By Geremie R. Barmé
Australian Centre on China in the World
Director, China Heritage Project
The George Ernest Morrison Lecture series was founded in 1932 by Chinese residents in Australia. It was, in their words, 'to honour for all time the great Australian who rendered valuable service to China.' It is easy to forget now that the lecture series not only commemorated Morrison—well known for his work on China and, among other things, for his acute observations on Japan's imperial ambitions in that country—but also that they were related to Chinese-Australian resistance to White Australia, reflecting also the alarm and outrage resulting from Japanese attacks on China in 1931. It was also hoped that the lectures would contribute to the cultural relations and understanding between the two countries at a time of heightened international tension and suspicion. The early success of the foundation was due in particular to the efforts of William J Liu (1893-1983) a politically active Sydney businessman, former managing director of Australia-China Mail Steamship Line (1917-24) and vice-president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in New South Wales, and William Ah Ket (1876-1936) a Melbourne barrister known for his public resistance to Australian racism, leaders, respectively, of the Chinese communities in those cities, assisted by a number of interested Australians. The Chinese Consul-General, W.P. Chen, who gave the inaugural as well as the fourth lectures, also provided timely assistance to this pioneering enterprise. Later, following the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, the Chinese Ambassador in Canberra would also lend support.
From its inception, the Lecture series was associated with the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra where, of the first ten lectures, all but one were delivered in May each year. This annual event was interrupted by the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1942, and the Morrison Lecture Series might never have been heard of again but for two fortuitous happenings: the founding of the Institute of Advanced Studies, the newly-conceived academic institution that provided substance to the new Australian National University, and the advent of Sir Douglas Berry Copland. This New Zealand-born economist-guru, academic and civil servant, upon completing his assignment as Australia's first post-War Ambassador to China, was called upon to assume the foundation Vice-Chancellorship of the new institution. Whether he had anything to do with the currency of a jocular description of the new institution as the 'Australian Institute of Advanced Studies of New Zealand', he was certainly responsible for reviving the Morrison Lecture. The first address he gave, in 1948, marked the re-foundation of this series of lectures, sponsored henceforth by the ANU. Mindful of the unprecedented changes and turmoil which he had personally witnessed taking place in China, Copland persuaded C P Fitzgerald of the British Council, whom he had met in Peking, to come to Canberra to join the new university, entrusting him with an investigatory tour of universities and centres in Asia, Europe and America where teaching and research on China and East Asia was being undertaken. This resulted in the creation of the Department of Far Eastern History within the Institute's Research School of Pacific Studies.
This chain of events brought to the Morrison Lecture a new intellectual and international character, as visiting scholars from various countries were invited to contribute, interspersed with local speakers. There would doubtless have been many more distinguished speakers had the available dates for delivery not been restricted by term- and exam-times of students, who have always been encouraged to attend, not to mention the limited stays and tight schedules of many of the potential lecturers. The permanent scholarly contribution to the series would also have been greater if all the speakers had been able to submit a written text for publication. Therefore, it is with great regret that we will never have the texts of Wang Ling's 'Calendar, Cannon and Clock in the Cultural Relations between Europe and China,' Fang Chaoying's 'The Great Wall of China: Keeping Out or Keeping In?,' Eugene Kamenka's 'Marxism and China,' Tuan Yi-fu's 'Chinese Attitudes to Nature: Idea and Reality,' Jerome Ch'en's 'Peasant Activism in Contemporary China,' Lord Lindsay of Birker's 'China and the West,' and the offering of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. But even then, the speakers so far represent no less than fifteen nationalities in double that number of disciplines.
The annual Morrison Lecture is organised by a committee of ANU colleagues from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.