Emperor of China Studies

Chinabound: A Fifty-Year Memoir

by John King Fairbank
Harper & Row/A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, 480 pp., $20.00

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,…

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