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John K. Fairbank’s Construction of China, 1930s-1950s: Culture, History, and Imperialism

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This paper explores John K. Fairbank’s use of the concept “culture” in his explanations of modern Chinese history. Several factors influenced Fairbank’s use of culture. Culture started as a way to explain the social and political chasm between China and the West in the 1930s, and culture eventually also became Fairbank’s way to express hope in the modernization of China despite the stark social and political reality in the 1940s and after the establishment of Communist China. The modernization theory prevalent in the mid-twentieth century situated his study of China in a universal and rational framework based on fundamentally Western values. On the other hand, Fairbank’s extensive experience living in China and befriending Chinese progressives showed him the dilemmas in implementing this purportedly universal and rational plan.

Affiliations: 1: Indiana University Northwest, Email:, URL:


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