History and geography
frame China's national identity

Leadership Network member Sarah Novak writes about taking part in the network's China Hui in Chengdu and Xi'an and looks at what New Zealand could learn from how China tells its national story.
Sarah Novak

Sarah in Xi' an during the Tang dynasty welcoming ceremony network members attended

Growing up in New Zealand in the early 2000s, we were often told that the next century would be one where Asia — that large, amorphous region to our north-west — would dominate.

The days of the quintessential European “OE” for young Kiwis seemed, to many of us, to have slipped away, or at least to be in a mode of slow decline.

Asia, our long-term neighbour, was drawing us in. “Asia is the future!” was loud and clear. What wasn’t so clear was what New Zealand’s future in Asia would look like; what story would we tell?

It was a huge privilege to travel with the Asia New Zealand Foundation to China in September this year to attend the “Opening Doors to the West” business forum.

The eight of us Leadership Network members from the Foundation were part of a larger delegation of around fifty New Zealand businesspeople, public servants, journalists, trade organisation representatives, and diplomats, with whom we travelled between and around the western cities of Chengdu and Xi’an by bus and bullet train.

One of the most memorable moments for me was watching two journalists from Māori Television do a news broadcast in te reo Māori from the aisle of the bullet train as we sped through the misty mountains of northern Sichuan province. Here was an example of two New Zealanders asserting their unique identity in Asia through their own language and culture.

Sarah and the group  Leadership Network group

Hui participants learning about Chengdu's Wide and Narrow Lanes district during a walking tour

The week-long trip was jam-packed with activities, meeting new people, spicy food, and countless unexpected and surprising moments.

What stood out to me more than anything, however, was the unique way that China told its own story, and how that grounded its rapidly developing contemporary identity.

At multiple times on the trip we heard from Chinese government officials, public servants, academics, and businesspeople. Almost all of them mentioned China’s history and identity, no matter the core message of their talk.

They would often ground whatever they were saying in China’s thousands of years of history, mentioning the various dynasties that were particularly important in the cities we visited and historical figures who played a role in shaping China as it is today.

A woman dancing with long ribbon-like sleeves

Sarah: "What stood out to me more than anything, however, was the unique way in which China told its own story, and how that grounded its rapidly developing contemporary identity."

In Xi’an, we were taken to several historic sites such as the old city wall and the Terracotta Army from the Tang and Qin dynasties, respectively.

China’s contemporary development was almost always couched in a sense of deep time; a way of rooting the overwhelmingly fast pace of today’s development into an unimaginably long timeline.

Many Chinese people we met also spoke of the importance of geography.

Speakers at the conference showed us maps and landscape photographs within the first few slides of their presentations, where they would name the closest mountain range, rivers, and plains and describe how those connected with distant ones. These geographical and temporal features were seen as intrinsic to modern China’s story, lending it legitimacy and power.

A woman speaking to a group of people at a conference table

New Zealand Ambassador to China Clare Fearnley spoke to the group about her experiences as a diplomat and her leadership journey

I left China, like many first-time visitors, feeling impressed and overwhelmed by the scale of the place. But my appreciation of scale was not only physical — of the buildings, roads, and number of people — but also temporal and geographical. China’s story had been told to us again and again, and it was equally about deep time and geographical rootedness as it was about contemporary development.

In 2019, 250 years since Captain Cook’s first voyage reached Aotearoa New Zealand’s shores, we are having some challenging yet necessary conversations about how we tell our own story to ourselves and the world.

Though we may not have a five-thousand-year human history in these particular islands, we do have a long timeline and a rootedness in our own geography — told by many through their pepeha — that we are increasingly drawing on, and are increasingly proud of.

It’s been fantastic to see New Zealand carving out a unique identity through our Pacific heritage in recent years, with more people taking pride in our place as a Pacific nation. It has also been great to observe new modes of engagement with our Asian neighbours.

Perhaps the future of New Zealand’s presence in Asia might see us being bolder with elements of our own unique history and identity. We might tell more of our diverse, complex and rich stories of history and geography as a means of explaining and standing by our values.

When interacting with a place as large and different as China, our spirit of kaitiakitanga towards our environment and our multicultural society, rooted in our history and sense of place, are things that can set us apart.