China & ANU: exhibiting a history

On 28 May 2015, an exhibition titled ‘China & ANU — Diplomats, Adventurers, Scholars‘ opened at the Gallery of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW). The exhibition, which runs until 18 September this year, was formally opened by Jack Waterford, a noted Canberra-based writer, journalist and editor. It traces the early history of Chinese Studies at The Australian National University (ANU); it also provides an account of Australia’s diplomatic engagement with the Republic of China during and after the Pacific War.

Based on the extensive archival research of William Sima, curated by Olivier Krischer and designed by Yasmin Masri and Jack Dunstan, the exhibition acknowledges the prescient contributions of the leading international relations thinker Frederick Eggleston, the economist Douglas Copland, the journalist and adventurer George E Morrison and the historian CP FitzGerald to Australia’s dealings with first Qing and then Republican China. William Sima’s book, China & ANU — Diplomats, Adventurers, Scholars will be published and made available online later in the year.

The Australian Centre on China in the World continues to follow the unfolding, and sometimes dramatic, Australia-China relationship through The Australia-China Story Archive, an updated and reformatted version of which will go live in the coming months, our collaboration with colleagues both in Australia, such as China Matters, and in China, as well as through the work of our Morrison Scholars (see here). — The Editors


The Pacific War and its aftermath radically transformed Australian perceptions of what was then called ‘the Near North’ (Asia). Many recognised that in the postwar world Australia’s strategic interests and economic fortunes called for a new understanding of Asia and the Pacific. China loomed large in these calculations.

Australia’s first diplomatic representative to the Republic of China, Frederic Eggleston, was posted to the wartime capital of Chungking in 1941. In his despatches to Canberra he urged the governmenChina & ANU Exhibition Introt to recognise the importance of Asia and the Pacific in preparation for China’s emergence as a major power following the Pacific War. When Eggleston joined the Interim Council of The Australian National University (ANU) in 1946, he promoted the study of China as a key feature of the new School of Pacific Studies — today’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

In 1947, Eggleston wrote to Australia’s second minister to China, the noted economist Douglas Copland, to see if he would be interested in becoming the inaugural vice-chancellor of the new university. Copland accepted the position and, in 1948, he returned from a China embroiled in civil war to oversee the founding of ANU. It was on Copland’s recommendation that the British writer and scholar CP FitzGerald — whom he had known in postwar Nanking — was appointed as the university’s first China scholar. With Copland’s support, FitzGerald travelled to Hong Kong and acquired the library of the renowned writer and Buddhist scholar, Hsu Ti-shan 許地山. These books form the core of the Menzies Library Chinese collection, which has played a pivotal role in the scholarly study of China in this country.

Based on extensive research and featuring rare archival documents, photographs and films ‘China & ANU’ introduces the diplomats, adventurers and scholars who contributed to Australia’s engagement with China, the ‘Chinese Commonwealth’ and our region. In particular, the exhibition focusses on the interconnection between Australia’s first diplomat-scholars in China and Chinese Studies at the newly established Australian National University.

‘China & ANU — Diplomats, Adventurers, Scholars’, 29 May – 18 September 2015, at the Gallery of the Australian Centre on China in the World.


The exhibition concludes with the following quotation from the historian Wang Gungwu 王賡武, formerly an intellectual leader at ANU and a scholar whose work has featured on this site, see here. In his remarks, made nearly thirty years ago, Gungwu offers a view of Australia’s post-WWII engagement with the ‘Near North’, and the potential for the future, one in which younger generations of diplomats, adventurers and scholars will continue to play an important role. — The Editors


Before the Second World War, only a few perceptive journalists, scholars and officials foresaw what was to come. And it was not until the end of the war that most Australians began to realise that Australia would soon have to deal with most of Asia on its own. They would soon have to think of Asia as several clusters of neighbours, very different in almost every way from Australia and even different in many ways among themselves. It was clearly not easy for most Australians to come to grips with such complex problems. There had, after all, been very little preparation for the new situation and most people were slow to respond.

But it is often forgotten how many Australians did respond and respond quickly and imaginatively. I refer to generations of adventurous Australians who came back from the war and their adventurous younger brothers and sisters who stayed at home and deliberated on the changing international environment. Among other things, that generation involved themselves in the Indonesian revolution; they reported on the war against communism in Malaya and the communist victory in China; they started serious academic study of Asia in Australian universities; colleges and even schools; they grappled with the baffling beginnings of the Vietnam war and, not least they shrewdly observed the rise of the economic superpower, Japan, and coaxed Australians to take advantage of that historic development. Within two decades, these enterprising Australians laid the foundation for a new Australian awareness of how they might live with these disparate and volatile neighbours.

Let me suggest to you that these changes were not inevitable. They were not merely calculating responses to the hard new realities. What was truly memorable about these early responses was the fact that many individual Australians set off to the new Asia on their own, probing for an understanding of both its ancient cultures and its entanglements with the West. I see this as the spirit of George Morrison, the Geelong boy who travelled to Asia at the end of the nineteenth century, especially among journalists and the creative people who had begun to sense that exciting developments were about to occur to our north. And since 1945, it blossomed among young people, especially the students, who volunteered to work and teach in various parts of Asia for no other reason than that they were curious and caring, or whose minds turned to Asian languages, literatures, fine arts and music, religions and philosophies in search of understanding and their own cultural enrichment.

These individual Australians who sought adventure, took risks and then brought their stories, experiences and creative efforts home, made those first years of Australia-Asian relations remarkable. I wish those experiences were better recorded and appreciated today, not only because they are worth remembering in their own right but also because I believe that they have much to teach us now as well as in the future.

— from Wang Gungwu, ‘Address at the Graduation Ceremony of the School of Modern Asian Studies, Griffith University, 12 April 1986’, quoted in Nancy Viviani’s preface to Francis Stuart, Towards Coming-of-Age: A Foreign Service Odyssey, Nathan Queensland, 1989.