Tough Questions7 min read

Grace Jackson reviews The China Questions, from Harvard University Press


In 1955, Professor John King Fairbank established the Center for Asian Research at Harvard not to train scholars per se, but to educate and prepare a new generation of public servants for engagement with Chairman Mao’s China. Sinology was already an established academic discipline in Europe and the United States, tracing a lineage from the Jesuit missionaries through to the great nineteenth century translators such as James Legge, Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles. But unlike the Sinologists, who approached Chinese civilization through its ancient texts, the China Hands that Fairbank would train at Harvard were multidisciplinary men – in those days, it was primarily men – of the world: aspiring journalists, diplomats and policymakers.

Fairbank was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the late 1920s. He witnessed the high tide of the Chinese civil war while performing archival research in Beijing in the 1930s, where he learned Chinese, and served the U.S. government’s Office of War Information in Chongqing during World War II. He understood China like few other foreigners in his day could or did. And in the Communist revolution, he foresaw China’s rise.

When Fairbank retired in 1977, the Center was renamed the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research in his honor, and in 2007 it became the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Fairbank is considered the founder of modern China studies, although his legacy is not without complexity. As journalist John Pomfret documented in his 2016 book The Beautiful Country and The Middle Kingdom, Fairbank was one of several American China experts who dismissed the more abusive aspects of Mao’s rule, reflecting a view of the Chinese Communist Party as plucky, well-intentioned underdogs.

In 2015, the Fairbank Center celebrated its 60th anniversary. A lot has changed since its founder’s heyday, when McCarthyism cast a shadow over Chinese studies (Fairbank himself was accused of Communist sympathies by Joseph McCarthy and testified in front of the McCarran Committee) and the U.S. government recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan instead of Mao’s government in Beijing (a state of affairs that Fairbank argued against). Today, the center hosts visiting scholars (many of them from the PRC), sponsors seminars and conferences, and publishes research on all aspects of Chinese studies.

In celebration of that anniversary, two historians, Michael Szonyi and Jennifer Rudolph, have compiled and edited The China Questions: Critical Insights Into a Rising Power for Harvard University Press. The book is a collection of 36 short essays, each answering a particular question that the general reader might ask about China: Is China Keeping Its Promises on Trade? Does Law Matter in China? How Important is Religion in China? Each question is answered by a different affiliate of the Fairbank Center. Most are tenured professors or assistant professors at Harvard; all are leaders in their respective fields. The questions are divided into five topics: politics, international relations, economy, environment, society, and history and culture.

The book is an expression of Fairbank’s original mission, “to move beyond the ivory tower and help inform public opinion and shape public policy,” Michael Szonyi, Director of the Fairbank Center, writes in the introduction. Given the current state of US-China relations, Szonyi posits, this role is now more important than ever. In addressing China’s past, present and future, the book’s basic thesis is that, respectively, history matters, complexity matters, and China’s challenges matter.

Covering topics as diverse as ancient literature, public opinion, and pollution, The China Questions has something for everyone, and each reader will be drawn to different sections. Highlights for me included Jie Li’s multidisciplinary treatment of propaganda (including the astute observation, “The worship of Mao can also be understood as the worship of power”), Meg Rithmire’s essay on urbanization, Alastair Iain Johnston’s dissection of Chinese exceptionalism, and Stephen Owen’s meditation on the future of Chinese intellectual history, elegantly titled ‘What is the future of China’s past?’ Yuhua Wang’s essay on what the Communist Party can learn China’s dynastic past, based on a tabulated breakdown of the fates of its 282 emperors, manages to be both playful and profound, while William Kirby’s explanation of why so many Chinese students come to the United States yields some surprisingly sharp comments on whether world-class universities can exist in a politically illiberal system.

“Fairbank was accused of Communist sympathies by Joseph McCarthy”

In especial, Mark Elliott’s timely essay on the sources of ethnic tension in the PRC today is appropriately somber and refreshingly forthright. Using the first-person to address the reader directly, Elliott harnesses the perspectives of both the Han majority and China’s oppressed minorities, most notably Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs: “If you lived here as we do, many would say, you might conclude that Chinese rule is in fact a type of internal colonialism.” As more details emerge of the “re-education” and extrajudicial detention of up to one million Uighurs in Xinjiang, one senses that his speculations about the possible disappearance of entire peoples and cultures will age well. (Full disclosure: Elliott was my advisor at Harvard, on the ‘Regional Studies: East Asia’ master’s program that originated in a China-studies seminar introduced by Fairbank in 1946.)

The China Questions says a great deal of intelligent things about China, but it also says much about the Fairbank Center, Harvard, and the field of Chinese Studies more broadly. Taken as a self-portrait, it is both flattering – where else can you find the giants of the field all within the pages of a single book? – and revealing of a problematic gender imbalance at the very top of the field. Among the 36 authors, there are eight women (a representative sample of the Center’s faculty, of whom 41 are men and 16 are women). Of the 19 directors who have served in the Center’s 60 year history, only one has been a woman: Elizabeth Perry, whose answer to the delightfully spicy question, ‘Is the Chinese Communist Regime Legitimate?’ opens the book.

To point this out is not to single the Fairbank Center out for criticism – other elite academic institutions are dogged by the same inequities of gender (and race and class) – but to take the pulse of a traditionally male-dominated field in a cultural moment of reckoning with such imbalances. Encouragingly, the gender disparity at the highest echelons of Chinese studies – the tenured professors who contributed essays to The China Questions – is not reflected in the current graduate student population. But it should not be taken for granted that more female Ph.D. candidates will mean more female professors. One way for the Fairbank Center to honor its founder’s mission of public service would be to vigorously engage and take inspiration from the work being done by China experts outside the academy. Notable examples are journalist Joanna Chiu’s NüVoices collective and her crowdsourced female China experts database, as well as social media vigilance against all-male panels (“manels”). After receiving criticism on Twitter for including just one woman (and 12 men) in its fall 2018 lecture series on “Critical Issues Confronting China,” the Fairbank Center tweeted that in the 2017-2018 academic year, it invited 64 male speakers and 47 female speakers.

Against that backdrop, the lack of a chapter on women and feminism in China, or LGBTQ issues, is unfortunate. (That said, Susan Greenhalgh’s essay on the end of the one-child policy, in which she unpacks the idea of “reproductive modernity,” is a tour-de-force.) Other omitted topics include human rights (albeit touched upon by William Alford in his essay on law), new nationalisms in Hong Kong and Taiwan, China’s tech industry, and censorship. More problematically, the sole essay on Taiwan, ‘(When) Will Taiwan Reunify with The Mainland?’ reproduces in its title the highly contested notion that Taiwan was originally unified with the Chinese mainland – it has never been ruled by the PRC, only governed by the Qing dynasty – and confines Taiwan to its role as one side of the cross-Strait binary.

These glitches notwithstanding, The China Questions is essential reading for experts and general readers alike. In their mission to leverage the immense knowledge represented by the Fairbank Center and its affiliate scholars, the editors have succeeded admirably. “I had an inveterate impulse toward a comprehensive grasp,” Fairbank wrote in 1983 of his approach to learning – and that grasp is exactly what The China Questions offers. No doubt he would have approved. ∎


The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, ed. Michael Szonyi and Jennifer Rudolph (Harvard University Press, January 2018).
This article was corrected on November 7 to state that Fairbank learned Chinese in Beijing in the 1930s, not at Oxford in the late 1920s.