His particular focus was in explicating the thoughts of the great Chinese sage Confucius as they were interpreted over the centuries. The Journal of Chinese Religions in 1987 praised his explorations of how the Confucian belief system became “a major component of the moral and spiritual fiber of the peoples of East Asia.”
Professor de Bary offered detailed evidence that Confucian thought, as reinterpreted in 17th-century China, had a radical core that justified revolutionary action. It was a view diametrically opposed to that of China’s most consequential revolutionary, Mao Zedong, who saw Confucius as the consummate reactionary.
In a 1988 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor de Bary wryly noted that Mao, after decades of censoring any mention of Confucius, had to revive the philosopher’s memory in the 1960s in order to revile him.
“Ever since, he has continued to haunt the scene,” Professor de Bary said. “Like Harry in Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘The Trouble With Harry,’ Confucius has refused to stay buried.”
William Theodore de Bary was born on Aug. 9, 1919, in the Bronx. His German-born father and American mother divorced when he was young, and his mother raised her own five children and three of her sister’s as a single parent. He formally changed his first name to Wm., he said, to distinguish himself from his father, also named William. A great-uncle was Heinrich Anton de Bary, a noted 19th-century German botanist.
As a teenager, Ted de Bary, as he was known, and a friend started a branch of the Young People’s Socialist League and visited Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House with other student leaders to discuss how young people could help the Allied effort in World War II.
Columbia was in his orbit almost from the start. He grew up in Leonia, N.J., a town — directly across the Hudson River from the university campus — that was a favorite place of residence for many Columbia faculty members and employees.
When he entered Columbia College on a full scholarship, a neighbor, Frieda Urey, the wife of the Nobel Prize-winning Columbia chemist Harold Urey, was kind enough to make him a matching set of curtains and bedcovers to take along.
At Columbia, he was president of the student body and won a bagful of academic honors and scholarships.
His academic work was inspired by the historian Harry J. Carman, who challenged students in his Contemporary Civilization…