CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


On a Chinese Studies Program | China Heritage Quarterly

On a Chinese Studies Program

Frederick W. Mote

The following material is taken from Frederick W. Mote's 'East Asian Studies at Princeton, View from the Beginnings', a 1993 essay included as an addendum to his posthumous work, China and the Vocation of History in the Twentieth Century, A Personal Memoir, Princeton, NJ: East Asian Library Journal in association with Princeton University Press, 2010. With brevity and elegance Mote, one of the outstanding contemporary historians of China, offers a list of desiderata for a successful program in Chinese Studies, as well as Japanese Studies. We print it here for the reference of those interested in the subject and in the context of previous work published in China Heritage Quarterly related to New Sinology.—The Editor

Perhaps it is not too presumptuous to draw some general conclusions from the history of East Asian Studies at Princeton. Those of us involved from the beginning did not see ourselves as innovators or theorists, but in fact being unaided (or unfettered) by traditions, senior figures, and established philosophies, we managed to guide our development along lines not common to the programs in other institutions. Looking back on the experience today, most of us, I believe, do not wish that we had done things in the more conventional ways, even though we still regret some of the things that we failed to accomplish, and which we hope our successors will be more successful in accomplishing, e.g., broadening the department and the program curriculum in certain essential ways. Leaving those matters aside, I would like to reflect on the distinctive features of the Princeton experience that I believe hold value for the present and the future.

1. Language teaching must lie at the center of the entire activity. We made the decision to be uncompromising in our demand that all students learn the languages-modern and classical-early, rapidly, fully. We pioneered ways of using summer intensive programs; overseas centers; five-year undergraduate programs; language tables; foreign travel for study, thesis research, and senior research; admission to summer programs for incoming freshmen before their arrival at Princeton; and all other devices we could invent to emphasize the centrality of language training. We maintained an atmosphere in which it was assumed that talks could be given to our student body in Chinese or Japanese and that they would draw comprehending audiences. We stressed the use of modern Chinese and Japanese for teaching the literary and classical languages and in various ways as tools in both undergraduate and graduate seminars. We demanded and to date have received recognition from the dean's office for higher levels of faculty staffing for drill sessions than are allowed in the modern European languages (which are often not as well or as seriously taught as our East Asian languages). Our students, generally, have revelled in this and have helped to push the standards ever higher. They have taken great pride in being recognized as the best language students on the scene when they arrive at summer institutes or overseas centers where they have to perform alongside students from other institutions. Although our competitors leading other programs may not happily acknowledge the fact, it is widely recognized throughout the fields of Chinese and Japanese studies (and may it also be true in Korean studies) that Princeton has consistently turned out the best-trained language students in the country.

Fig.1 A carved window in the main hall of the Fuxi Temple 伏羲庙 at Tianshui 天水 in Gansu 甘肃, October 2010. (Photograph: GRB)

This has not been easy, nor are principles once established necessarily self-perpetuating. It has taken constant struggle and renewal of effort to maintain this standing, and there is no reason to believe that continuing struggle will not always be necessary.

2. All language teachers must be regarded as full members of the faculty. The flimsy notion that 'language courses' should be seen apart from and granted different value from 'content courses' implies an academic caste system; it also perpetuates a pedagogical misconception. Formally speaking, we still are forced by some aspects of university administration to acknowledge aspects of this unfortunate conception as it applies to teachers and to credits, but in practice we have striven more successfully than any institution I know of to bypass it. The only significant distinctions among members of a faculty are those that separate the able from the less able, the energetic and committed from the self-serving. The only significant distinction among courses is that between courses that contribute as fully as possible to the student's education and those that do not. All else is irrelevant.

3. We have striven to transcend disciplinary boundary lines in all fields of teaching, not recognizing the abyss that all too often separates the humanities and social sciences or studies of the past and of the present or 'China' and 'Japan' and 'Korea' and 'Inner Asia' as fields of specialization, but expecting rather that students would come to recognize interrelations among all. We have expected students of history, religion, and philosophy to study literature and art; art historians to study social and political history; students of the contemporary to be culturally literate even when the objects of their study have not been; and students of early eras to recognize the relevance of their fields for the understanding of the contemporary. This has meant avoiding faddish jargon as a substitute for understanding. It has barred students of current matters based in other departments from failing to meet our department's rigorous language standards. It has meant that faculty members often (and ideally) assist by directing and reading research (often as 'second readers' or 'advisors') in all fields of East Asian studies, regardless of their own specializations. In short, a community of knowledge and learning has been cultivated in which all with any kinds of East Asian interests can share.

4. We have, quite properly I believe, stressed a prior commitment within the East Asian Studies Department to the early modern and premodern phases of the civilizations of China, Japan, and all of East Asia, hoping that the East Asian Program in conjunction with the other relevant departments would oversee the full development of recent and contemporary studies. There still are significant gaps in the latter kinds of coverage. But I believe that the department now probably bears a still heavier obligation to maintain this emphasis than in the past, for the study of the traditional phases of the East Asian civilizations is now generally weaker throughout the American and Western universities than it has ever been. In the case of China, Princeton has built up the best library and research supports for the period 1300-1800 that exists in the Western world and is recognized as the premier base for such period specialization. I believe that imposes a measure of obligation to retain a strong research and teaching presence in Yuan, Ming, and early Qing studies.

5. References to the East Asian Library appear throughout the foregoing, and it is clear that the existence of the library has been the major impulse toward the creation and maintenance of East Asian studies at Princeton. Libraries tend to be as strong as related faculty members demand that they be—and no stronger. The level of our faculty's involvement with the library has varied and may not now be as active as it should be. At Princeton we now face a crisis in library space, but that means that the opportunity exists to take a major step toward assuring the urgently needed expansion of the library, its space, its human and material resources, and above all, its facilities for fully utilizing its unparalleled Rare Books and Special Collections divisions. This will come about only if the faculty demand it; we cannot assume that the university will in its wisdom assign to our library the priorities necessary to accomplish even the minimal enhancement of support now urgently needed. This could become the most important matter now facing the future or East Asian Studies at Princeton.

From Frederick W. Mote, China and the Vocation of History in the Twentieth Century, Princeton University Press, 2010, pp.253-256.

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