Welcome from the Director

Karen ThornberDear colleagues, students, visitors, and friends,

This spring marked an important milestone for the Asia Center – the 20th anniversary of its founding – which we celebrated on April 13, 2018 with a day of talks and panels featuring students, current and former center directors, and other distinguished speakers who have been instrumental in the work of the Asia Center, as well as a keynote address by the Honorable Kevin Rudd.

Asia is home to 60 percent of global population as well as many of the world’s largest economies. Making the work of the Asia Center especially vital is that Asia’s exceptionally diverse peoples have been inextricably interconnected with one another and with those of other regions for much of history. Cultural, economic, environmental, legal, medical, political, religious, social, and other phenomena in Asia regularly transcend borders. Moreover, recent decades have seen tremendous changes in the relationships among Asian nations and between Asia and other regions. Current tensions and crises in Asia make particularly clear the necessity of researching and teaching on Asia in transnational, transregional, and global perspective.

The Asia Center was founded in 1997-1998 as a university-wide interfaculty initiative to provide an intellectual meeting ground for faculty members, students, scholars, and other professionals engaged with Asia from across Harvard schools, Asia, and around the world so as to make a real impact in the United States, in Asia, and well beyond. Other early goals of the Asia Center were to promote research and training on Asia and particularly on the challenges facing Asian nations; coordinate activities and programs among Harvard’s existing Asia-related centers; improve connections between the FAS and the other Harvard schools; and expand South and Southeast Asian studies at Harvard.

This past year we have been building on the strengths of the Center’s past while also actively and significantly reshaping the Center to meet better the needs of the future. We have developed a new mission statement: “Generating and sharing knowledge about Asia in transnational and transregional perspective. Fostering teaching, collaboration, and innovation across and beyond cultural and disciplinary boundaries.” And we have clarified four priorities for the Center:

  1. Fostering research and teaching on Asia in transnational and transregional perspective, recognizing that Asian nations and their peoples have been inextricably interconnected with one another and with those of other regions for much of history;
  2. Increasing the resources and number of Harvard faculty members and students engaged in the study of Asia by promoting expansive and inclusive coverage, with particular attention to strengthening teaching and research at Harvard on Southeast Asia;
  3. Advancing new transdisciplinary knowledge on Asia by catalyzing the interaction and collaboration of faculty members and students from across Harvard’s many schools;
  4. Forging networks by connecting faculty members and students with practitioners, professionals, policy makers, and communities in the United States, Asia, and globally to address critical transregional challenges and opportunities, and to foster international understanding and strengthen mutual respect.

In addition to our 20th Anniversary Gathering on April 13, upcoming events this spring, all of which are open to the public, include Asia Beyond the Headlines panels on the Rohingya crisis, forced migration in South Asia, the environment in Asia, and civil society in Asia; a panel discussion with Asia-based Nieman Foundation Fellows; seminars by Asia Center faculty members and fellows in addition to speakers from around the world; as well as faculty book discussions.

The Asia Center also sponsors a variety of programs that draw on faculty members from across the university and are consistent with our mission. These include the Interfaculty Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Resilience Program; the Interfaculty Rohingya Refugee Program; the Southeast Asia Program; the Jeffrey Cheah Exchange Program; the Thai Studies Program; the interdisciplinary Global Studies Outreach Workshop for K-12 Teachers; and the Asia Center Publications Program. We are currently building programs on Asian Diasporas and Africa-Asia Interconnections and look forward to developing additional programs that span Asia and the world.

The Asia Center recently added new categories of student and faculty awards, to fund an even broader range of student and faculty research, conferences, and seminar series, as well as language study and conference attendance. We also will be inaugurating a new category of grants for non-Harvard organizations focused on K-12 outreach. I’m pleased to report that our Graduate Student Associates Program, now in its second year, is bringing together an exceptionally strong cohort of students from across the university who are researching trans-Asian topics. This coming fall, the Asia Center will host its first cohort of postdoctoral fellows. We received more than 150 applications for 2-3 postdoctoral positions for recent Ph.D. recipients who engage seriously with at least two Asian countries: the Asia Center Postdoctoral Fellowship gives preference to comparative or cross-border projects but also, in the case of Southeast Asia, allows for research on a single country, while the Victor and William Fung Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship supports projects that include a component involving Greater China. In addition, the Asia Center will be restructuring our visiting scholars, fellows, and associates program this spring, which will bring to campus an even more stellar group of visitors whose research interests closely align with those of Harvard’s faculty members.

Guided by our Steering Committee, which draws on colleagues from ten Harvard schools; the new Asia Center Council, which brings together close to 100 colleagues from across Harvard; the International Advisory Committee, which draws on leading individuals from across Asia; as well as colleagues and friends from around the world, the Asia Center is poised to address regional and global issues in Asia and far beyond by working with and integrating faculty members of all disciplines across all schools at the University and by building new collaborations of all types.

We will soon be launching our new website and social media initiatives that will expand our outreach and keep the public informed of the Asia Center’s activities, programs, and opportunities. You can subscribe to the weekly Asia Bulletin and the Asia Center This Week newsletter via the homepage of the Asia Center website (https://asiacenter.harvard.edu/). The Bulletin lists upcoming Asia-related events at Harvard, while Asia Center This Week highlights Asia Center activities along with announcements, updates, and summaries of lectures and student activities.

Raising the initial funding for the Asia Center, leader of the Harvard Japan Campaign Ben Makihara ’54 declared in 1996, “As we stand at the dawn of the new millennium, we hope that Harvard alumni and friends in Japan will join us in pursuing new knowledge and seeking new discoveries to enrich the future of humanity.” Much about the world and the Asia Center has changed in the last two decades, but we remain committed to creating new knowledge and new discoveries that will address the challenges facing our planet, and we thank the countless faculty members, students, visitors, and friends who have allowed us to flourish and who continue to inspire us and guide us going forward.

I look forward to seeing many of you in the coming days and wish everyone a terrific 2018!

With all best wishes,

Karen L. Thornber
Victor and William Fung Director, Harvard University Asia Center
Chair, Harvard Asia Center Council
Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and of Comparative Literature
Harvard University