Fan of the opera

Updated: 2016-05-20 08:22

By Liu Xiangrui(China Daily Europe)

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A longtime Sinologist from Australia, Colin Mackerras is still discovering China, especially its ancient art forms

Colin Mackerras was pursuing his master's degree at Cambridge University in the 1960s when he learned that foreign-language teachers were needed in China. He decided to give it a try despite the different geopolitical conditions back then.

His visits over half a century have resulted in hundreds of academic papers and dozens of books, with views from China and the West.

Fan of the opera

Colin Mackerras' connections to China have lasted for decades. His son, Stephen, was the first Australian born in New China in 1965. Mackerras practices calligraphy in a Beijing park. Photos Provided to China Daily

Fan of the opera

Colin Mackerras is professor emeritus at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Liu Xiangrui / China Daily

Early on, he pursued Asian studies with a focus on China, and Mackerras today is an established Sinologist.

"I was interested in Chinese culture, especially theater," the 77-year-old says of his desire to come to China along with his wife, Alyce, in 1964. At the time, China had no diplomatic relations with Australia.

Despite the challenges of living in a foreign country, they were able to make friends, and many remain so to this day.

The couple taught until 1966 and left before the start of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). However, Mackerras continued his Chinese studies in Australia. He returned to China, first in 1977 and then time and again, mainly to teach or for research.

More recently, he has been dividing his time between the two countries. He teaches at Beijing Foreign Studies University as professor emeritus.

Fluent in Chinese, Mackerras usually rides an old bike to class and spends a lot of time with his students.

In all these years, he has also followed his passion for Chinese opera, which he describes as "music of the people". Mackerras, who wrote his PhD thesis on Peking Opera, still has gramophones of the ancient art form.

"It took me a while to get used to the style of Chinese opera singing, which is so different from Western opera. But both are beautiful."

Mackerras, who has written books that explore the relationship between Chinese opera and society, says he is happy to see the art form being revived through government support.

His knowledge of China comes from extensive travels within the country, including in remote ethnic regions, and interviews with citizens and local officials.

"I have a perspective over a relatively long period of time in China. It's very helpful for my research."

Last year, he received the Special Book Award of China, which is given to foreign authors, translators and publishers who make significant contributions to China's literary and cultural exchanges with other countries.

Mackerras, who continues to work on papers about China's ethnic groups and general social changes, says: "People are living a richer life, not only materially but also spiritually. They are more open and confident than before. In the 1960s, he adds, he couldn't have imagined the country's rapid transformation.

He has also documented the changing attitudes of the West toward China. In Western Images of China Since 1949, he chronicles the background and reasons behind that change, placing them in context of the realities he experienced on the ground.

While he tries to bring different perspectives to his writing, he says the process isn't easy.

"I still think there are a lot of misunderstandings about China in the West. When the West looks at China, it is not entirely about the reality here but often more about their own politics."

In many ways, Mackerras, who has been involved in academic and cultural exchanges between China and his homeland, is a pioneer in bringing people together.

He established the Chinese Studies Association of Australia to boost such exchanges, and in 2007, he received one of Australia's highest awards for helping education and Sino-Australian ties. He is also a founding member of the School of Modern Asian Studies at Griffith University on the Australian east coast, where he has worked since mid-1970s.

Mackerras says there has been significant improvement in relations between the two countries. While exchanges in culture and education have been growing fast, China has also become Australia's top trading partner.

In 2014, he received the Friendship Award, the highest honor given by the Chinese government to foreigners who make a significant contribution to the country's social and economic development.

President Xi Jinping remarked on Mackerras' life experience when he visited Australia that year. During a speech at the Australian Parliament, Xi thanked Mackerras for his contribution to the mutual friendship and also mentioned the scholar's 51-year-old son, Stephen, who has the unique distinction of being the first Australian to be born in New China.

"I feel very proud," Mackerras says, smiling. "Although I have no concrete plans, I hope I can come back to China again and again."