John King Fairbank: Present at the Creation

By training many of America’s China specialists, Harvard’s Fairbank had and continues to have a profound impact on American understanding of China.

Harvard University’s John King Fairbank is considered the father of China studies in America. Fairbank devoted over half a century to research and expanding the field. His own scholarship had a profound impact on the field and his students populate history and East Asian studies departments throughout the country.

In part because he was so influential, Fairbank at times was a controversial figure. He straddled the line at which West meets East, being at once an exemplar of American culture and scholar of Chinese civilization. Fairbank first visited China in one era and last visited in another; he was simultaneously a student seeking knowledge and a teacher dispensing it; he was a hands-off facilitator and a groundbreaking leader; and, as an avowed humanist, he was criticized at different times of being sympathetic to communism and imperialism.


Born in 1907 and raised in South Dakota when it was a cultural frontier, Fairbank inherited the ambition and optimism characteristic of his family. His paternal grandfather was descended from seventeenth-century Massachusetts Puritans and his maternal grandfather was a founder of Chamberlain, SD. Fairbank’s mother was a suffragist and instilled in him a strong sense of purpose.

Elected valedictorian of Philips Exeter Academy, Fairbank attended the University of Wisconsin for two years—partly for the coeducational environment—before transferring to Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1929.

By the time Fairbank reached England to commence study as a Rhodes Scholar, he had decided to become a scholar of Chinese civilization. In his 1987 biography of Fairbank, Paul Evans quotes him as writing to his mother that the Chinese imperial documents might allow him to “clean up a little prestige and prominence at the age of forty, fifty or post-humously.”

Oxford’s laissez-faire academic environment presented Fairbank with a challenge. Books and instruction were difficult to find. There were no Chinese language classes, so Fairbank started with a do-it-yourself manual that taught simple classical Chinese sentences and made no mention of tones. Having to create his own curriculum affirmed his sense of prerogative; much later in life he recalled about himself, “No one had taught him so no one he feared.”

The Rhodes trustees allowed the third year of a fellowship to be spent outside of Oxford. Scholars typically used the opportunity to study in London or Paris, but Fairbank wanted to go to Beijing, something a Rhodes Scholar had never done before. With the hard-earned results from a written language exam in hand, he made his case and the Rhodes trustees approved his plans.

Living in a Past Era 

Fairbank arrived in Shanghai in February 1932 after sailing from Genoa, Italy and passing through the Suez Canal. In vivid demonstration of the epoch, Japanese gunboats were bombing the city’s Zhabei district as Fairbank landed at the Bund. He stayed in Shanghai several days before heading to Beijing.

Beijing was then known as Peiping. The city walls, torn down decades later , stood in grandeur, rising majestically from the plains, and Fairbank remarks in his memoir Chinabound that “the first glimpse was overwhelmingly awesome, as the builders had intended.”

Wilma Denio Cannon, Fairbank’s fiancé, arrived in China in June of that year. He had fallen in love with her at a Valentine’s Day dance in 1929 when she was a student in fine arts at Radcliffe College. A half-century later, Fairbank wrote,

I brought Wilma home by way of the Imperial Palace. We rode under and through its entrance gates for a quarter of a mile, collecting local color, and reached our own hutung at dusk. So I lifted Wilma over the big red wooden door beam and had her walk sightless till she stood at the inner gate from the servant’s court into the front quad full of flowers with the living room dimly lit though Chinese windows and its big double door, behind it…In this courtyard we were later married. 

When Fairbank’s Rhodes fellowship expired in 1933, Columbia-educated T. F. Tsiang gave him his first teaching job, a position lecturing Renaissance and economic history at Tsinghua University. “It was I who learned the history,” he writes in his memoir. “My Chinese students for the most part regarded my course quite sensibly as an opportunity to listen to spoken English.”

Fairbank wrote he wanted “to be useful to society, to help the cause of civilization,” and by the time he left China he knew he would dedicate his career to developing Chinese studies. On his way back to England in 1935 Fairbank stopped at eight American centers of Chinese or Far Eastern studies. After noting that several talented China scholars had recently assumed posts at a few American universities, Fairbank reported:

The knowledge of Chinese language among us was spotty, sometimes nonexistent.  In general, those who dealt with the current scene lacked the language, those who had some Chinese were immersed in the ancient past. We generally lacked the capacity to grasp what today’s Chinese were thinking about except as they would tell us in English.

Pitching a Tent 

“I had an inveterate impulse toward a comprehensive grasp,” Fairbank wrote in his memoir, “as though I wanted to put a tent over it to get it within manageable compass.” This metaphor, while reminiscent of Fairbank’s days as a Boy Scout, expresses well his approach to research and teaching.

Less than one-fifth of his dissertation’s sources were Chinese, and correcting the imbalance meant new research. Freshly installed as a Harvard history instructor in 1936, he tackled the fundamentals of understanding Chinese imperial records. By 1953 he had incorporated enough Chinese sources to publish his Oxford dissertation. The effort, in his words, was his “training for training others.”

Beginning the summer before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, Fairbank worked for the Office of the Coordinator of Information in Washington and was later assigned to Chongqing, China’s wartime capital.

Fairbank returned to Washington, remaining over a year before being reassigned to postwar China, where he was stationed in Shanghai. Shortly before the Kuomintang -Communist struggle broke into all-out civil war, Fairbank left for home. He would not visit the Chinese mainland again for twenty-six years.

Building an Institution 

Back from China, Fairbank said he “began riding two horses–teaching Chinese history and speaking up on China policy.” He addressed what he saw as the need for the American public to come to terms with the very real possibility that China’s communists would come to power.

The Regional Studies-China seminar at Harvard, in which Fairbank helped start, met an ambitious five afternoons a week plus Thursday mornings. The ideas discussed in the seminar resulted in his widely praised work The United States and China. First published in 1948 and later expanded in three subsequent editions, it was one of the few books that both Richard Nixon and his Chinese counterparts read prior to the president’s 1972 visit.

After the communist triumph in China in the midst of a worsening Cold War, some in Washington felt that American efforts to support the KMT were sabotaged from within. Along with other senior China experts, the “old China hands,” Fairbank was investigated for having helped “lose China.”

“PROF. FAIRBANK LINKED TO SPIES” proclaimed the Boston Post the day he went before Senator McCarran’s Internal Security Sub-Committee. The headline, however, was erroneous. A permit to travel to occupied Japan, not treason, was in question, but Fairbank nonetheless approached the matter with characteristic thoroughness. He prepared eight feet of documentation, including twenty-two pages of writing and speech excerpts, to make his case. Fairbank, in his own words, was “small fry,” and as such he and the senators “were comparatively conciliatory on both sides.” Being at the center of controversy was new to him and left him feeling “hardened.”

Jack Wills, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California and former Fairbank student recalls, “He made sure people would interact. As soon as they set up the East Asian Studies Center, they figured part of the space they had would be a lunchroom. He encouraged everyone to eat there. It was a very smart, low-key way for intellectual loners to talk to one another.”

From 1955-75 the Center, with Fairbank close by, supported 200 students and scholars with grants and helped more than 300 students complete doctorates in East Asian fields. In addition, Harvard University Press published 124 volumes of work related to East Asia. As Fairbank says, he was “on the ground floor,” because jobs became available as his students became ready to teach. In his memoir he writes, “I presided over a part of this creative process. I was…‘present at the creation.’”

After decades of work, Fairbank and the institution he worked to build loomed large. As biographer Evans points out,

Two different conceptions of his influence have had wide currency. According to the first, Fairbank presided at the apex of an academic kingdom held together by common ideas and ideals. As mentor of the ‘Harvard school,’ he functioned in a role akin to that of the director on a film set…The second conception, the one held by Fairbank himself, portrayed him more as a facilitator, an academic producer who established an institutional and intellectual environment for creative scholarship but had little influence over its substance. The conflicting views of the man and his institution came to a head during the Vietnam War. Anti-war and anti-imperialist scholars formed the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars and began publishing a journal. Between 1969 and 1973, younger scholars and Fairbank jousted in the pages of The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. Among those challenging Fairbank was his former student, Joseph Esherick, who now teaches at the University of California, San Diego. Fairbanks’s critics argued he was the leading institutionalist (noting that he, in 1968, became the first non-Europeanist or Americanist to be president of the American Historical Association) and that he worked to keep debate over America’s Asia policies right-of-center.

In 1977, upon his retirement, the East Asian research center at Harvard was renamed the John K. Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. That quip about “prestige and prominence” he made to his mother in a 1930 letter had come true. “By this renaming they were giving me immortality,” he wrote, “and I realized my public persona was beginning to supercede me, preparatory to remaining behind me after I should disappear.”

After Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Fairbank received indirect invitations to visit. In response Fairbank asked China’s United Nations ambassador to find out if he and his wife Wilma would be allowed to enter China if they showed up in Hong Kong. About a week later, at a memorial for Edgar Snow in New York, Fairbank recalls in his memoir, he received an answer: “You will be welcome. Just see the China Travel Service in Kowloon.”

In China later that year, he and Wilma asked not to visit any factories; they hoped to spend time looking for the China they remembered, but things had changed. He discovered the city wall and its many gates largely destroyed, and thirty people now lived in their old courtyard home. Throughout their stay a distance existed between the China they could relate to and the new one being erected. Fairbank wrote,

The eighteen-year-old young women in pigtails, bright and smiling information officers from Peking, seemed to know only what they had memorized. My query about the coalition government line hatched in the central committee meeting of the summer of 1945 left them speechless.

Two decades later, American studies of China had advanced dramatically. The establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979 greatly aided scholarly exchanges and in-country research. There are many outstanding China programs at universities throughout the U.S. Both China and China studies were dramatically different from when Fairbank began teaching at Harvard in 1936. His prodigious career spanned most of the twentieth century. Productive to the end, he submitted the draft of his final book in 1991 hours before suffering a devastating heart attack. He died two days later, at age 84.

Former Students Looking Back 

“John King Fairbank was a man of no small talk, no chit-chat. Every conversation had an action agenda,” recalls USC’s Wills, and what is more, he possessed “a modesty that is not all self-effacing. He knew he did good work, he knew he created this field.”

But at the same time, Wills says, Fairbank was “very concerned” about others around him, and significant bonds were forged over time. After his death, colleagues, students and friends of Fairbank wrote short pieces about his impact on their lives. The 127 contributions resulted in Fairbank Remembered, a heartfelt portrait of praise and gratitude as composed by close admirers.

In 1972, Joseph Esherick published “Harvard on China: The Apologetics of Imperialism” in The Bulletin of Concerned Asia Scholars. Reached by email, UCSD’s Esherick recalled John Fairbank’s positive nature.

“Despite all my early criticisms of Fairbank,” Esherick wrote, “he was always exceptionally generous and gracious to me. He belonged to an old school which did not hold grudges, and was always tolerant of youthful dissent. As with so many other of his students, I received the first letter congratulating me on my first book from Fairbank — a short note, but it meant a lot. And in his later writings, he did begin to use the term and the concept of Western imperialism in ways that many of us urged in the 1960s, so I would like to think that he was listening and we helped change his views.”

“John King Fairbank was, as the Chinese say, involved in the contradictions between the relationship between the US and China in a big way,” continued Wills. “Maybe working was one way of dealing with that.  Making sense of it in a new way was beyond anyone. So, you put out a new survey, encourage students, and to everyone that comes out like me, say, ‘Here’s your job, now go out and do it.’”

“I’m a bit nostalgic for that cozy tent, that big interactive tent,” Wills confided. “Every Thursday afternoon they had tea. Anyone who was visiting, any graduate student, any faculty, if you were really broke you could get yourself halfway through dinner with cucumber sandwiches and tea.” With economics and contemporary international relations literature, “I think we’ve raised up the sides of the tent, rolled up the side walls.”

When asked what he believes John Fairbank’s greatest legacy is, Wills responds without pause.  “Organizing other people,” he says, and then shares the story of the last time he saw Fairbank.

It was in Boston during the spring of 1987. John King Fairbank sat in a chair with his legs up. When the former teacher saw his former student, Fairbank did not miss a beat, exclaiming, “Jack, this is what you have to do in the field, you’re the point man, get it done.”