Reading about James Anderson and the Chinese Maritime Customs

James Anderson was an officer in the Chinese Maritime Customs through the 1920s and 1930s, and part of the large contingent of international officers staffing this service. He was also the father of Benedict Anderson (of “Imagined communities” fame) and Perry Anderson (historian, for many years editor of the “New Left Review”, and author among other things of interesting books on Gramsci).

Perry wrote two essays (about 15.000 words in total) on his belated encounter with his father, of whom he knew very little, through written records. Sources for the story include the diaries of James’ first wife, who was an established writer, a fortuitously found suitcase of letters that James regularly sent to his family in Ireland throughout his long postings across China, as well as archival records of the Chinese Maritime Customs and the usual secondary sources.

I knew nothing about the Chinese Maritime Customs, an interestingly unusual institution, and missed a lot of historical references that would have given me the chance to better appreciate the abundant historical references that characterise the essays. Yet, I found this a fascinating reading. The personal and familial component is always present, as the figure who is the epicentre of the narration is barely mentioned with his name at all: Perry refers to him mostly as “my father”. The journeys between Ireland and remote areas of China are described as a routine affair, while they feel extraordinarily adventurous a century later. References to personal and love matters are part of the narrative. After reading Benedict Anderson’s memoir - highly recommended - it didn’t feel as if I was reading about the life of complete strangers.

If you can afford the luxury, do indulge in some historical escapist readings.

Part 1: A Belated Encounter

Part 2: My father’s last years in China

Giorgio Comai
Researcher, data analyst