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The Australian National University

CIW 2011 Annual Lecture

Australia and China in the World: Whose Literacy?

Geremie R Barmé

Presented in the Great Hall, University House, The Australian National University on 15 July 2011.
Introduced by Dr Gloria Davies, Adjunct Director, CIW and Associate Professor, Monash University.


This lecture seeks to address the anxieties over 'China Literacy' in an age of Chinese economic ebullience, historical revival and national aspiration. In doing so it recalls some of the concerns of founding figures of Chinese Studies at The Australian National University, while advancing ideas related to the Australian Centre on China in the World, founded in 2010.

Watch the lecture on the University YouTube channel.
Also available as a podcast.

Introduction by Dr Gloria Davies

It gives me immense pleasure to say a few words about Geremie Barmé before he delivers the inaugural China in the World Annual Lecture, and it also gives me great pleasure to welcome Professor Ian Chubb, former Vice-chancellor of The Australian National University, an academic leader who played an instrumental role in the founding of the Centre on China in the World. Geremie needs no introduction to this audience as I'm sure we've all read some part of his impressive oeuvre of articles, books, commentaries, films, reviews, essays, and translations.

Geremie, in my view, approaches scholarship always also as a work of art and his artistry is plainly evident in the precision and elegance of his prose. His erudition, in turn, is the result of the discipline and rigor he applies in crafting his interpretations and narratives of the Chinese past and present.

In late 2008, Geremie shared with me and several others his interest in a collaborative undertaking that would facilitate the renewal of a holistic approach to the study of China. Some three years earlier, in 2005, he had written a position piece with the title 'New Sinology', in which he set out his initial thoughts about this enterprise. By 2009, Geremie had conceived of a series of inter-related projects in the humanities and social sciences that, in highlighting Chinese ways of seeing, doing and sense-making, would also probe the dangers and limitations of Sinocentrism and Eurocentrism alike. What he had in mind was audacious and ambitious—a huge undertaking that would lead to the unfolding of New Sinology as a multidisciplinary adventure. In simplest terms, this was to be an undertaking guided by an open-ended interest in the dynamics that shape the conduct of political, cultural, economic, in a word, everyday life in the Chinese-speaking world.

From 2008, Geremie called this undertaking 'organic China' and it was two winters ago that a group of us gathered at his home in Canberra to engage in a lively debate about what sense we made of 'organic China'. We shared a common intuition that it was necessary to trespass against conventionally defined disciplines to speak in more organic terms of an evolving China and indeed of the plural patterns and sensibilities that have shaped and continue to shape the multiple Chinas in existence. What we also discovered as our conversations progressed was that we shared a common resistance to unthinking uses of institutional knowledge. Our camaraderie developed out of our interest in defending human lives and human pursuits against the methods and paradigms that institutional knowledge would have them classified under. And so for us, 'organic China' became among other things a way of signaling that people must never be turned into concept-fodder.

I should note here that Geremie never intended his notions of 'New Sinology' and 'organic China' to be taken as concepts, let alone master concepts. Rather, they are terms that refer to an intellectual or critical disposition and, by 2010, as is the way with all good things, these terms had become something of a collective disposition for several of us. Quite happily, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was inspired by the promise of these terms to found the Australian Centre on China in the World.

I shall now invite Geremie to speak to you and I am sure that he will infect you with his passion as he has done to those of us who became his co-conspirators in the Centre on China in the World.



It was here in the Great Hall of The Australian National University that, on 23 April 2010, the then Prime Minister the Honorable Kevin Rudd presented the Seventieth George E Morrison Lecture. The title of that oration was 'Australia and China in the World'. Towards the end of his lecture, he announced the establishment at this university of the Australian Centre on China in the World.1

The Centre, or CIW, initiated informal activities shortly thereafter and, over the past six months, we have formally begun major work related to research and engagement with both government and the public.2 This biennial conference of the Chinese Studies Association of Australia provides an ideal opportunity for us to launch the CIW Annual Oration. For this inaugural lecture, I would like to address the subject 'Whose Literacy?'

In the opening words of his Morrison Lecture Kevin Rudd acknowledged the First Australians on whose land we meet and whose cultures we celebrate as among the oldest continuing cultures in human history. In his oration he also recounted the lineage of ANU academics who have contributed to the study of, and engagement with China since the university's founding in 1946.

It was that year, 1946, that the economist Douglas Copland (1894-1971) was appointed Australian Minister to China. Copland would later become the first Vice-chancellor of this university. In China he observed the decline of Nationalist rule along with its moral authority. He became an early advocate of establishing relations with the People's Republic of China. He also revived the Morrison Lectures, which had been halted in 1941 during the Pacific War, and gave them a new home at the recently established university. In 1948, Copland himself presented the inaugural ANU Morrison Lecture under the title 'The Chinese Social Structure'.3 He also invited CP Fitzgerald to Australia to establish the university's work on China while laying the foundations for our library's important collection of China-related materials.4

The Illiteracy of the Literate

In May this year, another diplomat, the out-going Australian ambassador to the People's Republic of China, Dr Geoff Raby, addressed a meeting of the Australian Institute of Company Directors in Beijing. The topic of the Ambassador's talk was an interrogation. It asked, 'What does it mean to be China literate?' Drawing its lessons from years of experience in China, it was also in part Dr Raby's envoi to his service in the diplomatic corps.

The Ambassador said, inter alia:

The good news, for those of us who struggle with the language, is that speaking Chinese is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being 'China literate'. To be sure, it is an immensely valuable asset when dealing with the Chinese. But to say that to work effectively with China and the Chinese one needs to speak the language is to set the bar too high. It runs the risk of deterring serious engagement.5

In many ways Dr Raby is right. Australia has had a strong trading relationship with the People's Republic that long predates formal diplomatic recognition in 1972. Moreover, many of the most incisive engagements with China over the past decades have been managed by canny business people, politicians and assiduous diplomats with scant or no background in Chinese or Chinese Studies.

In a front-page article published the day after Dr Raby's speech the indefatigable Sydney Morning Herald correspondent in Beijing, John Garnaut, detected a clear dig directed at the Ambassador's boss, the now Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, in the observation that:

To speak Chinese is not to know China. Many examples can be found of people who speak Mandarin to a high level but who do not understand how China works. They may have learned their Chinese shut up in their study reading the Analects.

The converse is also true, people can and do develop a deep and sophisticated understanding of contemporary China by being here on the ground, meeting people and building relationships.6

Kevin Rudd first encountered The Analects here at the ANU under Pierre Ryckmans, a Sinologist whose many accomplishments include an acclaimed translation of that text.7

Colleagues here today will appreciate that a grounding in the Confucian Analects may not quite be the quaintly esoteric knowledge implied by the Ambassador's remarks. After all, in 2011 the first sign of discord at the heart of the Chinese polity came when a statue of Confucius appeared on the eastern flank of Tiananmen Square outside the newly refurbished National Museum of Chinese History in February only to be spirited away again in late April. Those with even the most rudimentary awareness of the tides and eddies of Chinese history appreciate how powerfully Confucius, his works, and his reputation have featured in that nation's life and politics over the past century, including as a core element within China's much vaunted soft-power initiatives. Confucius's sudden appearance on Tiananmen and equally sudden disappearance was a clear sign that something was stirring in the Chinese capital.

Whatever the reading or misreading of Dr Raby's speech by local commentators,8 its salient points are worth revisiting. These are that for success in conducting business in China,

  • you don't need Chinese;
  • you need on-the-ground experience;
  • you should know Beijing; and,
  • you should be Anglo-Australian.

I've been told that, like me, some members of the business audience perceived within these Four Basic Principles for 'China literacy' less a sniping at our Analects-literate Foreign Minister than a personal pitch for a post-ambassadorial career in the corporate sector.

It's interesting that only a month later, this time addressing business leaders in Perth, the Ambassador emphasized the great importance of Chinese language training. As it was reported in The Australian, Dr Raby,

...lamented the lack of interest in China in local corporate and political circles, questioned the failure of schools to teach Mandarin and noted that Australia had not opened a new diplomatic office in China in 20 years.9

Two long-term and key advocates—not to mention practical activists—for 'China literacy' have worked here at ANU. One is Professor Stephen FitzGerald, formerly an ANU historian, later this country's first Ambassador to the People's Republic and subsequently a prominent business consultant and educator. Another is the leading economist Ross Garnaut, also formerly a professor here and also an Australian ambassador to the People's Republic.

In Australia the broad-based teaching of the languages (both literary and vernacular) of Asia, including, along with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese and the languages of South Asia, as well as the literatures and histories that are entwined in and expressed through those languages, have fallen into relative desuetude. For all the efforts of people like professors Fitzgerald and Garnaut as well as former Vice-chancellor Copland, we remain confronted by what Stephen FitzGerald called as early as 2002 a 'lost debate'.10

Steve was Chairman of the Asia-Australia Institute at the University of New South Wales when he made a speech about this 'lost debate'. His observations are as pertinent today as they were nine years ago. He asked, with regard to this 'lost debate', 'What did we lose? Not everything, of course':

We have the trade and the tourism and the students and the other things for which we campaigned. But we lost the debate about the way. About the way Australia, and Australia at the level of policy and foreign relations between states, and business and university relations, discovered, engaged, enmeshed, became part—with, of, in, or about—Asia. It was about—not replacing the Western, never about replacing the Western—but about making a place alongside it for Asia by broadening the cultural horizons and changing the intellectual universe of Australians.11

At the time, Michael Wesley, now head of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, worked with Steve at the Asia-Australia Institute.

In his recent book, There Goes the Neighbourhood, Michael discusses Australia's 'prosperous age' in the transmillennial decades (that is, 1990 to 2010) that has been fed by the Asian economic boom. In one of the most powerful statements in that book Wesley reiterates the sentiments expressed by Professor FitzGerald when he speaks of the 'great paradox of modern Australia':

Never has there been a greater gap between Australian society's enmeshment with the world and its levels of interest in the world beyond its shores. A country that is aware, as never before, that the rise of Asia holds the key to its future, for good and ill, has been steadily divesting in its capacity to understand and influence its regional environment. A nation that has become profoundly cosmopolitan and well-travelled over the space of two decades has, at the same time, become more belligerently self-assertive and inflexible in the face of a globalised world's challenges. When you look around at the great convergence and the coming geometries and psychology of power occurring just off Australia's northern coast, the last role you would choose to take up would be that of an insular nation. But that's exactly what we have chosen to be in the early twenty-first century.12

There is something notable in the arguments about Australia's role in Asia that run through both Michael Wesley's book and in the September 2010 Quarterly Essay by my ANU colleague Hugh White, 'Power Shift: Australia's Future between Washington and Beijing'.13 Both authors concentrate on issues to do with strategic positioning and beneficial alliances. Yet the human dimension including broader questions of cultural and other kinds of enmeshment with the countries, in particular the boom nations, of Asia are sidestepped. Stephen FitzGerald's lament for the 'lost debate' now finds only a dim echo.

Programs supporting Asian Studies and the study of Asian languages in particular were central to educational initiatives in this country in the 1980s and 1990s. But beginning with the advent of the Liberal Coalition government in the mid-1990s, they've suffered from the narrowing of national vision that has unforgivably continued under Labor governments since 2007.

This is true despite the constant, if plaintive, refrain of concerned people in government, business and education, one that states that there is a pressing need for greater emphasis on Asian language and 'cultural literacy' education in our schools.

懂中国: Understanding China

Most of you in this audience will have spent your professional lives engaged with, to use a glib shorthand, the pursuit of 'understanding China' (懂中国 dong Zhongguo). We're all familiar with the fact that Chinese friends and foes alike are quick to adjudicate whether one does or does not 'understand China'. If one shows some cynical insight into contemporary Chinese reality or accepts rather the role of complicity as a friend of China who cannily steers the way to success, one is readily praised as being a Zhongguo tong 中国通, or 'old China hand'.14 Although I would note that for many years I've also heard such people being referred to by a more down-low Beijing gutter expression: yang hunzi 洋混子, or yang hunhun'r 洋混混儿, that is a 'foreign playa who has game'.

When I first studied politics, literature, history and philosophy in the People's Republic in 1974, we were told to our faces that our status was that of 'foreign friend' (waiguo pengyou 外国朋友). You knew that behind your back you were more likely to be spoken of as a 'foreign spy' (waiguo jiandie 外国间谍), part of the Western-led capitalist conspiracy to undermine China's revolution and frustrate its progressive global ambitions. 'China literacy' (not an au courant term back then) meant, in effect, to toe the ever-shifting line of Cultural Revolution politics. You soon became inured to finger-wagging xenophobes telling you to 'adjust your attitude' (duanzheng taidu 端正态度) so you could achieve the blessed state of having an 'objective' (keguan 客观) and 'accurate' (zhengque 正确) understanding of China, its revolution and its people.

After the collapse of the High Maoist worldview, during the extraordinary era of post-Cultural Revolution rehabilitations and revivals, I lived and worked in Beijing and Hong Kong and set about figuring out how to 'understand China', 懂中国, by studying Chinese writers and thinkers of the twentieth century. My guides included Cai Yuanpei, Hu Shi, Lu Xun, Feng Zikai, Zhu Ziqing, Zhou Zuoren, Lin Yutang, Yu Pingbo and Fei Ming.15 These writers and thinkers defined their own cultural 'literacy' outside of party politics, whether Nationalist or Communist, beyond their ideological struggles and even apart from the imperial burden of the past. Some found fellowship with non-Chinese writers and thinkers as well as cultural exemplars of the late-Ming dynasty, the Song, Tang and earlier, including the Wei-Jin period and among pre-Qin philosophers. They created a particular genealogy for Chinese modernity that drew inspiration both from the best the world had to offer as well as drawing from the wellsprings of China's own humanist tradition.

I was aided in my quest for literacy in that tradition by men and women whom I met during the renaissance years that followed the Cultural Revolution. They included the translator Yang Xianyi, the artist Huang Yongyu, the critic Yu Feng, the calligrapher Huang Miaozi, the playwright Wu Zuguang, the opera singer Xin Fengxia, the publisher Fan Yong, the editor Pan Jijiong, and the literary figures Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang.16

These individuals were profoundly literate in their country's culture, politics and realities. However, at various points in their lives all of them had become 'China illiterates' who had failed to 'understand China'—as progressive and urbane as they were, they could or would not always keep up with the ever-changing demands of the party and they paid a heavy toll. But if they were sometimes, or even often on the wrong side of the party, they remain on the right side of history. Along with the oral historian Sang Ye, the historian-journalist, Dai Qing, academics like Lei Yi and Xu Jilin, outspoken irritants like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei17 and many other well-known or unknown men and women, all have taught me much about the complex realities and certain underappreciated forms of 'China literacy'.

On 9 November 1989, five months after the bloody events of 3-4 June, Stephen FitzGerald presented the Fiftieth George Ernest Morrison Lecture. His topic was 'Australia's China'. In it he focused on the illusion, so recently shattered, that there had been something unique, something even 'special', in the Australia-China relationship. Even taking into account a certain widespread Antipodean naiveté, Steve said:

...this still doesn't explain why people all over the world seem to take leave of their senses over China, and I can't explain it altogether. I've debated it with many people over the past couple of decades, and there are many explanations for this Sinophilia. It's certainly the case that, since Marco Polo, Westerners, at least have been fascinated and seduced by China....

Perhaps, he said it was a gustatory or sensual infatuation, or due to the nature of the Chinese language, architecture and art. It also, he said, had to do with what he called the 'living fossil fantasy':

[W]e see the continuity of Chinese civilization and imagine today's Chinese to have participated in the building of the Great Wall or the invention of printing, or an ignorant Chinese peasant to be some kind of Confucian intellectual.

But [the 'living fossil fantasy'] is also carefully fostered, particularly by Chinese in official positions.... Chinese have innate skills, and genius, at persuading foreigners how different China is and verbally and fulsomely rewarding them for small steps in understanding. But part of the Chinese psychology is also that foreigners can never understand China! I have known Sinologists of 60 years' experience and great wisdom to be told by Chinese officials, 'Ah, but you do not understand China', a statement delivered with a finality clearly believed to confound all further argument from foreigners. Foreigners, particularly Westerners, are thereby drawn to know more, to fully understand. And with all the wiles and wisdom of an experienced seductress, Chinese play upon the mystery, upon a theme about the alleged attributes of all Chinese, the inscrutability (which is just good acting), the delusion that all Chinese are infinitely patient (which is untrue), never lose their temper (which is wrong), are culturally superior (often the pretensions of the ignorant), are experienced, wise and temperate in matters of government (witness the Fourth of June). There is still no adequate analysis of this phenomenon, which for the time being we must take as a given, documented but not explained, the syndrome of Marco Polo.18

Soon afterwards, the Chinese party-state began elucidating the requirements for an 'objective' and 'accurate' understanding of China, specifically its guoqing 国情, or 'unique national conditions'. A nationwide campaign was launched to re-educate rebellious students and citizens alike. Then, it set about reeducating the world. We were told, collectively, that 'You simply don't understand China's unique national conditions' (ni budong Zhongguode teshu guoqing 你不懂中国的特殊国情). This is a line that

is still chimed with certainty, and stridency, by average citizens, just as leaders of the party-state employ it when addressing foreigners. Unless you appreciate, and accept unequivocally, China's 'unique national conditions' you betray yourself as lacking insight into and empathy with the mysteries of that country's tortured history and complex present realities.19

It's important to understand the officially engineered 'Chinese world view', just as we need to be mindful of how the guided Chinese media (from print to electronic) and educational practice have created what I have elsewhere called 'China's Flat Earth'.20 As people engaged intellectually with China, we particularly need to understand both the official discourse and its historical and ideological underpinnings. It is significant that today's Australian businesspeople and even the media refer fluently to the Chinese government's twelfth five-year plan: it's now widely recognised that the success of economic interaction with China can benefit directly from just such selective 'literacy'. But to get a grip on larger Chinese realities, possibilities, uncertainties and to gain insights into how the past and the present will sculpt the future, it's necessary to go well beyond simply a developing an ability to grasp party-state programs and formulations.

Translated China & Australia Literacy

During his opening address to the 2011 'China Update' here at ANU on 12 July, Sir Roderick or 'Rod' Eddington, a man with decades of experience in East Asia, remarked that he felt that while business with China has seen a boom over the last fifteen years, in terms of deeper engagement and awareness little had changed from the 1990s. He even felt that in many ways, things such as the teaching of Asian languages, ideas and culture, had, and I quote, 'stalled'.

Sir Rod suggested that as inward-bound Chinese investment increases in Australia, people will have to deal with many complex and potentially confounding issues. Ill-informed but entrenched attitudes and beliefs have the potential to generate serious friction. We had a preview of this in the media hysteria in 2009 both here and in China over Chinalco's failed bid for Rio Tinto; the detention and trial of Stern Hu, and the participation in the Melbourne Film Festival of the Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer. More recently, we have seen a similar tendency in the public discussion of the purchase of agricultural land in the Hunter Valley by Chinese concerns. More recently still, we have been faced with the prescriptive pronouncements on Australian governance and the mining tax by Chinese embassy official Ouyang Cheng and representatives of SinoSteel warning of the deterrents that lay in the path of Chinese investment in Australia.21

These are all challenging issues, requiring a sophisticated, informed, and dare I say 'China literate' response.

Sir Rod spoke of how debates in Australia easily become tinged with xenophobia. He did not comment on the fact that the same holds true in China, where the moment the opportunity presents itself, politico-commercial media outlets eagerly evoke the shadow of the White Australia Policy, the spectre of Pauline Hanson or other skeletal remains in our historical closet. Sir Rod stated his belief that as we become more enmeshed in Asia and with China, businessmen and women will need to participate in the public debate in a way that is engaged and well-informed, educated. I would venture that things will not be helped in this process if people rely too readily on what I call 'translated China', that is, a version of China's story as told, interpreted and translated exclusively by the party and its organs.

Chinese businesses, its party-state and citizens will also have to work on their 'Australia literacy'. Wealth and power are well and good, but they are not the sole requirements for living and prospering in a pluralistic world.

At a recent event organized for the Sydney Writers' Festival by our Centre on China in the World, Linda Jaivin offered her view of Ambassador Raby's Beijing speech on 'China literacy':

Geoff is a friend of mine, and I wouldn't presume to know what's best for business, but I'm afraid that on the subject of China literacy he's only half right. It's true that fluency in the Chinese language is not a sufficient condition for China literacy. But I would argue it is a necessary one. Chinese culture, politics, language and society are part of an integrated whole.

Gaining fluency in Chinese is hard, it's slow, it takes dedication and time. In this time-poor, distraction-rich world we live in, however, we tend to resile from things that take dedication and time. Isn't there an app for that? We have, I fear, become like the housewives of the fifties and sixties, mesmerised by time-saving conveniences like TV dinners and electric can-openers. Google translate, anyone? At least an electric can opener opens a can.

The inescapable fact is, to become more China literate as a nation, more of us need to put in those hard yards and learn to speak, read and write Chinese. Otherwise our understanding of China will always be structured and filtered by the agendas, biases and errors of translators and other mediators.22

Linda's remarks chime with what for some time I have termed 'New Sinology'.

New Sinology & Zhengyou 诤友

When I first spoke about 'New Sinology' in 2005,23 I was evoking a tradition of intellectual engagement and scholastic practice that dates from the Wanli reign period of the Ming dynasty in the late-sixteenth century. It reflects the view that understanding a civilization is more than merely a matter of considering a geopolitical territory or a particular governmental entity. Such a Sinology—and, yes, I know that for some people in 'China Studies' this is a dirty word—it is a concatenation of practices that have evolved over four centuries, through two imperial dynasties, the years of the Republic of China and into the present era of the sixty-two-year-old People's Republic.

New Sinology reflects and advances previous endeavors by individuals and broader communities of scholars to understand the complex living heritage of China's past, its constant presence and its relationship to humanity in general. It articulates a generous academic approach to China, and is duly aware of disciplinary boundaries and practices in the academy. It is ever mindful of the importance of the conditions of historical conciliation (that new-found rapprochement between the dynastic, the Republican, and the People's Republic eras of China). The goal of New Sinology is to understand, study and appreciate 'China' through locating itself inside the Chinese world in order to communicate what animates and inspires this world. It is attentive to the kind of detail that enables the shadows, legacies, ligatures, burdens, possibilities and constants of China's contending pasts to come to light.

As China has in recent decades become stronger and more economically confident, as parts of the Chinese world have been able to recuperate their traditions of thought, embattled cultural practices, as well as a vast corpus of literature and history as part of the articulation of a modern selfhood with a level of equanimity not experienced since the decline of the Qing dynasty, does it not behoove us also to incorporate these new trends and understandings in our study of and teaching about the Chinese world? To do so with a renewed critical clarity and thoughtfulness is part of the enterprise that I call 'New Sinology'.

Crucially, New Sinology is an approach grounded in a broad empathy that aims to bridge the gap between the accumulation of the cultural knowledge of the insider and the practice of principled intellectual engagement. This approach, empathetic yet critically independent, is in my view, vital to our studies and to this country's ability to engage with China as well. It is, in its essence, 'China literacy'.24

In April 2008, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd caused something of a stir when, in addressing a Peking University audience in Chinese, he voiced concerns about China's human rights record and the situation in Tibet even while affirming the numerous positive dimensions of the bilateral relationship. He couched his comments in terms of being a zhengyou to China, as he put it 'a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship.'25

Those who rely for their literacy of China on the translated, whose interests are confined to that which is relevant or useful but in the short term, whether it be in the sphere of business or diplomacy, need to appreciate the fact that whatever their Chinese contacts might say to their face about their ability to 'understand China', perhaps even calling them a 中国通, in the end they'll be considered at best a simple-minded, even malleable, friend. So long as things go well, everyone muddles through. But when they don't, there's no substitute for the ability to think about, engage within and contend with a China that is itself a world of complexity.

It is the environment of the university, where contending ideas are expressed, discussed and debated, that properly provides a free forum in which received beliefs and attitudes are subjected to rational analysis and discussion. Without the febrile pursuit of ideas, the healthy clash of views, paradigms and approaches, the world of the mind is but a barren landscape. I would suggest that the natural (and ideal) disposition of the university belongs to that of the zhengyou—an empathetic and engaged friend who can disagree, a trusted interlocutor, a principled partner in understanding.

Our relationships with colleagues, with students, with the various intellectual traditions of which we are custodians, and to which we are contributors, are in their essence often that of the zhengyou. We expect to be challenged: it is integral to learning and to the cultivation of the engaged, scholastic mind.

Monolithic or mono-linear narratives may suit governments—ours as well as others. But as informed, intellectually venturous and 'China literate' thinkers and educators we have the responsibility to contribute to the public debate around China, to help society as a whole become 'China literate'.

All in all the foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, has not been an unalloyed fan of ANU academics or of its China specialists. But he got it pretty much right when he wrote about Australia's present China strategy in June this year, one to which ANU has contributed:

Many commentators regard Rudd's statements on human rights abuses in China as a mistake, or frivolous. Yet they are fundamental to Australian self-respect, fundamental to maintaining civilised international order, and they are immensely important to our ally in Washington.

It is insane for Australian commentators to regard the mere fact that the Chinese government does not like such comments as proof that it is wrong to make them. Part of the great strength of Rudd's China policy is its balance. But Australia's political debate has become so polarised and unsophisticated that any balance, any internal tension, in any policy seems exotic and almost unAustralian...

Sheridan goes on to say:

Some of Australia's diplomats and officials don't always enjoy Rudd's leadership. Quite rightly he is happy to overrule them and make the big political decisions himself. And he will insert political values and the broadest strategic considerations into the China relationship whereas often they just want smooth business.26

In recent times colleagues here at ANU have noticed an important bifurcation in the understanding and discussion of China—that is the People's Republic—in this nation's life. There are those who, rightly, concentrate on the momentous significance and value of the resources boom, trade and two-way investment with China. At the same time there is increased anxiety, and not only among security analysts, about the strategic challenges of China's rise and the import of its regional military build up. There is concern that, while others may lecture Australia on the problems of its two-speed economy, we in this country may be developing a two-tiered discourse on China itself, one that may well create friction and contestation at home, let alone abroad.

As academics, we have a different perspective—or range of perspectives—from more narrow-bore pragmatists, focus-group-driven politicians, or even effective business people and judicious diplomats. My vision of our work is one that is driven by humanistic thought, by, to quote Clive James, 'its hunger, its scope, its vitality and its inner light—an inner light produced by all the aspects of life illuminating one another, in a honeycomb of understanding.'27

Some may be concerned about funding, or simply lying low and keeping safe. But we are part of a public enterprise, and we must think beyond the constricting circumstances of institutional demands. Through speaking to and through the media—print, TV, radio, electronic; through social media; through translation and commentary we can enrich and enliven the discussions about China, China in the world and China and Australia.

Our Centre wants to encourage such engagement, and to help foster new generations of students, scholars and practitioners in 'China literacy'.

Hard-won Stupidity

Hard-won Stupidity: Hard to be clever, hard to be stupid; harder still to change from clever to stupid. Miss a move, take a step back, for immediate peace of mind, not in the hope of later reward.

—Zheng Banqiao 鄭板橋 (1693-1765)28

One of the measures of our commitment to civilization is the extent to which we realize that material strength can never be more than a part of it, even if the part is essential.

—Clive James in writing about the historian Lewis Namier29

At a 1929 conference on the Promotion of Chinese Studies at Harvard University, Berthold Laufer, a German-American anthropologist and orientalist, said that he hoped that Chinese Studies in the United States would make up for some of the sterility that he felt marked the study of China in Europe. He looked forward to 'the creation of a new Humanism wider than that of the Mediterranean world.' He remarked,

A truly humanistic education is no longer possible without a more profound knowledge of China. We endeavour to advance the scientific study of China in all its branches for the sake of the paramount educational and cultural value of Chinese civilization, and thereby hope to contribute not only to the progress of higher learning, but also to a higher culture and renaissance of our civilization and to the broadening of our own ideals. We advocate with particular emphasis the study of the literature and language of China as the key to understanding of a new world to be discovered, as the medium of gaining a new soul.30

In some respects it these concerns that motivate some of the most engaged Australians in China.

Speaking recently with a businessman who has had a long-term successful career working with China, he said that China's rise should lead us to question our own values, system and behaviours. For all of us who study China this touches on something that is central to any serious engagement with the Chinese world. That is the ways in which China's presence as a country and a civilization confronts us and causes us to interrogate our own understanding of the world, our principles, our values, our intellectual trajectory.

This is the centenary year of China's 1911 Xinhai Revolution. In Linda Jaivin's Morrison Lecture the day before yesterday she noted the role that both WH Donald and George Morrison played in the early days of the first Chinese republic.31 It was a time when Australia's own relationship with Chinese in Australia was still profoundly fraught.

In his 2007 book Big White Lie the historian John Fitzgerald provides a unique consideration of the Chinese experience in this country in the decades leading up to our own moment of national transformation, Federation in 1901. It is a book that offers an account of the history of Chinese in Australia that is nuanced and complex. It is a history that has contributed in surprising and important ways to the creation of this country; it is also part story of racial tensions and exclusion that should now continue to inform our views of the past as well as understandings of the present.

Big White Lie was written at a time when specific 'Australian values' were being vaunted by politicians as being something that were, and I quote, 'a distinctive suite of national values that are regarded as a unique preserve of Australians rather than by a common set of universal values.' Perhaps today people are clearer on the point that universal values in our context retain a particular 'Australian idiom' to use Fitzgerald's expression, and that a broad embrace of them underpins in vitally important ways this society and its worldview. Among other things they include 'respect for the rule of law, democracy and the institutions of state'.32 As events unfold, the debate over values—be they national or universal—may well reappear in this country. We should similarly be aware that in the People's Republic a shrill discussion about the importance of 'Chinese values' (Zhongguo jiazhi 中国价值) over what are sequestered as 'universal norms' (pushi guifan 普世规范) has been raging in recent years. It is a discussion that will also inform attitudes towards Australia.

In the same year that Big White Lie appeared the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao published a poem entitled 'Gazing Into Starry Skies' (Yangwang xingkong 仰望星空). In it Wen wrote lyrically of the pursuit of and solace in truth, justice, vast possibilities and hope.33 As you all know, in China when you gaze skywards more often than not what you see is a pea-soup smog-mist. Just as we share a global climate, Australia shares in that particular Chinese reality. Just as we in this country value broader human values, people in China are alert to a language and disposition of possibility. It is that possibility that, I believe, can and will inform a shared literacy in the human condition.


  1. Kevin Rudd's Morrison Lecture.
  2. CIW website.
  3. On the history of the Morrison Lectures, see Barmé, 'The George E. Morrison Lectures In Ethnology'; and, Benjamin Penny, 'The Early Days of the Morrison Lecture', East Asian History, Issue 34 (December 2007).
  4. Sir Douglas Barry Copland, Australian Dictionary of Biography; see also, Gregory Pemberton, 'Charles Que Fong Lee, a diplomat who overcame racist foes', The Australian, 9 July 2011.
  5. Dr Geoff Raby, 'What does it mean to be China Literate?', 18 May 2011.
  6. Dr Geoff Raby, 'What does it mean to be China Literate?', as above.
  7. For John Garnaut's articles on the speech and Dr Raby, see: John Garnaut, 'Beijing envoy's veiled dig at Rudd', Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 2011; John Garnaut, 'Ambassador retains Rudd's backing despite dig at the boss', Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May 2011.
  8. For other responses to Dr Raby's speech, see: Brown Bomber, The Australian, 20 May 2011; and, Rowan Callick, 'Crusade for China literacy', The Australian, 21 May 2011.
  9. Andrew Burrell, 'Forward thinking needed on China, Raby warns', The Australian, 23 June 2011.
  10. Stephen FitzGerald, 'Australia's Relations with Asia: Scholars, Practitioners and the Lost Debate (Words for a Book Launch)', 17 April 2002, MIALS-Asialink Seminar, Melbourne University.
  11. Stephen FitzGerald, 'Australia's Relations with Asia: Scholars, Practitioners and the Lost Debate (Words for a Book Launch)', 17 April 2002, MIALS-Asialink Seminar, Melbourne University. FitzGerald goes on to say:

    Few have captured the rationale for this better than that scholar and sometime Australian public intellectual Pierre Ryckmans, in the Introduction to his recent great translation of The Analects of Confucius, of which he says:

    no book in the entire history of the world has exerted, over a longer period of time, a greater influence on a larger number of people than this slim little volume. With its affirmation of humanist ethics and the universal brotherhood of man, it inspired all the nations of Eastern Asia and became the spiritual cornerstone of the most populous and oldest living civilization on earth. If we do not read this book, if we do not appreciate how it was understood through the ages (and also how it was misunderstood)—how it was used (and how it was misused)—in one word, if we ignore this book, we are missing the single most important key that can give us access to the Chinese world. And whoever remains ignorant of this civilization, in the end can only reach a limited understanding of the human experience.

    This quotation from Pierre Ryckmans is from Simon Leys, 'Introduction', The Analects of Confucius, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.
  12. Michael Wesley, There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia, Sydney: New South Books, 2011, pp.123-24. Unfortunately, in what promised much in analysis and advice on how we as a country should face and respond to this profound paradox, towards the end of his book Wesley's argument inexplicably peters out. Despite the generally warm critical reception it enjoyed in the often rancorous Australian press, regardless of its tile the book was also noteworthy for making hardly any mention of our immediate neighbourhood, one which includes the Pacific nations. For those attuned to China's regional rise, one would imagine that it is the evolving situation in the Pacific that would attract the particular attention of scholars of international relations.
  13. Hugh White, 'Power Shift: Australia's Future between Washington and Beijing', Quarterly Essay 39, September 2010.
  14. See Edward McDonald, 'The "中国通" or the "Sinophone"?—Towards a political economy of Chinese language teaching', China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 25 (March 2011).
  15. 蔡元培、胡適、魯迅、豐子愷、朱自清、周作人、林語堂、俞平伯和廢名。
  16. 楊憲益、黃永玉、郁風、黃苗子、吳祖光、新鳳霞、范用、潘際迥、錢鍾書和楊絳。 See my editorial, 'The People's Republic of Wine' in the March 2011 Issue of China Heritage Quarterly (No. 25).
  17. 桑晔、戴晴、雷颐、许纪霖、刘晓波和艾未未。
  18. Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia's China, The Fiftieth George E Morrison Lecture, 9 November, Canberra: The Australian National University, 1989, pp.8-9.
  19. Geremie R Barmé, 'Strangers at Home', Wall Street Journal, 17 July 2010.
  20. Geremie R Barmé, 'China's Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008', China Quarterly, 197 (March 2009): 64-86.
  21. Daniel Flitton, 'China gives Australia lecture on trade', The Canberra Times, 7 July 2011; and, Peter Ker, 'Sinosteel joins in warning of investment deterrents', Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July 2011. For a reaction, see Rowan Callick, 'There is a danger our unbalanced trade with China will breed business resentment here', The Weekend Australian, 9 July 2011; and also Kevin Rudd's riposte, see Amanda O'Brien, 'Rudd hits back at China over protectionism', The Australian, 12 July 2011.
  22. From Linda Jaivin's speech at 'G'Day China!', a CIW panel organized for the 2011 Sydney Writers' Festival, 21 May 2011.
  23. See Geremie R Barmé, 'On New Sinology', May 2005; and, for related material, see the China Heritage Project.
  24. There were, not surprisingly, objections raised by some disciplinarians to my articulation of 'New Sinology' in 2005. Of course, as an historian I found the quibbling to overlook the history of our own work. In particular, one recalls the 1964 discussion in the United States about Area Studies and Sinology that highlighted some of the issues that I would revisit over forty years later. See, for example, Frederick W Mote, 'The Case for the Integrity of Sinology', Journal of Asian Studies, 23:4 (August 1964): 531, 533 & 534. Therein Mote, a renowned historian of China, touched on the essence of what he regarded as Sinology and which I reaffirm in my discussions of New Sinology, and I quote: is that integrality of the whole realm, or world, of Chinese studies that I think should define Sinology.
    ...Provincialisms within Sinology have been occasionally amusing or, more often, dreary; now and then they have produced glorious fireworks displays....
    ...Sinology means the study of Chinese civilization as a coherent whole. ... Be aware of the Western 'disciplines,' to be sure, but remember that they are only provinces of a larger realm, that they are provinces we have drawn on the map of China, that they are meaningless boundaries to the makers of this civilization and, in fact, that they are intrinsically meaningless in any time or place. They are no more than the particular intellectual constructs which seem to be meaningful to us at this point in our own history. Insofar as they are meaningful to us, we must use them—as tools, not as idols, or to return to our geographical metaphor, as fine lines across a map, not as the deserts and seas which mark actual divisions within the extent of Chinese civilization. I would resist most emphatically the notion that the Sinologue's sense of integrity of Sinology deprives him of or in any way interferes with his ability to focus on specific problems of any kind, much less deprive him of the capacity to think rigorously and systematically. Too often the social scientists in particular promote a groundless mystique of the higher enlightenment of their special revelations, or at least of their exclusive possession of what are in fact general virtues.

    Mote is aware that this is not a pursuit for all, or one that can produce graduates en mass. However, he says,

    ...the ideal is a viable one, and its function is indispensible, for only the larger vision can sustain the integrating capacity of the mind. That integrity is a prerequisite of integration. We can afford the luxury of training some few at least in language and literature and history and philosophy (to use our standard Western provincial boundaries). This is the minimal beginning; we must hope that such persons can then go on to acquire something of the range of knowledge and breadth of view of those same minds that produced the monuments or that are themselves the monuments to the life of a great civilization. Though it may not often be achieve, to aspire to less would flaw the whole activity that we call Chinese studies...

    Mote was writing in 1964, at a time important perhaps for the debate in the US academy, but also a crucial period for China itself. The prelude to what would become the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was being launched in the countryside, it was called the Socialist Education Campaign and, among other things such as attacking 'those in power taking the capitalist road' it also called for the 'smashing of the Four Olds'.

  25. See my article 'Rudd rewrites the rules of engagement', Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 2008.
  26. Greg Sheridan, 'Kevin Rudd's grand vision for China policy', The Weekend Australian, 6 June 2011. Sheridan says earlier in the article that:

    In his Brookings speech Rudd set out some plain political realities: 'China also attaches a fundamental priority to maintaining domestic political stability within its restrictive framework of a one-party state.
    'Tiananmen in 1989 has left a searing impression on the current generation of Chinese leaders. Hence their reaction to any migration of the sentiments associated with the current Arab Spring. Many of China's neighbours are functioning democracies of one form or another, whereas China is not, and states that it has no intention of becoming one.'
    This is not only true, it needs to form part of the official international discussion about China....
    In the Brookings speech Rudd also outlined the geo-strategic challenges of China's rise, especially the fear of many in the region that what many sense as 'an increasing Chinese foreign and security policy assertiveness' leads many to suspect that 'China is a non-status quo power'.
    Australia's geo-strategic response is multi-dimensional and sound. Apart from trying to encourage the best in China and tie it to institutions, we also prudently and sensibly recognised the challenge of its rise in our 2009 Defence white paper. We have intensified our alliance with the US and sought to strengthen the US's position in Asia, while at the same time strengthening our security interaction with India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

  27. Clive James on the French writer Jean Prévost in his Cultural Amnesia, New York: W.W. Norton, 2007, p.576.
  28. Translated by W.J.F. Jenner in Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds., New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, 1992, p.439.
  29. James, Cultural Amnesia, p.541.
  30. Berthold Laufer, quoted by Mortimer Graves in Promotion of Chinese Studies, American Council of Learned Societies, Bulletin 10, April 1929. See Paul Daniel Waite and Peichi Tung Waite, 'China Christian Colleges and the Founding of the Harvard-Yenching Institute', in Daniel H. Bays and Ellen Widmer, eds, China's Christian Colleges: Cross-Cultural Connections, 1900-1950, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, pp.263 & 364n121.
  31. Linda Jaivin, 'Morrison's World', the Seventy-second George E Morrison Lecture, 13 July 2011, to be published online by China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 27 (September 2011).
  32. John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2007, pp.234-35.
  33. 温家宝,《仰望星空》:

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