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Kenneth (Ken) Gardiner (1932–2011)

by Jeremy Evans

Ken Gardiner, n.d.

Ken Gardiner, n.d.

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-430

[Kenneth Gardiner] Ken was a first-class storyteller and loved most of all to be in command of a rapt audience, whether among friends, before a university class or on stage. To know Ken was to be introduced over the years to a stellar cast of curious characters and a bounty of intriguing tales. He could also, it must be added, be a good listener.

His total of 79 years arced between the East End of London, where he was born in 1932, and Canberra on the other side of the world. From the vantage point of Canberra’s leafy spaciousness, he liked to reminisce about his early years in the East End, from an infancy in the depths of the Great Depression to a boyhood under the blitz, with only one brief period of evacuation, and so to marvel at the distance he had travelled.

Herbert Gardiner, Ken’s father, was a carpenter and cabinet maker who supported his family one way or another throughout these difficult years, among other things by making most of the family’s furniture and by serving as a rescue warden. Ken’s mother, Lilian, kept house and wrote most of the letters.

Ken was an only child and had few playmates but, like his father, loved books. Among his favourites was a children’s version of ancient India’s two great epics, which one of his aunts found for him in his seventh year at a jumble sale. He was fascinated by pictures of prehistoric animals, encyclopaedias and mythical king-lists. In his 11th year, he began to work his way through his father’s collection of Dickens. He recalls a vivid childhood imagination and dreamt from an early age of adventuring in exotic lands.

Young Ken attended the local primary school and then East Ham Boys Grammar. The headmaster of the latter for most of Ken’s time there was a Latin scholar, J.L. Whiteley, who actively promoted drama and other creative activities within the school. It was here that Ken first developed his love of Latin, published his first poem and acted in his first play, as Lear. He continued to read Latin, write poetry and act for the rest of his life.

With the support of a scholarship scheme established by the post-war Labour Government, Ken gained admission to SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). Inspired among other things by his aunt’s gift, he specialised in Indian History under the benevolent eye of A.L. Basham. To do this he had to learn Sanskrit, although the grammatical intricacies of this language gave him an uphill struggle. When a contact of his at SOAS, Jerome Ch’en, introduced him one day to Chinese characters, Ken experienced these as ‘a breath of fresh air’, finding them not only fascinating but also easy to learn.

The two years following his graduation from SOAS went on National Service. Narrowly missing out on the Korean War, he spent most of his time guarding the key of the map room on a RAF base in the Fens. This task left plenty of spare time for, among other things, reading world literature and learning Chinese.

On regaining his liberty in 1956, he returned to SOAS, now to undertake a PhD, and started off with courses on Chinese Philosophy from D.C. Lau and Classical Chinese from Angus Graham, another two inspiring teachers. After embarking upon a thesis topic in Indian history, which proved unfruitful, he chanced one day in the Library on the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms, 12th century CE) and found to his delight that he could follow its Chinese script. This document, the oldest extant chronicle of an area that encompasses the Korean peninsula and a large adjoining section of Northeast China, gives a more or less mythical account of the three kingdoms that dominated this area across the first six centuries of the Common Era. He asked to be allowed to desert Indian for Far Eastern Studies and, on being granted permission to do so, embarked on translating and exploring his new find.

Seeking to corroborate, or otherwise, the Samguk Saki’s account of events, he began also to familiarise himself with Korean archaeology. A while later, he applied for and won a Japanese Government scholarship to study this subject in greater depth with an authority, Professor Arimitsu of Kyoto University.

On reaching Japan, Ken took student lodgings in Osaka, where he supplemented his scholarship by giving lectures in English literature and commuted by train to Kyoto. On returning to Osaka one day, he asked a young woman called Ogura Nobuko (Moko) the way and told her before they parted that she was just the kind of girl whom he might one day want to marry. Over the following months, Ken introduced Moko to the Buddhist temples and other wonders of Kyoto, while both of them enjoyed learning more about each other’s languages and cultures. Just over a year later, they got married in Kyoto.

Early in 1961, the young couple sailed from Japan to the UK, where Ken finally completed a thesis on the history of Goguryeo, the northernmost and largest of the three kingdoms, whose name subsequently evolved into ‘Korea’. The thesis comprised his translation and critical analysis of the relevant parts of the Samguk Saki. In preparing it, he had not only to draw on various archaeological and other sources, but also to find his way through a ‘minefield’ of competing national chauvinisms. Ken felt eternally grateful to Michael Loewe, who acted as his unofficial supervisor and, among other things, worked through a penultimate draft ‘with a fine tooth-comb’.

Soon after Ken had submitted his thesis, the couple, now with a toddler (Helen) and Moko seven months pregnant (Kai), moved to Japan, where Ken had secured a post in Tokyo, again as a university Lecturer in English Literature. Two years later, Ken’s former mentor, A.L. Basham, now recruiting staff for a Department of Asian Civilisations in the newly founded ANU, let Ken know that he wished to appoint a new lecturer in Ken’s area of interest. Ken applied for and won this position, and the couple now moved to Canberra and a further bout of culture shock, this time for both of them. A third child (Edwin) was born shortly after.

Ken soon published his thesis in book form and, subsequently, a series of papers on related topics, as well as one of the early Korean legends in the form of a children’s book. Most of his papers came out in the 1970s and 1980s, a few more later on. Ken’s oeuvre makes important contributions to current understanding of the dawn of history, across the early centuries of the Common Era, in the territories that abut China’s frontiers to northeast and also those to the southeast, in Vietnam. He pioneered the historical study of the first of these areas across the period concerned.

He was also to complete two other monographs, each with a co-author and each inspired in some large part by his love of Latin. Both monographs found publishers, although an inopportune death brought the publication of one of them to a premature halt. As a result, Ken and Igor de Rachewiltz’s extensively annotated translation of Paul the Deacon’s Historia Langobardorum (8th century CE) still lies neglected in a drawer. The published work, completed with Donald Leslie, gathers together and translates all of the references that Han and later Chinese sources make to Rome and the Roman empire.

As a university teacher, Ken was in his element. At the ANU, he taught pre-modern Chinese and Korean history and also Classical Chinese. Over the years, he also gave many occasional lectures and broadcasts on a variety of related subjects not only elsewhere in the University but also to a wide variety of community groups. Ken’s love of storytelling, poetry and the stage all conspired to make him a brilliant lecturer and teacher. Across his time at the ANU, Ken also raised a clutch of able graduate students.

Ken never visited China. He attributed this neglect to the fact that he was resolutely opposed to Beijing’s oppressive Tibetan policy. Yet, despite an early fascination with India, he never went there either, while he visited Korea only twice, but never for long. In similar vein, he was more interested in literary languages—Latin, Sanskrit and Classical Chinese—than in any modern, spoken, ones. One of Ken’s favourite mottos was ‘Never after 1000’, referring of course to the year 1000 CE. His childhood fascination with the faraway and long ago undoubtedly seeded his scholarly interests but may also have helped set their limits. None of this should be taken as criticism, given that scholarship leads nowhere without adequately focused attention and effort.

On the home front, things ran less smoothly. In 1973, after 13 years of marriage and three children, Ken and Moko separated, and later divorced. Moko, after moving to Canberra, dreamt of becoming a good Australian wife, whereas Ken, it would seem, wanted rather to believe that he had found himself a traditional Japanese one.

Ken wrote poetry and acted throughout his life and loved to recite his own verse in public. He also published his poems widely as well as contributing to two collections of verse by local poets and publishing two collections of his own.

Ken’s favourite poem was perhaps one of Wang Wei’s (8th century CE), which Ken rendered into English as follows and included as epigraphs, two lines to each, in the poetry collections to which he contributed:

Empty mountains—no one to be seen
only the sound of people’s voices can be heard.
The returning sunlight enters the deep forest
and shines again on the green moss

Does this haunting verse describe a lonely night-long vigil in the mountains, followed by the dawn of a new day, by way of expressing the poet’s own innermost feelings across a period of lonely adversity, followed by some kind of rebirth? If so, these lines may well have resonated more than he realised with a sea-change that Ken himself underwent during the 1980s.

In 1979, he met Merril Cook through the ANU Atheist Society. They married three years later. The two of them shared a deep commitment to poetry, drama and Buddhism, and they threw themselves, Ken with renewed vigour, into composing verse, acting, bushwalking, some travel and the activities of a local Tibetan Buddhist congregation.

The last CV that Ken submitted to the ANU dates from 1983, soon after his remarriage, although he continued to publish papers and served for a year as acting head of his department. While Ken never had much time for the politics or formalities of university life, the lack of further updated CVs may have had more to do with the fact that he never learnt how to use a computer.

Early in 1992, Merril gave birth to Ken’s fourth child, a second girl (Morgan). He became a doting parent and, shortly thereafter, took early retirement from the University. Both parents now became regular meditators and also redoubled their efforts in support of various liberal causes, first and foremost among these the Dalai Lama.

Across Ken’s last five years or more, both his health and his memory progressively failed him, forcing him to relinquish, one after another, most of his lifelong passions. The saddest moment of all came when he could no longer muster his delightful, impish humour.

One evening in 2010 at the ANU, Ken experienced a ‘last hurrah’, an event that meant a great deal to him. One of his former undergraduate students, Kevin Rudd (Prime Minister 2007–10, 2013) was on the ANU campus to deliver the 70th Morrison Lecture. Mr Rudd not only listed Ken together with eight other Australians who had made important contributions to sinology but also, in the melée that followed the lecture, reminisced about how Ken’s undergraduate lectures had first inspired his own well-known engagement with China.

Ken died at Kankinya Nursing home and is survived by his widow and their one child, as well as by the three children of his first marriage.

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Citation details

Jeremy Evans, 'Gardiner, Kenneth (Ken) (1932–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Ken Gardiner, n.d.

Ken Gardiner, n.d.

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-430

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


1 August, 2011 (aged ~ 79)
Lyneham, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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