Monday, December 8, 2008

Bland is Back

Excellent news that Shanghai-based Earnshaw Books have reissued JOP Blands Houseboat Days from 1909. I've long been a Bland fan, largely as he has been overshadowed by that pompus git Morrison who was little more than a malicious gossip and never much of a journalist. In reality Bland and also Edmund Backhouse (the Hermit of Peking) did most of the work for him for little or no fame. If you read the memoirs of many of the more intelligent China Hands of the time they pretty much all agree that Morrison was a fraud and Bland a good solid reporter. Houseboat Days is his whimsical book on the old tradition of houseboating around Eastern China and is well worth a read.

John Otway Percy “JOP” Bland was one of several high profile Ulstermen who had made a career in China in the late nineteenth century and whose number included notably Sir Robert Hart the famous Inspector General of the China Imperial Maritime Customs Service. Hart had offered Bland a job in China in 1883 as his secretary and, in 1896, Bland also became the Secretary of the Shanghai Municipal Council. After 13 years service in various roles to the Chinese government including helping negotiate some railway loans, Bland was awarded the Order of the Double Dragon by the Chinese Government. Then Morrison had met him and hired him as an occasional correspondent for the Times in Shanghai.

Edwin Haward, an India Hand who served for many years as one of the more enlightened editors of the North-China Daily News in the 1930s commented in the Kipling Journal, 'We in China have often longed for someone to do for us what Kipling did for India. Mr J.O.P. Bland’s charming pen has gone nearest to fulfilling these aspirations, and quaintly enough its wielder would shake hands with Kipling in the refusal to abandon old political deities.’

Bland was moved from Shanghai to Beijing in 1907 to cover for Morrison. While Morrison roamed far and wide, usually hunting, Bland and his friend Backhouse kept the paper supplied with despatches. Bland disliked what he considered to be Morrison’s dogmatic approach to political questions and staunch unquestioning support for British imperialism. Bland, a supporter of peaceful trade with China, also considered Morrison superficial and vain in his claims to be the ultimate interpreter of China and the Chinese without being able to speak the language or having any real sympathy with the culture.

But the situation couldn’t last and the relationship started to unravel and Morrison turned nasty. In 1909 an article perceived to be by Morrison but actually by Bland was praised. Morrison was furious, Bland left feeling cheated of his due respect. Things reached a head when Morrison returned to London and tried to discredit Bland. However, Valentine Chirol at the Times foreign desk was no fool and knew that despite his popularity with the public Morrison was not as great as the readers, or the man himself, thought and stood by Bland. Bland stayed and, in public at least Morrison’s reputation with the public as the great “Morrison of Peking” remained intact and remained so until his death in 1920 despite several serious errors of judgement on Morrison’s part later such as becoming an adviser to China’s would-be dictator Yuan Shih-kai.

With the republication of Houseboat Days hopefully we can win back some of Bland's lost reputation and stop the unqualified and uniformed appreciation of Morrison that has gone on for at least 90 years to long.