Serge Elisséeff

Serge Elisséeff (1889-1975), the founder of the Department of Far Eastern Languages at Harvard and its first chair, had a tremendous influence on the professionalization of Japanese, Chinese, and Central Asian Studies as distinct academic specialties in the United States. Scion of a wealthy merchant family in St. Petersburg, Elisséeff (1889-1975) developed an interest in Japanese art when exposed to ukiyo-e woodblock prints as a secondary student in gymnasium. On the advice and with the recommendations of Serge Oldenburg, the distinguished Secretary of the Academy of Science in St. Petersburg and an eminent scholar of Buddhism, he decided to formalize this interest by pursuing a university degree in Japan.

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In 1912, after four intensive years of study, he became the first foreign student to graduate from Tokyo Imperial University. After another two years of graduate study in Tokyo, he returned to St. Petersburg, completed his Ph.D. degree, and received an appointment at the University of St. Petersburg. Shortly thereafter, his career was interrupted by the Bolshevik Revolution. After an unsuccessful attempt to continue his work under the new regime, he and his family fled Russia and made their way to Paris, where Elisséeff met such leading French Sinologists as Henri Maspero, Antoine Meillet, and Paul Pelliot. It was on the recommendation of Pelliot that the Trustees of the Harvard-Yenching Institute selected Elisséeff to serve as the first chair of the Institute and to lead the creation of the Department of Far Eastern Languages.

It was largely Elisséeff’s efforts as a mentor and administrator that transformed the study of Asia at Harvard from a handful of language classes into a full-fledged scholarly and pedagogical enterprise. By the time of his retirement in 1956, he had trained and recruited sufficient faculty for the department to offer a full complement of courses in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Mongolian, as well wide range of graduate seminars and undergraduate surveys of East Asian history and classics.

Over the course of his long career, Elisséeff published over a hundred articles, monographs, translations, and book reviews in Russian, Japanese, French, and English. His research was wide-ranging, covering such subjects as Japanese painting, short stories, and mythology, as well as Kabuki, Chinese painting theory, and Korean archaeology. He also sponsored the creation of the Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, the Harvard-Yenching Institute Studies Series, and, most significantly, the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, to which he contributed numerous articles, reviews, and obituaries. One of his last projects, undertaken with his former student and colleague Edwin Reischauer, was to publish the Japanese teaching materials that they had developed as an extensive series of Japanese language textbooks for university students.