This article is about a short moment in Chinese-Australian history at the turn of the 20th century when Chinese fruit and vegetable traders in Sydney were on the verge of major international success. The concerns of this new urban elite can be gleaned from their Chinese-language newspapers and civil societies which played an important role in the evolution of the diasporic identity of the Chinese in “White-Australia” — an experience involving more than merely a refinement of native kinship practices and inherited identities — in a process that invoked a distinctively modern sense of time, space, and the unfolding of history. This is an attempt to recount their experience chiefly by reference to the developments recorded in Chinese newspapers and the narratives related to the social institutions and networks associated with them in the Federation Era (1890s-1900s).
This paper focuses on the meanings of Confucian heritage for the Chinese ethnic community at the time Australia became a Federation. It will argue that public narratives about Confucian heritage provided a new agency for mobilizing urban Chinese Australian communities. These narratives politicized culture, helped to shape Chinese ethnic identity and diasporic nationalism over time. The appearance of narratives on Confucian heritage in the late 19th century reflected the Chinese community’s attempt to differentiate and redefine itself in an increasingly inimical racist environment. The fact that Chinese intellectuals interpreted Confucian heritage as symbolic of their distinctiveness does not necessarily mean that the Chinese community as a whole aligned themselves with the Confucianism revival movement. By interpreting Confucian heritage as a national symbol, Chinese Australian public narratives reflected a national history in which the Chinese community blended Confucian heritage into a nationalist discourse. This paper argues that this interpretation of Confucian heritage reflects the Chinese community’s attempts to redefine their relationship with the non-Chinese culture, they were a part of, in ways which did not draw on colour or race.