One of Australia’s greatest journalists

Over the next few weeks China’s main broadcaster will screen almost four hours of a documentary about the great Australian journalist George Ernest (“Chinese”) Morrison.

From 1897 to 1912 Morrison was China correspondent for The Times when the newspaper was effectively an arm of the British foreign office. Because of his position and a series of major political events Morrison became the most recognised Australian in the world.

China Central Television claims an audience of about 1,000 million souls, more than the combined audiences for the United States and Europe. Despite the high regard in China, Morrison is almost forgotten in his country of birth.

A small brass plaque marks his years at Geelong College, where his father was the founding headmaster. In 1932 Chinese people in Australia funded a series of lectures “to honour the great Australian who rendered valuable service to China”. The Australian National University took responsibility for the lectures in 1948 and the most recent Morrison memorial lecture was 6 September 2007.

But little else honours a truly remarkable life.

It would take thousands of words to detail his achievements so this article will only mention some of the highlights. In 1880, aged 18, Morrison walked almost 1,000 kilometres from Victoria to Adelaide.

Two years later Morrison exposed the practice of “blackbirding” in an eight-part series in The Age, after working on one of the ships that lured Pacific islanders aboard and then took them to Australia to work almost as slaves.

That same year Morrison traced the route Burke and Wills had pioneered 22 years earlier, walking 3,254 kilometres in 123 days from north Queensland to Melbourne. Travelling alone and living off the land, Morrison averaged 26.5 kilometres a day. In London, The Times described the journey as “one of the most remarkable of pedestrian achievements”.

At age 23 Morrison led an expedition to walk north across New Guinea, but returned early after being speared twice. No surgeon in Australia would operate and a finger-length spear tip remained in Morrison’s body for a year before an Edinburgh surgeon removed it. Morrison continued his medical studies in Scotland and worked as a doctor from 1888 to 1894 in Spain, Morocco, the West Indies and Australia.

But journalism was his passion. The year of the Adelaide walk, Morrison wrote to his mother that journalism was “the noblest of all the professions”.

In 1894 Morrison’s career moved to a larger canvas.

In February that year, dressed in Chinese garb, Morrison travelled overland from Shanghai to Rangoon in Burma. His diary reports he sometimes walked 48 kilometres a day. The next year his book An Australian in China (subtitled “Being the narrative of a quiet journey across China to Burma”) received critical acclaim in England and Moberly Bell, manager of The Times, offered him a trial as the paper’s China correspondent.

Dr Xuan Doe-Kun has translated Morrison’s book into Chinese and it was launched to coincide with the television program. Dr Xuan is an editor at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences and wrote her PhD about Morrison. “He was a great man,” she told me in Beijing, “and the Chinese people still respect him highly.”

In his 1967 biography of Morrison, newspaper editor Cyril Pearl noted that one of Beijing’s major streets was named after Morrison. People continued to call it “Former Morrison Street” after it was renamed WangFuJing Street.

Dr Xuan and Li Yan showed me where Morrison owned a house on WangFuJing Street, now one of Beijing’s ritziest shopping malls. Li Yan wrote the script for the documentary and Dr Xuan acted as historical adviser.

Li Yan travelled extensively in Australia in 2007 filming for the program, and is astonished that Australians appear to have forgotten Morrison. “When he was alive he was the most famous Australian in the world, along with Dame Nellie Melba,” she said.

Opera singer Melba was born a year earlier than Morrison, in 1861. She continues to be remembered in her own country. Restaurants have named desserts after her. The first thing people see when they arrive at Avalon airport in Victoria is a sculpture of Melba. Where are the Morrison memorials?

Li Yan interviewed Sydney writer Linda Jaivin for the documentary. Jaivin, fluent in Mandarin, is working on a novel based around an affair Morrison had with an American traveller, “Maysie” Perkins, in 1903-04. Morrison called Perkins “the most immoral woman” he had ever met, and Jaivin has based the title for her book on the phrase. Jaivin described Morrison as “a very complex character”.

Jaivin said Times journalist Lionel James’s description of Morrison resonated with her – he was a man of “many-sided greatness”. James covered the 1904 war between Japan and Russia with Morrison.

A huge department store occupies the site where Morrison’s home stood in Beijing. Such is the pace of progress and the value of land in Beijing that new, large buildings soon replace smaller ones. Nearby is the area where thousands of Boxers besieged a few hundred troops and diplomats for 55 days during the Boxer Revolution of 1900.

Li Yan showed me the place where Morrison was shot in the right thigh while inspecting the defences on July 16 that year. Despite the wound he dragged a severely wounded British officer, Captain BM Strouts, to safety as snipers continued to shoot at them.

Morrison later wrote in his diary that Strouts’ body was soaked in blood but the captain remained conscious. Strouts, who died soon after, asked about Morrison’s wound. “I said mine was unimportant,” Morrison wrote. “Then I fainted.”

That same day Morrison’s paper reported that every foreign defender in the diplomatic area had been massacred. The Times report was based on a telegram from the Shanghai correspondent of the Daily Mail, sent the day before and also published in the Daily Mail. The story was a hoax, filed by an American conman named FW Sutterlee.

The Daily Mail had passed the telegram to The Times in good faith. On July 17 The Times published obituaries of Morrison and senior diplomats, noting that no newspaper had ever had “a more able servant than Morrison”. The obituary described Morrison’s judgment as “extraordinary, amounting almost to intuition”.

This event explains the title of the biography Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin published in 2004, The Man Who Died Twice: The life and adventures of Morrison of Peking. That book has been translated into Chinese and launched in China this year [2008] under the title Morrison of China. Allen & Unwin, publishers of The Man Who Died Twice, will re-issue the English version of the book at the end of this year [2008] under that title.

As a young journalist Macklin became intrigued by Morrison after reading the ground-breaking biography by Cyril Pearl. “Morrison was one of the great journalists, and he deserves to be better recognised. He used shoe leather to get a story, unlike too many current journalists who only use the telephone and email. And he defined what it was to be a great foreign correspondent.”

Morrison served as a cultural bridge between Australia and China, Macklin said. “As China moves more into the Australian consciousness, hopefully Morrison will become more appreciated. It’s sad he’s not appreciated in his own country.”

Macklin suggested the time was ripe for Australian journalism to devote an award to recognise Morrison’s achievements. “Many Australian journalists know little about the history of their profession.”

China’s main broadcaster and a major publisher consider Morrison worthy of major projects. It’s time the man was more appreciated in his own country.

* Published in the Walkley magazine edition on China in June 2008.

Categories: memoir, Not home

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