Book Reviews

Audrey Donnithorne's China in Life's Foreground

Audrey Donnithorne has led a remarkable life – and after almost a century it is not over yet. Her memoir – a further instalment may be forthcoming – traverses more than sixty years of family, intellectual, professional and – not least – religious life. For her contribution to the study of China in Australia alone, this book should find an interested Australian readership.

I first glimpsed her, if my recollection is correct, fifty years ago when she appeared in Adelaide as the guest of my teacher Victor Funnell (himself, like Donnithorne, the offspring of missionaries and Sichuan-born). She was then at the height of her academic prominence, having published in 1967 what was at the time perhaps the best and most comprehensive account of the economy of China, China’s Economic System. An inveterate and intrepid traveller, an accomplished builder of networks (before that concept was well known) not least with American colleagues, possessed of a penetrating intellect and with formidable work habits, Donnithorne laid the foundations for the study of contemporary China at the Australian National University. Although frustrated, in some measure, by the academic bureaucracy, she was a profound influence upon a generation of scholars and students. 

Much of the book dwells, as it must, on the complex relations between her two intertwined families. The Donnithornes were pious, somewhat impractical but with imaginative intellects. The Ingrams were wealthier and more accomplished but of lesser social standing, in part due to their Anglo-Indian origins. At an early age Audrey – in an episode utterly in character – offended an elderly aunt whose strictures on inter-racial marriage were met with the retort that the Ingrams were a product of that very practice. Her missionary parents were working in what were then the wilds of western China when she was born, and an early story recounted in the book is of the kidnapping of the family by bandits, with two-year old Audrey subsequently berating the bandit chieftain in Chinese for his theft of her father’s pillow.

A temporary civil servant in London after her return from wartime China, Donnithorne then studied at Oxford, conducted extensive research in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, published influential books and, while essentially an accidental academic, rose to be Reader in political economy at University College, London. Though some members of her scattered family were already in the antipodes, her decision to transport herself to Canberra was a result of opportunity rather than of any deep disquiet with her role – though it had its annoyances – in Britain. 

In many respects Donnithorne might be held to be an exemplar of feminist achievement in a still patriarchal culture. Donnithorne herself, however, avoids no opportunity to express a profound distaste for ‘radical feminism’, going so far as to suggest that her lack of sympathy with such progressivism positively obstructed her professional path during her years at the Australian National University when, in effect, she was its senior female academic. Although inaugural head of the Contemporary China Centre, she was never invited to become a member of the Faculty Board, in that era the executive body of her school. She was not elected to the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, she was not invited to deliver the annual Morrison lecture on China, nor was she appointed to the Board of the Australian Journal of Chinese Affairsdespite its ANU base. She contrasts these disappointments with the position of her successor, Stephen Fitzgerald, who immediately upon appointment joined the School Board (and in due course delivered the lecture, as well as enjoying other advantages). However, another reading of these episodes seems more plausible. Earlier in the book she describes the disdain with which her work at University College London was held by the younger economists training to work on China at the School of Oriental and African Studies, extending to the ‘blocking’ of an important work she had written from appearing in their house journal, The China Quarterly. She later notes her failure to be awarded the degree of DLitt which she had sought from Oxford. Fitzgerald, of course, was a man, as were the SOAS economists, and the Oxford degree committee was undoubtedly – in that era – almost exclusively male. The male predominance in the ANU at that time (and for many years after) was nothing short of hegemonic. It is more likely that Donnithorne experienced all these disappointments because she was a woman, and without the feminist movement that she so roundly dismisses (in part on the grounds that it undermines the traditional role of the woman as mother and house maker) academic Donnithornes yet to be born would have found themselves still confronted by the same hurdles.  

The title of the book is descriptive of its contents, but an equally accurate and perhaps more revealing title would have been ‘Catholicism at the core’. At an early age not only did she resolve to become a Catholic – despite the Anglicanism of her extended family – but she even considered entering a religious order. She recounts on many occasions and in much detail her contacts with various Catholic figures, describes her commitment to spreading and entrenching that church’s teaching – including counselling young women against abortion – and expresses her disquiet at what she perceives to have been the weakening of Catholic doctrine on such questions as contraception and homosexuality as a result of Vatican II. It is unsurprising that her religious inclinations and her China scholarship then came to occupy, and finally contend for, the same space.

Her early visits to Communist China were partly sentimental – to revisit the scenes of her youth – but principally to assess the performance of an economic system about which so little empirical data was then available. However, she also sought contact with members of the Catholic clergy, including in 1982 meeting Bishop Paul Deng Jizhou in Leshan, Sichuan. Deng had been in detention for almost thirty years, upon his release in 1979 being permitted to re-establish a chapel for worship and minister to the estimated 1,300 faithful who remained in his district. In the meantime, Catholicism in China had fallen under the oppressive state control of ‘patriotic’ church leaders who repudiated Vatican authority. Despite being the bearer of encouraging messages and gifts, Deng expressed his apprehension that such contacts from abroad would bring trouble. After such experiences, Donnithorne became a frequent intermediary between international church authorities and those in China who still wished to acknowledge Papal leadership. Though she returned to China on many occasions thereafter, ostensibly seeking data for a revised edition of her book (which was never to be published), the inquiries of the economist seem to have been supplanted by the missions of the religious observer and emissary. In a brief final reference Donnithorne notes that in 1997, having in the meantime retired to Hong Kong, she was prevented from further visits to China by being denied a visa. Still a force of nature, it is hoped that the appearance of a further volume from her pen will allow this latter story to be fully told.


Audrey G. DonnithorneChina in Life’s Foreground (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly, 2019) ISBN 978-1-925801-57-6


Note: Donnithorne's memoir was edited and prepared for publication by the ALR's Editor in Chief, Martin Alexander, acting in a private capacity.

More Book Reviews

Please Register or Login

Register now for full access to News and Events, Web Exclusives, Blogs and Comments.

If you've already registered, please login.