John K. Fairbank
John King Fairbank
May 24, 1907
Huron, South Dakota, U.S.
|Died||September 14, 1991 (aged 84)|
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Education||Phillips Exeter Academy|
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Harvard College (1929)
|Wilma Denion Cannon|
|Children||Laura Fairbank Haynes, Holly Fairbank Tuck|
John King Fairbank (May 24, 1907 - September 14, 1991), was a prominent American historian of China. Considered the doyen of post-war China studies, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University is named after him. Among his most widely read books are The United States and China, which was first published in 1948 and went through revisions in 1958, 1979, and 1983, and his co-edited series, The Cambridge History of China.
Fairbank was born in Huron, South Dakota, in 1907. He was educated at Sioux Falls High School, Phillips Exeter Academy, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harvard College, and Oxford University (Balliol). As an undergraduate, he was advised by Charles Kingsley Webster, the distinguished British diplomatic historian who was then teaching at Harvard, to choose a relatively-undeveloped field of study. Webster suggested that since the Qing dynasty's archives were then being opened, China's foreign relations would be a prudent choice. Fairbank later admitted that he then knew nothing about China itself.
At Oxford, Fairbank began his study of the Chinese language and sought the counsel of H.B. Morse, retired from the Imperial Maritime Customs Service. On Webster's advice, he had read Morse's three-volume study of the Qing dynasty's foreign relations on the ship that was coming to England. Morse became his mentor. The ambitious young scholar decided to go to Beijing to do research in 1932.
In Beijing, he studied at Tsinghua University under the direction of the prominent historian Tsiang Tingfu, who introduced him to the study of newly-available diplomatic sources and the perspectives of Chinese scholarship, which balanced the British approaches he saw at Oxford.
Wilma Denio Cannon, a daughter of Walter Bradford Cannon and sister of Marian Cannon Schlesinger, came to China to marry Fairbank and began a career of her own in Chinese art history. He and Wilma came to know to a number of Chinese intellectuals, and they became especially warm friends with Liang Sicheng, the son of the distinguished Chinese reformer Liang Qichao, and his wife, Lin Huiyin, whom they called Phyllis.
The Lins introduced them to Jin Yuelin, a philosopher trained at Columbia University. Fairbank wrote later that he and Wilma began to sense through them that the Chinese problem was the "necessity to winnow the past and discriminate among things foreign, what to preserve and what to borrow...."
Fairbank returned to Harvard in 1936 to take up a position teaching Chinese history and was its first full-time specialist at Harvard. He and Edwin O. Reischauer worked out a year-long introductory survey covering China and Japan and later Korea and Southeast Asia. The course was known as "Rice Paddies," and it became the basis for two influential texts: East Asia: The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960) and East Asia: The Modern Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).
Following the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941, Fairbank was enlisted to work for the US government, which included service in the Office of Strategic Services and the Office of War Information in Chongqing, the temporary capital of Nationalist China.
When he returned to Harvard after the war, Fairbank inaugurated a master's degree program in area studies, one of several major universities in the United States to do so. That approach at Harvard was multi-disciplinary and aimed to train journalists, government officials, and others who did not want careers in academia. That broad approach, combined with Fairbank's experience in China during the war, shaped his United States and China (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, Foreign Policy Library, 1948). That survey went through new editions in 1958 and 1970, each synthesizing scholarship in the field for both students and the general public. In 1972, in preparation for Nixon's visit, the book was read by leaders on both sides.
In the late 1940s, Fairbank was among the so-called China Hands, who predicted the victory of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party and advocated establishing relations with the new government. Although Fairbank argued that relations with new China would be in the American national interest, the China Lobby and many other Americans accused the China Hands of selling out an ally and promoting the spread of communism and of Soviet influence; that was during an intensification of the Cold War. In 1949, Fairbank was targeted for being "soft" on Communism, and he was denied a visa to visit Japan. In 1952, he testified before the McCarran Committee, but his secure position at Harvard protected him. Ironically, many of Fairbank's Chinese friends and colleagues who returned to China after 1949, such as Fei Xiaotong, Ch'ien Tuan-sheng, and Chen Han-seng, would later be attacked for being "pro-American," as the Chinese Communist Party became more rigidly communist. Critics in Taiwan charged that he was a tool of the Communists.
Fairbank taught at Harvard until he retired in 1977. He published a number of both academic and non-academic works on China, many of which would reach a wide audience outside academia. He also published an expanded revision of his doctoral dissertation as Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast in 1953. One of his students, Paul Cohen, noted that the approaches or stages in the development of China studies of the 1950s are sometimes referred to as "the Harvard 'school' of China studies."
Fairbank played a major role in developing Harvard as a leading American center for East Asian studies, including establishing the Center for East Asian Research, which was renamed to the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies after his retirement. He was its director from 1955 to 1973.
Fairbank raised money to support fellowships for graduate students, trained influential China historians at Harvard, and placed them widely in universities and colleges in the US and overseas. He welcomed and funded researchers from all over the world to spend time in Cambridge and hosted a series of conferences, which brought scholars together and yielded publications, many of which Fairbank edited himself. He established the Harvard East Asian Series, which published monographs to enable students to publish dissertations, which was essential for achieving tenure. Fairbank and his colleagues at Harvard, Edwin O. Reischauer and Albert Craig, wrote a textbook on China and Japan, A History of East Asian Civilization. Fairbank established links to figures in government both by training journalists, government officials, and foundation executives and by giving his thoughts to the government on policy on China.
In 1966, Fairbank and the Sinologist Denis C. Twitchett, then at Cambridge University, set in motion plans for The Cambridge History of China. Originally intended to cover the entire history of China in six volumes, the project grew until it reached a projected 15 volumes. Twitchett and Fairbank divided the history, with Fairbank editing volumes on modern (post-1800) China, and Twitchett and others took responsibility for the period from the Qin to the early Qing dynasties. Fairbank edited and wrote parts of Volumes 10 to 15, the last of which appeared in the year after his death. Martha Henderson Coolidge and Richard Smith completed and published Fairbank's biography of H.B. Morse.
Among his students were Albert Feuerwerker, Merle Goldman, Joseph Levenson, Immanuel C.Y. Hsu, Akira Iriye, Philip A. Kuhn, Kwang-ching Liu, Roderick MacFarquhar, Rhoads Murphey, David S. Nivison, Andrew Nathan, David Tod Roy, Benjamin I. Schwartz, Franz Schurman, Teng Ssu-yu, James C. Thomson, Jr., Theodore White, John E. Wills, Jr., Alexander Woodside, Mary C. Wright.
During the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, Fairbank, who had earlier been criticized as being pro-communist, came under fire from younger scholars and graduate students in the new Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, which he had helped form but then soon ended his participation.
The younger scholars charged that Fairbank and other leaders of the area studies movement had helped to justify American imperialism in Asia. By his grounding the study of Asia in modernization theory, Fairbank and other liberal scholars presented China as an irrational country, which needed American tutelage. Since Fairbank rejected revolution, he condoned imperialism. A further charge was that scholars of the Harvard School had put forth a "radical new version" of China's modern history that argued imperialism "was largely beneficial in China." 
In December 1969, Howard Zinn and other members of the Radical Historians' Caucus attempted to persuade the American Historical Association to pass an anti-Vietnam War resolution. A later report said a "debacle unfolded as Harvard historian (and AHA president in 1968) John Fairbank literally wrestled the microphone from Zinn's hands", in what Fairbank called "our briefly-famous Struggle for the Mike."
Fairbank finished the manuscript of his final book, China: A New History in the summer of 1991. On September 14, 1991 he delivered the manuscript to Harvard University Press, then returned home and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was survived by his wife, Wilma, and their two daughters, Laura Fairbank Haynes and Holly Fairbank Tuck.