Thursday, January 7, 2016

Whatever the question, China is the answer

This is the second in a series of three articles that link several topics – the critical nature of our declining cultural institutions, the importance of their international engagement and the power and fascination of China. The first, ‘Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our cultural institutions and its impact on Australia's national heritage’, is an outline of the cumulative negative consequences for our national heritage of the ongoing and accelerating laceration of our major cultural institutions. This second article, ‘Whatever the question, China is the answer’, is a preview of the important new exhibition about China at the National Library of Australia, ‘Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911’, and the third, to be published next, ‘The Middle Kingdom’ is about the power and fascination of China in the contemporary world.

‘It has been said, only half jokingly, that whatever the question, China is the answer. China has its own distinctive problems but this has an underlying element of truth, especially in our current century, the much heralded Asian Century. Our major cultural institutions have risen to the challenge of the Asian Century, playing a leadership role in building the soft diplomacy which enables a deeper and more durable relationship with Asian nations. In the latest example of this engagement, the National Library of Australia has done what national cultural institutions do best – it has collaborated with the National Library of China to produce an outstanding exhibition, “Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911”. This is a case of cultural interaction building enduring bridges that all the ore trucks in the world can't match’.


My former colleagues at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology have collaborated closely with the Chinese on the development of creative industries in both Australia and China. They used to say, only half jokingly, that whatever the question, China was the answer. China has its own distinctive problems but there is an underlying element of truth in that comment, especially in our current century, the much heralded Asian Century

Our major cultural institutions have risen to the challenge of the Asian Century, playing a leadership role in building the soft diplomacy which enables a deeper and more durable relationship with Asian nations. They have always been active in support for cultural activity, in particular through their work on intangible cultural heritage.

The National Library of Australia - one of a set of major national cultural institutions which support Australian cultural heritage and provide a bridge to the cultures of our Asian neighbours.

Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911
In the latest example of this engagement, the National Library of Australia has done one of the things national cultural institutions do better than anyone – it has collaborated with the National Library of China to produce an outstanding exhibition, ‘Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911’. Viewing it is a real pleasure and, due to the detail in the maps, books and scrolls, something not to be rushed.

While important as a historical exhibition about an important period in China's history, it is also very much a marker of its time and a contribution to understanding Australia's own history. The history of China is indeed fascinating but the important history of the Chinese in Australia is also fascinating and inextricably linked to the history of China itself.

China from a Chinese perspective
What is so appealing about this exhibition is that it presents the history of China from the perspective of the Chinese. Even though it draws on many items in the National Library of Australia's collection, much of which presents a western view of China, because the exhibition is based on a genuine partnership, it successfully spans these two perspectives. It appears to have already produced a special impact as a result, with coverage in the Chinese media and good attendances of Australians from a Chinese background.

China has always been a presence in Australian history and considering China throws light on many of the major issues we have faced as a nation – our reliance on mining and overseas labour, our cultural diversity and the tension this produces in a country that even now sometimes lapses into thinking it is still white, Christian and British – and nowhere near Asia.

My one regret about this superb exhibition was that it would have been invaluable to have been able to complement this high quality material with some consideration of the importance of the Chinese in Australia. However, perhaps to do justice to such a rich historical interaction requires a range of events over an extended period.

From fields to palaces – 300 years unscrolled
The exhibition ranges across 300 years of Chinese culture and tradition, using material drawn from two of the world’s great libraries through the exhibition partnership. From life at court to life in the villages and fields, the world of China’s last imperial dynasty and its wealth of cultural tradition are on show.

This is the world of the Manchu rulers of China, originally outsiders from Manchuria to the North of China. It is fascinating to think about the clash of cultures involved in the establishment of this final dynasty. Peering in the gloom needed to preserve these ancient documents you can cast your eyes over pages translating Manchu into Chinese, which give a small hint of the complex interactions needed to manage a massive empire stretching across vast regions and many different peoples.

In the end it was unsuccessful, as massive inequality coupled with the encroaching demands of western imperialism led to periods of widespead upheaval. After this final dynasty came a changed kind of rule, firstly by the Nationalists and then the Communists. As the Chinese said at the time, 'under the Kuomintang (Nationalists), too many taxes, under the Communists, too many meetings.'

It was a period in which China’s population exploded and in which an increasing number of the population – while still only a small minority – had the leisure to participate in literature, drama, music and painting. This was reflected in a thriving book industry.

As well as exquisite and precious objects from the National Library of China, there are drawings and plans for Beijing’s iconic palaces from the Yangshi Lei Archives, listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2007 and never before seen in Australia. Included are stunning maps, books and prints in ornate detail. The National Library of Australia has also drawn on its acclaimed Chinese Collection, including rare items from the London Missionary Society that offer a unique view of early western impressions of China.

The exhibition comes with a catalogue that’s hard to resist – I couldn’t. I’ve already used the index to check several things. It’s hard not to be impressed by a culture that has place names like the Hall of Complete Tranquillity or the Garden of Perfect Brightness or the Garden of Rippling Waters – which became the Summer Palace of the dynasty. The catalogue helps revisit this after you emerge into the summer light.

Institutions and mandarins
How appropriate that an exhibition about China, featuring its history of public administration and its ruling bureaucracy should be presented in Canberra, home of our own proud Mandarin tradition. I particularly liked the description of the requirements of those preparing for a life in government, ‘To gain an understanding of proper moral values young men preparing for a government career studied philosophy, history and poetry. The study of historical figures, for example, allowed candidates to reflect on past choices. Only by mastering this tradition could they hope to make their own mark on history.’

It is also pleasing to see the interaction at a national institutional level between the National Library of Australia and the National Library of China. This is where the professional specialist networks of the staff of the major cultural organisations come into their own. The intersection and interaction around professional areas of interest produces broader connection and engagement.

This is augmented by the highly productive partnership between the National Library of Australia and the Chinese Studies Faculty of the Australian National University. Exhibition curator Nathan Woolley is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World, within the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Something like this is much easier in Canberra, where these overlapping national institutions are based.

Missed opportunities
I think that we missed an unparallelled opportunity to celebrate the shared history between Australia and China during the Year of Chinese Culture in Australia in 2011. Partnerships like this continue that incomplete celebration as part of our everyday, ongoing cultural interaction with Asia. As in so many other areas of support for culture, in Australia but also in the Pacific and Asia, the major cultural institutions are the ones that carry the torch for Australia.

The crucial role of Australian cultural institutions in support for heritage, including intangible cultural heritage – in Australia but also overseas in the whole Pacific region and in Asia – is internationally recognised. This is particularly the case with the national collecting institutions of the Australian Government.

In a historical period where the overseas aid budget is faltering, this also provides a serious and cost-effective opportunity to make a contribution to strengthening the social fabric of our neighbours, through nation building and strengthening community resilience, particularly in Asia and the Pacific. We can expect the same sort of benefits in communities in these countries as we have witnessed with the support provided to Indigenous communities by our Indigenous cultural programs. Proper recognition of the importance of heritage, including intangible cultural heritage, and the institutions which preserve, protect and interpret it within Australia is a critical starting point.

More generally, the reality is that these small strands of engagement have large pay offs in terms of building cultural goodwill and closer and deeper relationships with countries on which we depend for massive amounts of economic value. China is a good case in point, but Indonesia and India, to name just a few others, are also highly relevant. On top of this there are our Pacific neighbours, which we are forever bound to by history and geography. Cultural interaction based on practical partnerships can build enduring bridges that all the ore trucks in the world can't match.

Postscript #1: Friends of mine who spent many years living and working in China visited and enjoyed the exhibition recently. However, they expressed concern that the tumultous period towards the end of the dynasty that actually led to its demise was glossed over, compressed into a final relatively brief section. This makes it difficult to grasp the major problems and resulting upheavals that led to the transformation of China into the modern country we deal with today. The significance and causes of these huge events that changed China forever, such as the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions and the Opium Wars, and the way the dynasty was unable to respond effectively to these forces does not emerge as sharply as it could. More explanation of this would also help in understanding the contemporary Chinese wariness of the West – once bitten, twice shy. Like the coverage of the history of the Chinese in Australia, it underlines the fact that the story of China is too big for one single telling.

Postscript #2: Recognising the diplomatic role of national cultural institutions – in this article I commented that partnerships like the one with the National Library of China continue to celebrate our close ties with China as part of our everyday, ongoing cultural interaction with Asia. As in so many other areas of support for culture, in Australia but also in the Pacific and Asia, the major cultural institutions are the ones that carry the torch for Australia. The reality is that these small strands of engagement have large pay offs in terms of building cultural goodwill and closer and deeper relationships with countries on which we depend for massive amounts of economic value.

This was brought home clearly when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull officially opened the exhibition last week before outgoing Chinese Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu and representatives from the National Library of China and more than 500 guests. It is unusual for a Prime Minister to open one of these exhibitions and it shows that the exhibition is very much part of our diplomatic engagement with China.

See also

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

The Middle Kingdom
‘When famed medieval Italian traveller and explorer Marco Polo first encountered China, the Cathay of legend, he saw it as a treasure house of exotic customs and riches. In many ways this is still an element in our own exploration of China. However China is not simply the exotic world of our shaky imagination. China is well on the way to becoming the Middle Kingdom of its traditional name. Australia has a long history of interaction with China. Many of the rich goldfield cities, like Bendigo and Ballarat, were built by Chinese labour and based on Chinese business. More recently, the Chinese in Australia are one of the largest components of the cultural diversity which fuels innovation and commerce in our major cities. For all its faults and political twists and turns I will continue to be fascinated by the Middle Kingdom and watch its inevitable rise with deep interest’, The Middle Kingdom.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

The island to the North – turning the map upside down
‘Our geography teacher taught us about the Australian fear of the Yellow Peril, ready to pour down from Asia and inundate the almost empty island to the South’, The island to the North – turning the map upside down.

Notes from a steadily shrinking universe
‘Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way. In the end does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? Yet this part of the Australian Government’s public service is incredibly important. To have a real impact though, it needs to be refocused and reinvigorated to operate once again across the broader government landscape’, Notes from a steadily shrinking universe.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

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