China and the Irish: Different Stories, Similar Dreams

‘There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes he will move the world’, attributed to Napoleon about China.
Chinese civilization stretches back until at least the third millennium BC, the country being ruled by a series of dynasties until the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty was overthrown in 1911. China was proclaimed a republic the following year. After the Second World War the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek was overthrown by the communists under Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic of China being declared in 1949.
Ireland was inhabited by Celts from about the sixth century BC. English invasions began in the twelfth century under Henry II, although the whole of the island was not conquered until the time of the Tudors. Revolts against English rule led to English and Scottish families being settled on confiscated lands. In parts of Ulster the descendants of Protestant settlers form a majority.
After an unsuccessful rebellion in 1798 union of Ireland and Britain followed in 1801. Increased prosperity was experienced in Protestant Ulster, but not in the rest of the island, and after the failure of the potato crop in the 1840s, thousands died in a famine and thousands more emigrated. In 1921 Ireland was partitioned by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It led to civil war and a new constitution as a sovereign state (Eire) was adopted in 1937 establishing the Republic of Ireland.
Different Stories, Similar Dreams
Cited by a prominent historian as ‘one of the minor wonders of Irish intellectual life’, the Thomas Davis Lecture Series has been broadcast for more than fifty years by RTE Radio l, covering large areas of Irish political and cultural life. As part of this prestigious series, nine of the essays in a book edited by Jerusha McCormack titled China and the Irish, were first broadcast from June to August 2008, as a lead up to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
The book makes clear that, although formal relations go back only thirty years, interactions between the people of China and Ireland have a long and complex history that can be traced back well before the founding of either republic. It contains a Message from Ireland’s President, Mary McAleese, dated 16 January 2009 that reflects on the long intertwining of relationships between China and Ireland in their shared path of political, cultural and commercial development from long past to the present. It recalls her visits to China made in 1997 and 2003.
Essays which appear in China and the Irish are the result of the editor’s long standing interest in discovering hitherto unexplored links between Ireland and China. It is the first to explore relations between the Chinese people and those from the island of Ireland. Published to honour the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Ireland in June 2009, the book contains eleven essays. Covering a range of topics, from diplomatic history to music, business to botanical exchanges and literary connections, the essays discuss aesthetic, cultural, diplomatic, intellectual, philosophical and spiritual similarities between China and Ireland. They profile the many notable Irish men and women who have played their part in developing mutual influences and contemporary interaction.
A ceremony held in 2010 to mark the book’s translation into Chinese reinforces the ties between China and Ireland. In cooperation with NUI Maynooth and other well established partners in academic, business and diplomatic circles, Beijing Foreign Studies University (BSFU) has begun a programme of Irish studies with twenty five participants enrolled for the first year. Academic, cultural and tourist activities are planned to bring students and other visitors to Ireland.
Ita Marguet, February 2011
Note: Acknowledgement is given to encyclopaedic and other sources used in preparation of this text including book China and the Irish, Thomas Davis Lecture Series, RTE, edited by Jerusha McCormack, University College Dublin, and Visiting Professor Beijing Foreign Studies University.