The personal papers of Derek Bryan, consular official and teacher

By Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library|20th April 2017|Collections & Research|2 comments

This week’s blog looks at the personal papers of Hermann Derek Bryan (1910-2003), which have recently been catalogued. Bryan’s life and career were bound up with China, firstly as a consular official and later as a teacher and advocate of closer British-Chinese relations. The catalogue for his papers is available on the Archive Catalogue under PP MS 99.

Bryan first sailed for China in 1932, aged 21. He had taken the civil service exams after studying modern languages at Cambridge University. By his own account, his results were just high enough for him to be offered the last available post, as a student interpreter in China. His preparation for the trip consisted of reading his local library’s six books on China, while the official orientation included the statement that ‘there is no use for umbrellas or bowler hats in Peking’, which Bryan noted was 50% correct. Bryan later reflected that the students ‘lived the life of young lords’ during the two year course, each with their own rooms and a servant. Bryan’s financial accounts and letters home reflect his lifestyle in this period.

Account book

Derek Bryan’s accounts from October 1933, listing cinema visits and bridge losses (PP MS 99/1/1/7) © SOAS Library

Bryan’s official postings took him to many cities in China, including Nanjing, the Republic of China’s capital. Tours took him further afield. Photographs in the archive show his travelling companions, including the poet Julian Bell, on a 1936 walking tour to the Tibetan border. After a trip home in 1937-8, Bryan was back in China when war broke out in Europe in 1939. In November 1943, while visiting Lanzhou, Bryan met Joseph Needham, the scientist and historian of science, there on a research trip. Bryan returned home in Needham’s lorry. Among his fellow passengers was Liao Hongying, an agricultural chemist, and the relationship that they struck up during the journey led to their marriage in June 1944.

Julian Bell and Yeh Chun Chan

Julian Bell and Yeh Chun Chan during Bryan’s trip to Tachienlu [Kangding], 1936 (PP MS 99/1/9/3) © SOAS Library

In August 1944 the couple left for London, where they saw the end of the Second World War. Two years later they returned to China, when Bryan was posted to the Embassy in Nanjing. From here he witnessed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. While home on leave in 1951, Bryan was summoned to the Foreign Office and told that he could not return to China. According to Bryan, he had voiced his good impressions of the new Chinese government too frankly and appeared too pro-Chinese. Bryan resigned rather than accept a posting to Lima.

Bryan attempted academic research at Cambridge, before working for a trade magazine and teaching. In 1963 he began teaching Chinese at Holborn College (later the Polytechnic of Central London), later establishing a degree course there in modern Chinese. Although retired from 1978, he made regular trips to teach in China in the 1980s.

Photograph taken by Bryan, probably during his 1934 trip to Mongolia (PP MS 99/1/9/2) © SOAS Library

After leaving the Foreign Office Bryan devoted much energy to encouraging understanding of China in Britain. He joined the Britain-China Friendship Association, where he met up again with Joseph Needham, BCFA’s president. Bryan followed Needham in founding the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding in 1965, when the ramifications of the Sino-Soviet split led to BCFA’s collapse. He remained active within the organisation until his death, serving as secretary, chair and vice-president, as well as speaking and writing widely on China.

Bryan’s work for BCFA and SACU is documented through committee papers, correspondence and publications. An extensive body of correspondence covers people with a wide range of interests or involvement in China. Letters from foreigners living in China, including David Crook, communist activist and teacher, his wife Isabel Crook, anthropologist and teacher, the novelist and teacher Shirley Wood, and from Ann Tompkins during the Cultural Revolution, give views of life in China at a time when access was difficult for many foreigners.

The catalogue of Bryan’s papers is now available online and material can be seen in the Special Collections Reading Room.

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About Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library

Broadly speaking, our collections reflect the British interaction with Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the last 250 years, and include archives of missionary societies, NGOs and campaign groups, and business organisations, as well as papers of individuals, including diplomats, campaigners, and academics. If you have any questions, or comments, please get in touch! email: tel: 020 7898 4180


  1. I am very interested in Bryan’s Notebook, inscribed ‘Diary (Mongolia)’ and any photographs he took on this trip. I am doing research on British Traveller visits to Mongolia in the years 1700 – 1935. I am working with the Institute of History and Archaeology Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Is there any possibility of getting scans of the Notebook without having to come into the SOAS Library. I am also interested in photographs of Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia to supplement the collection we already have on our website

    1. Dear Sue,

      Can we ask you to contact us at our email address with your query and we will be happy to help –

      Many thanks.

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