China on My Mind

Almost forty years have passed since John King Fairbank’s first book, The United States and China, was published in 1948. A careful blending of Chinese institutional history with diplomatic history, the book proved immediately popular among Americans seeking to place their present against the background of China’s past. Over the next six years, as the Communists consolidated their hold over China and the Korean War effectively wrecked US-China relations, Mr. Fairbank established his reputation as the leading expert on China in the United States, producing the astonishing number of five further books within that short period. One was a major bibliographical guide to recent Chinese historical writing; another,h a meticulously translated and annotated collection of documents on the Chinese Communist party’s rise to power. One, particularly useful for graduate students, was an analytical teaching manual on how to decipher and translate Chinese historical texts. Another was an important monograph published in two volumes, based on Fairbank’s earlier Oxford Ph.D. dissertation, on the formation of the foreign powers’ favored “Treaty Ports” on the Chinese coastline between 1842 and 1854.

Caricature of Sir Robert Hart by Julius Mendes Price (1857–1924), published in <em>Vanity Fair</em>, December 27, 1894

This remarkable productiveness, made possible in part by Mr. Fairbank’s unflagging energy and in part by his astute choice of unusually competent collaborators or coauthors, started a pattern of scholarly work that continued unbroken through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s as Mr. Fairbank edited, coauthored, or composed on his own a textbook on the Far East, volumes of essays on Chinese military history, Christian missionaries in China, the Chinese world order, Confucian belief and practice, and the workings of the traditional Ch’ing bureaucracy; along with several more annotated bibliographies, an enormous edition of Sir Robert Hart’s letters, and five separate volumes of the Cambridge History of China. Asked to look at the works Professor Fairbank has produced over the last two years a reviewer may be bemused but hardly surprised to find that there seem to be at least six of them, and that doubtless there are several more he has failed to keep track of. Now aged eighty, Mr. Fairbank is as hard to keep up with as ever.

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Mr. Fairbank continues, in his six most recent books to command a wide range of scholarly subjects, just as he did at the beginning of his career. Christianity in China,1 edited with Professor Suzanne Barnett, consists largely of commentaries by modern scholars on the early writings of Protestant missionaries in China. Mr. Fairbank has always urged China scholars not to ignore the immense body of data on late traditional China that is preserved in missionary archives, and he has been indefatigable in gaining financial support for the preservation and examination of these documents. The essays collected in this volume prove his contention that missionary sources can help to illuminate Chinese society, especially the rather shadowy world where Chinese sectarian and secret society practices edged away from conventional Confucian teachings, and where the partially literate saw the chance for further education and to escape a self-perpetuating cycle of low status and hard work. Sometimes—as when Liang Fa handed his Christian tracts over to the failed scholar Hong Xiuquan, who later emerged as the leader of the catastrophic Taiping Christian millenarian rebellion of the 1850s and 1860s—the results were awesomely dramatic. More often, however, the story is a quiet one, in which ideas are exchanged in a local setting, triumphs are small and deceptions petty. It may be, as Mr. Fairbank reflects in his introduction, that the missionary pioneers “had more intellectual impact on the West than they had religious impact on China.”

Mr. Fairbank has kept up his interest in Western trade with China since his Oxford days. America’s China Trade in Historical Perspective, which he edited with Ernest May, gives an excellent sampling of modern scholarship on such subjects as the tea trade, textiles, tobacco, and petroleum. In his own introductory essay for this volume, Mr. Fairbank notes how little tangible economic profit either country drew from the relationship, and yet how charged emotionally the contacts have often been. Paradoxically, he feels, it is only by seeing how little money was to be made in the trade that we can gauge the force of China “in the American imagination.”2

In Reading Documents and Entering China’s Service Mr. Fairbank has continued to work, with skillful collaborators, in two other kinds of scholarship that he has always encouraged: the preparation of highly technical handbooks for teaching Chinese history, and the transcription and analysis of relevant documents. But Reading Documents3 shows how much the study of Chinese history has changed since Mr. Fairbank issued his first book of documents in 1952. Then he mainly concentrated on foreign policy, on the way that major officials in the Chinese and Manchu bureaucracy tried to comprehend, and to deal with, the baffling Western invaders, and the sea of problems that they brought with them. By 1986, the compilers’ attention had swung to local Chinese history, to the study of rural hardship and land tax patterns, marriage and kinship, acts of protest against injustice, and patterns of small-scale and illegal military recruitment. The shift in US-China relations, so long a central component of Mr. Fairbank’s work, is dramatized in this volume by the inclusion, for the first time, of photo-reprints of relevant documents from the vast holdings of the “Number One Ming-Qing Archive” in Beijing, as well as from the Palace Museum in Taipei.

Reading Documents is a technical work, and hardly the place to catch Professor Fairbank’s authentic voice. But one can surely detect it in Entering China’s Service, the splendid edition of the early journals of the famous builder of the Imperial Marltime Customs in China, Robert (later Sir Robert) Hart, which Mr. Fairbank wrote jointly with Katherine Bruner and Richard Smith.4 It is a little more mischievous these days, a touch more sardonic. Mr. Fairbank enjoys wordplay and puns, is tolerant of human foibles—he presents us with a lighter-hearted version of the scholar whom we met in his autobiography of five years ago, Chinabound. In two characteristic sentences he sums up his relationship with the elderly last foreign inspector of the Chinese Marltime Customs, L. K. Little, then long retired and living in New Hampshire, concerning publication of Robert Hart’s letters. As Mr. Fairbank puts it: “Mr. Little, being of cheerful and activist disposition, expected that it might be a year before they appeared in print. It took seven.”

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The transcription of Robert Hart’s journals, which are now preserved in the library of Queen’s University in Belfast, was itself something of a feat. Tapes were recorded directly from the manuscripts—often as gunfire and the other echoes of war rumbled in the background—and were then dispatched to Harvard for Mr. Fairbank and his collaborators to pore over. The journals edited by Fairbank cover the years between 1854 and 1863, the years Hart spent first as British consular official and then as customs inspector, before he became inspector general of the customs bureau organized by the Western nations to collect Chinese tariffs on Western imports. It was during these years that Hart gained the confidence of the Chinese; he was later to become a powerful force within the Ch’ing dynasty. Given the extraordinary difficulty of Hart’s handwriting, and the problems of oral clarity in the less than ideal working conditions, a number of mistakes were made, but they were caught when the first typed transcript was flown back to Belfast and checked against the originals. With his lifelong interest in sources and their uses, such details always interest Mr. Fairbank.

The Hart journals also presented a different kind of historiographical problem, since the volumes from an important early phase of Hart’s life in China were partially erased or entirely missing. Reflecting on this problem, the authors note that the vanished sections overlap with the period of Hart’s long love affair with a young Chinese woman called Ayaou, which led to the birth of three children. In the mid-1860s Hart had these children separated from their mother and sent to England, so there would be no danger of their existence being known to his new bride, Hester Jane Bredon, whom Hart married in 1866 in their native Belfast and brought back to China. The revealing journals were later cleansed of this sad story. The authors comment—and here one detects a truly Fairbankian cadence—that nowadays historians feel they have an obligation to examine and record such vanished moments of passion:

What the double standard of Victorian England would in Hart’s day have called wild oats and swept under the rug, biographers of the late twentieth century are expected to scrutinize as meaningful experience. We can only regret that the moral standards and practical necessity of an earlier day deprived us of Hart’s record of his coming of age as a resident of China during his service in the Canton consulate in early 1859 and his first years in the Customs from mid-1859 to mid-1863.

What is “regretted” in this passage is not the fate of the children and the social climate that made it inevitable but the loss of a valuable source on nineteenth-century diplomatic history.

Another intriguing passage in the same volume concerns the slow unraveling of Hart’s marriage to Hester, an unraveling that became apparent in the late 1870s. The authors build up the moment with a series of shrewd questions, and then pull the reader up sharply by challenging the validity of the questions themselves. It is, once again, a most Fairbankian technique:

Hart joined her and the children in Paris in the summer of 1878, and, after the exhibition, they went for a time to Bad Ischl in Austria and then to Baden-Baden. Hart was suffering from incapacitating headaches—a breakdown of sorts, never explained. Had he worked too hard, too uninterruptedly? Was there some unforeseen crisis in Chinese affairs which he found unnerving? Was the Chinese Customs Service, so rapidly expanding, becoming unmanageable for one man? Was it becoming clear that his marriage was never to be a close companionship—a development for which he could place blame nowhere except possibly on his own romantic naiveté at courtship and a simplistic acceptance of the marital state as consisting merely of its outward trappings? We cannot know; we cannot even know whether these are the right questions.

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Asking the right questions has been a central goal of Mr. Fairbank’s long life as a professional historian, and one that he has struggled to express through a career of reviewing books that has been evidence of his industry as remarkable as that of his monographic labors. China Watch is a collection of twenty-six short essays, of which most were book reviews, many of them written for this journal. But Mr. Fairbank has not simply put the reviews between hard covers. Instead he has reedited, cut, rewritten, and reorganized the pieces, so that they are divided into separate major themes, and can thus be seen as more than the sum of their parts. The five headings do indeed cover major aspects of China’s recent history: the role of foreign imperialism, the harshness of China’s revolutionary leaders toward their people, the “normalization” of relations with the United States after the twenty years of hostility, the Cultural Revolution, and the attempts by recent American visitors to decide what the Chinese experience is all about.

Mr. Fairbank, of course, has his own clear view of how the important questions should be put, and where the answers should be sought: in history. He has spent much of his life arguing that China can be understood only through its past, and he is not about to give up his mission now. Those who receive his most telling gibes are those who do not understand the origins of the events they are allegedly analyzing. He does not believe that most of the recent work in the social sciences has been of much help in understanding China, and he is not especially sympathetic to the new practitioners of Chinese social history, despite the fact that his latest collaboration on the volume of Reading Documents might have alerted him to the richness of the sources now available to a new generation of scholars. “The records are too extensive for historians,” Mr. Fairbank notes, “and too difficult for political scientists.”

What then does Mr. Fairbank think are the great themes that historians should concentrate on as they conduct their inquiries? He is, for one, a firm believer in the relativity of current ideas on human rights as these are commonly voiced in the West. Mr. Fairbank believes the Chinese have a different approach to the relationship between the individual and the collective. In comparison to Americans, they tend to give different and higher values to ideas of harmony than they do to ideas of striving. They have a different perception of the role of both time and leadership in history. These differences, Mr. Fairbank has tried to show, spring from a host of past factors, among which are the patterns of China’s agricultural work, the nature of the bureaucracy, the theories of rule and kingship, and the shaping of the historiographical record itself. Ignorance of these differences, and of their roots, I think Mr. Fairbank is saying lies behind the various failures in the missionary, business, diplomatic, and military ventures that the United States has embarked on in China across the span of the last two hundred years. (Probably the best as well as the wittiest essays in this engaging collection are those on Douglas MacArthur and Joseph Stilwell, where Mr. Fairbank can contemplate at leisure the interplay of arrogance, incomprehension, and zeal in their experience in China.)

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When trying to apply his views on the connections between past and present of some specific event, however, Mr. Fairbank often runs into trouble. To take one example, here is his analysis of the origins of the Great Leap Forward, which as we now know had a catastrophic effect on Chinese agriculture, industry, and public morale during 1958 and 1959:

How could all this happen? Such harebrained romanticism would not mobilize American farmers in Fargo or Fresno or even Provo. The Great Leap was so bizarre a triumph of revolutionary fervor over common sense that one wishes the historical literature were adequate to connect it with its antecedents in Chinese history. Unfortunately the institutional history of China remains still underdeveloped. The great tradition of statecraft (ching shih), how the bureaucrats customarily organized and manipulated the populace, is neglected while researchers today swarm into social history as more suited to current concerns.

Institutional and historical perspective on the Great Leap would no doubt begin with the parts of the written dynastic histories dealing with the economy. These detail how new regimes, upon reunifying China, commonly mobilized corvée labor for great public works (and often wore it out), how they assigned peasants, for example, “equal field” allotments of land, and organized them into responsibility groups for mutual surveillance. Dozens of ingenious devices, like “ever-normal granaries” in each locality or soldier-farmer encampments on the frontiers, stand in the record unstudied. The question of how these clever schemes of scholar-administrators actually worked out in practice remains largely unanswered. They represented the ruler’s unquestioned prerogative to structure the life of the people by personal example, sumptuary regulations, moral exhortation, and condign punishments.

All of this makes sense, of course, and much learning lies behind the words. But one can certainly argue that the very historians who are now doing that “swarming” into social history offer us the best chance we have ever had of making sense of the interconnections between past and present. They do so just because they are getting away from the Confucian-trained bureaucracy’s own laundered record and are beginning really to discover what happened to patterns of land ownership, to lineage organizations, to sojourners in China’s cities, to women seeking a fair share of society’s scarce benefits, and to a score of other local phenomena and values that might help us to see just why so many people were susceptible to this particular mode of manipulation.

“Sinology is of course the natural habitat of nitpickers,” as Mr. Fairbank notes in one of the delightful lighthearted asides that ornament this book, and one only picks up such issues as the one I have just raised because Mr. Fairbank is challenging his readers to think about the larger historical factors and their implications. He challenges them even more directly in the opening lines of The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800–1985, which are surely designed to make most people interested in the field of modern Chinese history seethe with righteous indignation, for they blandly imply that only Mr. Fairbank is trying to link the People’s Republic back to China’s history. But he is a deft scholar indeed, and at once observes that as “an ex-professor who is not up for tenure, and who doesn’t care about reputation,” he is going to assume the needed task of being “the doormat for the coming generation to step on.” There are no notes to this “home brew” since Mr. Fairbank feels they would be “misleading, invidious, and inadequate.” Nor is there any bibliography, since Mr. Fairbank has spent much of his life compiling such book lists and feels that “too much is quite enough.” In addition, the romanizations follow his own personal inclination, since none of the extant systems is wholly satisfactory. In short, this is a high-spirited, informed, amusing, and occasionally exasperating tour through China’s revolutionary past. Mr. Fairbank clearly had great fun writing it, and it is fun to read.

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Despite Mr. Fairbank’s jocular rejection of scholarly trappings in The Great Chinese Revolution, the book is in fact very up-to-date, not least because he has been involved, either as editor or co-editor, in all the recent volumes of the Cambridge History of China for the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries up to 1979. He has read the attempts to summarize this long span of complex history made by many of the best Chinese historians in the world. Mr. Fairbank acknowledges their help both by dedicating the book to all the contributors collectively and by providing the contents of the relevant volumes as an appendix to his own book. Thus we find discussed inside his broad chronological narrative such topics as indigenous Chinese commerce before the impact of the West, the nature of local uprisings against state power, the composition of the “Sino-liberal” elite, and the meaning of personal humiliation in the Cultural Revolution. Again and again, Mr. Fairbank vividly captures these experiences. Of the terrible humiliations of the Cultural Revolution, for instance, he writes:

To Chinese, so sensitive to peer-group esteem, to be beaten and humiliated in public before a jeering crowd including colleagues and old friends was like having one’s skin taken off.

Such concision is powerful and effective. So, in its way, is the trick of describing a complicated social phenomenon in a the couple of sentences and letting the reader slip from mood to mood. Thus

eunuchs came mainly from North China and were manufactured by cutting off scrotum and penis, binding the wound with a plug in the urethra, and allowing no drinking water for three days. When the plug was removed, if urine gushed out, the eunuch was in business; if not, he would die fairly soon.

The reader’s attention is in fact often caught—does Mr. Fairbank fear that our minds are given to wandering?—by such racy asides, even when there is not very much data to support them. “Folklore,” we are told, is the source for the charming details of how a concubine entered the royal bed. The size of a sexually notorious warlord’s penis is presented, even though “this datum has never been verified.” The thought of trying to verify this particular piece of data, of course, makes this both a nice joke and a parody of the scholar’s normal disclaimers.

The Great Chinese Revolution is thus Mr. Fairbank’s heady distillation of everything that struck him, amused him, irritated him, interested him, during a half century of incessant reading and thinking about China. He leaves us with the thought that the “revolution”—whether “great” or not—may itself be as much a dynastic cycle as a permanent change. The words “socialism” and “capitalism” are ours, not deeply China’s, and we apply them at our peril. China has indeed been trying to “break the grip of history.” But even a revolution may not be able to assure that. For as Mr. Fairbank suggested at the beginning of this same book, the rhythms and condensations at the heart of China’s history, and their geographical concentration, confront us with a truly imaginative challenge if we are to gauge their weight correctly:

All the historic sites of four thousand years of Chinese history lie close together. For us it would be as though Moses had received the tablets on Mt. Washington, the Parthenon stood on Bunker Hill, Hannibal had crossed the Alleghenies, Caesar had conquered Ohio, Charlemagne’s crowning in the year 800 was in Chicago, and the Vatican overlooked Central Park.

No other scholar has produced so much of high quality on China during the last fifty years as Mr. Fairbank. It’s good to know how much he can still enjoy his favorite subject.

  1. Suzanne Wilson Barnett and John King Fairbank, eds., Christianity in China: Early Protestant Missionary Writings (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press, 1985).
  2. Ernest R. May and John K. Fairbank, eds., America's China Trade in Historical Perspective: The Chinese and American Performance (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press, 1986).
  3. Philip A. Kuhn and John K. Fairbank, with the assistance of Beatrice S. Bartlett and Chiang Yung-chen, Reading Documents: The Rebellion of Chung Jen-chich, 2 vols. (Harvard University, John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, 1986).
  4. Katherine F. Bruner, John K. Fairbank, and Richard J. Smith, eds., Entering China's Service: Robert Hart's Journals, 1854–1863 (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press, 1986).