James Cotton reviews David Walker and Li Yao with Karen Walker, Happy Together. Bridging the Australia-China Divide (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2022).
This account of the lives of historian David Walker and his translator Li Yao is a story that operates at a number of levels. As biography, we have accounts of the educations and life activities of the protagonists. In the case of Walker, it is the unfolding of a rare historical talent in the generally benign atmosphere of Australian suburbia and academia in the 1960s and 1970s. In the case of Li, the circumstances in which he endured and then triumphed could hardly have been more different or adverse. Mao’s China seemed to find endless ways to frustrate, humiliate and punish intellectuals, and Li experienced many of these ways. From his parents and grandparents he inherited the status of landlord, and even exemplary service in the Cultural Revolution could not eradicate that stain. The ironies of this paradox in such a regime are not explicitly explored, though the frequency with which the term ‘liberation’ (jiefang) is used in China is its own comment.
Walker found his metier with his important book on early Australian perceptions of Asia, a work which appeared precisely at the time when deeper thinking was needed as Australia’s ‘engagement’ with Asia became the national project. Despite many bitter experiences, having mastered English and its literature, Li translated Patrick White, Alex Miller, Brian Castro and other Australian writers, at a time in the 1990s when China was in engagement mode itself, and considerable attention was being paid to literatures and peoples beyond the familiar locations of Europe and North America. It is surely a comment on the seriousness of this engagement that there are now more centres for Australian studies in China than in the rest of the world together, including Australia.
Beyond these two life trajectories, the book is also a reminder that relations between nations are so much richer than formal diplomatic exchanges, and that ultimately it is the lived experience of individuals that provides the real substance and foundation. There are also some remarkable parallels in these otherwise disparate lives. Just as Walker was raised in Australia on lands from which the original inhabitants were dispossessed, when the Li family left Shanxi for Inner Mongolia they took up lands that were once the preserve of nomadic Mongol inhabitants. In his efforts to make Australia intelligible to students in China during his various periods as lecturer and teacher, chiefly as BHP Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University, Walker had the good fortune to draw upon Li’s exceptional work as a translator and bridge builder. For his part, Li was able to deepen his knowledge of Australia through his sustained dialogues with the historian, some of them conducted as they travelled together to significant historical and cultural sites.
The book inevitably ends on an uncertain note. Though it is a topic not explicitly explored, the reader is left to ponder whether the two historical moments that carried these individuals to prominence, and also brought them together, may have passed into history. For more than 40 years, Australian governments of all complexions were consistent in the view that Taiwan was a province of China and that its political evolution was a matter for the Chinese people to address. Despite many Australians being unsure as to its exact location, Taiwan and its internal disposition have suddenly become matters of vital strategic interest. This innovation has emerged despite the fact that it introjects a strident Australian voice into a Chinese national issue that goes back at least as far as 1895 and of which most Australians are ignorant. If it is possible to extract Australia from this current policy cul-de-sac then the generation of which Li and Walker are representative figures may yet play a further positive role.