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History Corner







John King Fairbank On China


John King Fairbank, China: A New History (original preface) (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 1999), pp. xvii-xix.


‘China’s history when surveyed over the last two thousand years contains a great paradox that bothers all Chinese patriots today.


In comparison with Europe, the China of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was a forerunner, far ahead in most aspects of civilization, whereas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries China lagged far behind.

When Francis Bacon remarked around 1620 that the world was being made over by printing, gunpowder, and the magnet, he did not refer to the fact that they all three had appeared first in China.

Nowadays, however, it is generally conceded that the China of AD 1200 was on the whole more advanced than Europe.


So why and how did China fall behind?


Among the world’s major peoples, why have the Chinese become latecomers on the way to modernity? If living conditions and the amenities of life in China and Europe were generally comparable as recently as the eighteenth century, how did China so spectacularly fail to follow the European lead in industrialization? To so large a question there is no single, monocausal answer. . . .


‘Once the modern revolution in Chinese thought got under way in the 1890s, it became evident that no foreign model could fit the Chinese situation, that many models would be used but none would be adequate, and that the creative Chinese people would have to work out their own salvation in their own way. Having had a unique past, they would have their own unique future.


‘This conclusion, unsettling to many, has now coincided with a further worldwide realization that the species Homo sapiens sapiens (as it has reassuringly designated itself) is itself endangered. The twentieth century has already seen more man-made suffering, death, and assault on the environment than all previous centuries combined. Perhaps the Chinese have finally joined the great outside world just in time to participate in its collapse. A few observers, less pessimistic, believe that in the end only a survival capacity like that exhibited by the Chinese for three millennia can save us.’