In what proved to be the last letter John K. Fairbank wrote to me, he described himself as "really not a thinker but rather a narrator." He had never felt, he said, that he "stood for something," but had been "rather opportunistically ready to pick up the next verbal formulation that comes along and seems interesting." Such comments were typi- cal of Fairbank's self-deprecatory observations as well as his "consid- erable scepticism about all verbal formulations." Not persuaded by the superior wisdom of any given formulation, he absorbed many of them without turning them into dogmas. "I was not set up in any very strict set of principles that seemed enduring," he wrote, and so he had simply followed "along as history and historical thinking developed and [tried] from time to time to put it together by catching up with others' ideas."' I Such a view of himself may surprise those who have regarded Fairbank as the pivotal figure, even the founding father, in the study of modern Chinese history in the United States. "Pioneer," "mission- ary," and "frontiersman" were words most frequently used to de- scribe him when he passed away in September 1991. Indeed, only someone
Journal of American-East Asian Relations – Brill
Published: Jan 1, 1992
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