this was attendant upon the development in the fifties of the College’s general education program in Oriental (now Asian) studies, which established a much broader undergraduate base for Asian studies. The language program too was greatly strengthened by support from the National Defense Education Act, and, on the graduate level, new programs benefited substantially from Ford Foundation grants. This is all another story, but it should be noted that in the course of these developments came the addition of Korean studies—another pioneering venture that warranted a change from the name of the Department of Chinese and Japanese to East Asian Languages and Cultures and which gave a significant new dimension to the work of the East Asian Institute.

Before concluding this brief account of the early phase in East Asian studies, I want to mention two episodes that provide a striking counterpoint to the foregoing—which might otherwise appear to have followed a smooth and steady pattern of unproblematical growth.

On the day Ryusaku Tsunoda received an honorary degree in the fall of 1962, from left: Donald Keene, Professor of Japanese; L. Carrington Goodrich, Dean Lung Professor Emeritus of Chinese; Tsunoda, former curator of the Japanese Collection; and Wm. Theodore de Bary, chairman of the Department of Chinese and Japanese.
The first comes to mind in connection with the upcoming 250th anniversary of Columbia, which recalls the bicentennial celebration of 1954. On that occasion I was asked to mount a special convocation relating the bicentennial theme—“Man’s Right to Knowledge and the Free Use Thereof”—to East Asia. For this I invited Hu Shih and Daisetz T. Suzuki as representatives of the Chinese and Japanese traditions respectively. By now Hu needs no further introduction to readers of this essay, but something should be said about Suzuki.

Earlier, Tsunoda and I had joined Professor Horace Friess ’19C ’26GSAS, chair of the religion department, in inviting Suzuki to give a series of special lectures at Columbia on Zen Buddhism. By this time (1954), Suzuki was already something of a celebrity, an early and well-known cult figure for the Beats at Columbia. Tsunoda (less well-known outside of Columbia and even to local Beats such as Allen Ginsberg ’48C and Jack Kerouac ’44C) had for some years been teaching a wide range of courses on Japanese history, religion, and literature. As one who took a broad approach to Japanese thought and especially to Buddhism, he had reservations about Suzuki’s special promotion of Zen at the expense of other aspects of Buddhism and Japanese thought overall. Nevertheless, Tsunoda joined in the invitation to Suzuki, and the series went well. In fact, Suzuki’s Columbia lectures came to be regarded as a significant launching pad for the academic study of Zen.

Now to the bicentennial convocation. As a young reformer in Republican China, Hu had been identified with the New Culture and popular literature movements, generally antitraditional and often anti-Confucian. But Hu’s American mentor, John Dewey, who lectured to enthusiastic audiences in China during the late teens, was by no means unappreciative of Confucianism, and by the time of this convocation Hu himself had mellowed greatly on the subject. To no one’s surprise on this occasion, he spoke appreciatively of knowledge and learning in the Confucian tradition, and, against the background of the current Chinese Communist repression of intellectuals, eloquently endorsed the bicentennial theme of “Man’s Right to Knowledge.” Contrary to a widespread misinterpretation of Confucianism as authoritarian and thus a long-term cultural factor conducive to the intellectual repressions of the Mao regime, Hu acclaimed Confucius and later Confucians as defenders of intellectual freedom and independent scholarly inquiry.

This was not the first time that Hu and Suzuki had squared off on scholarly issues, and the latter gave no quarter here to Hu. He challenged the very basis of scholarly learning, contending that man’s right to knowledge was an illusion unless it was predicated first on man’s need for enlightenment (satori). In Suzuki’s view, the need for a higher spiritual freedom would take priority over any advocacy of intellectual freedom.

In the ensuing discussion it was not to be expected that Hu and Suzuki would come to agreement on an issue defined in such disparate terms. The result was pretty much a standoff, but not of the kind commonly expressed in the cliché: “East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Hu stood for both East and West, and for the commonality of human values; if Suzuki stood for any commonality, it would be one that came through the East, with few, if any, concessions to the modern, liberal West.

Many early Chinese scholars at Columbia went on to become major figures in government, diplomacy, and academic life. Pictured here at a 1955 reception are Chinese ambassador to the United States Wellington Koo and former ambassador Hu Shih at a 1955 reception.
The Chinese History Project
The second episode involves another high-level intellectual engagement on a global horizon, but this time in the arena of politics and the social sciences. Today hardly anyone remembers that there existed at Columbia from 1939 to 1951 a major scholarly research project, of international dimensions and involvements, called the “Chinese History Project.” It was initiated by Karl August Wittfogel and George Taylor (neither of them Columbians), and with the support of the Institute of Pacific Relations and Rockefeller Foundation, was housed at Columbia to take advantage of its strong Chinese collections, essential for any in-depth research. No doubt the location was also Wittfogel’s choice; as a refugee scholar from Hitler’s Germany, he, like many others at Columbia and the New School, preferred the challenging intellectual environment of New York, especially its émigré scholars, to a place such as the University of Washington, Taylor’s base.

The Chinese History Project was nothing less than an ambitious attempt to rewrite the whole dynastic history of China, with special attention to its institutions and systemic features. For this purpose outstanding scholars from China, as well as others already in the United States, were recruited and brought to New York to assist in the work on individual periods (dynasties). Wittfogel was to provide the overall theoretical and methodological guidance. In Germany he had been associated with the famous Frankfurt school of left-wing social scientists, and he thought of himself as following up on the work of Marx and Max Weber in the analysis of Asian societies. An active Communist intellectual, he engaged in dialogue with the likes of Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and Georg Lukács. Jailed by Hitler for his active opposition to Nazism and distrusted by Moscow for his intellectual independence, he escaped into exile in China and the United States. By 1939 (the year the project was started at Columbia but also a watershed year for those disillusioned by the sudden agreement between Hitler and Stalin [The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939] to divide up Europe between them), Wittfogel had already begun to distance himself from Communism, a tortuous and painful process for someone quickly stigmatized as a “renegade” and “traitor to the cause” and one estranged from friends with whom he had been associated either in the Party or the Institute of Pacific Relations.

Despite these political complications and those involved in the evolution of Wittfogel’s own theoretical and ideological position, the Chinese History Project continued through the war years and eventually produced a substantial volume dealing with the history of the Liao Dynasty (907–1119). Others dealing with the Han and Ching dynasties (much larger projects) were underway when the cold war brought new complications for the project. Wittfogel was called to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Pat McCarran, investigating the Institute of Pacific Relations as a research organization allegedly influenced by Communists, and his testimony implicated Owen Lattimore as well as other writers or scholars said to be aligned with the Communists. As if he had thereby broken some unwritten law against informing on his colleagues, Wittfogel was soon ostracized by many scholars in the field—becoming virtually an academic pariah. His grant support evaporated, his staff dispersed elsewhere, and he was asked to vacate the space he occupied in Low Library. In the midst of this turmoil, Wittfogel did manage to complete his own major work, Oriental Despotism, A Comparative Study of Total Power (completed in 1954, published in 1957), in which he set forth his mature views on Marx’s concept of the Asiatic mode of production, the hydraulic economy and society, the agro-managerial state, and Communist totalitarianism. Given the author’s international reputation and the political nature of the issues he addressed, it is not surprising that the book aroused enormous controversy, pro and con, all over the world. What is surprising is that as late as 1999 some pundits included it among the hundred great books of the twentieth century. Recently, too, Jonathan Spence, the China historian at Yale, has drawn renewed attention to the importance of Wittfogel’s contribution to Western perceptions of China and to the incisiveness of his analysis of the uses of power both in traditional China and by Mao Zedong.

There was not, however, to be any revival of the Chinese History Project, or any reclaiming of a place for Wittfogel in Chinese studies at Columbia—which is our subject here. He continued to live on Riverside Drive, where he kept up a kind of cosmopolitan salon for New York intellectuals (mainly of a Social Democratic persuasion, identified with the New Leader magazine) and also kept up correspondence and activities on a global scale (one of them a celebratory homecoming in Germany where in Dusseldorf he was welcomed by political and scholarly figures, including “Red Rudy” Dutschke of the so-called New Left, once of dubious fame in the European student revolt of the late 1960s, but later greatly mellowed). Wittfogel’s involvements at Columbia, however, were largely limited to a group of anthropologists (principally professors Marvin Harris ’49C ’53GSAS and Morton Fried ’51GSAS), and occasional appearances at special seminars on “Asia in World History” conducted by Professor of Indian History Ainslie Embree ’47 ’60GSAS.

In the present context, the question naturally arises: Where did Goodrich stand in all this? The answer is that he stood pretty much apart. Wittfogel could never have been lodged in Low Library in the first place without Goodrich’s approval, nor could he have been removed later except as Goodrich allowed or caused it to happen. Yet almost from the beginning there was a world of intellectual and ideological difference between the two scholars working in the same building. Again East may be East, and West West, but it was the twain on either side of the same building that did not meet—the down-to-earth factual and largely non-political scholarship of the practical, plain-spoken American scholar Goodrich, standing worlds apart from the ideologically intense, theoretically driven, macroscopic analyses of the sophisticated European scholar, washed up on the banks of the Hudson by the political storms and tides of the twentieth century.

There is, however, something of a happy ending to all of this. In the 1960s, as Goodrich’s successor in the chairmanship of the department, I organized a project to compile the Dictionary of Ming Biography. Goodrich came out of retirement to head it up editorially, and two of Wittfogel’s former colleagues in the Chinese History Project, Fang Chao-ying ’76HON and Tu Lien-che ’76HON, came back (all the way from Australia!) to constitute the backbone of the research staff. The large, encyclopedic, two-volume work, completed in 1976, was not the dynastic history envisaged by Wittfogel, but it stands as a monument to collaborative Sino-American scholarship and remains the single most important reference work on the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). At the time of publication, Fang and Tu received honorary degrees from Columbia, East finally meeting West, and, after all, at a convocation held in Low Library—named after the very president, Seth Low, to whom Dean Lung had sent his check in 1901 to get Chinese studies going at Columbia.

Ryusaku Tsunoda: Pioneer of Japanese Studies at Columbia

Ryusaku Tsunoda ’62HON came from Japan to the United States via Hawaii in 1917, hoping to study American education and in particular to study under John Dewey. After a short stay at Teachers College he took up the position of Secretary of the Japanese Association in New York. During his eight years in that office, the idea of creating a Japanese culture center in New York became his great ambition. Finally in 1926, he appealed to the local Japanese community as well as to a number of American friends, some of whom were affiliated with Columbia, for support toward the founding of a library and a center to promote Japanese studies. Out of this grew the Japanese Collection at Columbia.

It was only natural for Tsunoda, however, with his scholarly inclinations and interest in education, to want to share his deep knowledge of Japanese history and culture. Even without any advanced degrees, he became a charismatic teacher to the handful of students who found their way to him in the recesses of Low Library.

Among these was the eminent British historian of Japan, Sir George Sansom, who, during his years at Columbia in the late forties and early fifties, was glad to acknowledge Tsunoda as his teacher. That Sansom had already established himself as the premier Western historian of Japan is a tribute to the high standard of cultural competence expected of British foreign service officers in the early twentieth century but also to his own special gifts as a cultural historian with a sensitive appreciation of things Japanese.

Sansom with his extraordinary competence in both the diplomatic and scholarly fields was the obvious choice for first director of Columbia's East Asian Institute. Today the Institute is graced by the historian Carol Gluck ’71SIPA ’77GSAS, who carries the appropriate title of Sir George Sansom Professor of Japanese History.

The following reminiscences of Ryusaku Tsunoda were written by Donald Keene after Tsunoda’s retirement from Columbia in 1955. They were first published in Japanese by the leading cultural review Bungei Shunju in 1962, to acquaint the Japanese public with the life of an expatriate scholar few of them had heard about in the period of estrangement between the United States and Japan, during and just after World War II.

—Wm. Theodore de Bary

At Columbia University, when people say sensei they are certain to be referring to Ryusaku Tsunoda Sensei, “teacher.” But when we call him Sensei it is not merely an expression of the respect due to a senior scholar and mentor but a mark of our special affection.

Sir George Sansom, for many years his colleague at Columbia, once called Sensei the father of Japanese studies in America and stated that he was proud to be his disciple. But however much he may be called Sensei, the most remarkable thing about Tsunoda Sensei is his amazing youthfulness. He was born in 1877, but he looks like a well-preserved gentleman of sixty, and his heart is that of a young man. The retirement age at Columbia is 65, but sometimes for special reasons this is extended to 68; Tsunoda Sensei must surely be the first ever to deliver lectures on a regular basis at the age of 85, and he will probably be the last.

I first met Tsunoda Sensei twenty years ago. No doubt because it was just on the eve of the outbreak of the Pacific War, I was the only student officially enrolled for his course on the history of Japanese thought. It must surely have been a nuisance to prepare and deliver lectures on such difficult subjects as Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, all for the sake of one student, but Tsunoda Sensei, as I came to expect of him, spared no pains in his teaching. He would cover the blackboard until it was white with quotations in Chinese, and would pile stacks of books on the classroom table, bringing home to me the breadth and depth of Japanese studies.

On December 5, 1941, Sensei’s lecture took place as usual, but three days later Sensei was taken into custody as an enemy alien. Two months later I joined the Navy. It was not for another four years that I again heard Sensei’s lectures. Sensei, after two or three months of detention, was brought to trial, where he was asked among other things if, in view of the fact that he lived near the George Washington Bridge, there wasn’t a possibility that he might blow up the bridge. Such a foolish question was asked because of the general dread of all Japanese during the war.

As Sensei talked of the duties and responsibilities of any foreigner who had lived for many years in America, he spoke with such sincerity in his voice that the judge was moved. Finally, the judge asked, “Mr. Tsunoda, are you a poet?” He was quite serious, and his question, far from being foolish, showed a real understanding of Sensei’s character.

Sensei seldom talks about himself and is absolutely silent on the subject of his family, but after twenty years’ acquaintance I have learned the main facts of his life. He was born in Gumma Prefecture in 1877, and after going up to Tokyo studied English literature under Tsubouchi Shoyo (known especially for his studies of Shakespeare) at the Tokyo Senmon Gakko, the predecessor of Waseda University. Deeply interested in social questions, Tsunoda went to Kyoto intending to work for the betterment of the eta (outcaste class). He was so horrified to see the filth in the hovels and the wretched condition of people eating with their hands that he felt utterly powerless, and when he discovered that his geta (shoes) were imbedded so deeply in the muddy street that he could not move, this seemed a symbol of his own helplessness. This must have been a severe blow to the young idealist.

In 1897, at the age of twenty, he published his book on Ihara Saikaku, the first book ever to have been written about the great seventeenth-century novelist. In 1899 appeared his translation of Social Evolution by Benjamin Kidd, and in 1904 a translation of The History of Ethics by Wilhelm Wundt.

Sensei first heard about America from an American teacher at Tokyo Senmon Gakko, and full of the spirit of adventure appropriate in a man of the Meiji era, Sensei apparently decided at this time to journey to the New World. In 1909 he went to Hawaii on the invitation of the Buddhist Mission. He seems to have enjoyed his stay in Hawaii, but moved on to New York and began studying at Columbia University, taking courses with John Dewey and others in philosophy. At first Sensei thought it was hopeless attempting to study philosophy in a noisy place like New York, but gradually he came to feel the strange attraction of the human melting pot that New York is, and in the end came to make it his permanent home.

At the time (about forty years ago) the Chinese language and Chinese civilization were taught in a few American universities, but study of Japanese civilization was limited to Japanese art. There were almost no collections of Japanese books, and Americans who wished to study about Japan in an academic manner (there were extremely few of them) had no choice but to go abroad to Europe or Japan. In America Far Eastern studies meant the study of Chinese. Professors of Chinese tended to dismiss Japan as a nation of imitators; needless to say, they knew no Japanese. Sensei, deploring this situation, returned to Japan and gathered funds and books so as to establish a center of Japanese studies in America. The center he envisaged was eventually founded at Columbia, and Sensei was appointed director of the center and lecturer in Japanese civilization. From about 1928 to 1941 Sensei taught Japanese thought, history, and classical literature at Columbia. I myself studied under Sensei for three months before the war, and no sooner was I released from military duty in February 1946 than I returned to Columbia as a graduate student, eager to hear Sensei’s lectures again. At the time his advanced class consisted of five or six students, all people like myself who had studied Japanese during the war in the armed forces, and all desperately anxious to return to the academic world. We begged Sensei for additional lectures, and in the end he was teaching two hours a day of classical literature alone. In three semesters, as I recall, we read the Suma and Akashi chapters of The Tale of Genji, much of Tsurezuregusa and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, the Noh plays Matsukaze and Sotoba Komachi, the whole of Five Women Who Loved Love and The Narrow Road of Oku. I imagine that this must have been a record amount of Japanese classical literature for any class outside Japan to have read in so short a time.

Several things in Sensei’s lectures attracted us. First of all, there was our discovery on being led into an unfamiliar, distant world that, surprisingly enough, shared many intellectual and emotional problems with our own world. Sensei never attempted to “modernize” the thought of the writers of the past, but pointed out instead their essential points and their perennial, universal qualities. His students realized that whatever he discussed—whether Shingon Buddhism, the Chu Hsi school of Confucianism or the Shinto of Motoori Norinaga—was necessary information for the understanding of modern Japan; at the same time, they realized that these topics marked important stages in the history of mankind as a whole, and they felt the narrowness of the traditional Western-oriented education they had hitherto received. His classes gave students the pleasure of participating in an intellectual adventure.

Sir George Sansom (left), widely known as the premier Western historian of Japan, called Tsunoda Sensei (right) the father of Japanese studies in America.
His lectures, despite his advanced years, were full of enthusiasm, and his opinions were not only original but poetic. Sensei’s first lecture in his course on the history of Japanese thought was unforgettable. It dealt with the importance of the sun, mountains, and the water at the dawn of Japanese civilization. He gave numerous examples, and analyzed psychological characteristics of the Japanese still surviving to this day that stem from these three factors. The lecture captured the imagination of the students with its tone, at once pragmatic and poetic. When Sensei lectured about the yin-yang system of thought, he did not dismiss it as mere superstition in the manner of some scholars, but discussed it as an attempt to classify the phenomena of the universe, and made us respect the men of ancient times who had devised it.

Sensei was interested in every period of Japanese intellectual history, but the independent thinkers of the Tokugawa period seem to have attracted him most. Immediately after the end of the war the young people who were attempting to build a new, democratic Japan preached the necessity of making a clean sweep of the old traditions as feudalistic, but Sensei, who believed deeply in democracy, wondered if there were not a connection between Japanese tradition and modern men, and if there was nothing in tradition that might prove of use to the Japan of the future.

Whatever work Sensei discussed, he was able with surprising skill to make us understand its literary value, and even as we haltingly read the difficult classics before us, we were struck by the beauty of the style. Sensei must surely have read such a work as Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) many times before he taught it to us, but he communicated the wonder of its style by the excitement and delight in his voice, which suggested that he had discovered Yoshida Kenko’s masterpiece for the first time.

Poem, Fall 1964

In this world
There still is room
For this solitary walking-cane—
And I rejoice.
Azure skies stretch
Across the Eastern seas.
But one night on phoenix’ wings
Can span
Seven thousand ri.
With fresh winds and a bright moon
I may return.


Tsunoda Sensei wrote this poem—his last—in 1964, shortly before leaving New York to return to Japan.

Always loyal both to the land of his birth and his adopted country, he comforted himself with the thought that modern air travel made a return trip possible almost overnight.

He never reached his destination; on November 29, 1964, he died en route in Hawaii.

For the past forty years Sensei has lived in the ultramodern city of New York and seems very fond of his life here. Sensei is, after all, imbued with the spirit of enlightenment of the early Meiji period, and is fond of anything new. (It is by no means accidental that he should now be plunged in a study of Benjamin Franklin.) He lives in a modern apartment, and when visitors come, he is likely to serve them a steak, his proudest accomplishment as a chef. He is always dressed in well-fitting suits and looks rather like a retired diplomat.

Among Sensei’s pleasures in New York, watching baseball games occupies an important place. He was a long-time, fanatical devotee of the New York Giants, and the Giants’ move to San Francisco came as a great shock. Probably he is now forced to watch the Yankees play, though for years he detested them.

Another pleasure of Sensei’s life in New York is the Hudson River and Fort Tryon Park facing it. Sensei loves the mighty Hudson, so much so that his long walks along its banks before the war seemed to have started rumors that he was a spy. One evening, just as the war was ending, Sensei saw the sun sinking above the Hudson and imagined it was symbolic of the future of Japan. When he writes in the Japanese-language newspaper published in New York he often uses a pen-name based on the names of the Hudson River and Fort Tryon Park.

But probably Sensei’s deepest attachments in New York are to Columbia University. Probably no one has ever taught as long at Columbia as Sensei, and he is well acquainted with the history of the University. He has frequently attended lectures given during the past thirty years by famous professors of history, philosophy, and religion, and can tell interesting anecdotes about the great teachers of former days.

Sensei seems to have become a New Yorker through and through, but this is not the case: sometimes, when apologizing to Japanese guests for the inadequacy of the hospitality he has offered he even says, “It’s the best I can do, considering I’m away from home.” Sensei is beyond any doubt a Japanese, and no matter how long he may live abroad, it is unlikely that there will be any change. Sensei sometimes travels in America, and he is apt to say on seeing the home of Thomas Jefferson or the region of Lake Champlain where John Dewey was born that he would like to retire to such a place. But no matter how attracted he may be to the scenery or atmosphere of a place, anywhere that is not Japan is likely always to remain “away from home.” It is precisely because he is so completely Japanese that he has been able to exert so strong an influence on generations of American students.

But the point on which Sensei and his disciples differ the most is the question of his fame. We would like to see our beloved, wonderful teacher recognized throughout the world, but Sensei seems utterly indifferent on this matter. Not only is he absolutely opposed to any self propagandizing, but he rarely refers to his private life and seems reluctant to answer any questions. It is a real question in my mind whether or not Sensei will be pleased to read this article about him. Perhaps he may be outraged at this invasion of his privacy—though I cannot recall ever having seen him outraged—but I cannot refrain from wishing to spread word about him. I have had the privilege of being taught by many splendid teachers, but none his superior.

Dean Lung, letter, professors in 1962, Koo and Shih, all Tsunoda images: C .V. Starr East Asian Library. Koo and Sansom headshots: University Archives—Columbiana Library, Columbia University.