About East Asian Studies

Present and Past

Research produced by the East Asian Studies Department’s faculty stands on the forefront of scholarship on the cultures of China, Japan, and Korea, and our flexible, comprehensive curriculum is closely connected to their active research agendas. Core and affiliated faculty offer courses on traditional, modern and contemporary culture, in classes such as “The Karma of Words,” “Queer Japan,” and “China Through the Lens.” Our disciplinary interests vary widely— from Chinese feminism to contemplative studies—but converge in the understanding that East Asia must be seen as a dynamic site of transcultural relations, one that can be enriched through global and interdisciplinary perspectives. In our teaching and research, faculty and students collaborate actively with many different departments on campus from the humanities, social sciences, and beyond. We also encourage students to expand their understanding of East Asia’s geographical borders by enrolling in classes offered by the Program for Race and Ethnicity and by American Studies, which explore the experience of East Asians across the globe.

As a means for understanding and producing knowledge about the complexity of East Asia’s cultures, the department places special emphasis on rigorous language training. Concentrators gain a high competence in one or more East Asian languages through classes offered on campus, and by way of study abroad opportunities offered at a dozen leading universities throughout Asia, in cities from Kyoto to Seoul to Harbin. Our multilingual faculty teaches Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Korean, as well as Classical Chinese and Japanese. It also offers advanced classes on film, popular culture, gender, and literature taught in the original languages as a means of training students to interpret texts in sophisticated and nuanced ways. We expect all concentrators to make use of their language skills in final projects, which in recent years have included a documentary film about North Korea, a study of online Shinto shrines, and an exploration of legal reform in Qing Dynasty China.

A dynamic department in an ever growing field, East Asian Studies prepares Brown students to “discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation” by fostering the philological expertise, critical spirit, and historical insight needed for a lifetime of learning about East Asia.


 Before there was a Department, there was a Center.  The East Asian Languages and Area Center helped coordinate course offerings and faculty projects relating to China and Japan.  Faculty associated with the Center oversaw the concentration in East Asian Studies, newly created in 1985,  and designated which courses would count toward the concentration requirements.   Professor Jerome Grieder (History) directed the Center; additional scholars affiliated with the Center came from a diverse array of disciplines and departments, including Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Economics, Political Science and Sociology, among others. Faculty from the Linguistics department taught Brown’s Chinese and Japanese language courses.

 The plan to replace the Center with a Department of East Asian Studies owes a great deal to former Provost Maurice Glicksman. In a November 1985 report on “Brown’s Future Academic Directions,” the Provost announced, among other initiatives designed to increase Brown’s “international character:”

 …the creation of a new Department of East Asian Studies and a broadening of  the focus in the ‘Language and Literature’ Departments to encompass the inter-related scholarly study aspects of cultures: language, literature, history, religion, politics, economics and their social and anthropological character.

The actions following this announcement were perhaps unique in Brown’s recent history,  as Center faculty, charged by the Provost with a goal – the creation of this new academic unit –designed an entire department, from the ground up, in a matter of months.

On July 1,  1987, Professors Jimmy Wrenn,  David Lattimore,  Steve Rabson, Chieh-feng Ou Lee, Kiko Yamashita and other language instructors officially left Linguistics to become the core faculty of the new department.  Jerome B. Grieder,  James L. McClain,  Dore Levy, and Meera Viswanathan would also play important roles in East Asian Studies, as well as in their “home” departments of History and Comparative Literature, respectively.

The assumption, from the start, was that with “department” status would come opportunities for growth.  Early proposals to the administration identified half a dozen new positions in art history,  economics,  history and religious studies, focusing on either China, Japan or Korea.  A number of these have been realized, and the department’s curricular coverage has expanded as a result. In 1987, for example, Harold D. Roth joined Religious Studies and EAS as an expert in early Chinese religious thought.  That same year,  History of Art and Architecture hired Maggie Bickford, a scholar of Chinese visual culture and painting in the Song and Yuan periods.  In 1989,  Richard Davis came to the Brown History Department from Duke,  bringing his expertise in premodern China, and in 1997, History added another position, this time in modern Japan.  East Asian Studies itself hired Laura Hess following Jimmy Wrenn’s retirement,  and later Hye-Sook Wang,  a scholar and linguist of Korean,  in 1993.  Lingzhen Wang joined East Asian Studies in 1998,  following the retirement of David Lattimore.  

In addition to a more comprehensive faculty roster, we have also benefited from ancillary financial support.  Dore Levy and Richard Davis crafted a successful application for funding from the Freeman Foundation,  which in 2001 awarded the department a substantial grant to enhance and expand the undergraduate curriculum related to China and Japan.   This grant has funded student internships, research and language training in China, Taiwan and Japan,   collaborative faculty/student research projects, and visiting professorships at Brown.  In addition, a generous gift from Brian Leach,  a former student of Jimmy Wrenn,  continues to support summer language training and research in China.