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Introduction to Chinese Studies at Harvard

by Norman Ho, MA Regional Studies-East Asia, 2009, and BA History, 2007, Harvard University

Harvard is one of the best places to study China in the United States, if not in the world. Among its various schools and divisions, Harvard offers students plentiful resources to pursue their scholarly and extracurricular interests in China. However, the number of resources and opportunities available may seem daunting at first – where does one begin?  How can one begin to shape an intellectual journey, focused on China, at Harvard?  Students – particularly undergraduate students – are encouraged to remember the following tips for pursuing China studies at Harvard:

  • Be sure to look outside your immediate school (College, GSAS, etc) and consult faculty listings and programs at various Harvard schools. You will often find the faculty welcoming and willing to assist with your research. Besides faculty, various schools also have numerous graduate students working on China.
  • Even though a certain school or institute may not have a formal, established program of sorts, you should feel free to talk to relevant staff and/or faculty and share your interests with them. Often an opportunity arises or is created simply through meeting someone. Remember that you are part of the greater Harvard community, which is comprised of fellow students, faculty, staff members, and also alumni!  Chances are, people can put you in touch with other people that share similar interests with you, or who can help you out with your future career programs.
  • If something is not clear, then ask!  Students often feel intimidated at the prospect of talking with a faculty member or introducing themselves to staff members. Be proactive about your studies and you will find that many doors will open for you.

To help you navigate the complex web of China resources at Harvard, we have put together a guide of various institutes and people at different schools at Harvard. Please note that this guide is not intended to be exhaustive or representative of all the resources at Harvard. We encourage you to get in touch directly with relevant programs, schools, or faculty members for more information. Nevertheless, we hope you will find the below guide helpful.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS): Harvard’s largest division, including both Harvard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), offers a variety of avenues to pursue academic interests in China.

  • The Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC) administers the undergraduate major (in Harvard lingo, “concentration”) in East Asian Studies and also the PhD program in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. EALC offers instruction in the fields of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature; Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Inner Asian history; and East Asian Buddhism. EALC also runs Harvard’s Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese language programs, and regularly offers instruction in languages such as Manchu. Tibetan is offered by the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. 
  • The Department of History also houses faculty specializing in Chinese history. One common question students have is: what is the difference between studying Chinese history in the History Department and in EALC?  Generally speaking, faculty in EALC focus more on premodern Chinese history (pre-1800), while scholars in the History Department specialize in the late Qing to modern period. Please note that the History Department also offers a special Joint Concentration in East Asian History for undergraduate students.
  • Other departments also house faculty specializing on China, such as the Departments of Anthropology, Government, History of Art and Architecture, Linguistics, Comparative Literature, Religion, and Sociology. Students who wish to focus on China but gain formal training in these disciplines are recommended to get in touch with these departments.

Harvard Law School (HLS) also enjoys a vibrant intellectual community with research interests in Chinese and East Asian law. Non-HLS Harvard students are, generally speaking, permitted to cross-register and take courses at the Law School (please refer to HLS for specific information). The East Asian Legal Studies program at HLS offers talks and various events related to East Asian and Chinese law. The East Asian Legal Studies program also hosts a number of visiting faculty with China interests; students are invited to contact program staff for more information.

Harvard Business School (HBS) has a number of China-related programs and faculty that HBS and non-HBS students should feel free to consult. For example, the HBS Asia-Pacific Research Center carries out and facilitates research on business in China. Although located in Hong Kong and away from Cambridge, students can contact staff and researchers through their website. HBS also runs a business history program, publishes the Business History Review, and offers fellowships in business history as well. Students interested in Chinese business, economic, and/or financial history are recommended to take advantage of the resources at HBS during their research.

Harvard Medical School (HMS)
Students majoring in science, engineering, medicine, or non-humanities/social science fields can also simultaneously pursue their interests in China. HMS has numerous collaborative programs with other countries, including China and other Asian nations. Students are encouraged to check out the resources available through Partners Harvard Medical International, which hosts exchange programs with prominent Asian medical schools and hospitals such as the National Taiwan University College of Medicine and the Xiamen University-FuPond International Hospital. Faculty at the HMS Department of Global Health and Social Medicine are also available for student consultation, especially for students interested in the interdisciplinary study of medicine, health policy, history, and sociology. Even though formal, established programs may not exist, students are still very much encouraged to contact staff and faculty through these programs; often times this may lead to new, unforeseen opportunities. In addition, while specific rules may vary by academic department, professors working in different schools at Harvard can often supervise and/or advise thesis or research work.

Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)
HSPH most notably organizes the China Initiative, which seeks to engage policymakers, scholars, and students working on public health issues related to China. In addition, numerous faculty also work on China and/or Asia issues. HSPH and non-HSPH students alike are encouraged to consult the faculty listing to locate and meet with faculty with similar research interests.

Harvard Divinity School (HDS)
The Harvard Divinity School also hosts various events and has resident faculty specializing in world and comparative religions. Students interested in Buddhism, for example, should tap the school’s resources. The Center for World Religions, based at HDS, can also serve as an important resource.

The Harvard-Yenching Institute – the Harvard-Yenching Institute, an independent foundation associated with Harvard, hosts several visiting scholars and professors from East Asia (primarily China). The Institute provides students with an excellent opportunity to meet and get to know scholars from China. These contacts can be invaluable for students who plan to work or study in East Asia in the future. The contact information and biographies of these scholars are available on the HYI website, and students should not hesitate to reach out to the international scholars.