John Fairbank, who died on September 14 at the age of eighty-four, read virtually all serious Western works on China. Reviewing them, principally for The New York Review in the last several years, was for him one way of keeping abreast of China scholarship. He never got into the habit of recycling old paradigms, but was always thirsty for new facts and ideas. Young scholars were flattered by the keen attention he paid to their work, and his omnivorousness enabled him to produce for the general reader brilliant, up-to-date syntheses like The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800–1985 and China: A New History, which he completed just before his death.
Although John Fairbank obviously expressed opinions of his own in those books, as in his reviews, he never set out to plug a line. One rarely had arguments with him, because he felt no compulsion to convert colleagues to his views; what he expected of them was only an involvement in China. His own mission was to spread awareness of the country and culture to which he had dedicated six decades of professional life. One aspect of his genius was an ability to infect others with some fraction of his own passionate commitment to the subject of China. If his reviews communicated that to the readers of this paper, he would have felt he had done his job.
October 24, 1991