Photograph of Nicholas Jose in Celestial Empire exhibition
Recording date:

Professor Nicholas Jose reflects on Eric Rolls' research of China's centuries-old relationship with Australia and his own experiences as a researcher, writer and former cultural attache in Beijing.

Supported by Elaine van Kempen.

Transcript of 2016 Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture: Gifts from China

Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Professor Nicholas Jose (N)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 20/03/16

K:         Good afternoon. Nicholas and I have been having a lovely chat out the back while you’ve been gathering but we thought it was time we should share it with all of you. For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favelle, I’m the Director of Community Outreach here at the National Library, and thank you all for joining us this afternoon. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we work and we live and I thank their elders, past and present for it for us over many thousands of years.

It’s a great pleasure to welcome you to this year’s Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture and to another of our Celestial Empire public programs. Celestial Empire, Life in China, 1644 to 1911 would not be possible without the support of a tremendous group of partners. It’s been an extraordinary collaboration and one that continues for us through until the 22nd of May.

First and foremost I thank the National Library of China for sharing their extraordinary collection with us and with all of you. I hope that you’ll take the time to visit the exhibition this afternoon again if you’ve already seen it or for the first time if you haven’t. I thank our many partners, Shell in Australia, Seven Network, Wanda One Pty Ltd, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels, the ANU Australian Centre for China in the World and Asia Society Australia for their generosity. I thank our government partners, the Australian Government, for support through the National Collecting Institution’s Touring Outreach Program, the Australian China Council and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra.

Today we’re here for the Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture, which of course is named in honour of the great writer and historian, Eric Rolls. Eric was born into a western New South Wales farming family in 1923 and he began telling stories in public at five years of age. He ended up of course being a prolific writer publishing 21 books and hundreds of journal articles and newspaper features. Most significantly, Eric was recognised by his peers as the doyen of Australian nature writing. He was patron of the Watermark Literary Society, and mentor for the Society’s biannual fellowship for an emerging writer. Many of you though will know that of course he had a very deep and long interest in studying the relationship of China and Australia and it’s that that we’ll hear some more about today.

The National Library is blessed to be the custodian of Eric’s personal papers and the Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture has been made possible by the generosity of Eric’s wife, Elaine van Kempen, who’s commemorating his life and work through the lecture and also continuing to champion the storytelling that he loved so well. Elaine is unable to be with us today, but she’s delighted that our lecturer is a treasured friend, Professor Nicholas Jose of the University of Adelaide. 

Nicholas himself has a long history with China. His great-great-grandfather was a missionary to China in the 1890s, the diaries and letters of his forebears served as inspiration for his 1989 novel, Avenue of the Eternal Peace. Nicholas taught at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and East China Normal University in Shanghai. He served as cultural counsellor to the Australian Embassy of Beijing from 1987 to 1990. Nicholas’ own publications include the 1997 novel, The Custodians, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize, he’s General Editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature and his essays and articles have appeared in an array of publications from the Times Literary Supplement and Meanjin to anthologies and exhibition catalogues.

Nicholas is a past President of International PEN Sydney and has been a member of the Australia China Council, the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts and the Big Book Club. He’s currently a board member of the Australian Experimental Art Foundation and Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. We’ll have some time for questions at the en,d so let’s join together in welcoming Nicholas Jose for the Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture.


N:         Thank you, Kathryn, and hello everyone. Thanks for having me here today. The occasion of my visit is this superb exhibition, Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644 to 1911 which I’ve just been looking at it. I mean it’s truly superb, curated by Nathan Woolley. It draws on the collections of the National Library of China and the National Library of Australia. And going to the title of my lecture today, ‘Gifts from China,’ it is a gift–giving of the highest order, made possible by a relationship between two institutions that’s been built with care and commitment over many decades. There can be no more important outcome of the connection between China and Australia than the sharing of such treasured records of human achievement and the understanding it enables. Later I’ll talk about the work of Eric Rolls, especially his two volume telling of what he calls the ‘epic story of China’s century old relationship with Australia,’ as a substantial contribution by an individual to understanding a particular local area of that human activity. It’s an honour to be invited to speak in association with the exhibition and in memory of Eric Rolls, an author I admire and a man whose company I always enjoyed, and so special thanks to the National Library for getting me here today, Kathryn.

As cultural councillor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987 to 1990 I had the relationship between the two libraries as one of my responsibilities. The library relationship was sustained with professionalism, determination and growing trust on both sides and the mutual benefits were many. The libraries were partners in a globalising world at a time of rapid change and saw the importance of their role as portals to information about each other’s societies and cultures. They were laying foundations for long-term research and ultimately deepened understanding. I regarded the libraries as perhaps our best relationship. Piggybacking on the friendships the National Library of Australia had developed, we in the embassy relied on the National Library of China for help and support in all sorts of ways in those turbulent years of the late 1980s. And I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank on the record those involved back then especially the National Library of China’s Director at the time, Mr Du Ke and his colleagues including, to name two, my friends, Ms Quao Ling and Mr Li Zhiliang.

Andrew Gosling has written about the National Library of Australia’s China program acknowledging his predecessor, Sidney Wang, who worked here developing the Asian collections from 1964 to ’85, 21 years. And Geremie Barmé has similarly paid tribute to the related role of Y S Chan at ANU’s Menzies Library. Andrew, who you can see there, led the Australian delegation to the opening of the National Library of China’s new building in 1987. And that photo, of course, comes from Trove. And just a passing blessing on Trove and all those who are fighting to protect Trove, one of our great national achievements. Andrew notes that in these years, the 1980s, the NLA’s Chinese language collection doubled in size. So that partly shows you how relatively recently and rapidly these things have developed. All of us now are beneficiaries of these distinguished scholar librarians I’ve been mentioning.

Among the cultural councillor’s other duties was to advise on gifts: what to give, what to do with gifts given. Well that’s a role that has stayed with me. I can’t remember how many times over the past 30 years I’ve been asked about appropriate gifts to give to Chinese. Does this happen with other countries? Probably not to the same extent. It betrays an awareness of protocol and an anxiety about getting it right or clumsily, disastrously wrong. A consciousness that gift exchange might have a special significance in a Chinese context. I remember some argy-bargy about these stone lions that were presented as a bicentennial gift intended for Canberra’s new parliament house, where you can see them today if you can find them. And then there were the pandas, another bicentennial gift that was more like a rental arrangement. That panda is actually in the Adelaide Zoo, not the Melbourne Zoo where the bicentennial pandas went.

But usually this happens at a more personal level, people ask what should I give to acknowledge my appreciation of the wonderful time I’ve had in China, where hospitality has been extended seemingly well beyond the call of duty? How should I reciprocate what I’ve received? Where does the exchange end? It’s an investment in a future relationship as much as a marker of what has already passed. The nervousness can be disproportionate, responding to a notion that Chinese concern with such things, with ritual, with face can be unpredictable. We tie ourselves in knots over the question of Chinese gifts as they link to substantial matters of reciprocity and the maintenance of guanxi, or networks of connection, of which the gift object is symbolic token. In this game the Chinese have a huge repertoire of things Chinese to play with. The Australian side is more limited, toy kangaroos and koalas ... hopefully not made in China ... tea towels and drink coasters of native flowers and birds, red wine, Indigenous art, signifiers of sincerely cherished aspects of our place.

It can be annoying. On a recent visit to Shanghai I was called on at my hotel at breakfast on the last day by a prospective student. I was all packed and ready to go, travelling light as I like to do. I was presented with a commemorative book from the student’s venerable university with each historic photograph made in thick 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, perhaps to benefit someone else. I felt bad, of course.

I travel with little notebooks in which I record things, and on this day I had a complicated itinerary of transferring with my bag from place to place, car to car and somewhere along the way as I only realised when I got back to Australia I had lost my all-important notebook of the trip. I put a call through to the hotel and someone went to check my room which was the last place I remembered actually seeing that notebook. They returned to the phone pleased at having what I had lost, the luxury commemorative book weighing 10 kilos that I had deliberately left behind. Did I want them to arrange postage at my expense? Well it was no substitute for the notebook which I never saw again.

But 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 lofty, whereas I as a traveller had no room for it and as a writer placed far more importance on my scribble-filled notebook. The story also illustrates the chain of events, a karmic chain in which giving and receiving takes place.

Jacques Derrida has written beautifully about this 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 closed off 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 or how far we want to go with it or whether it’s in our control or out of it with invisible strings attached that we get nervous. An English phrase for this, beware Greeks bearing gifts, recalls the gift of the wooden horse by which the Greeks got inside 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 grown into a kind of farcical panic exemplified by the recently revealed gift of a Rolex watch that has been the undoing of an Australian politician. It’s a nice example of the dangers of gifting. Real or fake, trinket or trap, either way generosity given or received can turn toxic. ‘Beware Chinese billionaires bearing gifts’, ran the headline of the Fin Review report.

Chinese gifts typically take the form of objects. Australian anxieties about China attach to the objects that money can buy: a mansion on Sydney harbour, a high-rise development in Melbourne, a port in Darwin, a vineyard in the Barossa Valley, a potato farm in Tasmania, a cattle station in the outback.

But Chinese themes are also vehicles for ideas and that’s what I’m interested in today. China’s gifts to humanity famously start with a list of four things: paper, gunpowder, printing and the compass. Yet these things, these four great inventions are also the tangible manifestation of ideas. These days I sometimes wonder what I have got from more than 30 years’ involvement with the Chinese world. What gifts have I been given? I can tally up a list of material benefits, full disclosure as to how many banquets, how many teapots and silk ties, how many things. But that’s superficial; a deeper answer comes in the form of ideas or forces of a more abstract kind that I have been shown in action, that I’ve come to understand, that have changed me. Those are the things I value most in what China has given me.

Concepts from Chinese language and thought that have become part of my way of experiencing the world. Ideas embodied in art, behaviour, relationships, people. Scale, flow, continuity, change, connection, loyalty, sincerity, courage. That’s more than four. These operate throughout Chinese life and Chinese world views with distinctive often moral meanings. Not the same as the western versions as denoted by the English words for them that I’ve just used, even sometimes the opposite. The recognition of their presence and power involves expansion and complication, a rearrangement of mental furniture in consequence of which there is change.

Change is one of the largest and most pervasive of Chinese ideas. It comes with the force of a gift in its own right as named and explicated in one of China’s foundational books, the I Ching, the Book of Change. Its most recent translator, John Minford, calls it the Chinese book, but also teasingly says that there is ultimately no book out there, no reader in here. The book is you, the reader, as you interact with it. In that sense you are the book. Well, that’s some gift.

The power of change is everywhere present in the thinking and practice that drive China, that constantly disrupt it too, moving so often in contrary directions. The capacity to live with change, to demand it or resist it is connected to those other Chinese ideas I have named including the courage I have witnessed in so many Chinese people in so many different situations. Ranging from the student who gets on a plane to Australia as an utterly unknown destination and destiny through to the Nobel Peace Prize winner who passes his days in Chinese detention as a reward for his intellectual fearlessness. Such courage has a moral dimension, but it’s also a gamble. It can express loyalty to a higher potential or affiliation with the nobler values of Chinese tradition. A struggle for change that serves the kind of continuity whether in personal relationships or the individual assertion of virtue.

And to say this is less to remark Chinese cultural difference than to accentuate the broader human civility to which China belongs and to which China has so greatly contributed, the shared humanity, to quote Geremie Barmé, on which any broader intellectual and cultural engagement must rest. Our challenge as Australians in understanding China and our relationship with the Chinese world is to find our way to that.

For me the ideas, the qualities I mention have been demonstrated by people I’m fortunate to have known either personally or through their works. Many have contributed to the flow that joins China and Australia. Many of them are Chinese of course but on this occasion I just want to highlight the gifts from China that come in the form of a particular subset of non-Chinese people whose scholarly and creative work has deepened our understanding. They came to Australia as outsiders after their time in China and life wasn’t always easy for them in either setting. I’m thinking of people like the artist Ian Fairweather, who came to live on Bribie Island, the historian C P Fitzgerald, the photographer Hedda Hammer-Morrison [? 23:04] and her husband, Alistair, author and collector. And Pierre Ryckmans who often wrote as Simon Leys. All of those last lot came to Canberra.

These figures all knew China. They didn’t always like China, but in another way they loved China. This is a subtle business. In the philosophical tradition that derives from Plato knowledge and love are close together, knowing the true and the good means loving the true and the good. The idea lives on in the popular song, to know, know, know you is to love, love, love you and I do. Something similar applies to the gifts these knowing lovers have brought from China, a phenomenon about which I have written indirectly in my short story called Loving China. To quote Simon Leys in the foreword to Chinese Shadows back in 1976, ‘it confesses a certain human experience’. If I can help the reader to realise to what extent we do not know China I shall have accomplished a tremendous feat.

So now let me turn to a writer who found China in Australia and whose gift to us is that story. In 1992 Eric Rolls published Sojourners, the first instalment of a massive work he called Flowers and the Wide Sea: the Epic Story of China’s Centuries–old Relationship with Australia. The second instalment, Citizens, appeared four years later in 1996. There’s Eric. And there are the books. Together they total more than 1,100 teeming pages. The volumes are the product of an extraordinary labour of love on the part of the author, and an unusual degree of commitment from the publishing house, University of Queensland Press. In the preface to Citizens, Rolls writes ‘the books tell a story that fascinated me for the 29 years I worked on it. In these books I set out to bring two disparate arrogant races to life so that their outlandish behaviour towards one another would be understandable. Without the Chinese Australia would be a lesser country.’ Rolls’ purpose is to reveal and pay tribute to the Chinese contribution to Australia, his focus is on interaction, his aim is understanding. It’s worth paying attention, again now I think, as the alarm sounds about the next chapter in Australia’s story with China, friend or foe, and Australia’s capacity to know what we’re doing.

Rolls starts by looking back. ‘For one thing, without the Chinese it is unlikely that we would now hold the Northern Territory. Until Chinese diggers made goldmining pay, there were suggestions that this wondrous stretch of country should be sold to relieve the insupportable costs of upkeep.’ How that resonates with the Northern Territory government's recent lease of the port of Darwin to Chinese investors after chronic lack of investment from Canberra. Rolls goes on, ‘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 30 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’ve received no recognition since.’

Those compelling words placed the Chinese within the larger history of the development of modern Australia, making them central to both mining and agriculture, among our most important industries, as China is still strong today. Writing near the time of the 1988 bicentenary, Rolls looks back across a century of Chinese exclusion from Australia and Australia’s sense of identity to that previous century to 1888 in which Chinese played a formative role. That expanded reorientated scale allows a different picture to emerge. He credits the skills, knowledge and experimental determination of Chinese people, the gifts they brought for much of what we have become.

Why Eric Rolls? He was born as we’ve heard in western New South Wales in 1923 and grew up on a farm. He was a farmer all his life as he was also a writer all his life. He died in 2007. In Rolls’ work the writing and the farming come to be inseparable, or if not the farming specifically then the human interaction with the land in Australia for good and ill. Among his most acclaimed literary works are the two environmental histories, They All Ran Wild in 1969 and A Million Wild Acres in 1981. The former an account of pests in Australia, especially rabbits, the latter subtitled, 200 Years of Man and an Australian Forest, a loving regional history of the country he knew best. Each book is eccentric, unlike anything else and both are classics now.

One hallmark of Rolls’ work is the wide-ranging inquiry into both large and small that results in a digressive yarning roundabout way in an illumination of how things work. Another is the sheer poetry of his prose, by which I don’t mean any high-flown quality, but his writerly skills with rhythm, shaping, irony and the telling image. As a farmer–poet, his struggle between acres and words was a source of creativity, writes John Griffiths. Les Murray’s accolade, Peasant Mandarin, might have been coined for Eric Rolls, a scholar who was close to the earth. A Million Wild Acres prompted Murray’s great essay on the importance of nonfiction in Australian literature. It’s called ‘Eric Rolls and the Golden Disobedience.’ For Murray, idiosyncratic nonfiction of this kind draws on vernacular telling, anecdotal and unreliable as that may be. To imagine real things in live writing ecologically and articulates some part of our deep experience as a people.

By the time Rolls got to the year 1888 in his research of They All Ran Wild, he tells us he found that what was being written about the Chinese in Australia was so much more violent than what was being written about the rabbits. It was 1968 then and he was looking for another large subject. Something must have been in the air in that period when the White Australia Policy was gradually being dismantled, as his editor, the poet Douglas Stewart, apparently had the same idea at the same time for a human history of the Chinese in Australia. Rolls’ eyes were opened to the Chinese presence in country he knew well. Ecologically, perhaps, the shift from rabbits to Chinese had its logic. Rolls’ probing mind went to the difficult association of diverse people as a central question. The fundamental question it might almost be of Australia if Aboriginal Australia is also in the frame. Rolls came to Canberra to consult with historian, C P Fitzgerald, who encouraged him in this larger project of history writing. It was a kind that others were not doing.

Years later when Rolls was in China in 1983 still researching, Chinese officials said that they expected the book to make the two peoples understandable to one another, a polite hope perhaps and an indication of the work’s ambition. You must fit Chinese into world history as well as into Australian history so the book is in balance, they told him. And that included fitting Australian history into European and American history too. It required both the largest possible frame and, as Rolls warns, the detail which brings the people involved to life. What he intended ultimately was ... let’s quote from him ... ‘a work of literature’, ‘a work of literature’. And that’s what we have. Or rather, a species of disobedient anti-literature, its form and manner deriving organically from Rolls’ macro and micro perspectives and his enthusiasm for the material he finds. He writes, ‘I could hardly believe the information coming in and I marvelled that it should be there to be used for the first time.’ That’s because no one had looked in this particular way before, with such connective curiosity. ‘It takes time to grow a people,’ Rolls explains, ‘and the Chinese moved in a vast scale.’

So the books are organised chronologically starting with the Chinese trade through the seas to Australia’s north, from the Ming dynasty and earlier, and conclude in the early 1990s when Australia lifted the sanctions imposed on China after Tiananmen. But that’s only part of the architecture. They’re arranged thematically at the same time, with sections on work, food, medicine and belief indicating continuity of practice across time and around the country varied according to circumstance but always interacting with a wider white Australian society, often through its laws, showing the continuity of prejudice too. Everything I learnt about the Chinese led me in a different direction, Rolls writes, even as he endeavours to draw everything together in holistic overlapping circles, restlessly centrifugal, insistently centripetal. His argument for the integral inextricable Chinese shaping of Australia in ways that were scarcely visible for having been erased, misunderstood or ignored when the author started out. The two books work together as a compendium, you can read one long rich section on its own, such as the 90 page third chapter of part two, ‘Filling Niches: Chinese at Work.’

Our country is a very big story, says the narrator in Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria, hinting at the daunting multiplicity of an imaginative creation that seeks to encompass the full, tragic–comic reality of continuous existence on the conceptual frontiers of Australia. I’m reminded of Wright’s novel as I watch Eric Rolls at work. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Alexis Wright is herself part of that Chinese story with Australia, acknowledging her Chinese forebears through her Indigenous ancestry. She discovered recently through her Chinese translator that her maternal grandfather’s name is Xu from Guangdong province.

The racialisation of the Australian state derives in one part from laws and practices aimed at restricting and removing the Chinese, and in the other part from laws and practices aimed at restricting and removing Aboriginal people. These originally racially-based determinations worked together as a consequence of the triangulation of racial categorisation, black, yellow, white, Indigenous and sojourning Chinese collaborated sometimes, which is another big story that is only now being told.

The fulcrum of Rolls’ work is the year 1888 when anti-Chinese feeling started to organise. Book one ends with a chapter called ‘1888: the Division between Sojourners and Citizens,’ and book two begins with chapters called, ‘The Build-up to White Australia, 1888 to 1900’ and ‘1900: Federated Intolerance.’ The historical scaffolding explains events that are a source of emotion in Rolls’ writing, pain, anger, a sense of shame, indignation at folly. Those feelings provide an undercurrent to the appreciation of things Chinese that runs through the book leaving the author into many a delight-filled digression.

The final chapter of Sojourners, in Rolls’ laconic rhetoric, is one of the best takes I know on the impact of white Australia. This is how it goes: ‘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 us down again in the same position, as an awkward slab of Europe.’ He begins slyly, with a story about the discovery of rubies in a difficult spot east of Alice Springs and a speculative frenzy, which Chinese wanted to be part of too, or at least business interests who wanted to bring in Chinese in large numbers to do the mining. That quickly became the problem. ‘Australia’s red heart was really glowing and nobody was prepared to share its light with Chinese’, says Rolls.

The Northern Territory was run by South Australia then which had shown little interest in it. ‘The fabled hoard of rubies seemed the one thing wanting to waken South Australia’, Rolls quotes. He has fun listing the names of the 24 companies that set up in the frenzy, Excelsior Ruby Company, Great Matrix Ruby Company, Oriental Ruby Company, Rosella Ruby Mining Company and so on. But fearing a glut, the London market—with some dubious assaying—downgraded the speculative rubies to garnets and the excitement was over. The feared 500 Chinese miners whose alleged importation to the site had ignited virulent white Australian nationalism were never given a chance to see what they might find.

In a beautiful passage that is entirely characteristic of his method Rolls and his wife, Elaine, in 1987 drive in to see the ruby field that the Chinese never got to. He describes it with both a poet’s and a captivated geologist’s eye. The great cliffs are translucent amber with patches of pink and crimson. Higher upstream as the water swirls freely ‘round bends before the walls confine it it deposits stones. The pebbles glint, they sparkle, they roll with colour. Individual stones present themselves. One might be walking over spilt chests of treasure. Rubies, emeralds by any other name.

Chinese numbers in Australia were not great in 1888 though they were concentrated in certain areas and roles where they performed perhaps too well. In the Northern Territory they outnumbered the Europeans significantly, but both groups were insignificant compared to the Aboriginal population if it had been counted. In the Chinese case the incapacity of Australian authorities to identify individuals speaks eloquently to the larger failure of humanity and colonisation. A memo to the Victorian Premier at the time quoted by Rolls puts this in language reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.

There appears to be no means of proving that the person presenting the naturalisation paper is identical with the person to whom it was issued and that even if the officer is satisfied as to the genuine character of the paper he may not be satisfied that the person presenting it is the person to whom it was issued. Not only do all Chinese look the same, they substitute the false for the true, they trade in multiples, their names casually transliterated into English by unknowing scribes morph from one version to another and their identity cannot be fixed. Encapsulating a well-worn stereotype the worry expresses the frightening idea that the Chinese have no identity, they’re ghosts, monsters, apart from human norms. How ironic that this is also how the Chinese have seen foreigners for centuries, as devils. It’s human to fear the stranger, it’s also human to move beyond that fear and welcome the stranger in.

The last chapters of Citizens are ‘1900 to 1975: Australia, Adolescent and Irrational’ and ‘Modern Times and Some Maturity.’ Rolls keeps his pulse on developments in Australia and the Chinese world, particularly the People’s Republic, and concludes with a degree of hope, historically informed. I don’t know what he would add by way of postscript if he were here today to observe China’s status as a major economic force and geopolitical power, a leading trade and investment partner for Australia, a growing source of capital and human flow, a complicating factor in our existing American and regional alliances. Perhaps the key is to be found in the middle sections of part two, ‘Filling Niches: Chinese at Work,’ ‘Building Lives under Difficulties’ and ‘The Men Who Bridged Cultures.’ Here the emphasis is on individuals, families and communities rather than states, and the theme is creative adaptation. Rolls charts the wide variety of activities undertaken by Chinese across Australia, starting from gardening and agriculture and extending to fishing and mining, shopkeeping, transport and trade of every kind. ‘For 70 years from 1860,’ he writes, ‘thousands of Chinese worked on farms and stations in a long, broad strip of country from western Victoria up into central Queensland, ringbarking, clearing, tank-sinking, wool-scouring in gangs of 20 to 500. Chinese found ways to make themselves useful in most areas of life, partly by doing what was needed, partly by doing it differently.’ As Rolls explores in admiring descriptions of how ingeniously Chinese irrigate. In Gympie, for example, where an extraordinarily complex system of horse, whim, pulleys and buckets was used to haul water over the high banks of Eel Creek into fluming on 3m poles. His larger thesis is that the Chinese worked symbiotically in the colonial economy.

‘The making of furniture in Australia was a Chinese triumph’, writes Rolls. Its solidity and price delighted buyers and outraged European joiners. But Chinese industry had made them a target by the end of the 1840s and as more immigrants arrived from Britain the move to protect white Australian jobs gathered steam. The Chinese were excluded even as by 1891 they supplied almost 20 percent of the workers in Australia. What was demonised as the evil of Chinese competition could be understood on a different scale as a demonstration of Chinese cultural superiority. By superiority I mean such things as the resilience and support of their community and clan ties, and their lifelines back to China, long-remembered practices of adaptation and ingenuity as both farmers and merchants, the non-elite classes who came to Australia. The sustenance of continuity in food, in belief, in script, in values, importantly the latter with powerful moral understandings of law, of consent and contract, of justice when wronged. We’re hampered in discussing these questions as Rolls is by the limits of the language we use. Australia, China, Australians, Chinese, western, eastern. Such words need careful handling and specification. They’re almost always used in ways that blur distinctions and misrepresent or mislead and I’m conscious that my own generalisations here risk doing that too when what I’m trying to express is an interaction and understanding that transcends the binary opposition, whether racial or cultural, of us and them at which Australia failed at a crucial point in our history.

In his discussion of Chinese Australians in white Australia in his book Big White Lie, historian John Fitzgerald articulates this conceptual difficulty. 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. And that takes some unpacking and particularly if you introduce Aboriginal Australia into the discussion.

So Rolls’ project is quixotic, as history it’s unorthodox, unconcerned with the conventions of professional scholarship and uninterested in the kind of theoretical enquiry that later cultural historians would bring to such material. In part this comes with the territory; oral accounts reproduce gossip and hearsay and can lead to confusion. The written Chinese record when it can be located is not directly accessible to the non-Sinophone researcher. Inevitably there are mistakes. Through this prism some of the effects of the same binary that the author is trying to go beyond are reproduced. In China the style might be recognised as wild history, playing fast and loose and ranging widely. Here my feeling is that the work stands as a monumental marker on a particular road rather than an invitation to follow, to engage, to challenge, to revise. Not many have followed in Rolls’ footsteps which is a pity because again a certain kind of silence is perpetuated.

Chinese ideas inscribed and embodied in everyday life and exchange are at the heart of Eric Rolls’ epic vision. As these ideas materialise in myriad actions and transaction they become Australian ideas too, literally shaping the country as they have the power to continue to do, the idea of a Chinatown at the heart of our major cities, for example. The idea of flow so integral to Chinese philosophy made concrete in the many instances still in evidence of ingenious water management where Chinese have worked the land in Australia. That’s a photograph that Elaine van Kempen took of a dam near Longreach, as one example.

Rolls’ idiosyncratic gathering extends to an ethnographic meditation on Chinese erotic behaviour and what he calls the flow of brush and tongue, a section on literature and the arts that brings us close to the present with discussion of the writer, Sang Ye, on the left and the artist, Guan Wei, on the right as well as the performer photographer, William Yang, whose own work carries on Rolls’ project in a different medium.

I was present at the launch of Sojourners in the Chinese Garden in Sydney where Gough Whitlam did the honours. It was a memorable occasion. The garden, of course, is itself a gift from Sydney’s sister city, Guangzhou, for the bicentenary year, marking the long history of especially southern Chinese in Australia. With Whitlam present, who’d established diplomatic relations between Australia and the PRC, and the long-awaited appearance of Eric’s book, the event epitomised the phase of Australia–China relations marked by optimism, commitment and perhaps a degree of naiveté when distance made the heart fonder rather than familiarity breeding contempt. In that context Rolls’ long view back and his forward prospect represent the attitude of a different yesterday.

Carrillo Gantner, who was my predecessor as cultural counsellor in Beijing, has recently argued that Australian cultural engagement with China has gone backwards over the last 20 years or so and that it matters. 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 and coal? That was in 2014. Perhaps most important is the failure of leadership at the very top, Gantner suggests. In a similar vein, Stephen Fitzgerald who accompanied Whitlam to China, concludes his memoir, Comrade Ambassador, by saying,

but we had a chance, a change 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. We’d lost much of that animosity and suspicion and the condescension and patronising and sly disparagement and we’d long shared white Australia. 

From Fitzgerald’s perspective our political elites have turned away from that challenge. Just this week that sobering view was reinforced by a report from The University of Melbourne’s Jane Orton that estimated that current number of proficient adult speakers of Chinese in Australia of non-Chinese background is 130 at most and half of those are already over 55 years of age. Stephen Fitzgerald is one of them, and I’ve mentioned a couple of others in this talk. We’re all of a certain age, products of a generation and a moment, and I look to the relatively few young scholars I can see in the audience to take over this work in future. And to return to where I started, the exhibition downstairs is a superb example of what creates the kind of deep understanding I’ve been talking about.


At the launch, Whitlam praised Rolls’ bush carpentering, that’s how he referred to the book, quoting Edmund Campion’s review in The Bulletin. Ironically The Bulletin had been the anti-Chinese megaphone a century earlier. Where Campion called it a large and generous kind of bush carpentering that never lets you forget the man who put it together. It’s a fitting description for this particular gift from China, constructed from Chinese and Australian ideas and materials, a compliment to a certain complicated kind of endurance by the author, by the people he writes about, by his readers and one hopes the continuing constructive interrelationship of Chinese ideas and Australian realities. So thank you, I’ll leave it there.

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