‘Oriental Studies’ at the University of Sydney

One need not look further than USyd’s history of ‘Oriental Studies’ to understand how the University has supported the military industrial complex and reinforced structural racism towards Asian cultures.

Source: Vogue.

Near the left entrance of USyd’s Quad, room S204 is labelled the ‘Oriental Studies Room’. A framed poster on its entrance states that it was built in 1859, and used to house the Nicholson Museum’s collection. Perhaps that explains why the rooms weren’t used to teach ‘Oriental Studies’ until almost sixty years later, with the creation of the Department of Oriental Studies in 1918. The Department’s creation is an early example of the University of Sydney’s connection with the military in the academic sphere. 

Following the Russo-Japanese War between 1904-1905, Australia’s political and military establishment has had a racist preoccupation with the threat of Japanese invasion. In the aftermath of WWI, Japan’s newfound control of ex-German colonies and Britain’s withdrawal from the Pacific provided an arguably more rational basis for this fear. It became important for the Australian military to understand the cultural and militaristic ambitions of Japan. To develop this understanding, the federal government’s Department of Defence installed Scottish Professor James Murdoch to a lectureship in Japanese at the Royal Military College at Duntroon in 1918. 

Upon the request of the Faculty of Arts and under the influence of business elites who were keen to trade in Japan, Murdoch was then installed into a lectureship in Japanese at the University of Sydney the same year. The Commonwealth, particularly eager to expand students’ knowledge of Japanese (for ostensibly military ends), subsequently bestowed annual grants between $500 and $700 (or $48000 and $65000 in 2022) to the University for the maintenance of the Oriental Studies Department for decades, between 1918 and 1945.

Murdoch was handpicked for the positions by the Director of Military Intelligence at the time, E.L. Piesse. Such military influence within the University was compounded throughout Murdoch’s tenure. Murdoch and Piesse maintained frequent correspondence, with Piesse learning Japanese from Murdoch at the time. Murdoch also went on a military-funded trip to Japan to report back on the country’s political environment.

This close relationship between a USyd lecturer and the Department of Defence was arguably less pernicious than USyd’s present relationship with the military: better engagement with the Japanese political sphere is less unethical than undertaking research to develop the weaponry of private defence companies and support for the aggressive posturing of the AUKUS pact. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that governments have historically, and will continually be driven more by advancing military interests over public ideals of a liberating education, and provides a warning of the extent to which universities can become entangled within the state project of militarism.

Murdoch and Piesse, despite being military collaborators, viewed the study of Asian language, culture, and history as a means of combating ignorance and racism towards Asia. Piesse was highly critical of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ vetoing of the ‘racial equality principle’ at the Paris Peace Conference. Both men supported the revision of the White Australia Policy, viewing it as unnecessarily discriminatory and diplomatically inflammatory. This indicates the significant potential of Asian studies in challenging the hegemonic power of racist attitudes such as those embodied within the White Australia Policy. More broadly, it indicates the capacity of an education that openly engages with other cultures to contribute to a more just society. 

This is not to say that Piesse and Murdoch were not deeply racist; Piesse believed that ‘racial differences’ were due to environmental factors as opposed to being inherent. The entire practice of ‘Oriental Studies’, and the pair’s view of the Japanese people, is a reflection on the West’s exoticisation and othering of Asian cultures.

Murdoch’s courses in Japanese language and political culture were initially popular. Eighty students enrolled to study under Murdoch during the first year of the Department. This number failed to grow significantly as students found it difficult to learn Japanese. Instead, courses on ‘Oriental History’ which did not require knowledge of Asian languages became popular in the inter-war period under Professor Arthur Lindsay Sadler. Chinese language subjects were added to the Faculty of Arts after Sadler’s departure in 1947. However, those classes, along with Japanese language classes, ceased four years later when the University thought it was impossible to recruit suitably qualified academics to replace departing staff.

USyd’s abandonment of Asian languages in 1951 reflects a country and a University that lacked the commitment to resourcing the departments which enable us to understand the world, and reduce racist antagonism towards Asia. It’s easy to draw parallels with today’s University landscape; language subjects have continually been cut while military research grants proliferate.Much has changed since Murdoch took the Chair of the Oriental Studies Department: Oriental Studies became Asian Studies, which became the School of Languages and Cultures. Indian studies came and went. Other things haven’t changed: Australian universities are deeply entangled with the military, and at USyd, we still have the ridiculously named ‘Oriental Studies Room’.

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