The range of emotions parents can arouse in their children – affection, rebellion, indifference, fear, adulation, their disturbing combinations – suggests a repertory of subjective universals, cutting in each individual case at random across cultures. What children know – as opposed to feel – about their parents, on the other hand, is likely to be a function of objective constraints that vary more systematically: tradition, place, lifespan. Is there an unalterable core, of pudeur or incomprehension, even here? That is less clear. In the American tropics, for instance, gaps of scarcely more than a dozen years between generations, not uncommon, can create an easy sibling intimacy between mother and grown-up child, difficult to imagine in the North.
At the opposite pole, my father was 43 when his first child, my brother Benedict, was born. He died ten years later, when I was eight. But in his last years he was sufficiently ill for my mother to think it best to get us away to boarding-school. Here the brevity of biological overlap was further reduced by social decision. My mother’s motive was compassion, but her solution suggests a filter that might in any event have dropped between father and children, had he survived. The distance in years, and the scission of death, were sealed by a culture anyway marked by reticence. There was nothing unusual in such circumstances. A child of them was bound to know little of his father.
In our family, however, a further shutter fell across his memory. He had spent his life thousands of miles away from Ireland, where he died and we grew up, in a China that ceased to exist as soon as he was gone. We knew he had worked there as a Customs Commissioner, but had little idea of what that might mean. In his last months, sitting by the fire during the damp Irish nights, he liked to tell us boys – my sister was too young to listen – anecdotes about Parnell, whom he admired; and tales of junks and pirates, in which he escaped from brigands or captured prizes. Such images were too vivid to last, their over-bright tints fading into the dimness of nursery-stories that adolescents, with more impatience than condescension, put behind them – rather like the revolver I discovered in a drawer one idle afternoon, whose weight surprised me, before my mother caught me and got rid of it.
Once these legends had receded, we were left with a world of objects, familiar and incomprehensible, recalling a past to which we otherwise had no relation: large buff tea-chests, stamped with ideograms, still lined – is this a trick of memory? – with Chinese newspapers; dusty books and papers, with Chinese characters on the back, in the glass case in the hall; a celadon lamp, yellow rug, small dark teapot; blue saddle-cloths my mother used to veil her television set; framed paintings of black-hatted sages, silk scrolls of ladies under parasols, a horse rolling on its back by a stream. As a resolutely philistine teenager, I had no time for any of these. Even the great broad-shouldered tiger, glowering magnificently down on us in the dining-room – a copy of a well-known Ming original, so one was later led to believe – made scarcely any conscious impression on me. Only the Ch’ing Ping M’ei, a domesticated version of the original, but – for a 15-year-old – sexually electric enough, in an azure Shanghai binding of the Thirties, caught my imagination. By the time I got out of university, associations with China were like faded scraps of wallpaper in a house one wished to forget, the Ireland of the Meet and the Mass of that time. ‘Customs’ conjured up only the local caitiffs of a seedy clericalism, peering at books on the quayside to see if they were on a blacklist based on the Papal Index.
My mother, of course, could have told us more. But even as adults, something held us back from asking. She once commented on our lack of curiosity, but was too tactful ever to impose the topic. There were the family photograph albums of Kunming, where my brother was born, Swatow where I was conceived, later our house in Shanghai. But there was little reference to all this. Why did she not volunteer more? In part, because of her own attitude to life: she had an unusual gift for making the best of the present – I often thought she became younger and more lively, the older she got. Her marriage to my father had been a success. Then she had nursed him in his long illness. By temperament she had little inclination to look back, unless invited to do so. There was perhaps another element as well. She lived three years with my father in China before the Pacific War. But he had already lived there more than twenty, and been married for a decade to another woman, the writer Stella Benson, whose novels stood preserved and largely unread on our bookshelves. My mother would have been aware of the limits to her knowledge of this other Chinese life.
After Stella’s death in 1933, my father deposited her diaries in the University Library in Cambridge, not to be read for fifty years. When they became available, a fine biography of her was quickly produced, based on them. My mother told the biographer, Joy Grant, what she knew of her husband’s earlier life; but she, and we, learnt far more from it. The biography offers a sympathetic portrait of my father. Yet, drawn from the diaries of a writer who was remarkably honest, but also unusually introspective, it is confined essentially to the marital relationship – which is certainly striking enough. The journals, revealing in many other ways, are notably incurious about my father’s work; while his experience in China before they met in 1920 remains a blank.
About this time, at the turn of the Nineties, my attitude changed. No one teaching in Los Angeles could fail to feel the force of the Italian adage of the Sixties: la Cina è vicina. With some of the best historians of China in the world on campus, and students from every part of the Far East, it was difficult not to wonder more about the family connection. By now a substantial amount of scholarship had appeared on the mysterious organisation that employed my father, the Chinese Maritime Customs. But this work, much of it from the distinguished hand of John Fairbank, was mostly concerned with the 19th-century origins of the institution, shedding less light on modern times. For its more recent history, it was not even very clear where the records lay: the best contemporary guide to Chinese archives, produced in 1996, gives no indication.
Last summer, enquiries through my brother established that the files I was looking for would be held in Nanking, though permission to consult them was by no means certain. A conference took me to China, and in due course I made my way to Nanking. The Second National Archive, which in principle covers central documentation of the Republican period (1911-49), is housed in a large structure set back from the road, fronted by a traditional gaudily-painted gate and a tilted-roof mansion put up by the Kuomintang not long before the city was stormed by the Japanese in 1937. Nanking is famous as one of the ‘four furnaces’ of China, and in that season the reading-room was largely deserted. Filial respect is understood in China, and the staff were friendly and willing to help. But they were not sanguine. The Customs archive, they pointed out, contained 57,000 volumes, and there was no detailed catalogue: where were they to start? I suggested looking for reports from the province of Yunnan for 1936, when my father was Commissioner there.
Within half an hour, I had his dispatches from Kunming in front of me. The sensation of belated encounter was overwhelming, mixed with a kind of awe. For I was looking, not only at the workings of the life that lay behind mine, but at one of the most immaculate sets of records in the world. I don’t know what I had expected to find, but not quite this. Every year communications between field stations – the ‘ports’, which included inland as well as coastal cities – and the headquarters of the Customs were bound in red or black leather volumes, with gold-block lettering. Inside, dispatches and correspondence, in meticulous sequence, are as crisp and clear as when first typed; in their margins, the handwritten comments of an indefatigable Inspector-General and his assistants, or instructions for reply. Three separate categories of communication were transmitted each month, and filed and bound in different formats: Official Correspondence, covering regular administrative business; Semi-Official, reporting political and military developments in the area; and Confidential, for the most sensitive material, to do with leaders, powers, wars. These were, in effect, the memorials of a state within a state. Across two decades, I could follow my father’s path within it, as he moved in orbit round China.
A few months later, when I was back in Europe, my sister mentioned that cousins in Ireland had some old photographs and possibly documents about our grandfather, known to be in charge of army cryptography during the First World War, but otherwise a shadowy figure who died in 1920. The letters, she said, were in the attic of a disused mill. Mildly intrigued, I went to see them. There, instead, to my astonishment I was shown a suitcase of letters from my father, covering the entire span from his departure for China to his death in Ireland more than thirty years later. Addressed to his mother, aunt and sister, they must have been casually stuffed in drawers, without order or afterthought, many no less casually mislaid or thrown aside. Though no sequence is complete, no major period is missing; with all the reservations that attach to family correspondence of this kind – the immemorial censorship of sons writing to mothers – a more or less continuous frieze of my father’s life, especially revealing of his early years, can be pieced together. The letters found near Cahir could be regarded as a fourth – Personal – series of reports complementing, or offsetting, the three stored in Nanking.
They start on 19 July 1914, three days before my father’s 21st birthday. He was a passenger on the SS Morea, passing Stromboli in eruption en route to Suez. By the time he reached Colombo, Europe was on the brink of war – ‘two battleships in harbour and 25-mile searchlights playing’. Hostilities broke out before he got to Singapore. Arriving in Shanghai in the last week of August, he was sent at a few hours’ notice eight hundred miles up the Yangtze to a port deep in Hunan, to begin his career in the Customs. Why had he come to China? After a year as classical exhibitioner in Cambridge, neglecting or scorning his curriculum, he had failed his first-year exams. Outraged by this nonchalance, his father, a martinet, refused to let him sit them again, cutting off financial support. His uncle, another and more senior general, who had once commanded the garrison in Hong Kong, recommended him for service in the Maritime Customs. Academic grief was actuarial good luck. Gazetted into his future employment just before the outbreak of war, and issued with an ‘outfit allowance’ of £100, he was contractually bound to five years’ service in China. Unable to secure his release to participate in the slaughter in Europe, he escaped the fate of his younger brother, the apple of his parents’ eye, killed in the last week of fighting. This death finished off his father. He had punished the wrong son.
The institution in which the young James Carew O’Gorman Anderson took up his post in 1914 had been in existence for nearly fifty years. By then it had no parallel anywhere in the world. Its origins lay in the crisis of the Ch’ing Empire in the mid-19th century, when the Taiping Rebellion gave a Western coalition, led by Britain, the chance to force a ‘Treaty system’ on the beleaguered dynasty, subjecting China to full commercial penetration. The immediate background to the creation of the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs Service was the Anglo-French expedition to Peking of 1860 that culminated in the burning of the Summer Palace. Once brought to heel by force of arms, the recalcitrant Ch’ing state needed to be propped up against the threat of the Taiping insurrection in the Yangtze delta, with its menacing attitudes to private property and the opium trade. A new Customs Inspectorate, answerable to Peking but staffed by foreigners, would enforce the remarkably advantageous tariff system imposed on the dynasty, fixing a ceiling on import dues at 5 per cent ad valorem, and provide it with the steady revenues required to pay off the Anglo-French indemnity and finance military victory over the Taiping.
From these beginnings, an extraordinary financial and quasi-political realm was built. Its architect, Robert Hart, was just 28 when he became Inspector-General in 1863. Rapidly winning the confidence of the Chi’ng court, he went on to create the first modern administrative system in China. Its core was a fiscal bureaucracy that assured the late imperial state of a third of its revenue, and whose probity and efficiency extended into many other operations besides tax collection. It ran the postal service, managed waterways, improved harbours and planted lighthouses, established statistical services. Hart, a close confidant of the Empress Dowager, organised overseas missions, advised on diplomatic affairs, mediated in international conflicts. Theoretically, he owed his position to Britain’s leading share in China’s trade; in practice to its all-round imperial leverage in the region. Eventually London pressed him to become the British Ambassador in Peking.
This was a role Hart rejected. Far from being any mere major-domo for foreign interests, he regarded himself as a loyal servant of the Chinese Government, and was quite capable of cracking down on malpractices by Western merchants, pursuing law-suits against the British Government, and crossing the Foreign Office when he saw fit. Imperial China remained an independent state, and he was committed to a conservative modernisation of it, even if he ultimately came to fear that the dynasty might prove unreformable. His insistence on the autonomy of the Customs from the Western powers that had brought it into being, and on the integrity of its allegiance to China, was not simply disinterested. Hart’s personal position depended crucially on dissociation from his parent state. He could never have wielded the same influence in the Forbidden City had he been a cat’s-paw of Disraeli or Salisbury. But this sovereign role depended in turn on the extraordinary character of the organisation under his control.
The Chinese Maritime Customs was recruited, not just from candidates from Britain, but from all the major external powers of the day: France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia, America, Japan; not to speak of the lesser European states – Portugal, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway. The stately Service Lists of the CMC, denominating the country of origin, as well as rank and posting, of every member of the organisation – veritable works of bureaucratic art – offer a regular tableau of this international composition. If the British easily predominated, with over half the executive ‘indoor staff’, and English was the working language, Hart was always careful to balance his countrymen with other nationalities, whose education and talent he on occasion claimed were superior.
In effect, the Customs was an inter-imperialist consortium, comparable only to the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, set up as a tax-collecting apparatus run by foreigners for the Porte a couple of decades later. Both owed their form to a stand-off between predators. The rival Great Powers, jealously watching each other’s manoeuvres, could not agree on a carve-up of either the Turkish or Chinese Empires, settling instead for an indirect collective instrument to secure at least assorted indemnities and loans. The Ottoman institution, however, was more short-lived (1881-1918) and never employed so many Europeans, because it could rely on Greek or Armenian subjects of the Sultan for key posts. Perched atop a more cosmopolitan pyramid, Hart had wide freedom of action to conduct affairs as he wished, and shape the Customs in his image. He had come from a modest background in Ulster, straight from Queen’s University, Belfast to China. In power, he would not neglect kith and kin. He favoured his brother to succeed him, and when the latter died prematurely, plumped for his brother-in-law, Robert Bredon, another Ulsterman.
Here the Foreign Office was not keen, however, and he had to settle for Francis Aglen, the son of his best friend at school, whom he had installed as Commissioner in Canton – the port where he had himself started. Even from the grave, his nepotism lived on. Aglen was briefly succeeded by another Irishman, Arthur Edwardes, who was followed in turn by Hart’s nephew, naturally also from Ulster, Frederick Maze. For the eighty years of its splendour, the Customs – forcing-house of administrative modernity – was in this respect run as a patrimonial bureaucracy. There were no formal criteria for recruitment, no real rules of promotion, no regularity or predictability of postings. The Inspector-General was an autocrat within his realm, answerable to no one. The indoor staff were rotated round the country at will and at a more rapid rate than Chinese magistrates had ever been, even under those dynasties most determined to prevent them forming local connections (a traditional preoccupation). Over time, this mobility intensified. In the 20th century, it is doubtful how many CCP cadres, at the height of the Party’s mobilising power, had careers of quite such geographical range.
The contrast with the stability of provincial assignments in the Indian Civil Service, with which contemporaries often compared the Customs, is striking. This had something to do with the diversity of Indian languages, which discouraged transfers once a local idiom was acquired, as opposed to the territorial uniformity of written Chinese; but also with more conventional forms of hierarchy. On the other hand, the Customs indoor corps was an élite with salaries and accoutrements not unlike those of their Indian counterparts: aspects impressing the young Maurice Bowra, on a visit to his father, Chief Secretary of the CMC, in 1916 (‘life in Peking afforded comforts such as I had never known before and have never known since’). In 1914 there were only 321 foreigners on the indoor staff, out of a total personnel of more than seven and a half thousand; new recruits got a starting salary of 1500 haekwan taels a year – equivalent to about $2250.
In 1911, with admirable timing, Hart died. Three months later, the Ch’ing Empire collapsed. But the Revolution of 1911 proved quite unable to create a unitary republic, disintegrating into a checkerboard of warlord regimes instead. In these conditions of endemic confusion and division, Aglen – who never enjoyed anything approaching Hart’s personal authority with any Chinese government – paradoxically gained even greater institutional power in Peking than his predecessor had. Whereas, in Hart’s day, the foreign inspectorate had assessed customs dues that were actually collected by Chinese superintendents, for transmission to the central state and provincial authorities, from 1912 onwards revenues were directly collected by the CMC itself, and deposited in three ‘custodian’ banks – British, Russian and German – which held them for the CMC as security against foreign loans, only disbursing funds to regimes in Peking on the nod of the Inspector-General and the Diplomatic Corps. With this fiscal stranglehold on the cliques competing for power in North China, the Customs had indeed become, as Aglen himself confidentially put it, an imperium in imperio.
Such was the scene when my father arrived in China, with only the sketchiest idea of what was in store for him. After nine months in Hunan, learning basic procedures, he was sent for a year to Mukden for intensive language instruction in Chinese at the Customs School outside the city. Under Aglen, for the first time, advancement beyond a certain level depended on passing a series of examinations in the written and spoken language that stretched over nearly a decade. His first posting came in the spring of 1916, to Chiang Kai-shek’s home area in Chekiang, Ningpo. The inter-imperial character of the Customs was still untouched by the European conflict, and nationals from belligerent countries continued to work side by side. While his brother was fighting in Picardy, my father was filing reports to a German chief, whose only drawback was a touch of amiable Schlamperei. This came to an end in April 1917, when China was cajoled by the US into conflict with the Central Powers, and German and Austrian staff were sent home.
That month my father was transferred to the CMC headquarters in Peking, arriving just as the pig-tailed General Chang Tsun seized the city in an unsuccessful bid to restore the Manchu monarchy. Working in the Inspectorate-General under Aglen and Bowra, he decoded telegram traffic far into the night, as the CMC became an increasingly central player in the capital. ‘The Customs have gained a great deal in influence since the war and up here in Peking we are more than half a political force,’ he wrote home; ‘we are taking over the government banks practically.’ From the Inspectorate, located in the middle of the Legation Quarter, on the eastern edge of today’s Tiananmen Square, the cockpit of warlord conflicts in the capital was in constant view. In the summer of 1918 he was writing: ‘reason is the religion of China and a very good religion too,’ except that it made for detachment: ‘it is only the unscrupulous who go into politics, hence the present futile government.’ When the awakening of 4 May 1919 came, with the student protests that marked the birth of modern politics in China, his response was enthusiastic. ‘All China is on strike! It is most impressive,’ he reported, ‘all business is at a standstill and the students, who are running the movement, are masters of the situation. There is a sort of epidemic of resignations from President down to Parliament.’
Aglen evidently appreciated his work, taking him as private secretary on a tour of inspection by cruiser round ports in South China later that year, calling in at Canton, Wuchow, Amoy, Foochow, Macao and elsewhere. His prospects must have appeared good. Back in Peking, where he was completing a translation for Kishimoto Hirokichi, the Commissioner in charge of Chinese negotiations in the Inspectorate, ‘who is a Japanese and whose job I have my eye on twenty years hence’, his career seemed well on track. But ambition is not the dominant note in his correspondence of the time. He was in his twenties, and the pleasures of an outdoor life – riding, skating, tennis, swimming – when office pressures slackened, figure more largely. The beauty of Peking, commented on by all foreigners of the period – ‘a wonderful city’, even when ‘the high walls, dust, the dry harsh look of things’ were oppressive in the hot season – and of the countryside of the Western Hills, where he tramped on foot at weekends, were natural attractions. On the coast the Customs kept bungalows in Peitaho, the resort where today Communist leaders gather in seclusion every summer.
But another concern was predictably uppermost. Young European men in China usually found solace with local tea-girls or concubines. Hart, a devout Wesleyan, had three children by a mistress in Amoy before marrying a cousin from Portadown. My father, who found the typical ‘China girl’ in the Western community insufferably spoilt by the gender ratio, no doubt at some point followed suit. But in his last year in Peking, he fell under the spell of the wife of an embassy official, Florence Harding, a woman of unusual boldness (‘she apparently opened operations by slipping her hand in his pocket,’ my mother noted with amusement many years later). A turbulent affair ensued. In early 1920 he was transferred to Chungking, 1500 miles up the Yangtze.
There in September she arrived to stay with him, bringing – no doubt for the sake of decorum – two women friends along with her. One of these was Stella Benson, then travelling in Asia as a freelance writer and journalist. Shrouded in torrential rain, in a house high above the city which lay on a ledge amid the swirling river, the party quickly became an emotional hotbed. Stella fell violently in love with my father, while he strove mightily to detach Florence from her marriage, freely regaling the first with confessions of his passion for the second. Arguments about Ireland – the Black and Tans had just arrived: my father sympathised with Sinn Fein – heightened the atmospherics. Below, pitched battles raged between Yunnan and Szechwan troops, in the last round of a long-standing struggle for control of the province: bullets flying in the streets, bodies floating down the river, as the agitated trio prepared to leave by boat for Shanghai. Painful mises-au-point punctuated the route. Florence made her way back to Peking. Stella went on to Calcutta. My father was left for the final months of his tour of duty in Shanghai, whose International Settlement, where ‘the Chinese are only tolerated to be kicked and sworn at’, he detested. In the spring of 1921, now aged 27, he sailed home on his first leave.
What had he made of China? In all probability, my father would have been hard put to give a focused answer, so closely must the particular encounter with a foreign world have been entwined, and overlaid, by the general confusions of growing up. For example, after seven years, how proficient was his Chinese? At this stage, there are some indications he could read classical poetry; but they might be misleading. Certainly, by the time he left Peking, he was scornful of the attitude of most of his contemporaries. ‘Europeans in China are so stupid,’ he wrote: ‘if they would take a little interest in the country they are living in, they would enjoy life more. But they expect Chungking to be like Leeds and regret the petty luxuries of a third-rate English town.’ Pride in the variety of landscapes and cities he had already known, and the scale of the administration – ‘covering thousands of miles’ – of which he was part, are clear. But of deeper attachment it is difficult to speak. Claudel, a French Consul in China for 15 years, who knew the Western community there well, wrote – echoing an opinion of Stevenson – on the eve of the First World War:
If a man becomes an expatriate, it is not generally from a taste for adventure or an energy impatient with constraints, it is simply because he did not belong and is as if unfastened from himself [comme de lui-même décroché]. Ask him: it is always circumstances that determined his departure. You will never find in an expatriate that ecstatic faith in the things of this world, the tenacity of purpose, the ferocious appetite for power and money we admire in Balzac’s heroes. The expatriate always has something ‘loose’, badly attached, about him: some basic indifference of soul and body.
Whatever the general validity of the description, there are reasons for thinking it might have particular truth in an Anglo-Irish case.
Back in London, within three months my father had married Stella. When he took her home to meet his family in Waterford, roads were criss-crossed with trenches, barracks detonated, bridges pockmarked by ambushes. The locals, seeing her London flapper’s haircut, assumed she had been cropped for collaboration by Sinn Fein. While Griffith and Collins negotiated, the couple sailed off for an American honeymoon. After motoring across the States, from Pennsylvania to California, they arrived back in Ireland during the Civil War. Free State forces, colluding with the British, were closing in on Republican-held Waterford. It must have seemed a bit like Szechwan. At the family dinner table, when my father continued to defend Irish independence, the atmosphere became explosive – Ascendancy houses were being burnt, and his uncle was to be driven out of the country. The newly-weds left for China the day after Collins met retribution in Cork.
On arriving in Hong Kong, my father was posted to Mengtze in Yunnan, on the Indochinese border. Rebuffing attempts by local Intelligence to recruit him as a British agent – he thought them stupid – he took his bride down to Hanoi, and then via the French railway along the upper Red River to Mengtze. Yunnan, famous for its natural beauty and hospitable climate, was a province of China whose remoteness and many ethnic minorities made its warlords virtually independent rulers. Economically, however, the region fell within the French sphere of influence – communications, concessions and trade flowing to Tonkin. Banditry was rife round Mengtze, where most of the hillpeople were Lolo: riding in the countryside, Shaemas and Stella had some narrow brushes, but politically the area was quiet.
There, for two years, the young couple lived in a long adobe house ‘on high stone foundations with a curling Chinese roof gaily painted underneath in faded blues and oranges and crimsons’ – part of the Customs compound which, 15 years later, became the classrooms where William Empson taught English during the Sino-Japanese War, encountering his own brigands outside the city walls (as described in the London Review of 5 October 1995). At Mengtze, wedlock all but crumbled. Stella fell out of love, my father into hurt brooding. They were physical antitheses. Suffering from serious ill-health – a chronically phthisic condition – throughout her life, she was spiritually passionate and carnally numb. Perhaps all her warmth was required for the effort to survive. My father was emotionally steady but strongly and candidly sensual. Few marriages stand that strain. They talked of divorce. She buried herself in writing: he in studying Chinese. In the spring of 1925 he was ordered to Shanghai. She decided to take six months in Europe. At the quay, when the gang-plank went up, she was vaguely surprised to miss him.
Meanwhile, China had been catching up with Ireland. Spreading through the big cities, modern nationalism had established a political base in Canton, where since early 1923 Sun Yat-sen headed a Kuomintang regime with Soviet advisers and Communist support. A bid to seize control of the local Customs had been thwarted by a flotilla of Great Power gunboats, but the Inspectorate in Peking was now facing a general rise in anti-foreign feeling in the South. At this juncture, just as my father arrived in Shanghai, British sepoys in the city fired point-blank into a Chinese crowd demonstrating for the release of students held in a British police station. The massacre of 30 May 1925 set the country alight. A general strike was declared in Shanghai; anti-British rioting erupted and spread to other cities. Three weeks later, a major demonstration against the unequal treaties in Canton met with an Anglo-French fusillade that left many more casualties. The result was a popular strike and boycott of English goods in Hong Kong and Canton that lasted for 16 months – the setting of Malraux’s memorable first novel Les Conquérants.
What was my father’s view of these events? He was in Shanghai at the height of the explosion, but no letter has survived from these weeks. All that is clear is that, instead of being assigned to an office job in the city, as he had expected, he was dispatched in July as Acting Commissioner – the youngest in the service – to the remote corner of China where Manchuria juts into a small gap between the northernmost tip of Korea and the frontier of Russia. Geographically, the nearest city to the settlement of Lungchingtsun, where he arrived in July 1925, was Vladivostok. His first report started:
LOCAL SITUATION: The Shanghai ‘affair’ and the subsequent outbreaks, negotiations etc are discussed and commented on by all classes of Chinese. In coming here I made the journey from the [Korean] frontier to Lungchingtsun on foot and found the country people in fairly remote villages talking over the situation. The Hunchun Chamber of Commerce is collecting money for the strikers’ fund in Shanghai, there was a rather half-hearted demonstration at Yenchi, and the main shop of the BAT dealer is boycotted.
He noted, however, that the political and ethnic balance in the region did not favour the national movement. In the ports of Central and South China, British power was still the main target of popular hostility. In the North-East, Japanese expansion represented a much more formidable force. Manchuria was the home territory of the dominant Northern warlord, Chang Tso-lin. But his regime was invigilated by Tokyo from positions of strength: Japanese military control of the Liaotung peninsula, cantonments in Mukden, armed guards along the South Manchurian Railway. The Chientao border zone where my father had been posted was of special concern to Japan, for the majority of its population were Korean immigrants, and it was the principal base area for underground nationalist activity against Japanese colonial rule in Korea. After its consulates were attacked in 1920, Japan had military police permanently stationed in the local towns. Here, a few years later, Kim Il Sung would start his career as a guerrilla in the Communist movement. Today, the region forms the Yanbian autonomous Korean prefecture in the PRC. Then, a minority of Chinese settlers and a scattering of White Russians completed the scene. Though remote, the land was fertile and economic activity gathering pace. ‘Lungchingtsun is developing fast and looks more like a prairie settlement in the Middle West of America than a treaty port of China. Builders’ scaffoldings and new bald-looking foreign buildings are springing up amongst the adobe huts of the Korean settlers.’
My father spent two years in this odd spur of Siberia. Winters were implacable, though not without elation. Reporting to Aglen on a ‘360 li inspection tour of the frontier barriers and patrol stations’, he noted that for most of the journey, he could bowl along the frozen surface of the Tyumen River by car – ‘a better road could hardly be found’. Stella joined him, suffering from the bitter winds and isolation, but eventually making the local Russians into the material of her most successful novel. When she left for a six-month break in California, he took one to bed, after writing – an impressive letter – for her consent. In a tizzy, she wired him the go-ahead; regretted it; on getting back, recriminated, let it go. By now she knew how strong was his attachment to her, and how little appeasement she gave him. Their strange disjoint existence – imagining, inspecting – resumed.
Meanwhile the Customs was overtaken by the political crisis in the country. In the summer of 1926 the MT regime in Canton, now headed by Chiang Kai-shek, launched the Northern Expedition to oust the assorted warlords who ruled the rest of China. By the end of the year, Nationalist forces had advanced to the Yangtze and set up a government in Hankow. Aglen at the head of the CMC and Britain as hegemon of the Diplomatic Corps were in a dilemma. Both had traditionally backed the warlord regimes in Peking. But Aglen, by channelling part of the Customs surplus to a domestic sinking fund, rather than hypothecating it all to foreign bond-holders (a move that gave him greater leverage within Chinese politics), was regarded with reserve by the Foreign Office, as too independent. What line was now to be taken towards the Kuomintang? In the autumn Chiang Kai-shek cabled orders to suppress the long strike and boycott of British goods, hitherto supported by Canton. Delighted at the relief of Hong Kong, London in exchange made no fuss when the KMT imposed a surtax on foreign trade, technically in breach of the treaty system, and started to cultivate relations with Hankow.
Two months later, the Peking regime – now under the control of Chang Tso-lin, and formally claiming authority over all Chinese territory – responded by announcing its own surtax to the same amount, and instructed the Customs to collect it. Aglen, pleading diplomatic opposition, went south to discuss the delicate situation with the Hankow authorities. Before he could get back, the Peking Government dismissed him for insubordination. London, whatever its feelings about Aglen, was determined to ensure that his successor was a British national – to which the Japanese Legation, after some hesitation, consented. In February 1927 the Northern regime duly appointed the Chief Secretary, Arthur Edwardes, as Acting I-G. My father, who had known Aglen well, noted: ‘Edwardes is a big fat Irishman with red hair who looks like a butcher, but is in fact a Butler on his mother’s side, and related to the Irish dukedom of that name’ – sociable enough, but ‘not terribly hard-working,’ and ‘likely to be kind to his friends at the expense of others.’
Confronted with continuing territorial conflict, Edwardes opted for de facto co-operation with the North. Collection of the surtax was authorised – but by the Chinese superintendents, not foreign officials of the Service. Japan, now getting ready to abandon Chang Tso-lin, opposed the levy. In July, instructions for its collection reached Lungchingtsun. The Japanese headquarters there orchestrated a break-in of the Customs warehouse and a virulent press campaign against my father, threatening him with imminent bomb attacks from ‘Korean gunmen’ against which they could afford no protection – something more likely, he pointed out, to be directed against Japanese installations, since he had no quarrel with Korean independence. Stella noted: ‘Machine-guns titupped about the streets, and peeped over the walls of the enormous fortified and bastioned new Consulate, built, so the Japanese say, as a “symbol of friendship between two great nations”.’ In the event, the local Japanese establishment held its hand, but their last months in Manchuria were an increasingly tense time, as Chinese national sentiment – belatedly let off the leash by Chang Tso-lin – burst out in a campaign of popular demonstrations against Japan across the region. In the autumn, leave arrived, and Shaemas and Stella set off for Europe.
How far did the rhythm of absences from China, in theory a year in every five – a defining punctuation of this existence – intensify a sense of changes in the country, as each return took on something of an entry into the drama after missing an act, re-constructable only from indications in the scenes that followed, or furtive consultations of a programme in the dark? While my father was away, the political landscape of China shifted radically, and the position of the Customs with it. In the spring of 1928, the Northern Expedition was resumed. KMT armies, with assorted regional allies, advanced towards Peking. In early June Chang Tso-lin abandoned the capital, and was blown up on his luxury train back to Mukden by Japanese officers. In October a Nationalist government claiming control over the whole country was proclaimed in Nanking.
At the Customs Edwardes, who had never been accepted by the KMT, soon found his position impossible. From the start of his tenure, he had been threatened by a rival in the person of Hart’s nephew, Frederick Maze, Commissioner in Shanghai. Maze, older and more skilled in manoeuvre, had cultivated good relations with the KMT ever since the 1911 Revolution, when he was Commissioner in Canton. When the Nationalist commander Pai Chung-hsi entered Shanghai in March 1927, Maze was on hand for secret talks with him, which took place just before Communists in the city were massacred by Chiang Kai-shek with Anglo-French complicity. Throughout the year Maze worked to win the favour of the KMT authorities and the backing of the Shanghai business community. He understood the requirements of the rising power, and had no hesitation in meeting them. In January 1929, Edwardes was ousted and Maze appointed Inspector-General. The headquarters of the CMC were moved to Shanghai, and further recruitment of foreigners was suspended. In the same month, China recovered tariff autonomy. The Nationalist Revolution seemed in full swing.
In reality, after turning on his Communist allies, Chiang Kai-shek had unified China only in name. Regional militarists, who lacked the same foreign and business connections, but were often better generals, controlled large territories and forces of their own, under the capacious ideological mantle of Sun Yat-sen’s legacy. The direct authority of Nanking never extended much beyond central China, and was subject to frequent challenge even there. Over the next twenty years, Chiang’s most formidable and persistent rivals came from the sub-tropical province of Kwangsi, a backward region along the Indochinese border with a large minority of Thai origin. Its leading generals, Li Tsung-jen and Pai Chung-hsi, had been more prominent in the actual fighting on the Northern Expedition than Chiang himself, ending it in control of a vast area that for a time included Hankow and Peking. Both commanders would distinguish themselves again in the war against Japan; and when Chiang finally had to step down after his disastrous failures in the civil war against the Communists, it was Li Tsung-Jen who became the last President of Republican China in 1949, vainly trying to negotiate peace with the CCP. In old age he returned from exile, to die an honoured veteran in Peking.
In early 1929, however, Chiang suddenly gained the upper hand over the ‘Kwangsi Clique’, expelling them from the KMT and driving them into exile in Hong Kong. There they plotted a comeback from their native province. To thwart them, Chiang inadvertently installed local officers with left sympathies in office in Kwangsi. That spring my father travelled back to China alone, on the Trans-Siberian. The trip was bleak and his mind anxious: leave had been turbulent. Doctors had told him he couldn’t have children, which Stella wanted. Roles reversed, he wrote to her from Hong Kong: ‘If you really want a child, go ahead. I shouldn’t mind so long as you didn’t break with me.’ He assumed she couldn’t join him. In considerable depression, he had just learnt that he was posted to Nanning, the capital of Kwangsi, allegedly one of the unhealthiest towns in China.
In fact, as he sailed up the waterway from the Pearl Delta and gradually saw the kind of country he was entering, his spirits lifted. Nanning lies just downstream from the fork between Right and Left Rivers, in a setting as far removed from the sub-arctic Tyumen as could be imagined. ‘My house is on the river bank and looks across at neat clumps of feather bamboo and buffaloes, and Chinese washing their clothes, paddling, rigging up junk sails, etc. I have a charming garden, very much overgrown: hibiscus, frangipani, camellia, bougainvillaea, tamarisk, flowering acacia, palms, bamboos, and various flowering shrubs and trees of the kinds that are almost excessively fragrant.’ Trade was at a low ebb, and the workload was light. He settled in and, reassured by local medical opinion, waited for Stella to join him. A few weeks later, an emissary from the CCP headquarters in Shanghai arrived secretly in Nanning. This was the entry into history of Deng Xiaoping, then a 25-year-old not long returned from Europe – his knowledge of French perhaps selecting him for the mission, since he came up-river with Vietnamese Communist assistance through what my father called ‘the back door’ into Kwangsi, via the border town of Lungchow.
Infiltrating the local government and garrison, Deng laid the groundwork for an uprising. In October, however, the officers in charge of the province – under whose protection the CCP had been working – declared prematurely against Chiang Kai-shek, in concert with other disaffected forces in the Nationalist camp, only to find their troops melting away. The path was clear for a return to power of Kwangsi’s famous militarists, but before they could reach Nanning, Deng ordered the detachments won to the Communist cause out of the city. One group marched towards Lungchow in the south-west, and the other to the Chuang minority zone in the north-west of the province, where he sailed up the Right River in a convoy of junks loaded with the city’s arsenal to meet them. There, at the mountain town of Pose, controlling the passes to Yunnan, he proclaimed a Soviet. Landlords were expropriated, Chuang villages mobilised, and soon an area with a population of about a million was under the control of the newly-created Eighth Corps of the Red Army. My father reported to Maze: ‘The whole of the Pose river is overrun by a force of communistic peasants who have lately captured P’ingma and Lungan, the latter town only 60 miles from here. At these places they have publicly burnt portraits of Dr Sun together with all title-deeds found in the hsien yamens!’
A month later, in January 1930, the Kwangsi Clique was back in Nanning.
POLITICAL: A great change in the situation since I last wrote ... Li Tsung-Jen is here. Passing by the Customs House the other morning, he took shelter in my office from a sudden downpour of rain, and spoke freely and with seeming confidence of his plans. He himself will direct operations from Nanning to clear the Lungchow and Pose rivers, at present infested with the remnants of Yü Tso-po’s army and by the peasant communists. All is quiet locally and the Nanning Chamber of Commerce has paid over $70,000 to Li. The money was raised without much difficulty, as the merchants are interested in the reopening of communications with Pose, where opium stocks have been held up for a long time.
In fact, Li and Pai could take no immediate action against the Communist forces in Kwangsi – a few days later a second Soviet was proclaimed on the Left River near the Indochinese border – because they found themselves under assault from Canton, where an army had been mustered against them in the name of Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Fighting spread in the east of the province, as they were joined by another leading commander of the Northern Expedition, Chang Fa-kuei, who brought the remnants of his forces, dubbed ‘Ironsides’, into Nanning to block the Cantonese advance.
Chang Fa-k’uei is now in charge of the defence of Nanning, and is setting about the task with great energy, digging trenches, putting up barricades, throwing out pickets, etc. I went to see him the other day and found to my surprise an undersized chétif-looking young man who might be taken for a rather elderly student ... His men throng the shops, tendering good Hongkong, Tonkin and Shanghai notes for their purchases. It is pleasant to hear the Peking burr so far south as this.
The atmosphere in Nanning became an uncertain mixture, perhaps not untypical of the time, of siege and diversion, vividly captured in Stella’s diary. Cantonese aircraft would bomb the city one day: on the next the Kwangsi generals would be at their favourite sport. General Huang Shao-hsiang, the third member of the junta, ‘ordered us by telephone to provide him with some tennis today – it seems there is a momentary lull in the fighting,’ Stella noted in her diary. ‘He is a great man here and behaves as such. We hurriedly assembled tennis and tea out of doors, although a fine drizzle was falling. General Huang arrived with six soldiers with very long-nosed revolvers, as ever waving in the naked hand towards the eye of the host and hostess.’ Tournaments followed. At the dinner table, hot arguments were exchanged over the rights and wrongs of the current fighting with an Ironside staff officer who had been at the LSE, in which Shaemas and Stella revealed their common indignation at the plight of the Chinese peasantry at the hands of greedy warlords (‘it was refreshing saying what one thought to a Chinese militarist’). Amid much European prejudice, this is a rare occasion where Stella lets slip evidence of what my father might have known of Chinese intellectual life: here she reports him as citing Hu Shih, the leading moderate of the May Fourth generation, as the most intelligent critic of the plagues of contemporary China – a voice to abash any retrograde warlord.
In March the news arrived that the Left River Soviet, under threat from French over-flights, had stormed foreign buildings in Lungchow. Deng Xiao-ping was in the city when crowds assaulted and burned the French Consulate, seizing weapons and funds, and then turned on the Customs House. The French Commissioner – Comte O’Kelly – took refuge with local brigands, who then held him to ransom until he bought his way across the frontier to Indochina. The timing of these events is unlikely to have been accidental. The Lungchow Soviet was proclaimed on 1 February 1930. The first plantation strikes organised by the Communists in Vietnam broke out at Phu Rieng on 4 February. The Vietnamese Communist Party was founded in Hong Kong, where Ho Chi Minh was in exile, at a meeting that lasted from 3 to 7 February. Deng arrived back in Lungchow from a trip to Hong Kong on 7 February. The first nationalist insurrection in Tonkin erupted with the mutiny at Yenbai on 9 February – a bolt from the blue to public opinion in France.
This is a skein neither China nor Vietnam is anxious to draw attention to today, and which historians have yet to unravel. What is clear is that the colonial government in Hanoi was galvanised into action on both sides of the frontier. French aircraft bombed Lungchow – Deng later claimed his men shot one down during the attack. Soon afterwards Li Tsung-jen’s troops recaptured the city. But no stable order was restored, and the region remained in bandit-ridden turmoil. At this juncture, my father received orders from Maze transferring him to Hong Kong. Nanning was still under siege from Cantonese forces in the east, so the only route out was down the Left River. With a morphine-addicted Swedish subordinate in extremis on board, my father and Stella set off in a motor launch, escorted by a gunboat dispatched by the Kwangsi generals.
Floating through wonderful, sometimes ominous, scenery for five days, Stella fell into a dream-like state, not unlike moods in a Chinese poetics of which she was unaware:
Lying down on my campbed this afternoon, I remembered that this was my childhood’s ideal of travel – going along very slowly, near the world, lying down and head first – no effort – yet with a close world passing and a new thing to see every minute. It was beautiful at sunset and after – when the moon came out – sitting out on the bows of the ship – looking forward – the bows growling deliciously through the rapids ... Living like this is like being exquisitely drowned in a sea of green non-thought – it is a real anti-climax to come to the surface – fireflies drifting like leaves from a pine-tree, across the beetling walls of an overhanging village – the darling nothingness of life.
My father’s version was less Taoist.
The journey up river to a place called Lungchow was very good: ‘replete’ with rapids, waterfalls, gorges, mountains and monkeys gibbering at us from the river bank. The monkeys were grey-whiskered gibbons, and the fact that the whiskering ceased in a careful black circle round their eyes gave them a very dissipated look. All this part of the country has been ravished (as you might say) by (a) brigands (b) communists a month before, and terrified run-away Chinese peasants peered down at our boat from caves high up in the mountains at the side of the river.
In the middle of this wildness, stopping at a hamlet one night, Stella was – unimaginably – brought a telegram from her publishers in London. At Lungchow, they inspected the sacked residence of the Commissioner. ‘We tied up at the foot of the Customs steps and went up to see the ruin left by the Reds,’ Stella noted: ‘the Customs here must have been a beautiful property – two or three charming verandahed houses on a series of green wooded terraces falling to the river.’ In the safety of French territory across the border, they found Comte O’Kelly ‘very much obsessed by his Communist and brigand experiences – a craving for l’action décisif everywhere – at Yenbai – in India – in France – at the Naval Conference – everywhere people should be put up against walls and shot’. They made their way down to Hanoi, and back to Hong Kong.
In Kwangsi, the Right River Soviet fell that autumn, after the CCP Centre instructed Deng and his colleagues to lead the Eighth Corps out of the Chuang base area on a disastrous march, theoretically towards Canton, from which only decimated remnants escaped to join Mao’s fastness to the north. In Nanning, Li Tsung-jen and Pai Chung-hsi, now firmly in control again, set out to make Kwangsi a model region. Hu Shih, visiting the province a few years later, much approved their efforts to modernise the province. In Hong Kong, Shaemas and Stella would have less to say for the Crown Colony.
Perry Anderson will write about his father’s last years in China in the next issue.
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