Telling Chinese Stories

A China Studies Centre Distinguished Speaker lecture

1 May, 2012
Professor Geremie Barmé


We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ This is the famous opening line of Joan Didion’s 1979 The White Album, a series of autobiographical essays about the 1960s. Individuals create narratives related to their own lives, as do groups, societies, political parties and nations. From the dying days of the Qing dynasty, the thinker and reformist Liang Qichao wrote about the need for China to have a new history, one that would both reflect its changed realities and help make it a modern nation.

Many of those who engage with the Chinese world encounter the stories that are told about China–there is the monolithic narrative of the party-state, the multiple stories of individuals, companies, communities, and then there are the array of accounts and told about China, some that try to deepen understand others that evoke.

History and national narratives express aspirations as well as political agendas. Australia too is a country that tells itself stories. At around the time that the Chinese Communist Party’s General Secretary Hu Jintao announced the ‘Eight Glories Eight Shames’ (ba rong ba chi) as part of the new socialist values strategy in 2006, the then Liberal Coalition Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his Education Minister Brendan Nelson championed a list of nine ‘Values for Australian Schooling’. They were part of a response to our local ‘history wars’.

Since 2008, the People’s Republic of China has increasingly focused on ‘telling the China story’, as the former PRC ambassador to Australia Fu Ying has put it. Understanding the official ‘China Story’ as well as some crucial variations of it– ‘telling Chinese stories’– is crucial to a broad-based engagement with the contemporary Chinese world.

This lecture will consider how some of these stories have come to be told, by whom and for whom, and what this may mean for those who pay attention. It will also introduce The China Story, a publishing and Internet project being launched by the Australian Centre on China in the World.

Geremie Barme

Geremie R Barmé is an historian, cultural critic, filmmaker, translator and web-journal editor. He works on Chinese cultural and intellectual history from the early modern period (1600s) to the present. From 2006 to 2011 he held an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship and, in 2010, he became the founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at The Australian National University.

He is the editor of the e-journal China Heritage Quarterly (www.chinaheritagequarterly.org) and he is presently working with the oral historian Sang Ye on a book entitled [[||Inside the Rings of Beijing: China’s Global Aura]], a monograph related to Dream of the Red Chamber and Qing history in modern China, and a study of the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan). His last book was The Forbidden City (London: Profile Books and Harvard University Press, 2008, reprinted 2012), and he is preparing a work on what he calls New Sinology.