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Audrey Donnithorne (1922–2020)

by Richard Rigby

Audrey Donnithorne liked to describe herself as an Overseas Brit and a Sichuan country girl, but she was also a world-renowned scholar of the Chinese economy, who spent a significant part of her academic life at the ANU.

Audrey was born in rural Sichuan, China, where her parents were working as Anglican missionaries. At the age of not quite three, with her parents and other missionaries (including the later Anglican Archbishop of Sydney), she was taken hostage by bandits who held the party for 24 days of arduous marching across difficult terrain, during which she constantly prattled to their captors until the party was released after a modest sum changed hands. She was sent back to England at the age of five to be educated, returning to China in 1940, where she endured the rigors of war until returning to Britain, by then also at war, in 1943. For the next two years she worked in the Pacific Department of the War Office. It was also at this time that she entered the Catholic Church, to the horror of her parents.

In October 1945 she went up to Oxford, where she read Modern Greats (aka Philosophy, Politics and Economics), at Somerville College. She did not think much of the syllabus, describing it as ‘a mishmash of ill-assorted chunks of information, often at cross-purposes’. She thought economic theory was pointless and ‘social science’ an oxymoron. On her first day at the university, she joined the Conservative Society, handing her subscription to the future Mrs Thatcher, for whom on a later occasion she once cooked an awful stew (her description) in her London bedsit.

In 1948 Audrey became a research assistant at University College London, where she remained for some 20 years, during which time she made a number of visits to Southeast Asia and India (where she had family connections, being a descendent of Colonel James Skinner, of Skinner’s Horse fame). She eventually became Reader in Chinese economic studies. Her early work concerned Western enterprise in Asia, and with Professor G.C. Allen she co-wrote Western Enterprise in the Development of China and Japan (1954). Western Enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya (1958) followed. In 1958 her British Rubber Manufacturing displeased Dunlop, which wrote to University College to complain. Following this, her interests turned more strongly to contemporary China, and arguably the most important of all her books, China’s Economic System, appeared in 1967, shortly after the commencement of the Cultural Revolution. Having seen through the obfuscations and false statistics of the Great Leap Forward, she was not at all impressed by this latest development, which also deeply offended her political and religious beliefs. Her analysis of these events has been well and truly vindicated in retrospect, but at the time hers was not a popular view—the latter being more sympathetic to the increasingly pro-PRC, pro-Cultural Revolution views of Professor Joan Robinson, of Cambridge, with whom Audrey clashed.

Around this time, it became apparent to Audrey that her future did not lie in London. At the same time, experiences in the US academic world, although largely positive, convinced her that she was temperamentally unfitted for that life. After a mutual friend told him she had expressed interest in the ANU, Professor Heinz Arndt, then Head of the Department of Economics in the Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPacS), wrote to suggest she apply for a professorial fellowship, as they were planning to commence work on China. She did so, visiting Canberra for the first time in 1968, and got the job. After some intensive research in Hong Kong and tying up her affairs in the UK, she returned to Canberra to take up her new position at the beginning of 1969, where she remained until her retirement in 1985.

Audrey’s time at the ANU coincided with what must by any account be regarded as one of the institution’s Golden Ages, not least in the area of Asian Studies. She met and interacted with many outstanding scholars during this period, including Wang Gungwu, Liu Ts’un-yan and the then largely unknown Pierre Ryckmans/Simon Leys, with whom she formed a close and respectful friendship. It was a time of fierce debate over developments in China, and the views of such as Audrey and Ryckmans were, although amongst the best informed, in a relative minority. This did not, though, prevent Audrey from becoming the first head of the Contemporary China Centre, with Stephen Fitzgerald—whose views differed from hers—as her deputy.

Audrey was also engaged in the broader cultural wars, avant le mot, of the time, and did what she could, with the help of fellow ANU academic Fr John Eddy SJ, to promote a more vibrant and intellectually engaged Catholicism on campus and in the community at large. She also did much work with Indochinese refugees, and with the indigenous community.

Following normalisation of relations between Australia and the People’s Republic of China and the appointment of Stephen Fitzgerald as first Ambassador, scholarly contacts between the two countries resumed, and Audrey was active in this area. She was a member of the first ANU delegation in May–June 1973, a group that also included luminaries such as Eugene Kamenka, Alice Tay, Ian Adie, Ian Wilson, Alan Thorne, Edith Bishop and Colin Mackerras. In 1977 Fitzgerald returned to the ANU as a Professorial Fellow and took over from Audrey as Head of the Contemporary China Centre. In 1978 Audrey produced a new edition of China’s Economic System, and spent the next few years working on China’s financial system, investment and central–provincial relations.

After a successful first visit to the ANU by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Audrey was invited to make an individual visit to China, including to her birthplace in Sichuan. Apart from the official program, she took advantage of this visit to form links with Chinese Catholics in various parts of the country, many of which she maintained until her death. A second visit to China in 1982 resulted in further such contacts, but also five major articles and other shorter publications on financial, economic and demographic issues. Several further visits, with subsequent articles, ensued up to her retirement in 1985.

Audrey never enjoyed the institutional side of university life; she also felt that the ANU and RSPacS authorities lacked the will to promote modern Chinese studies as they deserved. She was a strong proponent of organisation along regional rather than disciplinary lines. By late 1982, she also felt she was becoming intellectually stale and in need of a change of scene. That scene was to be Hong Kong, where both her parents were buried, and she felt very much at home. Ease of access to China was a further strong attraction. In Hong Kong she continued to follow events in China closely and worked to promote reconciliation between the Church in China and the Holy See, for which she was awarded the Ecclesia and Pontifice Medal. Her autobiography, China in Life’s Foreground, was published in 2019.

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Citation details

Richard Rigby, 'Donnithorne, Audrey (1922–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 November, 1922
Sichuan, China


9 June, 2020 (aged 97)

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