The Wason Collection on East Asia, a Reflection of
“An institution where any person can find instruction in any study”
Cornell’s Interest in East Asia and East Asian Studies
The history of the Wason Collection on East Asia at Cornell University Library has been closely related to Cornell’s long and continuous involvement with East Asia, particularly with China. Therefore, the story of the Wason Collection would not be complete without tracing back to the very beginning of Cornell University, when Ezra Cornell, the founder of the university, declared his vision and philosophy for the new institution.
In 1870, only four years after its founding, Cornell University began offering Chinese- and Japanese-language courses, and enrolled its first Japanese student. In 1874 Ryokichi Yatabe was the first Japanese graduate from Cornell; he subsequently served as the first curator of the Tokyo Botanical Garden. In 1897 the first Chinese student, Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, an employee of the Chinese Legation in the United States, entered Cornell University. Sze graduated in 1901 and later served as the longest-term Chinese minister (191112, 1920-29, 1932-34) and became the first Chinese ambassador to the United States (1935-37) after the two countries diplomatic relationship was upgraded.
In 1906 Cornell received the visit of the first Chinese government delegation led by Tai Hung Chi, China’s vice finance minister, and Tuan Fang, governor of the Hunan province. The mission included twenty-five members, with Cornell’s first Chinese alumnus, Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, acting as secretary and chief interpreter. The Chinese visitors were warmly welcomed by the Cornell community. According to Cornell Alumni News (February 1906), “they explored the Campus, being received everywhere with interest and courtesy by students and faculty, and presenting a striking picture in their native dress – jeweled caps and costly robes of silk and satin.”