Australian Heroes of Revolutionary China.
By Peter Thompson
Reviewed: 22 October 2011
You might think that the last century and a half of Chinese history has already been probed from every conceivable angle, but Peter Thompson has come up with an angle that may both prove useful and entertaining to the general Australian reader.
Let’s first get past the annoying title. For one thing, “fury” of one kind or another is nothing rare in the history of Shanghai. For another, Thompson knows well enough that Shanghai is not China, and this book is about China. And it’s not a war history, like Thompson’s other two books Anzac Fury and Pacific Fury.
As to “Australian Heroes of Revolutionary China”, Thompson has certainly gathered together an intriguing account of many Australians who had some part determining the destiny of China from the 19th Century Opium Wars through to the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Many were courageous adventurers and a good number were genuinely hoping to help China improve the lives of its suffering people. Many others were simple opportunists and some were scandalous criminals. Which of them were “heroes” may depend on the reader’s point of view.
Australians, or British with Australian colonial experience, were among the earliest opium traders and gunboat “free trade” opportunists of Canton, Shanghai and the Yangtze valley. The two Saunders sisters from Melbourne, missionaries in South China, were among several massacred by Taiping rebels in 1895, their widowed mother in Melbourne then declaring “Hallelujah … the Christianising of this people will be expedited”.
The Rev Robert Mathews, also from Melbourne, was invited to Christianise the entire army of northern warlord Feng Yuxiang in the 1920s, but is best remembered for compiling the monumental Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary that set the international standard for at least fifty years.
Geelong-born George Ernest “Chinese” Morrison was for decades Peking correspondent of the London Times and sometime adviser to warlord Yuan Shikai, helping Yuan to hijack the floundering, shambolic republican revolution of 1911, of which the centenary is celebrated this month. Morrison was undoubtedly heroic in many ways, including the physical. His exploits walking across continents and rescuing damsels from the Boxer Rebellion siege of the British Embassy in Peking in 1900 have attracted several biographies already.
Like many journalists of the period, Morrison saw nothing wrong with getting deeply involved in the politics he was reporting upon. He was of the generation and class of Australian colonials who saw the British Empire as the standard-bearer for human progress, and therefore saw China’s long-term interests as naturally linked to Britain’s imperial interests. Despite this, the British establishment, including the Times, ultimately underpaid him, sidelined him patronizingly as a rough but effective colonial, and declined to offer him the honours or rewards his efforts might have deserved.
William (W.H.) Donald is lesser known to current generations but in reality a much more influential figure in the life of Republican China. A journalist, born in Lithgow, he spent over forty years in China, more than twenty in various capacities advising the Republican government leadership, particularly Chiang Kai-shek and his potent wife Soong Meiling. Over four decades at the heart of Chinese politics, Donald never learned the language and refused to eat Chinese food. His often critical role, as un-corrupted adviser and catalyst to action, was later written down by the Chiangs where it threatened to detract from their own heroic narratives.
At the other end of the hero scale were a group of Australian expats in Shanghai under Japanese wartime occupation, who collaborated actively with the Japanese and broadcast to Australia urging a “separate peace” with Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Other Australians died as victims of the Japanese or in resisting them. After the War, despite hundreds of witnesses to what the Australian collaborators had done and their own admissions, Australia’s solicitor-general (Gough Whitlam’s father, Fred) declined to prosecute, citing “lack of evidence” of treason. Australia also provided our share of Shanghai’s touts, black-marketeers, drug traders and party girls.
This book is anecdotal rather than analytical, drawing on hundreds of memoirs and other published histories. The published sources are supplemented with a few interviews with survivors (including Canberrans). But while sinologists might find few new facts in it, the overall picture offers a distinct perspective that would only have been written by an Australian.
One is reminded that Australian governments over this period generally clung to the skirts of Empire, and were ignored or reprimanded when they didn’t. Britain consistently acquiesced to Japanese expansionism in China and elsewhere in our region, reluctant even to protest against abuse of its own citizens by Japanese troops in China. By the time Pearl Harbor forced a change, it was too late.
It is also salutary to revisit the venomous racism that prevailed in popular Australian attitudes of previous generations, particularly around the time of Federation. Several Australians were among perpetrators of extreme vilification of the Chinese race in newspapers published in the colonial treaty ports of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Even many who professed to love China could be extraordinarily patronizing, though there were also the minority, generally with deeper knowledge, who had no such prejudice.
On the other side of the race line, there were many Australian-Chinese who took aspects of their Australian experience home to try to build a modern China. The biggest Shanghai (and later Hong Kong) 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. These significant Australian links are ignored by American or European writers of Chinese histories, so we can thank Peter Thomson for his monumental work of journalistic research.
To the non-specialist with an interest in modern China, or for the jaded specialist interested in a fresh overview, I commend this as a good read.
Richard Thwaites reported from China for five non-revolutionary years, 1978-83.