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NONFICTION : CHINA WATCH by John King Fairbank (Harvard University: $20; 219 pp.).

September 06, 1987|Gayle Feldman

China watchers are a curious breed, not necessarily academic sinologists nor, for that matter, ardent sinophiles. Rather, once possessed, their passion stays with them for the rest of their days, but so, too, does the knowledge of their own limitations as foreigners confronted with the weight of history and cultural otherness of China. Now in his 80th year, John King Fairbank is the doyen of America's China watchers, having listened to and analyzed the signals coming from the East and the reactions they have prompted in the West for more than half a century. Although younger luminaries have come upon the sinological scene, if there is one American scholar whose name is generally known to educated Chinese it undoubtedly is Fairbank.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Harvard University Press has chosen to publish a selection culled from Fairbank's writings over the past 15 years and has christened what amounts to a compendium of book reviews with the umbrella title "China Watch." A series of pieces that in essence are responses to the reactions of others served up with introductions and peppered with revisions is common enough fare, and it is often easy to dismiss collections like this as such. Inevitably there is reaction, and some reviews have worn decidedly better than others. The editorial blue pencil could have been wielded to greater effect. However, Fairbank is always readable and for those whose eyes have not been glued to the China scene for the past 15 years (and who need to brush up on their history a bit, since the volume in fact considers Chinese history in American minds from the earliest days of missionaries and traders through Mao's China, normalization, the Cultural Revolution and the current perspective of "disillusioned optimism"). "China Watch" contains much that is thoughtful and thought-provoking.

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