John K. Fairbank

"John Fairbank" redirects here. For the Canadian politician, see John Henry Fairbank.
John K. Fairbank
Born John King Fairbank
(1907-05-24)May 24, 1907
Huron, South Dakota, U.S.
Died September 14, 1991(1991-09-14) (aged 84)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
Nationality United States
Education Phillips Exeter Academy
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Harvard College (1929)
Oxford University
Known for Academician
Spouse(s) Wilma Cannon Fairbank
Children Holly Fairbank
Laura Fairbank
Parent(s) Arthur Boyce Fairbank
Lorena King Fairbank
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 費正清

John King Fairbank (May 24, 1907 September 14, 1991), was a prominent American academic and historian of China.

Education and early career

Fairbank was born in Huron, South Dakota in 1907.[1] He was educated at Sioux Falls High School, Phillips Exeter Academy, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Harvard College, and Oxford University (Balliol). As an undergraduate, Charles Kingsley Webster, the distinguished British diplomatic historian then teaching at Harvard, advised him to choose a relatively undeveloped field of study, and suggested that since the Qing dynasty imperial archives were then being opened, China's foreign relations would be a prudent choice (Fairbank later confessed that he then knew nothing about the state of China itself). In 1929, when he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

At Oxford, Fairbank began his study of the Chinese language and sought the counsel of H.B. Morse, retired from the Imperial Maritime Customs Service. On Webster's advice, he had read Morse's three-volume study of Qing dynasty foreign relations on the ship coming to England. Morse became his mentor. The ambitious young scholar decided to go to Beijing to do research in 1932.[2]

In Beijing, he studied at Tsinghua University under the direction of the prominent historian Tsiang Tingfu who introduced him to the study of newly available diplomatic sources and the perspectives of Chinese scholarship which balanced the British approaches he saw at Oxford.[3] Wilma Denio Cannon, a daughter of Walter Bradford Cannon, came to China to marry Fairbank and began a career of her own in Chinese art history. He and Wilma came to know to a number of Chinese intellectuals, and became especially warm friends with Liang Sicheng, the son of the distinguished Chinese reformer Liang Qichao, and his wife, Whei-yin, whom they called Phyllis.

The Lins introduced them to Jin Yuelin, a philosopher trained at Columbia University. Through them, Fairbank wrote later, he and Wilma began to sense the Chinese problem, the "necessity to winnow the past and discriminate among things foreign, what to preserve and what to borrow..." [4] In 1936, Oxford awarded him a D.Phil. for his thesis, which he revised and eventually published as Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854 in 1953.

Fairbank 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 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).[5]

Following the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941, Fairbank was enlisted to work for the US government, which included service in the OSS and the Office of War Information in Chongqing, the temporary capital of Nationalist China.

Development of Chinese studies

When he returned to Harvard after the war, Fairbank inaugurated a master's degree program in Area Studies, one of several major universities in the United States to do so. 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 1972, in preparation for Nixon's visit, the book was read by leaders on both sides.[6]

In the late 1940s, Fairbank was among the so-called China Hands who predicted the victory of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party and advocated establishing relations with the new government. Although Fairbank argued that relations with new China would be in the American national interest, 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 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, Ch'ien Tuan-sheng, and Chen Han-seng, would later be attacked for being "pro-American" as the Chinese Communist Party became more rigidly communist.[7] Critics in Taiwan charged that he was a tool of the Communists.[8]

Scholarship and influence in the field

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. One of his students, Paul Cohen, noted that the approaches or stages in the development of China studies of the 1950s are sometimes referred to as "the Harvard 'school' of China studies." [9]

Fairbank played a major role in developing Harvard as a leading American center for East Asian studies, including establishing the Center for East Asian Research which was renamed in his honor after his retirement. He was director of the Center from 1955 through 1973.[10]

Fairbank raised money to support fellowships for graduate students, trained 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 Harvard East Asian Series which published monographs, enabling students to publish dissertations, which was essential for achieving tenure.[11] Fairbank and his colleagues at Harvard, Edwin O. Reischauer and Albert Craig, wrote a textbook on China and Japan, A History of East Asian Civilization.[12] Fairbank established links to figures in government both by training journalists, government officials, and foundation executives and by giving his thoughts to the government on China policy.

In 1966, Fairbank and the Sinologist Denis C. Twitchett, then at Cambridge University set in motion plans for The Cambridge History of China. Originally intended to cover the entire history of China in six volumes, the project grew until it reached a projected 15 volumes. Twitchett and Fairbank divided the history, with Fairbank editing volumes on modern (post 1800) China, while Twitchett and others 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. Martha Henderson Coolidge and Richard Smith completed and published Fairbank's biography of H.B. Morse.

The Vietnam War era

During the Vietnam War era of the late 1960s, Fairbank, who had earlier been criticized as being pro-communist, came under fire from younger scholars and graduate students in the newly established Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, which he helped to form but did not continue to participate in.[13] These younger scholars charged that the Fairbank and other leaders of the area studies movement had helped to justify American imperialism in Asia. By founding the study of Asia in modernization theory, Fairbank and liberal scholars presented China as an irrational country which needed American tutelage. Fairbank rejected revolution and thereby condoned imperialism.[14] A further charge was that scholars of the "Harvard school" put forth a "radical new version" of China's modern history that argued imperialism "was largely beneficial in China." [15] In December 1969, Howard Zinn and other members of the Radical Historians' Caucus tried unsuccessfully to persuade the American Historical Association 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's hands"[16] in what Fairbank called "our briefly-famous Struggle for the Mike".[17]


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, then returned home and suffered a fatal heart attack.[1]

Selected works

In a statistical overview derived from writings by and about John King Fairbank, OCLC/WorldCat encompasses roughly 600+ works in 1,500+ publications in 15 languages and 43,000+ library holdings.[18]

This is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness. You can help by expanding it with reliably sourced entries.

Collaborative works

Conference volumes

Edited letters and texts


  1. 1 2 Gonzalez, David (September 16, 1991). "John K. Fairbank, China Scholar Of Wide Influence, Is Dead at 84". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-14. John K. Fairbank, the Harvard history professor who was widely credited with creating the field of modern Chinese studies in the United States and was a leading advocate of diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China, died Saturday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 84 years old. He died of a heart attack, said Roderick MacFarquhar, a colleague.
  2. John King Fairbank, Chinabound: A Fifty-Year Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 18-22.
  3. Ch 7, "T.F. Tsiang and Modernization," in Fairbank, Chinabound, pp. 85-93.
  4. Fairbank, Chinabound, pp. 104-106.
  5. Paul Evans, John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China, pp. 60-62.
  6. Evans, pp. 106-112, 172-176, 281-283.
  7. Evans, p. 154
  8. GordonChang (1970).
  9. Cohen, Paul (1984). Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past. New York; London:: Columbia University Press. ISBN 023152546X., p. 1
  10. Suleski, Ronald Stanley. (2005). The Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, pp. 11-44.
  11. Cohen, Goldman, Fairbank Remembered includes many reminiscences of students and colleagues.
  12. A History of East Asian Civilization infosite,; accessed June 20, 2015.
  13. Richard Madsen, "The Academic China Specialists," American Studies of Contemporary China (New York: ME Sharpe, 1993): 163.
  14. Jim Peck, The Roots of Rhetoric, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 2.1 (October 1969), p. 61, reprinted in Edward Friedman and Mark Selden, (ed.),America's Asia: Dissenting Essays on Asian-American Relations (New York: Random House, 1969).
  15. Esherick (1972), p. 9.
  16. "Forty Years On: Looking Back at the 1969 Annual Meeting" by Carl Mirra in the February 2010 issue of Perspectives on History published by the American Historical Association
  17. From the June 1970 AHA Newsletter "Professional Comment and Controversy: An Open Letter to Howard Zinn",; accessed June 23, 2015.
  18. WorldCat Identities: Fairbank, John King 1907-1991
  19. China: A New History

References and further reading

External links

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