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Cornell’s Interest in East Asia and East Asian Studies

Cornell’s East Asian studies programs attained new prominence at the beginning of the 21st century. A unique and ambitious undergraduate program, China and Asia-Pacific Studies (CAPS), was initiated at Cornell to “train future leaders who are equipped to address the inevitable challenges and negotiate the delicate complexities in U.S.-China relations.” This program requires students to pursue four years of intensive Chinese language training. The curriculum features unprecedented collaboration across three departments: government, history, and Asian studies. The program also requires students to spend internship semesters in Washington, D.C., and Beijing for the purpose of pre-professional training. They interact with the leading experts on China, work with some of the most influential and dynamic players in China, and develop a unique network of contacts for future study and work opportunities.

In addition to its existing strengths in traditional disciplines for the study of East Asia, Cornell has also embarked on new initiatives in the fields of law, agricultural and life sciences, human development, industrial and labor relations, and business management. For example, the Law School’s new Clark Program in East Asian Law and Culture provides a broad interdisciplinary and humanistic focus to the study of East Asian legal systems. It also seeks to expand the purview of legal scholarship and to develop new ways of thinking about transnational law, politics, and culture through research, teaching, and scholarly dialogue.

It is worth mentioning that Cornell is widely recognized as a leading institute in East Asian language instruction. It offers language programs in Mandarin Chinese, classic Chinese, Cantonese, modern and classic Japanese, and Korean. For a time it also offered Hokkien. Cornell’s FALCON (Full-year Asian Language Concentration) program in Chinese and Japanese is the only full-time intensive Asian-language study program at an American university. It enables students to condense three or four years of standard instruction into a single year.

Currently the East Asian studies program at Cornell boasts fifty full-time faculty members from the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Human Ecology, Industrial and Labor Relations, and the Johnson Graduate School of Management. All together, they present a broad and highly interdisciplinary approach to the studies of East Asia. 

Cornell’s East Asian studies program has been and continues to be highly regarded. Among its retired and current faculty are four past presidents of the Association for Asian Studies, a recipient of Japan’s Order of the Precious Crown, and a recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun, the highest decoration for exceptional merit accorded a Westerner by the Japanese government. These achievements would not have been possible without the resources of the well-known Wason Collection on East Asia at the Cornell University Library.


Historical Journey of the Wason Collection on East Asia

Cornell University Library officially began collecting books on East Asia in 1902 when it received special appropriations for this pursuit. The initial holdings were augmented by some 350 volumes of Chinese-language books donated to the library by the Chinese students at Cornell in 1912. Six years later Charles W. Wason gave his extraordinary collection to the Library.

Wason was born to a banker’s family in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 20, 1854. He grew up in Cleveland and graduated from the Guilford Academy. Wason entered Cornell in 1872 and received his degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1876. After graduation, he went back to Cleveland and began work as an engineer for the East Cleveland Railway Company. Subsequently, Wason rose through the ranks and became the president or director of a number of other railroads, electric, and telephone companies.   

Wason and his wife took a cruise to China and Japan in 1903, which was a crucial, transitional, and eventful period in modern Chinese history. It was eight years after China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War, five years after the failed reform movement led by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, three years after the Boxer Uprising, and just eight years before the 1911 Revolution that would bring down the 2,000- year-old imperial system and establish China’s first republic. This trip served to ignite Wason’s strong passion for China and its people and culture, although he did not start collecting books on China until 1909 when he received the gift of a book entitled Letters from China, with particular reference to the empress dowager and women in China by Sarah Pike Conger (Chicago: 1909). 

As an active member of the Cornell Alumni Association of Cleveland, Wason maintained a close tie with his alma mater. In a speech to the association, he revealed that his motive to collect books on China was “to bring China and the U.S. into closer intellectual relations.” For this purpose, he would undertake to purchase everything he could get his hands on written in English on China.

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