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Papers of John K. Fairbank


John King Fairbank (1907-1991) was a a leading scholar in modern and contemporary China studies. Fairbank was the Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History at Harvard Univeristy and Director of its East Asian Research Center. He was married to Wilma Cannon Fairbank, the author of numerous scholarly books on Chinese archeology and architecture.


  • Creation: 1933-1991


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94 cubic feet (272 boxes)


John King Fairbank (1907-1991) was a a leading scholar in modern and contemporary China studies. Fairbank was the Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History at Harvard Univeristy and Director of its East Asian Research Center, which was later renamed the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research in his honor. He was married to Wilma Cannon Fairbank, the author of numerous scholarly books on Chinese archeology and architecture.

John King Fairbank was born in Huron, South Dakota. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, he spent two years at the University of Wisconsin, then transferred to Harvard, where he completed his undergraduate studies (A.B., 1929). A Rhodes Scholar, he attended Oxford University and pursued a growing interest in Chinese history.

From 1932 to 1936, he and his wife Wilma Cannon Fairbank lived in Peiping (now Beijing). They learned Chinese, traveled extensively, and worked on their respective research projects. His topic was the foreign relations of the Qing dynasty. Her subjects were Chinese art and architecture.

After the completion of his doctorate in 1936, Fairbank returned to the United States and a position in Harvard's History Department. His academic career was interrupted by service during World War II. He served in the Office of Strategic Services and in the Office of War Information. He spent two years in China, first as Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador, then as Director of the United States Information Service.

Resuming his academic career after the war, he returned to Harvard, where he embarked on an active program of teaching and research and he began to establish himself as a leading interpreter of China to the American public. At first his scholarship was an extension of his doctoral research; it focussed on China's relations with the West in the 19th century. Increasingly he joined with collaborators in compiling bibliographies and research guides to assist fellow scholars in their work.

Politics briefly inconvenienced Fairbank's academic career. Partly because of his growing prominence, he was singled out in the McCarthy era as one of the Asia scholars and State Department officials responsible for the "loss of China" to the communists. He emerged relatively unscathed from his confrontation with the McCarran Committee, but he was forced to delay for one year a sabbatical in Japan (1951-1952) while the Military Review Board investigated his political affiliations.

Fairbank's influence on East Asian studies was considerable. During his career, Fairbank trained a generation of China specialists, played a key role in building the infrastructure of East Asian area studies, and published texts that introduced China to a broad readership. He undertook ambitious tasks of synthesis in the writing of general histories that could serve as texts for introductory courses in East Asian civilization. His major works include: The United States and China, 1948, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast, 1953, and East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, 1973. He also served as editor of the monumental Cambridge History of China, and collaborated on three volumes about Sir Robert Hart,Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service.

Fairbank's professional commitments and obligations grew apace with his academic responsibilities and scholarly achievements. At Harvard, he became Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History in 1959. From 1955-1973 he served as director of the East Asian Research Center, a total of 18 years. From 1973 to 1977, he was chairman of the Council on East Asian Studies. He served on the committees of numerous associations dedicated to fostering a richer knowledge of East Asia. He was trustee of the Institute of Pacific Relations from 1946 to 1956, he became president of the Association for Asian Studies in 1959, and he became president of the American Historical Association in 1968. Fairbank received numerous honorary degrees, including ones from Swarthmore, Harvard, the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins. In 1986 he received the Harvard Medal for service to the university.

John King Fairbank died September 14, 1991 at the age of 84, two days after delivering his final manuscript to the Harvard Press. Wilma Fairbank died April 4, 2002 at the age of 92.

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. Biography
  2. ___General information about John King Fairbank
  3. ___John King Fairbank. Chinabound: a fifty-year memoir. (New York: Harper & Row, 1982.)
  4. ___Lecture [audio recording], 1973
  5. ___Foreign travels, 1936 and 1960-1972
  6. ___McCarthy Era, 1934 and 1950-1961
  7. Correspondence
  8. ___General correspondence, 1947-1991
  9. ___Alphabetical Correspondence, ca. 1960-1968
  10. ___Chronological Correspondence, 1960-1966
  11. Research and Writing
  12. ___Reprints
  13. ___Cambridge History of China, ca. 1974-1991
  14. ___Sir Robert Hart and Chinese Maritime Customs Service, (1900) 1968-1986
  15. ___Research projects, 1950
  16. ___Miscellaneous duplicated materials, 1957-1965
  17. Professional Organizations
  18. ___Committee on American-East Asian Relations, ca. 1967-1980
  19. ___Institute of Pacific Relations, ca. 1936-1985
  20. ___American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations, 1933-1951
  21. ___Association papers, ca. 1950-1971
  22. ______Association for Asian Studies (AAS), 1958-1959
  23. ______American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), ca. 1951
  24. ______American Historical Society (AHS), 1968-1971
  25. ______Far Eastern Association
  26. ___Projects, Conferences, 1955-1960
  27. ___JKF committees, 1965-1972
  28. Teaching
  29. ___Teaching material, 1961-1972
  30. ___East Asian studies at Harvard, ca. 1967-1973
  31. ___Advisees

Acquisition Information

  1. Accession 8171 received 1977 August from John King Fairbank
  2. Accession 8231 received 1977 September 21 from John King Fairbank
  3. Accession 8276 received 1977 December 8 from John King Fairbank
  4. Accession 9654 received 1983 Febraruy 4 from John King Fairbank
  5. Accession 10548 received 1985 August 28 from John King Fairbank
  6. Accession 10612 received 1985 November 14 from John King Fairbank
  7. Accession 10943 received 1986 December 2 from John King Fairbank
  8. Accession 11209 received 1987 September 3 from John King Fairbank
  9. Accession 12312 received 1991 December 13
  10. Accession 12346 received 1992 February 21
  11. Accession 12514 1992 September 1

Related Material

Researchers should also consult the Records of the Center for East Asian Research (UAV 345.xx).

Search HOLLIS (Harvard's online library system) for works by and about John King Fairbank and Wilma Cannon Fairbank.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 May 11.

Processing Note

Staff in the Harvard University Archives separated Records of the Center for East Asian Research in these accessions from the personal papers of John King Fairbank. The Records of the Center for East Asian Research are arranged and described separately.

Fairbank, John King, 1907- Papers of John K. Fairbank : an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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