Sunday, October 23, 2011

Old China Hands - Rogues or Heroes of the Revolution?

Australian Heroes of Revolutionary China
By Peter Thompson, Heinemann, 530pp.

Plenty of  foreigners write plenty about China every day, from the fawning to the ferocious.  Many write with the best of intentions, doing their best to seem impartial and to "explain" China to readers. I've done that myself.  Others write for an audience that is inherently hostile to China, playing up the perceived threats and inferiorities of  a strengthening, but still alien, modern China.

Not many who write popular histories of China acknowledge that they are taking a specifically "foreign" point of view.

In  this book,  journalist and author Peter Thompson has sifted through the public records, autobiographies and newspaper files of  Australia, Britain and the English-speaking Treaty Ports of China prior to 1949, to remind the current generation of Australians about how many Australians played notable roles in Chinese affairs through the last years the Manchu Dynasty, through the 1911 birth, decline and fall of the Republic of China, and into the 1949 establishment of the Peoples' Republic of China under the iron control of the Chinese Communist Party.

Australians were among the earliest 19th Century opium traders, gunboat “free trade” opportunists, missionaries, scholars and adventurers of Canton, Shanghai and the Yangtze valley.   Some, like  G E Morrison and William Donald, combined influential journalistic careers with powerful inside advisory roles to important players in Chinese republican politics, from the Boxer Rebellion onward.

There were also a disreputable cast of opportunists, including some who collaborated with the Japanese regime occupying Shanghai 1939-45.
Numbers of Australian-Chinese took aspects of their Australian experience back to China.  The biggest Shanghai department stores, Sincere and Wing On, were founded by Australian-Chinese on Australian models, as were numerous progressive newspapers, trading houses and fledgling democratic movements.  The Australian links are generally ignored by American or European writers of Chinese histories.

Thompson's anecdotal history mainly reflects the views and recollections of non-Communist and anti-Communist particpants in Chinese affairs, as well as being an unapologetic chronicle of foreign interventions, big and small, in China. It may seem anachronistic or politically incorrect to modern sinophiles, but it is a good read for the non-specialist with an interest in modern China, or for the jaded specialist interested in a fresh overview. Having reported from China myself for five years in the past, I recognise that when it comes to Chinese history, the alien perspective may be as valid as the local.