JOHN KING FAIRBANK is the colossus of Chinastudies in the United States. Thanks to a long and
energetic life in academic research, government service, popular journalism, thesis supervising, institution building and creative busy-bodying, he has managed to leave such a distinctive mark on the perceptions and attitudes many influential Americans have about China that future researchers in the field may find themselves having to spend almost as much time coming to terms with the Fairbank legacy as they will with Chairman Mao's own unique bequest.
If Fairbank had been content to remain a humble historian, his achievement would still have been immense, although considerably less controversial than it is now thanks to his zeal for promoting a distinctive brand of Sino-American friendship. His scholarly specialty--the complex world of maritime customs' regulations and practices during the Qing Dynasty--is an essential tool in understanding how Western imperialism intruded upon Chinese politics and culture. More importantly, he was a key figure in making China studies a significant and rewarding area of research on American campuses, appropriately symbolized when his beloved Harvard University renamed its East Asian Studies Center in his honor.
Yet, as this long and often disturbing memoir makes clear, he was not a man to let history simply idle about in the past. With much the same kind of fervor he deplored among some of the culturally myopic Christian missionaries who set up shop in China before the Great Helmsman turfed them out in 1949, John King Fairbank decided early in his career that American ignorance about China needed the balm of historical objectivity and intellectual reason. This was noble work, to be sure, but somewhere along the route he dwindled into a high-profile member of that curious tribe of well-intentioned, good-hearted outsiders who not only tried to alter domestic perceptions, but went further by indirectly lecturing the long-suffering Chinese on their good fortune under communism.
Like many card-carrying Western liberals, he does not consider communism suitable for his own country, but history has revealed unto him its appropriateness for China. This thesis is supported by familiar, frayed baggage: the radical differences between the Chinese cultural tradition and our own; implied contrasts with the "lassitude of India"; the relative benevolence of Chinese communism compared to the Soviet version; the corruption of the old Guomindang regime; the historical precedence of arbitrary, authoritarian regimes, and so on. These insights, which in fairness are the product of Fairbank the propagandist for improved Sino-American relations rather than Fairbank the careful historian, are served up with so little hesitation that it is hard to discern the boundary line between a sincere desire to clear up "muddled American thinking" and reckless self-deception.
Why is it that the distinctive Chinese cultural tradition and vast demographic imperatives precluded absorption of American democratic ideals, but apparently have no problem being adapted to the political and economic theories of Marx and Lenin? Why is it that India, which now feeds its population better than China and has a superior industrial base, is always held up to contrasting ridicule, when its greatest sin has been to allow the kind of unfettered access to outsiders probing serious problems that was so rigidly and conspicuously denied in Maoist China? Why is it that the undeniable excesses and failings of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek received such a stern scolding, but Chairman Mao's almost cosmic repression comes in for only sporadic slaps on the wrist?
In >Chinabound,>> Fairbank reports the dilemma of the high-minded scholar-adventurer who tries to take the sensible middle-of-the road approach. Emnity comes from all sides, he reports, as he details his difficulties with domestic enemies during the McCarthy period, Taiwanese reactionaries who feel he is pro-Peking, and official Communist displeasure over his >New York Times>> book review of Prisoner of Mao by Jean Pascalini. The self-portrayal is of an innocent maligned by all, yet that specific book review is a good example of Fairbank caught out surveying the Chinese horizon with his special set of historically objective blinkers on. >Prisoner of Mao>> itemized in telling, first-hand detail the reality of the Maoist forced labor camps. Fairbank saw in Pascalini's description of these dreadful places proof that Chinese communism was more benevolent than the Soviet model because the physical barbarity appeared less appalling. In pointing this out in his benign, professionally disinterested way, Fairbank actually thought he had done a good thing for New China.
What, in fact, Pascalini proved was that in terms of pervasive thought-control, insidious manipulation of people and the mirror-image such places provide of their creators, the Chinese Communists make their Soviet counterparts look like crude, amateur bunglers. At least Moscow is ashamed of its gulags and tries to hide the facts; in China, the state is proud to be able to display model prisoners. In fact, during their earlier hey-day, the labor-reform camps turned out to be the ideal laboratory for the much-touted New Maoist Man who could be counted upon to mouth the same banalities as the official press with more convincing vigor than the marginally less-controlled citizenry.
There are other aspects of Chinabound which seem specifically designed to depress the reader. Fairbank lived and worked in pre-Maoist China at several crucial junctures and he provides tantalizing hints of the wonderful book he might have written: a few sketches of key participants, benighted Pooh Bahs at the State Department and idealistic members of the doomed Chinese intelligentsia, along with a beautifully evocative description of old Peking, could have been the springboard into a rich and immensely useful memoir. Instead, interesting people are hastily jettisoned and in their place we are afflicted with a tedious Who's Who in Chinese Studies (if anyone is left out, they have a right to feel slighted because everyone else is in) and a self-professed desire to paint "the larger picture." Fairbank also has an annoying habit of being genially self-deprecatory at pivotal points in his narrative when one longs for substantial, straightforward explanations. In this he shares a trait with those astute Chinese officials during the Cultural Revolution who perfected the art of "self-serving self-criticism" to avoid serious personal confrontation.
And there is also a great sadness to ponder. Why did John King Fairbank, the gifted scholar and the zealous champion of the liberal education tradition, fail to resolutely condemn the persecution, often to death, of his colleagues, acquaintances and friends in China, both before and during the Cultural Revolution? Such condemnation comes now in this memoir, but it is too little and too late. Unspeakable things are done and condoned either by silence or mindlessly callous references to historical precedents. Only a stalwart few, like the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys, spoke out when it counted. Fairbank's "historical objectivity" and single-minded search for "the large picture" meant that he failed to extend that elemental decency and intellectual integrity he displayed so courageously during the McCarthy period to a people whose history he professes such a regard for. It is not surprising, therefore, that when one finally finishes Chinabound, the alarming impression is left of having been on a very long voyage that never landed.