Education and Early Career
Fairbank was born in Huron, South Dakota on 24 May 1907. He was educated at Sioux Falls High School, Phillips Exeter Academy, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Harvard College, and Oxford University (Balliol). In 1929, when he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in order to study British imperial history. At Oxford, Fairbank learned that the Qing imperial archives were being opened, and sought the counsel of H.B. Morse, the eminent historian of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, who became his mentor. The ambitious young scholar decided to go to Beijing to do research for his doctoral degree in 1932. In Beijing, he studied at Tsinghua University under the direction of the prominent historian Tsiang Tingfu who introduced him to the study of newly available diplomatic sources and the perspectives of Chinese scholarship. Wilma Cannon came to China to marry Fairbank and began a career of her own in Chinese art history. In 1936, Oxford awarded him a D.Phil. for his thesis, which he revised and published as Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854 in 1953.
He returned to Harvard in 1936 to take up a position teaching Chinese history, Harvard's first full time specialist on that subject. He and Edwin O. Reischauer worked out a year long introductory survey which covered China and Japan, and later Korea and Southeast Asia. The course was known as "Rice Paddies," and became the basis for the influential texts, East Asia: The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960) and East Asia: The Modern Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).
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