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Fairbank Perceived:

Profile of a secular missionary

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

One of the recurring themes in John K. Fairbank's work is the American perception of China. Since 1784, when the first American merchant ship sent to Canton returned with spices, silk, and a 25-per-cent profit, that perception has resulted in Americans' continual fascination with the vast, rich, mysterious nation. That same perception also launched many later ships laden not with goods to trade but with missionaries determined to remake the Chinese in their own image. We have never been able to see China through Chinese eyes, Fairbank teaches, but only through our own. Fairbank titled one of his many books, "China Perceived: Images and Policies in Chinese-American Relations."

So it was perhaps not inappropriate that when it came time to write this article Fairbank was in Europe and could not be reached for an interview. The following is a profile of the China specialist seen through the eyes of his friends and colleagues. Diane Sherlock

For most of the 20th century, there have been only three reasons that American scholars have chosen to study East Asia. The first was that they were the children of missionaries and wanted to grapple with the cultures that their parents, living as members of a tiny white community among Asians, had never understood. The second reason was that the scholars had been in the Far East, as it was then called, during the war, either in Japan for the American occupation or even, in rare cases, in China. The third reason was John King Fairbank '29.

"Before Fairbank there was a darkness about Asia. Every course ended in 1793 with the death of the emperor Ch'ien-lung. Everything else was journalism," says Theodore H. White '38, the author of The Making of the President books and Thunder Out of China, who was Fairbank's first undergraduate tutee. Fairbank, who is retiring this year as Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History after 41 years on the Faculty, led the way out of that darkness, making modern China part of the American intellectual world. With a single-minded devotion that America's China missionaries would have envied, Fairbank made China, as seen from the inside out, the focus of Harvard's East Asian Research Center, which he directed for 18 years, and the East Asian Regional Studies Program, which he set up here. Fairbank educated a whole generation of converts whom, in academics, government, journalism and business, he has inspired to continue to spread the word about China.

If Fairbank's success far outshines that of America's China missionaries (the number of Chinese Christian converts was always embarrassingly small) then it may perhaps be attributed to Faribank's capacity to understand his pupils, a capacity that the missionaries lacked. It is not only because Fairbank's books are so widely read that David E. Kelley, a current graduate student in East Asian studies, says of the professor, "It's hard to see where his personal perspective ends and his influence on others begins." And James C. Thomson Jr., curator of the Nieman Foundation who wrote his doctoral dissertation under Fairbank, says "One of the things that is astonishing about this person is that as a mentor and guide and guru he adopts different styles for different disciples and clearly develops in his own mind different routes and timetables his mentees could follow."

Thomson's experience just after receiving his Ph.D. is an example of the empathy of his mentor. Having gone to work for the State Department in 1960, Thomson recalls he soon received "several nibbles" from Harvard and Yale to join the faculties there. But when he consulted Fairbank about the offers, Thomson says his teacher's reaction was only lukewarm. Thomson took this hesitancy as a cue: Fairbank felt his student should first complete his stint in government. But when Harvard's History Department approached Thomson again in 1966, Fairbank was there with open arms. "He felt it was time," Thomson says.

Then there is the almost legendary story of the calm, collected Fairbank and his frantic graduate student who could not manage to turn in his thesis. After Fairbank's usual strategy of telephoning the delaying student at 8 p.m. on Sunday failed to persuade him to work a little faster, Fairbank showed up at the student's home at that ungodly hour--to pay a visit. (Ungodly, that is, for the grad student; for Fairbank, who is always home by 10 p.m. no matter what the occasion, it was the middle of the morning.) Fairbank noticed a mass of typewritten drafts on the table which he promptly stole and turned in, and which of course proved to be a brilliant thesis. Then too, Fairbank had known when it was time.

But Fairbank did not always have this sense of mission. His stumbling onto the continent was in fact pure chance, a sort of accident of history. During lunch one day at the Signet, Fairbank, the Harvard undergrad studying English trade history, happened to hear Sir Charles Webster, the British historian just back from Kyoto, say that a new archive on 19th-century Chinese history had been opened in Peking. Fairbank decided that it was worth spending half of his Rhodes scholarship to take a look. Wilma C. Fairbank, then his wife-to-be, recalls that one of his classmates said at the time, "What a terrible loss it is that such a bright fellow as John should throw himself away on such a remote field as Chinese history."

There are three themes in Fairbank's alumni reports, dating from 1939, after he had returned from China, to 1964, when he reflected on his time spent as a professor, "a calling which becomes steadily more so," and they are themes that recur with the persistence and regularity of Fairbank's vision of history. The first theme is his determination to master the next-to-impossible Japanese language. The second theme is "the country's need" for "a good course on Far Eastern history." Fairbank himself realized this goal when, sometime shortly before the second world war, he and Edwin O. Reischauer, now University Professor, combined their knowledge with what has been described as Fairbank's "great organizational talents" and "leading entrepreneurial skills" to start a course on the history of China and Japan that later became Soc Sci 11, "East Asian Civilizations," and is now familiarly know as "Rice Paddies."

The third theme, Fairbank's growing personal identification with the Chinese, enabled him to teach Chinese history the way he believes it ought to be taught, but it also provided some unexpected, and serious problems. In 1949, following his years working in the Office of War Information and as special assistant to the American ambassador in Chungking, Fairbank wrote in his alumni report, "During the last 20 years, while Chiang Kai-shek has been fighting Mao Tse-tung, I have been trying to read Chinese and by coordinating my activities with theirs in this way, I now find myself in a rising market for China specialists." Within two years, however, that market took a sharp nosedive when Rep. Patrick McCarran's Internal Security Committee decided that the mission of Fairbank and that of the foreign service officers, who had become known as the China Hands, had not been the mission of the United States. On sabbatical from Harvard in 1951, Fairbank, his wife; and his two daughters had already travelled across the country en route to occupied Japan when he was denied a visa because he had been accused of being a cardcarrying Communist. Fairbank spent much of the next few years defending himself, as well as many of his colleagues from the broad-based Institute of Pacific Relations, against allegations that they had been part of a Stalinist conspiracy that had "lost" China from "the free world." Although Fairbank himself was eventually cleared by the committee, his wife says that his "public participation fell away drastically": Fairbank was not again asked to write for publications like the New York Times Book Review for more than a decade.

Today it is difficult to guess the degree to which the grueling experience of the '50s has penetrated to the heart of this man who, with his subtle intellect and unobtrusive manner, remains, even to his closest students, almost Chinese in his mysteriousness. Superficially, few scars show. In one of his annual lectures in History 1711, "The United States and East Asia," he has recited the series of questions members of McCarran's committee once fired at him with a characteristically Fairbankian sense of deadpan humor. But, as few who know him at all can fail to mention, Fairbank often compresses some of his most serious observations into what Thomson has called his "inscrutable wit." On the doorjamb of his wonderfully book-laden study in Widener, for instance, Fairbank has scrawled four words that are almost Chinese in their terseness: "People sometimes; book, never," the door reads. Fairbank's humorous but decidedly cynical meaning squeezed between the lines here is, as translated by Thomson, that while people may sometimes pass between his study and the outside world, his books can never be borrowed, but must remain within. There was also an uneasy trace of humor in his 1954 alumni report when he wrote:

I spent two terms in China during the war, the second in charge of an information program with centers in ten cities, which would still be a fine thing if it hadn't been for the Chinese communist revolution. Since then various characters have been asking me why I let it happen. (What was my real motive? etc.) Nationalist China, in retrospect, seems to have been like a sick patient--to hide the gravity of the illness would leave people unwarned, to announce it was demoralizing. Most of us in the China business, I think, were over-optimistic and under-informed about the communists, the same as the American public in general; but, given our own distance and demobilization and the problems Chiang Kai-shek was engulfed in, I still doubt that we could have saved his situation, even if we had fought a major war in China. So I sympathize with my friends who have been kicked around as scapegoats.

So, as some of his colleagues will testify, the McCarthy period probably only helped to confirm Fairbank's long-standing cynicism about the possibilities of cross-cultural understanding and social change. As Benjamin I. Schwartz '38, Williams Professor of History and Political Science, who was one of Fairbank's graduate students after the war says, "Everyone would accept the view that we have a tendency to be culture-bound, but not everyone would stress it as much." And Thomson calls Fairbank an "historical pessimist" who "does not believe in the perfectibility of people or their institutions."

Maybe it is this underlying pessimism that explains Fairbank's frequent emphasis on the continuities rather than the disruptions of history. While never denying the importance or the achievements of the Chinese communist revolution, Fairbank has also pointed out in lecture, students say, that the communists' current debate over whether to wage an economic or a social revolution is only a modern-day version of a debate that has been going on among Chinese for centuries. More than a decade after the end of the McCarran Committee investigations, Fairbank is reported to have told a group of young China-language foreign service officers not to be too confident about the political freedom of the '60s because, "Remember, the pendulum could swing the other way. It always does." A few years later, sure enough, Fairbank was again struck by the pendulum's swing when he was criticized by "New Left" China scholars who felt he had been insufficiently critical of U.S. policy toward Peking and insufficiently fast in becoming a critic of the Vietnam war. During both the attack from the Right and then that from the Left, Fairbank never abandoned his own stance.

But the most obvious (and most optimistic) continuity in Fairbank's life has been his complete dedication to his China mission. It is not surprising that the first major task of his retirement will be to edit the new Cambridge History of Modern China. Some say that Fairbank's editing of the extensive series, in addition to his writing one of the volumes himself, may take the professor the rest of his life. But the Fairbanks seem to have the gift of the East for age as well as wisdom. Fairbank's mother, who is over 100, is still living on her own in Washington. Future alumni reports from Fairbank will probably include not only news about the progress of his books and of his travels to Asia this September, but also reports on the practice of frisbee, his favorite "sport;" then there is always that business of learning Japanese.

For most of the 20th century, there have been only three reasons that American scholars have chosen to study East Asia. The first was that they were the children of missionaries and wanted to grapple with the cultures that their parents, living as members of a tiny white community among Asians, had never understood. The second reason was that the scholars had been in the Far East, as it was then called, during the war, either in Japan for the American occupation or even, in rare cases, in China. The third reason was John King Fairbank '29.

"Before Fairbank there was a darkness about Asia. Every course ended in 1793 with the death of the emperor Ch'ien-lung. Everything else was journalism," says Theodore H. White '38, the author of The Making of the President books and Thunder Out of China, who was Fairbank's first undergraduate tutee. Fairbank, who is retiring this year as Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History after 41 years on the Faculty, led the way out of that darkness, making modern China part of the American intellectual world. With a single-minded devotion that America's China missionaries would have envied, Fairbank made China, as seen from the inside out, the focus of Harvard's East Asian Research Center, which he directed for 18 years, and the East Asian Regional Studies Program, which he set up here. Fairbank educated a whole generation of converts whom, in academics, government, journalism and business, he has inspired to continue to spread the word about China.

If Fairbank's success far outshines that of America's China missionaries (the number of Chinese Christian converts was always embarrassingly small) then it may perhaps be attributed to Faribank's capacity to understand his pupils, a capacity that the missionaries lacked. It is not only because Fairbank's books are so widely read that David E. Kelley, a current graduate student in East Asian studies, says of the professor, "It's hard to see where his personal perspective ends and his influence on others begins." And James C. Thomson Jr., curator of the Nieman Foundation who wrote his doctoral dissertation under Fairbank, says "One of the things that is astonishing about this person is that as a mentor and guide and guru he adopts different styles for different disciples and clearly develops in his own mind different routes and timetables his mentees could follow."

Thomson's experience just after receiving his Ph.D. is an example of the empathy of his mentor. Having gone to work for the State Department in 1960, Thomson recalls he soon received "several nibbles" from Harvard and Yale to join the faculties there. But when he consulted Fairbank about the offers, Thomson says his teacher's reaction was only lukewarm. Thomson took this hesitancy as a cue: Fairbank felt his student should first complete his stint in government. But when Harvard's History Department approached Thomson again in 1966, Fairbank was there with open arms. "He felt it was time," Thomson says.

Then there is the almost legendary story of the calm, collected Fairbank and his frantic graduate student who could not manage to turn in his thesis. After Fairbank's usual strategy of telephoning the delaying student at 8 p.m. on Sunday failed to persuade him to work a little faster, Fairbank showed up at the student's home at that ungodly hour--to pay a visit. (Ungodly, that is, for the grad student; for Fairbank, who is always home by 10 p.m. no matter what the occasion, it was the middle of the morning.) Fairbank noticed a mass of typewritten drafts on the table which he promptly stole and turned in, and which of course proved to be a brilliant thesis. Then too, Fairbank had known when it was time.

But Fairbank did not always have this sense of mission. His stumbling onto the continent was in fact pure chance, a sort of accident of history. During lunch one day at the Signet, Fairbank, the Harvard undergrad studying English trade history, happened to hear Sir Charles Webster, the British historian just back from Kyoto, say that a new archive on 19th-century Chinese history had been opened in Peking. Fairbank decided that it was worth spending half of his Rhodes scholarship to take a look. Wilma C. Fairbank, then his wife-to-be, recalls that one of his classmates said at the time, "What a terrible loss it is that such a bright fellow as John should throw himself away on such a remote field as Chinese history."

There are three themes in Fairbank's alumni reports, dating from 1939, after he had returned from China, to 1964, when he reflected on his time spent as a professor, "a calling which becomes steadily more so," and they are themes that recur with the persistence and regularity of Fairbank's vision of history. The first theme is his determination to master the next-to-impossible Japanese language. The second theme is "the country's need" for "a good course on Far Eastern history." Fairbank himself realized this goal when, sometime shortly before the second world war, he and Edwin O. Reischauer, now University Professor, combined their knowledge with what has been described as Fairbank's "great organizational talents" and "leading entrepreneurial skills" to start a course on the history of China and Japan that later became Soc Sci 11, "East Asian Civilizations," and is now familiarly know as "Rice Paddies."

The third theme, Fairbank's growing personal identification with the Chinese, enabled him to teach Chinese history the way he believes it ought to be taught, but it also provided some unexpected, and serious problems. In 1949, following his years working in the Office of War Information and as special assistant to the American ambassador in Chungking, Fairbank wrote in his alumni report, "During the last 20 years, while Chiang Kai-shek has been fighting Mao Tse-tung, I have been trying to read Chinese and by coordinating my activities with theirs in this way, I now find myself in a rising market for China specialists." Within two years, however, that market took a sharp nosedive when Rep. Patrick McCarran's Internal Security Committee decided that the mission of Fairbank and that of the foreign service officers, who had become known as the China Hands, had not been the mission of the United States. On sabbatical from Harvard in 1951, Fairbank, his wife; and his two daughters had already travelled across the country en route to occupied Japan when he was denied a visa because he had been accused of being a cardcarrying Communist. Fairbank spent much of the next few years defending himself, as well as many of his colleagues from the broad-based Institute of Pacific Relations, against allegations that they had been part of a Stalinist conspiracy that had "lost" China from "the free world." Although Fairbank himself was eventually cleared by the committee, his wife says that his "public participation fell away drastically": Fairbank was not again asked to write for publications like the New York Times Book Review for more than a decade.

Today it is difficult to guess the degree to which the grueling experience of the '50s has penetrated to the heart of this man who, with his subtle intellect and unobtrusive manner, remains, even to his closest students, almost Chinese in his mysteriousness. Superficially, few scars show. In one of his annual lectures in History 1711, "The United States and East Asia," he has recited the series of questions members of McCarran's committee once fired at him with a characteristically Fairbankian sense of deadpan humor. But, as few who know him at all can fail to mention, Fairbank often compresses some of his most serious observations into what Thomson has called his "inscrutable wit." On the doorjamb of his wonderfully book-laden study in Widener, for instance, Fairbank has scrawled four words that are almost Chinese in their terseness: "People sometimes; book, never," the door reads. Fairbank's humorous but decidedly cynical meaning squeezed between the lines here is, as translated by Thomson, that while people may sometimes pass between his study and the outside world, his books can never be borrowed, but must remain within. There was also an uneasy trace of humor in his 1954 alumni report when he wrote:

I spent two terms in China during the war, the second in charge of an information program with centers in ten cities, which would still be a fine thing if it hadn't been for the Chinese communist revolution. Since then various characters have been asking me why I let it happen. (What was my real motive? etc.) Nationalist China, in retrospect, seems to have been like a sick patient--to hide the gravity of the illness would leave people unwarned, to announce it was demoralizing. Most of us in the China business, I think, were over-optimistic and under-informed about the communists, the same as the American public in general; but, given our own distance and demobilization and the problems Chiang Kai-shek was engulfed in, I still doubt that we could have saved his situation, even if we had fought a major war in China. So I sympathize with my friends who have been kicked around as scapegoats.

So, as some of his colleagues will testify, the McCarthy period probably only helped to confirm Fairbank's long-standing cynicism about the possibilities of cross-cultural understanding and social change. As Benjamin I. Schwartz '38, Williams Professor of History and Political Science, who was one of Fairbank's graduate students after the war says, "Everyone would accept the view that we have a tendency to be culture-bound, but not everyone would stress it as much." And Thomson calls Fairbank an "historical pessimist" who "does not believe in the perfectibility of people or their institutions."

Maybe it is this underlying pessimism that explains Fairbank's frequent emphasis on the continuities rather than the disruptions of history. While never denying the importance or the achievements of the Chinese communist revolution, Fairbank has also pointed out in lecture, students say, that the communists' current debate over whether to wage an economic or a social revolution is only a modern-day version of a debate that has been going on among Chinese for centuries. More than a decade after the end of the McCarran Committee investigations, Fairbank is reported to have told a group of young China-language foreign service officers not to be too confident about the political freedom of the '60s because, "Remember, the pendulum could swing the other way. It always does." A few years later, sure enough, Fairbank was again struck by the pendulum's swing when he was criticized by "New Left" China scholars who felt he had been insufficiently critical of U.S. policy toward Peking and insufficiently fast in becoming a critic of the Vietnam war. During both the attack from the Right and then that from the Left, Fairbank never abandoned his own stance.

But the most obvious (and most optimistic) continuity in Fairbank's life has been his complete dedication to his China mission. It is not surprising that the first major task of his retirement will be to edit the new Cambridge History of Modern China. Some say that Fairbank's editing of the extensive series, in addition to his writing one of the volumes himself, may take the professor the rest of his life. But the Fairbanks seem to have the gift of the East for age as well as wisdom. Fairbank's mother, who is over 100, is still living on her own in Washington. Future alumni reports from Fairbank will probably include not only news about the progress of his books and of his travels to Asia this September, but also reports on the practice of frisbee, his favorite "sport;" then there is always that business of learning Japanese.

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