John S. Major graduated magna cum laude from Haverford College in 1964, where he was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He then did graduate work at Harvard University, earning a Ph.D. degree in History and East Asian Languages. Following three years’ residence in Taiwan and  Japan, he joined the faculty of Dartmouth College, where he taught East Asian history from 1971 to 1984. During that period he lived for an additional year in Japan, a year in Indonesia, and a year as a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University. Moving to New York City, he served as director of the China Council of the Asia Society from 1984 to 1987. From 1988 to 2001 he worked in the publishing industry as Senior Editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club, concurrently remaining active as an independent scholar, writer, and editor. He holds an appointment as Senior Lecturer at the China Institute, New York, and is a member of the Columbia University Faculty Seminar on Early China. In recent years he has served as Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and at Connecticut College. A specialist in the intellectual history of early China, he is the author, co-author, or editor of nearly thirty books spanning the fields of East Asia, world literature, and local and family history.

His scholarly books include The Hall of Heavenly Records: Korean Astronomical Instruments and Clocks, 1380-1790 (1986, with Joseph Needham et al.); Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought (1993); Defining Chu: Image and Reality in Ancient China (1999, with Constance A. Cook et al.), The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China (2010, with Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Meyer, and Harold D. Roth), and The Essential Huainanzi (2012, an abridged paperback version of the 2010 work). He has also written extensively on Asia for young readers; his books in this field include The Land and People of China (1989), The Silk Route: 7,000 Miles of History (1995, illustrated by Stephen Fieser), Caravan to America: Living Arts of the Silk Road (2002, with Betty Belanus), and The Asian World, 900-1500 (2005, with Roger V. DesForges). He has also published in the field of world literature; he is a co-editor of World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time (1998), co-author of The New Lifetime Reading Plan (1997, with Clifton Fadiman), and co-author of 100 One-Night Reads: A Book Lover’s Guide (2001, with his brother, David C. Major). Other recent books are The Three Boys and Other Buddhist Folk-Tales from Tibet (with Yeshi Dorjee; 2007) and A Huguenot on the Hackensack: David Demarest and His Legacy (with David C. Major; 2007). His most recent book is a complete translation of the important Han dynasty Confucian text, the Chunqiu fanlu (“Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn“), with Sarah A. Queen, published in 2015.