Asian Studies

For countries, and none so important to Australia, have a political system as opaque as that of China. This is deliberate; since the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has striven to make turnovers in its leadership as bland as possible. But the elevation of the country’s current ‘Fifth Generation’ Leadership was actually full of drama. The New Emperors, written by Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, tells us why.

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I dealt with China for most of the ten years I worked for the British Foreign Office from 1998. The one conclusion I drew from my experience over those years was that it didn’t take much to stumble into complexity. Britain and China have a vast historic hinterland. In 1839, British forces inflicted the first Opium War on China, and British politicians enforced the unequal treaties which ushered in what some Chinese call to this day ‘the century of humiliation’. In the hundred years that followed, Britain continued meddling and became involved in issues from Tibet to Hong Kong, building up a fund of resentment on the Chinese side that continues to pay back returns to the current day.

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Walter Spies by John Stowell & Brown Boys and Rice Queens by Eng-Beng Lim

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October 2014, no. 365

‘Spellbinding’ is an apt word to sum up the effects created by Russian-born German artist Walter Spies in his phantasmagoric, darkly glowing landscapes and figure paintings, particularly those that he fashioned when living in Java and Bali between 1923 and 1941. Tropical luxuriance has other superlative renderers in art – Gauguin, ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau, Donald Friend – but none of their works has the eerie, mesmeric intensity of Spies’s. He deserves a full retrospective exhibition at that temple of early twentieth-century German art, the Neue Galerie, in New York (the last show of his work was in Holland back in 1980), but for the moment we can feast our eyes on the sumptuous illustrations in John Stowell’s biographical study of the artist – the first study in English of such substance, and a long-evolving project by an Australian scholar based at the University of Newcastle.

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North Korea always gets media attention for negative reasons: a border skirmish with its southern neighbour; a missile trial launch or nuclear test; vitriolic propaganda attacks on South Korea, Japan, or the United States; or the appalling findings of some human rights group like Michael Kirby’s recent UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea’s human rights abuses. The picture that emerges is one of unrelenting misery within North Korea and unreasoned aggressiveness towards its enemies – a dangerous and unpredictable country which, if it cannot be reformed, is best either shunned or guarded against.

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It was timely that halfway through reading this book, I glanced up to see Clive Palmer on Q&A vowing to stand up to ‘the Chinese mongrels’. It was as if a columnist from the Bulletin circa 1895 had risen from the grave to thump a battered tub and warn us about the monster intent on destroying ‘our Australian way of life’. Images like these still lurk in the bedrock of White Australian consciousness, and Palmer’s outburst was a reminder of how readily they can be summoned.

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Hamish McDonald has for more than thirty years written about foreign affairs and defence in Asia for publications such as the Sydney Morning Herald, Far Eastern Economic Review, and, more recently, as the world editor for the Saturday Paper. His writings on Indonesian politics and Australian complacency over the Balibo controversy have been more likely to put him in the firing line than on the bestseller’s list in Jakarta’s bookshops, but his tenacity and journalistic skills place him among Australia’s finest. In a departure from his usual subject matter, McDonald has shone a spotlight on Japan’s historical past in the form of a memoir. A War of Words owes its origins to a chance encounter while he was on assignment in Tokyo when the Japanese economic bubble was at its peak. After a fellow journalist gave him a box of papers that included photographs and an anecdotal manuscript of the life and adventures of one Charles Bavier, McDonald spent the better part of three decades piecing together the details of Bavier’s colourful life. Besides being an excellent tale, The War of Words represents an enlightening chapter in the history of both Japan and its ever-changing relationship with Australia.

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Crazy Little Heaven provides an account of Mark Heyward’s life in Indonesia. The book offers readers an affectionate insight into this nation and its diverse culture. In 1992, Heyward travelled from Tasmania to East Kalimantan to work as a teacher. He was initially blinded by fantasies of Indonesia as the stomping ground ‘of Joseph Conr ...

This richly documented study of China’s pre-eminent writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) by Gloria Davies cannot fail to provoke deep reflection on the issue of the creative writer, artist, philosopher, or scholar and his or her involvement in politics. For Lu Xun, the issue was exacerbated by the brutal reality of China in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a ‘time o ...

Celebrity knows no borders, so the Australian visitor to Xi’an, capital of China’s north-western province of Shaanxi, shouldn’t be too surprised to come across images of compatriots like Hugh ‘Wolverine’ Jackman and Nicole ‘Face of Chanel’ Kidman adorning the city’s retail centre. But if they look around in Xi’an’s museums and historical di ...

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey, and Michelle Cahill

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December 2013–January 2014, no. 357

This is one of the more vital and significant poetry anthologies to appear in Australia. It has been compiled with a purpose as sophisticated and complex as the arguments for existence that it posits. It is an anthology not so much of ‘region’ (it is a rather massive one), as of the experience of being or having been from Asian heritages in contemporary Australia.

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