Advancing Australia's understanding of China

9 February 2017

Amidst his other scholarship, Professor Ying Jie Guo, the University of Sydney’s inaugural Chair of Chinese Culture, is searching for answers as to what it means to be Chinese in the modern era. He says there have been many ways that Chinese people have invoked the idea of ‘Chinese-ness’ historically including talking about ‘the Chinese spirit’ or ‘Chinese national character.’

Established as a result of a very significant endowment from Hong Kong-based alumnus, James Goon Nam Lee BSc ’63, BE(Elec) ’65, the Chair of Chinese Culture will be a critical part of the Department of Chinese Studies as the University continues to deepen both its teaching and learning in this vitally important area.

“The question of identity holds a key to understanding the meaning of being Chinese in the past, present and future,” says Professor Guo. “Identity is also a basis for evaluating and validating ideas, beliefs and practices - what’s good, bad, desirable and undesirable, appropriate or inappropriate, etc. As such, it shapes China’s current and future direction as well as people’s thinking and behaviour.”

In addition to examining what it means to be Chinese, it is anticipated the new chair will help improve Australia’s understanding of China. In particular, to broaden people’s knowledge about China by going beyond communism and showing them the country’s rich history, philosophy and literature. It is hoped that this process will benefit both nations.

“By strengthening the study of Chinese culture and history, people may be able to gain a better understanding of what has happened to China in the past couple of hundred years and, hence, of what China is trying to do to rebuild the country”, says Mr Lee.

Well-known University of Sydney China expert Emeritus Professor Jeffrey Riegel was head of the School of Languages and Cultures at the time that James Lee was considering the gift.

“We frequently discussed the needs of the department and the ways in which a gift would contribute most to Chinese Studies,” says Emeritus Professor Riegel. “We spoke about the sometimes negative image of China in the Australian media—an issue that concerns us both—and how supporting a chair of Chinese Culture could help in presenting to the Australian public a more informed view of China and of Chinese history and culture.”

It is also hoped that the establishment of the chair will further elevate the Department of Chinese Studies, which has grown rapidly in recent years, partly due to the generous support of Mr Lee.

“With the Chair in Chinese Culture we have the leadership figure who can develop a long-term strategy to make the department a centre of excellence in teaching and research on Chinese culture,” says Professor Yixu Lu, the current Head of the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney.

Professor Lu says the support of Mr Lee has been “essential to realising our vision for Chinese Studies.”

“We are living at a point where the growing influence of China will begin to be felt in so many different aspects of not only our economic and political orders, but also culturally,” says Professor Duncan Ivison, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research).

“Scholars and students in the humanities and social sciences will play a crucial role in helping Australians (and others) develop a deep and meaningful understanding of China, which is absolutely vital as we transition into a new kind of global order.”

“Although we have a strong tradition of research in Chinese Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences as well as in many other parts of the University, it can only really succeed with the help of our friends and supporters.”

“A gift such as that provided by James Lee not only enables us to recruit and hire outstanding scholars, but ensures that scholarship on Chinese culture - broadly construed - will be supported forever at the University. That is an extraordinary gift and a genuine privilege for the University to steward.”

Such is James Lee’s belief in the importance of improving Australia’s understanding of China that he has generously decided to add to his investment in the Department, by establishing a Visiting Scholar Program to bring experts from around the world to Sydney. And so an apparently esoteric question such as “What is ‘Chineseness’?” in fact sits at the heart of a broad and influential set of academic enquiries, the fruits of which will serve Australia - its education, society, economy and international relations - for years to come.