Almost forty years have passed since John King Fairbank’s first book, The United States and China, was published in 1948. A careful blending of Chinese institutional history with diplomatic history, the book proved immediately popular among Americans seeking to place their present against the background of China’s past. Over the next six years, as the Communists consolidated their hold over China and the Korean War effectively wrecked US-China relations, Mr. Fairbank established his reputation as the leading expert on China in the United States, producing the astonishing number of five further books within that short period. One was a major bibliographical guide to recent Chinese historical writing; another, a meticulously translated and annotated collection of documents on the Chinese Communist party’s rise to power. One, particularly useful for graduate students, was an analytical teaching manual on how to decipher and translate Chinese historical texts. Another was an important monograph published in two volumes, based on Fairbank’s earlier Oxford Ph.D. dissertation, on the formation of the foreign powers’ favored “Treaty Ports” on the Chinese coastline between 1842 and 1854.
This remarkable productiveness, made possible in part by Mr. Fairbank’s unflagging energy and in part by his astute choice of unusually competent collaborators or coauthors, started a pattern of scholarly work that continued unbroken through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s as Mr. Fairbank edited, coauthored, or composed on his own a textbook on the Far East, volumes of essays on Chinese military history, Christian missionaries in China, the Chinese world order, Confucian belief and practice, and the workings of the traditional Ch’ing bureaucracy; along with several more annotated bibliographies, an enormous edition of Sir Robert Hart’s letters, and five separate volumes of the Cambridge History of China. Asked to look at the works Professor Fairbank has produced over the last two years a reviewer may be bemused but hardly surprised to find that there seem to be at least six of them, and that doubtless there are several more he has failed to keep track of. Now aged eighty, Mr. Fairbank is as hard to keep up with as ever.
Mr. Fairbank continues, in his six most recent books to command a wide range of scholarly subjects, just as he did at the beginning of his career. Christianity in China, edited with Professor Suzanne Barnett, consists largely of commentaries by modern scholars on the early writings of Protestant missionaries in China. Mr. Fairbank has always urged China scholars not to ignore the immense body of data on late traditional China that is preserved in missionary archives, and he has been indefatigable in gaining financial support for the preservation and examination of these documents. The essays collected in this volume prove his contention that missionary sources can help to illuminate Chinese society, especially the rather shadowy world where Chinese sectarian and secret society practices edged away from conventional Confucian teachings, and where the partially literate saw the chance for further education and to escape …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.