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The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800 to the Present by John King Fairbank (Harper & Row: $19.95; 400 pp.)

November 02, 1986|Perry Link | Link teaches modern chinese language and literature at UCLA.

John Fairbank is chair professor emeritus at Harvard, where the East Asian Research Center was named for him after he retired. On the national scene, he is widely credited as the "dean," not to say creator, of modern China studies. It is perhaps inevitable that such a conspicuous figure, working on a subject as politically volatile as 20th-Century China, has taken his turn at denunciation from widely various quarters: Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, rebellious graduate students in the late 1960s, and both Chinese governments (Nationalist and Communist) from time to time. But Fairbank, methodically sticking to facts as he sees them, has weathered such squalls and eventually seen his reputation grow to somewhat improbable proportions. A college freshman recently wrote on a final examination in Chinese civilization that "loyalty to the family is even more important than loyalty to the state, according to both Confucius and Fairbank." Ludicrous, to be sure, but somehow understandable.

"The Great Chinese Revolution" is the story of China's modern history as Fairbank now sees it. He has told the story before, notably in "The United States and China" (1948; revised 1958; revised 1971; basically about China despite its title). But the present book is more than an updating. Fairbank has spent recent years editing the mammoth "Cambridge History of China," and now integrates into his story condensations of the best current Sinology. The result is a prodigious synthesis of political, military, economic, and social (not so much cultural) history, crammed with insights and peppered with wry wit. Fairbank eschews footnotes, apologizing that to try to figure out where everything came from would be impossible in any case. The account is least systematic and confident on China's last two decades, which, the author allows, are still "too recent to be fully known, much less comprehended."

The strength of Fairbank's writing is its empiricism. He builds no grand theories. "History," he says, "is what you think happened." Thus to make his point about how 19th-Century Chinese emperors handled borderland "barbarians," be they Uzbeks or Englishmen, Fairbank starts by bringing us through the concrete facts about a rebellion in Chinese Turkestan in the 1830s, then lets us see for ourselves the similarity between the emperor's response there and to the British in Canton a few years later.

But even while trying to show the story rather than just tell it, and despite having more knowledge to summarize than ever before, Fairbank writes an account no more lengthy than his last. Part of his secret is shrewd choice of illustration. The Tao Kuang emperor (reigning 1821-1850), although hardly a distinguished administrator or even an interesting person, is selected for discussion to illuminate how his cloistered background, conservative outlook, and status as a Manchu left China under his rule woefully unready to face its pressing challenges. On another level, Fairbank makes a big deal of footbinding (five whole pages), but also makes a good case that it should be viewed as a big deal: For several centuries, nearly all Chinese women--even among hard-working and otherwise practical-minded peasants--were deliberately crippled for a custom that began as an upper-class erotic luxury. We are only beginning, says Fairbank, to comprehend the many and profound implications of this phenomenon.

To his credit, Fairbank is quite willing to revise, even reverse, his earlier emphasis in the light of new research. He now explains, for example, how China's modern crisis resulted importantly from indigenous causes in the 18th-Century (rapid growth in population and commercialization) and less, proportionally, from the 19th-Century "Western impact" stressed in his earlier books. The impressive result of Fairbank's selective and flexible empiricism is writing whose power is like that which William James found in the physiological research of Wilhelm Wundt: Like an earthworm, it might be cut to pieces, but if you do, every little bit will squirm on its own. It is not just Fairbank's Olympian purview, but this feature of his style, that produces an aura of irrefutability.

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