Morrison of Peking

Watching China Watching (V)

The historian Lo Hui-min called George E. Morrison (莫理循, 1862-1920) ‘the first professional China-watcher’. He was also known as ‘Morrison of Peking’ or ‘Chinese Morrison’. During the Chinese republic Wangfu Jing 王府井, a commercial thoroughfare in the heart of Beijing/ Beiping, was known in English as Morrison Street (莫理循大街 in Chinese), so named after his residence on the street and his voluminous library (see George E. Morrison’s Studio and Library).


When George Earnest Morrison was born in 1862 in Geelong, the Australian Colony of Victoria was only eleven years old and the Second Industrial Revolution twelve. Freud was five, Oscar Wilde eight. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal had been in print five scandalous years and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species three. Queen Victoria sat on the throne of England.

By the time Morrison went to China to report for the London Times in 1897, the Manchu-Qing dynasty was in terminal decline. He would witness and even play a part in China’s new republican government. Journalism was changing radically too. So were Western women — demanding the vote, the right to own property, and in the case of one Miss Mae Perkins, to have sex and boast about it like a man.

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The historian and the novelist can both be guides to that exotic land.


In this, the fifth installment of Watching China Watching, we feature a lecture by Linda Jaivin, novelist, translator, essayist, playwright and cultural commentator. Her 2010 novel A Most Immoral Woman tells the story of Morrison and Mae Perkins. We are grateful that Linda Jaivin has given us permission to reproduce her Morrison Lecture in China Heritage.

The second part of this installment also features ‘Dr George Morrison and his Correspondence, An Appreciation’, by the historian C.P. FitzGerald which originally appeared as the forward to The Correspondence of George E. Morrison, 1895-1912, edited by Lo Hui-min, Cambridge University Press, 1974. This is followed by a tribute to Morrison by Kwok Shun and an overview of the lecture series founded in Morrison’s name in 1932.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
13 January 2018


Related Material:

Morrison’s World

Linda Jaivin

The Seventy-second
George E. Morrison Lecture
13th of July 2011

A Foreign Country

It’s a tremendous honour to have been asked to deliver the Seventy-second George E. Morrison Lecture to this eminent audience that includes so many Sinologists, historians and others engaged with China. I’m aware that if the past is a foreign country, the traditional custodians of that land are historians. I know too that novelists who claim a stake on the past may well be seen by these custodians as interlopers, invaders, even ‘illegals’.

In my own work I have trespassed on what may be for some members of this audience the most sacred ground of all, the world of George E. Morrison. My historical novel A Most Immoral Woman tells the story of Morrison’s passionate and unconventional affair with Mae Perkins, an independent and wealthy young American libertine, in 1904.

It’s a tale that roams the landscape of a dynasty in decline, looks out over the battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War, and imagines a time when a woman’s forthright sexuality could be considered far more shocking than any transgressions of empire.


When George Morrison was born, in 1862, Australia was a continent, not a nation. His birthplace Geelong was part of the Colony of Victoria, named after an English Queen who was twenty-five years into her reign over an empire on which, it seemed, the sun could be relied never to set.

Fig.1 Morrison as a young man

Yet change was in the air. Fourteen years earlier, Karl Marx had written The Communist Manifesto. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had been in print three scandalous years and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal five. The final chapter of Dickens’ Great Expectations only came out the year before. Freud was five years old, Oscar Wilde eight.

Europeans had been living on this continent for less than one hundred years. The plagues of smallpox and violence they visited on the people whose land they occupied had fatally eroded an initial spirit of mutual accommodation. Although the so-called ‘Frontier Wars’ had ended, massacres and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples had not; a particularly shocking mass murder of Aborigines occurred in Maryborough, Queensland just two years before Morrison was born.

The colonists’ unease and fearfulness about the harsh Australian land itself had been brought to fever pitch the year before Morrison’s birth, when the expedition of Burke and Wills from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and Coopers Creek ended in a fatal shambles.

Morrison’s parents, the Scotsman George Morrison and his wife Rebecca, only arrived in Australia four years before the birth of their son. George Senior founded Geelong College. It speaks of the standard of the times that not only did he see fit to boast that his boarders bathed in the sea every morning but also that ‘each boarder has a separate bed.’

The boarders’ families could afford such luxury. It was boom times in Victoria. In 1851, gold had been discovered at Ballarat and Bendigo. In the decade that followed, miners extracted some 20 million ounces of gold there, one-third of the world’s total output.

In that great land to the north, a five-year-old emperor, the Tongzhi Emperor, sat on the throne.

By the time of Victoria’s gold strike, the Taiping Rebellion had begun to cut its murderous swathe through southern China. Times were tougher than usual. When word of this miraculous ‘New Gold Mountain’ 新金山, percolated north, tens of thousands of mostly southern Chinese set sail for Australia.

Organised, frugal, and hard-working, the Chinese gave the locals a run for their money on the gold fields. Tensions erupted into conflict and violent anti-Chinese riots ensued. The most serious of these, at Lambing Flat in New South Wales, occurred only one year before Morrison was born.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia wasn’t simply the product of competition on the goldfields. In the early eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire had idealised China as possessing not just a brilliant civilisation, but a system of government that, being based on competitive civil service examinations and the ideal of the virtuous ruler, was worthy of emulation. By the start of the nineteenth century, however, Sinophilia had largely given way to the Sinophobic views of thinkers like Diderot and Montesquieu, who considered China a hopelessly despotic nation ruled by fear. What’s more, as Colin Mackerras demonstrates in his book Western Images of China, by then Britain had taken over as the West’s leading source of images of China — and, for the first time in history, the majority of these images were negative.

Theories of race were steadily gaining credence in the West. These held that ‘colour’ — pink not included — was a marker of moral and other deficiencies. In his book The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800, David E. Mungello notes that while in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans referred to Chinese as having white skin, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the notion that they belonged to an inferior ‘yellow’ race had taken hold.

The fact that the Qing only quelled the Taiping rebels with the help of a British military man, Major-General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon, reinforced impressions of China as a barbarous, hapless nation that could only benefit from contact — even enforced contact — with the ‘civilised’ West.

But if the West was kicking down China’s doors, it was bolting its own. When Morrison was growing up, Australian legislators passed exclusion laws and imposed special taxes to deter further Chinese immigration. Although in 1894, when Morrison first step foot in China, the White Australia policy was still a twinkle in Edmund Barton’s eye, institutionalised racism against Chinese in Australia was well entrenched. Knowing this lets us truly appreciate the most frequently quoted lines from Morrison’s 1895 book An Australian in China:

I went to China possessed with the strong racial antipathy to the Chinese common to my countrymen, but that feeling has long since given way to one of lively sympathy and gratitude.


Morrison was nonetheless very much a man of his age: the Age of Empire. Between 1815 and 1915, Britain increased its empire by twenty-six million square kilometres of territory in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, claiming dominion over more than four-hundred million people worldwide. The French were on the march in Africa and Southeast Asia, a recently united Italy was seeking to expand its influence as were Germany and Russia. It wouldn’t be long before Japan joined in the Great Game.

As a boy, Morrison loved reading the Illustrated London News. The subscription reached them by sea mail; his parents might still have had copies showing artists’ impressions of the razing and looting of the Garden of Perfect Brightness, Yuanming Yuan 圓明園, or other scenes from the Opium Wars with which the British had punished China for its lack of interest in their nationally-sponsored drug trade. At sixteen, Morrison’s favourite book was Coomassie and Magdala by the explorer H.M. Stanley. Stanley would go on to track down Dr Livingstone; Morrison would go on to find his ultimate literary hero in Rudyard Kipling, the ‘prophet of imperialism’ the author of the iconic The Jungle Book and Kim among other novels of empire and poems including Gunga Din and The White Man’s Burden.

Fig.2 Morrison’s calling card

It’s easy in retrospect to see the falseness of notions of ‘discovery’ when applied to long-inhabited places, or to perceive how outrageous was the practice of ‘exploration’ when it involved invasion and wanton souveniring. The actuality of bullying, invasion and exploitation today make the official rhetoric of the British Empire that it was a ‘civilising’ force sound hollow. But there’s no indication that Morrison was anything but sincere in his belief in this mission.

While still a teenager Morrison tested his endurance and mettle in the bush, in the outback and on the rivers of this continent, paddling the Murray solo in a canoe and re-tracing Burke and Wills’ fatal route. When he took off to see the wider world, whether it was to attempt to walk across New Guinea, try his luck as a physician in New York, or simply sample the carnal delights of Madrid, it was with the cockiness of youth, the confidence of the hero, and the knowledge that he was an Englishman, one of the world’s ruling tribes.


Morrison’s ability to travel to such far-flung destinations as the British Isles, Jamaica, the US, France, Morocco, the Philippines, and of course China was greatly aided by the technological advances in railways and steamships over the nineteenth century. The marriage of compound steam engines, steel hulls and screw propellers had whittled weeks and, in some cases, entire months off intercontinental ocean voyages.

Around the time Morrison was born, the Frenchman Louis Vuitton came up with another idea that would revolutionise travel: lightweight, stackable luggage.

A few weeks ago, a friend travelling to China for the first time texted from Shanghai to ask where she could buy deodorant. I texted straight back suggesting a Mannings or Carrefour. In Morrison’s day, you wouldn’t want to have forgotten any necessity, whether it was your camp fork, shaving kit, rubberised raincoat, or toothbrush. Especially your toothbrush — until the late 1800s they weren’t even easy to find in the US. On the other hand, a toothbrush may have been one thing you could safely count on getting in China. It’s believed that like paper and gunpowder, the bristled toothbrush was invented in China, spreading to the West from there.

Morrison, who has given us extraordinary access to his world thanks to the journals he kept almost to the day he died, would also have needed to pack a pot of ink, a supply of blotting paper and spare nibs. At least he didn’t have to worry about quills: metal fountain pens, patented in America in 1810, had come into mass production the year before he was born.

As for clothing, it was an age when people dressed for dinner: even Morrison, famous for his relaxed, even bohemian approach to fashion, would have had to pack a presentable selection of collars and cuffs. Women’s kits took a bit more space: a single outfit for a Western woman in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could consist not just of dress, hat, gloves, stockings, garters and shoes but a top bodice and under bodice, gored skirt, petticoat, corset cover, busk, corset, chemise and of course bloomers.

If Mae Perkins took a little piece of Morrison’s heart when she finally returned to San Francisco in June 1904, she could have stowed it in any one of her thirteen pieces of luggage.

Then, of course, were the precautions one needed to take for health. Tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, dysentery and rabies were rampant in many parts of the world, and easily spread. Notions of hygiene were far from universal and medical science itself was only just coming round to the idea that germs caused illness. Blood tests and antibiotics were things of the future. An 1890 guide for passengers on Orient Pacific steamships advised all travellers to carry essential medicines such as potassium, ammonium, strychnine, morphia, caffeine, chloroform and cocaine.

A man would be also well-advised to pack condoms, or ‘riding coats’ as they were nicknamed. The most common were fashioned from oiled and stretched lamb intestines. As I wrote in A Most Immoral Woman, while these were ‘fairly reliable at preventing what was known in polite society as an “interesting condition”,’ they didn’t offer much protection from the ‘pox’. Syphilis and gonorrhoea were pandemic in the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, given some of the revelations in his journals, Morrison suffered from the latter, describing both symptoms and cure in his diary in some detail as well.

On his first trip through China, Morrison contracted what was probably bubonic plague, also pandemic at the time. But if there was many things you could get on the road, one thing you couldn’t take, not easily anyway, was a camera. Photography was cumbersome, the province of professionals trained in the obscure alchemy of albumen emulsions and collodion processes.

Kodak’s moment came in 1900 with the introduction of the one-dollar Brownie camera — the first that was highly portable, affordable and easy to use. Morrison would become an enthusiast. For the first four decades of his life, however, he captured his world in words.

The publication in 1895 of An Australian in China, made Morrison something of a minor celebrity. It so impressed the editor of The Times of London, Moberly Bell, that Bell offered Morrison the job of China correspondent for The Times. Morrison, trained as a doctor, had always wanted to be a member of what he considered the nobler profession, that of the journalist.

Steam-powered presses introduced early in the nineteenth century had enabled, for the first time, the fast and inexpensive production of newspapers for a general readership. The recently deceased News of the World, founded in 1843, and probably not a great argument for the nobility of the profession, was one of these. Another so-called ‘penny press’, The New York Herald, actually sponsored Morrison’s hero Stanley on his quest to find Dr Livingstone in exchange for exclusive reports on his progress.

A separate technological development had an equally great impact on journalism. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message in his own code of dots and dashes. It translated as ‘WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT’. Then he sent a second: ‘HAVE YOU ANY NEWS’. Telegraph technology meant that by the time Morrison met Moberly Bell, there was such a profession as foreign correspondent.


Morrison arrived in Peking for The Times in 1897. The Chinese capital was a walled city rising out of kilometres of flat countryside like a magnificent medieval fortress, an impression strengthened every sunset when guards shut the nine gates of its broad walls.

In the treaty ports and foreign concessions of Tientsin, Shanghai and Canton, Western architecture, paved streets and godowns had begun to dominate the urban landscape.

Peking was still essentially a Ming-dynasty town with broad avenues and almost one thousand hutong alleys, its central north-south axis commanded by the Forbidden City. No building stood taller than the walls of the palace, though atop the city walls, where Morrison often strolled, it was possible to view the sea of golden tiles that decorated the palace roofs sparkling at the heart of the graceful, grey, low-slung capital.

The Inner City — or Tartar City — was the exclusive realm of Manchu and other northern Bannermen, though by the time Morrison arrived, the rules had bent to allow some high-ranking Chinese and merchants to reside there as well. Manchu, Han or Mongol, all men shaved and plaited their hair in the Manchu style — or risked losing their heads altogether.

On the streets, curtained sedan chairs jostled for space with rickshas, recently introduced from Japan, and native ‘Peking carts’, mule-pulled cabs that looked like miniature covered wagons.

South of Qianmen lay the walled area to which Han Chinese had been banished soon after the Manchus set up court in Peking. The ‘Chinese city’, as it was known in English, was famous for even more chaotic and colourful street scenes, thriving shops, restaurants, theatres and brothels.

It’s easy to romanticise the Peking of the late-nineteenth century — the lively seediness of Tianqiao; the splendour of Mandarins gathering for their dawn audience outside Donghua Men 東華門, the Gate of Eastern Splendour; not to mention the cultured, passionate Dream-of-the-Red-Chambers-lives of the extended families cloistered in their courtyard mansions.

Fig.3 Morrison at Beidaihe

Morrison’s contemporaries were not so lyrical in their assessment. Morrison’s good friend Lady Susan Townley, in her memoir called Peking ‘…the dirtiest and most evil-smelling town in the world. Travellers who have experienced the odours and sights of such cities as Seoul, Bagdad and Constantinople, easily give the palm to the capital of China… .’ Another British diarist of the time declared the ‘Chinese city’ south of Qianmen ‘so squalid… that with the exception of a single street it is of but little interest to Europeans.’

When Morrison joined the capital’s community of five-hundred or so foreign residents, he was the first full-time journalist. Unlike in the foreign concessions of the treaty ports, foreign residents of Peking lived under Chinese law without the protection of extraterritoriality. Nor, strictly speaking, were they allowed to trade. Most were diplomats, missionaries and scholars.

They tended to live in or around the foreign legations not far from Qianmen. When the odd eccentric, such as the polyglot scholar and talented fabulist Edmund Backhouse, chose not only to live apart but to wear Chinese clothes and adopt Chinese ways, this was called ‘going native’, not an entirely respectable destination.

By the time Morrison arrived in Peking, the Legation Quarter boasted banks, bowling alleys, bicycle tracks, a dedicated post office and even a Swiss-run hotel. At Kierulff’s shop, the first foreign-owned store in Peking, one could find anything from French champagne to darning cotton and saddles — not to mention palace eunuchs and Manchu noblemen among one’s fellow shoppers, one reason such places were tolerated despite being technically illegal.

It wasn’t Tientsin. But with the steady round of social luncheons and dinners, picnics, receptions, amateur theatricals, race days, games of whist, tennis and billiards, one British diplomat was able to remark without irony that it was possible to pass the summer in Peking ‘and never leave the precincts of civilisation’.

‘Civilisation’ was served, after a manner of speaking, by its own newspapers as well. One, the English language North China Herald, in an article published the year Morrison arrived, likened the Chinese to a creature halfway between the recently discovered Java Man, Homo erectus, and ‘civilised man’, saying that when angry, he became ‘the very picture of an enraged anthropoid ape’. Racialist discourse was just another thing, like trade and missionaries, that followed the flag. My researcher in California, Maida Counts, turned up some interesting background on that subject about Mae Perkins’ host in Tientsin, James Ragsdale, the unofficial American consul.

Before arriving in China, it turns out that Ragsdale had been an activist in the ‘anti-Coolie’ movement against Chinese immigration in California that paralleled the anti-Chinese campaigns in Australia. As publisher of the Sonoma County Daily Republican, Ragsdale editorialised that the Chinese were a race which possessed ‘neither conscience, mercy or human feeling’. They were ‘monsters in human form, cunning and educated therefore more dangerous and vile.’ It is amusing to speculate what twist of fate landed James Ragsdale in China itself — and I do speculate in my novel.

Morrison, who readily availed himself of the social and other advantages of the Legation Quarter and eagerly absorbed and transcribed the foreign community’s gossip, salacious or otherwise, preferred to live apart, settling after 1900 in a courtyard house on Wangfujing. There, he enjoyed sharing the world of his servants, who passed on stories of dealings with minor officials, scrapes with the law, and news from relatives who worked inside the palace or lived in the countryside. He took a warm interest in their families and became close friends with his headman — or head ‘boy’ as he was called.

It’s hard today to appreciate the depth of the divide in Morrison’s day between foreigners and the people of China, whether Han, Manchu or of other ethnicities. There was only limited socialising between the communities. For one thing, Chinese and Manchu were not accustomed to socialising in mixed company — men and women together — whereas Westerners were the opposite. They didn’t much enjoy the other’s cuisines, and if Chinese considered Western manners crude, Westerners tended to find the intricacies of Chinese social courtesies daunting — despite having a reasonably complete handbook in the missionary-authored guide Ways that are Dark, Some Chapters on Chinese Etiquette and Social Procedure. Of course, a deeper obstacle lay in the fact that the very presence of the foreigners in Peking was a daily reminder to its inhabitants of their country’s weakness and humiliation.

Political, Personal

One of the most dramatic events of the late Qing occurred the year after Morrison arrived in Peking. The thirty-one-year-old Guangxu Emperor (r. 1875-1908) endorsed a program to introduce Western-inspired reforms to the country’s ailing military, political and economic structures.

After one hundred and four days of reform, the Empress Dowager, Tz’u-hsi 慈禧, feeling threatened, and under the influence of a conservative coterie within the court, took the extraordinary move of placing the emperor under house arrest. She also ordered the detention and execution of the men who had advised him.

Morrison had enthusiastically supported the reforms. He once described himself as being ‘impervious to all sentimental or personal considerations’ in his journalism. Yet he was hardly detached, and in this case even involved himself in an abortive plan to rescue one of the accused. He detested the Empress Dowager for her role in the affair, and his journals are peppered with references to ‘that odious woman’ and ‘that awful harridan’.

Morrison held strong opinions about people and never minced his words. He frequently branded his dinner companions ‘dull dogs’, or ‘damned fools’. Women of his acquaintance — those that were not ‘squeezable’ that is — could be ‘gushing’, ‘giddy’, ‘cranky’ or ‘cackle-headed’, and at least one Chinese official was little more than a ‘sleeve dog’. Then there were those he really didn’t like: ‘confirmed masturbators’ and ‘disagreeable brutes’.

The Belgians were ‘ill-disciplined socialists’ — and one wouldn’t want to get him started on the French, the Jews, the Russians or the Germans. Though he generally approved of the Japanese, he also used that phrase ‘anthropoid ape’ to describe a Japanese diplomat of his acquaintance. Even the fascinating English Arabist and travel writer Gertrude Bell wasn’t spared: ‘she’d talk the leg off an iron pot and she has the cheek of the devil.’

But few ever excited as strong a degree of antipathy in Morrison as the Empress Dowager. He actually wrote in his diary in April 1899 that he had ‘often wanted’ to see her killed.

He understood the feeling to be mutual after, in the summer of 1900, her imperial guards not only failed to stop the murderous, xenophobic and anti-Christian Boxer rebels from entering Peking, but appeared to aid them in their campaign of slaughter. Caught in the fifty-five-day siege of the legations, he took active part in their defence and was badly wounded.

Only the invasion of foreign troops ended the siege. Morrison had also lost his home in the conflagration. When it was over, the Empress Dowager and her court had fled Peking and the foreign troops led the looting of the Forbidden City. Morrison partook of the spoils, compensating himself for his losses and taking a bit of personal revenge on the Empress Dowager at the same time.

Several years later, the lines between personal and political, partisan and observer would blur again. Morrison became so active in promoting Japan’s interests in Manchuria and pushing Japan to attack Russian interests there and in Korea that, in November 1903, he declared to his Shanghai colleague J.O.P. Bland that ‘…If she [Japan] does not go to war then I personally will repine that my whole work in the Far East has been a failure.’ When the Russo-Japanese War finally broke out in early 1904, it was nicknamed ‘Morrison’s War’.

The Wild World of Women and
The World of Wild Women

We’ll return to war in a moment. But there was another battlefield that helped to define the changing landscape of Morrison’s world. Women in the West had begun to fight for suffrage, the right to own property and live lives of their own choosing. The creature known as ‘New Woman’ was born. The most famous fictional incarnation of the New Woman was the Gibson Girl, the creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson in Collier’s magazine in 1902. A wildly popular model of young active womanhood, the Gibson Girl combined elegance and femininity with athleticism, character and modernity. Then there was the real-life Alice Roosevelt, daughter of the American president. Alice, pretty and stylish, was so famously wild — firing pistols into the air at parties, smoking cigarettes, jumping into a swimming pools fully clothed — that her father once famously said ‘I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.’ For all her gumption, Alice could not herself have aspired to run the country — women in America didn’t have the vote.

Even in forward-looking America, girls weren’t encouraged to pursue education or career. A young lady of good family’s first priority was to maintain what ladies magazines called ‘the citadel of their chastity’ until such time as they could be marched across Hymen’s Altar by a suitable young man.

Life was a bit different for the working classes. The factories of the Industrial Revolution in England and the United States had with their voracious need for labour, produced a new class of independent working women. Those who took advantage of their freedom to live sexually liberated lives, sometimes mixing with poets and painters were called grisettes in France for their grey dresses and were known in America as ‘B-Girls’ — bachelorettes and bohemians.

On the whole, however, women weren’t believed to have much natural interest in sex. At the same time, there was tremendous cultural anxiety, that the opposite might be true. There was a moral panic around nymphomania. This extended at times to corsets, which supposedly overloaded the sexual organs with blood, causing ‘unnatural excitement’. The solutions ranged from the horrific — confinement in asylums and clitoridectomies — to the anodyne, such as eating cornflakes for breakfast, designed by the famously sexually repressed vegetarian Mr Kellogg as part of a diet to dampen the sexual urge. My favourite is a warning by nineteenth-century physician that nymphomania could be caused by women putting their hair up in a way that would exert pressure on their ‘small brains’ and causing ‘an unusual flow of the blood to the area of amativeness’.

Morrison had known more than a few grisettes, wild girls and naughty wives in his time. But he had never encountered anything like the walking area of amativeness that was Miss Mae Ruth Perkins. Mae, whom he called Maysie, romped into Morrison’s world in late 1903 and into his bed in early 1904. His was not the only bed she was prone to visit — and she freely shared with him and he, via his journals, with us, her considerable record of conquest, both past and concurrent.

He was agonised and jealous, but seemed willing to put with Mae’s antics so long as she kept him on her booty list. His diaries reveal that he wrote to her often, both letters and telegrams. He recorded the latter in his diary; all we know of the former is that they included one of the most ‘melting’ love letters he composed in his entire life.

My research assistant in California turned up stacks of love letters written to Mae by an impressive range of lovers before she arrived in China. Morrison mentions her reading to him from such letters, and the nosebleed it caused him. Sadly it seems Morrison’s own letters to her have been lost to posterity.

Morrison’s War, James’s Quest

While Morrison pursued Mae, his colleague Lionel James, chased a dream. James was The Times’ star war correspondent. He’d reported from a number of fronts including the Second Boer War in Africa, where he was trapped in the Siege of Ladysmith. He’d had to rely on everything from pigeons to heliographs to get his dispatches from the battlefield to the pressroom. The sheer physical challenge of getting a report from the field past military censors and to a telegraph office meant it could take up to a month before it even reached the newsroom.

Now that he was being sent to cover the Russo-Japanese War, James had a better idea: to employ the relatively new science of wireless radio transmission to make today’s battles tomorrow’s news. The transmitters were too heavy for a journalist who might be following an army on horseback. They required a trained operator, and a mast for receiving the signals that was not too far away. The Russo-Japanese War presented an ideal opportunity for wireless telegraphy, however, for in its early stages, it was prosecuted as a naval battle for control of Port Arthur, the commercially and military strategic town on the tip of Manchuria’s Liaodong Peninsula.

James persuaded the editors at The Times to hire a boat, the SS Haimun, and fit it out with a transmitter, pay for an operator and erect a mast in nearby Shandong at the British protectorate of Weihaiwei. There was one major catch: the Japanese navy had to agree or James’s efforts would literally be sunk.

Morrison had respect and friends in high places in Japan. The mission seemed to hang on his ability to persuade both the Japanese and the wary British Admiralty back home that it was a good idea.

In the end, The Times pulled the plug on what was an increasingly expensive and seemingly futile enterprise. But as Peter Slattery shows in his fascinating 2004 book, Reporting the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5: Lionel James’s first wireless transmissions to The Times, the episode — and the few dispatches James did manage to send — is considered a landmark in the history of war correspondence.

An Era in Fits and Starts

Fig.4 Yuan Shikai in civilian dress

In hindsight it’s easy to see how the Russo-Japanese War, which Japan won in 1905, paved the way for its full-scale invasion of China thirty-two years later. Though Morrison wouldn’t live to see that, he did come to change his opinion about Japan’s likely role in the region as a force for good.

In 1911, the Qing dynasty was overthrown by republican revolution. Morrison, who considered himself a good strategic thinker, enjoyed respect among senior Chinese officials and believed himself a solid friend of China, soon made another questionable call. Leaving journalism for a career as political advisor, he helped persuade the country’s new and still fluid leadership that of all the candidates for the republic’s first president, Yuan Shikai alone could win the confidence of the foreign powers. Yuan became president, and Morrison his advisor.

Another Australian journalist who had become passionately invested in the question of China’s fate was W.H. Donald. Donald drafted Sun Yat-sen’s Republican Manifesto but like Morrison, had little faith that Sun, whom he called a ‘fool’ in a letter to Morrison, could run the country. On the other hand, Yuan’s neo-imperial ambitions and excesses would soon leave Morrison doubtful that he had backed the right horse; he eventually professed himself ‘thoroughly disgusted’ with his job.

In early 1915, the Japanese presented to Yuan what are now known as the infamous ‘Twenty-one Demands’ — demands Morrison later characterised as ‘worse than many presented by a victor to his vanquished enemy’. In the words of biographer Cyril Pearl, the demands ‘would …  have reduced China to a vassal state’. The Japanese warned Yuan not to disclose any details to Japan’s ally Britain, or there’d be war. In the end, Morrison, who believed that ‘disclosure was China’s one safeguard’, persuaded Yuan to leak the contents of the document.

It was a decision of momentous consequence. In mid-1919, long simmering Chinese anger at both Japan and the collusion of foreign powers against Chinese interests erupted in the patriotic and culturally charged May Fourth Movement.

Final Years

In 1912, after several dalliances with other ‘immoral women’, Morrison married his young secretary, Jennie Wark Robin. After Yuan’s death in 1916, with the rise of warlordism, the collapse of central government authority and so on, China grew ever more unstable. Jennie asked Morrison to move to England for the sake of their children’s education.

Fig.5 Morrison’s secretary, and later wife, Jennie Wark Robin

For the next several years, Morrison maintained a punishing regime of travel, writing and speaking around the world on behalf of the Chinese cause as he saw it. But his health was deteriorating. On 27 May 1920, the fifty-eight year old Morrison, weak, jaundiced and suffering from acute pancreatitis, picked up his pen for the very last time. He wrote in his diary, ‘Almost can believe death struggle began’. He died just days later.

That year, 1920, the US Constitution was amended to extend universal suffrage to women. Wireless radio signals had truly revolutionised journalism: commercial radio was born. Airplanes, used to ferocious effect in the Great War that had only ended two years earlier, were poised to change the face of travel; in Australia, that year marked the founding of the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services — QANTAS. The League of Nations came into being; the Russian Civil War ended. Women threw away their corsets and lifted their hemlines: flappers, It Girls, and all that jazz would mark the decade known as the Roaring Twenties.

In China, bound feet followed the Manchu queue into extinction and in China too, girls had begun to be educated in numbers and a form of New Woman arose there too. It was in China in 1920 also that an inquisitive and strong-minded twenty-six-year-old provincial from Hunan read The Communist Manifesto; one year later, Mao Zedong would attend the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party.

Humbug and History

Is it really possible to know Morrison’s world? Inga Clendinnen, in her Quarterly Essay: The History Question — Who Owns the Past disparaged the notion that a writer can, through research or a series of experiential experiments, truly understand what it was like to live in another era. Empathy, research and imagination have their limitations. In her view, the novelist’s only real defence of their trespass is that of Peter Carey who, when questioned how he could possibly know the mind of Ned Kelly when he wrote his provocatively titled novel True History of the Kelly Gang, ‘I made it up.’

Henry James once wrote to a woman author of historical novels:

‘You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like — the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its absence the whole effect is as nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman — or rather fifty — whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force — and even then it’s all humbug.

With regard to Morrison and A Most Immoral Woman, I suppose I can say that I did my best to write a novel that allows the reader to experience a taste of Morrison’s world — and Mae’s as well. As for the rest, like Peter Carey, I made it up.


I wish to thank Professor Geremie Barmé for his many valuable comments and suggestions, and for the support of his Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship on China Heritage and Beijing Spectacle in writing this lecture.


Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:

The following essay was written by C.P. FitzGerald, the founding professor of the Department of Far Eastern History, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University (now part of the College of Asia & the Pacific, ANU). It originally appeared as the forward to The Correspondence of George E. Morrison, 1895-1912, edited by Lo Hui-min, Cambridge University Press, 1974, vol.1, pp.vii-xiv.

— The Editor
China Heritage 


Dr George Morrison and his Correspondence

C.P. FitzGerald


To say that Dr George Morrison was a man of his age is to state a truism; all men belong to the age of their lifetimes, and few if any escape the prevailing climate of opinion, prejudices and assumptions. But Morrison’s age is already sufficiently remote from our own for a word of explanation, of consideration of what these assumptions and beliefs were, to be needed for a just understanding of the man and the opinions he expressed in the long range of his correspondence. He was a man of unusual percipience and thus freer than many of his contemporaries from the prevailing dominant ideas. He, almost alone, could see beneath the dry bones of the dying Manchu Empire the stirring of fresh life, of a new, probably unintelligible and almost certainly disconcerting China, but yet a continuation of the life of that great nation into a new period of vigorous activity. Very few agreed with him. He was not a man to suffer fools with patience, nor always to treat the stupid with kindness; he was impatient of the lack of vision, or narrowness of outlook, which he frequently found in his employers and colleagues. He could see so clearly that he was better informed, had better judgement than they had, and if he were only to be given the scope (and the funds) he could do so much more for the comprehension of China than he felt himself able to achieve. He did not make many allowances for the fact that to those whom he criticised China was at that time only of marginal importance, and that it was really some tribute to the vision of the editors and proprietors of The Times newspaper that they were willing to support a special Correspondent in Peking. Morrison was fully aware of his own quality, although he never boasted: he was less able to see that others might not be so much lacking in ability as in interest in his own field of work.

Morrison was an Australian, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this made him an unusual person in the field of international journalism and Far Eastern affairs. It gave him a certain sense of detachment from the Englishmen whom he encountered, and an independent outlook upon the structure and staffing of some British institutions. But he was not a conscious Australian nationalist, nor indeed would he have quite understood some of the attitudes of his contemporary countrymen today. Above all he saw himself as British; this was an overriding allegiance which contained no contradiction with Australian birth, education, and lasting attachment. He had done things in his own country before he went to the Far East which should have won wider acclaim than they did, but he never complained of that. The adventures of his youth were part of his Australian heritage, perhaps the best part, a share in the development and even the exploration of the great empty homeland. But when it was a matter of wider, world concerns, of high politics and wars, Morrison was unreservedly British; he did not conceive that Australian interests could really diverge from those of the United Kingdom. He felt himself to be a citizen of the Empire, a subject of the monarch in London, and saw no reason not to be thankful for it.

In his age, the heyday of the late phase of the British Empire, to be an imperialist was no badge of shame; on the contrary it was a privilege conferred by the good fortune of being born a subject of the Queen. It carried duties also; Britain had a worldwide responsibility not only to the subjects of the Queen abroad, or in the colonies and overseas Empire, but to mankind, as a just guardian of the best interests of civilisation, which were almost to be identified with those of the Empire itself. This was not the hypocrisy that it will seem to many people of our own time. It may have been unreal, superficial even, but it was the genuine conviction of many men other than George Morrison. It appears in his writings as an assumption rarely stated, for it would have been pointless to state it to those who received his letters. It was based on the belief, in part true especially in the Far East, that before the rise of British sea power the countries of that region had been poor, weak, harassed by tyrannical rulers, and backward in their economic development. Britain had brought peace, order, just government, and the rule of law: also economic development, in which she got her just reward — even if that was the lion’s share.

Power is to the strong; but power must be wielded with humanity, justice, and restraint. These ideals he knew had also been those of the Chinese ruling class, as exemplified in the teaching of Confucius. It was his lasting sorrow that though the words were still spoken the deeds were very different. It was also his lasting belief that as the Chinese had once espoused the ideals which he believed still inspired the British, the Chinese could return to them, aided if necessary by the British. It was this underlying belief in the rectitude of the assumptions of his own time, and their applicability in all parts of the world, that inspired much of his career, and led him to devote his last years to what proved the thankless task of trying to help the new Republican China to revive the old ideals and also practise the modern imperial virtues.

Dr Morrison was not by nature a democrat. No doubt he accepted the system that was established in his own country and in the British Isles. But he was no radical, and did not really understand or appreciate the motivation of a man like Dr Sun Yat-sen. The introduction of what were then extreme radical political forms – a republic (when outside the Americas there were only two in the whole world, France and Switzerland), seemed uncalled for, certain to be inapplicable to China, and out of touch with Chinese realities as he saw them. In many ways these criticisms were justified, but the answer was not a return to the past, refurbished, nor even the continuance of a regime which made few concessions to modern changes, but a more thorough exploration of the range of revolutionary experiment, which must in time bring forth a system which was both modern and Chinese. Morrison did not live to see this process more than begin, and the beginnings were distressing.

Morrison does not seem to have felt strongly about the absence of real democracy in the working of the imperial government in Britain. He accepted that no British Government would, or could, flatly oppose the clearly expressed views of the nation. But he also accepted the prevailing view that foreign policy was for experts, and that it required years of study, a good education and a balanced judgement, assets which the mass of the electorate could not bring to it. His complaint was that the men, or some of them, used by the institution were inferior, incapable, or owed their positions to social influence. This last factor he obviously disliked, and in his attitude to it some of his Australian upbringing and ethos showed plainly enough. But he really feared that second-rate men could damage the interests of the Empire, fail to see what they should do and encourage their superiors at home (i.e. London) to follow wrong policies. He thought, and often said, that the quality of the British diplomats posted in Peking was poor, and that hardly one man who had served there during his time had won his respect for ability, although he acknowledged that many had been good friends and well meaning. But it distressed him to see the great ship of Empire so poorly manned in an age of peril.

Increasingly like most of his contemporaries, Morrison believed that the peace of the world was in danger, and that Britain’s role as peacekeeper and guardian of the sound traditions of civilisation was threatened. To the modern it will seem strange that these fears, all too justified as they were, did not inspire any pacifist outlook. Morrison not only expected a great war, but he did not shrink from the prospect. It could mean that forces which he saw as disruptive of the harmony produced by British power would have to be confronted and cast down. It was a necessary evil, part of the heavy duty of Empire. That it might be the end of Empire itself, win or lose, does not seem to have been present in his consideration. This is not to say that he was an insensitive man unable to imagine the horrors and cruelties of a great conflict. It was rather that he and all his generation had really no understanding of what a modern war would be like. It is not only the generals who prepare for the ‘last war’; the statesmen, the journalists and the intellectuals are also bound, by the memories and history of the earlier age. To Morrison the conflict would be no doubt sharp, but the end almost certain, and unquestionably swift. Nor would the consequences be so dreadful. Those who had lost their relatives would be the pity, and the pride, of the whole nation; but the Empire would be saved, the course of civilisation resumed upon an even tenor, and a salutary lesson taught to the defeated disturbers of harmony. That those nations would suffer more than the Humiliation of their rulers, material and human losses, and prestige, does not seem to have been expected. It was not foreseen that war was the womb of revolution, and social revolution to boot.

War must be expected, could not be avoided, and in a way was almost welcome to resolve a situation which could not otherwise be mended. China should be led to see her interests as on the same side as those of Britain. She must be guarded against some foolish leaders who might be seduced by the potential enemies or imagine that such a war between the Western peoples could be a benefit for China, if she knew how to profit from it, and keep clear of it. This last view was the most insidious and dangerous. There might be little prospect of China joining the Germans, there could be much more chance of her trying to play off ‘one barbarian against another’. Dr Morrison did all he could to bring China into the war against Germany at the earliest moment; he bitterly deplored the action of the British Minister, Sir John Jordan, who was urging Yüan Shih-k’ai to remain neutral. He believed that China had missed a great chance by staying neutral until 1917.

Before the war with Germany had begun, up until a few years before, although the prospect of war was considered probable there was still some doubt about who the enemy was going to be. Russia had for long been cast for this part, but after the poor showing of the Russian Empire in the war with Japan 1904-5 the threat of Russia seemed to pale. Even in 1900, when Germany claimed and obtained the post of commander-in-chief of the international relief force sent to Peking during the Boxer movement, her arrogance and presumption had seemed excessive. It was not long before the pretensions of the Kaiser and his advisers had convinced Morrison along with most of his contemporaries that Germany was the destined foe. It is equally clear that in the years before the war the forthcoming contest was seen as one between two great powers — with their allies — and not as the confrontation of Good and Evil which wartime propaganda was soon to make it. Britain must fight for her place, as all empires had had to fight. The challenger was not a moral outcast; he might be foolish, arrogant and insufferable, but he was only doing what others had done before, and he would meet the same fate. There had been Philip of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon. Kaiser Wilhelm was not a figure of the stature of these.

Morrison had been an early admirer of Japan, and found little to quarrel with until after the defeat of Russia in 1905. Then gradually he came to see that, as the Chinese put it, ‘the tiger was driven out by the front gate, while the wolf was admitted by the back gate’. Japan was going to be worse than Russia. She was, of course, the ally of Britain, a mark of esteem never before conferred upon a non-European nation. But she was presuming on this favour. She was pursuing her own ends and interests and these not only were not identical with those of Britain, and therefore undesirable, but actually conflicted, or threatened to conflict with those of the Empire. By the time the war had come Morrison was highly critical and suspicious of Japan. Her designs on China were inordinate and would be destructive not only to China’s independence but to the trade and prestige of Britain in the Far East. She was in collusion with Germany. Morrison returns to this charge repeatedly, and it is interesting to observe that he documents it well, yet it has never been openly publicised even when in the Second World War Japan was on the enemy side. No Japanese ships, he claims, were ever sunk by German U Boats. No Japanese escort destroyer on the Indian Ocean convoys had to fire a shot at a German raider or submarine. Japan took over German assets, but used them for her own ends or kept them intact for their German owners. Japan engrossed the trade of the Far East, expanded her shipping, paid off her debts, and contributed very little indeed to the ‘war effort’. Yet she expected (and received) the rewards of a victor. Morrison very clearly foresaw the part Japan was to play in the twenty years following his death.

This clear-sighted vision, product of his long experience and also of his realistic view of power politics, seems in him, and in his generation, strangely less evident when it came to the matter nearest his interests and heart, China. Like all those with whom he corresponded on the affairs of China Morrison had seen the impending fall of the Manchu Empire. All the signs were clear, the rule of aged women and eunuchs in the name of a child, blind conservatism, nepotism, corruption and incompetence marked the Court as unfit to guide China in the troubled period ahead. The Manchus were doomed; it was really the tolerance of the Great Powers which had saved them after the folly of the Boxer movement, and they had done so more in their own interests than in those of China. But if all foresaw the fall, none seemed clear on what would, or desirably should, come in its place. The signs of dissolution are described in some detail; hardly any space is given to a consideration of the alternatives, either as probabilities or as solutions. Sometimes it seems that in the minds of many of Morrison’s correspondents there was an unexpressed belief that the fall of the dynasty would herald the break up and collapse of the Chinese state and nation. Division and foreign rule, or suzerainty over the parts, or outright annexation of detachable regions, seem to have been one expectation, and widespread. The restoration of a monarchy under a new dynasty was favoured by older men who had learned that this was the ancient pattern of Chinese history. Hardly any seem to have considered that the collapse, when it came, would be the beginning of a profound and long-lasting transformation of the whole Chinese society, political, cultural, economic and social.

Morrison himself was one of those very few who had some inkling of this, an uneasy perception that change was irreversible, and unlimited; a half-grudging recognition that men like Dr Sun, impractical dreamers though they were, had nonetheless some fire in their bellies which all others lacked. Partly the difficulty of his generation lay in the twin facts that they were wholly inexperienced in revolutions — there had been none of true social significance since the French Revolution more than a century before — and that with the august precedents of the American and French Revolutions in their minds, they simply could not conceive that ‘backward’ countries, which had not the benefit of the philosophers of the European Enlightenment to guide them, could possibly engage in real revolution with a social purpose, not merely a change of dynasty. So no one thought the fall of the dynasty would be or was a true revolution. For some years it seemed to confirm this opinion. Yüan Shih-k’ai tried to restore the monarchy for his own benefit. Dr Morrison urged him to refrain from this plan, partly because he thought the time, in the middle of the First World War, very inopportune. It would be better for China to join the Allied cause than to change the regime: partly because he saw that support for the change was superficial and antagonism profound. But whether he really knew what the antagonism was based upon is not clear from the correspondence.

Yüan did not long survive the failure of his attempt upon the Throne, but the idea that the monarchy was outdated was still novel to many European observers in China. There was profound disillusionment with the new Republic, which quickly fell into the anarchy of the warlord era, already dawning at the end of Morrison’s life. From his correspondence in his last years it is not easy to see what Dr Morrison still hoped for or expected to develop in China. The successors of Yüan, whom he served to his death, were either weak, incompetent or venal — often all of these. His advice, finally taken, was for China to join the Allies and thus win a place at the peace conference with the counsels of the victors. The result, which he barely lived to see, was what others might have expected, and he himself feared. China was ignored; her territory of Shantung, and the former leased German port in that province, were virtually handed over to Japan by a secret treaty arranged before China had become a belligerent. The May Fourth Movement of protest against this betrayal, as it was universally seen in China, occurred in the last months of Morrison’s life. It is now recognised as a landmark in the development of the Chinese revolution and the national and political consciousness of the Chinese people. Morrison was no longer in Peking to see this event himself; had he been there, in good health, it is likely that he would have understood its great significance.

Until the Russian Revolution of November 1917 the Western world had no yardstick to measure the force or meaning of a modern social revolution; the Chinese revolution, which had preceded the Russian by six years, did not at first develop social aims, but had the character more of a political vacuum than of a new system. Morrison and his contemporaries could not be expected to foresee the unknown; they saw little in the Chinese society which they knew to portend the future range and scope of the Chinese revolution. They looked for signs of modernisation and liberal reform, and found few; they did not fully appreciate the submerged forces of the peasantry and their woes, nor perceive how these forces could be harnessed by a dedicated and single-minded political party. The air of unreality in which the fall of the Manchus, whether impending or already occurred, as discussed at that period must seem very casual, almost frivolous to an age which can see what the consequences were ultimately to be, but it is explicable in terms of the experience of the generation then living. One consequence, which Morrison could not see and which would have distressed him beyond measure had he done so, was that the combination of the war with Germany and the rise of nationalism in China was to mean the steady diminution of British power and influence in the Far East and the rise of Japanese power and ambition. From the end of the First World War Britain accepted that the Far East was no longer a primary sphere of her interests. The Japanese navy was admitted to be the dominant sea power, diplomacy began a long delaying action to cover what was in fact retreat both before rising Japanese influence and increasing Chinese Nationalist pressures. Morrison’s ideal of Britain helping China to establish the patrician type of democracy which had prevailed in Britain itself in his lifetime was no longer a realistic hope, if indeed it ever had been a valid expectation.

Morrison, who travelled widely in China whenever his duties made it possible, had probably a better understanding of the real condition of the countryside than most of his contemporaries, who made few such journeys unless in the comfort of a foreign steamer upon the Yangtze River. This experience of the country is not reflected in his correspondence, because on the road he did not write letters, and his record of such travels is found in his diary. That work will give us a much rounder and fuller appreciation of Morrison’s knowledge of China, his sources of information, and his judgements upon the likely or actual course of events: matters which he was not ready to commit to letters to friends however longstanding, except in rather rare instances. His letters portray much more of the international interests which his work stimulated than of his intimate knowledge of Chinese affairs. Few of his correspondents shared that knowledge, but all were involved in what was known to them as the ‘Great Game’ — international rivalries and politics. This preoccupation with the manoeuvres of diplomacy and high finance in face of the coming storms of war and revolution is characteristic of the age and presents a very precise and clear view of how men of influence and political authority thought about their world. Dr Morrison’s letters thus give a vivid picture of an age which was on the edge of destruction and rapid disappearance. Its assumptions were challenged and disproved, its prejudices ignored, and its aspirations frustrated. The War to End War was but the prelude to further wars, of which we have perhaps not yet seen the last. The imperial heyday was not the age of Augustus or Trajan, but of Marcus Aurelius: the limit of harmony and the dawn of disorder.


This rich legacy to the historians of China speaks for itself, of Morrison the man and his contemporary fame. Strangely enough, it was only by accident that Morrison came to be associated with China, and then not until he was thirty-five. Considering what he had achieved by the age of twenty-one this was relatively late. Indeed, unlike diplomats and missionaries at that period, Morrison had neither an upbringing nor an education which could be said to have prepared him for the roles he was to play in China — apart perhaps from a vague journalistic aspiration from his early youth, and his adventurous spirit.

Born in 1862 in Geelong, Victoria, Australia, George Ernest Morrison was the eldest son of the Principal of one of the state’s leading schools, Geelong College, where he was educated. He then entered Melbourne University to read for a medical career. But already in his last years at school he undertook a series of trips across Australia, remarkable even for a country priding itself on its pioneering spirit, and especially for one so young. When he was seventeen he walked some 650 miles from his home to Adelaide, in the high Australian summer, in conditions which only those who have experienced them can appreciate. This was followed by a lone canoe trip down the Murray, Australia’s largest river, then little explored. Such wanderings provided Morrison with the first opportunity to try out his journalistic ability. The records he kept of his trips, describing day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour, experiences, and published in a local paper, show keen observation and minute attention to detail. These qualities, occasionally stretched to a fault, as his future chief at The Times was to remind him, remained with him throughout his career in China. When his medical studies at the university were rudely interrupted — because he recommended an excessive dose of medicament as a cure for syphilis at the intermediate examination — he set out to explore Northern Queensland, in tropical Australia, and at the age of twenty-one led one of Australia’s earliest expeditions across the Torres Straits to the then largely unknown New Guinea. His exposure of the Kanaka slave trade led to an enquiry by the British Colonial Office, and caused no little stir and disturbance among the culpable local officials, who did everything they could to discredit him. But the most notable of these early achievements was undoubtedly his walk in 1882, unaccompanied and without a compass, of 2,043 miles in 123 days, from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the extreme North of Australia to Melbourne in the South, along the same route as that on which Bourke and Wills, for all their fanfare, and with a large convoy and material support, had perished twenty-one years previously. So daunting and ‘impossible’ was the task that, while their failure became one of the most popular tales in Australian folklore, Morrison’s feat was laughed off by a local newspaper as a hoax. It was left to The Times, quite unaware of its future link with the young man, to describe the walk across the unmapped Australian outback as ‘one of the most remarkable pedestrian achievements’. And an achievement it certainly was. Morrison was to perform a similar feat again, but in China, the country where his future lay.

He narrowly escaped death from a spear wound he received in New Guinea in 1883. The barbed spearhead remained in his body for some nine months, until he travelled to Edinburgh to have it extracted by Professor John Chiene, to whom he was to dedicate his first and only book, An Australian in China, published in 1895. He then resumed his medical studies at Edinburgh, completing the full course in 1886, after two years. With his diploma in his pocket, he set out again to roam the world, having no particular aim in view but that of earning sufficient to satisfy his lust for wandering, from continental Europe to North Africa, America and the West Indies, Australia and the Pacific Islands, and the Far East. It was during this wandering that, having missed the boat for Japan, he went instead to China in 1893, thus making his first contact with the country of his future. Early the following year, he donned a Chinese gown and cap and set off, with £18 in his pocket, from Shanghai to Rangoon, a distance of 3,000 miles, most of it unknown to foreigners; he covered the greater part of it on foot, and survived a severe fever. After a return to Australia, he sailed for England in early 1895; how he then became connected with The Times he describes in vivid detail in his letter to Moberly Bell, the Manager of The Times, which opens the first volume of this selection of his Correspondence.

Thus his association with China was accidental; even when he was given the job by The Times, China was not his first choice. He was finally appointed to Peking as an experiment. Neither he nor his employer expected him to stay there for seventeen years, let alone to achieve such instant and enduring success. The reason for his sudden fame is not hard to find. In the immediate years after the Sino-Japanese War, China was an area of international intrigue. Then it was The Times that Morrison was writing for. But above all, Morrison had the virtues which a correspondent in such a position needed but usually lacked. There were many foreign correspondents from many countries in China even in Morrison’s time, but none achieved anything like his reputation, nor indeed did any of them deserve it. And if it was true that The Times, by being the vehicle of his work, helped to spread his fame, it was even more true that it was Morrison who made The Times the indisputable authority on China news, a position which it rapidly ceased to hold with Morrison’s departure in 1912.

What were his unique qualities? ‘I cannot write’, Morrison more than once complained to his many friends and colleagues, evidently feeling some real inability. But if he had any lack of stylistic power, it was more than compensated for by the conviction which his plain and lucid narrative inspired in his readers; his style was the more masterful because apparently flat. However, this impression came less from his style than from his whole attitude. His adventures prove his courage, but even there he was not reckless, and he was not an adventurer in journalism; he was keen to have a ‘scoop’, but was never sensational. Biased though he was as a ‘colonial Englishman’, jealous of England’s interests, he would report facts as facts, and view situations not merely from a local angle. He was thus able to discharge his duty, as few journalists did, ‘with the accuracy of a historian and prescience of a statesman’, even though it was of an English historian and an English statesman. This quality of integrity and scrupulousness, though admittedly within certain limits, explains why he could remain personal friends of the diplomats and representatives of the countries and interests which he as a colonial Englishman opposed. It also explains why his messages and opinions from China should have guided the chancellories of many countries during those turbulent years when China was an important area of world crisis.

These qualities, which won him such high regard, as well as his seriousness of purpose, are again shown by his collection of books in Western languages on China and the collection of papers he bequeathed. For his own information, Morrison started a library as soon as he arrived in Peking, without knowing then how long he was to remain there. In time his collection went beyond his immediate journalistic needs, and he increasingly collected books as a collector and bibliophile. The thoroughness he applied to this task gave him unrivalled scope in his knowledge of China. As a meticulous librarian and archivist, he was to help historians of the future towards a fuller comprehension of the country in which he chose to live and work. His collection of papers testifies not only to the authority, influence and fame he rightly enjoyed during his lifetime, but to the seriousness of purpose with which he applied himself to the study of China. This collection of papers, from which we now publish a selection, as well as his collection of books, which remains one of the best of its kind on China, constitute indeed an important dimension of Morrison’s achievement.

George E. Morrison, a Tribute

The following calligraphic tribute to George E. Morrison was written under the name Kwok Sun (Guo Shun 郭順, who was widely known by his English name William Gockson), a member of the family that founded the Wing On 永安 Department Store in Australia which then expanded to Hong Kong and Shanghai to become the largest retail chain and second largest national textile concern in Republican China.  It is dated 1932, the year of the inaugural George E. Morrison Lecture in Canberra, Australia. We have been unable to identify the pavilion of which Mr Kwok speaks.

Kwok Sun’s panegyric for George E. Morrison

Dr George Morrison, a man of unique character and ability, was from Australia. He was particularly wise in the way of politics and, following the inauguration of the Republic of China, became an adviser to the President’s Office. As such he was privy to many matters of great sensitivity and offered his counsel unstintingly. Throughout his life he devoted his energies to serving China and the world; his achievement is a monument to his efforts. His contribution to the cultural contact between China and Australia was particularly rich and varied.

Some years ago, while sojourning in Australia, I had the good fortune to make his acquaintance. He was of the greatest assistance to me. This rare friend is now no more; his passing has left a void in my heart. Thus I avail myself of the opportunity, on the opening of this pavilion, to record these few words of remembrance.

— Spring, the 21st Year of the Republic of China [1932]

Respectfully inscribed by Kwok Sun 
of Chung-shan

translated by Geremie R. Barmé

The Morrison Lectures

An Overview

The George Ernest Morrison Lecture series was founded in 1932 by Chinese residents in Australia. It was, in their words, ‘to honour for all time the great Australian who rendered valuable service to China.’ It is easy to forget now that the lecture series not only commemorated Morrison—well known for his work on China and, among other things, for his acute observations on Japan’s imperial ambitions in that country—but also that they were related to Chinese-Australian resistance to White Australia, reflecting also the alarm and outrage resulting from Japanese attacks on China in 1931. It was also hoped that the lectures would contribute to the cultural relations and understanding between the two countries at a time of heightened international tension and suspicion. The early success of the foundation was due in particular to the efforts of William J Liu (1893-1983) a politically active Sydney businessman, former managing director of Australia-China Mail Steamship Line (1917-24) and vice-president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in New South Wales, and William Ah Ket (1876-1936) a Melbourne barrister known for his public resistance to Australian racism, leaders, respectively, of the Chinese communities in those cities, assisted by a number of interested Australians. The Chinese Consul-General, W.P. Chen, who gave the inaugural as well as the fourth lectures, also provided timely assistance to this pioneering enterprise. Later, following the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Ambassador in Canberra would also lend support.

From its inception, the Lecture series was associated with the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra where, of the first ten lectures, all but one were delivered in May each year. This annual event was interrupted by the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1942, and the Morrison Lecture Series might never have been heard of again but for two fortuitous happenings: the founding of the Institute of Advanced Studies, the newly-conceived academic institution that provided substance to the new Australian National University, and the advent of Sir Douglas Berry Copland. This New Zealand-born economist-guru, academic and civil servant, upon completing his assignment as Australia’s first post-War Ambassador to China, was called upon to assume the foundation Vice-Chancellorship of the new institution. Whether he had anything to do with the currency of a jocular description of the new institution as the ‘Australian Institute of Advanced Studies of New Zealand’, he was certainly responsible for reviving the Morrison Lecture. The first address he gave, in 1948, marked the re-foundation of this series of lectures, sponsored henceforth by the ANU. Mindful of the unprecedented changes and turmoil which he had personally witnessed taking place in China, Copland persuaded C P Fitzgerald of the British Council, whom he had met in Peking, to come to Canberra to join the new university, entrusting him with an investigatory tour of universities and centres in Asia, Europe and America where teaching and research on China and East Asia was being undertaken. This resulted in the creation of the Department of Far Eastern History within the Institute’s Research School of Pacific Studies.

This chain of events brought to the Morrison Lecture a new intellectual and international character, as visiting scholars from various countries were invited to contribute, interspersed with local speakers. There would doubtless have been many more distinguished speakers had the available dates for delivery not been restricted by term- and exam-times of students, who have always been encouraged to attend, not to mention the limited stays and tight schedules of many of the potential lecturers. The permanent scholarly contribution to the series would also have been greater if all the speakers had been able to submit a written text for publication. Therefore, it is with great regret that we will never have the texts of Wang Ling’s ‘Calendar, Cannon and Clock in the Cultural Relations between Europe and China,’ Fang Chaoying’s ‘The Great Wall of China: Keeping Out or Keeping In?,’ Eugene Kamenka’s ‘Marxism and China,’ Tuan Yi-fu’s ‘Chinese Attitudes to Nature: Idea and Reality,’ Jerome Ch’en’s ‘Peasant Activism in Contemporary China,’ Lord Lindsay of Birker’s ‘China and the West,’ and the offering of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. But even then, the speakers so far represent no less than fifteen nationalities in double that number of disciplines.

— Geremie R. Barmé