John King Fairbank; Scholar Was an Authority on China


John King Fairbank, a Harvard University professor emeritus, author and leading authority on China, died Saturday of a heart attack in Cambridge, Mass. He was 84.

Fairbank, who had spent nearly 60 years studying China, was the author, co-author or editor of more than two dozen books on the Asian nation, as well as numerous articles, lectures and commentaries. He had recently completed another work, “China: A New History,” scheduled for publication in 1992.

Born in South Dakota on May 24, 1907, Fairbank attended the University of Wisconsin before graduating from Harvard University summa cum laude in 1929. He became a Rhodes Scholar and obtained a doctorate from Oxford University in 1936.

Fairbank first traveled to China in 1932, while a Rhodes Scholar. According to his 1982 autobiography, “Chinabound: A Fifty-year Memoir,” he learned that some 19th-Century Chinese documents were becoming available for study and sought to be among the first to pursue a new avenue of scholarly pursuits. He arrived in China, he wrote, knowing “next to nothing of Chinese history, American China policy, or revolution and nationalism in East Asia.”


From then on, Fairbank had a front-row seat on what he called “one of the most dramatic stories of all time,” leading from the power and decline of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedung’s Communist regime and the Cultural Revolution, to the 1989 assault on pro-democracy protesters in Tian An Man Square.

Fairbank joined the Harvard faculty in 1936 and became a professor of history in 1946. On his retirement in 1977, the university named its East Asian Research Center after him.

During and immediately after World War II, Fairbank, on leave from Harvard, worked with the Office of Strategic Services--the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency--and the Office of War Information in Washington, was a special assistant to the American ambassador in Chongqing and directed the United States Information Service in China.

His teaching greatly influenced generations of China scholars and writers, among them Theodore H. White. Although best known for “The Making of the President” book series, White’s first years as a journalist were spent writing about China.


“Fairbank’s influence in the field is almost incalculable,” said Frederic Wakeman, a professor and director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. “Modern Chinese history in this country is very much the product of John King Fairbank, his students, and those influenced by him.”

His books include “The United States and China,” “A Documentary History of Chinese Communism, 1921-1950,” and “The Great Chinese Revolution, 1800-1985.” He co-edited “The Cambridge History of China,” a 15-volume work.

Fairbank, a resident of Cambridge, is survived by his wife, Wilma, and two daughters.