The Wason Collection on East Asia

A Reflection of Cornell’s Motto: “An institution where any person can find instruction in any study”

written by Liren Zheng, Curator of Wason Collection on East Asia

Cornell’s Interest in East Asia and East Asian Studies

Photo of Cornell campusThe 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.

Portrait of Ezra CornellOn October 7, 1868, the Inauguration Day of Cornell University, Ezra Cornell gave a brief address concluding with the university’s newly adopted motto: “I trust we have laid the foundation of a University — an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” This motto demonstrates Cornell University’s determination to not be bound by a conventional curriculum, its commitment to innovation, and its willingness to embrace anyone who comes to seek knowledge. This motto captures an aspiration that has inspired generations of Cornellians and has been manifested in the university’s pioneering Asian studies programs and its outreach to East Asia.

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 (1911-12, 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.”

Photo of Chinese delegation visit to CornellDuring their visit China’s dragon flag flew side by side with the U.S. Old Glory over campus. The Chinese officials met with university trustees, college deans, and nine Chinese students, the largest number attending any American university at that time. The university cadet corps held a special military drill in honor of the mission and the Glee Club entertained the visitors with university songs. After a student welcome ceremony, Tai Hung Chi, the Chinese chief commissioner,addressed Cornell students in Chinese, which was translated by Sze. Tai thanked Cornell University for the kind welcome the Chinese mission had received, expressed his admiration for Cornell, which he considered one of the greatest universities in the United States, shared the progress which was being made in China’s educational system, and spoke of the need for “Western learning,” which was being felt throughout China and was the impetus for their visit.

At his welcome speech, Cornell President Jacob Gould Schurman, who later became envoy extraordinaire and minister plenipotentiary to China (1921–25), stated: “In welcoming you to Cornell University, which is one of the youngest organs of education in America, I am reminded that our Republic itself and even our civilization are youthful in comparison with the government and civilization of China. You represent the oldest civilization in the world. And although the younger nations may have carried forward to higher levels the sciences of nature and the inventions by which they facilitate industry, learning and culture were the heritage of your ancestors before even the oldest of Occidental nations had come into existence.” President Schurman’s words reflect the admiration many generations of Cornellians have had for Asian culture, which has translated into an unabated interest in studying East Asia.

Book cover, "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. BuckDuring the 1920s Cornell’s Agriculture College began a cooperative program with the University of Nanjing, which brought numerous Chinese students and faculty to Cornell and sent American students abroad to study Chinese agriculture. Pearl Buck studied rural sociology at Cornell in 1926. Her epic description of peasant life in China won her the 1938 Nobel Prize in literature. In 1938 Professor Knight Biggerstaff received the first appointment to teach Chinese history. In 1944 the Department of Chinese Studies was created, which was later broadened to Far Eastern Studies.

After World War II, East Asian studies at Cornell expanded at a rapid pace. In 1950 Biggerstaff initiated the China Program with five associated faculty. In 1956 Cornell inaugurated a Chinese-language teaching program in Taipei, which later became the core of the university’s Interuniversity Program for Chinese Language Study.

PhotoIn 1960 the U.S. Office of Education designated Cornell to be a national center for East Asian studies. The same year Japanese-language instruction was added to the university curriculum. Japanese studies at Cornell developed and grew in scope throughout the 1960s. During the 1970s Cornell continued to expand its Chinese studies, which now included an extensive language program and courses of instruction in all major disciplines related to China. Japanese studies also experienced its greatest growth during this period, with six new faculty positions added in the fields of history, literature, religion, political science, and linguistics.

In 1972 the China Program changed its name to the China-Japan Program in recognition of the increasing importance of Japanese studies. It became the East Asia Program in 1988 to acknowledge Cornell’s growing commitment to Korean studies.

Screen shot of Cornell Online articleCornell’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

Photo of Charles WasonCornell 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.

Initially Wason purchased books by himself. He checked catalogs published by American and European book dealers for items he thought suitable and ordered them. To keep track of his private library on China, he created a card index by author and subject. But Wason soon realized that his own health was declining and that the collection was growing to the extent that he needed the professional assistance. So he called upon Arthur H. Clark, a personal friend and a publisher based in Cleveland, to take over the book purchasing.

Photo of a Chinese language bookClark was an expert in the publishing field. He not only secured many unique items from the American market but also from around the world. Among the rarest and most significant items he purchased for Wason’s collection were several surviving manuscript volumes of the famous Chinese encyclopedia, Yongle Dadian, which was originally compiled in 1408 and reproduced in 1568; a seventeenth- century incised jade book bearing an ancestral inscription by the Chinese Emperor Kangxi; the manuscripts from Lord Macartney’s mission to China (1792–94) on behalf of the British crown in celebration of the 80th jubilee of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong; and a Painting of a ship in Chinese harborset of publications of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. In addition Clark obtained seventeenth-century travelogues and maps and eighteenth-century ship logs of merchant vessels plying the oriental seas. These represent first-hand accounts of Western contacts with China and the Chinese people. Clark also purchased non-English materials, such as sixteenth- and seventieth-century books and manuscripts in French, Latin, Portuguese, and Spanish—mostly by Jesuit missionaries.

Wason also realized the importance of journal literature. He collected 62,000 articles on China from more than 150 periodicals, bound them into volumes, and created tables of contents for them. In addition to the focus on China proper, Wason also gave his attention to countries and areas closely related to China. His intent was to build a well-rounded collection that would include important titles produced both in and outside China, so as to provide a comprehensive view of the nation and its people.

1939 newspaper highlighting Wason collection donationIn pursuit of this goal, he bought standard works on Japan, Korea, the Russian Far East, the Philippines, Burma, Indochina, Malaya, the East Indies, and the Far East in general.As a result of eight years of intensive collecting, Wason amassed over 9,000 volumes of material between 1910 and 1918, including 550 manuscripts bound in fifty-five volumes, 750 pamphlets bound in 120 volumes, files of thirty-seven English-language periodicals published in China, documents, drawings, maps, albums, and other materials.

The collection was originally housed in Wason’s home on Cleveland’s upscale Euclid Avenue. In order to provide better housing within an authentic Chinese milieu for his massive collection, Wason undertook careful research and drew up an extensive blueprint for a spacious room and its every detail and decoration. He and his wife hired the architectural firm of Mead & Hamilton to convert their entire third-floor ballroom into a charming personal library with Chinese decor.

Wason passed away on April 15, 1918. Along with his remarkable collection, he bequeathed to Cornell University an endowment of $50,000 to be used to supplement the collection.  The collection was moved to Ithaca in the summer of 1919 and was housed in the University Library building (now called Uris Library). Named in honor of Charles Wason, the collection has become one of the nation’s finest Western-language libraries devoted to East Asia. Cornell’s trustees also decided that future acquisitions would not be limited to English-language publications, but should also include works in Chinese and other languages.

In 1920 Gussie E. Gaskill, a Cornell graduate student in modern European history, was recruited to organize the collection and make necessary purchases. She was appointed the first Wason Collection curator in 1927, a position she held for thirty-six years until she retired in 1963. Over the years Gaskill frequently corresponded with Mrs. Wason, who maintained an active interest in the development of the collection and often recommended books she had just read. Gaskill studied Chinese and cultivated relationships with librarians, scholars, and book dealers in the U.S., Europe, and China. She went to China on book buying trips, and worked closely with Cornell faculty members in developing the collection. Gaskill guided the early growth of the Wason Collection and provided the firm foundation necessary to bring it to its current excellence.

The Wason Collection grew rapidly after 1927 with the annual income from the endowment, University budget appropriations, and outside grants. In 1938 it received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which also brought to Cornell its first full-time Chinese history professor, Knight Biggerstaff. Professor Biggerstaff played an important role in the development of the Wason Collection. In 1939 the Cornell Alumni News reported that he and Cornell alumnus Cabot Coville had helped the Library acquire a valu­able set of 1,210 volumes of reproduced original records of the Qing dynasty (The Veritable Records of the Qing Dynasty).

From the 1950s to the 1970s, there were several shifts in emphasis in the development of the Wason Collection. Between the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 the breakout of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the emphasis was on acquiring contemporary publications on all subjects regarding post-1949 mainland China. Due to restrictions resulting from the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to the early 1970s the Wason Collection shifted its attention to closing the gap of insufficient materials for the period of 1900–1949. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the priority shifted back to acquiring materials on contemporary China, as well as building Cornell’s holdings of reprints and microfilms of pre-20th twentieth-century materials. The Wason Collection now holds an extensive array of historical and modern material in all formats, including the highly regarded European-language materials on China, imperial archives, ancient and modern military treatises, extensive archaeological reports of excavations along the fabled Silk Road, and every conceivable publication on popular Chinese culture. It offers superb and often unique resources for research and teaching, and its breadth and excellence have been recognized by scholars and students around the world.

Photo of Chinese businessmanThe Wason Collection and the Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections also hold personal papers, documents, and photographs of many diplomats, missionaries, scientists, business people, politicians, and educators involved in East Asia from the nineteenth century to the present, including many Chinese and American alumni. In the early 1900s Cornell started recruiting Chinese students and providing them with financial support. In 1906 Cornell Trustees authorized six scholarships a year for Chinese students, and in 1908 funds authorized by President Theodore Roosevelt from the Boxer Indemnity, imposed on China after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, were used to fund these scholarships. As a result, between 1900 and 1949, 3,500 Chinese students enrolled at Cornell. Among these early Chinese Cornellians were such notable individuals as Alfred Sao-ke Sze, the first Chinese ambassador to the United States; Hu Shi, the initiator of China’s new literature movement; Zhao Yuanren, the father of modern Chinese linguistics; Mao Yisheng, a pioneering bridge-builder; Yang Xingfo, the first martyr of China’s human right movement; and Bing Zhi, publisher of the first Chinese science journal, Kexue. Recently the Wason Collection made an arrangement for a group of researchers from the Shanghai Publication Museum and the Shanghai television station to conduct research on the Chinese students who organized the China Science Society (Zhongguo Kexue She, the fore-runner of today’s China National Scientists Association) at Cornell in 1915. Its headquarters moved to China in 1918 and many active members of the organization later played a significant role in the development of China’s modern science and technology. The documentary resulting from their research will be shown on China’s public education television channel.

Photo of Willard StraightCornell University also has many American alumni who were deeply involved in East Asia. When the Chinese ambassador to the United States recently visited Cornell, he showed great interest in items related to Willard Dickerman Straight, a 1901 Cornell graduate who was a very active American diplomat to China during the 1900s. His papers are among the most heavily used materials in the Wason Collection for scholars studying East Asian history. Other famous American alumni include Nobel laureate Pearl Buck; William H. Hinton, the author of Fanshe; and Erwin Engst and Joan Hinton, a couple who lived and worked in China for nearly half century and regarded China as their home. Recently the Wason Collection received a gift from the widow of Cornell alumnus Alfred Harding. He received a bachelor’s degree in Far Eastern Studies and served in the U.S. Army in China during World War II. Harding was a member of the Yenan Observer Group and became acquainted with Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and other CCP leaders. His gift includes autographed photographs of Mao Zedong and Zhu De.

Photos of Chairman Mao and Zhu De

Photo of William GriffisWhile the holdings on China are the oldest and largest component of the Wason Collection, its focus has expanded over the years to include materials from Japan. In the early 1900s, William Eliot Griffis gave the Library more than 6,000 volumes of Japanese-language books, periodicals, and maps. During the late-nineteenth century Griffis was instrumental in the emergence of modern science education in Japan. In 1997 the Library acquired the personal library of the well-known Japanese literary scholar and critic Maeda Ai. The collection consists of more than 10,000 volumes, including early postwar publications in many subject areas and early Japanese translations of European literature that are nearly impossible to obtain today. There are about 3,000volumes of pre-twentieth-century works in traditional formats, including a number of manuscripts and the diary of the late-nineteenth-century scholar and journalist Narushima Ryuhoku. The acquisition of the Maeda Collection brought the Wason Collection into the top tier of Japanese libraries in the United States, and has greatly enhanced Cornell’s reputation as a center for the study of modern Japanese literature and culture. Japanese book illustration in colorBesides modern Japanese literature, the Wason Collection’s Japanese holdings are also strong in the areas of pre-modern Japanese literature; classic theater, particularly Noh theater; and ethnic studies related to Japan’s minorities, including resident Koreans and the so-called Burakumin,  whose members still encounter prejudice in today’s Japanese society. In recent years, the Wason Collection has also increased its efforts to enlarge its Korean holdings.

Photo of Kroch LibraryToday the Wason Collection holdings comprise more than 608,300 monographs, which include 373,102 volumes in Chinese, 146,954 volumes in Japanese, 10,480 volumes in Korean, and 77,792 volumes in Western languages. Along with the Echols Collection on Southeast Asia and the South Asia Collection, the Wason Collection is housed in the Carl A. Kroch Library. Opened in 1992, the Kroch Library is a state-of-the-art underground building designed especially to house special collections and to facilitate research and teaching using these materials. In the Asia Reading Room students and faculty members can peruse more than 10,000 reference books, 100 newspapers, and 315 periodicals. The Kroch Library is one of the few libraries in the U.S. where Asian-language materials are inter-shelved with Western language materials on the same subject, which greatly facilitates research and teaching.

Photo of a report on Tibet and MongoliaThe staff members of Cornell Library’s three Asian collections work collaboratively in fields of common interest. The Wason curator has worked with the South Asian curator to collect materials on Tibet, which is of great local interest as Ithaca is home to one of the first Tibetan resettlement communities in the U.S. The Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies serves as the North American seat of the personal monastery of the Dalai Lama. The Wason Collection has also worked with the Southeast Asia curator in selecting Chinese-language materials published in Southeast Asia by ethnic Chinese in the region.

Cornell University Library’s Wason Collection is among the top East Asian libraries in the United States. From the university’s early days the breadth and depth of the Wason Collection has supported American sinologists, historians, and social scientists in their research, as well as the academic pursuits of generations of Cornell students. It will continue to do so throughout the twenty-first century and for as long as Cornell remains true to its motto.