A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley by Elspeth Sandys (Otago University Press, 2019), 324pp., $40
Even if he had achieved little else, surviving sixty years in China – from the Republican era prior to Japanese invasion to the first years of the open and reform period – would have marked Rewi Alley (1897–1987) as a remarkable individual. Yet, as his supporters recount, Alley’s record is astonishing across a number of fields, including literature. He is perhaps New Zealand’s most prolific author – fifty-three books of his own and thirteen works of translation, according to one count – best known for his poetry, travelogues and detailed descriptions of the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He produced countless articles on subjects ranging from Chinese agricultural implements and the rural paper industry, to the forms of ancient Chinese belt buckles and the Chinese in New Zealand. In the realm of literature, his best contributions are translations of classical Chinese poetry. Although his interest in material arts was not scholarly, the 1400 works he donated to Canterbury Museum form the largest collection of Chinese art in this country.
However, Alley is justly condemned for the tedious banality of his writing, properly directed at his voluminous works from the 1950s to the 1970s, which uncritically documented the progress of Chinese industry, agriculture and living conditions, and lionised PRC leadership. Among the most egregious are over a hundred articles, poems and reviews published under his own name, and a barely concealed pseudonym, A Li (Alley in Chinese is Aili) from 1960 to 1978 for Eastern Horizon, which was a pro-PRC journal instigated by Zhou Enlai, published in Hong Kong. Most are fawning and cringe-inducing. (Other left-wing New Zealanders, such as Margaret Garland and Bill Rosenberg, also contributed.) Alley’s biographers have understandably, then, brushed over his literary output to focus on the man’s work supporting Chinese causes.
Following service in World War I and six years scraping a living on a farm in Taranaki, in 1927 Alley arrived in Shanghai and found employment with the Shanghai Municipal Fire Brigade. This led to work as a factory inspector aimed at improving the appalling conditions of workers, especially children, in Shanghai’s sweatshops. In some respects, Alley’s first years in Shanghai were typical of a foreigner. His job afforded comforts: Elspeth Sandys reports that his private room at the fire station to which he was attached now sleeps six people, and he was provided with a car and driver. He attended lectures on Chinese culture and history held by the Royal Asiatic Society and the YWCA. And, as many other curious sojourning foreigners have done, Alley wrote up his impressions: essays describing his travels with friends about China by motorcar, and other miscellaneous topics, were published by the naturalist Arthur Sowerby, then living in Shanghai, in his middle-brow China Journal.
Initially Alley’s politics were conservative (he expressed admiration for Japanese incursions onto the continent), but through the early 1930s he fell in with foreigners with leftist sympathies, notably Americans Joseph Bailie, Agnes Smedley and George Hatem, each subsequently recognised as significant figures in Republican China. These contacts led to flood-relief work when on leave from his job in Shanghai, and to forming contacts with members of the burgeoning Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Alley remained committed to its cause for the rest of his life.
His visits to New Zealand, in 1932 and 1937, attracted little public attention, but this relatively anonymous life was to change with the establishment of the Industrial Cooperatives Movement in the latter 1930s. The idea of setting up small industrial units in unoccupied western areas of China, in order to assist in the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937–45), was the brainchild of Edgar Snow (author of the widely read Red Star Over China), his wife Helen Foster Snow, and Alley. It was supported by influential figures such as Song Chingling, the widow of Sun Yatsen, and her sister Song Meiling (the wife of Chiang Kai-shek). The movement – for which Alley coined the term ‘Gung Ho’ (gong he, ‘work together’) – needed publicity to attract funding, and Alley, who had taken on a leading role, became its ‘face’. A widely distributed Saturday Evening Post article, written by Snow in 1941, was headed ‘China’s Blitzbuilder, Rewi Alley’, and described Alley as ‘unique because he has achieved greatness in a country where few foreigners ever managed to create a ripple’. With American backing, at its height 3000 industrial units were established. Alley’s name started to become familiar to New Zealanders, and his star rose.
The years 1945–52 were Alley’s happiest. Gung Ho established schools to train youngsters for their units, and Alley, having been sidelined by its leadership, took the role of principal of one of these in the remote town of Shandan on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Education suited him, as did overcoming the ongoing problems presented by remoteness and civil war. Fundraising for the school was widespread in New Zealand, and included annual contributions from central government. The school roll grew to 400 pupils. The request from Peking authorities in 1952 for Alley to move there, with the shift of the school and change in its focus to the oil industry, was one of the low points of his life.
Even during the darkest hours of the cultural revolution, Alley’s thirty-five years in Peking were comfortable enough, with good accommodation, salary, secretary, driver and car, and a cook whose efforts paid off handsomely on Alley’s waistline. The PRC took over leadership of the World Peace Movement in 1952 and, as an official ‘peace ambassador’, Alley travelled widely in the 1950s. His anti-American rhetoric, particularly during the Korean War (1950–53), saw him fall out of favour with conservative New Zealand, and he was closely watched on two visits there in the early 1960s.
His reputation was lifted again following New Zealand’s recognition of the Peking government in 1972, for which he had long advocated, when he became useful to both countries. The vehemently anti-communist Muldoon met him at a reception in Peking in 1976, and they got on. Lange dropped in, and famously described him as New Zealand’s ‘greatest son’. Today, monuments to Alley litter his home province of Canterbury.
Alley’s first biographer, Willis Airey, spent time with his subject, and in 1970 produced the most thorough and well-researched study of his first decades in China (A Learner in China: A life of Rewi Alley), on which all later writers have relied. But Alley and his editor Shirley Barton censored the manuscript, and some distortions regarding his past appear. A decade later, Geoff Chapple (Rewi Alley of China) again interviewed Alley, and his account, where it deviates from Airey’s, is largely taken from those conversations. Both paint a heroic figure. Anne-Marie Brady’s contrasting Friend of China – the Myth of Rewi Alley (2003) highlighted Alley’s attempts to massage his personal history, erasing uncomfortable aspects to present a ‘clean’ version that aligned with CCP expectations. Alley himself produced an autobiography in 1986.
Elspeth Sandys is aware that what she is told by her Chinse hosts doesn’t always match history. Hers is the second biography by an Alley relation: Philippa Reynolds produced a short, but useful, Rewi Alley: From Canterbury to China on the tenth anniversary of his death (1997). Relatives may have an inside run on a family member, access to a subject’s private life, or material unavailable to others, but Sandys’ familial connections unfortunately don’t yield a great deal. Her prologue tracing the family’s European roots, and including the family crest, as would be expected, is unenlightening, and there are disappointingly few vignettes from the ancestral closet. Even the photographs of her second cousin have all previously been liberally reproduced. Her narrative follows a trip to China with other family members in 2017, led by Dave Bromwich, chairman of the New Zealand China Friendship Society, on the ninetieth anniversary of Alley’s arrival in Shanghai. (Alley was central to the establishment of the society in the 1950s, which funded her trip, along with the Chinese Consular Office in Christchurch.) They visit the places significant to Alley: his Peking apartment, Song Chingling’s house, the re-established Shandan school, and of course the Shanghai fire station. We get a photograph of Alley’s bicycle (‘about as basic as a bicycle can be’). At each stop, Alley’s adventures are recounted as Sandys tries to make sense of her ‘mysterious’ relation, imagining ‘what those winters must have been like’ in Shandan, and Alley ‘letting out a howl of anguish’ on hearing of Zhou Enlai’s death. Inaccuracies creep in. Though Sandys does not claim any specialised knowledge of China, she manages to weave in some relevant political history. The tourists are worn down by receptions and speeches, and we learn about the contents of their bags – ‘toilet paper, tissues, hand sanitiser …’ – and about the seating arrangements on the bus, where Sandys takes her opportunities to ask relatives what they know about Alley, admitting somewhat disarmingly, ‘If I’ve learned one thing on this trip it’s that family stories are not to be trusted.’ Indeed, and Alley deserves better.
RICHARD BULLEN is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury. He and Associate Professor James Beattie (Victoria) completed a Marsden-funded research project on Canterbury Museum’s Rewi Alley Collection (www.rewialleyart.nz). They have published widely on Alley and cultural diplomacy, including co-editing New China Eye Witness: Roger Duff, Rewi Alley and the art of museum diplomacy (2017), and with Maria Galikowski (Waikato), China in Australasia: Cultural diplomacy and Chinese arts since the Cold War (2019).