John King Fairbank
John King Fairbank; drawing by David Levine

Huang Tsung-hsi, the Chinese historian and philosopher who was born in 1610 in Chekiang, once said of himself that he had lived out three incarnations in one lifetime—first as a young man passionately engaged in late Ming partisan politics, then as a loyalist in the resistance to the Manchus, and finally as a scholar “in retirement,” not in public office, writing his many books and teaching his many students who became the next generation of scholars. John King Fairbank, born in 1907 in Huron, South Dakota, might well be tempted to say something like this of his own odyssey. His life and his achievements are different, but the changes of pace and purpose are equally dramatic.

In his memoir, Fairbank first describes his education and the single-minded cultivation of his abilities at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, Oxford, and Peking, before the war. Before the Japanese occupation, Peking was still the greatest walled city in the world. (The “Cultural Revolution” was later to glorify itself by tearing the wall down.) China in the early 1930s was still the old China, with extraterritoriality and the nineteenth-century treaty-port system “still in place.” Even after he returned to the US in 1936, Fairbank continued to train himself self-consciously, as a history instructor at prewar Harvard.

The war changed virtually everyone’s life. Fairbank gives a kaleidoscopic picture of his activities as an information officer in wartime Washington, Chungking, then, right after the war, China again, and of his experience with a mix of people, from destitute Chinese professors to shady bureaucrats to slower-thinking American colleagues. He quotes from several long letters of advice to Alger Hiss. These experiences developed Fairbank’s astonishing talents for organization. But they also propelled him, after the war, into controversy, when he began to “speak out,” in an effort to get the American public to grasp his analysis of contemporary China, which his superiors had in the end rejected. Fairbank thus became an obvious target during the McCarthy era, after China was “lost.”

The decades of his greatest achievements followed, when he became a writer, editor, scholar, and the architect of the graduate program in East Asian studies at Harvard, training the students who soon were building similar programs throughout the United States. At the end of his book we come to see Fairbank as the genro of his field, visible (the book is illustrated) in the councils and cocktail parties of presidents and prime ministers.

One cannot spend a lifetime studying China and its civilization and history without becoming partly Chinese. Fairbank is, in a sense, a Confucian “scholar-official”—I suspect that, subconsciously at least, and probably more than this, he has thought of himself in this way. Like his Confucian counterpart, when the opportunity for effective public action arises he “advances and takes a position” in government. When the times are out of joint he retires, cultivates his tao, and teaches. Fairbank makes easy use of such traditional Chinese ways of speaking—as when he quietly passed a fruitful bit of advice to Henry Kissinger, that Mao, as a sort of modern t’ien-tzu (son of heaven), could not leave China, but that Nixon was not tied by any corresponding restriction. We notice, too, his easy but appropriate translation into realistic, modern terms of the concept of the “mandate of Heaven”—i.e., tacit popular acquiescence (which need not mean approval) in the regime in power. Chiang Kai-shek lost it in the mid-Forties, Fairbank argues, and he sees himself as having been able before other Americans to see the problem and notice the signs, with his historian’s grasp.

“Alas, when a historian starts his autobiography, the first thing he discovers is that he is still writing history,” we read at the outset. In fact Fairbank has spent his life the way one would attack a project of historical research. Repeatedly we see him plunging into a new, complex situation, whether wartime Washington or prewar China, and instinctively treating it as an object to be got under conceptual control, taking in hand the confusion of persons, their writings, backgrounds, viewpoints, politics, roles, and sorting them out, writing up and filing vignettes and impressions. As a result his book includes a remarkable amount of detail about people, books, and events. (It is, among other things, a good introduction to the “alphabet soup” of academic organizations and the foundations and government agencies they constantly must deal with. There is a glossary.) Yet the detail is not oppressive; one cannot put the story down.

To me the accounts of Washington (where I too had been) and of Chungking were a revelation of what was behind the face I first encountered in his office in Kirkland House at Harvard in the fall of 1946. Shortly afterward, I enrolled in Fairbank’s seminar on Ch’ing documents. I also took the “rice paddies” course in Far Eastern civilization given by Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer, and I can still repeat specimens of Fairbank’s insightful wit in those lectures.


The seminar was built around Fairbank’s matchless knowledge of nineteenth-century Chinese government archives dealing with China’s problems with the importunate Western merchant powers. I perversely chose an eighteenth-century topic—thereby validating a wise point made in this wise book, which is that the first focus of research, given the historian’s instinct to ferret out causes rather than consequences, is likely to be as close as he ever gets to the present, at least for a very long time. He may well go backward, but not forward.

My own deterioration has been nearly complete. I am now spending much of my time working on Chinese government “documents” (recovered from the earth) of the twelfth century BC. In consequence I have watched most of what Fairbank has given his life to from a very respectful distance, mindful that I am watching a man who sometimes lightly remarks to friends (not in this book) that “anything earlier than 1949 is ancient China, and anything earlier than 1840 is ancient-as-hell China.”

Yet we share an ideal, quite simply because I was his student and that ideal stuck. There was a time when Western attention to China was schizoid; some scholars wrote or talked about modern history and contemporary conditions on the basis of a treaty-port or missionary experience, often without being able to read Chinese or knowing much about China’s earlier history. Others, scholars who did possess these abilities, dealt with philological problems of the sort that often had engaged scholars in China for centuries, but never succeeded in writing about China as an entity that still existed. The need, of course, was to combine the virtues of the two approaches and so attain a true stereoscopic vision of China; and in doing this, to exploit all of the resources that a historian of, say, nineteenth-century Europe would expect to use in understanding an incident or a life—letters, essays, diaries, local records, state papers—in whatever language they are in. The opportunity to do this, while looking both ways, toward the present and the past, was what made the “trade and diplomacy” of mid-nineteenth-century China fascinating to Fairbank. His students and younger associates picked up the idea and went their own ways with it.

This meant, especially, that the historian had to put together, in a way that could be seen to matter, virtually all aspects of history, always keeping in front of him how they would seem to a thinking Chinese as he was moved to act: that would be intellectual history in the fullest sense. The ideal took shape in one of Fairbank’s most fruitful organizing efforts. In 1951, following a suggestion from Mortimer Graves of the American Council of Learned Societies, he began to talk with a few other scholars interested in experimenting with new approaches to the history of ideas in China.1

The result was the formation of the “Committee on Chinese Thought,” later attached to the Association for Asian Studies. This group held five conferences of a week or more between 1952 and 1960, publishing five volumes of conference papers. The story reveals what is probably a key to Fairbank’s organizing success. He did not try to do everything himself. He was able to see an important idea, find others who could see it too, nudge an enterprise into being, and then be himself simply a participant. Younger members of this group such as myself look back at our experience with a grateful sense of having been there at the beginning, when the study of Chinese intellectual history, and our own thinking about it, were transformed and enriched. The “Committee” dissolved in 1962, but its work has been continued by a distinguished series of conferences and volumes, organized and edited by W.T. De Bary of Columbia.

For many, the most interesting part of John Fairbank’s memoir will be his account of the postwar period from 1946 to 1952. This includes, first, his experiences in China when we were assisting the Nationalists to reestablish their control of the north after Japan’s defeat—and in the process moving into an openly partisan position in the Chinese civil war (nominally not yet war), even though this was not, for some time, our national policy. Fairbank then proceeds to what he calls “the fallout from World War II,” culminating in the bitter national debate over the causes of the “loss of China” and in the brief career of Joe McCarthy. Fairbank says of his own position:

Ever since 1943 I had believed revolution was probably unavoidable in China. The collapsing urban economy and the KMT corruption and repression visible in 1945-46 confirmed me in this view. When the Marshall mediation began to collapse too, it became urgent to warn the American public not to back CKS and his right-KMT, who were so busily digging their own graves and trying to pull us in with them.

The hard lesson we seem fated to keep on relearning in dealing with “dictatorships abroad,” Fairbank continues, “in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and East Asia,” is that “we alone from the outside cannot determine the outcome.” In regard to China, this was, I think, obviously true. But the problem is a much more distressing one than simply the need to learn a lesson in national humility. In describing wartime Chungking and Kunming Fairbank sees himself and America, and our real friends the refugee university professors and students trying to stay alive, as engaged in a worldwide struggle against political oppression, and it is clear to him that we had good reason to be unhappy with both of the “Leninist” parties in China.


He later found himself believing that “communism” was “bad in America but good in China.” I can remember hoping that this was true myself. In defense of such hopefulness, we might ask what the course of the Chinese revolution might have been if the major influence on Mao had been Chou Enlai, whom Fairbank knew in Chungking and respected. We have learned by now not only that “world communism” is not a monolith, but also that genuine politics does go on within particular regimes. It is quite likely that our postwar hostility played into the hands of extremists in Peking. (After all, Soviet hostility plays into the hands of extremists in this country.)

Fairbank offers a persuasive analysis along this line. The United States followed a “policy of I-hope-you-croak ‘containment’ of the People’s Republic.” Consequently, “inside China, once the reliance on technology transfer from the Soviet Union came to an end in 1960, there was no chance to substitute American technology. Mao’s peasantminded…enthusiasm for a do-it-yourself development by muscle power and sheer patriotism won the day.” The result was the Cultural Revolution, which “shut down the universities, harassed the modern-educated Chinese, and left the billion people of the PRC far behind in trained leadership.”

Unfortunately for peace of mind, when a foreign government is threatened by a “revolution,” we can ask three questions. Would it be good, on balance, for that country’s people for the government to survive or fall? Would it be in our interest to have it survive or fall? And is there anything we can do to “determine the outcome”? We naturally want all the answers to these questions to agree—to find that what is best is also in our interest, and something we can do. But there is no reason to suppose that we are always going to be able to be so lucky: history can be tragic and it often is. Nor is there any a priori reason to suppose that all cases will be alike. Fairbank is right that there is a great danger that we will deceive ourselves into thinking that we can do what can’t be done. But it isn’t only the last of these questions that tempts us to self-deception. If this analysis does not seem very helpful in providing solutions to our present problems in Central America, that’s because it isn’t helpful. It does not even get to the question what we should do. The questions it does raise, furthermore, are likely to have ambiguous answers, hard to get and even harder to agree on.

Some readers of the postwar account will no doubt turn first to the part of Chinabound in which Fairbank details his encounters with the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1951-1952, in the course of which the former communist Louis Budenz identified Fairbank as having been a Communist Party member, and the committee did its best to show him guilty of various vaguely treasonable views and associations. We do not need to pursue the question whether Budenz was simply lying. We now know enough about conspiratorial communist organization to see that one Party member might not necessarily know whether a person in occasional nonhostile communication with other communists was himself a communist. Fairbank makes it clear that he was in friendly communication with communists in Chungking, as a part of his job. (The Chinese communists were, literally, our allies at the time.) And, unknown to himself, he probably had such contacts in Washington, too.2 When the charges began to spill into the press, his friends and students did not know whether to laugh or scream. But there may even now be people who believe Budenz’s nonsense. One can only ask them to read this book and appraise for themselves the honesty of the man who reveals himself in it.

I came away chiefly impressed with Fairbank’s detachment in writing about this episode in his life. While obviously unscrupulous persons like McCarthy are described for what they are, there is no bitterness in his account. Even another scholar, Karl Wittfogel, who publicly doubted him, he discusses benignly. Fairbank gently analyzes the state of mind of his critics, and then turns the same analytic temper on himself. The government, he writes, had to be concerned about security. Moreover, he himself never suffered anything worse than inconvenience to his travel plans. One could add that in a sense the McCarran Committee, by forcing him to subject his previous life to a searching historical scrutiny, indirectly did us a service, for this book is certainly richer as a result.

McCarthyism, most of us thought, was partly a manifestation of a national failure to understand what had been going on in China; and Fairbank, having thrown himself into an unsuccessful attempt to get people to understand it after the war, to prevent the self-defeating course the country took, feels this failure as partly his own, however inevitable it was. Not being listened to in government, Confucian-like, he turned to cultivating knowledge. “My being publicly denounced over the ‘loss of China’ gave me an abiding commitment to educate the American public,” he writes.

The growth of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research from the Ch’ing documents course, through the Harvard East Asia MA program and the invaluable annual Papers on China as an outlet for graduate students’ nascent scholarship, all under Fairbank’s initiative, guidance, and fund raising, was an astounding success. During the late 1950s and 1960s, when graduate schools were rapidly expanding and other such programs were springing up, history PhDs trained by Fairbank could be found in virtually every important university in the country. He could place his students at will (Chinabound will not tell you this), and could adopt an Olympian view, considering where in the larger interest of American education each of them belonged.

By 1970, he was deservedly referred to by The New York Times, as “the man generally considered the founder of modern Chinese studies in the United States.” Certainly Fairbank didn’t achieve this simply by being a superb organizer. During this period he also published several volumes of distinguished scholarship, the fruit of his long researches on the nineteenth century, and wrote or edited volumes of valuable bibliographies, textbooks, and collections of papers.

Close on this success, he admits a major failure. The United States was now embroiled in Vietnam, a country of which we were even more ignorant than we had been of China. Yet almost nowhere had American universities taken Vietnam into view, though it had been for thousands of years as much a part of the “Chinese culture sphere” as Korea and Japan. (As late as 1970, a New York Times survey revealed that there was not a single tenured professorship in Vietnamese studies in the United States, and that fewer than thirty students in the country were actually studying the language.) Fairbank ruefully describes his attempts at Harvard, too late, to catch up. “In the literature in English,” he writes, “Vietnam was an underdeveloped subject. It would take many years to pursue the studies necessary to guide national policy toward the area.” He adds, “I could, and of course did, join in the vocal opposition to the American intervention in Vietnam, but I could claim no special knowledge of the area or offer the insights of historical study.”

Fairbank and his research center were apparently spared most of the disruption that the Vietnam war caused in many academic institutions, and he says little about such matters. As president of the American Historical Association in 1968 he tried to avoid confrontations (by moving the location of the annual meeting), and when they occurred (as happened the next year) he tried to resist attempts to use the AHA as an instrument of antiwar politics. This was an issue that was fought out in many professional associations at the time. Since national meetings of these organizations are always the occasion for concurrent meetings of smaller groups each pursuing some special concern, a natural solution (which may leave everyone less than satisfied) is to encourage the formation of such a group, which can then be as political as it wishes.

Fairbank was midwife to such a birth, being himself genuinely concerned about student disaffection. In the winter of 1967-1968, with his encouragement, some Harvard graduate students together with students in other universities organized the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. Fairbank was asked to preside over the organizing meeting, which was held concurrently with the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Philadelphia. (Fairbank had been president of AAS in 1959.) This was obviously his natural métier. “I was delighted to be asked,” he writes. “I love to create organizations and this one seemed to me much needed.” Soon CCAS was publishing a quarterly Bulletin, which sometimes vigorously attacked Fairbank himself for “ideological” defects as a professional “China watcher.” His reaction was characteristically gentle and perhaps amused, yet serious.

His book is a delight to read. It is informal—not often is there the elegant style, the memorable phrases, of his earlier book China Perceived—but the informality seems right, especially in the wry and often amusing sketches of people and places he knew. Letters and memoranda from his wartime experience place the reader close to that period. Several of the fine portraits and sketches of Chinese scenes are by his wife Wilma Cannon Fairbank, herself an Orientalist, writer, and artist; and there are also memorable photographs, including one of the author with Chou En-lai after Fairbank was allowed to revisit China in the 1970s. The cast is large, but the story sustains it, and from the war period on familiar names become real people on a stage of great complexity. Fairbank takes people seriously—seriously enough to round on his enemies with eloquence when they are villains (like General Tai Li), and seriously enough to treat colleagues and occasional opponents as gentlemen when they are gentlemen (like George Taylor of the University of Washington). When his story deals with a friend or student he cares deeply about, you know it. I found especially moving the two-page elegy for Mary Wright (perhaps because I knew her too), whose tragically early death at fifty-one cut short a brilliant career as a historian, first at Stanford and later as the first woman professor at Yale. These pages are perhaps even more profoundly felt than the longer encomium that prefaces Fairbank’s China Perceived.

I admit that I read this memoir not just with admiration but with some envy. I wish I had known Chou En-lai. I wish I could have met and sized up, myself, the late dean of People’s Republic scholars, Kuo Mo-jo, whose studies of Chou Dynasty bronze inscriptions I have nearly memorized. And I wish that I too could have walked on top of the now vanished walls of Peking in the moonlight, in the time long ago when the old China and old China things were “still in place.”

This Issue

May 13, 1982