Interview with HYI Director Elizabeth Perry


Prof. Perry, who has served as Director of the Institute since 2008, will end her term in June 2024

Elizabeth Perry, Director of Harvard-Yenching Institute

Elizabeth Perry (Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government, Harvard University) has served as Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute from July 2008 – June 2024. In honor of her 16-year tenure as Director of the Institute, we spoke with Prof. Perry in a wide-ranging conversation reflecting on the Institute’s past, present and future. We’ve also included below a slideshow with images from throughout Prof. Perry’s tenure!

(Chinese-speaking readers may also enjoy an interview with Prof. Perry published in 南方周末 Nanfang Zhoumo [View PDF], or the chapter “Elizabeth Perry: Legacy of Protest” in Terry Lautz’s Americans in China: Encounters with the People’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 2022).)

Lindsay Strogatz: Liz, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Congratulations, first and foremost, on your tenure as director, and the many accomplishments that you’ve had over the past 16 years. And thank you for your wonderful leadership of the Institute.

Elizabeth Perry: Well, let me say I could not have done it without you and the other staff members here at Harvard-Yenching. I am so grateful to all of you; you’re the ones who make this place work. Thank you!

LS: So, starting by looking back at the past 16 years, could you share a few programs that you’re most proud of initiating and developing at the Institute?

EP: There are several that I’m particularly proud of. First are the training programs at our partner universities in Asia, organized usually by a former HYI visiting scholar, and also the training programs held here at Harvard which are organized by Harvard faculty members. They’re intended to help develop new fields of research in the humanities and social sciences. The programs held in Asia are in fields that our alumni believe could use some support from having scholars at Harvard or other universities in the West as lecturers, along with lecturers from their own universities and from other universities in their country or other parts of Asia.

What has particularly pleased me about these programs is that they have brought a lot of younger talent, especially advanced graduate students, to the Institute. The trainees themselves can come from any university, and so they bring to us a wider group of people than our normal networks based on our partner universities. Trainees from the programs held in Asia who are selected to come to Harvard for a year are people that we’ve already gotten to know a bit during the two weeks of the training program. When they come here, we can be confident that they’re going to be smart, committed, and self-starting. They’ve been terrific while in residence at HYI and have continued to keep in touch afterwards.

As for the training programs that have been organized by Harvard faculty, I must say I’ve been truly impressed with how selfless a number of Harvard faculty colleagues have been in organizing the training programs here. They get nothing for it in the way of compensation. What they get out of it is an opportunity to form an active network of some of the smartest young people across Asia in their fields, and that’s been very meaningful to them as well as to the trainees.

In some cases, we’ve already held reunions of these previous training programs, including one for the comparative literature program that Steve Owen began right after I became director. Both the programs held here at Harvard and those held in different parts of Asia have started convening reunion conferences and workshops. I’m particularly proud of the field training programs, because they’ve helped to substitute wonderfully for what previously was the visiting fellow program. That program was phased out because a number of the visiting fellows were isolated during their time here. Now we’re still able to host a substantial number of graduate students through the training programs, but they form part of a select cohort of trainees working on related topics. They have been really energetic and very dedicated to their scholarship. So that program, I think, has been particularly beneficial.

Second, I would point to the Chinese Studies in India programs. This initiative has been more challenging, partly because India is a country where neither I nor Ruohong Li, the HYI Associate Director, had any substantial previous experience. Having fewer longstanding contacts there makes the development of new, sustainable programs more difficult, and the Indian academic scene, especially when it comes to Chinese studies, is currently quite unsettled.

But whenever I go to India, which with the exception of the COVID years has been pretty much every year since becoming HYI Director, I am struck by what a huge difference the Harvard-Yenching programs are making – there is now an impressive cadre of young China scholars in India who received their PhDs with the support of the joint doctoral fellowship from HYI and the Institute of Chinese Studies (Delhi)  who are contributing in very meaningful ways. Again and again, people at a number of different universities point to Harvard-Yenching’s programs as the most important source of support for Chinese studies in India since the Ford Foundation in the 1950s. It is also noteworthy that we have been encouraging South Asian studies within China by offering fellowships to young Chinese scholars working on India. With contemporary India and China being the two biggest countries in the world and the inheritors of two of the most important civilizations in world history, sharing a border and yet surprisingly uninformed about the other, HYI’s efforts to improve mutual understanding between the “Asian giants” has been especially important.

LS: What have been some significant changes that the Institute has made to its programs and operations in the past decade? Do you find that these changes are related to the ever-changing academic landscape in Asia these days?

EP: In terms of operations, the management of the Institute was changed after I became director. There is no longer an executive director, but instead, an associate director with a PhD who has primary responsibility for developing and overseeing academic programs. And Ruohong Li has done an amazing job of filling that position. She has  greatly improved the visiting scholars selection process, which you manage so skillfully, and she and has also taken the lead with the new training programs and new developments in India.

Another thing we did was to get rid of the silos that existed in the Institute with different staff members in charge of different programs. The wonderful thing about this Institute is that all of the money is fungible, nothing is dedicated to any particular program. So the programs can, and should, and do, change over time in response to changes in Asia and at Harvard.

For example, the Doctoral Fellowship program [which supported faculty from Asia to do doctoral studies at Harvard or another US/UK university] did not seem all that important anymore.  Harvard, like many other leading universities these days, provides full fellowships to all admitted doctoral students – many of whom come from Asia. So having HYI pay for them is really a contribution to the American universities rather than to Asia and seems like an unnecessary expenditure. If you take that funding and make it available elsewhere, you discover that you then have funding to bring former members of training programs or students studying China in India here as visiting fellows instead. The whole operations are now designed to make the Institute more flexible and adaptable programmatically.

We’ve introduced a number of different programs, that I would say are responsive not only to changes in Asia, such as the increasing interest in China on the part of Indian academics, and increasing interest in India on the part of Chinese academics, but also to opportunities here at Harvard. Shortly after I became director, I was approached by the Radcliffe Institute, which had been criticized by an outside review for having very few scholars from Asia. Radcliffe asked if HYI could help with that. In response, for a decade we supported joint fellows between the Radcliffe Institute and the Harvard-Yenching Institute. As I understand it, largely due to that collaboration, word about the Radcliffe postdoctoral fellowships spread around East Asia, and as more gifted scholars from Asia applied directly to them the Radcliffe Institute no longer felt the need for the joint HYI-RI fellowship. So we were happy to terminate the joint fellowship after a decade of successful collaboration.

And so our programs with Harvard have shifted. We also introduced a fellowship to support students from Asia enrolled in the Regional Studies – East Asia (RSEA) A.M. program here at Harvard. Initially, we had seen that as a way of developing the academy in Asia, but it turns out, that most of the fellowship recipients have come from a handful of universities in China, have focused their studies on contemporary China, and have elected not to return to China. We are now in the process of phasing out that program, and it’ll be up to the future director, associate directors, and other HYI staff members to figure out what the new programs might be.

So, I would say, the programming  has been dynamic. Our partnerships with institutions in Asia change slowly, but they do change. We put partner universities that haven’t given us any scholars for many years on a kind of “extended sabbatical,” and then invite in new partners, or sometimes resuscitate previous partners like the National University of Singapore or the Academy of Korean Studies.

That kind of dynamism has been a key feature of the Institute – that it’s not locked into any particular program. The only program here at Harvard that I hope we’ll always be locked into is the Harvard-Yenching Library, which the Institute built. Although it’s now under the management of the Harvard Library, the Institute retains ownership over most of the valuable collection and still plays a major role in supporting the acquisitions and personnel of the Harvard-Yenching Library.  I imagine, for the foreseeable future, that will continue to be the case. Hopefully, in the near future there will also be a big push for a new building here at 2 Divinity Ave, which is desperately needed for the library and for the rest of the occupants – HYI and the East Asian Language & Civilizations (EALC) Department as well.

The HYI’s signature program put in place in the 1950s, the Visiting Scholars program, remains in place. But it, too, has changed greatly over the years. When it was first introduced by Professor Reischauer, he justified it as a way of bringing scholars here to Harvard to learn modern techniques of scholarship. This was the vision that his predecessor and mentor, Serge Elisséeff, who was the first director of the Institute, had had of the Institute – that the Institute was a place that allowed scholars from Asia to have access to the top scholarship in the world. Here at Harvard University today, we’re living in quite a different era with a lot of the top scholarship on Asia  being produced in Asia. And so, although we still have the Visiting Scholars program, it now serves as much as a benefit to Harvard, to educate Harvard faculty and students about exciting things that are going on in Asia, as it does to educate the visiting scholars themselves. And so it has a somewhat different role.

I also am very pleased that the Visiting Scholar program, and really all our programs in the Institute, are now much more closely integrated intellectually with people and activities at Harvard University. The so-called mentorship program, where we pair each visiting scholar or visiting fellow with a Harvard faculty member or another faculty member in the greater Boston area, in some cases has resulted in real intellectual partnerships. The pairings make the visiting scholar or fellow feel much more part of the Harvard community. The mentor introduces the visitor to other Harvard colleagues and students who share their interests, invites them to ongoing workshops or informal seminars, and so forth. As a result, the HYI scholars become much more a part of the university, rather than an isolated community. Although the Institute is proud of its independence from Harvard, it nevertheless benefits enormously from this greater contact with the University, just as Harvard benefits from its presence on campus.

LS: Do you have any words of wisdom, institutionally or academically, from directing the Institute for 16 years? And if there was one piece of advice to share with scholars or students who are eager to apply for HYI’s programs, what would that be?

EP: I have few words of wisdom to impart, but I would advise potential applicants to try to explain why the topic they’re working on is of interest and importance to people outside their own particular academic area. This isn’t to say that they should pretend that they’re doing something more interdisciplinary than they are. But they should think very hard about how what they’re doing could have importance for people outside their own discipline or outside their country of interest, and why it might therefore be useful for others to learn about what it is they’re doing.

What we’re most interested in at the Institute is supporting people to do the very best quality of research in their field of expertise, and communicating their findings to people working in different fields on different parts of the world. Some of our visiting scholars aren’t even working on Asia, although the vast majority of them are. Increasingly, many of our scholars are working on parts of Asia outside of their own native country, and those scholars have often been especially valuable in communicating across the usual geographical boundaries. We don’t want somebody to pretend like they’re an expert on some other country when, in fact, they know nothing about it – the point is not to pad their resume. But rather, to think hard about what it’s like to be part of an interdisciplinary academic community, how the work that they’re doing might speak to broader debates, and how they also might gain valuable new perspectives by being part of that kind of community.

Some of the least successful applications are those that try too hard to present themselves as an ideal Harvard-Yenching candidate. For example, they may pretend to be pursuing cultural studies, because they know that the Institute supports the study of Asian culture, or they may present their work as transnational or international when in fact it is not. That’s clearly not something we want to encourage. But thinking about how the very good work that they are doing in their specialty might have broader implications is indeed something to encourage.

LS: Would you say that serving as director of HYI has had any influence either on the direction of your own research, or some other personal impact that you might wish to share?

EP: Yes, it definitely got me more interested in higher education in Asia. I had previously written about student protesters and the role of intellectuals in revolutionary mobilization. But I hadn’t written about universities in Asia, and traveling around to our many partner universities in Asia got me interested in thinking about the history of these universities. A number of them came out of previously missionary institutions. That was true, of course, of all those that had been affiliated with the Harvard-Yenching Institute in a different incarnation in the 1930s and 1940s – Central China Normal University (previously 华中大学), West China Union University (华西協合大学) (now Sichuan University), Cheeloo University (齐鲁大学) (also known as Shandong Christian University, now Shandong University), Nanjing University (previously 金陵大学), and so on. Many of our partner universities had an earlier history as missionary institutions, and I became quite interested in the legacy of that earlier experience. I spent quite a bit of time reading through archives here at Harvard-Yenching, and also went to the Yale Divinity School Library and the Episcopal Church archives in Austin, Texas. That was a new area of research for me. And I’ve written, some co-authored and some single-authored [1] , a number of different pieces about the Christian universities and their fate in the early 1950s, and then the effort to reclaim these connections to the Christian universities that has been ongoing in much more recent years in China. I’ve also co-edited several conference volumes with HYI alumni on this topic.

At the same time, I have become interested in contemporary issues of higher education, and so have written about the control mechanisms in Chinese universities today and their impact on student protest[2]. It definitely has broadened my own research interest a fair amount.

LS: Looking forward, the Institute will have its centennial celebration in 4 years [2028]. Could you share your view on the greatest achievements the Institute has made in the past century? And how would you envision the Institute’s role in advancing higher education and research in the humanities and social sciences in Asia, in the coming decade?

EP: When the Institute was first founded, Director Elisséeff emphasized support for collaborative research projects. This included some massive projects, like the Sinological Index, which now appear somewhat quaint in retrospect. There were a number of other important projects supported by the Institute, such as archaeological excavations that resulted in the major collections of relics that were housed in the museums at the American Christian universities in China with which the Institute had connections in the thirties and forties. The amazing museum collections at Sichuan University in Chengdu or at Shandong University in Jinan were largely developed with Harvard-Yenching support. The missionaries James Mellon Menzies at Shandong Christian University and David Graham at West China Union University directed museums there, and were instrumental in getting Harvard-Yenching support to build these museums. These remain some of the key university museums in China today, with unique and extraordinarily valuable collections, oracle bones in the case of Shandong and bronzes in the case of Sichuan.

But I would say, from my point of view, the most important contribution of the Institute over the years from the beginning to the present has been the development of scholarly talent and networks among scholars in different parts of Asia, and between Asia and the US. It is those partnerships, those networks, those human connections that have been critically important. In some cases young scholars received training as PhD students with fellowships from Harvard-Yenching. For example, we have in China a group of anthropologists who were trained here at Harvard, under Woody Watson and Arthur Kleinman. Through supporting individual students and scholars and developing libraries, museums, and publications, the Institute has made a unique contribution to the flourishing of Asian studies both in Asia and at Harvard.

One thing that impresses me about the Institute is how it is different from other foundations. It is unique. It is unique at Harvard, in that it is the only independent Institute that is at the same time a supporting organization of Harvard. It is at Harvard, but not of Harvard. It is also unique in the world of foundations and NGOs, which often move in lock step with each other, gravitating en masse toward new intellectual trends. If suddenly the environment and climate change are the big concern, then they’re all pushing programs on environment and climate change. If pandemics and public health is the chief concern, then they’re all supporting that. Whereas the Institute, in part because it focuses on individual scholars rather than programs per se, has not been faddish in the same way as many other foundations and NGOs, and has remained true to its core mission of advancing higher education in Asia. Yet the Institute is extremely dynamic, because the actual people that it’s supporting, of course, have changed their research agendas and their methods.

LS: Going forward to the next decade or more, any thoughts?

EP: I’m sure [incoming director] James Robson will have all sorts of creative ideas. The wonderful thing about the Institute is that although it does have some restrictions in its geographical reach and some priorities in its thematic focus, its articles of incorporation are remarkably expansive. There’s lots of room to do different kinds of programs. I’m sure in the future, both positive developments and quite likely some negative developments, such as deteriorating international relations, may force the Institute to rethink some of its ongoing programs just as it’s had to do throughout its history. But because of its expansive and enlightened mandate, put in place in 1928, there are all kinds of new ways in which it can grow and develop.

Some of those changes will likely come at the expense of some existing programs. And that’s a good thing, too, because all these programs should be rethought and reimagined over time. They are all subject to change and improvement. I don’t have any particular vision myself, for where the Institute ought to go in future, but I’m genuinely excited to see the directions in which it will develop going forward. I must say, I feel very good about stepping away at this point. The staff is terrific and works very hard, has a real sense of the importance of the mission of the Institute, and everybody contributes in different ways to it. The new director is fortunate to inherit a staff that is as knowledgeable and dedicated as all of you, and I believe he very much shares that perspective.

I would imagine he’s going to take a little time to figure out what things seem to be working especially well, and what things are less successful or less worthwhile and might give way to new sorts of programs. As he is a scholar of Buddhism in Asia, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he were to initiate some programs that look at transnational connections in Buddhism and other sorts of religious networks. But he may go in a very different direction!

LS: I think the Institute, thanks to your leadership, is in wonderful shape. In this conversation I think you have highlighted a lot, including the flexibility that the Institute has had over the years. Going forward, that ability to adapt to changes and challenges will hopefully continue to benefit the Institute.

EP: I think that’s absolutely key – not having people committed to doing things the way they’ve always done them, but instead being open to doing them in new and hopefully better ways. Of course, some of those experiments may not work, just as not all the ones that have been attempted during the 16 years I’ve been here have been as successful as initially hoped. But most of them have actually been far more successful than I had initially imagined, and I’m confident that’s going to be the case going forward.

LS: Starting next academic year, you will have a well-deserved extended sabbatical, and then it will be nearly time to start celebrating the Institute’s 100 year anniversary, which we hope you can join!

EP: Yes, I will be very interested to see what the Institute intends to do for its centennial! I think it’ll be a very exciting time. This is an Institute that has a lot to be proud of, and hopefully that 100-year anniversary will coincide with a new building initiative. I know that [incoming director] James Robson is really committed to making that happen, but it also requires support from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the University Development Office. Hopefully there’ll be recognition that it’s still possible to do serious fundraising for targeted kinds of goals. I’m quite optimistic that there would be a lot of enthusiasm from potential donors both in Asia and locally for supporting a new building that would house the Harvard-Yenching Library, the Harvard-Yenching Institute, and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC).

The Library, the Institute, and EALC are currently all spread out in multiple locations across campus. Most of the library, of course, is in the depository. Hopefully a new building could bring the Institute back into one place and the same thing with EALC, which is currently in three different locations.. To have language instruction separated from content instruction in East Asian studies is not ideal. So, there is a pressing need for a new building, not least because the current building at 2 Divinity is, in fact, falling apart. It would be terrific if the centennial of the Institute could also involve a building campaign. I know that James Robson, Yang Jidong (Harvard-Yenching Librarian), and Helena Kolenda (Chair, HYI Board of Trustees) are all committed to that effort. Fingers crossed that they are successful!


[1]  Co-authored with Hang Tu. 2019. “Cultural Imperialism Redux? Reassessing the Christian Colleges of Republican China.” In CHINA AND THE WORLD – THE WORLD AND CHINA – A TRANSCULTURAL PERSPECTIVE (Joachim Gentz, Natascha Gentz, Barbara Mittler, and Catherine Vance Yeh, eds.). Heidelburg. View chapter [PDF] (The Chinese version, “文化帝国主义的回潮?——重估民国教会大学的历史遗产 was published in QINGHUA DAXUE JIAOYU YANJIU, 41, 2, Pp. 30-40 (View as PDF)

Co-edited with Chen Hongmin. 2019. SIMILAR YET DIFFERENT: CASE STUDIES OF CHINA’S MODERN CHRISTIAN COLLEGES [in Chinese]. Zhejiang University Press. About the volume [in Chinese]

Elizabeth J. Perry. 2013. “Managing Student Protest in Republican China: Yenching and St. John’s Compared.” FRONTIERS IN THE HISTORY OF CHINA [Chinese version in ZHONGGUO XUESHU, no. 34 (2015)], 8, 1. View Article (PDF)

[2] Elizabeth J. Perry. 2020. “Educated Acquiescence: How Academia Sustains Authoritarianism in China.” THEORY AND SOCIETY. View Article

Co-authored with Devesh Kapur. 2018. “Higher Education Reform in China and India: The Role of the State.” In BEYOND REGIMES: CHINA AND INDIA COMPARED (Prasenjit Duara and Elizabeth J. Perry, eds.). Harvard University Press. Publisher’s Website


At the 2017 HYI Fall Reception

At the 2018 "Teaching about China in India" conference

Moderating a 2023 lecture by Dr. Lung Yingtai

At the 2014 San Lian Anniversary Event in Beijing

Chairing the 2023 HYI Roundtable on "Wealth and Politics in Asia"

Attending a 2013 workshop in Hangzhou

Moderating a panel at the 2018 HYI 90th Anniversary Conference in Shanghai

With HYI alumni in Seoul, 2017

Moderating a 2018 event on "Encountering China: Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy"

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