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Fitzgerald, Charles Patrick (1902–1992)

by Rafe de Crespigny

Charles Fitzgerald, by W. Pedersen, 1960

Charles Fitzgerald, by W. Pedersen, 1960

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L36032

Patrick FitzGerald died in Sydney on 13 April, one month after his ninetieth birthday.

He first came to ANU as Visiting Reader in Oriental Studies in 1950, he was appointed Reader in Far Eastern History in 1951, and in 1954 he became Foundation Professor of the Department of Far Eastern History, now the East Asian Section of the Division of History in the Research School of Pacific Studies. He held that post until his retirement at the end of 1967.

Before he came to Australia, Patrick had acquired an extraordinarily wide knowledge of China and its people.

He first went there in 1923, worked in a depot of the Peking-Mukden Railway, where he learnt Chinese, and he then worked with local suppliers of pigs' gut exporting casings for hot dogs to America. In 1927, he saw the capture of Wuhan by the Nationalists.

After a period of study in England, he returned to China in 1930. He travelled through the southwest from Kunming to Chungqing, and made another journey in the north from Taiyuan to Xi'an, and in two early works he described the livelihood of the Bai people in Yunnan and the life of Emperor Taizong of Tang.

Still more influential, China: A Short Cultural History, first published in 1935, became the introductory text for a whole generation of students and scholars.

During the Second World War Patrick worked with British Intelligence in London, then returned to China with the British Council. He was in Beijing during the Communist siege of 1948-49, and from there he was invited by Sir Douglas Copland, first Vice-Chancellor of ANU, whom he had met at the Australian Embassy in Nanjing, to come to Australia.

Patrick brought to the University and Australia an unrivalled experience of China and a deep affection for the people, together with a realistic understanding of the past and of expectations under Communism.

Revolution in China, first published in 1952, and later titled The Birth of Communist China, gave a balanced account of the failures of the Nationalist regime and the process by which the Communists had achieved victory,

His work was well-recognised overseas, and in Australia, at that time so isolated and largely ignorant of the new emerging forces in the north, he took an important role in public debate. He was a founder of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences.

The breadth of Patrick's interests was reflected in his own work and in his department. His books included a popular history on the Empress Wu of Tang, a trail-blazing essay The Third China, on the Chinese in Southeast Asia, and a most elegant monograph, Barbarian Beds, on the origins of the chair in China.

At the same time, besides the natural extension into the study of Japan, his staff included specialists in fields ranging from earliest archaeology to contemporary affairs, and from central Asia to the furthest south, while his students were men and women who would become leaders in scholarship and discussion concerning Asia.

Though Patrick held a diploma from the London School of Oriental and African Studies, it is a pleasant conceit that his first degree was a Doctor of Letters from ANU, awarded at the time of his formal retirement.

For some years he was a visiting professor at the University of Melbourne, then lived in Italy for a time, and at last returned to Sydney and his house at Guerilla Bay, on the south coast, where he had long been celebrated for hearty wine and splendid barbecues.

His wife Sarah and his eldest daughter Nicola died some years ago, but he is survived by daughters Mirabel and Anthea, and by his grandchildren.

Patrick possessed a matchless depth of practical knowledge about China. In his charming memoir Why China?, he describes how he was attracted to the Chinese by the breadth, tolerance and objectivity of their culture.

Admiration and affection, however, were consistently informed by experience, good humour and good sense, and his understanding of the country and its history were invaluable to any colleague. Those of us who knew him were fortunate to do so, and we shall miss him very dearly.

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Citation details

Rafe de Crespigny, 'Fitzgerald, Charles Patrick (1902–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 October 2020.

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