Instruction in the languages and civilizations of East Asia began at Harvard in 1879, when courses in the Chinese language were first taught. A portrait of the instructor hired to teach these classes, Ge Kunhua (Ko K’un-hua), hangs by the entrance to the Harvard-Yenching Library. Sadly, Ge died of pneumonia at the age of 44, only three years after arriving in the United States and after having taught only five students. No further language courses were taught until Zhao Yuanren (Y.R. Chao), then a PhD student in Philosophy, offered Chinese in 1922-25, by which time a smattering of courses in Japanese and Chinese thought and religion were also being taught, most in the Philosophy Department.
The foundation of the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1928, made possible by substantial funds bequeathed by Charles M. Hall, inventor and co-founder of Alcoa (his photo as a young man hangs in the first-floor hallway at 2 Divinity – perhaps not as impressive as the aluminum statue on the campus of Oberlin College, his alma mater), provided the impetus for the true beginning of East Asian studies at Harvard through the establishment of a library and the recruitment of visiting faculty, mainly from Europe and Asia, there being no American scholars to be hired then. Instrumental in these early years was the partnership developed between Harvard and Yenching University, an institution founded by Christian missionaries and occupying grounds northwest of Beijing that are now home to Beijing University. Paul Pelliot and William Hung taught the first classes in Chinese history at Harvard in 1928-29, and Baron Alexander von Staël-Holstein taught Tibetan the same year. Japanese language courses, taught by Kishimoto Hideo, began to be offered in 1931.
The awarding in 1932 of the first PhD in Chinese studies (to American James Ware, a student of early Chinese Buddhism) and the permanent appointment of Serge Elisséeff (1889-1972), a preeminent Russian émigré Japanologist, as the first professor of Far Eastern Languages and the first director of the HYI in 1934 were other early milestones, followed by the publication of the first issue of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies in 1936, with Elisséeff as editor. In that same year, Elisséeff proposed to the Corporation that a Department of Far Eastern Languages be established. The new department was formally created by FAS vote in 1937. The name was changed to the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations in 1972. The indefatigable Elisséeff was also the first department chair, serving for nearly twenty years, until 1956.
The first PhDs (in “Far Eastern Studies”) awarded by the Department after its founding came in 1938 (to Weng Dujian, a specialist on the Yuan dynasty) and 1939 (to Edwin O. Reischauer). The first woman to receive a PhD was Elizabeth Huff, a Radcliff graduate, who won her degree in 1947 with a thesis on Chinese poetry. The majority of degrees conferred by the Department in its first few decades were in fact degrees in History and Far Eastern Languages, overseen jointly by faculty from both Far Eastern Languages and History. This degree was introduced in 1941, primarily on the initiative of John Fairbank, when a special Standing Committee was created to supervise the work of students who wished to pursue advanced language-intensive research in the history of East Asia. Admissions to the independent History and East Asian Languages degree ended in 2005, and the degree is now offered within EALC.
By the mid-1950s, the Department had grown to include two full professors (Elisséeff and Reischauer), four associate professors (Francis W. Cleaves, James R. Hightower, James R. Ware, and Lien-sheng Yang), and two language lecturers, including one in Korean, which began to be taught in 1952. Cleaves’ long career in the Department, from his entry into the PhD program in 1933 to his appointment to the faculty in 1941 to his final year of teaching in 1986, set a record that will be hard to beat. In 1974, the Department tenured its first woman, musicologist Rulan Chao Pien, the daughter of Y.R. Chao, who earned her degree in the Department in 1960.
For its first 21 years, the Department was housed in Boylston Hall, in Harvard Yard, together with the Harvard-Yenching Institute (the stele erected by Chinese alumni in 1936 still stands nearby, on the west side of Widener Library). In 1958, the Department – together with the Institute, its growing library, and the two stone lions it had been given back in 1933 –moved to its present location at 2 Divinity Avenue. Built in 1929, the building had previously been home to the Institute for Geographical Exploration, which had been closed several years earlier (the Institute was the brainchild of Dr. Alexander H. “Ham” Rice, the second husband of Eleanor Elkins Widener and a pioneer of aerial photography). Both on the exterior and interior of the building may be found design elements that recall its original purpose and remind us to be grateful that the University did not choose to name the building “Rice Hall.”
The transformation of the Harvard undergraduate curriculum, combined with the shifting international scene, made for dramatically increased interest in East Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Enrollments boomed. Vietnamese language instruction was added to the curriculum in 1971. Renewed diplomatic relations with China in the 1970s, coupled with the rising economic importance of Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and finally the People’s Republic of China, contributed to the steady increase in the size of the faculty, the language program, and also the graduate program, through the last decades of the 20th century. The Department continues to grow today to meet the changing needs of the Harvard curriculum and an ever-growing student interest in the languages, peoples, and cultures of East Asia. A complete list of faculty currently teaching in the Department is provided in Section XIII.
EALC Department Chairs
Serge Elisséeff (1937-1956)
Edwin O. Reischauer (1956-1961)
James R. Hightower (1961-1965)
Howard S. Hibbett (1965-1970)
Edward W. Wagner (1970-1974)
Patrick D. Hanan (1974-1977, 1985-1986)
Donald H. Shively (1977-1981)
Edwin A. Cranston (1981-1984, 1986-1987)
Harold Bolitho (1987-1988, 1994-1996)
Wei-ming Tu (1988-1990, 1991-1992)
Stephen Owen (1990-1991, 1992-1994)
Peter K. Bol (1996-2002)
Philip A. Kuhn (2002-2005)
Michael J. Puett (2005-2008)
Wilt Idema (2008-2011)
Shigehisa Kuriyama (2011-2017)
David Howell (2017-present)