Vision decades ago leads to 50 years of success for East Asian Languages and Cultures

"Picturesque scenery at Heilong Tan (Black Dragon Pool) at the base of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain" by IU student Hannah Miller. Location: Lijiang City, Yunnan Province, China

“Picturesque scenery at Heilong Tan (Black Dragon Pool) at the base of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain” by IU student Hannah Miller. Location: Lijiang City, Yunnan Province, China

Indiana University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures recently marked its 50th anniversary with guest lectures and remembrances.

They reminded us of how others’ long-range views have created a foundation for further success in the 21st century.

EALC alumni, faculty, students and guests from across the Bloomington campus gathered on April 4 for a celebration that included lectures by two scholars — Norma Field, an alumna and the Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in Japanese Studies at the University of Chicago, and Joshua Fogel, professor of history at York University in Canada.

IU Bloomington Chancellor Emeritus Kenneth Gros Louis and Professor Emeritus and former East Asian Studies Center Director George Wilson offered remembrances, along with Zachary Ziliak, a 1994 IU graduate and a former Wells Scholar and Rhodes Scholar.

Gros Louis called the department “one of the jewels in the crown” of IU.

“In so many ways, it is encouraging to be on this lovely campus on this occasion, to see how East Asian studies is flourishing here,” observed Field, a former Guggenheim fellow who earned her master’s degree through the department, which is a core academic unit in IU’s new School of Global and International Studies.

“You seem to be flourishing so much in an era when, I think, so much is not flourishing, that I am wondering what the best course is that you will be taking, what paths you’ll be exploring and expecting to be inspired,” she added.

The Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures was established in the College of Arts and Sciences in 1962, under the department title East Asian Languages and Literatures. A decade earlier, IU had offered courses in Chinese and Japanese to meet a growing demand spurred by national interest in East Asia that developed as a result of the Second World War.

A 1961 Ford Foundation grant for international studies of $2.5 million (more than $19 million in 2013 dollars) brought East Asian studies at IU to national prominence. Further support from the Asia Foundation and the Japan Society provided the funding for faculty, fellowships for students and larger library holdings in the field.

An East Asian Studies Program established in 1970 expanded area studies and complemented the department’s offerings in languages and literatures. In 1975, the program and the department merged, forming the current Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.

Field praised the wisdom of those at IU decades ago who decided to focus on language studies and area studies programs, at a time when more emphasis was being placed elsewhere on the study of literatures.

She reminded her audience — that, as an IU student in the early 1970s, she saw federal financial support for these programs being criticized — and later, as a scholar in the 1990s, she saw area studies programs viewed as “unfashionable.”

Wilson recalled when he came to IU in 1967 as a history professor “it was necessary for me to find some way to connect to the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures … It wasn’t in the end very hard to do; they certainly never offered me a membership – literature was something I looked at as a matter of social context, I’m afraid.”

The transition in 1975 from EALL to EALC was a “crucial moment in the history of the department, which has allowed it to continue to thrive,” added Wilson, who retired in 2002. “We chose the name of East Asian Languages and Cultures over a strenuous competition involving an alternative name, East Asian Studies, which I didn’t favor.”

Wilson said the department’s founder and retiring chair exerted his influence for East Asian Languages and Cultures, seeing “something in the future, because there was very little precedent for this at the time … East Asian Languages and Cultures made possible a range of appointments and the recruitment of students – graduate and undergraduate – that probably would never have happened if we had stayed with the more narrow, original identification.”

In 1979, IU won federal support for a National Resource Center in East Asian studies and established the East Asian Studies Center, which Wilson led until 2002. The center, which has research and outreach activities, coordinates two highly successful outreach programs, the Teaching East Asian Literature in the High School workshop and the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia seminars.

Since the department’s founding, more than 280 theses and dissertations have been successfully produced by graduate students. Alumni of the program have gone on to become influential scholars at other universities around the world as well as in the business world and in diplomatic and government service.

Colleen Berry, an alumna who is now an associate professor at the University of North Dakota, noted that she made close relationships with her classmates and noted that one of them now works in China, recruiting basketball players for the NBA.

“These ties have really meant a lot to me,” Berry said. “In fact, even the textbook I use, ‘Integrated Chinese,’ which is the most widely used Chinese textbook in North America, was written by a team of scholars who were my classmates.”

Ziliak, today a senior associate at the Chicago law firm of Mayer Brown, said he “fell into Japanese,” because of a requirement for his linguistics major – one of five majors he earned a degree in.

“The product of a small town in southern Indiana, I’d had exactly zero exposure to all things Japanese prior to coming into this program,” he said. “My classes opened my eyes to a whole part of the world with which I was completely unfamiliar.

“It’s hard to imagine now, when sushi is ubiquitous, but back then I had never been in a Japanese restaurant until our language class made an outing there one evening. That was my first encounter with sushi … and also the first time I saw this exotic and apparently Japanese dessert called ‘tiramisu,'” he quipped.

“Life goes on and I now have a three-year-old daughter. As everyone here knows, when she’s old enough to study here, China will have the biggest economy in the world,” he said. “Everyone recognizes how important East Asian languages are and schools everywhere are scrambling to put these programs together.  But I will always be proud that Indiana University had the foresight to assemble this program half a century ago.”

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