A communist in the family

Statue in Shandan celebrating the revolutionary struggle depicting Rewi Alley (front left) next...
Statue in Shandan celebrating the revolutionary struggle depicting Rewi Alley (front left) next to Xi Zhongxun, father of China's current leader, Xi Jinping. PHOTOS: ZEKE ALLEY/Rewi Alley
This is my story of the man, Rewi Alley - family member, writer, humanitarian, activist and unwitting myth-maker, Elspeth Sandys writes of her just-published book A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley.

In this extract, Sandys, who is a cousin to the New Zealander who played a significant role in political events of mid-20th century China, discovers how well remembered the late- Rewi Alley still is in his adopted homeland.


Beijing, 9 April, 2017

This journey is happening back to front. We're following in Rewi's footsteps but he didn't start here. As in the joke about asking an Irishman for directions and being told he can't give them because he wouldn't set out from where you are, our starting point shouldn't be Beijing, it should be Shanghai, where Rewi spent the first 10 years of his China life. But logic is not the guiding principle of this adventure. Our travels will spin us around a country that has seen the best that human beings are capable of, and the worst. At each stop we will be shadowed by the history Rewi lived through and even helped to shape, but we will not find easy answers to our questions. Rewi and the country he loved are as hard to separate as a long-married couple.

We've had our first authentic Chinese meal - a Sichuan feast washed down with Chinese beer. It almost didn't happen. Arriving at the popular Beijing restaurant we were told the room that had been set aside for us had been double booked. Just for a moment there was the threat of chaos as other diners pushed past us, and our guide and the waiters engaged in a shouting match. "No hard feelings," our guide assured us, after the argument was resolved. "The Chinese `shout to live'!" - a sentiment colourfully endorsed by New Zealander Robin Hyde in Dragon Rampant, the story of her travels in China during the turbulent year of 1938. "In English hens cluck, sheep bleat, a kitten mews, a dog barks, a cow moos, but in China everything yells. A chicken yells, a cow yells, a bird yells ..."

In the days ahead we would often find ourselves caught up in apparent chaos only to have order suddenly, and seemingly without agency, restored.

Alley whanau in Tiananmen square on the group's first day in China.
Alley whanau in Tiananmen square on the group's first day in China.
According to the popular conception, China is a land that imposes chaos on order. Both visitors and citizens can often feel as if it is about to descend into full-scale anarchy, but behind all the yelling and shoving a cast-iron system is in operation. Everyone has his or her orders. As James Bertram put it in his China memoir, Capes of China Slide Away, "Nothing [in China] is what it seems to be on the surface."

Rewi Alley with his adopted sons Alan (centre) and Mike. Photo: Rewi Alley of China
Rewi Alley with his adopted sons Alan (centre) and Mike. Photo: Rewi Alley of China
As we ate our way through course after course of the delicious peppery food for which Sichuan is famous, I practised putting names to faces. Ross and his friends from England are not the only new additions. We were joined this morning by Dave Bromwich, president of the New Zealand-China Friendship Society, who is coming with us as tour leader (along with cousin Jocelyn). I feel I already know Dave. He comes with a glowing recommendation from my daughter, who's had contact with him through her work. An old China hand, with an excellent grasp of Mandarin and years of experience of how things work on the ground, Dave will be our greatest asset as we move into the remote northwest where Rewi's happiest years were spent. Looking around the table, I can't help wondering if 16 days will be enough for me to get to know all my fellow travellers: there are 22 of us now, counting Dave. And we have a packed programme. So far conversations have been limited to "Are we where we're supposed to be?" "Did you have time to eat breakfast?" "Did you manage to turn the heating down?" and "Have you tried the coffee?" (Answers unprintable.)

The moment the meal is over we're bustled back on to the bus to take us to the next place on our schedule. We're not yet used to the Chinese way of control, herding us on and off buses, making sure there's no wandering away on our own, so there are a few feet-draggers. But we will learn. By the end of our three days in Beijing the ALLEY WHANAU - the words displayed across the front window of our bus - will be more or less under control.

We are being taken to the Olympic stadium, the Bird's Nest as it is popularly called. Our Chinese guide wonders out loud if we can be trusted to wander about unsupervised. "Do you promise to be back on the bus on time?" she asks, frowning. We chorus yes, and head out to the freedom of the wide open space fronting the stadium. I'm still trying to digest the information we've just been given about the vast acreage of farmland taken over by the state to build the stadium. It's a story, with different settings, that we will hear again and again. Once China's population was 80% rural; today it's less than 50%. Paddy fields, orchards, pastoral land, fields of wheat, potatoes and sorghum, plots producing green vegetables (the basis of most Chinese meals) have been dug up to make room for the high-rise towers mushrooming all over the country. Some of these towers are deserted. Developers have gone bust, or lost their money in one of China's many Ponzi schemes. What is sure is that China is rapidly becoming an urban country. Everyone wants to come to the city. No-one wants to be luohou, backward. Strolling around the stadium forecourt I don't yet have an image in my head of the mile upon mile of tower blocks, devoid of any architectural merit, rising out of the grey dirt like the chimneys of some bleak underground city, but by the end of the week my head will be full of them.

At a birthday banquet for Mao Zedong (centre) are Rewi Alley (left) and Edgar Snow (right). Photo...
At a birthday banquet for Mao Zedong (centre) are Rewi Alley (left) and Edgar Snow (right). Photo: Rewi Alley of China
We're running late. Watching my fellow travellers amble towards the bus like reluctant school children I feel sorry for our guide, who is trying to inject some urgency into the situation. Our next appointment is at Beijing Bailie University. There is to be a ceremony. Plaques will be unveiled. Speeches will be given in Mandarin and English. We will meet Michael Crook, current chair of the revived International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Co-operatives (ICCIC), who will accompany us on parts of our journey. The schedule is tight. "This way, Alley family ... Please ... This way ..."

From the window of the bus, shops, signs, banners, cars, bicycles, a constant blur of people race past. New Beijing - expensive cars, skyscrapers, Western-style advertising - jostles alongside the Old - tricycles loaded with folded cardboard and vegetables; street sweepers with old-fashioned straw brooms; an alley, glimpsed in a break between tall, featureless buildings, where three old men play mahjong beneath a line of washing. I peer at the Chinese characters displayed above shop fronts and in advertisements, and for the first time I'm struck by how beautiful they are. If it weren't for the delicate calligraphy, Beijing's advertising hoardings would be like others all over the world - beautiful young men and women enticing customers to spend money. But the (to me) incomprehensible characters set these images apart. They are maps of a world I cannot enter. Back in New Zealand I will read that they operate as bridges linking time and space, something that could be said, surely, of any language. But there is a difference. Chinese characters also operate as bridges linking Mandarin (the official language) and the other main Chinese dialects - Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew. As in all languages, meaning is fluid and subject to change, but in Chinese this process is even more elusive because of the ways in which meaning changes according to what goes before and after each particular character. When Confucius was writing 500 years before the birth of Christ, he had 6544 characters to choose from. Now there are more than 50,000 (though the dictionary lists only 20,000 as being in use). I think of my embarrassment as a poor speaker of French and know there's no point in my resolving to learn this fascinating new language. I am doomed to remain an outsider.

When Rewi was learning Mandarin he used to pin new characters around his mirror every day so he could memorise them while he was shaving. He became fluent enough to translate works from China's ancient dynasties, particularly the Tang (618-907) when Europe was lost in the Dark Ages and China was the most civilised country in the world. The only woman ever to rule China in her own name - the Tang Empress Wu Zetian - invented her own characters, which Rewi, determined to bring the poetry and art of that vanished golden age into the 20th century, had also to learn. That he was so drawn to this period, when poets wrote in a classical style that bore little resemblance to spoken Chinese, is one of the many ironies of his life and work. When he came to write his own poetry he declared himself firmly on the side of the demotic. The classical rules of the Tang dynasty poets were not for him, though the world they described was.

Author Elspeth Sandys with Rewi's foster son, Lao San. Photo: Ken Watkin
Author Elspeth Sandys with Rewi's foster son, Lao San. Photo: Ken Watkin
"WELCOME HOME TO CHINA", "WALK ALONG REWI ALLEY ROAD AGAIN" the posters at the Bailie University proclaim. Rewi may as well have saved his breath when he insisted that the university not be named after him, as was planned, but after his mentor, Joseph Bailie, the man he credited with putting him on the road that led to Gung Ho. Rewi's name is everywhere, as is his photo. There's a Rewi Alley International Exchange Centre and a Rewi Alley Building displaying another poster with the words "WARM WELCOME TO ALLEY FAMILY" emblazoned across it. There are photos of Rewi from his revolutionary days with American friends Agnes Smedley and Evans Carlson. Another photo records the day Zhou Enlai came to sit with him in the Beijing sports stadium, an action (one of several) freighted with significance that kept Rewi safe during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. And here he is with Soong Chingling, one of the three beautiful Soong sisters who played starring roles (though ultimately on different sides) in China's story, and in Rewi's. Joseph Bailie's name is almost nowhere to be seen. Yet he, as will be shown, really was the start of it all.

Our guides lead us into a large auditorium where we are ushered in individually, rounds of applause greeting each of us as our names are called. Seated on the dais is a double row of officials and teachers, with cousins Jocelyn and Maurice, our first scheduled speakers, positioned at the centre front. Behind us sit row upon row of students, all, judging by the smiles on their faces, delighted to see us. "Overwhelming" is the word I will hear in the post-event bus chatter. None of us was prepared for such a display of warmth and enthusiasm.

I have the impression photos of Rewi are following us. The ones inside this hall are life-size and larger. Later in our journey we will encounter statues: Rewi with his co-worker George Hogg; Rewi with the Shandan children; Rewi with President Xi Jinping's father, Xi Zhongxun, whom he met in the northwest during the war years. "There are more statues of Rewi Alley in China than there are of Mao Zedong," I'm told by one person I meet. Not true, but indicative of both the Chinese desire to please and the veneration in which our cousin is held.

What would Rewi's reaction have been had that preposterous claim been made in his hearing? He would have been horrified, surely. But then I remember the bust of him by Francis Shurrock - making him look "like a Western variant of Peking Man" in the opinion of one critic - exhibited at London's Royal Academy in 1939. Rewi must have agreed to sit for that, raising the question of whether he was a modest man with occasional flashes of vanity, or a vain man concealing his pride behind a cloak of modesty.

A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley, by Elspeth Sandys, Otago University Press,...
A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley, by Elspeth Sandys, Otago University Press, RRP $40.
Shortly before this book went to print I was provided with a decisive answer to that question. Writing in response to reading the above paragraph, lifetime NZCFS member Eric Livingstone emailed these words to me: "The only reason Rewi agreed to have his bust made was because he was visiting his mother at the time it was suggested and she persuaded him to agree to sit for it, and because he would do anything she asked him, so it came about."

We will get used to the photos and statues, as we will to the long speeches praising Rewi's work. What we will find less easy to swallow is the sometimes reverent approach to the man who was, for most of us, a family member - one we are proud of, but not a saint. The irony of the situation would not be lost on Rewi. His work, about which we will hear so much on this trip, was abruptly terminated by Mao in 1951. For a long time he was anything but venerated, his former association with the Kuomintang being cited as evidence of his lack of commitment to the communist cause. Had he died during either the Japanese or the civil war he might, like the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune (who will come into this story later), have been seen by Mao as a martyr. But he lived on, embroiled in the often subterranean politics of the day. Several decades would pass before, with Mao gone and Chairman Deng Xiaoping in power, Rewi Alley was reinstated as a Liberation hero.

"If I hear one more speech beginning `In 1927 ... [the year Rewi arrived in China]' I'll scream," Judy will complain as Rewi's praises are sung in speech after speech, in city after city, across China. Those of us who didn't know the facts of Rewi's life before we came on this trip will know them by heart at the end.

The Bailie University event ends with the unveiling of two plaques: the first celebrating the "Rewi Alley International Exchange Centre"; the second the "Site for Education in Internationalism". (After several such ceremonies Dave will confirm what we had begun to suspect - that the Chinese have a love affair with plaques.) This is followed by a group photo. (Another love affair - dozens will be taken over the next two weeks.) Then we are sent off on a tour of the university accompanied by students - one to every two or three of us - as our guides. Out of the corner of my eye I see my cousin Ross, the best-looking male in our group, surrounded by female students all eager to show him around the campus. This too will become a feature of our tour. "You're outrageous," I tease him towards the end of our journey. "You're breaking hearts all over China." Ross grins. An openly and happily gay man, he is delighted by all this female attention. "Are you sure you're gay?" I can't resist asking.

At last the Bailie tour comes to an end and it's time for us to board the bus again. "I will miss you," my student says to me, holding my hand tight, asking for my email address. Others have the same experience. "I will miss you." "I love you." "Please come again to our university."


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