Anyone interested in the history of China will find Fairbank’s final work remarkable and unlike any other survey. Completed just two days before the author’s death, CHINA: A NEW HISTORY combines the fruits of a flood of academic studies produced during the past twenty years with the insight of more than fifty years of professional and personal China-watching. As a result, this selective work exhibits a sure sense of what is meaningful in China’s long history. It never becomes dull, plodding, or a mere chronicle of facts.
Fairbank organizes his book around four themes. First, he confirms many of the myths and legends surrounding China’s prehistory on the basis of recent archaelogical discoveries. Next he traces the growth of imperial autocracy, demonstrating both its potential for development and the inherent difficulties of modernizing under such a system. Why did China fail to keep pace in the modern world when, as late as the eighteenth century, she was in many economic ways comparable to Europe? Fairbank suggests that there can be no monocausal explanation for the great paradox “that bothers all Chinese patriots today.” Rather, it must be explained by broadly applying Chinese appreciation of the ideal to a host of challenges which, in the West, would have been greeted with a compromising pragmatism.
The third quarter of the book is devoted to the failure of Republican government in China between 1912 and 1949. By emphasizing the rise of communism, it flows neatly into a cogent discussion of the vicissitudes of communist society since 1949. In the last quarter of CHINA: A NEW HISTORY, Fairbank demonstrates that the policies of the Chinese communist government have alternated between progressive, creative leadership and misguided fanaticism. The Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989, is portrayed as typical of Chinese autocracy and notable only because the Western press was so ready to report it.
Rarely will the nonspecialist find such clear writing so well-informed by years of academic inquiry. Dozens of illustrations, six tables, and twenty-four maps richly complement the text. Finally, Fairbank is not afraid to admit that the expansion of knowledge about China should make us all aware of the magnitude of what remains to be learned.