In Memoriam Prof. Wm. Theodore de Bary
by Larry Chengliang Hong, Columbia College 2017
I happened to be in New York last summer, when Professor Chung kindly asked if I would be interested in helping out with a documentary project about Professor de Bary. Little did I know that Professor de Bary would later become not only an essential part of my Columbia life, but also a towering inspiration for me. Professor de Bary’s project – dédiabolisation of China, bridging the gap between the ‘East’ and the ‘West,’ and educating the next generation of students about the overarching importance of classics (broadly defined) – would become my project. This is the kind of transformative effect Professor de Bary has on people, and having had the privilege of meeting Professor de Bary’s family and other students, many of whom went on to become distinguished educators in their own right, I know that I am not an isolated case.
Central to Professor de Bary’s lifelong vision, if I might be so bold, is that all great civilizations – and Chinese civilization certainly counts as one of them – need to be understood on an equal footing and in their own terms; this vision, however, does not automatically translate to the apocalyptic “clash of civilization” thesis. Rather, through careful and context-specific study of classics from each civilization, one develops a more refined sensibility that is attuned to the multiplicity of global demands, enabling mutual exchanges across different cultures to enrich, rather than ossify, human thought. In line with such an “intercultural” vision, Professor de Bary devoted his whole life to being an ambassador of ideas, traversing cultural boundaries and correcting prejudiced lenses through his tireless teaching and prolific scholarship.
I was privileged to have been among the last students of Professor de Bary’s famous “Nobility and Civility” class, an inter-departmental course founded and co-taught by Professor de Bary that in recent years has become a fixture of the more revolutionary wing of the Columbia curriculum. At the high age of 97, our Professor still came to class every Wednesday, suited up as he had since his college days, fully attentive to the comments of every student. He had become quite reticent in what we now know to be his last year of teaching, which is a pity, but in the one time he let his thoughts roam during the semester, it was patently clear to everyone in the room that our Professor had not lost one bit of his sharpness. From the professors who have co-taught that class with him, I learned that at his prime, Professor de Bary’s teaching style was like that of the Confucian sage – invitational, adaptive, somewhat cryptic but always thought-provoking.
With the passing of Professor de Bary, the world has become a lesser place. His intercultural vision lives on, though, as his many generations of students (myself included) will hasten to attest to.