It's probably clearer today than ever before that the world is in the midst of a major geopolitical and economic power shift. Asia is ascendant, particularly China, Japan, India. That was not apparent to many, however, in the 1960s, as the first faculty members began to develop a loose collection of courses focused on the history and culture of the region. When Jay Williams '54 was a student at Hamilton, he was able to study little beyond Europe and North America. After he returned to the Hill in 1960 as a faculty member in what was then the Department of Philosophy and Religion, he and a few others — including Russell Blackwood, who arrived to teach philosophy in 1957, and Edwin Lee, who followed to teach history a year later — began to encourage the College to develop more courses dealing with non-Western cultures. Williams' first contribution was a course on Chinese religions, and their effort progressively bore fruit over the years that followed.
Then, in 1989, the Mellon Foundation gave the College a three-year grant to develop a curriculum in East Asian languages. With Chinese being taught on campus, the Asian Studies Program — related but distinct — had the jump-start it needed. Jin was recruited, and a year later Li joined the Government Department. As so-called "area specialists" with Ph.D.s joined the Asian Studies faculty through the '90s, the program began to take on a remarkable scope for a college of Hamilton's size, and wide recognition soon followed, particularly in the form of a series of grants from the Luce Foundation, the Freeman Foundation and the Japan Foundation between 1999 and 2003. The funding allowed Asian Studies to diversify even more dramatically, adding faculty positions, supporting teacher-student research and transforming the program from one focused primarily on China to one with substantial and growing interdisciplinary course offerings on Japan, India, Korea, Islamic culture and regional themes.
The complementary, multidisciplinary approach of the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department and the Asian Studies Program was cited in Hamilton's 2002 Strategic Plan as a model of "general excellence that can help attract the best students to the College." Two years later, Japanese was introduced as a minor and has grown steadily ever since. "We stand out among many liberal arts colleges in that we offer so many courses related to Japan," says Kyoko Omori, assistant professor of Japanese — "history, theatrical performance, anthropology, art history, literature, film, comparative studies, linguistics and introductory culture courses. This variety gives our students opportunities to pursue their interests in senior research or student-faculty collaborative research."
On the China track, Li emerged as one of the leading China experts in America and Jin as a renowned language-instruction innovator. As a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Board of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Li is now frequently called upon by government leaders for his insight and analysis of the political scene in Beijing. For the media, he's become a "go-to" guy, frequently quoted in America's major papers and appearing on TV and radio news programs. In 2000, Jin and her husband, Professor of Chinese De Bao Xu, played key roles as Hamilton initiated and hosted the first International Conference and Workshops on Technology and Chinese Language Teaching in the 21st Century, a series now co-managed by Yale University, Columbia University and the University of Southern California.
But the College's innovative approach and reputation go far beyond the expertise and name recognition of a few individuals. "Many places have an Asian Studies program," says Jay Williams, now the Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies. "But we really have a very rich program here, with more faculty devoted to Asia than many of our larger competitors" — 15 tenure-track faculty members, to be exact, with a couple of post-docs, too. They're spread out among nine departments, including Anthropology, Art History, Government and Comparative Literature, as well as Chinese and Japanese languages. The 2006-07 catalogue listed 66 courses under the Asian Studies Program, 11 in history alone. Asian Studies majors must choose courses from at least three of those departments, and their studies must emphasize either a single country (usually China, India or Japan) or a regional theme such as politics, religion or the arts. They also must fulfill a language requirement.
This multidisciplinary approach allows students to craft a program that suits their particular needs and interests. That flexibility attracted Meghan Morrissey '07 to the major. "I wanted to focus on a region of the world and really dissect every part of it — politics, government, history, language — and really try to understand it," she says. Graduating with a minor in education, Morrissey studied in Beijing, then spent her final semester focusing on ways the U.S. and China might be drawn together through cultural exchanges.
Jay Williams '54, the Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies and former chair of the Asian Studies Program, found little attention paid to Asia during his undergraduate days at Hamilton. When he returned to teach in 1960, he was one of several faculty members who pressed the College to address non-Western cultures. Today, he says, "we really have a very rich program here, with more faculty devoted to Asia than many of our larger competitors."