Remembering Igor — our secret history

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This essay was written shortly after the death of Igor de Rackewiltz on 30 July 2016. It was initially circulated among friends and former colleagues. This is a revised version of that memoir and it should be read in tandem with Of Tartar Princesses, Poetry and Mongol Khans, also published by China Heritage.

The Editor, China Heritage
3 August 2017

Remembering Igor
Our Secret History

Geremie R. Barmé

6 August 2016
(Revised August 2017)

Igor de Rachewiltz played a key role in my life at The Australian National University (ANU) and in my near thirty-year career at that institution, including therefore the creation of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) from 2009 and the building that houses the Centre. His devotion to scholarship on Mongolia, his vast learning, linguistic genius and uncompromising erudition has for many decades offered me inspiration and caution. His abilities and personal qualities made him a man of legend and achievement in a field that is notoriously difficult; it is a field that remains recondite although vitally interesting and important.

In 1988, I presented a seminar on Chinese confessional culture in the Department of Far Eastern History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS). Igor was particularly enthusiastic during the Q&A session at the end of my talk. I had been interested in confessions and the topic of renewal since the end my student days in China in the late 1970s. As Maoist China collapsed and recanting the past and rehabilitating those wronged became a feature of life on Mainland China from late 1976 up until the early 1980s, I had become fascinated with how thinkers and writers were reflecting on confession and redemption.

Over those years, I traced the rise of the personal essay and memoirs of those recanting the past, or at least reflecting on it. In 1982, my version of Yang Jiang’s Six Chapters on a Cadre’s School Life 幹校六記 appeared; an expanded new edition was published in Australian in 1989 under the title Lost in the Crowd 陸沉. And, in 1984,  I published a translation of the first volume of Ba Jin’s confessional Random Thoughts 隨想錄. The personal essay had been the subject of a speech I presented at the Jinshan International Conference on Chinese literature and translation officiated over by Wang Meng 王蒙, the Minister of Culture, and convened outside Shanghai in 1986. For my talk, I’d expanded on these ideas to include the topic of confessions: those influenced by Taoist and Buddhist traditions, Tan Sitong’s ‘An Exposition of Benevolence’ 仁學 and the calls for national repentance and renewal from the late nineteenth century. In my 1988 seminar presentation (or what, I would later realise, would be an informal part of a job application), I referred to recent Chinese scholarship on how Cultural Revolution struggle sessions reflexively employed elements of Taoist exorcism, on the use of Buddhist terminology in Communist party criticism and self-criticism culture from the early 1940s and the nexus between ritual, performance and politics in contemporary China. I discussed how writers — novelists and poets — used religious themes in work that reflected an underlying culture of self-reflection; I also touched on the Ledgers of Achievements and Failures 善惡功過格 popular in the Ming dynasty among literati interested in measuring their lives according to the metrics of their day. (After the events of June Fourth 1989, this work would take new form in my study of Liu Xiaobo and the protest movement, Confession Redemption and Death.)


I was nearing the end of my doctoral work with Pierre Ryckmans (who had left ANU for Sydney in 1986) and W.J.F. Jenner when I applied for two post-doctoral positions, both in the Research School. Igor was, I later learned, along with the Republican historian and George E. Morrison expert Lo Hui-min 駱慧敏, a champion of my application for the fellowship with Far Eastern History. I’d known of Igor and his work from my undergraduate years at ANU (1972-1974) and remember well my friend Daniel Kane, a PhD scholar who went on to become a Kitan expert, speaking of him in awe, so I was delighted when I was awarded the job. I started my formal, well, at least salaried, academic career in March 1989 as Igor’s junior colleague. Three years later, when the position came up again, he would once more play a crucial and outspoken role, along with our colleague the Japan historian Gavan McCormack and Gerard Ward, Director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, in guiding me through the thicket of obfuscation surrounding the position and helping me secure a second appointment which, after some further drama in that era of short-term, non-continuing contracts, would eventually lead after ten years as a contract employee to a permanent job.

Among my duties as a junior colleague in the old Far East, I was asked to take over the editorship of Papers on Far Eastern History. From 1990, I had the honour to publish Igor’s work on many occasions. In 1996, I had the thrill of being able to reprint his 1971 George E. Morrison Lecture, Prester John and Europe’s Discovery of East Asia, still essential reading for any serious historian of China; and, in 2006, the penultimate year of my editorship of the journal after after fifteen years at the helm, we carried three pieces by Igor including Confucius in Mongolia and a note on the family tomb of Yelü Chu 耶律鑄 at the Summer Palace 頤和園 in Beijing.

Papers on Far Eastern History, which I edited for a year before Mark Elvin, head of the department and my editorial assistant, Helen Lo, and I transformed it into East Asian History, was the journal Igor had chosen to serialise his monumental, annotated The Secret History of the Mongols with commentary from 1973-1985 (later published by Brill in two volumes in 2003 and now available online in a concise edition). I learned in no uncertain terms about his punctilious attitude to editing, the complexities of Mongolian orthography and the spelling of Mongolian names and words, as well as his eagle-eye for editorial infelicities: I once allowed a few typographical errors to creep into an article of his (a long text that was dizzyingly replete with diacritics, non-English fonts, spellings and arcane expressions). As a result, Igor’s characteristic good humour and Mediterranean affability melted away and, in a mood of polite but pointed high dudgeon, he resigned from the editorial board of the journal and refused to publish with us until he felt that I had spent a suitable period confined to the ‘cold palace’ 冷宫 of his disdain. As our friendship evolved, he also shared with me his work on and insights into Altaic languages, something that in part inspired me to spend a summer studying Manchu with the noted Qing historian Mark Elliott and a small group of specialists at Harvard in 2010. That was a fateful year in many ways.

I’d been amused by Igor’s description of the emeritus offices near Sullivan’s Creek, next to the old Faculty of Asian Studies building, that he shared with a number of other Research School colleagues. He called it ‘The Departure Lounge’. I apologised to him when I selected (or rather fought for) and was allocated by the university that very site for the building of our Australian Centre on China in the World which I founded with Kevin Rudd in April 2010. The squat green (and very much non-heritage) bungalows of the Departure Lounge were demolished to make way for the Gerald Szeto-designed CIW building. It was with the greatest pleasure that I was able to invite Igor to return to the site. From 2014 until his passing last week he could often be found in his office there.


Igor unwittingly played an early role in the creation of the new Centre. In 2006-2007, I proposed and worked with colleagues to create an ANU China Institute as part of a longer-term plan, encouraged by my friend Mandy Thomas, an anthropologist of Vietnam and one of the university leaders, to develop an Australian Research Council bid for an ANU-based Centre of Excellence on New Sinology. In arguing for a China Institute there was the usual doleful split between narrow social scientists who wanted a Contemporary China Institute that would pursue their disciplinary obsessions, and those with a broader perspective on Chinese Studies that embraced a far more generous understanding of scholarship, the humanities and things Chinese. I was able to press the case for this more expansive vision with then-vice-chancellor Ian Chubb on many occasions, crucially including the time when Igor was presented with an Order of the Polar Star, the highest honour bestowed by the Mongolian parliament in mid 2007, by representatives of the Mongolian State Great Khural (Улсын Их Хурал). It was that year that Igor became an emeritus professor and, as the senior serving survivor of the old Department of Far Eastern History, I was asked to help officiate and speak at the award ceremony.

I only know (although not personally) of two other people who have received the Order of the Polar Star. One is Owen Lattimore, whose work featured in another journal I edited, and the other is the prominent US lawyer Eugene E. Theroux. His ‘para-legal’ activities beyond the serious concerns as a counsel with Baker & McKenzie included his hobby as a cartoonist which would lately be important to me: his whimsical illustrations for The Wall Street Journal and China Business Review helped inspire Karin Malmstrom and Nancy Nash to write The Man with the Key is not Here, a modest text about the China that lies in open view but behind the most obvious and simple expressions in the Chinese language. That small book features in the Heritage Glossary of this site. Theroux, brother of travel writer Paul and uncle to popular TV presenter Louis, established the first law firm in Beijing and worked with Mongolia for decades, and hence his Polar Star. Igor had his own adventures in the Mongolian world and I followed with curiosity his participation in a horse-back expedition that set out in search of the site of Genghis Khan’s tomb, and his subsequent comments on the controversy surrounding Burkhan Khaldun, a site he visited on the expedition, debating later attempts to identify it as the great khan’s burial place.

This was all a decade after Igor published one of his most popularly renowned works: a crushing refutation of Frances Wood’s 1995 best-selling book Did Marco Polo Go to China? Wood, a student from my days in China in the mid 1970s and eventually Curator of Chinese Collections at the British Museum, had something of a history of sensationalism and playing fast and loose with texts (John Minford had previously reviewed her  translation of Dai Houying’s 戴厚英 novel Humanity 人,啊人! — published in English under the title Stones in the Wall — for Far Eastern Economic Review and found it marred by numerous errors and deleted literary references), so I was not surprised to learn that her blockbuster proved to be more bluster than scholarship.

In 1996, Igor shared with me the draft of his sixty-page review-essay of Wood’s book. After reading it, I recall discussing it with him outside the ANU Menzies Library. A mischievous smile played on his face and there was a steely glint in his eye as he told me that he had sent Ms Wood a copy of the review prior to publication so as to afford her an opportunity to comment on and correct his critique. In the event, he didn’t hear back from Wood and the review was duly published under the definitive title ‘Marco Polo Went to China’ (see Zentralasiatische Studien 27 (1997): 34-92; for a précis, see: here). Igor’s voice rings clarion clear in his conclusion:

I regret to say that F.W’s book falls short of the standard of scholarship that one would expect in a work of this kind. Her book can only be described as deceptive, both in relation to the author and to the public at large. Questions are posted that, in the majority of cases, have already been answered satisfactorily … her attempt is unprofessional; she is poorly equipped in the basic tools of the trade, i.e., adequate linguistic competence and research methodology…and her major arguments cannot withstand close scrutiny. Her conclusion fails to consider all the evidence supporting Marco Polo’s credibility.

It was because Igor’s devastating analysis (I naïvely thought such a forensic critique would be something of a career-killer) had but scant impact on that particular house of cards — in fact, Wood’s Marco Polo potboiler later inspired a TV ‘documentary’ — that it first dawned on me that we were living into what, long before the rise of Trumpismo, Farhad Manjoo early on called a ‘post-factual society’ (see his 2008 book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-fact Society and the author’s lecture on ‘truthiness’ here), one that resembled the mendacious Cultural Revolution China of the 1970s, which I had experienced as an exchange student two decades earlier.

Igor’s magisterial debunking of Wood led me over the years to gather in a piecemeal fashion material for what I hope will eventually be a volume in our China Heritage Annual series on the theme of ‘Fakes, Phoneys, Forgeries and Follies’.


It was around that time that, while going through old family papers, I discovered that Igor and I were possibly related by marriage. My great aunt, Harriet Stewart Dawson (née McNab) would, following the death of her Scottish-Australian husband the jeweller, night club owner and property magnate David Stewart Dawson (who, among other things, was a presence in Wellington before WWI), retired to their villa in Monte Carlo. It was there that she sought out, and found, a titled man to marry. He was Prince Radziwill (1870-1955), ‘Ordynat’ (entailed estate holder) of the Palace and estate of Antonin in Ostrow County, Poland. I think Igor, an elegant man of noble carriage, was rather nonplussed at the thought of this coincidental link; from mixed stock and confused heritage myself, I could only be amused.

I am profoundly grateful for Igor’s decades of support and encouragement; indebted to him for his understanding and appreciation of New Sinology, something that I first proposed in 2005. It was that formulation for the study of the Chinese world, past and present, that formed the basis, rationale and vision for the Australian Centre on China in the World. I will miss his profound scholarship and gentlemanly guidance. During my own recent illness from 2014-2015, I shared with Igor some rather obscure material I had been pursuing on Bolshevism and utopian socialist expeditions to Tibet and Mongolia in the 1920s, and he introduced me to his latest project, a translation of a Mongolian version of the Tibetan Saga of King Ge-sar of gLing (Geser Khaan). He suggested that I might like to serialise the translation in the virtual pages of The China Story Journal of which I was the founder and main editor until late 2015. After I relinquished my editorship, and as that online journal went into desuetude, Igor fortunately found a more appropriate home for his last work.

Igor came to ANU as a doctoral student in 1955, the year after I was born. He has passed away a month before I would leave Canberra, a place I called home for three decades.

I knew it was time to go.