Dr. Benjamin Elman

Dr. Benjamin Elman is the Gordon Wu '58 Professor of Chinese Studies and Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University. He was the 2013-2014 Joanna Nichols Visiting Scholar.

During the first month of the 2013-2014 school year, TAS students attended East Asian history classes led by Dr. Benjamin Elman, the third annual Joanna Nichols Visiting Scholar. A top academic in his field, Dr. Elman has passionately researched East Asia for over forty years. The wealth of knowledge he brought to TAS for the four weeks he was here, and the level of analysis he shared during that time, inspired students to look more closely at the way they see history. Ultimately, he taught his class not to ask what happened in year X, but why it happened.

Dr. Elman is the Chair of the East Asian Studies Department at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980 and taught at the University of California before Princeton. He has authored many books, most recently two on China. An academic at heart, Dr. Elman felt right at home in the classroom at TAS.

Through teaching, Dr. Elman enjoyed sharing his passion for East Asia with students. Anny Son ’14 said, “He knows his materials through and through. It was truly admirable to see the passion he had for East Asian studies.” Mitchel Liu ’14 agreed,

“It has been a true privilege to have spent the past month with Professor Elman as our teacher. Even in such a short duration of time, Professor Elman has provided us with such an in-depth analysis of the history of western influence in China. Each of his lectures contained an abundance of knowledge. It further portrays his passion and interest for East Asian history.”

Likewise, the caliber of TAS students impressed Dr. Elman; they worked well through difficult Chinese texts that can even give graduate students trouble. He said, “The students are getting a great base here. Grade 11 and 12 students could walk into my freshmen seminars or sophomore classes without a problem.” He went on to say that a well-rounded faculty and top-notch resources make TAS a model school.

In addition to teaching, Dr. Elman presented on several occasions. Twice he spoke to upper school students and faculty and again to parents during the back to school night. He lectured on traditional, and sometimes incorrect, views the West has on China based on centuries of interaction. Students found these talks refreshing. Senior Julia Wang said,

“Professor Elman brought an insightful new perspective to our classroom. I really appreciated how he taught us not to blindly believe historical literature as fact. Many writers were biased whether it was in favor of or disdainful towards Chinese culture and policy.”

Dr. Elman used films, such as Theodore White’s documentary China: The Roots of Madness, to further challenge biases. “It’s not only the words in textbooks,” he said, “but also documentaries and film that are influencing our perceptions of Asia.” Originally filmed in 1967, White recut his film to portray China more favorably in the late 1970s. Dr. Elman used both versions to show students how history can be portrayed in different ways. This moved students to appreciate how history affects the global stage. Dr. Elman urged, “Regional studies are indispensable for global history. You have to see both parts.” Dr. Elman “saw both parts” for the first time when he studied at Fu Jen University in Taiwan in 1967.

When Dr. Elman graduated from college, he went to the East-West Center in Hawaii to learn more about China. After a year there, he decided to move east. But with the PRC closed to Americans, Dr. Elman came to Taiwan instead. “When I was here first,” he reflected, “there was not a single red light in all of Taipei.” He described the circle in Ximending as being full of bicycles and pedicabs. “Religion and politics are different too, now,” he said. 1967 was the first of many times Dr. Elman would call Taiwan home.

On September 13, Dr. Elman finished his most recent stay in Taiwan. After his time with TAS came to a close, he went to Seoul, South Korea to study ancient books from the Joseon Royal Library at Seoul National University. But before he did, Dr. Elman transformed a TAS upper school class into a university level freshman seminar. He gave students the tools to look critically at history, question assumptions, and make informed predictions about the future. And after all, isn’t that what being an historian is all about? A better tomorrow is based on a full understanding of yesterday.