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Biography of C. P. Fitzgerald

Charles Patrick Fitzgerald (1902–1992), sinologist, was born Karl Patrick Van Hoogstraten on 5 March 1902 in London, the fourth child of South African-born Hans Sauer, medical doctor, and his Irish-born wife Cecile Josephine, née Fitzpatrick. His father, who did not practise medicine, was a financial assistant to Cecil Rhodes in South Africa and England. Patrick, as he was known, was educated at Clifton College, Bristol. Although he passed the entrance examination to the University of Oxford, his family could not afford the fees and he worked for a bank instead. He had become interested in East Asia at an early age. Intrigued by the short-lived restoration of the monarchy in Peking (Beijing) in 1917, he determined to go there and took classes towards a diploma in Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies, University of London. In 1923 he sailed for Shanghai.

Unlike most expatriates, Fitzgerald was actively interested in the country and the people, and he soon left the isolated society of the treaty ports to work in China proper. After being employed as a storeman for the Peking–Mukden railway, he went to Wuhan to join an American company preparing the innards of pigs to be used for sausages. He dealt regularly with the Chinese in their own language and learned how the common people—hard-worked and exploited—resented their oppressors, both warlords and foreigners. He became convinced that although the 1911 uprising had overthrown the empire 'a “real revolution” was, if not just round the corner, certainly inevitable' (Fitzgerald 1985, 92).

Returning to London in 1927, Fitzgerald completed his diploma (1930). He went back to China in 1930, travelling from Vietnam into Yunnan and Guizhou, then from Chungking (Chongqing) down the Yangtze (Yangzi) River to Nanking (Nanjing) and north to Peking (Beijing). From south-west to north-east, he had seen regions of China largely unknown to foreigners and, concerned that few outsiders knew anything of the country’s past, he resolved to write its history. At this time, though major texts had been translated into Western languages and serious scholarly work was available, little was suitable for the beginner or general reader. In 1933 Fitzgerald’s Son of Heaven, a biography of Emperor Taizong of Tang, was published. Its successful reception was followed two years later by China: A Short Cultural History, which remained a valuable introduction nearly eighty years later. Awarded a Leverhulme fellowship (1935–39), he returned to Yunnan for two years in the late 1930s, and published his account of the minority Min Jia people of that region, The Tower of Five Glories (1940).

Fitzgerald spent World War II in England, advising the government on Chinese affairs and serving in the intelligence base at Bletchley Park. On 15 February 1941 at the parish church, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, he married Pamela Sara Knollys with Church of England rites. Returning to China in 1946, he worked for the British Council in Nanking and was present in Peking when Communist forces captured the city in 1948. Despite his sympathy for the ideals of revolution, however, the new government viewed him with suspicion, for the British Council had elsewhere served as a cover for intelligence operations. Professor Sir Douglas Copland, who had been Australian minister to China (1946–48), had met Fitzgerald in Nanking. As vice-chancellor (1948-53) of the Australian National University (ANU), he arranged a study tour for Fitzgerald to visit Australia. Copland then invited Fitzgerald to Canberra where, at the ANU, he became visiting reader in Oriental studies (1950), reader (1951), and professor (1954–67) in Far Eastern history. He became a leading commentator on Chinese affairs, seeing the new regime as a continuation of past tradition rather than a qualitative change. Revolution in China (1952) and Flood Tide in China (1952) gained wide influence. In 1954 he co-authored a statement with Bishop Ernest Burgmann and professors Jim Davidson and Manning Clark that upset the conservative side of politics by warning the Australian government against following American policy in Indochina. He could not, however, have predicted the turmoil in China of the late 1950s and 1960s and, while he never lost his admiration for the Chinese people, he became critical of their government; on a visit to China in 1959 he thought little of the Great Leap Forward.

Fitzgerald’s own department reflected his broad interests, attracting scholars from many countries in a range of fields, among them archaeology, philosophy, dynastic histories, and non-Chinese peoples. Many of his students became leading figures in Chinese studies and Australian politics. He was a founding fellow (1969) of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a member (1953) of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. His publications included a biography of Empress Wu of Tang (1955) and an elegant monograph, Barbarian Beds: The Origin of the Chair in China (1965).

In 1968 the ANU conferred a doctorate of letters on Fitzgerald—his first degree. He continued to write in retirement: The Southern Expansion of the Chinese People (1972) and an autobiography, Why China? (1985). His admiration and affection for the Chinese people were informed by good humour and good sense. Among his friends and colleagues, he was celebrated for his hospitality, featuring hearty wine and splendid barbecues. Predeceased by his wife and elder daughter but survived by two younger daughters, he died on 13 April 1992 at Camperdown, Sydney, and was cremated at Northern Suburbs Crematorium, North Ryde.

Author: Rafe de Crespigny