I visited de Bary in his fifth-floor office at Columbia University on a beautiful spring day. His desk was invisible under piles of books and papers: at eighty-six years old, he still teaches two classes and is working on a new edition of Sources of Japanese Tradition.

De Bary is the author of some of the most important books in the field of Asian studies and creator of the renowned “Sources” volumes, which offer selections of the major works of the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other Asian traditions in new English translations. Over his more than five decades of teaching, de Bary’s vision for making Asian classics part of U.S. general education has inspired students and guided the development of the field of Asian studies. In recent years, he has written about the issues of civil society and Confucianism. His most recent book is Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good (Harvard University Press, 2004).

Students in Asia today learn about their own cultures from his books. Through his work on Neo-Confucianism and relations with scholars at the New Asia College in Hong Kong, de Bary was instrumental in maintaining the study of Confucianism during the decades when the Chinese government strongly opposed it.

KC: Why should we read the Chinese classics?

WTdB: Because you want to find out what people said for themselves, about themselves. You have to know where they’re coming from, and you have to know how they got where they are today. I tell my students that we are looking for both commonality and diversity, similarity and differences. We’re looking for common human values, sentiments, ideas.

KC: Does the translation matter?

WTdB: Yes, but it isn’t something to worry about. Just make out as best you can what is immediately understandable in a translation that’s reasonably accurate. This issue arose in the early teaching of the great books here at Columbia. John Erskine, one of the founders of this movement, said, “How many people read the Bible in the original?”

KC: What about Guanxi readers?

WTdB: Any reading they do is going to be worthwhile. If they can do it in a group, so that they share their reactions with the group, that’s very helpful. Because you never know just exactly whether you’re reading something into it that’s just of individual or personal significance. It’s helpful to know whether other people find the same value in it. Just yesterday, I had a visit from a former student, a lawyer, and he said, “I’ve never forgotten Mencius, he always has had a meaning for me.” Now the Confucians tended not to attach the highest value to law as such. They were much more concerned with basic human sentiments, how people live together, work together, feel together. What my student remembers is that the Confucians had doubts about just how far you can get with the law if you don’t have a moral culture that is supportive of the law.

Source: Christensen, Karen. (2006). An Interview with Wm. Theodore de Bary. Guanxi: The China Letter, 2, 10.