John K. Fairbank, retired Harvard professor and director of the university's East Asian Research Center for 18 years, has spent almost half a century training a generation of many of the nation's top China scholars.

As teacher, writer and government official, he was among the vanguard of China hands, helping to make the Orient more than a remote, exotic land. In the 1950s he urged recognition of the Peking regime and was quickly branded a communist and forced to recede into the academic background.

Today, 25 years after the witch-hunting McCarthy years, Fairbank suns in the glow of the new U.S. exuberance about China. Does he feel vindicated? "I never thought of it in those terms," he answers.

In Washington for the visit of Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping, Fairbank, 71, says his "rudimentary knowledge" of the Chinese people gives him a big message to deliver to the American people.

"I'm an example of a particular role player," he explains. "I'm an area specialist -- a person who looks out at another culture and tries to interpret it to his culture."

Fairbank's books, "The United States and China" and "Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast," are regarded as definitive works. In his writings and lectures, the scholar urged U.S. recognition of the Peking regime in the 1950s and criticized American involvement in Vietnam at the height of that conflict.

He became interested in Chinese history as a Harvard undergraduate (he took his bachelor's degree in 1929) when a British China historian influenced him to look toward the Orient. It was natural, he recalls, coming from South Dakota.

"South Dakota used to be a frontier," he says in his soft-spoken, courtly and scholarly manner. "My father went there from Indiana. A frontier is a new area, not the place where your grandfather lived. I wanted to go to a new area."

So Fairbank went to Oxford and then to Peiping (now Peking) to study Chinese history. When he returned to Harvard as a professor in 1936, he was one of only a handful of China experts in this country. Now there're 3,000 to 4,000, still a drop in the bucket, he says, compared to European history experts.

In the euphoria and hoopla that accompany Teng's visit and the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China, Fairbank is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for understanding between the two countries.

"I think the two countries have a lot to offer each other," he says. "We're learning from them in many forms -- cuisine, for one. And the Chinese have had a lot of experience in organizing society."

Also, the Chinese are practical and polite, and admire technology, all characteristics admired by Americans, he adds.

"You've got to remember," he explains, "they're a proud people. By the period 800 to 1,000 A.D., when Charlemagne ruled Europe and literacy was not widespread, the Chinese were advanced. They had printed books, paper, gunpowder, ceramic porcelain and an educated elite."

But there are differences. "They have for the most part always lived in this world," Fairbank writes in "China Perceived," "little concerned for an afterlife, skeptical of personal immortality, and not inclined to sacrifice people for alleged principles."

Fairbank and his wife of 46 years, Wilma, an expert on Chinese art, will return to China in April for several weeks.

The China they see will be different from the one they saw in 1972 -- freer, more open, less ideological.

However, the Chinese, he says, still have hard choices to make. Should they modernize the cities rapidly at the expense of neglecting the majority population in the rural areas? Or should they go slowly and upgrade the entire nation?

"There're certain things they can't have," he warns. "They're not going to have airplane rides available for everyone as we do in this country. They couldn't get enough airplanes or airfields. They can't have a telephone network like we do. Imagine having telephones for 1 billion people!

"The big question is what they'll feel when they see that other people have these things."