Plus ça change…
Attention! A squadron of fierce red rats is swarming down the map from a blood-red China towards Australia! Eager scarlet claws scrabble at our coastline; greedy little rat-faces snarl with the excitement of it all.
This was the sinister political poster that in the 1950s menaced us from walls in my hometown of Armidale––and presumably all round the country. The Yellow Peril as threatening rodent manifestation…
As intended, that horror image embedded itself deep into my child brain––and clearly, with some sort of delicious thrill, into the brains of certain others as well. Others who now, as old journalists, have unwittingly revealed their advanced age. Ah! So it seems they’re not the cool young trend-setters their readers assume they are, with shiny new wisdom about the world!
Now, apparently triggered by the same old memory, a black squadron of warplanes has erupted from the sinister red map of China. With spooky determination they are heading for Australia..
In recent decades, most of us believed things had changed radically since the bad old days. For years the “red rats” from that ferocious tidal swarm have been busy constructing their cities with our steel, cheerfully munching on our cereals, meat and dairy products, joyfully quaffing our wine. And they have paid us extremely well for these privileges.
We, in turn, have wallowed in the pleasures of the TVs, radios and computers they’ve constructed. Our wardrobes bulge with the myriad “Made in China” outfits we’ve splurged on to adorn our bodies; our houses are crammed with geegaws, furniture, homeware and IT gadgets concocted in their factories.
Mutually supportive trading mates! Everyone benefits!
Of course, back in the fifties and sixties “they” didn’t actually exist in any legalistic international way. “China” meant Taiwan. Full stop.
In 1949 the Kuomintang, defeated by Mao in the civil war, had fled there. That tiny island–– just 0.37% of China’s landmass––alone held the United Nations seat of vast “China” until 1971. When Taiwan spoke, it was China speaking. This was the state of affairs that, for more than two decades, whole generations throughout the world accepted as normal.
No wonder the Chinese government now grimaces to remember that ugly, long-drawn-out insult. Certainly no Australian government questioned the weirdness of the status quo. No one I knew seemed to think it at all odd––including me.
What is odd is our apparent eagerness now to leap into war to prove one bright new contradiction. Taiwan is not China after all! Full stop.
Odd, too, is the fact that we’ve obediently swallowed (hopefully still only metaphorically!) the sly hook, line and sinker of AUKUS, dangled so provocatively before our noses. Noses that, bowing to US commands, we’re now thumbing arrogantly at our previous best business buddy…
And apparently we’re even slipping back in time to resurrect some mad old stereotypes from those “red rat” days. In the 1950s, somehow it had happened that, as nice White Australians, miraculously we were individuals with unique minds and personalities and tastes; they were undifferentiated masses. Chinese were the Yellow Peril: a dull-witted, ant-like army, poor, pitifully obedient, forever kow-towing to their superiors. Not worth noticing at all. ‘Inscrutable’ was the word most commonly used to describe them. None of them ever really smiled or frowned, much less laughed or cried: so there was no way to tell what they were thinking. They were unimaginably different from us.
In Pearls and Irritations on 16 March 2023, Colin Mackerras discussed a report by the Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH). The report quotes Frances Adamson A.C., Governor of South Australia and former Australian Ambassador to China as saying that “deep knowledge of a country reduces the risk of strategic miscalculation – a real danger in an increasingly volatile world.”
Mackerras urged that “more Australians be trained with mastery in the Chinese language, as well as a deep knowledge of Chinese culture, politics and history.”
It was Arthur Waley’s translations in his book Chinese Poetry that first opened my eyes and heart to China and all of Asia, and set me on a hopeful path to peace and understanding. I have a copy of it here on the desk beside me. It was the one book I carried in my backpack during a year’s blissful hitch-hiking in South East Asia in 1966 and 1967.
Every poem in the book is the work of a wise, thoughtful, deeply-feeling human being: happy, sad, angry, regretful, loving, longing. Just like you and me.
So let’s not go to war with China, eh? Let’s do everything in our power to soothe the savage breast (and beast!) in all of us –– “us” as well as “them”. If we can manage that, the logical outcome should be a path leading to understanding, then amiable friendship. And logically, far away from the agony of war…