Doubtless at Forty 四十不惑

Forty years ago, on 2 December 1972, a Labor government led by Gough Whitlam was elected in Australia. The following day, the new government announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The address below was written on the invitation of the Australia-China Friendship Society in Canberra. It was presented at the Celebration of the Fortieth Anniversary of Australia-China Diplomatic Relations organised by The Federation of the Chinese Associations of the ACT 澳大利亚首都地区华人联合会, an event held at the Hellenic Club Woden ACT on 20 November 2012. Due to time constraints on the night, only a short excerpt of this speech was given. The full text is offered here on the eve of the change of government and of the anniversary of the formal bilateral relationship.—Geremie R. Barmé, Director, Australian Centre on China in the World


Two decades ago, in 1992, an old friend of mine, the Beijing-based film director Li Shaohong 李少红 released a movie called ‘Doubtless at Forty’. Named Sishi buhuo 四十不惑 in Chinese, its title was immediately recognisable to audiences as it drew one one of the most famous (and clichéd) quotations in the Confucian Analects.

The Master, Confucius, a paragon of studious diligence, is recorded as having said:


At fifteen I was determined to study; at the age of thirty my method was established; at the age of forty my mind was free of doubts; at fifty I understood the workings of Heaven; at sixty my ear was trained to understand the Way; and, at seventy, I could do as I pleased, confident that I would not transgress.

Today, Shaohong is best known for her recent (2010), and controversial, adaptation of the Qing-era classic, the novel Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦. But, back in 1991, she filmed me and my then wife, Linda Jaivin, looking distractedly into a shop window on the southeast corner of Chang’an Avenue and Taiji Chang in central Beijing. Our passing glance and gestures were caught in a movie about middle-aged contentment. It starred Li Xuejian 李雪健 and Song Dandan 宋丹丹 and told a story about that age in life when people should no longer be doubtful about their place in the world. In 1992, Linda and I were both a few years short of buhuo zhi nian 不惑之年, that is our fortieth year. By then, we were perhaps even further from being ‘free from doubt’ than we had been in our twenties.

In early December this year, we mark the fortieth anniversary of the normalisation of relations between Australian and the People’s Republic of China. It has been an extraordinary four decades in which the relationship between Australia and the People’s Republic of China has flourished. It has been forty years during which, I’m proud to say, I have been closely involved with the intellectual, cultural, scholastic and even policy exchanges between our two countries, and the Chinese world.

Following the recognition by Australia of the People’s Republic in December 1972 upon the electoral victory of a Labor Party government led by Gough Whitlam, one of the many initiatives that marked this new and important stage in the history of relations between Australia and China was the establishment of a student exchange program. As Chinese students – now such a major aspect of our university and social life – came to Australia, numbers of Australian students went to study in China. I was in the second group of students involved in that early exchange program and, from 1974, that is thirty-eight years ago, I studied at universities in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang, Liaoning province. It was in the latter years of the Cultural Revolution era and in the days the preceded the opening up and reform policies initiated by the Chinese government in December 1978.

Shanghai street scene, 1975. Photograph by Darrell Dorrington

Later, I would live in Hong Kong during which time I still travelled frequently to Beijing and other Chinese cities where the deeper history of my own friendships in China truly began. For I was invited into the home of the famous translator Yang Xianyi 杨宪益 and his wife Gladys, and I would stay with them whenever I was in the Chinese capital.[1] Then, from 1977, as the literary and arts world gradually revived following long years of trauma, I was befriended by now such legendary figures as the playwright Wu Zuguang 吴祖光, the opera singer Xin Fengxia 新凤霞, the calligrapher Huang Miaozi 黄苗子, arts writer and essayist Yu Feng 郁风, the painters Huang Yongyu 黄永玉, Hua Junwu 华君武 and Fang Cheng 方成, the scholar Qian Zhongshu 钱钟书 and his wife Yang Jiang 杨绛, the publisher Fan Yong 范用, as well as other editors, journalists, writers, film-makers, translators and creators of various backgrounds, and of different generations. These were people of talent and of principle, friends who inducted me into many of the living realities of modern China, as well as into the abiding legacies of China’s past. They also taught me a great deal about the ideals of friendship related to China in the world.

It is not surprising that I was drawn to this diverse world of Chinese letters – literature, art, philosophy and culture. After all, I had initially been educated in Chinese Studies here in Canberra at The Australian National University by such towering academic figures as Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁, a noted specialist in the Taoist canon and on Confucian thought (as well as being a celebrated novelist and playwright) and Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys, one of the greatest essayists and scholars in this country, widely celebrated also in the Francophone world). Even before my university days, I had initial encounters with the Chinese literary and political traditions, and that was in my early teens.

The essayist and translator Lin Yutang 林语堂 was a celebrated interpreter of China during that country’s war with Japan in the late 1930s and 1940s. My mother was one of the countless readers who heard of Lin during the Second World War, and she read his popular The Importance of Living, now known once more in China under the title Renshengde yishu 人生的藝術. It was a book that I read in the first years of high school, followed shortly after by the powerful biographical trilogy of Han Suyin 韩素音.[2] Han died only recently, at the age of ninety-five. Although I never met Lin Yutang – he passed away in Taiwan in 1976 – I was introduced to Han Suyin by Gladys and Xianyi in 1978.

Before I return to Lin Yutang, I’d like to say a few more words about this fortieth anniversary year. This is a year that is being celebrated in diverse ways. This gathering here in Canberra is of particular significance for those of us who live and work locally, but also who think globally and try to act regionally.

Cover of the running order 晚会流程, for the Fortieth Anniversary Celebration, Canberra, ACT

It is a piquant pleasure for me to be able to address you this evening. You see, it is nearly four decades since I first addressed the Australia-China Friendship Society in Canberra in 1976. It was the northern summer break and I had my first time home from China in some years. It was also at that time that, following a guest talk about studying in China at ANU a young, rather conchy student of Chinese by the name of Kevin Rudd introduced himself to me. See, you never know what kind of trouble you might get into when you agree to give a lecture!

As you know, Kevin and I would later work together to create the research group that I now run. It is at ANU and it is called the Australian Centre on China in the World 中华全球研究中心, or CIW for short. Our Centre was announced in 2010 and it has been active since 2011. In our own modest way our nascent Centre has also been marking the four decades in the Australia-China relationship. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the details of those activities with you:

  • In February this year, as part of an on-going collaboration with the leading Beijing think tank, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), we published Australia and China: A Joint Report on the Bilateral Australia-China Relationship. The Joint Report was launched by the Australian Ambassador to the People’s Republic, Dr Frances Adamson, with Dr Yang Mingjie, Deputy Director of CICIR at Capital M, that extraordinary Australian-run restaurant at Qianmen in Beijing that overlooks Tiananmen. For your reference and reading pleasure, that Joint Report is available in downloadable PDF form on our Centre website at:;
  • In July, we co-hosted a visit to ANU by an old friend, Professor Ezra Vogel of Harvard University. Ezra is acclaimed for his work on East Asia and in recent years his is noted for his extraordinary study of the political career of Deng Xiaoping;
  • In August, Dr Ken Henry, head of the ANU Public Policy Institute and chair of the committee that compiled the recent government White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century, launched our The China Story Project website and our inaugural China Story Yearbook. Again, this material is available online at:;
  • In September, Professor Emeritus Wang Gungwu from Singapore gave our Second Annual CIW Lecture titled ‘China’s Choices’;
  • In October, we began marking the government’s Asian White Paper through a series of analyses and essays published online in The China Story Journal;
  • In early November, we published a keynote address written for our centre by Dr Stephen FitzGerald, our first ambassador to the People’s Republic. The title of Steve’s speech is ‘Australia and China at Forty: Stretch of the Imagination’, and I recommend it to you;
  • Last week, we co-sponsored with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade the Second Australia-China Forum in Beijing, hosted by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA); and,
  • Tonight, I am presenting my own far more modest reflections on forty years.

Through these publications, website, talks and forums we aim to contribute in our own way to the deepening and expanding relationship with the People’s Republic and the Chinese world. Ours is an engagement based on rigorous academic standards, strong international collaborations, innovative, publicly accessible research and the training of upcoming scholars and specialists with a focus on China and the global significance of the Chinese world.

In the introduction to our February 2012 Bilateral Report, I wrote:

In its earliest days the Australian Centre on China in the World initiated a collaboration with one of China’s leading think tanks, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). From first contact, we emphasised the desire for frank dialogue, not a dialogue premised on talking past each other, but rather to be in exchange with each other. We were thinking of the kind of frankness essayed by [the former Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd in April 2008 when, during an address to students at Peking University, he spoke of the particular amity displayed by a zhengyou ( 諍友/诤友), ‘a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship.’ Elsewhere zhengyou has been described as ‘an empathetic and engaged friend who can disagree, a trusted interlocutor, a principled partner in understanding.’

Now, many of you may be aware that zhengyou has been a controversial term in the bilateral relationship between Australia and China since Kevin Rudd used it in 2008. Today, I repeat the term, not only because of its importance in the creation of our Centre, and its role in our intellectual demeanor, but also because I believe that it is important to discuss zhengyou in the context of Australia’s relationship with our broad region and in the context of our alliances.

In ‘Stretch of the Imagination’, Stephen FitzGerald covers a range of issues involving the bilateral relationship, as well as the tri-lateral situation we now have involving this country, China and the US. Among other things, he pointedly remarked that:

There is now serious contest and rivalry across the Pacific between America and China. This is not good for Australia. It’s not our contest, the American national interest in this contest is not our national interest, and taking the US side is not necessary to our relations with the US. This is not to argue that we shouldn’t have a close relationship with the US, or that we should side with China, or ditch a client relationship with the US only to have one with China. We need a close relationship with both and a client relationship with neither. It’s to say we have absolutely no national interest in being a party to this contest…

You may be aware that this is a sentiment shared by my ANU colleague Hugh White, author of two major works on the subject of Australia-China-US relations. It is also reflected in articles and speeches by such diverse figures as the politician Malcolm Turnbull and former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser, not to mention others.

You may also recall that shortly after US President Barack Obama gave his now famous ‘pivot towards Asia’ speech at Parliament House here in Canberra last November, the Global Times in Beijing published an article provocatively titled ‘Australia Could be Caught in Sino-US Crossfire’. Although the title was pointed, the message of the article was noteworthy. The author wrote:

Apparently, Australia aspires to a situation where it maximizes political and security benefits from its alliance with the US while gaining the greatest economic interests from China. However, Gillard may be ignoring something – their economic cooperation with China does not pose any threat to the US, whereas the Australia-US military alliance serves to counter China.

Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached no matter what Australia does to undermine its security. There is real worry in the Chinese society concerning Australia’s acceptance of an increased US military presence. Such psychology will influence the long-term development of the Australia-China relationship.

Australia is nimble at navigating between great powers. We believe Australia has the wisdom of dealing with the US-China game and guarantee its own prosperity and security.[3]

Like many of my mentors, elders, colleagues and friends, I too am concerned that in the future this country not place itself in what I would call the arena of ‘friendly crossfire’ between China and the United States. This is where the term zhengyou comes to mind, for it is not only in the interest of independently minded people to offer principled comment on Australia-China relations, it is equally important to enjoin frankness and clear-vision when dealing with our trans-Pacific partners.

Earlier, I mentioned a formative cultural paragon of mine: the writer, editor and translator Lin Yutang. In the May Fourth-era writings and activities of Lin, that is in the 1920s, we find a mixture of progressive politics and principled patriotism. He was also a man enamoured of the Chinese tradition – be it poetry, essays or art. For a time he was one of the most celebrated interpreters of Chinese culture and society to the English-speaking world. Later on and for many years he was criticized in the People’s Republic for his more conservative politics. However, in the last two decades, actually from about the time that Linda and I shared a cameo appearance in Li Shaohong’s ‘Doubtless at Forty’, his work has been celebrated once more as China reconnects with its complex traditions in new and creative ways.

In the 1930s, Lin Yutang spoke about the difficulties of reconciling his stance as a person with an independent cast of mind and progressive inclinations with the different political and strategic pressures placed on him as a prominent public figure. He asked, where could the individual who chose to have their own voice find a sympathetic hearing at a time of increasing contrasts, an age in which people were called upon to take one side or another in politics, in the arts and in the contest of ideas?

Of course, we live in a different age entirely. Nonetheless, ours too is a time in which the tangle of economics, politics, social change and geopolitics confronts thoughtful individuals, groups and governments.

The Australian Centre on China in the World acts not only to engage in independent and rigorous research on China and to discuss its global presence, but also to appreciate and study the complex realities of Australia’s relationships, and not just with the People’s Republic of China. We support the concept of being a principled friend, zhengyou; but it is a kind of robust friendship that needs must extend in all directions.

Friendship comes in many modes and moods, from the instrumental to the emotional. Today we celebrate the first four decades of a new era in the relationship between Australia and China. Much lies ahead in the decades to come that involves us all, and that will involve those who come after us. And we celebrate not only a China that is in northeast Asia, but the presence of the Chinese world in what makes up contemporary Australia as a story in its own right with a history of over a century and a half.

Here I would recall once more Confucius’ own life journey. For as the Master said:

…at the age of forty my mind was free of doubts; at fifty I understood the workings of Heaven; at sixty my ear was trained to understanding the Way; and, at seventy, I could do as I pleased, confident that I would not transgress.

It is my hope that the complex multi-dimensional and ever expanding relationship between Australia and the Chinese world will not take three more decades to move towards that happy accommodation of which Confucius spoke in his old age.

Dazhai People’s Commune 大寨人民公社, summer 1977


In May 2010, we marked the four hundredth anniversary of the death of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci 利玛窦, a great cultural savant of China. Ricci was an Italian missionary from Macerata who, in his autumn years, lived in the Ming-dynasty capital of Beijing. He was one of the first noted Westerners to pursue an empathetic appreciation of China and its scholarship, a body of knowledge called Hanxue 漢學 known to us as ‘Sinology’. It is no coincidence that one of Ricci’s noted contributions to that early contact with the Ming official and culture elite is his Chinese-language treatise titled simply Jiao you lun 交友论, ‘On Friendship’. In conclusion, allow me to quote from Ricci’s treatise:


What sort of age is this – this age of ours? Smooth words beget friendships. Direct speech begets resentment.[4]

It is my hope that direct speech on all sides will beget deeper, more meaningful, and truly lasting friendships.



[1] See ‘Wine (jiu 酒) and Commemorating Yang Xianyi 杨宪益’, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 25 (March 2011).

[2] Han Suyin’s autobiographical trilogy: The Crippled Tree (1965), which covers the years 1885 to 1928; A Mortal Flower (1966), which spans the years 1928-1938; and, Birdless Summer (1968), which goes up to the end of the Republic of China in 1948.

[3] ‘Australia Could be Caught in Sino-US Crossfire’, Global Times, 16 November 2011.

[4] Matteo Ricci, On Friendship 交友論: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince, trans. Timothy Billings, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, pp.114-115.