A Belated Encounter

Perry Anderson retraces his father’s career in the Chinese Customs Service

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.

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in