CHINA: A NEW HISTORY. By John King Fairbank Belknap/Harvard U. Press, 519 pp., $27.95 US, 19.95 British pounds
AT the time of the Nixon-Mao summit in 1972, William F. Buckley accused historian Ross Terrill during an interview on the television program "Firing Line" of making excuses for the Chinese communists.
"To a degree I was," Terrill freely admits in his engaging book "China In Our Time." In an effort to prove that detente with China was in America's interest, "I tended to gloss over the repression of freedom within China," he writes.
Over the span of 19 trips to China, Terrill, an Australian-born research associate at Harvard University, struggled long and hard with a country he calls "an arena of hope and fate."
He began with deep optimism. While meandering through Eastern Europe, he knocked on the doors of Chinese embassies, finally gaining admittance to China in 1964.
At the time, he writes, China was a "courteous and moral society" where a taxi driver refused his tip and the bartender happily returned his lost wallet.
By the mid-1970s, China was embroiled in the Cultural Revolution. While gathering material in China for a book, Terrill found the politics similar to a Peking Opera - but with sinister undertones. He recalls cynically the man who claimed he married his wife because "she had `beautiful Mao-thoughts.' "
As with many China watchers, the end of his love affair came with the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. He arrived in Beijing in the thick of the confrontation between students and the Army. In one of the more vivid passages in the book, the seasoned traveler is shocked by the burning ambulances and screams of students being shot.
The deaths could have been avoided, he maintains, if Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang had won the support of Deng Xiaoping earlier on or if the students had not clung so fiercely to their demonstration and forced the government's hand.
Throughout the years of turmoil in Mao's China, Terrill had a ringside seat. Henry Kissinger returned from his China summit surprised that the Chinese knew so much about him - courtesy of Terrill. On occasion, Terrill doesn't hesitate to trumpet his own role in history.
But one ends the book grateful to have watched the Chinese political opera with a seasoned buff who from time to time slips away and reappears on stage.
The man Terrill cites as his mentor at Harvard, who is perhaps the preeminent American scholar of modern China, John K. Fairbank, died last year at age 84 just after completing "China: A New History."
Fairbank breaks little new scholarly ground in this work, but that wasn't what he had in mind. Instead, he wished to take advantage of the reams of original research by others in recent years to correct the record, particularly concerning the country's early days 3,000 years ago.
Whether foreign invaders, like the Mongols under Genghis Khan, or natives, such as the Han Dynasty (220 BC to AD 226), the key question is the issue of dynastic control.
For example, contrary to his bad press, Genghis Khan brought more to his rule of China in the 13th century than swordsmanship and rapacious plundering. Genghis and his grandson Kublai (of Rudyard Kipling fame) added hundreds of miles to a huge canal that crisscrossed the country, created a new layer of bureaucrats, and even encouraged the study of Confucious.
TUCKED away in their massive palaces, later emperors schemed in the creation of huge networks of family and bureaucratic institutions to control the country. And, for the most part, their stratagems worked. "... among European dynasties ... none ruled as large a state as China or maintained such a monopoly of central power," Fairbank notes.
In the end, the power held by the dynastic rulers was for naught. By the 13th century, China was technologically ahead of the West, but as the dynasties waxed and waned, China failed to keep pace.
"The imperial mixture ... created a self-sufficient and self-perpetuating civilization. But it did not form a nation-state with a government motivated to lead the way in modernization," Fairbank writes with a tinge of sadness.
Has the Chinese Communist Party done any better? At one point in his long career, which began in 1929 with a trip to Beijing as a Rhodes scholar and included stints as an ambassador's assistant, Fairbank viewed the communists who took over in 1949 as China's best hope in achieving that modernization.
But in a footnote, he writes of a change of heart. In one of the book's few personal asides, he calls a 1972 procommunist statement of his "an outstanding example of sentimental sinophilia."
Like many scholars of his generation, Fairbank is concerned more with the grand affairs of state than the ordinary doings of the lao bai xing, or common people. He devotes just 20 of his 423 pages to the key problems of population growth and economic development. A reader accustomed to economic analysis may find Fairbank wanting in explaining why China failed to keep up with the West in material wealth.
Overall, though, he once again proves his expertise at bringing Chinese history out of the dusty shelves of antiquity by writing a masterly study of the richly varied history of the Middle Kingdom.