Antonia Finnane (centre) with her former Honours students. Left to right: Hamish Clark, Luke Yin, Lotte Wong and Conna Ravel Speelman. Photograph Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018

Farewelling Professor Antonia Finnane

In 2018 Professor Antonia Finnane retired after 33 years working for the History program at the University of Melbourne. We present here excerpts from the speeches and tributes delivered at Antonia’s farewell in November 2018 by Associate Professor Kate McGregor and History PhD candidate Shan Windscript.

I would like to thank several people for assisting with anecdotes and material for this speech, especially Catherine Kovesi, Anne McLaren, Stuart Macintyre, Charles Coppel and Richard Pennell. I would also like to thank Nathan Gardner for organising tonight’s event with me.

I want to begin with a personal thank you to Antonia for always being an inspiration as a supervisor, teacher, mentor, sounding board but mostly as a person. It’s been lovely to have you in the corridors and in the program.

Antonia has been with the History program for 33 years and has made strong contributions to our research and teaching over that time, in addition to elevating our international profile.

First, I would like to say something about Antonia’s impressive contributions to her fields of research.

Antonia is a graduate of the University of Sydney (first-class honours in history). She studied at the Beijing language institute and then Nanjing University before commencing her study at the Australian National University, with a PhD in Chinese history. 

Antonia Finnane and guests at her farewell. Photograph: Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018

When asked in an interview about ten years ago about when her passion for China began she said:

“It’s hard to say, but the Cold War and the Vietnam War were probably factors. When I started university in 1971, I might have studied Vietnamese had it been available; as it was I enrolled in Elementary Chinese. But I did have a long-standing interest in China from reading children’s fiction, most memorably Ho Ming, Girl of New China, which I later found out won the children’s book of the year in the US in 1937; also House of Sixty Fathers, Plum Blossom and Kai Lin—all borrowed from the local library. My parents had a copy of Ling Shu-hua’s Ancient Melodies, which I also read when I was young. All this childhood reading must have made an impression on me, because I have been interested in China and Chinese for as long as I can remember. I wasn’t a very good language student, but Chinese is very addictive and having started on the China road in my first year of university, I never really looked back though I have sometimes thought that life is not long enough to study Chinese if you want to do anything else, such as have a life.”

As Antonia began her doctorate in the early 1970s China and the US were just establishing better relations, so it must have been an exciting period of opening up.  Archive work was very difficult due to restrictions and even getting access to some areas was challenging. In addition Antonia was working in a new field for Chinese history of urban history at the time.

Now, many years later, Antonia’s scholarship is internationally acclaimed for the meticulous research it employs using Chinese sources and offering fresh interpretations of significant issues of Chinese economic, social and cultural history.

In 2007, Antonia, won a major award: the Joseph Levenson Book Award awarded by the US Association for Asian Studies, for the best book on a pre-1900 topic on China.Speaking of Yangzhou, published by the Harvard Asia Center was hailed as “remarkably rich and comprehensive”. It presents a history of the development and decline of the city of Yangzhou, a city famed for its strong merchant culture based around trade in salt. In this work she challenged a number of received opinions, particularly with regard to the social status of the merchants and presents a compelling argument to account for the economic decline of the city in the nineteenth century. Not just an urban history, the work deals with significant economic, social and cultural issues in imperial China. She won the University’s Woodward Medal for the same book.

Another outstanding book, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation (Columbia University Press, 2008), is regarded as a “definitive study” of the history of fashion in China from the late imperial to the contemporary period. Richly illustrated, it has been described as “beautifully produced”. In this work Antonia overturns earlier assumptions that China’s fashion in clothes was unchanging and demonstrates the historicity of fashion both in the imperial and the modern era. Chinese fashion is a research topic pioneered by Antonia that has been warmly welcomed by the field of Chinese studies. This book is more than just a fashion history—it is required reading for understanding the transformation of the roles of Chinese women, particularly at the difficult transition from imperial times to the modern age.

Over the course of her career Antonia has held several major grants from the ARC to support her research. The most recent project focuses on “The Fate of the Artisan in Revolutionary China: Tailors in Beijing, 1930s–1960s” (ARC Discovery Project, 2013–2018). Previous projects include “Consumption in Late Imperial China: An Early Modern Phenomenon?” (ARC DP 2006–2012); and “Fashionable Times: An Inquiry into the History of China’s Modernity” (ARC DP 2003–2004).

Antonia Finnane (R) with Dr Kat Ellinghaus (L). Photograph: Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018

Antonia has also collaborated with scholars in the program in her research, including with Catherine Kovesi, Julie Fedor, Ara Keys, and myself. She has also co-edited collections on the Bandung conference (with Derek McDougall) and on dress, sex and text in China (with Anne McLaren).

She has also published on Chinese human rights issues, Chinese nationalism, the Nanjing massacre, and Australia-China relations. In 1999 she published a book on Jewish Journeys from Shanghai to Australia, called Far from Where?, stemming out of a class she taught.

In another marker of Antonia’s standing in the field, she was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities in 2007. She has served on the board of the Journal of Asian Studies and Asian Studies Review. She assisted with the English-language production of the Journal of Modern Chinese History, a new journal produced by the Institute of Modern History (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences),

Antonia has taught a range of subjects in the History program, including subjects in Chinese history as well as broader Asian and world history subjects and theoretical subjects.

Stuart Macintyre remembers that the joint appointment of John Fitzgerald and Antonia Finnane to a post in Chinese history in 1985 was an important one, not just because they were the first to share a post, but because it was the first new one that History had been able to make for some years. Stuart recollects that Greg Dening chaired the selection committee. Their appointments were part of a conscious strengthening of Asian history, followed by the appointment also of Vera Mackie, a historian of Japan.

Professors Emeriti Pat Grimshaw, Charles Sowerwine and Stuart Macintyre. Photograph: Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018

Back in the 1980s, Charles Coppel also recalls there was a significant cohort of historians of Asia in the program. With the closure of the Department of Indian and Indonesian Studies at the end of 1987, Dipesh Chakrabarty, a historian of India, and Charles, a historian of Indonesia, were given asylum by the History Department. At the time the Hawke government was keen to promote the study of Asia. Charles recalls that “Antonia was a very able, collaborative and likeable friend and colleague.”

Charles joined Antonia in introducing a new first-year subject, “Asian Histories: Uses of the Past” (in 1989, if I’m not mistaken). He recalls “it was very enjoyable and stimulating team-teaching with Antonia (China), Dipesh (India) and me (Indonesia).”

So at one enviable stage, I say now with some lamentation as we lose Antonia, there were 4 historians of Asia in the program covering China, India, Indonesia and Japan.

Stuart Macintyre recalls that when Antonia and John arrived they both made an immediate adjustment to a new city, carefully refraining from references to Sydney. Given the youth of their children, they had prodigious energy.”

In fact, Antonia has always been an energetic and positive contributor to the History program. Over the years she has put up her hand again and again to take on bold initiatives. One was the first-year subject “The World Since World War Two”, launched in the 1990s. Stuart Macintyre recalls that the launching of this subject was a conscious device to “mainstream Asian history”, with the additional goal of attracting those who enrolled to take further, more specialised Asian subjects in later years. He shared lectures with Antonia: “Hers were indicative of her interests. These included continental Europe, international and what we would call transnational aspects, cultural history and patterns of everyday life. Her lectures were very rich, treating the first-year students as intelligent and engaged. Like all good teachers, her assumption that they would know and care had the effect of persuading many that they should indeed acquire those qualities.”

Antonia at centre and guests at her farewell. Photograph: Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018

“There were moments that revealed her awareness this was not always the case, such as when she put an outline map of the state boundaries of East and South-East Asia up on the screen and invited students to name the countries. Most could manage Australia and China, but after that … She always stressed geography. “

“Over the life of the subject, its chronological coverage grew. Initially we used Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes as a text and explored competing understandings of freedom down to the collapse of the USSR—but the post-communist years presented quite unexpected changes to which she was always alert. “

In the 2000s Antonia continued teaching “The World Since World War Two” and also taught Modern China and historiographical units. She took five years’ leave in 2008–2012 to go and work in China while John served as the China representative for the Ford Foundation. Antonia taught at several Chinese universities at that time and continued her research.

Returning to the program, building on her life-long passion for China, Antonia oversaw the Nanjing University Initiative involving an in-country subject that students still rave about called “Town and Country in China and the West” (co-taught with David Goodman), staff exchanges, and a series of joint conferences with staff from Nanjing University, including the symposium held earlier today.

This year alone Antonia took on two new subjects in her last semester, including a PhD seminar on Orientalism and the subject “Cold War Cultures in Asia”. She also oversaw the Honours coordination for several years, a role which she seemed to find particularly enjoyable and rewarding. 

Professor David Goodman and Dr Alessandro Antonello at Antonia Finnane’s farewell. Photograph: Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018

Michael Francis, a former Honours student who went on to complete a PhD with us, recalled Antonia’s Honours teaching:  

“I didn’t know I was alive until I took Antonia’s honours class back in 2013. Talk about a baptism of fire! I don’t think I had ever learned so much about historical theory and practice as I did in that subject, nor indeed since. Antonia had a marvellous ability to motivate her students to engage with challenging content at a deep level. The skills she taught in that class were invaluable, and they are something I have tried to pass on to my own students. It is a shame that incoming honours cohorts will not have the same exposure to Antonia’s intellectual rigour.

Seeing Antonia at the final Honours students’ exhibition at midyear I was reminded again of how much interest and pride Antonia has always taken in her students, but especially Honours and postgraduate students, who she has nurtured and made most welcome, especially during the term she recently served as Research Higher Degree chair for SHAPS. In that role she strived to make students feel part of a community of scholars; she read their work with care and engagement at reviews, and always tried to do more for them.

Antonia has formed very special relationships with her former and current postgraduate students including me, but also the recent graduate Xavier Ma, one of the first PhD students from mainland China to study here with us, and also Shan Windscript, who will speak in a moment, and Nathan Gardner, who is coming through now as one of the Hansen Trust PhD scholarship holders.

Antonia Finnane (R) with Shan Windscript (C) and Nathan Gardner (L). Photograph: Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018


 Antonia was always ready to offer an alternative critical opinion on an academic paper or a new policy. Two colleagues Richard Pennell and Catherine Kovesi interestingly recalled a rather famous expression of Antonia’s that arose in a meeting following a curriculum review when we came to consider what coverage we gave to times and places in history. After a long discussion about the need for medieval, early modern and then modern history covering all of Europe and then just greater coverage of the countries of Asia, Antonia paused and summed up: “So: Europe has time and Asia only has place….” This is a perfect summary of the kinds of critiques that Antonia would make.

Antonia has always been a firm advocate for gender equity and for equal opportunity for women and people with families in the program.

She is often ahead of her time. She was the first person in the program with a standing desk well before our move to the Arts West building, yet she is also one for sentiment.

Catherine Kovesi reminded me that as we packed up our offices and the long-term residence of the History program in the John Medley building, perhaps around six years ago, Antonia composed a song to farewell our home and particular rooms that had meaning for us. Those two rooms, as I explained to our postgrads as the recent Snifters Dinner, were the Jessie Webb Library where we used to hear weekly Brown Bag papers, where students could study, and where all the Honours and postgraduate theses were kept. It had a beautiful outlook onto South Lawn and was filled with light and a sense of history. The second room was the Margaret Kiddle room where we gathered for morning teas with professional and academic staff and postgraduate students every morning for a chat over freshly brewed coffee and biscuits.

Antonia Finnane speaks at her farewell. Photograph: Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018

To conclude my farewell speech to Antonia then I would like to invite the most renowned singer in the program Una McIlvenna, to join me to sing the farewell, with an additional verse added by me for Antonia. Everybody, please do join us for the chorus!

Farewell to old Medley forever!

Farewell to our tea-room as well!

Farewell to the Jessie Webb Library

Where we once used to converse so well. 


Singing too-ra-li oo-ra-li addity

Singing too-ra-li oo-ra-li ay

Singing too-ra-li oo-ra-li addity

For we’re leaving John Medley today!

Tain’t leaving Old Medley we cares about,

‘Tain’t ‘cos we dislikes where we goes,

But because Margaret Kiddle can’t come with us

And the Jessie Webb Library must close.


Now all you intending historians,

Take warning that soon we’ll be gone,

If you want to pursue your inquiries,

Then you’ll find us in Eco and Com.


(Extra verse for Antonia)

Now it’s six years on from our Medley move

We’re here to bid goodbye again

To a dear friend and colleague, who’ll be sorely missed

A truly great historian

For Antonia Finnane, will leave us today!


Please raise your glass to say farewell to Antonia.

Although we say farewell, we of course hope Antonia will remain engaged with the program, especially through her postgraduates, but also by continuing collaborations, sharing her ongoing research, and, of course, the Nanjing connections, with us.

Kate McGregor

History Discipline Chair 2018


I’m honoured to have been asked to make a farewell tribute to Antonia on behalf of her postgraduate and honours students. We all feel very emotional at her departure, but I’ll keep this speech short, because I’m sure there will be more personal and heartfelt words of appreciation said in our forthcoming theses, which will be completed very soon.

Antonia, you have been a great supervisor to all of us over the years. Your many remarkable qualities have inspired us in so many ways: your knowledge and expertise, your open-mindedness, your humour and hospitality, to mention just a few. You take your responsibilities seriously, and have been incredibly generous and kind to us.

There are so many things that we have learnt from you. But I’ll mention a particular one here, and that is your power to foster and nurture connections, to bring people together from across academic traditions, across generations, and indeed, across the world, resulting in a diverse and flourishing intellectual community.

To mark this occasion for you, I’ve also prepared a little performance. Originally, we were going to sing your favourite song, the Internationale; but we changed our mind for fear of embarrassing you in front of your colleagues.

Guests from Nanjing University sing at Antonia Finnane’s farewell. Photograph: Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018

Before saying some last remarks, I’d like to recite part of a famous Chinese poem, based on which you created your Chinese name, 东篱, meaning, the “eastern fence:”

I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern fence;

By chance, I see the South Mountain;

Through the soft mountain air of dusk

Flocks of birds are flying home in pairs

This moment holds a deep meaning,

I want to express it, but I’m lost for words.

Antonia, we will miss the anxious wait outside your office before supervision, and the experience of walking away feeling clearer and more confident about our work. We wish you a rich and happy post-retirement life. Your PhD students, Laura Jocic, Nathan Gardner, Katherine Molyneux, Xavier Ma (who is now a postdoc at a top Chinese university), and I, have brought you a present from China; and your honours students, Conna Speelman, Hamish Clark, Luke Yin, and Lotte Wong, have got you some beautiful flowers.

Shan Windscript

PhD candidate

Feature Image: Antonia Finnane (centre) with her former Honours students. Left to right: Hamish Clark, Luke Yin, Lotte Wong and Conna Ravel Speelman. Photograph Georgia Garvey-Hawke © SHAPS, 2018