Aus­tralians who helped mould mod­ern China

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rowan Cal­lick

THE sub­ti­tle car­ries the sur­pris­ing core mes­sage of Peter Thompson’s new book. The Aus­tralian he­roes of Shang­hai Fury in­clude so­cial re­form­ers, lawyers, busi­ness peo­ple, diplo­mats, po­lice­men, doc­tors, gam­blers, a Sal­va­tion Army of­fi­cer, Bri­gadier Ge­orge Walker, tor­tured for re­fus­ing to make pro-ja­panese broad­casts, au­thor Frank Clune, who ‘‘ ex­posed the Shang­hai Club’s claim to have the long­est bar in the world’’, and many jour­nal­ists.

Amer­i­cans, Bri­tons, Cana­di­ans and New Zealan­ders tend to fol­low read­ily the tri­umphs and fail­ings of their com­pa­tri­ots on the in­ter­na­tional stage, to­day and in the pages of the past. But oddly, once Aus­tralians board the flight or walk up the gang­plank, they of­ten dis­ap­pear not only from sight but even from pop­u­lar his­tory. There are two ex­cep­tions: war he­roes and writ­ers or other me­dia per­son­al­i­ties such as ac­tors who be­come suc­cess­ful in Bri­tain or the US.

The Aus­tralians who have gone to Asia or the Pa­cific in re­cent years and done fas­ci­nat­ing, self­less or in­fa­mous deeds mostly re­main un­known. This was not al­ways so. A cen­tury ago, Thompson writes, ‘‘ China was such a nov­elty that Aus­tralians who vis­ited Shang­hai in­evitably had their ex­pe­ri­ences recorded in the press back home.’’

Thompson, a veteran Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist who lives in London, helps make amends in this highly read­able his­tory set chiefly in the ram­bunc­tious, in­ter­na­tional city of Shang­hai be­tween the first Opium War of 1840 and the dec­la­ra­tion of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic in 1949.

He clev­erly, and with few signs of the in­tri­cate stitch­ing re­quired, weaves his Aus­tralian drama­tis per­sonae into the wild story of China’s tra­vails as it strug­gled to shed its se­nile, mal­func­tion­ing Manchu dy­nasty, started to mod­ernise as a demo­cratic repub­lic be­fore be­ing in­vaded by atyp­i­cally ob­nox­ious Ja­panese, and then fell, mostly with un­know­ing en­thu­si­asm, into the hands of the mur­der­ous, cyn­i­cal ide­o­logue Mao Ze­dong.

The stars of the story are two amaz­ing Aus­tralians who played re­mark­ably in­flu­en­tial roles in the his­tory of mod­ern China: Ge­orge Ernest ‘‘ Chi­nese’’ Mor­ri­son and Wil­liam Henry Don­ald.

The lives of each would make great movies, although the lurid truth would have to be toned down to make it be­liev­able.

Mor­ri­son, born in 1862, whose fa­ther

‘ was head­mas­ter at Gee­long Col­lege, warmed up for China by ca­noe­ing from Al­bury down the Mur­ray River to its mouth, by walk­ing from Nor­man­ton in Queens­land to Melbourne and ven­tur­ing into Pa­pua New Guinea. Af­ter qual­i­fy­ing as a doc­tor in 1894 and ‘‘ pos­sessed with the strong racial an­tipa­thy to the Chi­nese com­mon to my coun­try­men’’, he trav­elled from Shang­hai to Ran­goon over­land, a trip that changed his at­ti­tude to the Chi­nese to one of ‘‘ lively sym­pa­thy and grat­i­tude’’.

He then trav­elled to Cal­cutta, caught a fever, re­cov­ered in Ed­in­burgh and met the ed­i­tor of The Times, who ap­pointed him as a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent in the ‘‘ Far East’’. From 1897, Mor­ri­son cov­ered ev­ery sig­nif­i­cant event in the re­gion as the great pow­ers fought over the Manchu re­mains. He was ‘‘ em­bed­ded’’ with the Ja­panese when they de­feated the Rus­sians at Port Arthur, was ap­pointed an act­ing lieu­tenant dur­ing the 55-day siege of the for­eign le­ga­tion quar­ter of Bei­jing by the Box­ers (dur­ing which a dou­blecol­umn obit­u­ary ap­peared in The Times, which he later read with rel­ish) and as plague broke out, wrote a se­ries of ar­ti­cles about China’s health chal­lenges. He backed the repub­li­cans and af­ter Pu Yi, the last em­peror, was forced to ab­di­cate, he be­came po­lit­i­cal ad­viser to the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and its rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the Ver­sailles peace talks af­ter World War I. He mar­ried late, fa­thered three sons and died of pan­cre­atic can­cer aged 58. It’s dif­fi­cult to think of an Aus­tralian who lived a fuller life.

Wil­liam Don­ald was born in 1875 in Lith­gow, NSW, where he be­gan his work­ing life as a re­porter on The Mer­cury.

Like many young Aus­tralian jour­nal­ists he tried his hand in Hong Kong, with The China Mail, be­fore shift­ing to Shang­hai where he be­came a friend of Char­lie Soong, the wealthy printer-pub­lisher whose daugh­ters mar­ried three of the most in­flu­en­tial men of the 20th cen­tury and in time ri­valled in in­flu­ence their hus­bands: H. H. Kung, for a while the rich­est man in the world; Sun Yat-sen, the founder of mod­ern China; and Chiang Kai-shek, the Na­tion­al­ist leader.

Don­ald be­came an im­por­tant ad­viser to the lat­ter two, and played the lead­ing role in ne­go­ti­at­ing Chiang’s re­lease af­ter he was kid­napped by com­mu­nist troops in Xi’an as the Ja­panese in­vaded. He was to be­come known to the Ja­panese, Thompson writes, as ‘‘ the evil spirit of China’’.

His­tory, Thompson con­cludes, ‘‘ has a way of sep­a­rat­ing the dross from the hid­den gems’’. He has un­earthed a cou­ple of dozen in this book, a rare haul. Rowan Cal­lick is The Aus­tralian’s Asi­aPa­cific ed­i­tor.


Chi­nese’ Mor­ri­son

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