Gifts from China

The big story of Sino–Australian relations

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A VISITOR TO China will often hear about the four great inventions that China has given the world: paper, gunpowder, printing and the compass. Then sometimes there is a question: what else has China contributed to humankind? And then another question being asked with increasing concern as China grows in wealth and power: what will China give the world in future? I want to consider those questions from a personal point of view. It’s more than thirty years since I first visited the People’s Republic of China, and longer since my first introduction to the Chinese world. I ask myself: what has an engagement with China over half a lifetime given me?

I approach the matter by noting the anxiety that many Australians associate with China and gifts. When I was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing long ago, from 1987–90, my work covered exchanges of many kinds –in education, the arts, sport and miscellaneous other things that often included gifts. What to give? What to do with gifts given? I can’t tell you how many times over the years since then I’ve been asked about suitable gifts to take to China. Does this happen with other countries and cultures? I suspect not quite to the same extent. The anxiety about gift exchange in a Chinese context reveals an awareness that gift giving has special significance and a fear of not getting it right. Etiquette is Confucian, and therefore confusing: a sign of cultural difference. I remember some argy-bargy about the stone lions that were presented as a bicentenary gift for Canberra’s new Parliament House in 1988, for example, where you can see them today, though not quite where they were intended to be. Then there were the pandas, another bicentenary ‘gift’ that was more like a rental arrangement, a kind of animal diplomacy that continues today with Wang Wang and Fu Ni in the Adelaide Zoo, under pressure to reproduce.

The National Museum of China in Beijing includes a display of items presented to Chinese leaders by foreign officials, described as ‘State Gifts: Historic Testament to Friendly Exchanges’. In this game the Chinese have an unrivalled repertoire of ‘things Chinese’ to play with, often laden with symbolic meanings. The Australian side is more limited – toy kangaroos and koalas (hopefully not made in China), tea towels depicting native flowers and birds, Indigenous art, red wine: signifiers of sincerely cherished aspects of our place.

Usually, though, gift giving happens at a more personal level. What should I give in recognition of the hospitality I’ve enjoyed in China? How should I reciprocate when it exceeds all expectations? Where does the exchange end? A disproportionate nervousness responds to a view that Chinese concern with ritual and face is itself disproportionate. We tie ourselves in knots over the gifts that we hope will maintain the guanxi, or connection, of which the gift exchange is a symbolic token. We Australians are not always very good at reciprocity. Worrying about what to give is often a case of sweating the small stuff, while not paying due regard to the bigger picture, the longer-term two-way interaction.

Of course gifts can be annoying. On a recent visit to Shanghai I was called on at my hotel at breakfast on my last day. I was all packed and ready to go, travelling light as I like to do. A prospective student had come with a commemorative book from his university in which each historic photograph was in bronze relief. It weighed more than the rest of my luggage put together. Politely I took it, but when I checked out I decided I had no option but to leave it behind in the room, hoping it might be of benefit to someone else. I felt bad, but I didn’t want to lug the thing and pay the excess baggage.

I travel with little notebooks in which I record things. On this day I had a complicated itinerary, transferring with my bags from place to place, car to car. Somewhere along the way I lost my all-important notebook. The hotel room was the last place I remembered actually seeing it. I put a call through to the hotel and someone went to check. They returned to the phone, pleased at having found what I had lost: the luxury commemorative book weighing ten kilos that I had deliberately left behind! Did I want them to arrange postage, at my expense?

I tell the story as a reminder that the value people place on things is relative and relational; the giver had regarded the book with bronze plates as appropriately prestigious, whereas I, as a traveller, had no room for it. As a writer, I placed far more importance on my notebook full of jottings. The story illustrates the chain of events, a karmic chain, in which giving and receiving take place.


THE PHILOSOPHER JACQUES Derrida has written beautifully about this in Of Hospitality (Stanford University Press, 2000), in relation to hospitality as a kind of giving, including the absolute hospitality of openness ‘to the foreigner…to the…unknown, anonymous other’. Such openness should not be curtailed by the kind of reciprocity that draws a line across the balance sheet. It must go on. Derrida says that the true gift ‘must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange’. Every gift comes as part of a never-ending web of human interconnectedness.

It’s when we’re not sure if we want the connection, or are uncertain of its terms and conditions, that we get nervous.

An English phrase for this – ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’ – recalls the gift of the wooden horse by which the Greeks infiltrated Troy, the city of their enemy, and destroyed it. It warns us to be suspicious of gifts. In the case of China, now, from an Australian perspective, that nervousness has intensified. Beware the Rolex, or the offer of help with your telephone bill. ‘Beware Chinese billionaires bearing gifts’, as the headline runs.

Australian anxieties about China attach to the things that money can buy: off-the-plan apartments, waterfront mansions, infrastructure, land… But Chinese things are also vehicles for ideas. So when I think about what I have been given in my years of involvement with the Chinese world, I can quickly tally up a list of material benefits – full disclosure as to how many banquets, how many teapots and silk ties, how many dongxi (literally, ‘east-west’), the wonderful Chinese word for ‘thing’. That’s all superficial. A deeper answer comes in the form of something less tangible: Chinese concepts as expressed in behaviour, relationships and creative exchange. These are moral and aesthetic notions that become ways of doing and being – for me, as well. I think of what China has given me in terms of ideas and people, another four gifts: scale, change, courage, humanity.

First, scale: China is a large and populous country with a long history. At the same time there is an appreciation of the smallest of things, such as an intricately carved piece of jade, a dumpling, a grain of rice, or a grain of rice inscribed with classical text. To consider history and geography from a Chinese perspective is, as an Australian, to experience an altered scale of duration and extent. Australia is large in area, too, but different, less populated, and ‘girt by sea’. The duration of its Indigenous civilisation is immemorially long, perhaps 75,000 years at the latest dating – longer than anything in China. It was my time in China that made me see Australia from this changed perspective. The mayor of Darwin back then was an Australian of Chinese heritage whose family remembered when Aboriginal people and Chinese people made up the great majority of the population of the Northern Territory. This provided a way of thinking about Australia that extended my horizon.

Then there is change. This may be the largest of all Chinese ideas, a force in its own right as it is named in one of China’s foundational books, The Book of Change or I Ching. In his recent translation, John Minford calls it ‘the Chinese book’, but adds that there ‘is ultimately no “book” out there, no “reader” in here… The book is you, the reader…you are the book.’ Millions of readers have consulted it for more than two thousand years and continue to do so online today.

The power of change is everywhere present in what drives China – but it brings disruption too, moving so often in contrary directions. My first visit to China was in 1983. For a year in 1986 I taught as a foreign expert at Beijing Foreign Studies University. When I visit the same place today, I feel like Rip Van Winkle, an old man returning from a long sleep to find that things have changed beyond recognition. The Friendship Hotel where I used to live has been renovated with marble and gold, and crystal chandeliers. Only the basic structure remains the same. Beijing has grown rich in the intervening years, and trade with an economically expansive China has brought wealth to Australia, too. That demonstration of the possibility of change is one of the things I have learnt from China, and I salute those visionaries on both sides who saw that potential and helped make it happen.

Such change is inseparable from its opposite, continuity. That too depends on your perspective, your scale. It has been achieved with boldness and hard work, a human triumph with human cost. The capacity to live with change, to demand it or resist it, is connected to courage – the courage I have witnessed in so many people in so many different situations in China. They range from the student who gets on a plane to Australia as an utterly unknown destination and destiny, to the Nobel Peace Prize winner who ended his days in Chinese detention as a reward for his intellectual fearlessness. Such courage has a moral dimension. It is also a gamble. It has other names: aspiration, stubbornness, determination. It can express loyalty to something higher, an affiliation with the best values of Chinese tradition, whether in personal relationships or the assertion of virtue. It is not always easy to know how to respond.

To say this is to underline the human civility to which China belongs and to which China has greatly contributed – the ‘shared humanity’ on which any ‘broader intellectual and cultural engagement’ must rest, to quote the words of Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé. I am fortunate to have known many people whose works are gifts from China in themselves. Most are Chinese, many of them contributing to the flow that joins China and Australia: scholars, researchers, writers, artists, entrepreneurs. For now I want to identify a few of these individuals who came to Australia as outsiders after a time in China, who knew China and loved China and struggled to communicate that understanding. One of them, Simon Leys, says tellingly of his work, ‘if I can help the reader to realise to what extent we do not know China, I shall have accomplished a tremendous feat.’ That is his gift from China.


LET ME START with a historian. His name is CP Fitzgerald. He was born in London in 1902, spent the years 1923–50 in China, and lived in Sydney until his death in 1992. He established the Department of Far Eastern History at the ANU and wrote many important books on Chinese history. Towards the end of his long life, in his memoir Why China? (University of Melbourne Press, 1985), he blames the ‘terrifying cruelty’ of his Christian schooling in England for driving him to seek an alternative way:

It may be that this outlook, formed early, was an underlying cause of my attraction to China and the Chinese people… [In terms of religious belief, China had] three options, which were tolerantly defined as ‘three ways to one goal’. A goal is an aspiration, not an attainment, and may never be reached. This seemed to me an objective approach to the problems of life, worth examining: it still does.

From a position of contrarian open-mindedness, Fitzgerald loved the wisdom he found in China. His message is insightful. He valued the tolerance he experienced in Chinese people, which includes the capacity for living with goals that may never be reached completely.

Another foreigner who came to Australia after a period in China was photographer Hedda Hammer Morrison, born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1908. She spent the years 1933–46 in China and died in Canberra 1991, overlapping with CP Fitzgerald in both places. Part of her contribution was to respond creatively to a Chinese world that was being transformed by historical events. With her husband, Alastair Morrison, son of an earlier Australian in China known as ‘Morrison of Peking’ (1862–1920), she sought to share her understanding with others, including, eventually, Australian friends and colleagues. She remains a celebrated modernist photographer of China and her work continues to be widely reproduced in China and around the world. You can now view many of her photographs online at the Harvard-Yenching Library website.

Meanwhile, artist Ian Fairweather was living on Bribie Island, off the coast of Queensland. He was born in Scotland in 1891 and was in China from 1929–33, and again from1935–36, overlapping with Fitzgerald and Hammer Morrison. He then moved to Brisbane, where he lived until 1974. Fairweather studied Chinese and later published a translation of The Drunken Buddha (UQP, 1965), a favourite text. Chinese images and ideas recur in his work as he seeks a creative synthesis, going beyond the confines of Western art. Fairweather is a great Australian artist because his art connects to the Asia-Pacific region with an alternative modernism and, in doing so, opens a way to the future.

By 1970 Pierre Ryckmans had moved to Canberra. Born in Brussels in 1935, he visited China in 1955 and worked in parts of Greater China from 1958–70. Writing under the pseudonym Simon Leys, he asked: ‘Is there a Sinologist alive who does not feel in exile when he is away from China?’ That’s the position from which he worked for most of his life.

In 1994 Ryckmans praised Ian Fairweather’s ‘amateurism’, a quality he appreciated in terms of Chinese aesthetics. ‘Only the art of the [amateur] is deemed to possess true value…[involving] the totality of the human person,’ Ryckmans wrote. That certainly turns things on their head. As always, Ryckmans emphasises ‘a certain human experience’ in his writing, a Chinese-style appreciation.

You may have noticed that the four China-knowers I have mentioned were all migrants to Australia. Maybe that was part of their contribution. Each was in his or her way a translator, and each offered something that did not otherwise exist before they came along. Australia’s sense of identity as a society or a nation has not always allowed sufficiently for China’s part in the story, which is a story of movement across the large, geographically and culturally varied region of which Australia is one part.

To this cluster of givers to Australia from China, then, let me add one more. Wang Gungwu, a historian who was born in Surabaya, Indonesia, in 1930. He grew up and studied in Malaysia, became Professor of Far Eastern History at ANU in 1968, and was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong from 1986–95. He has published many books about the Chinese diaspora and received many awards. In the context of Australia, his particular contribution is to have understood the relationship between China and Australia in terms of the sojourning of Chinese through South-East Asia, even before the European invasion of Australia, and also before and apart from the People’s Republic. Again turning things around, Wang Gungwu’s linking of Chinese-Australian history with regional history and diasporic Chinese history helped Australians rethink their place in the world in the last quarter of the twentieth century. His legacy remains important today.

It has taken time for the history of Chinese-Australia to be written down and become fully visible, as if there has been resistance to the emergence of an alternative, inclusive, narrative. The difficulties have no doubt been practical, but they have been conceptual also. We are hampered by language and terminology. Australia, China; Australians, Chinese. Western, Eastern. Such terms can blur distinctions, misrepresent or mislead. There is always the problem of transcending the binary opposition, whether racial or cultural, of ‘us and them’. Australia has failed to do this at crucial points in our history.

In a discussion of ‘Chinese Australians in White Australia’ in his book Big White Lie (UNSW Press, 2007), historian John Fitzgerald articulates the problem. ‘The challenge,’ he writes, is

to embed Chinese-Australians in Australian history to the point of demonstrating that Chinese-Australians were so unequivocally Australian that so-called anti-Chinese attitudes were not anti-Chinese at all but anti-Australian, even in White Australia.

It’s a complicated thought that needs further unpacking in terms of Indigenous Australia.

To conclude, let me name one more figure who made a significant contribution to understanding the historical relationship between China and Australia. He is the Australian-born writer and historian Eric Rolls. With the encouragement of CP Fitzgerald and Wang Gungwu, Rolls found China in Australia. His two volumes, Sojourners (UQP, 1992) and Citizens (UQP, 1996), tell ‘the epic story of China’s centuries-old relationship with Australia’. They total more than eleven hundred pages. That is his gift from China. ‘Without the Chinese,’ Rolls writes, ‘Australia would be a lesser country.’

For one thing, it is unlikely that we would now hold the Northern Territory. Until Chinese diggers made gold mining pay, there were suggestions that this wondrous stretch of country should be sold to relieve the insupportable costs of upkeep.

He goes on enthusiastically:

The beautiful north Queensland city of Cairns owes its existence to the Chinese storekeepers who stayed there after Europeans abandoned it for Port Douglas. Chinese vegetable growers saved the goldfields from a disaster of scurvy and later, by producing three-quarters of the vegetables eaten in Australia for the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, they probably saved the whole country. For years Chinese cooks and gardeners improved life on stations all over Australia, even in the remotest areas. Chinese fishermen introduced the first fresh fish to towns and cities both on the coast and inland; in Queensland Chinese farmers grew the first rice, maize, peanuts, pineapples and bananas and demonstrated what could be done with these crops. They received no thanks while they were doing it, and they have received no recognition since.

Researching his classic environmental history They All Ran Wild (Angus & Robertson, 1969), Rolls found that ‘what was being written about the Chinese in Australia [in the late nineteenth century] was so much more violent than what was being written about the rabbits’. For him ‘the difficult association of diverse people’ was a central theme – perhaps even the fundamental question of Australia, with Aboriginal Australia also in the frame. Chinese officials told him, ‘you must fit Chinese into world history as well as into Australian history so the book is in balance’. That included fitting Australian history into world history – European, American – and encompassing Chinese history in a new way, from a different perspective. It required an adjusted scale.

Writing about the lead-up to White Australia, Rolls writes with his characteristic laconic hyperbole:

The events of 1888 are improper and improbable. They engross one like a farce on a broad stage that sometimes slips into uproarious melodrama. The effect on Australia was dramatic: 1888 is the most dubious year in our development. It finally lifted us clean out of Asia where geography placed us and laid as down again in the same position as an awkward slab of Europe.


ROLLS EMPHASISES THE creative adaptation of individuals, families and communities across Australia as Chinese people found ways to make themselves useful, partly by doing what was needed, partly by doing it differently. ‘The making of furniture in Australia was a Chinese triumph,’ Rolls writes. ‘The earliest Chinese [furniture] manufacturer with a recorded name and address was Sang Tim, who set up in Leigh Street, Adelaide, in 1842 and moved to Currie Street in 1846.’

What was demonised as ‘the evil of Chinese competition’ could be understood, on a different measure, as the effective negotiation of a niche in the emerging society. Resilience and community support, with lifelines back to China, and the sustaining continuity of food, belief, script, practices and values were part of this, including a powerful sense of justice when wronged.

As Chinese ideas materialise in actions and transactions they become Australian ideas, shaping the country. In some places their ingenious water management is still in evidence where Chinese worked the land in Australia.

Rolls’ discussion looks to the future by mentioning creative figures such as the writer Sang Ye, the artist Guan Wei, and the photographer-performer William Yang, whose creative ideas show us ourselves and our history in new ways. Rolls’ own creative knowing came through his experiences as a working farmer as well as an author. The historian Tom Griffiths imagines him ‘wrestling with words and acres’. The environmental histories that Rolls produced have been widely influential, yet the unorthodox Chinese-Australian history that occupied the last three decades of his life stands as the marker of a road less taken. It is happening now, perhaps, as the pioneering work of Shirley Fitzgerald, historian of Chinese Sydney, is built upon by new generations of scholars in a pattern that is starting to be repeated all over the country. It is seen in the work of historians Kate Bagnall, Mei-fen Kuo, Sophie Loy-Wilson and literary scholar Wenche Ommundsen, to mention just a few.

Australians are more aware of China than we were a quarter of a century ago, and that familiarity has brought more complex attitudes, ranging from complacency to anxiety, defensiveness and even contempt. Carrillo Gantner, my predecessor as Cultural Counsellor in Beijing in the 1980s, has argued that ‘Australian cultural engagement with China has gone backwards over the last twenty years or so.’ Does it matter? He thinks it does. ‘Who is thinking of the understanding that is necessary between our peoples if we are really to enjoy a relationship that is enriched by knowledge…not just made wealthy by iron ore and coal?’ Gantner asks. Stephen Fitzgerald, who accompanied Gough Whitlam to China in 1971, concludes his memoir Comrade Ambassador (Melbourne University Publishing, 2015) in a similar vein: Australia ‘had a chance… A chance to make a significant breakthrough in Asia, with recognition and acceptance as one of them. We’d shown we actually could go around the other side of the curtain and see ourselves and the world from their point of view, without compromising our political system or values or beliefs.’

That seems less likely now. Anti-Chinese sentiment has been a strand of Australian life for a long time. It recedes, morphs, takes new forms. Historian David Walker is one who shows how this virus reproduces itself in his book Anxious Nation (UQP, 1999) as well as in subsequent writings. With the success of waves of migration from the mid-1970s on, including a sizeable influx of Mandarin-speakers in the late 1980s, many of whom were granted refugee-status after Tiananmen in 1989, xenophobia towards the Chinese seemed to have faded. Chinese migrants have not generally been included in the hostility towards asylum seekers in recent years. Yet very quickly, in a matter of months, attitudes to China itself have turned negative. It becomes harder to distinguish anti-China from anti-Chinese, especially when so much of the Chinese population in Australia is from the People’s Republic. Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion (Hardie Grant, 2018) is a widely promoted expression of this fear. Hamilton sees the Chinese Communist Party at work in Australia. That should come as no surprise. The CCP rules the People’s Republic of China, and the PRC is engaged with Australia at every level. What is a surprise is that Australia should have let slip its capacity to engage back in an informed, balanced and sophisticated way. If Australia lacks expertise in this area at the highest levels in Canberra, as insiders claim, whose fault is that? Not China’s. But those skills won’t be easy to develop – in government, business or the wider community – if Australian universities go cold on China and lose confidence in their ability to develop the holistic understanding that is necessary. In his presidential address to the Australian Academy of the Humanities last year, John Fitzgerald made China a proxy for the diminution of academic freedom that has come with increased managerialism in corporatised Australian universities. It is a fretful message.

If we still have a chance, I believe that it starts with what Eric Rolls understood: that China and Australia have been linked for a very long time. China is here to stay, and so are we. ‘Our country is a very big story,’ says the narrator in Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria (Giramondo, 2006), hinting at the scale of the imagination needed to grasp the full, continuous existence of Australia in time. Wright is a Waanyi woman from the highlands of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, and an award-winning writer. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that she is also part of that Chinese story with Australia. Last year, in connection with a meeting of Chinese and Australian writers in Guangzhou, I travelled with her to a village a few hours’ drive away where her Chinese great-grandfather might have come from, journeying by water to the Gulf of Carpentaria at the turn of the twentieth century.

The racialisation of the Australian state derives in one part from laws and practices aimed at restricting and removing Chinese people, and in the other part from laws and practices aimed at restricting and removing Aboriginal people. These racially based determinations worked together in our history. As a consequence, Indigenous Australians and sojourning Chinese came together, in another big story that is slowly being recognised.

What does history look like from a Chinese-Australian perspective? What is the emerging creative space of China-Australia? These are questions for universities to research, especially practitioners in the humanities, social sciences and the arts. Perhaps we need a new kind of intellectual furniture-making. At the launch of Eric Rolls’ Sojourners at the Chinese Garden in Darling Harbour in Sydney – another Chinese gift – in 1992, Gough Whitlam praised Rolls for his ‘bush carpentering.’ That’s how his history was put together, constructed from Chinese and Australian ideas and materials, unorthodox, original, a bit wobbly but still standing. We could do with more of that.

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