JOHN KING FAIRBANK '29. Higginson Professor of History Emeritus, retired from a 40-year Harvard teaching career more than five years ago. But his chronicles of China remain central to the study of the rocky United States-East Asian relationship as ever. And now the 74-year-old undisputed dean of China hands has applied his brilliance to another intriguing and consuming subject his own life.
Chinabound: A Fifty-Year Memoir is at once a glorious success story and a seeming fairy tale From a humble Midwestern south in Sioux Falls, N.D., Fairbank soared through stints at Exeter. Wisconsin Harvard and Oxford, breezing academics and keeping a quirky sort of perspective on his meteoric intellectual development. I broke the cadence and entered Wisconsin instead of Harvard. This was partly because coeducation appealed to me. I knew how to study. What else was there to do."
Fairbank momentous academic success gelled quickly into distinguished scholarship in a field few academics were paying attention to--China. Despite the monumental task of pioneering such a career. Fairbank maintained his wry and understated demeanor. He writes. "How do you get started in a field that doesn't exist. The answer is of course, that the field is there all the time, you have only to recognize and proclaim its existence."
Descriptions on Fairbank's stations in life appropriately dominate Chinabound providing wonderful insights into his development of the East Asian studies program at Harvard. But watching Fairbank's career untold, one is led to feel that this man has more going for him than brilliance. He's got good luck and charisma-the kind seen perhaps once in a billion times. He had the good professional fortune of being in China as information coordinator of the U.S. during the storms 1940s.
FAIRBANK CAREFULLY describes the circle of China hands which emerged in the first half of this century. Portraits of Owen Lattimore. Agnes Smedley. Harold Isaacs and other key members of the Western experience in China preceding Mao consume much of Chinabound, shedding light on the personalities and politics of those who communicated what they saw or thought they saw. He chronicles the Harvard Faculty and History department with equal enthusiasm. While he fails to mention the awe his colleagues surely felt toward him and his Herculean creation of East Asian history courses which would eventually multiply and spread. Fairbank exudes an almost boyish excitement when depicting the Harvard Faculty. The descriptions are intentionally amusing it indulgent.
In this happy era our-in-group coliesion was prompted by his hall a unique form of volleyball played only at the dings and convoluted gymnasium of the old Sargen School for Women's Physical Education located where the Law School now parks its automobiles.
Chinabound is anecdotes. It is the "oriental serutability" of "Ed Reischauer," the six-week bike ride before the first visit to China, encounters with Chou En-Lai, and rounding up Chinese journalists at their homes by jeep for a Douglas Mac Arthur press conference which was suddenly rescheduled. But it's also much more. Fairbank infuses his personal tales with the kind of clairvoyance which has distinguished him as a compassionate commentator as well as pioneer historian. With his first-hand familiarity with the U.S. effort to aid Chiang Kai-shek's regime, he describes his concern for increasingly confused decision-making in Washington.
THE CRITICISM of U.S. policies in East Asia and discussions of wrenching issues concerning China and the United States that he intersperses most clearly show the acute seriousness that put him at the apex of American China studies. These porgnant and too-infrequent commentaries reaffirm the importance of studying the land to which this man has donated his scholarship. Now that China has inundated America in the form of Bloomingdale oriental bazaars and tours of the Great Wall offered by our local travel agents, the impact of Fairbank's first writing can't be fully appreciated. Even when he takes up a familiar subject like footbinding, he continues to teach freshly.
Footbinding was obviously a hyper-civilized triumph of man over woman. How can we begin to understand it. The females fixed themselves, mother teaching daughter, so that they were weaker than men, unable to run away (a man could catch them at a walk), and resigned to being housebound. Motivation? To be in proper shape for the marriage market, essentially a family affair, not a girl's choice. Indeed a bride was ideally supposed to be bloodily deflowered on her marriage bed by a bride groom she had never seen before. Rage today may be an easier experience.
Fairbanks' comments get even more searing when he reflects on the McCarthy era and its chilling effect on China studies. "In the post-McCarthy years China was unappetizing. A dog may return to its vomit, but all the McCarthy era left behind was faces to warm over, with widespread treachery if you believed one side or widespread injustice if you believed the other."
Though the McCarthy years destroyed the careers of several of his fellow academic trailblazers in China, he emerged unscathed. "My not getting mad at anyone, when others would, we doubt indicates some kind of weakness, but I prefer to ascribe it to self-confidence," he writes, explaining his own experiences with Congressional interrogation. He concludes. "The answer to McCarthyism in the case of China had to be education. My being publicly denounced over the 'loss of China' gave me an abiding commitment to educate the American public.... It was time to use knowledge and reason intend of violence and fear."
And so the extraordinary historian returned to Harvard lecture halls for another 25 years, treating Harvard undergraduates to a slice of history all their own by regularly taking the step to the mike stand Chinabound Perpetuates and furthers that proud tradition.