The Harvard-Yenching Institute: Past, Present, and Future

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic and security competition has significantly reduced U.S.-China academic collaboration, it is important to reflect on the purpose, value, and history of such exchanges. The U.S.-China Perception Monitor is pleased to republish the preface of Professor Shuhua Fan’s book The Harvard-Yenching Institute and Cultural Engineering: Remaking the Humanities in China, 1924-1951 (Lexington Books, 2014). The preface is authored by Dr. Elizabeth Perry, the Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute.

For more information about the book, please see its page on the Rowman & Littlefield website.

Today Chinese universities eagerly embrace the goal of “globalization” as an essential ingredient in their quest to become “world-class universities” for the twenty-first century.  But this is not China’s first experiment in the internationalization of higher education. The Republican period also saw many important efforts to connect Chinese universities to cutting-edge pedagogical trends around the world.  The establishment of Tsinghua University with Boxer Indemnity funds was one notable example.  The founding of Protestant and Catholic colleges with the assistance of American and European mission boards was another.  These attempts at educational globalization aroused considerable contention and controversy.  Such initiatives, much like those to be found on Chinese campuses today, struggled to strike an acceptable balance between the acknowledged need for foreign expertise and the strong desire to develop an educational model that was at the same time appropriately Chinese. 

From the Republican period to the present, an influential proponent of Sino-Western exchange in higher education has been the Harvard-Yenching Institute (HYI).  Fan Shuhua’s outstanding study of the early history of HYI offers an illuminating account of this important conduit of cross-national cultural communication and cooperation, from its founding in 1928 until the suspension of its activities on mainland China in 1951.  Based upon a wealth of original archival sources, Professor Fan’s insightful study illuminates many previously obscure episodes in the early history of HYI, some glorious and others ignominious.  The tensions surrounding the objectives and operations of HYI reflected a clash of ideas and interests that divided not only along national lines, but also within them.  How Chinese studies should best be pursued – whether by using the language of English or Chinese, whether by adopting “scientific Western” or “traditional Chinese” research methods, whether by limiting its scope to the humanities or by including social science disciplines as well, whether as a means to other ends (e.g., evangelism, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, etc.) – were key issues on which serious scholars strongly disagreed both then and now.   Recently, the lively controversy over the new Yenching Academy at Peking University indicates that such debates remain salient and sensitive even today.

New Developments

In the sixty-five years that have elapsed since the cut-off point of Professor Fan’s narrative, the Harvard-Yenching Institute has significantly changed and expanded its activities in Asia.  Under the directorship of Professor Edwin O. Reischauer, a specialist in Japanese history, HYI extended its academic partnerships to universities and research institutes in parts of East Asia beyond mainland China: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea.  Subsequently HYI developed connections in South and Southeast Asia as well.  Moreover, in contrast to the 1930s and 1940s, when the Institute’s operations in Asia were largely confined to support for Chinese studies at a handful of Christian colleges in China, after the introduction of HYI’s Visiting Scholar program in 1954 the Institute’s efforts in Asia were focused primarily on selecting and supporting promising young scholars from Asian universities for advanced study in the West – particularly at Harvard University.  Today the Visiting Scholars (faculty from Asian partner universities) and Visiting Fellows (advanced doctoral students from Asian partner universities) remain signature programs of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. A summary of these and other programs can be found at the Harvard-Yenching Institute website: 

After the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in 1979, HYI resumed partnerships with universities and research institutes in mainland China.  Today HYI enjoys partnerships with 20 institutions of higher education in the PRC (in addition to 30 partnerships with universities located in other parts of Asia).  It boasts a distinguished and active alumni network comprised of several thousand scholars located at major universities all across Asia.  In partnership with Hong Kong University (HKU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS), HYI has introduced fellowship programs for young faculty from Southeast Asia pursuing PhD degrees at HKU and NUS.  In cooperation with the Institute for Chinese Studies in Delhi, HYI supports fellowships for Indian students pursuing doctoral degrees in Chinese studies to enable them to conduct language study and dissertation research both in China and at Harvard.  In collaboration with partner universities across Asia, HYI sponsors “field development” training workshops for young faculty and advanced graduate students in newly emerging fields of study (e.g., urban studies, medical humanities, grassroots politics, world literature, and so forth) in the humanities and social sciences.  Outstanding graduates of these training programs are also eligible for fellowships to support a year of follow-up study and research on the Harvard campus.

At Harvard University, the Harvard-Yenching Institute (which remains an independent foundation, legally and financially separate from Harvard University) strives to introduce and integrate the scholarship of its visiting scholars and visiting fellows into the larger academic community.  All visiting scholars and fellows are assigned “mentors” among the Harvard faculty, with whom they are encouraged to engage regularly in academic discussion and debate.  Visiting scholars present public seminars on their research, chaired by their faculty mentors and open to the entire Harvard community.  Visiting Fellows participate in dissertation writing workshops facilitated by advanced Harvard graduate students in the humanities and social sciences.  Harvard faculty and graduate students frequently report that, thanks to the high quality of HYI affiliates, they themselves learn much more than they teach in these interactions.

Beyond Harvard, HYI endeavors to support and showcase influential Asian scholarship for a Western audience.  For example, it sponsors keynote addresses by leading Asia-based scholars at the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies.  It also sponsors a range of publication programs (scholarly monographs and journals in both English and Chinese, online book reviews of important scholarly works written in Asian languages, and so on).  And it provides travel support for Asia-based scholars to present papers at major conferences on Asian studies at Harvard University, the Association for Asian Studies, and elsewhere.   

Core Mission

Despite these new developments, the core mission of the Harvard-Yenching Institute remains unchanged: to advance higher education in the humanities and social sciences in Asia.  As in the past, HYI continues to pursue this mission by serving as a bridge between Harvard University and universities in Asia, bringing scholars from Asia to Harvard to work with its faculty and to utilize its rich library collections (especially the Harvard-Yenching Library) and other research facilities, and sending distinguished faculty from Harvard and other universities (both inside and outside of Asia) to lecture in Asia – especially at partner universities in China.

The benefactor of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Mr. Charles Martin Hall, died in 1914 with a last will and testament that made clear his commitment to advancing higher education in what was then broadly considered to be “the Orient”: “Japan, Continental Asia, Turkey and the Balkan States in Europe.”[1]  Fourteen years later, his vision was realized in the founding of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the purpose of which was “to conduct and provide research, instruction and publication in the culture of China and/or elsewhere in Continental Asia and Japan, and/or Turkey and the Balkan States in Europe . . .”  The Institute affirmed its commitment to “carry on, for properly prepared Chinese and Occidental scholars, research and education work of the type appropriate to a graduate school of arts and sciences, and . . . .in China, to explore, discover, collect and preserve objects of culture and antiquities, or to aid museums or others to do so.”[2] 

Having been founded during the period of disruptive warlordism in China, when warfare threatened to destroy much of China’s ancient cultural heritage, HYI saw its mission as that of protecting and interpreting – not altering or transforming – traditional Chinese cultural artifacts and values.  In this respect, HYI differed fundamentally from the Western missionary effort that was also underway in China at this same time.  In his last will and testament, Mr. Hall stipulated explicitly, with respect to his support for educational purposes in Asia, that “no part of it should be used for the purpose of instruction in theology.”[3]  Although Charles Martin Hall and the Trustees of his estate favored close cooperation with the Christian colleges in China (especially Yenching University, but also other colleges operating under the auspices of American mission boards), they did so not because they aimed to convert China to Christianity, but because they appreciated the Christian colleges’ commitment to liberal arts education.  Charles Martin Hall was himself the graduate of a religiously-inspired American liberal arts college (Oberlin College) and – as a scientific inventor and successful businessman – he firmly believed in the educational advantages of such institutions.  By a similar logic, HYI believed that the Christian colleges in China offered the best hope for protecting Chinese culture.  Their emphasis on building up libraries and museums as repositories of cultural value, and on developing a multi-cultural curriculum intended to cultivate critical thinking and a globalized world view, was quite consistent with HYI’s own ambition.

For the Christian colleges in China, cooperating with HYI to strengthen their offerings in Chinese studies was seen as a means to a higher religious goal of evangelizing Chinese.  For the Harvard-Yenching Institute, however, cooperating with the Christian colleges was seen as a means to a higher secular goal of academic scholarship.  The aim was one of cultural excavation and conservation so that the treasures of China’s rich historical tradition might be spared the devastation of warfare and impending revolution.  In the eyes of HYI, the role of the Christian colleges in China was to serve as vehicles for introducing a “Western scientific” approach to the study of Chinese culture.  Such an approach, the Trustees of HYI believed, would be a contribution of the utmost importance not only to future generations of Chinese, but to world civilization as a whole. 

The precise meaning of the “Western scientific methods” to be applied to Chinese studies was however never clearly articulated by the leadership of HYI, allowing for a kind of unexamined cultural imperialism in which the methods employed by scholars at Harvard (and their students at Yenching and other Christian colleges) were considered inherently superior to the methods employed by indigenous Chinese Sinologists.  As Fan Shuhua correctly notes, although the Harvard-Yenching Institute can claim credit for many significant contributions to Asian Studies – both in Asia and at Harvard, it was also responsible for a number of culturally insensitive and unsavory escapades.  Most of these unfortunate episodes can be attributed to a smug sense of “scientific” superiority on the part of the early leaders of HYI, who embraced an elitist and stratified view of academic excellence in which Harvard set the global standard.  While HYI did not seek to change Chinese culture itself, it did hope to transform the study of Chinese culture so that it would better conform to what scholars in the West deemed to be the most advanced international standards of scholarship.

Today the Harvard-Yenching Institute recognizes that students and faculty at Harvard University have at least as much to learn from Asia-based scholars as the other way around.  Although the founding mission of the Institute – to promote higher education through the advanced study of Chinese and Asian culture – remains unchanged, HYI no longer subscribes to a hierarchical image in which the faculty of Harvard University towers at the apex of academic excellence, scholars at other institutions who were educated at Harvard rank second, and all others are considered academically inferior. HYI’s new initiatives, such as field development training workshops and joint degree programs, are conducted in close collaboration with dozens of different Asian partner universities, thereby acknowledging a multiplicity of vibrant and distinctive centers for the study of Asian culture.

The recent proliferation of interdisciplinary graduate-level programs in Chinese studies at major universities across Greater China (along with similar programs in Japanese studies at leading universities in Japan) is an exciting development that promises to challenge existing definitions of these fields in the West.  Whether such programs are better conducted in English or in Asian languages, whether they contribute more to national “soft power” or to serious scholarship, and whether they serve to promote cultural diversity or global homogeneity, are all debates well worth having.  The Harvard-Yenching Institute takes no official position on any of these complex and controversial questions.  It does, however, welcome the renewed attention to Chinese culture that these contemporary trends reflect, and it takes comfort in the hope that, over the course of its eventful ninety-year lifespan, HYI may have contributed in some small measure to the current renaissance of interest in Chinese culture both inside China and at universities and research institutes around the world. 

As Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Professor Fan Shuhua of the University of Scranton for compiling this instructive history of the early years of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, and to Professor Liu Jiafeng of Shandong University for recognizing its scholarly value and enabling its timely translation into Chinese. 

[1] Last Will and Testament of Charles M. Hall, November 1, 1914.

[2] Harvard-Yenching Institute Agreement of Association, January 4, 1928.

[3] Last Will and Testament of Charles M. Hall, November 1, 1914.