方禮倫:British Sensibilities Towards Empire 在舊書店,一場辯論


Whilst browsing second hand books at charity shop recently, I found myself witness to a heated exchange.

A man who looked to be in his early thirties had picked out from the shelves two books on the British Empire. As he paid for them, he remarked to the elderly man at the till that he felt whilst the wrongs of empire were well known, there were also positives.

“It would be good if the Empire was not only a source of shame, but also a source of pride,” he said.

At this the whole shop seemed to pause in silence. At the time there were perhaps six people in the shop, four customers and two staff — most were men, most elderly and all were white.

“Well, I don’t want to comment on that,” said the man at the till. As a regular customer I knew him to be a friendly and soft spoken gentleman. He was, however, clearly uncomfortable by what his customer had said, or had seemed to imply.

Though he said no more, his tone was unmistakably judgemental. Empire was not a subject for polite conversation.(註 1)

“I just think we needn’t be so ashamed of our past,” replied the man with the books. “It’s not as if we were the only ones who built an empire. I just think we did a better job of it than the Germans, French and the Japanese.(註 2)

He went on to say how the Empire was a product of its age, and should be judged within the context of its time; and that if it hadn’t been the British it would have been others who may not have been so restrained. “Look at the Belgian in the Congo,” he added.(註 3)

The shop, which had been quietly listening, now exploded in bridled indignation. One shopper accused the man of being a racist, and of being insensitive to those who had been colonised. “Easy for us to say, we were the coloniser.”(註 4)

Another shopper weighed in by stating, as if a matter of fact, that if Britain’s empire had any redeeming features why then were countries desperate to leave the Commonwealth. This is, of course, not true. (註 5)

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 independent and equal countries, including many that were never part of the British empire. It is also an association that is growing.

One of those most outraged by the words of this new-found imperialist, and who was most critical in denouncing the Commonwealth, happened also to be wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Rainbow flag.(註 6)Noting this I couldn’t help but wonder if he realised on the rare occasions when countries had indeed left this “oppressive, neo-imperial institution” —— it had not been over the memory of the British Empire, but because dictatorial regimes resented the Commonwealth’s inconvenient promotion of good governance, the rule of law and human rights. Gambia withdrew not because the people demanded it, but because its president, Yahya Jammeh, wished to be free to persecute and kill homosexuals, whom he had declared to be “a threat to human existence”.

Witnessing this example of how much of British society responds to its imperial past left me feeling uneasy. It was not as if the man at the centre of this storm had suggested the Empire was good, only that it was more nuanced than may often be portrayed in the common imagination. On this I was in agreement. It is the reasoned and educated position.

To see the Empire only as source of shame or guilt is to present as one-sided a view as to see it merely as a source of pride and celebration. Yet it has become politically correct to do so, at least to a degree.

As a child of colonial Hong Kong, and the member of an Eurasian family that existed in that space between the British and Chinese communities, the memory of empire is personal. Empire was the subject of my undergraduate thesis. The politicisation of the truth, of my memories and those of my family, whether by far right nationalists or progressive leftists, bothers me enormously. Ideology should not determine our understanding of history. This is dangerous as our understanding of history shapes who we are today.(註 7)

Yet despite my unease I dared not say anything. I did not wish to be seen defending a man whose views, if expanded upon, may be reflective of a type of nationalism that I consider to be deeply offensive. I was worried others might think wrongly of me for doing so. This reticence bothers me.(註 8)

The exchange did not last long, and the man soon left the shop. Happily he had taken the incident with good humour, and the shop soon returned to as it was. As he left I was able to see the two books he had bought. They were Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, and Inglorius Empire by Shashi Tharoor.

These are books I know well. That a man reading either of these books might be accused of being an imperialist, and even a racist, was revealing in itself.(註 9)







  • 這位陌生人,選買了兩本帝國論書,付錢的時候,向店主說:「我認為帝國不應只是令人蒙羞,亦應讓人自豪。」這句話語帶進逼,想看看店主的反應。若店主同意,兩人就會找到一個同溫層。若店主不同意,顧客就會借機「尋釁」挑起一場辯論。
  • 店主如何接招?「這一點我不想評論。」這句話本身已經隱含對顧客的觀點不太贊同。
  • “Though he said no more, his tone was unmistakably judgmental.” 作者也很含蓄。含蓄是英式文章的基本特徵。


  • 果然,看來這位顧客是一位保守主義者,平時受到左翼佔據話語權的壓抑,他要在一個狹小的空間實踐他的觀點言論自由。他認為英國帝國主義比德國、法國、日本都做得好。


  • 書店的人繼續保持沉默。但這位顧客似乎開始了一場小型的演說,他認為帝國主義的功過應該在那個時代背景裡評論。那時候,有的地方,英國人不佔領,其他西方國家也會佔領,例如比利時殘暴統治的非洲剛果。


  • 這份論述本來並無抵觸邏輯,但這位顧客似乎有意測試其他顧客的立場和反應。果然,其中一個顧客反駁:你這種論調,沒有顧及被殖民者的感受,而且完全是種族主義者。「我們當然說得容易,因為我們是殖民的一方。」—— 這句話流露了自由主義者的歷史罪疚感。


  • 另一個顧客也加一張嘴巴,扯進了英聯邦問題。但作者認為,他引述的英聯邦例子錯了:英聯邦不是一個變相的帝國殖民地集團,而是自願參與的一個前英國殖民地俱樂部。


  • 爭論到了這裡,作者覺得左翼的政治正確壓力出現了,只容許一邊倒的觀點,就是:一切為帝國主義辯護的言論,都是種族主義言論。一旦被標籤為所謂的種族主義者,在西方的自由主義世界,簡直如清末一個婦女被指控通姦而浸了豬籠。


  • 這時身為旁觀者的作者,想到了自己的混血身份,而且來自香港。很明顯,香港人對英國殖民管治並不反感,還有相當的懷念。作者想到這裡,覺得自己的身份立場,不知如何在書店裡的這場論述中擺設。


  • 雖然他自己也有獨特的觀點,但居然不敢表達。因為他害怕任何為帝國歷史發表的一點點辯護,都會遭到現場其他人憤怒的批判。因此,他選擇了沉默,雖然覺得這種沉默不太道德。


  • 這位顧客買了甚麼書?作者本人知道。書本的作者都是極右的帝國主義代言人嗎?即使如此,讀者們是否一定會贊同作者的觀點?還是這位大膽敢言的顧客,找到了處於同溫層的兩位歷史學家?







※ 此欄文章為作者觀點,不代表本網立場。 ※

方禮倫(Evan Fowler ) ,本地出生成長、中英交界的香港人,在劍橋和倫敦大學政經學院畢業。現居英國。 英文怎樣能表達得更好?香港的英文教育,著重文法正確、詞彙廣泛。但除了這兩樣,說好的英文、寫好的英文,還要有某種英語的理性與感性思維。 好的英文必清晰、婉約而有教養,與中文寫作文化略有不同。有時借用英文的文化特色,用於中文,可以別具一格。但若有一日移居英語國家,與以英語為母語的當地人溝通,融入主流社會,摸通英文表達藝術的深層結構,會很有用。 方禮倫的英文筆觸細膩,每週五他會以英文與我們見一次面,講述香港和海外華人關心的事情。除了獨特的觀點,其文筆可供英文寫作學習參考。