Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies

The Freeman Orientation, Part 2 (East Asian Studies at Wesleyan)

By Nancy Smith

Freeman's dream of such a cadre of enlightened experts coincided with a surge of interest in East Asian studies at Wesleyan. In the early 1970s, Lawrence Olson (now professor of history emeritus), a specialist on Japan, had already established the study of Chinese and Japanese languages within the curriculum and was eager to develop a more comprehensive program. He and Freeman met and, over a long lunch at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, began to lay the foundation for what they thought would be "a useful venture for Wesleyan."

"We had few alumni at that time who were specialists on Asia," Olson recalls, "and it was a delight to meet this wonderfully alive and intellectually curious man. Mr. Freeman had the realism of the man of the world and the academic grasp of a scholar. That combination is not very common in our American society."

Both men believed that the future of world civilization may well be centered in those countries along the littoral of the Pacific Ocean. "And the United States," declares Freeman, "as one of those countries, should be prepared to play an important part in that development."

With generous support from Freeman, the East Asian Studies Program moved swiftly from a proposal to a reality, blossoming into a fullfledged major with a wide range of courses in both Japanese and Chinese history, literature, political science, religion, art, music and more.

Vera Schwarcz, associate professor of history and chair of the East Asian Studies Program, has traveled widely and often in China since 1977 and is the author of three books on the history of China in this century. She and Freeman have maintained a regular correspondence since he first visited a seminar she taught on modern China in 1976. "That was before my own trips to China," says Schwarcz, "and he was a marvelous guide to pre'49 China for me. Now he questions me all the time. Every letter and every conversation is a dialogue about China under Deng Xiaoping.

"He is concerned with and informed about each change in China. He has identified for himself questions about human nature, bureaucratism, personal freedom, connections between economic change and intellectual change. He is always reading and learning.

"One of the things he and I have been talking about a lot over the past four years is: What are the implications of economic relaxation? Is it possible to relax economic control inside China without liberating minds? He asks serious and important questions, not just because he is interested in better trade-which of course he is-but because he wants to know the reasons behind current government policy."

According to Schwarcz, two very different aspects of Chinese society have fascinated Freeman for many years: the plight of the common people and the autocratic nature of Confucianism.

"He always wants to hear about how the peasants are being treated. He will ask, 'Now tell me what is happening in the countryside, because that is the real China.'

"This concern for the common people has led him to make a close study of the Communists and Communism because they have profoundly affected the life of the peasants.

"A great deal of Mr. Freeman's discussion of Communism is deeply informed by what he knows of Confucianism. He is curious to know: just how Confucian is Communist China? Confucian China was an unfree, poor, oppressive, hierarchical society. The peasants he saw in the 1920s were controlled by warlords and local officials. Today they are controlled by the Communists. So he sees all sorts of parallels. The Communists, who have in many ways improved the lot of the peasants, have not given them freedom. But the freedoms that we accept as part of Western democratic capitalism are absent not only from Communism, but from Confucianism as well."

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