Obituary: Robert Bruce

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A CAREER of high achievement in the service of one's country would be enough for most people but in Robert Bruce's case there was a great deal more. What he attained in diplomacy and scholarship, particularly in relation to the languages and peoples of China, would have set him apart in any case, but the fact that he did so under the burden of virtual blindness throughout much of his life makes his story all the more remarkable.

Bruce was born in 1911 in Fraserburgh on the north-east corner of Aberdeenshire, the second son of Henry George Bruce, who owned the family herring-curing business and to whom Robert declared at the age of 11 that he was an atheist. Such iconoclastic utterances were to be entirely characteristic of him over the following decades but the atheism did not survive the course; he died on his 88th birthday as an Episcopalian.

Having gained a first class honours degree in History and Economics at Aberdeen University, in 1933 he applied to the Colonial Service. His interview consisted merely of being asked to which colony he would like to go. Choosing Malaya, he was sent for training to Wadham College, in Oxford, a city he described as embodying "the tradition of Platonic superiority. It held the guardian class of parliament and India; the aristocratic class."

Once in Malaya, his extraordinary ability in languages led to a two-year appointment in Canton to study Cantonese, and to be an inspector of Chinese schools. In this period, too, he had his first encounter with Buddhism, which was to become central to his personal philosophy. Whatever his ambitions, however, they were soon compromised as, not yet 30 years old, he discovered that he was losing his sight.

His consequent discharge from the Colonial Service in 1938 was followed by time in Prague, writing for The Manchester Guardian and other papers, where he expressed great concern about German intentions towards the Sudetenland.

Back in Scotland, he became Scottish Secretary for Stafford Cripps's "Popular Front Campaign". Though they and others were expelled from the Labour Party as a result, they were reinstated in time for Bruce to be adopted as the party's candidate for Aberdeen South for the 1939 general election, which of course never took place.

His war work consisted initially of censorship duties. In 1943 he was appointed by the British Council to open their Aberdeen office, providing cultural support for everyone from Newfoundland lumberjacks to members of the Polish Brigade. His success in that position was such that five years later he was invited to open the Hong Kong office with the opportunity to pursue once again his passion for Chinese culture.

Transferred again to Malaya to be Principal of the Government Officers' Language School, he taught Cantonese and Mandarin, in which he was fluent as well as having what he considered as only a "working knowledge" of Hokkien and Hakka. He now wrote two books for teaching on the first two languages and edited two on the others, published between 1952 and 1955 in the series "Teach Yourself Chinese".

He became the British Council's representative in Bangkok from 1955 to 1963 and, naturally, the language was learned, to the level at which he could converse in any circumstance, including sustaining television interviews, while his wife, in an echo of another story, taught English to one of the royal children. Bruce, apparently, spoke Thai with a Bangkok accent.

If the Bangkok episode was the highpoint of his Asian service, perhaps his most challenging posting occurred in 1963 when he became Cultural Attache to the British Embassy in Budapest. Three months of intensive tutoring was sufficient for him to learn Hungarian but the real problems were of a different nature. His job was in effect to restore the status and credibility of British culture in Hungary, through progressing the Britain-Hungary Cultural Relations Treaty, in a society which had been suspicious of Britain to the point where there had been recent expulsions of British personnel.

Bruce's success was later reflected in the re-establishing of a British Council Office in Budapest and in the respect for him vouched by Hungarian intellectuals because of, as one said, "his great modesty and profound knowledge".

A final stint in Hong Kong, in 1966, with time to write a biography, Sun Yat-Sen (1969), and, for the general market, Teach Yourself Cantonese (1970), finished his formal career if not his involvement with China. Academic appointments in America followed, before a return to the east coast of Scotland in the late 1980s, when he lectured on Asian religions in the Extramural Department of St Andrews University.

Robert Bruce had a most extraordinary effect on people. His death brought tributes from all over the world. They have in common references not only to his intellect but to his humanity and humour. A few years ago, an American student wrote, "He openly criticised our ignorance, praised our enthusiasm, admired our self-confidence and detested our bad manners."

That kind of directness might get some people into trouble but with it went a most acute mind that manifested not only in an insatiable curiosity (he would question one in detail on any subject under the sun) but also an innate modesty, so that he could never cause offence, but rather generated immense respect.Robert Bruce, diplomat and Oriental scholar: born Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire 10 August 1911; OBE 1963; married 1940 Helen Cran (marriage dissolved 1971), 1979 Eleanor Lyon (died 1993), 1996 Helen Cran; died St Andrews, Fife 10 August 1999.