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Wm. Theodore de Bary’s class at Columbia

On Wednesday, a bright cold day in New York, I took the subway to 116th Street to attend an East Asia seminar at Columbia University with the remarkable Wm. Theodore de Bary. This is one of the delights of life as a independent publisher and writer: you get invited to classes at Columbia and Yale while your corporate colleagues go to meetings. Professor de Bary essentially created what we now call Asian Studies. He’s 87 now, and teaches three or four classes every semester. I interviewed him last year for an article on the Confucian tradition for Guanxi: The China Letter, and we had a lively conversation about ways to begin to understand another culture. We talked about a Guanxi Book Club, still to be developed, and he suggested I attend a class, too–no doubt regretting my lack of proper training in the subject I’m now so immersed in.

He began the class by quoting Kipling, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” and then showing that throughout East Asia this had not been true: some visiting Westerners had not only met the Japanese and Chinese but learned their languages and became much-respected. Most of Professor de Bary’s classes are discussions, and he was apologetic that this was more of a presentation by him, but he explained to me afterwards that he had to do it because he was covering material that the students–about 20 of them–were not familiar with.

I was intrigued as ever by his emphasis on the idea of civic virtue and a civil society, and on the concept of nobility. These are ideas that are fairly easy to look at cross-culturally, and what he’s done, in a number of books, is to explain aspects of Asian culture that are misunderstood–Confucianism, in particular. One idea that struck me as completely relevant to today is that patronage of the arts and high culture is a way for leaders to achieve a kind of respect and stature that they cannot achieve through military or economic victories.

Here’s a link to Kipling’s poem, The Ballad of East and West, which begins:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

In fact, in the poem, two military men, one British and the other Indian (Kipling wrote about the British Raj), are united in battle–maybe another version of the saying beloved among international relations experts, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

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