Aus­tralian si­nol­o­gist shows a love for Chi­nese opera

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By KARL WIL­SON

karl­wil­son@chi­nadai­lya­pac. com

When Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping de­liv­ered his his­toric ad­dress to the Aus­tralian Par­lia­ment on Nov 17, 2014, he noted the pres­ence of Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor Colin Mack­er­ras of Grif­fith Univer­sity in the au­di­ence.

In 1964, Mack­er­ras went to China for the first time. Over the past five decades, he has vis­ited China over 60 times and has made tire­less ef­forts to present a real China to Aus­tralia and the world based on his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of China’s devel­op­ment and progress, Xi said.

With his un­remit­ting ef­forts and de­vo­tion, Mack­er­ras has built a bridge of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing and amity be­tween our peo­ple, said Xi.

Look­ing back at that day in Par­lia­ment, the mild-man­nered aca­demic said: “I felt deeply hon­ored by his ref­er­ence to me … deeply hon­ored.”

There is a touch of irony here in that it was the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment — not its Aus­tralian coun­ter­part — which had sug­gested that the distin­guished si­nol­o­gist and lead­ing au­thor­ity on Chi­nese opera be present dur­ing Xi’s ad­dress.

This was per­haps an over­sight, Mack­er­ras, 78, said.

Mack­er­ras stud­ied the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907) for his MLitt at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge in 1964 and wrote his PhD on Chi­nese opera at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity in Can­berra in 1970.

“I was prob­a­bly the first per­son ever to gain a doc­tor­ate in Chi­nese opera from an Aus­tralian univer­sity,” he said. “But my the­sis looked more at the social im­pact it had on so­ci­ety rather than the mu­sic.”

Mack­er­ras’ aca­demic pur­suits have al­lowed him to ob­serve first­hand China’s devel­op­ment.

“The change in the last 50 years has been as­ton­ish­ing,” he said. “I fell in love with the place ... when my wife (Alyce) and I went to Bei­jing as ‘for­eign ex­perts’ to teach at what was then called the Bei­jing For­eign Lan­guages In­sti­tute. It is now called the Bei­jing For­eign Stud­ies Univer­sity, and I still love the place.”

Mack­er­ras still goes to China to teach and re­search mu­sic or eth­nic mi­nori­ties. Some of his stu­dents have done “very well in the new China”, he said.

He be­lieves Aus­tralia is at the cross­roads in its re­la­tion­ship with China.

“Re­cent crit­i­cism by the Aus­tralian me­dia about China ‘try­ing to buy in­flu­ence’ in Aus­tralia has not helped,” he said. “China is not go­ing back­wards. It is a lead­ing world power.

“Just look at our trade with China tourism, cul­tural, stu­dent and even politi­cal ex­changes. All of these are very strong.”

Point­ing to the 140,000 Chi­nese na­tion­als study­ing at Aus­tralian univer­si­ties, he said: “The great ma­jor­ity are ex­cel­lent stu­dents. They also con­trib­ute a lot of money to our univer­sity sys­tem. Are we go­ing to put it at risk?”

Mack­er­ras said Aus­tralia will need to be very care­ful in manag­ing its re­la­tion­ship with China.

He noted that the past year had seen some “out­ra­geous” claims made against China, and the me­dia had been “poi­sonous”.

“I’m not against crit­i­cism if it is valid, but I am to­tally against crit­i­cism that is man­u­fac­tured.”

While Mack­er­ras said he is not op­ti­mistic about the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship in the short term, “I have to be op­ti­mistic” in the long term.

“I can’t see us throw­ing away all we have gained. I think the prob­lem is that pres­sure is be­ing ex­erted from other quar­ters,” he added.

“When I first went to China, Aus­tralia was re­ferred to as the ‘run­ning dog of US im­pe­ri­al­ism’ and we had very lit­tle to do with China. To­day, China is too big, too pow­er­ful to ig­nore.”

Mack­er­ras’ love for mu­sic, both Western and Chi­nese, comes from his fam­ily, es­pe­cially on his mother’s side.

One of her an­ces­tors, Isaac Nathan (1790-1864), was a distin­guished con­duc­tor and com­poser. Af­ter com­ing to Aus­tralia in 1841, he opened an academy of singing. Nathan went on to be­come the choir­mas­ter of St Mary’s Cathe­dral in Syd­ney and or­ga­nized the largest con­cert of sa­cred mu­sic in the then Bri­tish colony.

Mack­er­ras’ brother, the late Sir Charles Mack­er­ras, was a distin­guished con­duc­tor and a world au­thor­ity on the op­eras of Janacek and Mozart, and the comic op­eras of Gil­bert and Sul­li­van.

Charles was long as­so­ci­ated with the English Na­tional Opera and was the first Aus­tralian chief con­duc­tor of the Syd­ney Sym­phony Orches­tra.

“Although I don’t sing my­self, I am also very pas­sion­ate about mu­sic, es­pe­cially Chi­nese and Western opera,” Mack­er­ras said. “I think some peo­ple prob­a­bly found it sur­pris­ing that a West­erner should take so much in­ter­est in a kind of opera that sounds very strange to Western ears.”

Born in Tur­ra­murra in Syd­ney’s north­ern sub­urbs, Mack­er­ras fol­lowed his el­der brother to Cam­bridge in Eng­land.

“My grand­fa­ther, who was a sur­geon, left some money for us to be ed­u­cated over­seas,” Mack­er­ras said. “I had al­ready got a taste of China back in the 1950s when I was given a schol­ar­ship to learn Man­darin in Can­berra.

“My mother was not in­ter­ested in Asia but she be­lieved that Asia, and in par­tic­u­lar, China, would be im­por­tant for Aus­tralia’s fu­ture. She had great fore­sight.”

At Cam­bridge, Mack­er­ras re­searched the Tang Dy­nasty, one of the great­est dy­nas­ties of im­pe­rial China.

Fol­low­ing his grad­u­a­tion, Mack­er­ras and his wife went to China to teach.

“I think the lo­cal peo­ple thought we were rather strange be­cause in those days, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment had a low opin­ion of Aus­tralia.”

It was also a time when the United States and Aus­tralia were pre­par­ing to send their troops to join the Viet­nam War. “There were demon­stra­tions in Bei­jing and we joined in. I was against the war any­way.”

De­spite the anti-Western sen­ti­ment in China at that time, Mack­er­ras found the peo­ple there, in­clud­ing his stu­dents and col­leagues, to be very kind and friendly to­ward him and his wife.

“I may not have agreed with some of the things I was told, but we could sit down and have a civ­i­lized con­ver­sa­tion.”

Mack­er­ras found the whole ex­pe­ri­ence in China chal­leng­ing in the early days. “But I got to love the place and that love has never left me.”

As for his other love, tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera, Mack­er­ras is de­lighted to see the once-banned art form stag­ing a come­back in China in re­cent times.

“There has also been a re­vival of the nan dan, where males per­form fe­male roles," he said.

The hey­day of nan dan was in the first half of the 20th cen­tury, when Mei Lan­fang, Shang Xiaoyun, Cheng Yan­qiu and Xun Huisheng, dubbed the Four Great Dan, es­tab­lished the four dan styles of Mei, Shang, Cheng and Xun.

“There is a big at­tempt by the gov­ern­ment to­day to re­vive these art forms, which are such an im­por­tant part of China’s cul­tural her­itage, and I think it is a good thing.”

An­other area of great in­ter­est to Mack­er­ras has been China’s eth­nic groups, which he has writ­ten about ex­ten­sively. In par­tic­u­lar, he has taken a great in­ter­est in the Uygurs in North­west China.

Colin Mack­er­ras says he is against man­u­fac­tured crit­i­cism.

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