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Leading scholar set to open Chinese studies institute in Featherston

World renowned sinologist Geremie Barme, who has brought his considerable expertise to Featherston

As he sheltered inside a Greytown cafe on a freezing September morning, Geremie Barme threw his mind back through the decades to a day when China turned upside down.

"I was in a commune picking up apples when Mao died," the Australian academic remembered.

"Everything collapsed. I was 22, and it was like everything I - and many others - had been taught up until that point crumbled. Teachers began tearing out pages from textbooks ... it was like, 'what is propaganda, and what is actually news?"

It's fitting that Barme was in China during such a momentous event. If there's something happening in the country that Barme hasn't heard about, then it's probably not worth knowing.

He's spent a lifetime studying its history and its culture. He's written books, given interviews for publications like The New Yorker, and even directed movies on the world's largest, most enigmatic, country.

And now he's decided to bring all his knowledge to New Zealand. Featherston, to be exact.

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Along with his friend, fellow sinologist John Minford, he's set to open the Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology later this year.

It'll follow on from the $60 million Australian Centre on China in the World institute he set up and ran at Canberra's Australian National University (ANU).

Featherston may seem an unusual place to land, and Barme admits he didn't exactly have it in mind when he retired last year.

"I'd been incredibly busy for many years. I decided to step aside from the Institute and become research director, and not long after I thought 'when the time comes to leave Canberra, I need to go somewhere very different."

By chance, Barme had friends in Wellington and Featherston. A quick trip over the hill opened his eyes to the quirky little town's charms, and seeing his friend's house for sale sealed the deal. He moved over in February, setting up shop in a quaint little house in the foothills of the Rimutakas.

The Academy's eventual form isn't entirely set yet, although a lot of it will centre around four interconnected Chinese Studies websites that Barme is also setting up. As such it'll primarily be online, although he's also hoping to bring some of his high level contacts over to Featherston to discuss and exchange ideas.

"Right now it's myself, another friend and a lot of inspiration," he said, with a laugh.

"We're definitely looking forward to doing more in the future. Once or twice a year we'll aim to bring together Chinese intellectuals with New Zealanders and have a get together here in Wairarapa. It'll be a sort of elevated frivolity."

Barme's passion for China was ignited in the 1960s, when he heard the mysterious and exotic sounds of Radio Peking. Radical politics soon pushed him towards the intellectual rigors of Chinese study, although it soon became clear his love of the country and its history would outlast the fads of the period.

"It's a culture obsessed with literature and ideals," he said. "In a lot of ways, the study of China is the study of humanity."

He's spent years living in China, as well as Japan, Hong Kong and the United States. He's spent most of his life in Australia, though, and has spent much of that time heavily involved with Canberra's ANU.

It was there in 1976 that he met an awkward young man who would later take a centre role on the world stage.

"I was giving a guest lecture, and afterwards this kid came up to me and said 'hi, I'm Kevin,'" he recalled.

It turned out to be future Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. The two stayed in touch ever since, and it was Rudd who allocated the funding for Barme's ANU institute 30 years later. 

Barme's life in high profile academia did take its toll, though, the constant jet lag and 14-hour days slowly wearing him down. He's incapable of relaxing entirely - he's currently working on a book and various academic papers - but the Featherston lifestyle should provide a welcome dose of relaxation.

"This will be the first time in years I haven't had jet lag," he said, in wonder. "Now all my trips will be between, say, Greytown and Wellington and Featherston, not Canberra and Beijing. "How wonderful is that?"

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