From 2013 to 2016 David Walker was the inaugural BHP Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University, Beijing. It was here that he met his co-author, Li Yao, a man who has translated nearly forty Australian books into Chinese. This extract is taken from the final chapter of their book.
The years 2013 to 2016 were a very good time to be living in Beijing. Australia and China were getting on well. In November 2014, China’s President Xi Jingping addressed a special joint sitting of the Australian Houses of Parliament in Canberra and celebrated the signing of a China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. President Xi spoke of the bilateral relationship as one that would be as enduring as China’s Great Wall or Australia’s Uluru. Back in China, interest in the Australian Studies program was growing with new centres opening in Hohhot, Shenyang, Shantou and Harbin. Australian Studies was well supported by FASIC (the Foundation for Australian Studies in China) and by the Australian Embassy in Beijing, led by its ambassador, Frances Adamson.
Working with colleagues at Peking University, David struggled at first to overcome his inherent Western programming which without due care might lead him to conclude that a different way of seeing the world reflected error or mischief or bad faith. All societies are prone to think their own ways are the right ways. Listening is both an act of courtesy and a way of learning. Too often we fail to do this. Full agreement may not come about but common ground will never be reached without gaining some understanding of the Chinese view of things.
Just as we see what we want to see, we often hear what we want to hear. Neither David nor (his wife) Karen speak Mandarin. China had to be translated for them by Chinese who spoke English. The years of travelling about by train with Li Yao provided time for deeper listening. Fengzhen, Yanggao, Hohhot and Jining, were no more than obscure place names until Li Yao recounted family stories of what had happened there. Then imagination lent life to the narrow streets and to the little houses and courtyards. As Li Yao’s brother-in-law leaned forward, pushing back his hair to reveal the scar on his forehead, the anti-Japanese war ceased to be a distant event. The hands of the brothers Li Yao and Li Xin spoke of how the Cultural Revolution had delivered different paths through life.
On their long train journeys together, David and Li Yao discussed how certain phrases were best translated. Different understandings often emerged. In Australia, the bush was a nurturing place, an escape from the artificiality and pressure of city living. While the Chinese still see the countryside as a place of exile and punishment, Australians retreat to the bush in search of relaxation and spiritual renewal. Chinese are more likely to find solace among gardens, many of which are now open to all, not just the elite. Chinese people also like the warm feeling of being among others in their big cities. Australians often prefer to wander alone along a beach or in the bush. Li Yao had translated several Aboriginal writers, raising the question of how best to translate the word ‘country’ as used by Indigenous peoples? The Indigenous idea of ‘Country’ is very different from the Chinese idea of ‘the countryside’. The ethnographer, Deborah Bird Rose has described Country as ‘a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness and a will towards life’.
Happy Together: Bridging the Australia-China Divide – David Walker and Li Yao, with Karen Walker.
There are profound differences in how Chinese and Westerners see the world. Rui Yang, a Hong Kong Professor with a deep understanding of cross-cultural education, has argued that just as Orientalism has ‘shackled and misled the West in coming to know China’, the Chinese must grapple with how they see the West. In the traditional Tianxia way of thinking, China stood at the centre while Western ‘barbarians’ roamed the periphery. Later, this view of the West coexisted uneasily with the attractions of Western modernity in culture and science. Still later, views of the West were complicated by Sinocentric interpretations of socialism and Marxism.
Whatever they may think of individual Chinese, Australians harbour a deeply embedded and largely unacknowledged distrust of geopolitical China, often seeing it as a bad actor on the world stage. The two countries have different understandings of threat and vulnerability. Thinly populated Australia expects the world to understand that it has a vulnerable northern border, open to Asian invasion. While believing this, not one Australian in ten thousand could identify the fourteen countries with which China has a land border. They do not know how, over China’s long history, those borders have been repeatedly violated and challenged, not least by Western powers. The differing vulnerabilities of Australia and China, their different mythologies and patterns of thought make it critically important for the two countries to develop educational programs that allow students to study the other and understand how and why they see the world as they do.
Now in the dreadful years of the plague of 2020-21, the sharp deterioration in the China-Australia relationship is troubling. Today there is suspicion on both sides. How will things look in 2022, fifty years after Australia first recognized the Peoples’ Republic of China? The two Roosters (the authors of this book, one Australian and one Chinese) are old fellows now. Will they be able to meet once again in Beijing?
Perhaps the last word can go not to the vexatious present but to a voice from Australia’s past. In 1966, at a time when China seemed to be both at war with itself and with the wider world, the senior Liberal politician and accomplished historian Paul Hasluck, then minister for external affairs, told an audience in Adelaide that ‘no-one but a fool would think that China can be ignored, or destroyed or reduced, or forced to be something other than China’. Australia would have to learn to deal with this perplexing nation.
David Walker is an Australian historian who holds Honorary Professorships at the University of Melbourne, Western Sydney University and Deakin University. From 2013–2016 he was the inaugural BHP Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University, Beijing.
Li Yao is a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association who teaches translation at Peking University. He has translated more than thirty Australian books into Chinese. He is an adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.
Their co-authored memoir, Happy Together: Bridging the Australia-China Divide, was published by Melbourne University Press in June 2022.
Banner image: Two young children play with Chinese dragon during National Multicultural Festival, Canberra, Australia - February, 2017. Credit: Shutterstock.