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 âa major component of the moral and spiritual fiber of the peoples of East Asia.â
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 Chinaâs 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 philosopherâs memory in the 1960s in order to revile him.
âEver since, he has continued to haunt the scene,â Professor de Bary said. âLike Harry in Alfred Hitchcockâs film âThe Trouble With Harry,â Confucius has refused to stay buried.â
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 sisterâs 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 Peopleâs 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 â directly across the Hudson River from the university campus â…