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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Renowned Music Scholar Pian Was First Nonwhite House Master

By Kamara A. Swaby, Crimson Staff Writer

An esteemed scholar of Chinese culture and music at Harvard for over 40 years and, with her husband, the College's first nonwhite House master, Rulan C. Pian ’44, died on November 30, 2013 in her Cambridge residence. She was 91.

Pian, who was a professor emeritus at the time of her death, began teaching at Harvard in 1947 as a Chinese language teaching assistant. She earned an undergraduate and master’s degree in Western music history from Radcliffe College, and, in 1960, a Ph.D. in East Asian languages and in music from Harvard. She became one of the first female professors to teach in the Music and the Eastern Asian Languages and Civilizations departments.

Pian’s work in the blending of music, culture, and history earned her other accolades and also accorded her worldwide acclaim.

In 1967, Pian published “Song Dynasty Musical Sources and Their Interpretation,” which became the standard reference on music from the Song dynasty. Her work gained her the Otto Kinkeldey Award, which honors a musicological book of exceptional merit.

"When she visited me in Korea, I noticed that her reputation among the musicians there was in high regard,” said University of Maryland musicology professor emeritus Robert C. Provine, one of Pian’s former Ph.D. students. “I took her to a National Institute of Music and they decided to hold a full concert in costume just for her."

Among students, Pian was not only known for her academic achievements, but also for her hospitality, often opening her home to students if they needed a place to stay or needed muscial materials.

"She was very kind and generous," University of Pittsburgh music professor emeritus Bell Yung, another of Pian’s former Harvard Ph.D. student said. “She often welcomed me into her home to see her personal library for books that the normal libraries would not have.”

From 1975 to 1978, Pian and her husband Theodore H. H. Pian served as co-masters of Radcliffe's South House, which is now known as Cabot House. Becoming the first ethnic minorities to have such a position at Harvard, Pian and her husband often treated the residents to home cooked meals.

"She embodies some of the values of Cabot Housediversity and inclusiveness,” said current Cabot Co-Master Stephanie R. Khurana. “The ability to be who you are and to be able to bring everyone togethershe embodies it all. Not just for her ethnicity and gender but also for her academic pursuits."

In April 2008, a portrait of Pian was unveiled in Cabot House through the Harvard Foundation Portraiture Project. The project, sponsored by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, aims to reflect the diversity of individuals who have served Harvard for at least 25 years with distinction.

“One of the my proudest moments was to present this portrait for her,“ said S. Allen Counter, a professor of neurology and director of the Harvard Foundation. Counter served as a resident tutor and a pre-med and science adviser while Pian was master of South House

“I recommended for her to be one of the first portraits. She was a very thoughtful and kind person,” Counter said.

The portrait of Pian hangs in the first-floor living room in Bertram Hall in Cabot House, commemorating her long service to Harvard.

Though she retired in 1992, Pian has had a lasting impact on those she met and taught, former colleagues said.

"She served as an inspiration on how I treated my own doctoral students. I usually tell them the things she told me when I was a student," Provine said.

"I will miss our conversations not only as teacher and student but also as friends," Yung said.

A memorial gathering honoring Pian’s life will be held on March 30 at 4 p.m. in the Cabot House Living Room.

—Staff writer Kamara A. Swaby can be reached at kswaby01@college.harvard.edu.

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