John King Fairbank

The Life of John K. Fairbank


As he boarded ship for England in the Autumn of 1929 to take up a Rhodes Scholarship, there was little in John Fairbank’s background to mark him as the future founder of modern Chinese studies in the United States.

He was born in Huron, South Dakota, in 1907, the only child of Arthur Boyce Fairbank, an able, socially active lawyer, and Lorena King, a 1903 graduate of the University of Chicago. His education led him through Phillips Exeter Academy and the University of Wisconsin, to Harvard College, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1929.

At Harvard, Fairbank had learned that secret diplomatic papers of the Chinese government had just been published in Peiping (as Beijing was then called). Research on China’s relations with the European powers could now contribute to the current historiographical task: uncovering the background of the Great War. Fairbank recalled later that “China appealed to me at age twenty-two as something interesting that no one else seemed to be doing.” He began China research at Balliol and the Public Records Office. But for language training there was no substitute for Peiping, where he transferred in 1932.

Portrait of john Fairbank

Harvard University, Radcliffe Archives

Five years in China showed him that behind every specialized historical topic lay a broader challenge: understanding the immense differences between Chinese civilization and our own. That broader challenge would dominate his life.

Fairbank’s Ph.D. research convinced him that the frontier society of China’s “treaty ports” grew as much from Chinese thought and institutions, as from Western commerce and diplomacy. Such was the theme of Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast, the monograph that emerged from his Oxford D.Phil. thesis. The same reasoning convinced him that China’s modern revolution was as deeply conditioned by her own history as by Western contact: obvious enough today, but not to the Western sinology of the 1930s.

In 1936 Fairbank returned from China with his wife, Wilma D. Cannon (Radcliffe, 1931), whom he had married in Peiping and who lent her artist’s sensibility to their joint exploration of Chinese life. Harvard appointed him instructor in History, and he set about building a modern China program. For his graduate students, there was “Ch’ing Documents:” both historical seminar and cultural immersion. For undergraduates, Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer offered “The History of East Asian Civilization,” quickly dubbed “Rice Paddies,” which became the Harvard students’ port of entry into China and Japan.

During World War Two, US government service in China quickened Fairbank’s sense of mission. In Chungking, he was struck by the declining morale of the Nationalist government, and horrified by the grim lives of his old Peiping friends in their West China refuge. There began two lifelong commitments: to supporting liberal Chinese academics, morally and materially; and to warning Americans about China’s catastrophe. He gradually realized that if the United States remained tied to the inept and corrupt Nationalist regime, Sino-American common ground would shrink to nothing.

Back at Harvard after the war as Professor of History, Fairbank spoke beyond Harvard Yard to the American public. China’s revolution, he insisted, was home-grown, “not only genuinely Communist but genuinely Chinese,” and that in any event there was nothing the US could do to stop it. Understanding Chinese history was the key to dealing with China as it really is, not as we might wish it to be.

John King Fairbank talks on “East Asia and Our Future” in 1967 with Edwin O. Reischauer 

He reserved his finest efforts, however, for training China specialists at Harvard and building the China field nationwide. Training scholars in a new field (which he once likened to making machine tools, but which he actually practiced as a form of gardening) required persistent cultivation of talent and liberal application of foundation funds. As a scholarly entrepreneur, Fairbank was both warm hearted and hard headed: he was extraordinarily kind to students and colleagues; yet maintained a relentless grip on the main task: building the field of China studies. Harvard’s East Asian Research Center, founded by him in 1955 and named for him when he retired, set the standard for modern China scholarship. For colleagues worldwide, the center was a forum of understanding; for students, it was a beacon of professionalism.

As a scholarly entrepreneur, Fairbank was both warm hearted and hard headed: he was extraordinarily kind to students and colleagues; yet maintained a relentless grip on the main task: building the field of China studies.

Students were insulated from scholarly burnout by the dead-pan Fairbankian wit. They learned, for example, that Emperor Tao-kuang, who reigned from 1821-1850, “came to the throne at age thirty-eight, and everything we know about his private life (which is next to nothing) suggests he was devoted, in the fashion of his time, to his empress, and on family matters (allowing for cultural differences) would have been at one with Queen Victoria.” Congressional witch-hunters of the 1950s challenged even the Fairbank wit, but came out the losers: “There is no denying I was in China before the Communist victory,” he wrote colleagues at the time, “but I do not go as far as some in causally connecting the two phenomena.”

His students were his most cherished scholarly achievement. They felt that he had summoned them to a pioneering quest: a quest in which each believed that his mentor considered him an indispensable companion. It was a companionship of freedom: the wide range of his students’ interests and methods demonstrates his wry skepticism about our ability to achieve final truth, and his liberal belief that building a field of scholarship meant finding out what able people wanted to do, then helping them do it.

Fairbank seemed always in search of a simpler, purer summation of China’s unique experience. His last book, written in frail health, was a superb synthesis of recent scholarship, fused onto his own vision of China’s past. This work he delivered to the Harvard Press on the morning of September 12, 1991, and that afternoon he was felled by his final heart attack. He died two days later, aged 84.

Respectfully submitted,
Albert M. Craig
Akira Iriye
Roderick L. MacFarquhar
Ernest R. May
Benjamin I. Schwartz
Philip A. Kuhn

(originally published in the Harvard University Gazette, January 8, 1993)

Center Directors

Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies