I’ll admit: when I looked at this section title and glanced very briefly at the text I did wonder how I was going to make a blog post about this topic, and one not too dry at that. Then some words caught my attention – Qing empire, Honolulu, Opium Wars – and I realised a lot more could be found in this than just a clarification of definitions.
Briefly overviewed, Li defines “the new Chinese” as those who were born in mainland China after 1949, following the formation of the People’s Republic of China – the Communist government. Barry Li’s book, The New Chinese: How They Are Changing Australia focuses itself on the four generations that have followed this time. By his definition he excludes all those born and raised anywhere else, included those in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. They, he reasons, have not “experienced the Cultural Revolution or indeed any of the social instability on the mainland in the new China”, and thus share a very different background and mindset to his named new Chinese. “They have faced different challenges that drove the development of their own local culture” Li adds, about those from outside mainland China, and even though I’m certain the history of all those regions above would be fascinating I’m very glad it’s not included in this particular book, as it would be much bigger in size and take me a lot longer to get through.
At school we studied Greek, Roman and Mayan ancient civilisations. We studied a bit of feudal European history (not enough for this English history nerd) and about Australia’s formative years. The reshaping of the world through the early 20th century mostly focussed on Europe or Australia’s involvement in the World Wars, and only shifted to Asia when events there were considered relevant by textbooks to the timeline of the war in Europe. I know considerably little about the civil wars in China, the Japanese invasion, and the reforming of the Nationalist government in Taiwan. I do know the history of the Chinese national anthem – 起来，起来！ – because I wrote about it for a Music History essay once, but that hasn’t proved too useful to me yet. Going back further in time, I know nothing of how Hong Kong and Macau came to be colonies of Britain and Portugal respectively, nor how they managed to retain that sovereignty until the late 1990s. It may seem useless historical nonsense, but it does have bearing on how these two Special Administrative Regions operate today; for example, as an Australian, I require a visa for every entry into mainland China, but thanks to British ties can stay for three months in Hong Kong without one.
The China/Taiwan debate is a difficult one to discuss; invariably you’re going to upset someone whatever you say. A month ago there was a radio journalist here in Sydney who had to apologise on the Mandarin station for referring to Taiwan as a country, causing tensions in the Chinese community. There’s certainly many monitoring cross-Strait relations in regards to the Trump administration. I was having dinner last November with a friend, who happened to be a senior member of a foreign embassy in Beijing (we had met through dance). In the middle of the dinner, she received an urgent email: Trump had spoken to the Taiwanese president, a phone call very much outside of protocol, and her country needed to know how Beijing was reacting! America’s decisions highly affect Australia. When America changed its position to recognising the PRC as the “real” government, Australia followed suit. I saw an exhibition earlier this year at the National Museum of China, located on Tiananmen Square, of many of the gifts received by the PRC by visiting international diplomats. I am very much not a museum gal, but this was hands down the most enjoyable gallery I have ever been in. Seeing what each country have offered as a representation of themselves and noticing the changing names of countries was fascinating. America’s first gift from President Richard Nixon upon recognition in 1972, a pair of porcelain swans, was easily the biggest in the room. (The Chinese government topped the size of these swans by sending two giant pandas to the US, as a thank-you gift for visiting.) Australia’s most recent gift was a painted emu egg from Julia Gillard. If you’re ever in Beijing and looking for something to do for a few hours, then I highly recommend visiting this exhibition. Entry is free to the whole museum for those with a foreign passport! It’ll be interesting to see what Barry Li has to say on the “One China” idea or if he will steer clear of that conversation, which is in reality the more politically and socially safer move.
I also learnt out of this section that the very first president, Sun Zhongshan, of the Republic of China (different from the People’s Republic of China) was educated in Honolulu, Hawaii. Passionate about American-style democracy, he helped topple the Qing dynasty in 1911, thus ending thousands of years of imperial rule. That’s my fun fact for the day.
Photo taken in Xi’an, March 2017. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.