In 1964 Colin Mackerras began teaching at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute, now called the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
He didn’t know it then, but it was the start of a lifelong relationship with China.
Ten years later he would pioneer the ground-breaking Asian Studies program at Griffith University becoming the Foundation Professor in Modern Asian Studies in 1974 and Doctor of the University in 2006.
In 2011 Emeritus Professor Mackerras AO DUniv became inaugural director of the world first Tourism Confucius Institute at Griffith’s Gold Coast campus.
His dedication to Sino/Australian relations will be celebrated with a special photographic exhibition at the Gold Coast campus capturing his experiences during the past half a century.
“Since I’ve been going to China, I think life has improved enormously for the majority of the Chinese people, more than I would have thought possible when I first went there. We should regard China’s economic success as an opportunity, not a threat,” Professor Mackerras said.
Over the past 50 years he has returned to China 60 times and has witnessed many changes that have taken place.
“Within two years of Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 ‘political’ revolution was out and ‘economic’ revolution was in,’’ he said.
“China began its dramatic economic growth of about nine per cent per year, which it maintains to this day.”
He said while future historians may view the rise of China as one of the most important trends of the past decades of the 20th Century and the early ones of the 21st, many feared China as a threat to Western and especially American hegemony.
He said China’s poor human rights record as well as lack of certain freedoms such as freedom of the media was also of concern to many.
“My own view is that there are different ways of looking at human rights, and the welfare and living standards of the great majority are more important than the individual political rights of the small minority, though these are also important and I do not wish to belittle them.
“Nowadays Beijing is the very model of a modern major city. It has all the tall buildings, facilities, entertainments and roads you’d expect to find in such a city. But the old city is almost entirely gone. Also, it’s terribly polluted and traffic jams are much, much too common. There are still quite a few cyclists – I often ride a bicycle in Beijing myself when I’m living there – but not nearly as many as there once were.”
Professor Mackerras’s first two years in China saw the birth of his eldest child, Stephen in 1965. He has the distinction of being the first Australian citizen born in the People’s Republic.
His eldest brother is the late world-famous conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras. His second eldest brother Alastair Mackerras was for many years headmaster (principal) of Sydney Grammar School. Another brother, Neil Mackerras, was active in the Democratic Labor Party in its early years but became known as a lawyer for Aborigines. His twin brother Malcolm Mackerras is a renowned election commentator.
Fifty years of research
During the past 50 years Professor Mackerras has helped Chinese Studies become a thriving and recognised area of research in Australia. He has also inspired generations of
Australian students to take on the challenge of studying in China and Chinese students to study in Australia.
He was awarded the Gold Citation for the Media Peace Prize in 1981, the Foundation Cross of Merit Award in 1993, the Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Australia-China Cultural Relations in 1999, the Centenary Medal Australia in 2003 and appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2007.
His journey as a cultural ambassador never ceases with his latest book China in My Eyes, Western Images of China since 1949 promoting mutual understanding between China and the West published in 2013.
A workshop – Australian Visions of China: 1964-2014 – will be held this Friday, February 14 at the Sir Samuel Griffith Building, Nathan campus.
A photographic exhibition – China in My Eyes – celebrating Professor Mackerras’s 50 years of promoting Sino/Australian relations will be on display at the White Box Gallery, Griffith University, Gold Coast campus from February 18 to 24.
The exhibition reveals Professor Mackerras’s vision of disseminating knowledge about China and moving beyond stereotypes that portray China as an economic opportunity or security threat.