Skip to content Skip to navigation


The Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures


The history of the Department of Asian Languages at Stanford goes back to the academic year of 1938-39 when Shau Wing Chan (1907-1986) was appointed Instructor of Chinese and Literature for a program established by the School of Letters. Chan was a graduate student in English at Stanford, earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in 1932 and 1937. He graduated with a B.A. in English from Lingnan University in Canton in 1927 and then taught English in China for several years until he saved enough money for graduate study abroad. He chose to come to Stanford (rather than Sorbonne). When the Sino-Japanese War prevented him from accepting a professorship in China, Chan returned to California. The chairman of the English Department at that time, William Dinsmore Briggs, and Stanford President, Ray Lyman Wilbur, were instrumental in his appointment.

In 1939-1940, Chan was promoted to Assistant Professor of Chinese and English. After the United States' entry into WWll, he was tapped by the government to organize one of the largest of America's wartime training programs in Chinese here on campus. The Army Special Training Program was temporary (1942-46), but it served to establish an institutional base for Stanford's future rise to eminence in East Asian languages and area studies programs.

After WWII, Asian languages became a part of the offerings of the Department of Asiatic and Slavic Studies, which was founded in 1946. The department taught Arabic, as well as Chinese and Japanese, and was chaired by Professor Anthony Sokol, a former officer of the Austro-Hungarian navy, who had a special interest in East Asian naval architecture. A few years later, the department began to specialize in Chinese and Japanese, with Slavic studies becoming an independent entity. Japanese instruction was introduced in 1943, and it appears that Korean was taught only as part of the Army Special Training Program.

Professor Chan was chairman of the Department of Asian Languages from 1958-1962. In 1959, he negotiated the establishment of a National Defense Education Act center for training in Chinese and Japanese. This brought in federal funding to support Stanford's teaching in East Asian Languages and related subjects. Stanford today remains one of the select few institutions with a federally-funded center for East Asian programs.

In 1958 there were five students in First-Year Chinese and eight students in First-Year Japanese. The emphasis at that time was still on modern language training. Over the subsequent twenty years, the department grew and evolved considerably, benefiting in recent years from a new interest among students in East Asian languages and related courses which is attributable to several social and economic changes in America and the world at large.

In 1959, literature courses were added to the department's course offerings, along with the first M.A. programs. During this period, Chinese was taught by Professor David Nivison (who taught in China in 1948). Japanese was taught by the late Professor Robert Brower. In 1960, the Ph.D. program in Chinese was established, and a year later the PhD Program in Japanese was established. The Stanford Center for Japanese Studies in Tokyo was established in 1961 and the Center for Chinese Studies in Taipei a year later. (Both centers have since expanded to become consortium-type programs now operating out of Yokohama and Beijing, respectively.)

Over the next two decades, Stanford's Department of Asian Languages expanded its expertise and reputation in the areas of Chinese and Japanese literature. Patrick Hanan and William McCullough, and James J.Y. Liu served as chairs from 1969-1975. Professor Makoto Ueda chaired the department from 1975-1979 and again from 1990-1994, and John Wang from 1979-1990. Under their direction the department enjoyed considerable expansion in the number and type of courses offered. This also resulted in increased student enrollment. In the recent years, the department was chaired by Professors Thomas Hare (now at Princeton) Haun Saussy (now at Yale), Yoshiko Matsumoto, Chao Fen Sun, Steven Carter and Ban Wang. The current department Chair is Professor Ronald Egan.

The introduction of non-Western culture requirements at Stanford in the early 1980s stimulated enrollment in general courses for non-specialists. The increasing economic importance of East Asia has led to a huge demand for East Asian language courses among undergraduates, professionals, and non-majors. Interest in Japanese language study particularly began to boom in the mid-1980s. Accompanying the growth of China into a major economic power in the world, Chinese has been the second largest foreign language at Stanford since the late 1990s. Finally, the increasing number of Stanford undergraduates of East Asian ancestry has both helped maintain interest in established programs and resulted in more classes on China, Japan, and Korea.

In 1984-85 Kazuko Busbin first offered "Japanese for Professionals". The course was so successful that the Stanford T.V. network began to televise her class to businesses in Silicon. In 1989, six additional lecturers were hired to teach extra sections needed to handle the exploding enrollment in Chinese and Japanese language courses. The current enrollment in Chinese is three times larger than it was in 1989. Since 1994, the department has been running a Stanford-Beijing Summer Chinese program. This program allows our students to study Chinese both at Stanford and Beijing University.

In 1975, Mrs. Charles H. Lauru donated several hundred volumes of rare books on China, Japan and Central Asia to the department library. In 1983, the Leban Collection, a personal library of Chinese reference works numbering over 500 volumes, was donated to the library by the family of Carl Leban, who was Professor of Chinese at the University of Kansas. Other donors have contributed more volumes to this growing resource. The department also received generous donations from Stanford alumni Mr. and Mrs. Radway. Various sources, including the U.S. Department of Education, San Francisco area Korean-American businesspeople, and the Korean Research Foundation of Seoul have lent support to the Korean language program for the last dozen years.

Written by: Mark Francis, former graduate student
Updated by: Chao Fen Sun and John Wang, October 2002, and Connie Chin, April 2016.