Wm. Theodore de Bary, a renowned Sinologist and Columbia University professor "credited with broadening the way colleges nationwide study Asia," died July 14, the New York Times reported. He was 97. Over the course of his long career, de Bary wrote and edited more than 30 books and received a multitude of academic awards and honors. In 2013 he published his final book, The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for a World Community, and was presented with the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.
De Bary's specific area of study was examining the ways in which Confucian thought and teaching were "interpreted over the centuries." Particularly, he argued that in 17th century China, Confucian thought was interpreted in such a way as to allow for revolutionary action--an argument in direct contradiction of Mao Zedong's view of Confucius as "the consummate reactionary." De Bary also edited a plethora of books that "presented thinkers from various Asian cultures in their own words" and would go on to become academic standards; according to a Times report from 1987, his book Sources of Confucian Tradition was the "fourth-bestselling nonfiction book in universities over the last 25 years."
De Bary was one of five children and raised by his mother after his parents divorced. He changed his name from William to Wm. in order to "distinguish himself from his father." As an undergraduate at Columbia College on full scholarship, de Bary was student body president and won a "bagful of academic honors and scholarships." Upon graduating in 1941, he turned his attention to Japanese studies. He was less than a semester into his fellowship at Harvard when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor; following recruitment by naval intelligence, he served at Pearl Harbor and then in Tokyo and Washington, D.C. He later turned down a job at the State Department to return to academia and earn a master's degree and a doctorate at Columbia. And while studying in Beijing on a Fulbright scholarship in 1949, de Bary was "among the Americans airlifted out of the city when it was surrounded by Mao's revolutionary troops."
He began teaching Asian studies courses at Columbia upon his return to the U.S. and it was not long before he became the head of the department. De Bary formally retired in 1989 but continued to teach classes as an emeritus professor up until this year. His last classes were "Nobility and Civility" and "Asian Humanities," which he taught in the spring.