Wednesday 18 September 2019

The Irish and China: Encounters and exchanges - Fine book of essays charting historical and cultural links

Essays The Irish and China: Encounters and Exchanges

Edited by Jerusha McCormack New Island, hardback, 190 pages, €19.95

Hog-manay: former Chinese Ambassador Yue Xiaoyong and then Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring celebrate the Chinese New Year. Photo: Gareth Chaney.
Hog-manay: former Chinese Ambassador Yue Xiaoyong and then Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring celebrate the Chinese New Year. Photo: Gareth Chaney.
The Irish and China: Encounters and Exchanges, edited by Jerusha McCormack

We are about to enter an age of long overdue Chinese dominance in the world. The huge advances made by the once struggling and underdeveloped region have created a new superpower with a calm and clear vision, at a time when the US and Europe are noisily struggling to adapt to changing economic and political forces.

Ireland is a small element in all of this, but in a era of self-interest as well as clubs, it is important to look at our advantages. We are part of a European Union with which China has deep and constructive relations. But in our own right, Ireland has a small but important relationship with the Asian superpower. There have also been long-standing historical and cultural links, as this fine book of essays reveals. As a former diplomat, it has always puzzled me that two very important moments in Irish-Sino relations are not made more of.

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One was Ireland's support for the admittance of 'Red China' to the UN in 1955, in defiance of the US (and Irish-American opinion, and the Catholic Church) which wanted the Chinese seat to be reserved for the much smaller Taiwan and 'the Communists' kept out. Neutral Ireland, which took the UN seriously, saw the reality of the situation.

The other event was the robust support of Éamon De Valera, then President of the League of Nations, for Chinese Manchuria when it was brutally invaded by Japan in 1936. The Chinese are a proud people who value such gestures and are mindful of their past struggles - more than ever now that they are prosperous.

Both of these events are proof that Ireland's view of China (and, crucially, vice versa) has often been through the lens of a smaller country struggling to assert itself against a colonial neighbour. It is a perspective that is very much in evidence in the essays here.

For example, there is an absorbing account of how the Chinese poet Guo Moruo was greatly moved by the hunger strike by the former Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, during the Irish War of Independence in 1920. Moruo wrote passionate poems about MacSwiney's long protest and Ireland's broader struggle, with clear implications for Chinese aspirations. (Interestingly, a Vietnamese dishwasher then working in a London hotel was similarly moved - his name was Ho Chi Minh) in a not dissimilar way, Dai Congrong describes the appeal of James Joyce and his imaginative literature which scorns hierarchy for a direct humanity and the appeal of the heart.

Many of the essays describe this broader appeal of Irish culture and remind us of the mixed spiritual qualities of Chinese culture which involve a different non-Western type of logic and thinking. In this vein, Chen Li describes the growth of Irish studies in modern China.

Hugh MacMahon explores how various generations of Irish Christian missionaries encountered these same spiritual elements in China and how they could often create an enriching complement. There is also an essay, by Luke Drury and Anna-Sophia Kiang, on the links and cooperation in astronomy between the two countries and the work of scientist Tao Kiang.

A pioneer of another sort was Augustine Henry, a botanical pioneer in China in the late 19th century who collected rare plants and seeds in the remote mountainous regions and sent them back to Kew Gardens in London and to Dublin's National Botanic Gardens. Today, visitors to the latter can view a specimen of his famous discovery, the beautiful handkerchief tree. This essay made me yearn to read a full biography of the plucky Henry.

The book also focuses on recent economic and social ties, as well as immigration and the growth of Chinese migrants in Ireland, along with their changing sense of connection and identity. There was an incredible 91pc increase in such migrants from 2002 to 2011, with probably the same since.

Increased prosperity and curiosity in China has increased trade and commerce and Kieran Fitzgerald writes about doing business there and the exciting opportunities, especially in the agri-food sector (Kerrygold is especially popular). There is a similar appetite for popular culture and Guo Ruxin and Liu Hongchi explore China's ecstatic welcome of the Riverdance phenomenon.

In many respects, these essays are as much about Ireland's multicultural reinvention of itself and how, often in surprising and small ways, just how each nation has helped to transform the other. And will continue to do so.

It is a great credit to Professor Jerusha McCormack for assembling this multifaceted collection. With her co-author, John Blair, McCormack has already given us Thinking through China (2015) and the excellent Comparing Civilizations: China and the West (2013).

Along with those, this book reminds us, compellingly, of the many crucial differences in perception - on everything - between Western and Asian cultures and consciousness. It is a liberating notion, however, and should be embraced. At a time of much negativity and uncertainty in the West, the emergence of China, and its culture, as a global force is an exciting prospect. And it is one that Ireland is well placed to seize.

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