China in My Eyes

50 years of continued friendship

March 6, 2015
by Chinainmyeyes
Comments Off on Colin and Alyce Mackerras

Colin and Alyce Mackerras

by Veronica Mackerras


My parents Colin and Alyce Mackerras, who lived in Beijing from 1964 to 1966, were the first Australians to work, live and have a baby in  the People’s Republic of China. In 1964, Australia was ruled by the dogma of White Australia and the fear of communism. Australia refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China and Australian passports had to be specially validated for travel to the Chinese mainland.

My parents went on an incredibly brave journey to China in the 1960s and became the first Australians to form a life long friendship during a time when their country and family said ‘no’.  They both went ahead anyway AND had a baby – very brave. It is incredible the contribution they have both have silently made to Australia–China relations and I hope this web-page might illustrate this life-long friendship.

Colin Mackerras 1962

Colin Mackerras 1962

Alyce Mackerras 1960s

Alyce Mackerras 1963










On Monday 17 November 2014,  Chinese President Xi Jinping gave an address to the Australian Parliament as a major part of his visit to Australia. Towards the beginning of his address, President Xi thanked Colin for his friendship and dedication, drawing applause from those present. This was a very proud moment in Colin’s career.

Premier Li Keqiang shales Colin Mackerras's hand at the Friendship Award Ceremony. October 1 2014.

Premier Li Keqiang shakes Colin Mackerras’s hand at the Friendship Award Ceremony. 30 September 2014. The “Friendship Award” was established to honour the outstanding contributions foreign experts have contributed in China’s modernisation drive.


Richard Blundell’s portrait of Professor Colin Mackerras was unveiled on Friday 2nd October 2015, in its new home at the Colin Mackerras Room at the Griffith Asia Institute (Nathan Campus, Griffith University).

Richard Blundell’s portrait of Professor Colin Mackerras was unveiled on Friday 2 October 2015, in its new home at the Colin Mackerras Room beside the Griffith Asia Institute (Nathan Campus, Griffith University).


The following article is by Liu Xiangrui and is taken from the English-language Chinese newspaper China Daily, 13 May 2016.

Fan of the opera

Updated: 2016-05-13 08:07

By Liu Xiangrui(China Daily USA)

An early Sinologist from Australia, Colin Mackerras is still discovering China, especially its ancient art forms. Liu Xiangrui reports.

Colin Mackerras was pursuing his master’s degree at Cambridge University when he learned that foreign-language teachers were needed in China in the 1960s. He decided to give it a try despite the different geopolitical conditions back then.

His visits over half a century have resulted in hundreds of academic papers and dozens of books with views from within China and the West.

An early Australian to follow Asian studies with a focus on China, Mackerras is today known as an established Sinologist. He had taken up Chinese studies at the behest of his mother.

“I was interested in Chinese culture, especially theater,” Mackerras, 77, says of his desire to come to China along with his wife, Alyce, in 1964.

Back then, China had no diplomatic relations with Australia.

Despite the challenges of living in a foreign country, they were able to make friends in China, and many remain so to date.

The couple taught until 1966 and left before the start of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).

But Mackerras continued his Chinese studies in Australia. He returned to China in 1977 and has since visited time after time, mainly to teach and for research.

More recently, he has been dividing his time between the two countries.

He is now teaching at Beijing Foreign Studies University as professor emeritus.

Fluent in Chinese, Mackerras usually rides an old bike to class and spends a lot of time with his students.

In all these years, he has also followed his passion for Chinese opera, which he describes as “music of the people” as it was played outdoors.

Mackerras, who wrote his PhD thesis on Peking Opera, still has gramophones of the ancient art form.

“It took me a while to get used to the style of Chinese opera singing, which is so different from Western opera,” he says. “But both are beautiful.”

As an admirer of Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang, Mackerras says he is happy to see the art form being revived with government support today.

Mackerras, who has written books on Chinese opera, has explored the relationship between Chinese opera and society.

Other than research, his knowledge comes from extensive travels within the country, including in remote ethnic regions.

He has carried out interviews with ordinary people and local officials.

“I have a perspective over a relatively long period of time in China. It’s very helpful for my research,” he says.

Last year, he received the Special Book Award of China for foreign authors, translators and publishers who make significant contributions to China’s literary and cultural exchanges with other countries.

He also continues to work on papers about China’s ethnic groups and general social changes.

“People are living a richer life, not only materially but also spiritually. They are more open and confident than before,” Mackerras says, adding that in the ’60s, he couldn’t have imagined the country’s rapid transformation.

He has also documented the changing attitudes of the West toward China.

In Western Images of China Since 1949, he chronicles the background and reasons behind that change, placing them in context of the ground realities he experienced.

While he tries to bring different perspectives with his writings, he says the process isn’t easy.

“I still think there are a lot of misunderstandings about China in the West,” he says. “When the West looks at China, it is not entirely about the reality here but often more about their own politics.”

In many ways, Mackerras, who has been involved in academic and cultural exchanges between China and his home country, is a pioneer in bringing people together.

He has established the Chinese Studies Association of Australia to boost such exchanges.

In 2007, Mackerras received one of Australia’s highest awards for helping education and Sino-Australian ties.

He is a founding member of the School of Modern Asian Studies at Griffith University on the Australian east coast, where he has worked since mid-1970s.

Mackerras says there has been significant improvement in the relationship between the two countries. While exchanges in culture and education have been growing fast, China has also become Australia’s top trading partner.

In 2014, Mackerras received the Friendship Award, the highest honor given by the Chinese government to foreigners who have made significant contributions to the country’s social and economic development.

His life experience in China was noted by President Xi Jinping when he visited Australia that year.

During a speech at the Australian parliament, Xi thanked Mackerras for his contribution to the mutual friendship and especially mentioned Mackerras’ 51-year-old son, who has the unique distinction of being the first Australian to be born in New China.

“I feel very proud about it,” Mackerras says, smiling.

“Although I have no concrete plans, I hope I can come back to China again and again.”

Contact the writer at

March 5, 2015
by Chinainmyeyes
Comments Off on Three stories from the early days of Alyce’s and Colin’s China experience

Three stories from the early days of Alyce’s and Colin’s China experience

Alyce and Stephen Mackerras. Beijing 1965

Alyce and Stephen Mackerras. Beijing 1965

Colin Mackerras with baby Stephen, Beijing 1965.

Colin Mackerras with baby Stephen, Beijing 1966.

How it came about that the Chinese invited Colin and Alyce to go and teach in China could have been indirectly due to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976). In December 1963 and January 1964, he went to Africa, including Algeria, which had recently gained independence from France, with French still used as the diplomatic language. Zhou Enlai had lived in France when he was a student and spoke French very well, but because of protocol reasons he gave his speeches in Chinese. At one point, Zhou corrected his interpreter. It is said that the embarrassment this caused led him to take steps to get foreign languages better spoken in China. He ordered that teachers be got from overseas, including Europe. Colin and Alyce were among the beneficiaries of this policy, even though Australians.


Zhang Hanzhi

Zhang Hanzhi helped Colin and Alyce with the birth of their baby Stephen. At the time she was, unbeknown to them, teaching Mao Zedong English.

Alyce was pregnant at the time the couple went to China. She could speak a bit of Chinese but certainly not enough to deal with the technicalities of dealing with doctors in China. One person who helped her enormously was the distinguished teacher and diplomat Zhang Hanzhi. Very few people knew it then, certainly not Alyce or Colin, but at that very time Zhang Hanzhi was teaching English to the Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976). He was not a good language student, and soon lost interest in favour of leading the Cultural Revolution, a movement we can see with hindsight was totally disastrous for China.

On the morning of February 18th, 1965, Alyce felt the contractions starting very early in the morning and Alyce and Colin went to get Zhang Hanzhi, and she took  to the Friendship Hospital in Beijing, where Stephen was born later that day.






Students with Alyce Mackerras and Stephen Beijing, 1965

Students of Alyce Mackerras holding Stephen, Beijing 1966

Colin and Alyce studied in Canberra, at the then Canberra University College, which was then attached to the University of Melbourne. They both studied Chinese, Japanese and Oriental Civilizations. This Asian Studies degree resulted from policies by the Menzies government: although it was bitterly hostile to China, it believed Australians should know more about Asia.