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John K. Fairbank

John K. Fairbank

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John King Fairbank (Traditional Chinese: 費正清; Simplified Chinese: 费正清; pinyin
Pinyin is the official system to transcribe Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. It is also often used to teach Mandarin Chinese and spell Chinese names in foreign publications and used as an input method to enter Chinese characters into...

: Fèi Zhèngqīng), was a prominent American academic and historian of China.

Education and early career

Fairbank was born in Huron, South Dakota
Huron, South Dakota
Huron is a city in Beadle County, South Dakota, United States. The population was 12,592 at the 2010 census. It is the county seat of Beadle County. Huron was the home of now-defunct Huron University since 1897. Huron is also the home of the South Dakota State Fair...

 on 24 May 1907. He was educated at Sioux Falls High School, Phillips Exeter Academy
Phillips Exeter Academy
Phillips Exeter Academy is a private secondary school located in Exeter, New Hampshire, in the United States.Exeter is noted for its application of Harkness education, a system based on a conference format of teacher and student interaction, similar to the Socratic method of learning through asking...

, the University of Wisconsin–Madison
University of Wisconsin–Madison
The University of Wisconsin–Madison is a public research university located in Madison, Wisconsin, United States. Founded in 1848, UW–Madison is the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin System. It became a land-grant institution in 1866...

, Harvard College
Harvard College
Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of two schools within Harvard University granting undergraduate degrees...

, and Oxford University (Balliol
Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College , founded in 1263, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England but founded by a family with strong Scottish connections....

). In 1929, when he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in order to study British imperial history
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

. At Oxford, Fairbank learned that the Qing imperial archives were being opened, and sought the counsel of H.B. Morse, the eminent historian of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service
Chinese Maritime Customs Service
The Chinese Maritime Customs Service was a Chinese governmental tax collection agency and information service from its founding in 1854 until its bifurcation in 1949 into services operating in the Republic of China on Taiwan, and in the People's Republic of China...

, who became his mentor. The ambitious young scholar decided to go to Beijing
Beijing , also known as Peking , is the capital of the People's Republic of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of 19,612,368 as of 2010. The city is the country's political, cultural, and educational center, and home to the headquarters for most of China's...

 to do research for his doctoral degree in 1932. In Beijing, he studied at Tsinghua University
Tsinghua University
Tsinghua University , colloquially known in Chinese as Qinghua, is a university in Beijing, China. The school is one of the nine universities of the C9 League. It was established in 1911 under the name "Tsinghua Xuetang" or "Tsinghua College" and was renamed the "Tsinghua School" one year later...

 under the direction of the prominent historian Tsiang Tingfu
Tsiang Tingfu
Tsiang Tingfu was a Chinese historian and diplomat. Tsiang was born in Shaoyang in Hunan province. In 1911, he was sent to study in the United States, where he attended the Park Academy, Oberlin College and Columbia University. After obtaining a Ph.D...

 who introduced him to the study of newly available diplomatic sources and the perspectives of Chinese scholarship. Wilma Cannon (:zh:费慰梅) came to China to marry Fairbank and began a career of her own in Chinese art history. In 1936, Oxford awarded him a D.Phil. for his thesis, which he revised and published as Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast in 1953.

He returned to Harvard in 1936 to take up a position teaching Chinese history, Harvard's first full time specialist on that subject. He and Edwin O. Reischauer
Edwin O. Reischauer
Edwin Oldfather Reischauer was the leading U.S. educator and noted scholar of the history and culture of Japan, and of East Asia. From 1961–1966, he was the U.S. ambassador to Japan.-Education and academic life:...

 worked out a year long introductory survey which covered China and Japan, and later Korea and Southeast Asia. The course was known as "Rice Paddies," and became the basis for the influential texts, East Asia: The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960) and East Asia: The Modern Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

War service and the controversy over the "Loss of China"

Following the outbreak of the Pacific War
Pacific War
The Pacific War, also sometimes called the Asia-Pacific War refers broadly to the parts of World War II that took place in the Pacific Ocean, its islands, and in East Asia, then called the Far East...

 in 1941, Fairbank was enlisted to work for the US government, which included service in the OSS
Office of Strategic Services
The Office of Strategic Services was a United States intelligence agency formed during World War II. It was the wartime intelligence agency, and it was a predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency...

 and the Office of War Information in Chongqing
Chongqing is a major city in Southwest China and one of the five national central cities of China. Administratively, it is one of the PRC's four direct-controlled municipalities , and the only such municipality in inland China.The municipality was created on 14 March 1997, succeeding the...

, the temporary capital of Nationalist China
Republic of China
The Republic of China , commonly known as Taiwan , is a unitary sovereign state located in East Asia. Originally based in mainland China, the Republic of China currently governs the island of Taiwan , which forms over 99% of its current territory, as well as Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu and other minor...

. There, like most foreign observers, he witnessed the corruption of the government headed by Chiang Kai-shek
Chiang Kai-shek
Chiang Kai-shek was a political and military leader of 20th century China. He is known as Jiǎng Jièshí or Jiǎng Zhōngzhèng in Mandarin....

, which left a deeply negative impression of the Kuomintang
The Kuomintang of China , sometimes romanized as Guomindang via the Pinyin transcription system or GMD for short, and translated as the Chinese Nationalist Party is a founding and ruling political party of the Republic of China . Its guiding ideology is the Three Principles of the People, espoused...


When he returned to Harvard after the war, Fairbank inaugurated a Master's Degree program in Area Studies
Area studies
Area studies are interdisciplinary fields of research and scholarship pertaining to particular geographical, national/federal, or cultural regions. The term exists primarily as a general description for what are, in the practice of scholarship, many heterogeneous fields of research, encompassing...

. Harvard at that time was one of several major universities in the United States with Asian study programs. The Area Studies approach at Harvard was multi-disciplinary and aimed to train journalists, government officials, and others who did not want careers in academia. This broad approach, combined with Fairbank's experience in China during the war, shaped his United States and China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Foreign Policy Library, 1948). This survey went through new editions in 1958 and 1970, each synthesizing scholarship in the field for students and the general public. In the 1960s, he studied Chinese at the Taipei Language Institute
Taipei Language Institute
The Taipei Language Institute was founded in 1956 by a group of missionaries who wished to provide training in Mandarin Chinese for Taiwan-bound missionaries...

. In 1972, in preparation for Nixon's visit, the book was read by leaders on both sides.

Fairbank was among the so-called China Hands
China Hands
The term China Hand originally referred to 19th-century merchants in the treaty ports of China, but evolved to reflect anyone with expert knowledge of the language, culture, and people of China...

 who predicted the victory of Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

 and the Chinese Communist Party and advocated establishing relations with the new government. Although Fairbank argued that this would be in the American national interest
National interest
The national interest, often referred to by the French expression raison d'État , is a country's goals and ambitions whether economic, military, or cultural. The concept is an important one in international relations where pursuit of the national interest is the foundation of the realist...

, many Americans accused the China Hands of selling out an ally and promoting the spread of Communism and Soviet influence. In 1949, Fairbank was targeted for criticism of being "soft" on Communism, and 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
Fei Xiaotong
Fei Xiaotong, or Fei Hsiao-Tung was a pioneering Chinese researcher and professor of sociology and anthropology; he was also noted for his studies in the study of China's ethnic groups as well as a social activist...

 and Chen Han-seng
Chen Han-seng
Chen Han-seng was a Chinese sociologist and considered a pioneer of modern Chinese social science, and also a member of legendary Soviet master-spy Richard Sorge's Tokyo ring;He was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu...

, would later be attacked for being "pro-American" as the Chinese Communist Party became more rigidly communist.

Development of China Studies

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.

Harvard developed as the premier American center for East Asian studies. This growth was significantly affected by Fairbank's actions, including establishing the Center for East Asian Research
Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies
The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University is a post-graduate research center promoting the study of modern and contemporary China from a social science perspective. -History:...

 which was re-named in his honor after his retirement. He was director of the Center from 1955 through 1973.

Fairbank raised money to support fellowships for many graduate students, trained numerous 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. He established the influential Harvard East Asian Series which provided a venue for his students to publish their dissertations which was essential for achieving tenure. He was known as a relentless but supportive editor. Fairbank and his colleagues at Harvard, Edwin O. Reischauer and Albert Craig wrote the dominant textbook on China and Japan, A History of East Asian Civilization http://openlibrary.org/b/OL14886214M/history_of_East_Asian_civilization and Fairbank established strong links to influential figures in Washington D.C. both by training journalists, government officials, and others and by working with the government on China policy.

In 1966, Fairbank and the Sinologist Denis C. Twitchett
Denis C. Twitchett
Denis Crispin Twitchett was a British Sinologist, specializing in Chinese history, famous for compiling The Cambridge History of China.-Biography:...

, then at Cambridge University set in motion the plans for The Cambridge History of China
The Cambridge History of China
The Cambridge History of China is an ongoing series of books published by Cambridge University Press covering the early and modern history of China. It has been described as "the largest and most comprehensive history of China in the English language"....

. Originally intended to cover the entire history of China in six volumes, the project grew until it reached its present expected size of 15 volumes. Twitchett and Fairbank divided the history between them, with Fairbank editing the volumes on modern (post 1800) China, while Twitchett took responsibility for the period from the Qin to early Qing. Fairbank edited and wrote parts of volumes 10 through 15, the last of which appeared in the year after his death.

Struggle for the Mike

In December 1969, Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn was an American historian, academic, author, playwright, and social activist. Before and during his tenure as a political science professor at Boston University from 1964-88 he wrote more than 20 books, which included his best-selling and influential A People's History of the United...

 and other members of the Radical Historians' Caucus tried unsuccessfully to persuade the American Historical Association
American Historical Association
The American Historical Association is the oldest and largest society of historians and professors of history in the United States. Founded in 1884, the association promotes historical studies, the teaching of history, and the preservation of and access to historical materials...

 to pass an anti-Vietnam War resolution. "A debacle unfolded as Harvard historian (and AHA president in 1968) John Fairbank literally wrestled the microphone from Zinn
Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn was an American historian, academic, author, playwright, and social activist. Before and during his tenure as a political science professor at Boston University from 1964-88 he wrote more than 20 books, which included his best-selling and influential A People's History of the United...

's hands." Correspondence by Fairbank, Zinn and other historians, published by the AHA in 1970, is online 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
Harvard University Press
Harvard University Press is a publishing house established on January 13, 1913, as a division of Harvard University, and focused on academic publishing. In 2005, it published 220 new titles. It is a member of the Association of American University Presses. Its current director is William P...

, then returned home and suffered a fatal heart attack.

Selected works

In a statistical overview derived from writings by and about John King Fairbank, OCLC
OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. is "a nonprofit, membership, computer library service and research organization dedicated to the public purposes of furthering access to the world’s information and reducing information costs"...

WorldCat is a union catalog which itemizes the collections of 72,000 libraries in 170 countries and territories which participate in the Online Computer Library Center global cooperative...

 encompasses roughly 600+ works in 1,500+ publications in 15 languages and 43,000+ library holdings.
  • -- The United States and China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1st ed 1948; 4th, enl. ed. 1983.
  • -- Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.
  • -- "Patterns Behind the Tientsin Massacre." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 20, no. 3/4 (1957): 480-511.
  • -- Ch'ing Administration: Three Studies. (with Têng Ssu-yü) Harvard-Yenching Institute Studies, V. 19. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
  • -- China: The People's Middle Kingdom and the U.S.A (Cambridge,MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967).
  • -- China Perceived; Images and Policies in Chinese-American Relations (New York: Knopf, 1974).
  • -- Chinese-American Interactions : A Historical Summary (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1975).
  • -- Chinabound: a fifty-year memoir. New York : Harper & Row, 1982.
  • -- The Great Chinese Revolution, 1800-1985 (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).
  • -- China: A New History. (with Merle Goldman) Enl. ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.

Collaborative Works

  • John King Fairbank,Kwang-Ching Liu, Modern China; a Bibliographical Guide to Chinese Works, 1898-1937 (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1950).
  • Conrad Brandt, Benjamin Isadore Schwartz John King Fairbank, eds., A Documentary History of Chinese Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952).
  • Ssu-yü Têng, John King Fairbank Chaoying Fang and others. [Prepared in coöperation with the International Secretariat of the Institute of Pacific Relations] with E-tu Zen Sun, eds., China's Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839-1923 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954).
  • John King Fairbank, Masataka Banno, Japanese Studies of Modern China; a Bibliographical Guide to Historical and Social-Science Research on the 19th and 20th Centuries (Rutland, Vt.,: Published for the Harvard-Yenching Institute by C. E. Tuttle Co., 1955).
  • Edwin O. Reischauer,John King Fairbank Albert M. Craig, A History of East Asian Civilization (Boston,: Houghton Mifflin, 1960).
  • Noriko Kamachi, Chuzo, Ichiko John King Fairbank, Japanese Studies of Modern China since 1953 : A Bibliographical Guide to Historical and Social Science Research on the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries : Supplementary Volume for 1953-1969 (Cambridge, Mass.: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University : distributed by Harvard University Press, 1975).
  • Denis Twitchett, John King Fairbank,eds., The Cambridge History of China (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978-).
  • John King Fairbank,Martha Henderson Coolidge Richard J. Smith, H. B. Morse, Customs Commissioner and Historian of China (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995).

Conference Volumes

  • John King Fairbank, ed.,Chinese Thought and Institutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).

  • John King Fairbank, The Chinese World Order; Traditional China's Foreign Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).

  • Frank Algerton Kierman,John King Fairbank, eds., Chinese Ways in Warfare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

  • John King Fairbank, ed., The Missionary Enterprise in China and America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974).

  • Suzanne Wilson Barnett John King Fairbank, ed., Christianity in China: Early Protestant Missionary Writings (Cambridge, Mass.: Published by the Committee on American-East Asian Relations of the Dept. of History in collaboration with the Council on East Asian Studies/Harvard University : Distributed by the Harvard University Press, 1985).

  • Ernest R. May, John King Fairbank, eds,, America's China Trade in Historical Perspective: The Chinese and American Performance (Cambridge, Mass: Committee on American-East Asian Relations of the Department of History in collaboration with Council on East Asian Studies distributed by Harvard University Press, 1986).

Edited Letters and Texts

  • John King Fairbank, Katherine Frost Bruner, et al., The I. G. In Peking Letters of Robert Hart
    Robert Hart
    Robert Hart, Bob Hart, or Bobby Hart may refer to:* Bob Hart , a.k.a. Al Trace, American musician* Bob Hart , American bass player* Bobby Hart , American songwriter...

    , Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975).

  • Katherine Frost Bruner, John King Fairbank, et al., Entering China's Service : Robert Hart's Journals, 1854-1863 (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies Distributed by the Harvard University Press, 1986).
  • Richard J. Smith, John King Fairbank, et al., Robert Hart and China's Early Modernization: His Journals, 1863-1866 (Cambridge, Mass.: Published by the Council on East Asian Studies Distributed by the Harvard University Press, 1991).

  • Richard J. Smith, John King Fairbank, et al., Robert Hart and China's Early Modernization His Journals, 1863-1866 (Cambridge, Mass.: Published by the Council on East Asian Studies Distributed by the Harvard University Press, 1991).

Further reading

  • Evans, Paul M. John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China. New York: B. Blackwell, 1988.
  • Paul A. Cohen Merle Goldman, eds., Fairbank Remembered (Cambridge, Mass.: Published by the John K. Fairbank Center for East Asian Research Harvard University : Distributed by Harvard University Press, 1992). Brief reminiscences by students, colleagues, friends, and family.
  • Suleski, Ronald Stanley. (2005). The Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University: a Fifty Year History, 1955-2005. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 10-ISBN 097679800X/13-ISBN 9780976798002; OCLC 64140358

External links