Born in South Dakota, John King Fairbank attended local public schools for his early education. From there he went on first to Exeter, then the University of Wisconsin, and ultimately to Harvard, from which he received his B.A. degree summa cum laude in 1929. That year he traveled to Britain as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1932 he went to China as a teacher and after extensive travel there received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1936. Between 1941 and 1946, he was in government service---as a member of the Office of Strategic Services, as special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to China, and finally as director of the U.S. Information Service in China. Excepting those years, beginning in 1936, Fairbank spent his entire career at Harvard University, where he served in many positions, including Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and director of Harvard's East Asian Research Center. Fairbank, who came to be considered one of the world's foremost authorities on modern Chinese history and Asian-West relations, was committed to reestablishing diplomatic and cultural relations with China. He was also committed to the idea that Americans had to become more conversant with Asian cultures and languages. In his leadership positions at Harvard and as president of the Association for Asian Studies and the American Historical Association, he sought to broaden the bases of expertise about Asia. At the same time, he wrote fluidly and accessibly, concentrating his work on the nineteenth century and emphasizing the relationship between China and the West. At the same time, his writings placed twentieth-century China within the context of a changed and changing global order. It was precisely this understanding that led him to emphasize the reestablishment of American links with China. More than anyone else, Fairbank helped create the modern fields of Chinese and Asian studies in America. His influence on American understanding of China and Asia has been profound.
Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports 1842-1854