Aboriginal Life Styles: Some Ideas From China (edited)


Aboriginal Life Styles: Some Ideas From China

Gary Foley

I was a member of the Aboriginal delegation to China in 1973. If asked, as I often am, 'What impressed you most in China?', the answer for me would be easy. As a person who went to China in order to extend and develop my knowledge and ideas, I was on the lookout for concepts that wouldbe applicable to the Australian Aboriginal situation. As a result, three aspects of Chinese life profoundly impressed me. These were-

1. The peoples' communes

2. The Workers' Cultural Palace, Shanghai

3. The autonomy of national minorities.

In addition to these three major aspects, it goes with out saying that I was enormously impressed by the Chinese system.


As I said, throughout the entire trip I was particularly looking for ideas and concepts that could be utilised by Aboriginals, both in the struggle toward our ultimate goal of land rights and also those that could be applicable after land rights were granted. The peoples' commune is a concept that I believe is one that would be applicable after land rights are granted. If land rights for the Aboriginal people of the eastern states ultimately mean the organisation of existing reserves into economically independent, autonomous communities, then the basic organisation of the peoples' communes is the ideal concept on which to model these reserves. As has been pointed out on many occasions, many of these eastern state reserves are very small in area and as a result are not suited to purely agricultural production as a means to economic independence . Many people see this to be the greatest obstacle in the way of their self-sufficiency. However, in China, where most communes are much larger than any eastern state reserve, there is a great diversity in the types of production on the communes. Agricultural production is but one of many enterprises. A heavy emphasis is also placed on small scale light industrial production such as parts for transistor radios, light bulbs and simple mechanical parts for machinery. This otherwise insignificant production can be carried out by women and handicapped people who, in Australian society, are considered redundant. It can be a potentially large income earner in a small community. In the case of Aboriginal reserves, these initially small economic enterprises could mean the difference between success and failure of attempts to establish economically viable communities.

In China the products of the communes are sold to the government. There is no reason why in Australia, to ensure the initial survival of self-governing Aboriginal communities, the Australian Government could not undertake to buy from the Aboriginals these products. There would be no loss involved for the Government as they could sell these to the appropriate distributors. This would simply be to ensure, initially, a market for Aboriginal reserve products. It must be remembered, however, that the success of ventures such as this are entirely dependent on the form in which land rights are granted. I speak only of the eastern state reserves because I believe that the form land rights there will take, must necessarily differ from those granted to the tribal people in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. I would like to see, in the case of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, land rights mean the granting of freehold title, plus mineral rights to the community living on the reserve involved. No individual grants of land would thus be made. All production on the reserve would be a community effort, with the community as a whole benefiting rather than individuals. This is basically the system in China. For those people who might claim that this would be introducing an alien concept to Aboriginals, nothing could be further from the truth. This concept has not only been the fundamental mode of life for Aboriginals for the last 30,000 years, but is also one of the very few aspects of Aboriginal life that has survived 200 years of white occupation of Australia, even in the detribalised urban area. Once economic viability has been established on Aboriginal reserves, the people are then in a position to do two things. Firstly they can bring about vast improvements in living standards, health and general well-being. Secondly and probably more importantly, they are able to generate a cultural reawakening which would necessarily lead to the restoration of dignity, self respect and identity.


Shanghai is a city where we were shown many impressive things, but in my opinion the most impressive of all was the Workers' Cultural Palace. This was an enormous building near the heart of the urban area. On the ground floor was an exhibition of life before 1949. On the first floor many types of recreational activities were available, including chess, ping pong, etc. On the second floor were the cultural activities for anyone who wished to develop their creative talents. Activities included a singing group, an art group, a theatre group, a contemporary instrument musical group and a traditional instrument musical group. Anyone could come in and participate in any of these activities. It occurred to me at the time that here was an ideal concept for the urban (particularly Sydney) Aboriginals. To have such an establishment in Redfern with a similar range of activities, but heavily Aboriginal-oriented, would have several effects. Firstly, it would undoubtedly provide a vehicle for the enormous latent creative talent in Redfern. The natural follow-on from this would (once again) be an urban resurgence of pride, dignity and ultimately identity. Even in terms of providing a meeting and recreational centre for the Redfern Aboriginals, the concept must be seen as a positive step toward unification; particularly if also incorporated into this structure were community service and welfare organisations. In Shanghai, a city that was once dominated by foreigners with the Chinese residents totally oppressed, it was a tremendous inspiration to see the warmth and just sheer enjoyment the people derived from this centre. Also in Shanghai we saw the Children's Cultural Palace which was of fundamentally the same concept as the Workers' Cultural Palace, but for the children. If anything, the children's was even more impressive than the workers' palace in the sense that it was young kids that were involved. The distinct advantages of developing the creative talents from an early age could be seen in the enthusiasm, self-confidence and pride of ten year old kids (the oldest children at the centre). (To digress, it must also be said at this stage that no matter what criticism anyone may offer on the Chinese political, social and economic system, the one thing that I did not see in China was a hungry child —a contrast to the numerous, malnourished Aboriginal children I have seen in affluent, capitalist Australia.)


There are fifty-four minority groups in China, their population being about thirty-eight million (about six per cent of the total population). Under foreign rule most of the minorities suffered greatly. After the founding of the new China, the new minorities of China were freed from the bonds of the landlords, and other elements of the ruling group. Today, any nationality, providing it has a compact community large enough to form an administrative unit (known as an autonomous Region, Chou or County), can establish an autonomous area with its own organs of self-government with total control in administering its own affairs. This means that the Chinese minority groups have a form of self-government and independence that is almost identical to my conception of land rights for Aboriginal people. I have maintained for several years now that land rights must be in a form that will allow Aboriginals to establish autonomous, economically self-reliant communities. The foundation on which this concept is to be developed is the inherent communal spirit of the Aboriginal people, so that as the community as an economic unit develops, the community as a whole will develop and progress. For me to be able to see my ideas actually working in Hsishuangpanna in Yunnan Province among the Tai nationality people, was, to say the least, an extremely inspirational experience.