The Department of Asian Studies was initially organized in 1946 as the Department of Far Eastern Studies (changed to Asian Studies in 1962). It developed from a wartime program in the language, history, and culture of China that trained people for government service. The three Cornell Asian area programs for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia subsequently developed within the department before assuming their separate existences in the 1970s. Initially, the Department was located in Franklin Hall (renamed Tjaden Hall in 1980). As more positions were assigned to the Department, and with the growth of graduate programs that provided universities around the world with prominent scholars of Asia, the problem of space became chronic. In the early 1970s the Department shifted to Rockefeller Hall where it now occupies the third floor.
As other departments hired increasing numbers of Asianists, the identity of the Department of Asian Studies gradually moved towards interdisciplinary humanities with emphases on literature, religion, intellectual history, and cultural studies. In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, influential voices within the Department began to look at Asian Studies from Asian perspectives and to bring the study of Asia out of the framework that during the Cold War had supplied knowledge about Asia in the United States. In 1999, all of the modern Asian language programs at Cornell came into the Department and added a strong element of language study, linguistics, and philology to the curriculum.
From 1946 into the 1970s, the Department was a relatively small part of the university. It was a pioneering time when the basic outlines of administrative units devoted to Asia, including area programs, were established. Beginning in the 1970s and extending into the late 1990s, the separation of the area programs from the culture of the Department made it a place where Asian humanities were rethought and nurtured. With the arrival of language programs in 1999, the Department became a center of interdisciplinary humanist research and teaching with a strong commitment to language instruction. The Department aims to stimulate the humanities to include the cultures of Asia, a process that is necessary for the humanities more generally to live and breathe in the contemporary world. The literary, religious, and cultural traditions of Asia are increasingly important to whatever it is that we mean by being human.