John King Fairbank

Is your surname Fairbank?

Research the Fairbank family

John King Fairbank's Geni Profile

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!


John King Fairbank

Chinese: 費正清
Birthdate: (84)
Birthplace: Huron, Beadle, South Dakota, United States
Death: September 14, 1991 (84)
Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Arthur Boyce Fairbank and Lorena Fairbank
Husband of Wilma Denio Fairbank
Father of Laura Haynes and Holly Tuck

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
view all

Immediate Family

About John King Fairbank

John King Fairbank (Chinese: 費正清; pinyin: Fèi Zhèngqīng; 24 May 1907 – 14 September 1991), was a prominent American academic and historian of China.

Education and early career

Fairbank was born in Huron, South Dakota on 24 May 1907. He was educated at Sioux Falls High School, Phillips Exeter Academy, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Harvard College, and Oxford University (Balliol). In 1929, when he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in order to study British imperial history. At Oxford, Fairbank learned that the Qing imperial archives were being opened, and sought the counsel of H.B. Morse, the eminent historian of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, who became his mentor. The ambitious young scholar decided to go to Beijing to do research for his doctoral degree in 1932. In Beijing, he studied at Tsinghua University under the direction of the prominent historian Tsiang Tingfu who introduced him to the study of newly available diplomatic sources and the perspectives of Chinese scholarship. Wilma Cannon came to China to marry Fairbank and began a career of her own in Chinese art history. In 1936, Oxford awarded him a D.Phil. for his thesis, which he revised and published as Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854 in 1953.

He returned to Harvard in 1936 to take up a position teaching Chinese history, Harvard's first full time specialist on that subject. He and Edwin O. Reischauer worked out a year long introductory survey which covered China and Japan, and later Korea and Southeast Asia. The course was known as "Rice Paddies," and became the basis for the influential texts, East Asia: The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960) and East Asia: The Modern Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

War service and "Loss of China" controversy

Following the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941, Fairbank was enlisted to work for the US government, which included service in the OSS and the Office of War Information in Chongqing, the temporary capital of Nationalist China. There, like most foreign observers, he witnessed the corruption of the government headed by Chiang Kai-shek, which left a deeply negative impression of the Kuomintang.

When he returned to Harvard after the war, Fairbank inaugurated a Master's Degree program in Area Studies. Harvard at that time was one of several major universities in the United States with Asian study programs. The Area Studies approach at Harvard was multi-disciplinary and aimed to train journalists, government officials, and others who did not want careers in academia. This broad approach, combined with Fairbank's experience in China during the war, shaped his United States and China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Foreign Policy Library, 1948). This survey went through new editions in 1958 and 1970, each synthesizing scholarship in the field for students and the general public. In the 1960s, he studied Chinese at the Taipei Language Institute. In 1972, in preparation for Nixon's visit, the book was read by leaders on both sides.

Fairbank was among the so-called China Hands who predicted the victory of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party and advocated establishing relations with the new government. Although Fairbank argued that this would be in the American national interest, many Americans accused the China Hands of selling out an ally and promoting the spread of Communism and Soviet influence. In 1949, Fairbank was targeted for criticism of being "soft" on Communism, and was denied a visa to visit Japan. In 1952, he testified before the McCarran Committee, but his secure position at Harvard protected him. Ironically, many of Fairbank's Chinese friends and colleagues who returned to China after 1949, such as Fei Xiaotong and Chen Han-seng, would later be attacked for being "pro-American" as the Chinese Communist Party became more rigidly communist.

Development of China Studies

Fairbank taught at Harvard until he retired in 1977. He published a number of both academic and non-academic works on China, many of which would reach a wide audience outside academia. He also published an expanded revision of his doctoral dissertation as Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast in 1953.

Harvard developed as the premier American center for East Asian studies. This growth was significantly affected by Fairbank's actions, including establishing the Center for East Asian Research which was renamed in his honor after his retirement. He was director of the Center from 1955 through 1973.

Fairbank raised money to support fellowships for many graduate students, trained numerous influential China historians at Harvard and placed them widely in universities and colleges in the US and overseas. He welcomed and funded researchers from all over the world to spend time in Cambridge and hosted a series of conferences which brought scholars together and yielded publications, many of which Fairbank edited. He established the influential Harvard East Asian Series which provided a venue for his students to publish their dissertations which was essential for achieving tenure. He was known as a relentless but supportive editor. Fairbank and his colleagues at Harvard, Edwin O. Reischauer and Albert Craig wrote the dominant textbook on China and Japan, A History of East Asian Civilization and Fairbank established strong links to influential figures in Washington D.C. both by training journalists, government officials, and others and by working with the government on China policy.

In 1966, Fairbank and the Sinologist Denis C. Twitchett, then at Cambridge University set in motion the plans for The Cambridge History of China. Originally intended to cover the entire history of China in six volumes, the project grew until it reached its present expected size of 15 volumes. Twitchett and Fairbank divided the history between them, with Fairbank editing the volumes on modern (post 1800) China, while Twitchett took responsibility for the period from the Qin to early Qing. Fairbank edited and wrote parts of volumes 10 through 15, the last of which appeared in the year after his death.

Struggle for the Mike

In December 1969, Howard Zinn and other members of the Radical Historians' Caucus tried unsuccessfully to persuade the American Historical Association to pass an anti-Vietnam War resolution. "A debacle unfolded as Harvard historian (and AHA president in 1968) John Fairbank literally wrestled the microphone from Zinn's hands." Correspondence by Fairbank, Zinn and other historians, published by the AHA in 1970, is online in what Fairbank called "our briefly-famous Struggle for the Mike".


Fairbank finished the manuscript of his final book, China: A New History in the summer of 1991. On September 14, 1991 he delivered the manuscript to Harvard University Press, then returned home and suffered a fatal heart attack.

Selected works

view all

John King Fairbank's Timeline

May 24, 1907
Huron, Beadle, South Dakota, United States
September 14, 1991
Age 84
Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States