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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Academic Autobiography (1b)—Working the Field

One year ago on Round and Square (23 September 2011)—Remonstrance: Not Cliché
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Academic Autobiography"
Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on John King Fairbank's autobiography:
Working 1          Working 2          Working 3          Working 4          Working 5

II—On the Farm with John Fairbank and Chen Pu
I begin with a text that John King Fairbank knew well. Indeed, it is interesting to see the prominence Fairbank rightly gives agriculture in his last book, China: A History. Pictures of labor in the fields dot the text in a way that makes a reader of his other books wonder where this "angle" was earlier in his career. In the extended quotation below, the eleventh century “agricultural thinker” Chen Pu writes of farming technique, topography, finance, and labor. Above all, though, he concentrates on the farmer himself, and his need to focus on his work almost to the exclusion of all else. If you want to farm well, you need a single-track mind.

          If something is thought out carefully, it will succeed; if not, it will fail; this is 
          a universal truth. It is very rare that a person works and yet gains nothing.  
          On the other hand, there is never any harm in trying too hard. In farming it 
          is especially appropriate to be concerned about what you are doing. Mencius 
          said, “Will a farmer discard his plow when he leaves his land?”  Ordinary 
          people will become idle if they have leisure and prosperity.  Only those who 
          love farming, who behave in harmony with it, who take pleasure in talking        
          about it and think about it all the time will manage it without a moment’s 
          negligence.  For these people a day’s work results in a day’s gain, a year’s 
          work in a year’s gain.  How can they escape affluence?

          As to those with many interests who cannot concentrate on any one and who 
          are incapable of being meticulous, even if they should come by some profit, 
          they will soon lose it.  For they will never understand that the transformation 
          of the small into the big is the result of persistent effort.  To indulge in pleasure 
          and discard work whenever the chance arises and to meet matters only when 
          they become urgent is never the right way of doing things.  Generally 
          speaking, ordinary people take pride in having prosperity to indulge in 
          temporary leisure.  If there should be a man who remains diligent in 
          prosperity, everyone else will mark him as a misfit, so great is their lack of
It has become plain to me that my initial approach to Fairbank and South Dakota was wrong—that by focusing on direct connections to South Dakota, I had missed the broader picture, a hint of which can be found on the very first page of Chinabound and is echoed throughout the rest of the book. Fairbank sought a field he could tend, a field in which he could grow as a person and build something of his own—a place where he could be his field.

After reading Chen Pu’s little treatise, the rhetoric of Fairbank’s Chinabound is startling. He was trying to build something, and the corporate body was Chinese studies in the United States.

          I was born in 1907 in Huron, near where Hubert Humphrey was born at about 
          the same time. One could stand in the corn on the side of town and see it 
          waving in the fields on the other side. From the top of a rise under the big sky 
          of the plains one could look farther over the quarter sections and farmsteads 
          and see man more in control of nature than anywhere else in the world. Later 
          on, when I was choosing a career, Chinese studies seemed like a limitless
          opportunity, stretching away to an unknown horizon, waiting to be explored 
          and cultivated.[2]
Reading the passage above made me realize that, even though South Dakota figures in only minor ways in his life, the vision that comes from it is very real. This need not sound ethereal, either. Fairbank’s memoirs, like Chen Pu’s treatise, are practical, focused, and downright driven. John King Fairbank “worked the field” as he quite self-consciously built an academic and policy-making structure in the United States. Even a skim of Chen Pu’s text will show that the two authors valued similar human qualities and did not quite understand those who were less driven and (as they saw it) somewhat more dilettantish. Indeed, neither really understood having any other interests at all beyond cultivating the field (as we shall see).

My fascination with Fairbank has grown, so to speak, in the course of my studies over the years.  In this series of posts, I will give a sketch of some of the major “field-building” themes in Chinabound, but they are part of a broader project that looks at the way that academics build careers (and "fields") around them. And build Fairbank did, producing 57 books, 140 articles and essays, as well as numerous reviews. He is responsible for the development of a research center at Harvard (now named after him), and for training several generations of China scholars. Indeed, almost everyone in the field can trace his or her “origins” back to the research center that Fairbank, with the help of others, built at Harvard. There are six degrees of Fairbank throughout the field (and most are much closer than that).
When he began, there were almost no well-trained scholars in even the major universities (Chicago was an exception, with the sinologist Herlee Creel, and both Yale and Columbia had people in place). By the 1950s, most major universities had professors of Chinese studies and, in several waves of production that owed as much to world affairs as Harvard training, today even quite small colleges often have positions in Chinese studies. A case in point is my own institution, Beloit College. On a faculty of 100 we have over a dozen professors who work with Chinese sources and have published on Chinese themes, doing research in history, anthropology, economics, education, art history, political science, music, language and literature, religion, philosophy, mathematics, and English. All (one way or another) can trace their Chinese studies “ancestry” back to Harvard, and the program John King Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and others built in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

In this series of posts, we will deal with one prominent theme in Fairbank’s memoirs—the cultivation of talent—especially Fairbank's very self-conscious cultivation of his own talents, his cultivation of others (both colleagues and students), and finally his cultivation of texts, maps, and supporting materials as he sought to create a body of knowledge and series of institutions that would outlast him and make a permanent impact on the United States’ understanding of China. As you proceed, you will see that I am a bit more ambivalent than Fairbank about the meaning of it all. I find it odd, for example, that his memoir was published just five years after Edward Said's Orientalism, yet contains nary a paragraph that so much as hints at the irony of it all. On the other hand, John King Fairbank built that, and he had help from all over the country and the world. He is unafraid to give credit to all who helped him.

Except, perhaps, to his native South Dakota.

Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on John King Fairbank's autobiography:
Working 1          Working 2          Working 3          Working 4          Working 5
[1] Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 188-189.
[2] John King Fairbank, Chinabound (New York: Harper Collins, 1983), 4.

Ebrey, Patricia. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. New York: The Free Press, 1993.
Fairbank, John King. Chinabound. New York: Harper Collins, 1983.

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