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Role of a Scholar: John Fairbank

In times of tumultuous politics, famed historian John Fairbank strove for objectivity

09·15·2015

Role of a Scholar: John Fairbank

In times of tumultuous politics, famed historian John Fairbank strove for objectivity

09·15·2015

Twenty-four years ago, after delivering his new book entitled “China: A New History” to the Harvard University Press, famed historian John King Fairbank returned to his home and passed away. Such is in some respects a fitting conclusion to a life devoted to scholarship and the promotion of Chinese Studies in the US.

Fairbank’s effect on East Asian Studies was massive, and as the relationships with the two countries continue to develop and change dramatically—drastic improvements in the Chinese standard of living, education, and over a quarter million Chinese students studying in America every year—it begs consideration of the roots that form the base of the academic tradition towards China as well as the troubles it faced during the early stages. Perhaps such a reflection is key to moving forward with the two countries’ relationship, and perhaps it is the best way to honor the legacy of such a man.

Born in Huron, South Dakota in 1907, Fairbank started his studies at Wisconsin before transferring to Harvard. After graduation he served as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and then embarked on a trip to Beijing to conduct research. Traveling to Beijing in 1932, Fairbank passed Japanese gunboats as they traveled near the waters of Shanghai and was largely protected from any trouble because the ship he was aboard carried munitions for the Japanese. He later wrote that although he had been advised to study in China, at the time he knew virtually nothing of Chinese history, revolution, or the growing sense of nationalism in East Asia: “No one had taught me anything about them… In short, I was in a pretty good position to learn something.”

At the time, most of the expat community in China was concerned with either trade to Western countries or missionary work. It was in a missionary school that Fairbank began his study of Chinese. He comments on the process that “the study of Chinese has always been controversial among its students”, and it seems little has changed. As time went on, Fairbank slowly became more involved with different elements of China and its culture. Many of his associations began with expats and progressed towards Chinese intellectuals who had been educated in the West. Soon enough Fairbank was studying under Jiang Tingfu (蔣廷黻 Jiǎng Tíngfú) at Tsinghua University. Describing the plight of such “Americanized” Chinese academics, Fairbank later wrote that upon returning to their native country “they found they could teach what they had learned about in the West, but about China they had little knowledge”. Perhaps drawing such reflections into closer focus was the friendship he also enjoyed with the famous Chinese architect Liang Sicheng (梁思成 Liáng Sīchéng) during that time. Such relationships were impressionable on a young scholar trying to understand the conflicts consuming many Chinese intellectuals during that time; namely, how to move forward. He also summed up the conflict being faced at that time quite nicely. He said that the problem faced by academics of the time—that is, those with a vision for China’s future—is “the necessity to winnow the past and discriminate among things foreign, what to preserve and what to borrow.” In many respects, it seems that to this day China has not fully produced an answer such a dilemma.

Perhaps some of the most interesting expatriates Fairbank was introduced to were those directly involved with the wars and revolutions occurring at that time. Specifically, through his network he became introduced to American journalists Agnes Smedley and Harold Isaacs. While Smedley, given her politics, became actively involved in the Communist Chinese Party’s (underground) fight for control—at that time, quite simply to exist—Isaacs took a different approach. As a reporter, Isaacs published thirty-nine issues of his Public Forum, a publication that sought to report the facts on the executions committed by Shanghai’s KMT and Green Gang during that time. As far as Fairbank could tell, Isaacs’ approach was far more objective, and subsequently agreeable. While influenced, his accounts characterized Smedley as somewhat clumsy and kept safe during the time largely by merit of her skin rather than her craftiness. He described Smedley as more “propagandist than journalist”, and while he considered her books still of value, the distinction he drew between these two characters seems to crystallize his opinion on the role of the dissemination of information. Fairbank placed objectivity as the highest priority, and most worthy of esteem.

In 1935, Fairbank’s first stint in China came to an end. Lasting four years, he initially returned to Oxford to complete and submit his D.Phil then began teaching at Harvard. During this time he developed another aspect of his life. That is, while on one hand Fairbank was a writer of books on China and occasionally political (primarily that Beijing should be respected as the capital of the Chinese mainland as opposed to Taiwan), on the other hand he made a conscientious effort to be a personally involved teacher. He documented such efforts in his autobiography, and reflected upon his attitudes toward teaching. Clearing up the different statures of writing and lecturing, he muses that “a reading assignment cannot take the place [of a lecturer] because the lecturer usually conveys more of attitudes, concerns, and possibilities than he would write down… the listener should have an experience of hearing ‘a mind at work’”. That said, written works could reach a larger audience.

Such dual endeavors propelled Fairbank to pursue a variety of different objectives throughout his life. During the Second World War he found himself in Washington and then Chongqing as part of the Office of War Information. Additionally he sought to develop the academic study of China, founding the Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard in 1955. During the political paranoia of the Cold War, Fairbank was investigated for being a Soviet sympathizer. Later, during the Vietnam War, Fairbank was criticized by the left—that is, generally speaking, graduate students—who felt that his study and dissemination of history was on one hand apologetic of imperialism and on the other hand apolitical. Much of the arguments were expressed by the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, which he had actually helped to establish. Such tensions culminated with Fairbank wrestling over the microphone with future prominent historian Howard Zinn—he later referred to Zinn as “friend”—who was leading a coalition of students urging the American Historical Association to pass an anti-Vietnam War resolution. In defense of his action, Fairbank argued that politicizing history is a dangerous endeavor: “’Politicization’ is no joke. It can cut both ways. If we today could use AHA to support a worthy nonprofessional cause, others tomorrow could manipulate it for an evil cause.”

Leaving his various opinions upon China alone for the moment, the manner in which Fairbank analyzed and came to an understanding of China—that is, a culture very foreign from his own—is in itself interesting, and an entirely worthwhile form of reflection. This is especially true for those studying China—or other foreign cultures—today as well as those who are simply living in or interacting with a culture that is not their own. Part of such an experience is making an attempt to understand and come to terms with it. This is true both for Americans (and, of course, other foreigners) living in China as well as for Chinese living in other parts of the world. Being alive during an intense period in human history forced Fairbank to take certain political opinions—and indeed he did take stances—but ultimately the historian tried to stay as close to the middle ground as he possibly could. A curious force in a foreign land, simply trying to understand and help others come to an understanding as well.