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Sydney’s science pioneer in Mao’s China

Wilbur Christiansen meets Zhou Enlai in 1971: "He was really on the ball."

Fifty six years ago, a Go8 researcher from the University of Sydney became the first Australian researcher, and one of the first Western scientists, to set foot in modern China.

Richard North tells the remarkable story of Wilbur Christiansen and his lasting contribution to Australia’s university research relationships with China.

In late September 1963, Australian astronomer Wilbur Christiansen crossed the bridge connecting Hong Kong to mainland China and boarded a train for the gruelling two-day journey to Beijing.

Christiansen, a 50-year-old Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sydney, was venturing into the unknown. He was the first Western astronomer – and one of very few scientists of any kind – to enter the People’s Republic since its formation in 1949. He wrote later that he felt “as excited as I imagined Marco Polo had felt” on his arrival in China.

Over the next three weeks, Christiansen laid the foundations for a lasting exchange of knowledge and expertise between China and Australia – a relationship that still continues. He returned to China a dozen times over the next three decades, helped China build its first radio telescope, and became a revered figure among Chinese scientists who elected him a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Science in 1996.

His Chinese colleagues even coined a term, Christiansen Style, to describe carrying out successful research under difficult conditions.

‘Chris’ Christiansen’s interest in China went back to his childhood in Melbourne. He had an aunt who was matron of a missionary hospital in China, and he was inspired by the book Red Star Over China, Edgar Snow’s account of his time spent with the Chinese Red Army in 1936.

Early in 1963 Christiansen sent a speculative letter to Tu Jun-sheng, Secretary General of the Academia Sinica, the Chinese Academy of Science. He suggested that he could give some lectures on the development of radio astronomy in Australia, meet young Chinese scientists, and – like most business travellers before and since – find time for sightseeing in Peking.

"Guided by the invicible thought of Mao Tse-tung": a 1968 letter from the Academia Sinica to Christiansen

Tu Jun-sheng’s reply almost three months later came as an unexpected surprise. “I am pleased to inform you that the colleagues of the Academia Sinica will be very glad to meet you and are eager to hear your reports about radioastronomy,” Tu wrote.

In fact, the Chinese were highly excited at the prospect of meeting Christiansen. He was well known to them as the brains behind the
Chris Cross solar array at Fleurs near Sydney, the world’s first crossed-grating interferometer. Built in 1957, it provided new and exciting two-dimensional maps of radio emissions from the sun.

Scientists from the Beijing Observatory were attempting to build a copy of the array, but the project had stalled as China became increasingly isolated internationally. So to Chinese radio astronomer Wang Shouguan, news of a visit to China by Christiansen was “like a happiness that had fallen from heaven”.

He wrote: “The Chinese scientific community at the time had been cut off from the West for more than a decade, as though we were sealed inside an hermetic wall. And this was the first time that a small door would open in this wall, and who should come through that door but the very man we most wanted to meet.”

After arriving in Beijing, Christiansen was taken to the Peking Observatory’s Chi-Li-Chu field station at a commune just outside the city. He saw construction work taking place on China’s first interferometer, and met 30 young scientists working on the project.

The Chinese, he noted, were “lacking perhaps in experience but making up for this with their enthusiasm and their thirst for knowledge”.

The visit fired Christiansen’s enthusiasm for China. Back in Australia, he sent a withering letter to the documentary producer John Dixon, whom he had met in Beijing and whose film Red China had just been shown on Channel 9 in Australia.

“I was very impressed by the camera work and congratulate you on it,” he wrote. “It seemed to me a great pity that a fine effort should be spoiled by such a stupid commentary…I suggest that you change your script-writer and try again.”

Within two weeks of his return Christiansen also issued an invitation to two Chinese radio astronomers to visit Sydney in 1964. After protracted negotiations, Wang Shouguan, leader of the radio astronomy group at the Peking Observatory, and Wu Huai-wei from the Purple Mountain Observatory at Nanjing, made the journey to Australia.

Staying at Christiansen’s home in Wahroonga and at one of the Sydney University halls of residence, they toured Australia’s radio astronomy sites and began discussions about how to develop the fledgling array at Beijing.

Christiansen lecturing at a science symposium in Beijing in 1964

From then on, two-way traffic between China and Australia became a regular occurrence. Within a few months, four leading members of the Australian Academy of Science, including the president Tom Cherry, spent a month in China as guests of the Academia Sinica; the following year three members of the Academia Sinica visited Mount Stromlo Observatory near Canberra.

Christiansen was also back in China in 1964, visiting the Purple Mountain Observatory and growing ever more enthusiastic about the skills of the Chinese scientists – in particular, the way in which they were able to manufacture their own equipment, including antennas and electronics.

“Had I worn a hat I should have taken it off in homage to these lion-hearted young people,” he wrote.

In May 1966 he took sabbatical leave from his position at Sydney and decamped to China with his wife Else and youngest son Steve, who lived and studied at the Language Institute in Beijing. Christiansen spent nine months helping the Chinese build their radio telescope at the Peking Observatory – a huge two-mile long project allowing detailed studies of the outer atmosphere of the sun. The family also travelled extensively round China, from Harbin in the north to Kunming in the south west.

Their visit coincided with the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which threatened to derail the work on the telescope. “The young people were really in revolt, egged on very strongly by Mao, and large demonstrations were taking place,” he recalled later.

“It was a terribly interesting time to be there but it was a bit difficult for me to do my work. The construction was being held up because the young people were spending all their time at meetings.

“I got fed up one day because I wanted to get the transmission line in, which meant putting in a lot of posts, and nothing was being done at all. So the ground was frozen stiff – it was minus 20 degrees – but I started digging post-holes. After I had done a few, I had to give up to go back to where we were living. When I arrived at work next morning, the whole lot was done. The boys had worked all night, at minus 30 degrees.”

The disruption continued after Christiansen returned to Australia, and in November 1967 he told a US colleague that the young people had rebelled against the Vice-Director of the Purple Mountain Observatory and replaced him.

The following year Christiansen advised another US astronomer that there was little point in visiting China at present. “The astronomers, like all scientists in China, are engaged in a complete overhaul of their own ideas and of the structure of scientific research in their country.”

Turning down an offer to write an article for a German magazine, he wrote: “It is not possible as yet to see the pattern for the future emerging from the dust of mental conflict.”

Wang Shougan at the Peking Observatory Field Station with part of the 32-antenna grating interferometer.

But as China recovered from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, normal business slowly resumed and Christiansen was able to return to China.

In 1971 he was introduced to Zhou Enlai, fresh from his historic meeting with President Nixon in Beijing. He recalled: “I was introduced to him just as, ‘This is Christiansen from Australia,’ and he said, ‘How’s that telescope going?’ So he was really on
the ball.”

Christiansen continued to visit through the 1970s, sometimes supplying the Chinese with small electronic components he had brought into the country. In 1975 he arranged for two Chinese radio astronomers to visit Australia on a pioneering cultural exchange. Dr Chen Hong-shen and Dr Ren Fang-bin spent eight months at the School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sydney learning about the hardware used in the new analogue receiver system at Fleurs. On returning home they put their knowledge to good use on China’s own Aperture Synthesis Telescope at Miyun.

Christiansen continued to lend assistance, sending his research student Dr Chin Kwong to Beijing in 1979 to help set up a digital receiver.

Another visitor was Bob Frater, then an Associate Professor, who worked with Chris on the Fleurs project and visited China during his sabbatical leave. He recalls: “I was immediately struck by the way Chris was revered by everyone we met and the strength of the linkage with the Chinese Academy of Science. I visited a number of the astronomy groups in what became an exhausting lecture tour and was welcomed with open arms by people anxious to know how to improve their projects. It was a great experience for us all.”

The Miyun Meter Wave Aperture Synthesis Telescope was eventually commissioned in 1984, with Christiansen making a special journey to inspect the new facility.

In recognition of his achievements he was elected a foreign member of the Academy of Sciences in 1996. He made his last trip to China in 1998, 35 years after his first visit, and died on 26 April 2007.

Summing up his contribution, Wang Shouguan said Christiansen’s strong personality and assistance with the growth of radio astronomy in China left an indelible impression, and his encouragement helped China move out of isolation and rejoin the international scientific community.

The relationship he established continues to flourish, with Chinese and Australian scientists collaborating on the technology for Australia’s part of the SKA radio telescope in Western Australia, and on the new FAST telescope in south west China.

Christiansen’s experiences also gave him an early insight into China’s extraordinary potential, far in advance of most Westerners. In August 1977, he wrote: “Australia has much to gain from contacts with the oldest civilization and the largest country in the world and in the future will have much more to learn from it than to give.”