The journey and the destination: Colin Mackerras and China

May 13, 2024
BEIJING, July 13, 2023 -- This photo provided by Colin Mackerras shows him giving a speech in Beijing, capital of China, June 29, 2023. TO GO WITH Across China: Australian scholar building cultural bridge between his country and China CHINA-BEIJING-AUSTRALIAN SCHOLAR CN ZhaoxXu PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxCHN Image:Alamy

Right now, knowledge and understanding of China and its culture, its people and its history could help get relations back on a sound footing, but sadly teaching and research in schools and universities has fallen to a critically low level.

Pioneers who helped established Chinese Studies some half a century ago feel that their efforts were in vain. Australia once led the world in its cultural engagement with China. Now China has become an international powerhouse and for better or worse will shape our fate, but few students now pursue advanced Chinese Studies and those who graduated in earlier decades have often had to leave Australia to find suitable employment.

I was one of the first to take up study of Chinese language study after the Second World War. People told me then that it was a useless subject but, since I was female, that did not matter because after I married my husband would support me. My first fulltime job, in Hong Kong in the early ‘60s, proved these people wrong. Researching Chinese policy documents during the Vietnam War provided vital information to Australia and its allies on the likelihood of Mao Zedong committing forces to support Ho Chi Minh. Returning to Australia, my later career involved personal engagement with Chinese officials, scholars and community leaders to establish trade and cultural links on behalf of Australian interests, navigating pathways and avoiding pitfalls, putting my training in Chinese history and culture to practical use for the benefit of Australia.

I was not working in isolation. When I was completing doctoral studies in Sydney in the mid ‘60s, Stephen FitzGerald and Colin Mackerras were pursuing the same degree at the Australian National University in Canberra. FitzGerald was later appointed Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. Mackerras joined the School of Modern Asian Studies at Griffith University and pursued an academic career, teaching and researching Chinese theatre and ethnic minorities policies, truly a pioneer of Chinese Studies in this country. He also regularly visited China and taught at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and other universities.

That 1960s decade was marked in China by the disastrous so-called Cultural Revolution, responsible for the deaths of millions and the near-total collapse of the economy. We early China scholars could not travel to China, and the Australian Chinese community was small and largely unable to speak Putonghua, the national language, so there were limited resources available to those who wished to understand contemporary society either through library resources or personal communication. Even when barriers to travel were lifted, the Chinese government forbade social contacts between Chinese and foreigners and strictly censored access to sensitive information.

Student exchanges in both directions began in the 1970s. Chinese scholars returned from Australia to found Australian Studies centres across the country. David Goodman from the UK and Anne McLaren from Australia spent several years in China and later built on their experience and contacts there to develop Chinese Studies in Australia. Their research fields extend from class and social stratification, and social and political change, to Chinese women’s cultural traditions, literature and folk customs. Both have spent extended periods in China for research and academic exchanges.

Trade and commercial contacts between China and Australia grew dramatically from the late 1980s into the 21st century. During this period, many graduates of Chinese Studies programs found work with Australian and international businesses in China. The Australian Pavilion in the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 employed an enthusiastic army of young Australians as guides and hosts. Chinese visitors were astonished at their fluent language ability. Other interns in commercial offices learned practical international trade and investment skills. Katie Howe has the language skills and overseas work experience but unfortunately has had to use them for the benefit of Australia’s competitors not for Australian government and corporate clients because of lack of interest by potential employers. This is fairly representative of the careers of Chinese Studies graduates in recent decades.

Meanwhile enrolments in Chinese Studies remained strong but now mainly attract students with Chinese language background. Non Chinese-literate students may study China as part of international politics or security studies. This partly reflects students’ concern that spending time in China may prejudice obtaining security clearance for work in government departments, but surely officials can coach students on how they should behave in country in order to facilitate such clearances on return. If the employment issue can be resolved, this will surely entice more students to take up study of Chinese.

The four writers I have mentioned would all agree that, while a lot can be learned about China from books, podcasts and academic lectures, there is no substitute for in-country experience, particularly when that is enhanced by the ability to converse in the national language or some of the local dialects and languages. This truism applies not only to Australia-China exchanges but to other bilateral relationships. A recent article by former US Ambassador to Russia and Professor of International Studies at Stanford University Mike McFaul bears this out. Following a productive visit to Beijing earlier this year, McFaul wrote,

“We should never allow disputes of conflict based on misperceptions and bad information. Engagement and interaction help to reduce misperceptions. Even those most hard-core China hawks (a term I actually don’t like) should want, as Sun Tzu allegedly advised, to ‘know thy enemy.’ We will know China better if our government officials, scholars, and students travel there.”

McFaul does not claim that he can resolve the current difficulties in the US-China relationship. He does argue that isolation breeds distrust and that the US needs to train more China experts and that travel to China and studying in China must be part of that. The same argument applies in Australia.

Let us hope that Chinese Studies in Australia will be reinvigorated and supported by relevant government policies. This will help us to put the right foot forward when walking with China. It will also be a fitting tribute to Colin Mackerras, who this month celebrates the 60th anniversary of his first teaching stint in China.


Recommended reading:

Colin Mackerras

Asian-Chinese Studies: a glance back at more hopeful days

Katie Howe

Our great leap backward in China trade ignores China specialists

Anne E. McLaren

Australia’s crucial knowledge gaps in China expertise: Strategies for the future

David S G Goodman

China studies in crisis: Time for change

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