Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Maurice Bowra - A Footnote to the History of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs

This is a wee bit of an obscure posting but I know a lot of people are interested in the history and characters involved in the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs run for so long by Sir Robert Hart, the "IG". One of the fascinating things about the Maritime Customs administration is the number of serious scholars it produced – I posted about a new biography of one, Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor, a noted translator recently.

For those who like ephemera about the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs they may like to note that one person being remembered at the moment through a new biography was the son of a Maritime Customs administration official in China who rose to prominence in British academia between the wars – Maurice Bowra. Nowadays Bowra is pretty obscure though I seem to come across references to him regularly in the biographies and autobiographies of old Oxford types where he was a well known Don for decades. Last year I enjoyed reading AN Wilson’s biography of John Betjeman who was tutored by Bowra and who seemed to affect the young poet.

Bowra is also largely forgotten as he never really produced any seminal scholarly works (though did write a few understandable books about ancient Greece) and his famous bon-mots and supposedly cutting remarks don’t really translate to 2009, if they were ever funny outside of a bunch of public school boys – ‘a man more dined against than dining’ may have had the young fogies in stitches back in the 1930s but doesn’t mean much now. However, his remark (alluding to his rather mysterious sexuality) upon marrying a noted lesbian that, ‘My dear, buggers can’t be choosers’ is quite amusing.

He also wrote and apparently regularly recited some pretty bad poetry. Still, as an inspiration to a bunch of largely privileged boarding school boys embarking on university life he was influential. And to several generations too - he was Warden of Wadham College (left) from 1938 to 1970 and served as Vice-Chancellor of the Oxford from 1951 to 1954. If he has a lasting claim to fame it’s probably in his role as a defender of the university from the pernicious influences of politicians seeking to interfere and meddle with the place.

The point of this digression is that, as a footnote to a history of the impact of the Maritime Customs administration, Maurice Bowra’s father was Cecil Arthur Verner Bowra and Maurice was born in Jiujiang in 1898, then of course Kiukiang on the southern shores of the Yangtze River in northwest Jiangxi province. However, China doesn’t really seem to have had much effect on his life – at a young age he was sent to school at Cheltenham College and then New College, Oxford before serving in the First World War and then heading back to Oxford seemingly not leaving the place until he died. (the Kiukiang Bund early 20th century pictured opposite).

As I said it’s a small footnote in the history of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. I know nothing else really about Bowra or his father in China though there is a new biography of him – Leslie Mitchell's Maurice Bowra: A Life – that seems to have been generally well reviewed.


CW Hayford said...

To further compound the obscure connections, Bowra's birthplace, Jiujiang, was Pearl Buck's home at the time, and the house has been recently made an historic site.

Paul French said...

I can't imagine they would have got on very well

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the origins of the Bowra family? Wikipedia describes Maurice Bowra as having been born in China of English parents, and also says that his father was born in China. But "Bowra" is not an English surname so far as I can see, and Maurice Bowra looks rather Russian (indeed some of his pictures strikingly like Nikita Kruschev). Could Bowra be an Anglicisation of a Russian or other East European name?

Biber said...

I came across a nice quote while re-reading Randall Gould's great China memoir China in the Sun the other day. Gould was a veteran member of the old China press corps before the war.

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