The Early History of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan

By David Titus

Resolved that it be recommended to establish a Mission at some favorable point in China -- and that Missionaries and a printing press be sent forth immediately.
--"Record of Meetings", Missionary Lyceum of Wesleyan University, April 20th, 1835

Wesleyan's involvement with, or in, East Asia is not something of the recent past. The "Missionary Lyceum of Wesleyan University", organized on October 22, 1834, as a "society having for its principal object the benefit of the missionary cause", focussed its attentions on China within a year of its founding -- and within five years of the founding of Wesleyan itself. " 1835 the publication of a report by one of its [Lyceum] committees started discussions which led to the choice of China as the next missionary field entered by the Methodist Episcopal Church."1 That Lyceum committee of three included Erastus Wentworth, class of 1837, who practiced what he proposed by serving as a missionary in "Fuh Chou", China, from 1854 to 1862.2 He appears to be Wesleyan's first "China Hand".

He was followed by others. Marcus Lorenzo Taft, Class of 1873, served in various parts of China from 1880 to 1888, 1890 to 1894, 1896 to 1899, and 1905 to 1909. The Museum of Wesleyan University, founded in 1871 and now defunct -- with its remains scattered in various buildings, both likely and unlikely, at Wesleyan, noted in its "13th Annual Report" that: "The most important accession during the year [1884] is a collection of ethnological specimens from China, presented by Rev. Marcus L. Taft, a graduate of the University, now a missionary in Chinkiang." Missionaries like the Reverend Taft contributed artifacts in generous quantities to the Wesleyan Museum, while contributing Christianity with equal generosity to East Asia, almost exclusively China. As the notorious Yuan Shih-k'ai, President of the Republic of China from 1913 to his death in 1916 amidst the wreckage of his dream to become emperor, told Bishop Bashford: "After you Christians came to China and went about preaching the fatherhood of rod and the brotherhood of man, despotism became forever impossible."3

Another Wesleyan graduate, Joseph Beech of the class of 1899, was the inspiration behind the West China Union University, chartered in 1908; Beech became its first president in 1913. By 1920 West China Union University in Chengtu, Szechuan, boasted 110 acres with 35 buildings and a faculty, full time and part time, of 43 Americans, Englishmen and Chinese -- an enterprise larger than Joe Beech's Alma Mater. As a leaflet on West China Union University pointed out: "The Christian educator is destined to play the most important part in the creation of a new civilization in the Orient,..."4. And that University's 1919 bulletin perorated:

The hermit nations of the East are hermit nations no longer. In the last few decades, and most of all in the last few years, East and West have come closer together. Western science and literature and political opinions have profoundly influenced the thought of Oriental nations. The old learning of China is a matter of history.... China is absorbing the new learning and the new thought of the West. It is a perilous crisis when a nation swings free from its old moorings, social, ethical, and religious. In China, as in Japan and India, is presented the fateful alternative, Christianity or agnosticism. 5.

Scientific and political enlightment were pursued at the University, and the "study of Christian religion is also required of all students."6. When Joe Beech returned to the United States in 1940 at the age of 72 he was given a special farewell by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and awarded the Diploma of the First Class and decorated with the Jade Medal: "At that time the the other American to have this decoration was John Dewey." 7.

If trade follows the flag, and missionaries follow trade (in which Middletown was heavily involved), then the Academy is the aprés-guarde. Payson Treat, class of 1900, "...held what is believed to be the first professorship in Far Eastern history created for him at Stanford in 1906." 8. A prolific scholar, Professor Treat was a pioneer student of the diplomatic history of the Far East. Wesleyan can thus take pride in producing the avant-guarde of the aprés-guarde. But it was not until 1914 that Wesleyan initiated a course bearing on the Far East. This course was not in religion but in government: a Mr. Wriston, one of the two faculty in the Department of History in those days of abundance, taught a year long course on "Comparative Government", the second semester of which was:

..a survey of the other European countries[i.e., not Great Britain, France and Germany,]of the Latin-American countries, of self-governing dependencies, of India, China, and Japan with some consideration of colonial administration. The aim of the course is to present the development of constitutional government outside the United States, and to study the internal problems of the more important countries, with constant attention to American parallels and to the problems of systematic political theory. 9.

In addition to the courses and lectures dealing with the Far East from 1914 on listed in Appendix A, Joseph Silverstein taught a course on the governments of Asia from 1958 to 1964. A year long course on the great books of the Far and Near East was taught by David McAllester, Jan Miel and others from 1959 to 1968. An unfortunate experience with Chinese language teaching occurred from 1961 to 1963. The first Wesleyan faculty member with a competence in Chinese and/or Japanese, excluding native speakers, was apparently David Abosch, a specialist in Japanese intellectual history, who taught Far Eastern history at Wesleyan from 1958 to 1965.

With the arrival of Lawrence Olson in the fall of 1966, Wesleyan embarked on a prolonged effort to develop the curriculum in East Asian studies, particularly the teaching of Chinese and Japanese language and literature. Simultaneously, and independently, the Music Department expanded its ethnomusicology program in 1966 to include Japanese music performance. In 1967 a very modest Department of Asian Languages and Literatures was begun. This expansion of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan followed in the wake of the "area studies boom", initiated by the Social Science Research Council in 1946 and supported handsomely first by the Carnegie Corporation in 1947 and then by other private and government agencies -- the most important funding coming with the enactment of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, and with the Ford Foundation's Foreign Area Fellowship Program and related activities begun at approximately the same time.10. By 1973 Wesleyan had the largest faculty and widest range of course offerings in East Asia of any institution of comparable size in the United States. Seven faculty were linguistically qualified to conduct research in Chinese and/or Japanese sources; two native speakers taught Chinese and Japanese; two visiting artists taught Japanese music performance. In 1973-74 the East Asian Studies major, proposed by Lawrence Olson and approved by the EPC in 1972-73, went into effect.


Endnotes for Daivd Titus, "The Early History of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan"

1. Carl F. Price, Wesleyan's ants First Century (Middletown: Wesleyan University; 1932), p. 2:

2. Alumni Record, 1873.

3. West China Union University (1919), p. 18.

4. "Wesleyan and the West China Union University" (n.d.)

5. West China Union..., p.7.

6. Ibid., p. 11

7. The Wesleyan University Alumnus, May 1954, p.20

8. Palo Alto Times, June 15, 1972. The study of the Far East is healthy if nothing else: Professor Treat died in 1972 at the age of 92.

9. Wesleyan University "Announcement of Courses of Instruction", 1914-15., pp. 25-26.

10. For a description of the evolution of Japanese studies in the United States, see: "Japanese Studies in the United States", prepared by the SSRC-ACLS Joint Committee on Japanese Studies (February, 1970), especially pp. 15-22.