Fairbank Employs 'Historical Perspective' To Understand Patterns in China Today

Speech to U.S. Reporters

(The National Committee on U.S. China Relations held a three-day seminar last week for leading American journalists. At the banquet Thursday night, John K. Fairbank delivered the following exterporaneous speech. Fairbank is Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and Director of Harvard's East Asian Research Center.)

I begin with the point that I think we face a crisis of understanding between the American people and the Chinese people. There is a cultural gap between us. We are vaguely aware of this. But of course, naturally, we are culture-bound in our country just as they are in their country. This I think intensifies the problem and increases the danger of conflict. Such a conflict as it looms on the horizon is certainly to be avoided. I would say the long-run chances of it are better than 50-50--massive knockdowns and dragouts between these two peoples for reasons that neither of them can quite understand. And here we are in a war in Vietnam--if I may bring this into the conversation at an early point--which we don't understand. Why are we there? Everybody's wondering, even the people there--perhaps they most of all. So I think seeing ourselves is a considerable task, and seeing the other culture is by definition a difficult thing to do. We are in danger of having great misappresensions.

Let me warn you against the idea that the Chinese specialists have some esoteric or mythical wisdom they can give you. I don't think anybody here buys that anymore. A China specialist is a fellow who's trying to work on this problem more than other people are, but in fact everybody in the country and not least the journalists of the United States are working on the China question. The problem is they don't have enough time for it. Now I think as we work on it from our end, there is one primary disability that you can see in the American scene. This is the short-term approach. You see this in the State Department when short-term considerations take precedence over long-range plans because the short-term considerations relate to the crisis of the moment. and the crisis is contingent to what the story, and the NSC [National Se-the story, and the NSC [National Security Council] must meet and decide. If the word goes out on the telescreen tape, we can act very fast and make decisions. We can move to deal with the current crisis.

One point that Roger Hilsman makes--and a lot of others, of course--is that when you do that time after time you get yourself edging along, always on a certain bias which moves you in a direction you don't necessarily want to go in.

In other words, it is much like escalation, like the whole process of getting into Vietnam again. But the same can be done in reference to China or in our response to foreign crisis anywhere. We are institutionally set up in such a way that we up-play the short-term crisis decision, the command decision for meeting the emergency, and we down-play the long-term planning. In spite of all the paperwork that passes and all the contracts that are made with researchers and all the fads in various buildings, we don't have a long-term program which is a dominant guideline to what we do. This is a part of our being pragamtic, it is part of our being non-ideological in the way we see ourselves.

I would suggest that this difficulty also applies to the operation of the press. Someone was just talking here about the problem of the short span of the information operation as the press operates to meet the news of the day. You get the story when it is first reported. You get the answer back as to what's happening while it's important. The public scene is not set up to give equal prominence to the long-term underlying, less spectacular factors that really need to be kept to the fore.

I do not need to belabor this. We all know how TV operates in the public scene with gunplay and the kind of spectacular violence that appears to the American public. To deal with this problem, I suppose you can only get into a sermon how how to get ourselves away from violence as our daily fare in literature and picture all across our land--enough, I am sure, to horrify most of the totalitarians who come here and regard us as a bloodthirsty crowd.

This, to my mind, is part of our basic inadequacy in meeting a long-term world theme, in which the prospect of spreading disorder goes along with increasing population, in the southern parts of the world in particular. I don't see anything to keep it from developing and crises will proliferate. Our response to it, if it can't be on a planned and longer-perspective basis, can only go from crisis to crisis and from disaster to disaster.

And so, this effort that we can make here to get a meeting of minds between academic specialists and journalistic specialists--this offers a possibility to improve our stance in the world and in our national life. The one thing I am getting at, as you will now see, is that we've got to bring more historical perspective into this. So I'd like to indicate in some concrete form the need for historical perspective in dealing with the Chinese, too.

The people that you have heard today have given you historical background and yet many of them are social scientists, not primarily historians. We have found in working on contemporary China, for which you can get the larger funds for research, that inevitably you are drawn back--if you want to understand China--into developing historical perspective on your problem. This is true particularly in the Chinese case, and yet even a man trained in history like our colleague Franz Schurmann at Berkeley in his most recent book becomes remarkably unhistorical because he is being so brilliantly a social scientist. He is bringing in Dr. Ametai Etzioni and all these fabulous characters to tell you about management and things of that kind, and he leaves out the K'anghsi emperor--and everybody lying back of Chairman Mao--who are really peering over his shoulder.

So historical perspective can give you a picture of what the expectable limits are. It can give you a range within which to foresee probability. It can give you the models and patterns which are in the Chinese scene and most available when the revolutionary is picking his option of what to do and how to do it. After all, we have to remember that the Chinese revolution is that of a great peasant society. It is being carried on by vast masses of cadre who do not have a Western education or Western experience and who therefore, revolutionary as they may like to be, are still culture-bound and within their traditions to a considerable degree. The options that they can find are within the things in the local scene--both the conditions of the time, the wherewithal of resources and the ways of doing things they have inherited from Chinese history.

Among these various things, suppose we take just a little syndrome: Begin with the American syndrome of supremacy of law, individual rights, due process, representative government, the self-determination of peoples (forget the war in Vietnam)--in other words, things we believe in, these pillars of our system. These are within our culture. Let's not argue about their validity; they certainly underlie a great deal of our efforts. What is the equivalent in the Chinese scene? Chinese culture is a far different mixture certainly. None of these terms is going to ring the same kind of bell. The Chinese equivalent probably begins with ethical teaching, elitist leadership--not egalitarian--and indoctrination in a community with a great sense of community stressing that rather than individualism, speaking in consensus and expecting a consensus and conformity rather than diverity or individualism, and winding up with authoritarian leadership and a great capacity for mobilization and organization, which we've seen in China in recent years.

In other words, the things they set store by are a different constellation. And when we proceed in a case like the current war or in our approach to the Chinese generally, on our own basis culture bound, we can expect only conflict with the Chinese, who are competing on their basis. Obviously the path of reason is to try to understand them and to understand ourselves and to get onto a new basis, which is in between these somewhere, without giving up what we consider essential, and nevertheless to resolve this conflict on some kind of mutual basis. This is a trick which may be beyond the capacity of human kind to pull off, but the alternative is not good and the effort must be made.

If you look at Chinese values which attach so much importance to the state and to seeing the individual as serving the collective, and the family, and the community and state, with duty rather than right; then if you look at the Chinese political tradition with its succession of dynasties and people who seize power and have absolute power, but who justify it and mediate it through their institutions and maintain themselves for long periods of peace and order; here you see a succession of values, a succession of rhythms, repetitions of patterns, which form a consistent whole. The Chinese historical record, in other words, presents you not with just an emerging new nation today, but with a country that is making modifications in an age-old tradition, that has one of the longest historical personalities. The history and the patterns going with it are worthy of analysis because they are still operating.

Now let's get into the kind of generalization that may not be socially scientific and may be just a seeking modern analogies which don't exist. You have to warn yourself and take these chances. I think there is a great deal of resurfacing of traditional features of Chinese life in the midst of all this effort to make everything new and different, and meet modern problems. When a brilliant study appears like, for instance, Bill Skinner's study of marketing structure--here's a man whom some of you have read. He shows that in any given area, the markets occur on a pattern. The first, third, fifth and seven day in a 10-day cycle, or the second, fourth, eighth day in a 10-day cycle. The point being that the itinerant peddler can go from one market to the next, in a sequence, to be in this town the first day, in this town the second day, and this town the third day. If you start working that out, you realize you have got marketing areas. These are units and Bill and other people too have drawn a picture of it. You can get a picture very soon of the cellular structure of the old Chinese peasant economy grouped within the marketing units, the basic point being that the peasant in his village must be within a day's walk, round trip, from the market. So it has a certain size; it may be 5 miles across, at most 10. So you have a certain number of villages, maybe a dozen, around the market town. You have a community of maybe 5,000-7,000 people--and these people form the basic peasant community, not just the village but the marketing structure--1 in 5 people, more or less, in the village will go to market--on the market day to get the basic things they need and exchange any products they have. So you have a community where they know each other. You find that secret societies are organized within this community, local temples will be in the marketing center, and clans or families have their influence in certain areas. This approach shows how the Chinese peasantry in their vast numbers over this limitless countryside were put together in the old days and developed over a thousand years or more. So the commune today is in modern terms a similar use of this structure roughly the same size. Skinner was able to estimate that there are roughly 72,000 of these units and the communes when reduced to their eventual size were something on that order of magnitude. I suggest to you that this new thing that you read in Chinese history has its roots in the past with modifications.