Friend of China¨The Myth of Rewi Alley

by Anne-Marie Brady
224 pages,
ISBN: 0700714936

Post Your Opinion
Messing with Mr. In-Between The Real Rewi Alley Exposed
by Douglas Brown

I experienced a small epiphany¨I won't say revolution¨in historical under- standing while teaching in Beijing the year after the Tiananmen demonstrations and massacre of the annus mirabilis that was 1989. Beijing in 1990 was under de facto martial law, and my oppressed, depressed, and deeply unimpressed students were subjected to omnipresent surveillance and intense 'political education'. The epiphany I'm referring to came in a conversation with a student in which I piously invoked the example of the estimable Norman Bethune who, as all Chinese and Canadians learn, died heroically in the service of the Chinese Communist Party and the world revolution. I can't remember what my point was, but my student's response remains unforgotten for what it revealed about how skeptical her assessment of the moral foundations and validity of communist China had become. "That's ok," she reassured me, as if making allowances for Bethune's otherwise inexplicable, and to her probably inexcusable, political folly, "we were fighting the Japanese then."
Rewi Alley Now, Anne-Marie Brady's Friend of China comes to confirm two things about my student's casual, epiphany-prompting remark. One is that after Tiananmen, the China-watching community is not likely to accept anything associated with the Communist Party of China, not even those heroes we would like to believe in, at face value. Another is that people or places that successfully fill spaces in-between China and the West are bound to get involved in some rather contradictory messes. Along with Dr. Bethune, the history of that in-between position includes the great fibber Marco Polo; a fantastic missionary adventure; the aberrations of extraterritoriality and semi-colonialism; Hong Kong and Shanghai; the Special Economic Zones; legions of import / export firms; and, philosophically, the Chinese Communist Party itself. It also includes the life of Rewi Alley, pride of New Zealand and exemplary Friend of China.
When Alley passed away in 1987, he'd long been a known quantity¨over five decades during his lifetime, there had been two biographies, an autobiography, several documentary films, sculptures, innumerable articles and references in memoirs, and his own voluminous if lamentable outpourings of poetry, translation, and fellow traveling chinoiserie; after his death, there was a play, an opera, a Rewi Alley Research Centre, and a thirty-two part Chinese TV series. Yet fifteen years after Alley's passing, Anne Marie Brady has revealed that very little about Alley's life was as it seemed.
Alley emerged as a humanitarian during the Sino-Japanese and Second World Wars. He was widely-celebrated as China's saviour for trying to counter the Japanese invasion by heroically organizing the hinterland industrial cooperatives known as Gung Ho (and in doing so, helping provide the English language with a new adjective). Behind Alley stood the fund-raising prestige of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Soong dynasty, assorted altruistic bigwigs, and the international prestige of the Kuomintang. After Chinese factional interests forced him to relinquish practical control of Gung Ho, Alley turned to directing the Shandan Baillie School which his supporters presented as a model of progressive education for China.
Alley's cooperative and educational accomplishments were never as effective as made out to be; still they were admirably creative attempts to respond to China's crises. The same cannot be said of Alley's endeavours after the advent of the People's Republic of China when, with all due respect to Dr. Bethune, Alley became the greatest and most storied of CCP-sanctioned "Friends", and for decades a familiar persona for observers of Communist China.
To explain how Alley came to his position as a seemingly authoritative interpreter of the PRC, Brady first follows Alley's career through the wartime alliances between Britain, the U.S., and Nationalist China. She is especially attentive to Alley's self-promotion through the ideologically-inflected international relations of the Cold War and through the upheavals of the PRC and its brand of "smiling diplomacy". Brady tenaciously analyzes the process by which the reputedly independent Alley transformed himself into a CCP mascot¨a mascot who, no matter what Alley might have previously believed or said or what the Party actually did, sang a tune which Bing Crosby-like would always very blithely "Accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, Latch on to the affirmative, Don't mess with Mr. In-Between."
In the fairy tale, an innocent child speaks the simple truth that 'The Emperor has no clothes'; Brady, though, is a deliberate iconoclast. She does to Alley's inflated reputation, what sinologists like Simon Leys have done to the laughable idea that Mao was a great helmsman (even Alley, by the way, had the decency to think Mao "a prick" for persecuting his old comrades-in-arms). Brady's study of Alley is a work of forensic intelligence that dissolves the accretions of myth about Alley which were long accepted as received wisdom by Western do-gooders, wishful-thinking fellow travelers, and New Zealand patriots, and used by CCP propagandists and cynical diplomats working to facilitate their countries' access to each other's markets and to disguise the inhumanity of the PRC. What remains of Alley once Brady finishes examining those uplifting myths is at once more modest and more mysterious.
So much about Alley that was supposed to be true turns out to be the opposite of the truth that Brady could have borrowed one of Mao's most famous titles and called her book "On Contradiction". Alley's apotheosis in China as the preeminent model foreigner came in the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping spoke at a banquet endorsing the example of the octogenarian Alley who had been unquestioningly loyal to the CCP. But even as the Deng regime urged the Chinese both to emulate Alley's submissiveness and to ignore their increasingly uncontainable disgruntlement after three catastrophic decades of CCP government, Alley's bitterness about where Deng and the Chinese were taking 'New China' appeared in private letters. With characteristic equanimity, Alley didn't let this disapproval prevent him from accepting the prestige and goodies that came with his improved sinecure under Deng.
In spite of the image Alley cultivated of down-to-earth frugality and simplicity¨qualities that did characterize his life from 1938 through 1952 during his days with Gung Ho and his school¨in Communist China, Alley lived an enviably comfortable and even luxurious life with cook, chauffeur, and secretary; free, if closely monitored, travel; access to restricted resorts; and in his frail final year, a private train carriage. The cost was, however, ultimately enormous. The paranoid CCP worked diligently to isolate Alley, and for years he could scarcely talk to anyone, not even his own sister, without his appointed aides present. As for his plainspoken New Zealand patriotism, it became a mask that hid a deep estrangement from his native land and culture.
In the 1950s Alley bought up precious Chinese artifacts from ruined Peking bourgeoisie, and he lived to his last days surrounded, not by revolutionary art, but by the beautiful things of old China. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, the unimpeachable CCP sympathizer Soong Chingling (widow of Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Chinese republic) had to send her own objets d'art to Alley's already well-furnished home for safekeeping. His library too revealed that he was far more interested in ancient China and in a vague sentimental Taoism than in the revolutionary thought he was supposed to espouse. Brady shows that the 'so-called' model life Alley led in Peking "more closely resembled that of a privileged colonial than a revolutionary." Alley's duplicity was much worse than that: in the early 1960s when tens of millions starved to death as a result of disastrous CCP policies, Alley's letters recorded his hard struggle with obesity, even while he repeated publicly and privately official denials of what was perhaps the worst famine in history.
The inconsistencies in Alley's life do not only date from his time in Communist China. It is ironic that Alley's humanitarianism and his demonstrations of moral and physical courage not only occurred before the Communists took over China, but were also all either financed by Western missionary and governmental organizations, or endorsed by the corrupt Kuomintang which Alley ever after gratefully denigrated. Yet without the saintly reputation that his Western supporters and that grudging Kuomintang indulgence permitted him to acquire, it is very unlikely that Alley would have been useful enough to have been allowed to thrive under the Communists. It is ironic too that under them, even though he was supposed to be close to the Communist leadership, Alley proved an ineffectual activist through four tyrannical decades in which he achieved little but his own glorification.
Another irony is that Alley's first Chinese enthusiasms were not humanitarian but homosexual. There has been a universal forgetting of the tolerance of homosexuality in traditional China, but in ways now associated with places like Thailand, China was once a favoured destination for alienated Western homosexuals looking for a congenial setting in which their erotic lives were not stigmatized. A great deal of Alley's happiness during his decades in pre-Communist China was a result of the sexual freedom he experienced in Shanghai and Shandan, something he was at great pains to hide. This would be unexceptionable, were it not that Alley became an uncritical booster for a party that obliterated homosexuality from Chinese life; and were it not that Alley had sought monies from Western supporters who didn't suspect this other dimension to his charitable activities. For in addition to offering an education combining theory and practice, his famous school offered Alley and other foreign homosexuals teaching there regular access to teenage partners.
Brady conscientiously wards off homophobes by presenting the homosexuality at "Rewi's School" within the Chinese tradition and by emphasizing that Alley was not a paedophile; and Plato does have his beautiful theory of paedagogy involving aristocratic homosexual eros; but the circumstances at Shandan remain objectionable, especially with the sex-abuse scandals of Mt. Cashel and residential schools fresh in Canadian memories. Gansu Province was terribly impoverished, and in a China where millions of children and teenagers lived the lives of slaves, urchins, and prostitutes, the Baillie School must have seemed a unique haven to the refugee boys it took in. In such a context, it is no wonder students allowed a middle-aged Alley "to put his handÓup their [short] trousers" and to have sex with them.
Brady's retelling of Alley's life is discomfiting historical revision. She has unearthed chapters in the story of the ambivalent place of the closeted homosexual in public life, and in the contradictory twentieth century relations between the anarchic Homintern and the authoritarian Comintern (adapted to Chinese conditions, needless to say). She deconstructs the individual capacity for self-delusion and the mechanisms by which heroes are created for anxious and credulous people. She unflinchingly reviews the colossal follies of the CCP, and measures the incongruity of Chinese and Western encounters since 1949 and the practical methods of not so inscrutable CCP diplomacy.
And she does one thing which few who have had an interest in the case of Rewi Alley will welcome¨by refusing to sing Alley's song, Brady has irremediably messed with Mister In-Between ˛

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