The China watcher

A Sichuan girl’s act of gratitude.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

Born in 1922 in Sichuan Province, China, to Vyvyan and Gladys Donnithorne of the China Inland Mission, Audrey Donnithorne, an internationally respected China expert and former ANU scholar, has quite a story to tell.

As she describes herself in the opening sentence of her autobiography, China in Life’s Foreground,  “I am an overseas Brit and a Sichuan country girl.”

The China Inland Mission was a work of the Church Missionary Society, a project of evangelical Anglican inspiration traceable to the great Wilberforce.

Vyvyan Donnithorne, after a fervent re-conversion, conceived the idea of going to China as a Christian missionary.  To that end, he studied Chinese language and culture at Cambridge University and graduated with a first-class degree.

The Great War, however, military service and a war wound threw out his plans.  Nevertheless, soon after his marriage in 1919 to the similarly minded — and stoutly feminist — Gladys Ingram, both were dispatched to China and to Sichuan Province by the CMS. And so, Audrey was born there on 27 November in, as it happened, a Quaker mission hospital in the town of Santai.

When and where you are born declare who you are:

“One thing I absorbed of my early childhood experience of being the only foreign child in a Chinese town [Anxian, to which the Donnithornes soon moved] may have been the feeling that being Chinese was the normal way of being human and that we foreigners were the odd ones out.”

China in Life’s Foreground; by Audrey G. Donnithorne; Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2019; pp. 435; $49.95.

The family left China for England in 1927 as Guomindang forces began pushing into China’s interior and foreign nationals were ordered to evacuate. Audrey was not to return until 1940.

The next important stamp on a young girl’s character was her parents’ return, without Audrey, to China in 1929.  They left her, at age six, in the hands of guardians and she did not see her parents again until 1935 – 36 when, at age twelve, they came back on leave to England.

In the autumn of ’36, the Donnithornes returned to China, again without Audrey, this time after Vyvyan had turned down — on Glady’s insistence — the offer of a Cornwall parish and the prospect of a settled family life together.

Home alone

Reflecting on these experiences, Audrey writes:

“At the time, there was a firm opinion among the British that Asia was no place for their school-age children who consequently remained in … Britain to live with relatives or guardians or at boarding school. … No doubt it … produced a considerable psychological impact on the children … In my case, while it caused me unhappiness, both in my childhood and perhaps even more in later life, it also strengthened my psychological independence.”

The observation signals the opening of a cleavage with her mother and, eventually, the rejection both of her feminism and evangelical religion.  As Audrey frigidly remarks on her parents’ passing up the Cornwall offer:

“… my mother disliked the idea of becoming a housewife, a very low category in the feminist lexicon.”

Other factors, however, were at work and these intellectual.

Audrey’s encounter, during 1933 – 35, with a ‘progressive’ high school ended up confirming her received ideas about God while, at the same time, activated within her a philosophical — as distinct from biblical — response to the most important challenge of her childhood.

This happened at the Runton Hill school for girls, just a bike ride from the Norfolk rectory in which she then lived (1929−35) with her guardians and their family.

Runton was founded by a “high-minded and forceful” modernist, Janet Vernon Harcourt, who was still principal in the young Audrey’s day:

“She took religion seriously, but her beliefs were somewhat nebulous. She seemed to believe in an impersonal life force rather than the God of Christianity. For a time this influenced me … However, before long I realised that an impersonal entity would be inferior to self-conscious human beings and therefore not God, the Supreme Being. So around the age of twelve, I drifted back to a belief and a consciousness of God in the traditional Christian sense which has been with me ever since.”

During her parents’ mid 30s leave, Audrey changed schools. From then until she finished her schooling in ’39, she was a boarder at St Michael’s, Limpsfield, Surrey. It was a happy period and one which further formed Audrey in ways that heralded her future.


There was, for example, something that coloured her whole approach to study and to the academy:

“Ernest Moule [the headmaster] was one of the many influences which have led me towards a somewhat sceptical view of the importance of education qualifications. Once, indeed, he did tell me that he knew I was expected to go on to university but that, really, I would get a better education by going away to some quiet country place and spending two or three years in solid reading.”

“I am an overseas Brit and a Sichuan country girl.”

There were also theological developments, though at odds with the founding evangelical spirit of St Michael’s. Her reading rivetted her attentions to the material reality of Christ’s Incarnation and left her with an “uncomfortable feeling” that His Church ought likewise to be something more evident and concrete than the protestant ambience of her upbringing had allowed.

Audrey was destined for Oxford. But her priority was to join her parents in China. So, in April 1940, she headed out to Sichuan Province and remained there until January 1943. It was a time dense with new experiences, deep changes and hard ‘learnings’.

Discovery China

Audrey threw herself into the study of Chinese language and writing; began teaching English at Chengdu University; read Maritain and Gilson whose books had been motored up the Burma Road to Sichuan; became in her heart a convinced Catholic; and painfully learned how things stood in her family:

“I had the impression that my parents were yoked together primarily in a common devotion to their work, as colleagues, rather than with deep mutual understanding.  I was a sort of extra addition rather than an essential constituent of the family although I always felt an instinctive bond with my father.”

Audrey’s decision to become a Catholic was a shock to her parents and, to their missionary endeavour, a cause of embarrassment.  Audrey also felt that she was missing out on the adventure of Britain’s wartime struggle. So she decided to return to England.

She landed back there in July 1943 and, on account of her China experience, was spotted immediately and soon after recruited by British Military Intelligence.

Audrey was received into the Catholic Church on 7 March 1944.

After the war, she went up to Oxford and to Somerville College where she settled into PPE. Her Oxford years (1945−48) were, she writes, “the least happy time of my life.” The reasons were various: her desire, after wartime service in MI, to do something “practical”; her aversion to intensive, narrow (instead of broad) studies; and a heightened sense of homelessness.

Audrey never envisioned nor sought an academic career. Her instincts, confirmed by recent Oxford experience, were against it.

Path unplanned

Anxious for employment, though, she took a job, in October 1948, as a research assistant in the Department of Political Economy at University College London. Again, she got the position because of her China credentials. But Audrey saw it as a two-year stint, at most. Two years, however, turned to twenty. She stayed until December 1968, was promoted through the ranks to reader and established an international reputation, especially for her book China’s Economic System published in 1967.

In 1969 Audrey moved to Australia and took up a position in the ANU’s Research School of Pacific Studies.

The ANU proved less congenial than UCL, professionally frustrating and unhappy. Had it not been, perhaps, that her “China watching” was supported by a constellation of international contacts and colleagues — even in the old Soviet Union — she might not have stayed so long in what proved to be an unsupportive environment.

Audrey had little patience with Maoist sympathizers among China scholars and, for that matter, anywhere in academe. Though few academics would have worked harder, her reservations about credentialism and annoyance with the cult of ‘publish or perish’ would not have helped. Then there was the fact that she threw herself into the Catholic life of Canberra and publicly so. Her being, for example, the moving agent behind the foundation of ACT Right to Life would have generated from her a kind of moral radiation considered in the ANU’s corridors a form of contamination.

The network

There are times when this auto-bio becomes more of a journal of record than one might wish. Good stretches of the book are spent recording how Audrey made and maintained collegial connections and friendships. At first blush, it seems like a lack of economy. But what the reader might not appreciate until they have finished her last and, in many ways, best chapter, is that this apparent excess of attention is really an act of gratitude by someone who dearly wished to have a normal family life: something which, after age six, she never experienced, except vicariously.  Audrey’s close family was her cloud of friends and her colleagues her numerous cousins.

Happily, the book picks up its early beat when Audrey returns to China in 1980. Beside her professional work, Audrey took on the role of an unofficial emissary between Rome and the Catholic bishops she was to meet along the way. Of this confidential work, which she long continued, we see only the tip. The rest lies submerged under the waters of discretion.

Reticence is a big feature of Audrey’s book. We learn surprisingly little of what she learned about China – about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — from her years of study and professional networking.  Also, we get to know little about the international community of “China watchers”, of which she was so significant a member, about its internal combats and the rise and fall of careers.

Audrey signals, however, another volume already well advanced. Let’s hope that the restraints come off: may anecdotes abound, both sobering and merry; may we learn more.

Audrey Donnithorne retired from the ANU in 1985 and went to live in Hong Kong where she still resides.  In 1997 the Chinese authorities banned her from further visits to the mainland.

“The years after my retirement,” she writes, “have been the happiest and most significant part of my life.”

We have reason to hope, then, that Volume 2 could be a cracker.


This article was originally published in Annals Australasia, June 2019.

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