CHINABOUND: A Fifty-Year Memoir by John King Fairbank
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CHINABOUND: A Fifty-Year Memoir

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Flying into Saigon in 1960, Harvard's pioneer in China studies suddenly perceived Vietnam, in shock, as ""a part of the Chinese culture area""--a reality concealed by the French colonial exclusion of Americans. ""Harvard,"" he writes, ""had been as unprepared as the American people generally. I could think of no more outstanding failure of intellectual leadership than my own in this case."" It is given to few to so manifestly develop a new field at the right place and the right time--thus, the exceptional interest of Fairbank's autobiography. In 1928, at age 22, he took up the suggestion that he study China--""about which I knew nothing""--because he foresaw the pathbreaking possibilities and, after stints at Sioux Falls high school, Exeter, Wisconsin, and Harvard, he was accustomed to ""pulling up stakes and moving into a new environment."" Two years at Oxford would follow--then privileged exposure to China (1932-35), an Oxford D. Phil., ""learning to teach"" at Harvard, WW II duty in Chungking (Chiang fades, F. discovers the left), and the postwar ""public persona"": alerting Americans to the Kuomintang's bankruptcy, the inevitability of a Communist takeover; becoming the target of McCarthy-era investigations. Early on and at intervals thereafter, the account sparkles with anecdotes, quips, and title-page personalities: on two pages, an Oxford dean awakens at the University of Chicago ""to see, guess what, Magdalen tower on top of St. John's wall with Christ Church great hall right beside it""; Mrs. Fairbank casually gets help from ""a fellow researcher,"" R. H. Tawney; the Fairbankses and the Gilbert Highets (Helen MacInnes) experience ""an interpersonal disaster""--and Fairbank writes in conclusion: ""It has sometimes seemed to me that an area specialist may be rather poor company for people who are not interested in the specialist's area. But I don't know. I have never spent much time with such people."" So it is hardly surprising that much of the book has to do with Fairbank's ""academic entrepreneurship."" Everywhere he searches out fellow sinologists to inform himself and offer encouragement. Often he cites tangible applications of their work--exploding the notion, for instance, that the Kuomintang was defending ""Western free-corporate-enterprise values."" Mostly, though, he writes of Harvard. His first and ""most exciting student,"" Teddy White. Creating the East Asian Research Center and instituting publication--""producing teaching candidates who were also authors and became available just as jobs were opening up around the country."" The Fairbankses' 1972 return to China is unawed--and shortly he finds himself unwelcome there and in Taiwan: ""friends of China,"" he knows, are expected to be loyal. It's an illuminating, zestful book: a story of scholarship enjoyed and applied.

Pub Date: March 3rd, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row