James Robson appointed new director of Harvard-Yenching Institute

James Robson.

James Robson

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

3 min read

Internationally renowned scholar, educator, and author James Robson has been named the new director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute (HYI). The James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations will take up the position on July.

“James Robson is one of the most energetic, committed, and visionary members of the Harvard faculty,” said Robin Kelsey, dean of arts and humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “He strikes me as a brilliant choice for the next director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. He has a broad-gauged and farsighted view of how Harvard can strengthen its educational ties with Asia.”

Robson will be the ninth director to lead the institute, which observes its centenary in 2028. Such stability, he noted, “has allowed the institute to develop relationships in Asia that are lasting.” Taking on the role, Robson said, “This key moment offers an opportunity to celebrate the institute’s noble mission. I see myself working to maintain the relationships at our partner institutions there and also with scholars in the field.”

Robson’s appointment also promises opportunities for new initiatives, including refurbishing the HYI’s renowned library. “This is the premier library collection in the world for East Asian studies, and it really needs to be brought up to showcase that collection.”

Robson, who is also a Harvard College Professor specializes in medieval Chinese Buddhism and Daoism, particularly issues of sacred geography, local religious history, manuscript cultures, Chan/Zen Buddhism, and the historical connections between Buddhist monasteries and mental hospitals in Japan. He currently serves as Victor and William Fung Director of the Harvard University Asia Center (a position he will relinquish July 1) and director of the Harvard University Summer School at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan. Previously, he served as chair and director of Graduate Studies for the Regional Studies East Asia A.M. program. He also serves on the Harvard-Yenching Library Advisory Committee.

Robson has been a member of the faculty since 2008. His book, “Power of Place: The Religious Landscape of the Southern Sacred Peak in Medieval China” (Harvard, 2009), received the Stanislas Julien Prize of the French Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres and the Toshihide Numata Book Award in Buddhism. He is the editor of the “Norton Anthology of World Religions: Daoism” (W.W. Norton, 2015). He is also the co-editor of the journal T’oung Pao and a member of the editorial/advisory board of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies.

He received his B.A. from University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Ph.D. from Stanford University.  Robson, who has lived and studied in Taiwan, Japan, and China, was born in the Philippines. Last year, he helped launch Harvard’s first Filipino (Tagalog) language program.  

“One of my commitments is to further the key mission of the Harvard-Yenching Institute by enhancing its engagement with the humanities and social sciences in Asia,” he said.