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Authors: Benedict Anderson

A Life Beyond Boundaries

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A Life Beyond Boundaries
A Life Beyond
Benedict Anderson

First published in English by Verso 2016

© Benedict Anderson 2016

Originally published in Japanese by NTT Publishing Co., Ltd. 2009

All rights reserved

The moral rights of the author have been asserted

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2


UK: 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG

US: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Verso is the imprint of New Left Books

ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-456-0

ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-457-7 (US EBK)

ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-455-3 (UK EBK)

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Anderson, Benedict R. O'G. (Benedict
Richard O'Gorman), 1936–2015.

Title: A life beyond the boundaries : a memoir /
Benedict Anderson.

Description: London : Verso, 2016. | Includes index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2015050748| ISBN 9781784784560
(hardback) | ISBN

9781784784577 (US ebook) | ISBN 9781784784553
(UK ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Anderson, Benedict R. O'G.

(Benedict Richard O'Gorman),

1936–2015. | Anderson, Benedict R. O'G. (Benedict
Richard O'Gorman),

1936–2015 – Philosophy. | Historians – Biography. |

Intellectuals – Biography. | College teachers – New York

(State) – Ithaca – Biography. | Cornell University –
Faculty – Biography. |

Southeast Asia – Historiography. | Southeast Asia –
Study and teaching

(Higher) | Nationalism – Historiography. |
Nationalism – Study and teaching


AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Personal Memoirs.

Classification: LCC D15.A53 A3 2016 | DDC 907.2/02

– dc23

LC record available at

Typeset in Fournier by MJ & N Gavan, Truro, Cornwall
Printed in the US by Maple Press


The origin of this book is quite unusual, and I hope may therefore tickle the curiosity of English readers. It began around 2003 when Ms Endo Chiho, a fine editor for Japan's NTT Publishing Company, happened to read earlier Japanese translations of my works, in particular
Imagined Communities
. She felt that young Japanese students had little idea of the social, political, cultural and epochal contexts in which Anglo-Saxon scholars were born, educated and matured. Many biographical and autobiographical books were available about ‘Western' politicians, artists, generals, businessmen and novelists, but few about Western scholars. Her idea was to publish a short book about my education in Ireland and Britain, academic experience in the US, fieldwork in Indonesia, Siam and the Philippines, together with some reflections on Western universities and on my favourite books. But I knew no Japanese. What was to be done? She realized that I would have to be persuaded to write some simple kind of English-language text. But the crux was to find a distinguished Japanese scholar who knew English very well,
was a close friend of mine, and was willing to work on a translation.

Kato Tsuyoshi (aka Yoshi) had come to Cornell University in 1967 to study sociology and anthropology. This was the year that I finished my PhD (on the Japanese Occupation of Java during the Second World War and the subsequent Indonesian National Revolution) and became a very junior professor of political science. Because Yoshi was determined to do fieldwork on Indonesia's western Sumatra I was appointed as one of his three mentors. We quickly became close friends, not least because of his lovely sly sense of humour. He was a fast learner of academic English and of Indonesia's national language. After completing a very original PhD thesis, he returned to Japan and taught at the Jesuits' ‘international' university in Tokyo, later moving to Kyoto University, which was the centre for Japanese scholarship on Southeast Asia, where he became a great teacher. We met there often and became even stronger friends.

He told me that he thought Ms Endo's general idea a good one, and that he had worked out a useful systematic plan, if only I would accept it. He said that too many Japanese students and teachers had little understanding of scholarship abroad because of their poor knowledge of English, French, Chinese, etc. Professors also adopted a patriarchal attitude towards their students, which made the youngsters needlessly timid.

My first reaction was embarrassed rejection. Professors in the West rarely have interesting lives. Their values are objectivity, solemnity, formality and – at least officially –
self-effacement. He replied that I had been educated in Ireland, Britain and America, and my fieldwork covered Indonesia, Siam and the Philippines. Even though I taught in America, my outlook was far from that of many American social scientists. All this would help Japanese students to think in terms of useful comparisons. We would work together, he hoped. I would write a rough manuscript following the guidelines created by Ms Endo and himself, and he would translate what I wrote. He would come to my home for a month to ask me about passages that were difficult to understand, correct any mistakes, give me better paragraphs, and teach me about Japanese education.

Finally I gave in, because Yoshi was one of my best friends, had worked so hard, and was the only Japanese scholar capable of carrying out the plan. I consoled myself by saying silently that at least I would never read the forthcoming book. But in a distant way I would be chatting directly with the Japanese students. The book was published, very elegantly, in 2009, and Ms Endo and Yoshi were pleased.

From the start, my brother had urged me to publish an English-language version, and every time I refused. But by 2015 I changed my mind for various reasons, not least of which was the fact that I would be eighty the following year. The work I had been doing since my retirement in 2009 had little to do with my ‘career', including a study of brilliant Thai filmmakers,
The Decay of Rural Hell in Siam
, the role of folklore in the Philippine Revolution, the changing meaning of advertisements, and so on, as well as
various translations and a projected biography of a great Sino-Indonesian journalist and historian. None of this had much connection with education in Japan except in regard to the decay of universities in Britain, America, Europe and elsewhere. To say nothing of the miserable condition of the world as a whole.

Then the problems of ‘English'. I would have to take responsibility for all the mistakes, forms of prose, memory lapses, follies and sometimes silly jokes.

This rather wandering book has therefore two main themes. The first is the importance of translation for individuals and societies. The second is the danger of arrogant provincialism, or of forgetting that serious nationalism is tied to internationalism.

Chapter 1
Shifting Youth

I was born on 26 August 1936, in Kunming, on the eve of the massive Japanese invasion of northern China, and just three years before the Second World War broke out in Europe. In the summer of 1941, just before my fifth birthday, my ailing father decided to take the family back to neutral Ireland via the United States.

After our ship docked in San Francisco, however, my father realized that the intensive submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean made a return home impossible. So we stayed in California and, later, Colorado till Nazi Germany was defeated. Then, in the summer of 1945, we sailed to Ireland on a ship still mostly filled with American soldiers heading for Europe. I was almost nine years old. My father died the following year; my English mother nonetheless decided that we would stay in Ireland.

The years during which I attended primary school, high school and (undergraduate level) college were those of the Cold War and the rapid collapse of the once vast British Empire. So far as I can remember, the Cold War did not then affect me much. But if I had not been lucky enough to
reside in Ireland, I could have been conscripted at the age of eighteen (1954) to fight for the dying Empire in Malaya, Kenya or Cyprus, and might have been killed or gravely wounded.

I also grew up in the age before television. We did, however, listen a lot to the radio – a medium that allows for some entertainment while doing household chores, tackling homework, and playing cards or chess. In the evenings, we would regularly tune in to the BBC, where great novels were serially read aloud by very good actors, so that our imaginations were filled with figures like Anna Karenina, the Count of Monte Cristo, Lord Jim, Uriah Heep, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and so on.

Travelling theatre groups were also very important to us, and Ireland was full of excellent performers. We got to see not only many Shakespeare plays (before we read them as textbooks), but also the works of world-famous Irish playwrights like Shaw, Wilde, Sheridan, O'Casey and others. American popular culture came to us only marginally, in the westerns and Disney cartoons shown at the local cinema.

It could easily all have been otherwise. If my father had delayed leaving China till the Pacific War broke out, we might have ended up in a Japanese internment camp, and perhaps died there. Had my father not been Irish, I might have been raised in England and fought overseas for the Empire. If I had been born later, I could have become addicted to the television set, and too lazy to go the local theatre.

Both my father and my mother were excellent parents,
warm-hearted, interesting and broad-minded human beings to whom I, along with my younger brother, Rory, (today very well known as Perry) and my little sister Melanie, were deeply attached. I could say that we were very lucky to have such parents.

My father, Seamus (James) O'Gorman Anderson, was the product of a remarkable mixture of lineages. His mother's male ancestors were Irish, as their family name, O'Gorman, indicates. They had a long history of political activism against English imperialism and colonialism in Ireland: two O'Gorman brothers, my great-great-grandfather and his younger brother, were involved in the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798, which was inspired by the French Revolution. They spent time in prison for their pains. In the 1820s, both were key members of Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Association, which worked hard to end more than a century of legal, political and economic discrimination against the Irish Catholic majority. A nephew of theirs joined the failed uprising of 1848, which took place in the middle of the ‘Irish Potato Famine', fled to Paris and Ottoman Istanbul, and then migrated to America, where eventually he became a member of the New York State Supreme Court.

My father's maternal grandfather, Major Purcell O'Gorman, was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, sitting for the small city of Waterford, and becoming an important member of the Home Rule for Ireland bloc led by Charles Parnell. (He is said to have weighed more than 300 pounds and been the fattest man in the Mother of Parliaments.) But he married a Protestant Englishwoman.
In those tolerant days, which would soon disappear under the reign of Pope Pius IX, the problems of mixed marriages across religious lines were sensibly solved by the local rule that sons followed the religion of their fathers, and daughters that of their mothers. So my grandmother was a Protestant, though her elder brother was a Catholic.

The lineage of my father's father was almost the opposite. It was ‘Anglo-Irish', referring to the Protestant descendants of the seventeenth-century Scottish and English invaders who seized the lands of the indigenous Irish, settled down as local gentry, and over many generations came to feel themselves to be rather Irish. There were many military officers in the lineage of my paternal grandfather, some of whom fought in the Napoleonic wars, served in Afghanistan and Burma, or were stationed in Hong Kong and India as the British Empire expanded.

My Anglo-Irish grandfather, who died long before I was born, also made his career in the British Imperial Army. (In those days an Anglo-Irish first-born son inherited the father's properties, and younger sons usually became clergymen or military officers.) He was schooled at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which specialized in creating engineers, and served in India, Burma and Malaya. In Penang, where my father was born, he built a clean-water reservoir which still functions today, as well as an up-to-date port. Today, one can still observe on the Penang Heights the remnants of the little Irish-style house he designed for his wife, daughter of Purcell O'Gorman, and my grandmother. He was among the first to become interested in cryptography, and during the Great War
successfully headed the War Office's secret code service. Sometimes I wonder if I inherited my lifelong addiction to crossword puzzles from his genes.

Much of this ancestral history I discovered only in the mid-1960s, when I began to ponder over which citizenship to choose for myself and, finally, decided to apply for Irish citizenship. During my childhood, I had travelled abroad on my mother's British passport and later on my own British one without much thinking about it. In growing up, it was understood that we had soul and character, yet we were seldom troubled with identity. Identity was mainly connected with mathematics or the forensic investigation of a corpse.

There were political as well as personal reasons for my choice of Irish citizenship. The Vietnam War was raging, and in nearby Indonesia the anti-communist army had seized power and massacred about half a million communists and their sympathizers. These events hardened my leftist sentiments. The other reason was more personal. My brother and sister had already decided to maintain their British citizenship. I felt that I owed it to my father, who on my birth gave me the ‘tribal' O'Gorman name, to apply for Eire citizenship.

Irish citizenship could have been easily achieved if I could prove that at least one of my parents or grand-parents had been born in the country. (My father was born in Penang, where my grandfather was stationed, and my mother in London.) Unfortunately, during the Easter Uprising of 1916, in which Irish nationalists revolted against the British, the rebels burned down the building
where the Irish birth records were kept. Luckily, however, my mother had a friend whose hobby was researching the genealogy of families in the County of Waterford, and he dug up most of the information mentioned above. I took it to our local member of parliament and gained his help. So, in 1967, I received my first Irish passport.

My father was a restless, intelligent youngster. In 1912, at the age of twenty-one and before finishing his time at Cambridge, he volunteered to join the strange institution known as the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS). Originally set up by the British and French imperialists, it was designed to make sure that the Ch'ing dynasty paid the huge indemnities imposed on it after the ‘successful' assault on Peking in 1860 during the Second Opium War. In effect it took control over the taxation of imperial China's maritime trade with the outside world. Over time, it diversified its membership to include Russians, Germans and even Japanese. Gradually, too, its outlook changed, so that it increasingly tried to serve what it saw as China's real interests, especially after the fall of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1911 and the onset of the age of the warlords.

My father proved to be a first-class linguist and was always top of his class in the rigorous program the CMCS created to ensure its employees were fluent in spoken and written Chinese. He became very attached to China and the ordinary Chinese, if not to their governments. He also read widely in Chinese literature. After he died, my rather prudish mother was shocked to find among his books a set of volumes, with pictures, published by the first generation
of (radical) Chinese sexologists, rebelling against forced prostitution and the miserable status of many Chinese women.

In 1920, after the Great War was over, he met the impressive figure of Stella Benson, a determined feminist, as well as a gifted modernist writer of novels, short stories and travel accounts. She had come to China in order to work at a school and a hospital set up by missionaries. They married while on leave in London, and for their honeymoon decided to drive across America. My father was especially fascinated by American history. From there they sailed to China, which in turn fascinated Stella.

Stella died in China in 1933, aged only forty-one, leaving my father devastated. In 1935, however, he met my mother in London, married her, and took her back with him to China. My father hated sitting in big-city offices, so chose to spend most of his service years in remote posts where he could be his own energetic boss. From Amoy he had commanded a small fleet of speedboats to intercept cunning South Chinese smugglers. But now he had to face Yunnan's local warlord, who controlled the production and sale of opium. My mother enjoyed telling us children about the hills and mountains near Kunming covered with bright pink Oriental poppies. I like to think that it was the Irish in my father that made him so independent-minded and adventurous. My memories of him only go back to the time when he was already very ill, and in and out of hospitals. But he was always warm, loving and very amusing.

My English mother,
Veronica Bigham, was also an unusual woman, from a successful upper-middle-class
professional background. Her paternal grandfather, John Bigham, came from a Lancaster merchant family, but made a very successful career as a jurist, specializing in commercial and maritime law. He became briefly famous as the judge who presided over the inquiry into the sinking of the
. About that time he was made a baronet for his services and was titled Lord Mersey.

Her father, Trevor Bigham, was a studious ‘second son' who won a scholarship to Eton College, England's most well-known ‘public school' (actually, a boys-only private school), practised law, and then joined the Metropolitan Police. He eventually became the no. 2 man at Scotland Yard and received a knighthood, but he disliked the job and retired early. I remember him as a rather stiff, formal man, who did, however, teach me to do the harder crossword puzzles, for which one had to be widely read. He was married to Frances Tomlin, a semi-bohemian and a fine pianist. My sense is that the marriage was not very happy, and she died of cancer in 1927 when still quite young.

Her death may have been the main reason why my mother suffered from severe anorexia, so ill-understood at that time that she was removed from school to be tutored at home. In those days it was still fairly rare for a girl to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Late in her life she often said how unlucky she was to be born in 1905. If she had come into the world fifteen years later she would almost surely have become an Oxbridge student and had an independent career of her own. But she was a great reader of all kinds of books, and fluent in both French and German.

It would not be correct to say that my parents were intellectuals in any strict sense, but they jointly gave their children a home library unequalled in the town where we lived. They also encouraged in us the habit of reading about the lives, experiences and thoughts of people who spoke other languages, inhabited different classes and regions, and came from different historical periods. I remember reading, quite fascinated, my father's copies of English translations by Arthur Waley of the
Tale of Genji
and the
Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
when I was about fourteen or fifteen.

The habits of our house were unusual in Ireland in those days. We ate rice more than we ate the national vegetable, potatoes. We were served fish as often as meat, while our neighbours ate fish only on Fridays when Catholicism told them to suffer a bit for Jesus. The house was full of Chinese scrolls, pictures, clothes and costumes, which we would often dress up in for fun. I remember how appalled I was when my mother showed me a beautifully embroidered cloth shoe smaller than my hand, and explained that it was worn by Chinese women, whose feet were agonizingly bound from childhood. My parents were both keen photographers, so the house had many albums of pictures taken especially in China, and in French-colonial Vietnam, where they would go for occasional holidays. One day, pointing to a photo of a very beautiful little Chinese girl about two years old, my mother said, ‘This is Celia Chen, your first best friend.'

After I was born, it was decided to hire an amah to look after me. They found a young Vietnamese girl, with a
small boy of her own, who had left an unpleasant arranged marriage to find work in Kunming. She became very close to my mother and was taken to Ireland when the family went home on leave. Years later, the locals remembered her very well. She, a Catholic who spoke French, always wore elegant traditional Vietnamese clothes, with a black turban, teeth carefully lacquered, and a wonderful smile. She used to go to church on Sundays in this attire. My mother once told me that the first words I spoke were Vietnamese, not English. It is sad that children, so quick to pick up languages, also quickly forget them.

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