A specialist in the study of pre-Tang Buddhism and Daoism, James Ware was the first student to receive a Ph.D. at Harvard in the field of Chinese studies. He completed his dissertation in 1932, on the representation of Buddhism in the historical chronicle of the Wei dynasty known as the Weishu. He then taught courses in the Chinese language and Chinese history at Harvard, and was, together with Serge Elisséeff, one of the founding faculty members of the Department of Far Eastern Languages. In this capacity, he supervised the Chinese language program for much of the 1930s and 40s.
Much of the material for Ware’s early studies was drawn from the Weishu. He wrote on problems relating to the Toba rulers of the Wei, the history of Buddhism and Daoism in the Northern Dynasties, and the textual history of the Fanwang jing and other scriptures from the Buddhist canon. In the same years, he also published selected translations from several Buddhist sutras. He worked together with Serge Eliseeff to establish the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies in 1936, and contributed numerous articles and book reviews to the journal over the course of the next decade. He also developed a series of Chinese language textbooks and wrote on aspects of modern Chinese linguistics.
In the latter years of his career, Ware turned his attention his attention to translating, primarily for a non-specialist audience. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he published selections from the Analects, Zhuangzi, and Mencius. His final significant work was a complete translation of Ge Hong’s fourth century Baopuzi (1967).