The mandarin dean of US China scholars

John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China, by Paul M. Evans. New York: Basil Blackwell. 366 pp. $24.95. What role should scholars - John K. Fairbank, for example - play in the political and policy arena? This issue is central to the often-troubled history of intellectuals in this century.

For we expect scholars to pursue truth disinterestedly, no matter whose ox is being gored. Public life, however, requires compromise, maneuver, truths sandpapered to fit; what then? The issue is simplest in dictatorships, where any scholar questioning the shibboleths of the state knows what to expect. But things are fuzzier in a democracy, where the desire to be influential, the fear of being dismissed as irrelevant or marginal, can inhibit unpopular or complex thinking.

Consider the Fairbank story, as it appears in this thorough and balanced - though dry and unimaginative - book. At age 81, Fairbank remains America's most authoritative interpreter of China. His energy and leadership are as famous as his friendly, yet essentially remote and mandarin-like persona. As a graceful and prolific writer in both scholarly and popular modes; as an informal adviser in Washington on China policy and a cultural bridge between the two nations; and especially as an academic entrepreneur at Harvard from 1936 to 1977 who built - virtually from scratch - modern Chinese studies throughout the United States, he has a unique record in demystifying China and making it comprehensible. In contrast, Middle Eastern studies in this country have never enjoyed a Fairbank.

There have been ideological skirmishes and pitched battles. Fairbank derives, intellectually, from C.K. Webster and William L. Langer, traditional diplomatic historians whose concern was with statesmen, the corridors of power, and the clash of great nations. Imperialism he deplored, while accepting it as a fact; hence the conflict between his calm, highly rationalistic approach to history and the angry radicalism that entered the China field with the Vietnam war.

Fairbank already knew attack from the far right. Having entered the Chinese field as Japan pushed south in the 1930s, he became one of the dozen or so experts whose names appeared widely. He continued during World War II service with the Office of Strategic Services in Washington and Chungking, as Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists rolled downhill; his assessments after 1945 were blunt and pessimistic.

For this, Fairbank paid dearly during the Korean war and the McCarthyite battle over ``who lost China?'' Accused of being a communist or at least a fellow traveler (as then Rep. John Kennedy publicly asserted), Fairbank was denied a passport for a time and spent a year defending himself before various Washington committees.

Nevertheless, Fairbank was as self-controlled as ever, sailing with the wind by conciliating the opposition rather than lashing back. He essentially accepted Washington's right to pursue subversion by investigating opinions and intellectuals' actions: Civil rights issues stood second to fighting communism and also to restoring a demoralized cluster of China specialists to their scholarly work.

Evans denies that ``Fairbank was either traumatized or terrorized by the McCarthy era. He did feel a strong sense of vulnerability, however,'' which may be linked to the low-profiled prudence that Fairbank and other China specialists showed regarding the Vietnam war. Here was self-censorship with a vengeance, with the backlash now coming from the left, from younger scholars in the late 1960s who denounced their elders as mere clients of the foundations, the State Department, and even of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Through it all, Fairbank has stayed cool, exuding the self-possession of a prominent mandarin. His stance is rationalistic, liberal, but fundamentally skeptical of human behavior and fallibility. Mutual toleration, a sense of limits, of settling for half a loaf when necessary and avoiding violence unless absolutely necessary: Fairbank remains at heart a diplomatic historian in an age when Mao and Marx rouse historians more than do Talleyrand and Bismarck.

Leonard Bushkoff, a free-lance book reviewer, specializes in history and politics.

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