Just Read…How the East Is Read

“Intruder in Mao’s Realm” is what Richard Kirby calls his account of living in China from 1975- 1977 when teaching English in provincial China. His account forty years after the event was not going to be that of a maoist loyalist [being a self-described soft Trotskyist], and he recalls incidents that do not reflect flattering on himself, nor his hosts, but it is a record of lived history. A well written memoir with stories that reflect some of the reality and anxieties of the time, it is an intruder’s eyewitness account that provides colour and texture at a time of transition for China. His frustration as a foreigner is clear although his sympathy on a personal level in always there.

It is in a well-established genre of writing, autobiographical, even self-indulgent, with description and travel behind the bamboo curtain, personal accounts of China of its day, limited and empirical judgements abound. He questioned the society he was in, and found, like elsewhere it couldn’t live up to the aspiration it publicised. For many westerners such scepticism resulted in disappointment for ardent sinophiles and Maoists alike.

A sideline concern

Kirby initiated a visited China through SACU – Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding:

“Back in those early days, the prospective China traveller had to submit to a mild ideological screening. When my turn came, this was conducted by Betty, a no nonsense woman in her sixties, who with her coiled grey hair, and wire glasses evidently modelled herself on the serve female cadre beloved of Chinese propaganda posters.” [Earnshaw Books 2016: 12]

Alas Richard missed out there; as someone who worked with Betty for a few years, there were few as warm and welcoming, thoughtful and generous and politically concerned as Betty. She did work hard, and expected the same dedication from others, and in her Wiltshire home, she was as relaxed as she made her guests of which there were many.

There is a niche area of study tied up with study of China’s quest for soft power in the early twenty-first century that looks at foreign friends of Mao’s China that builds on the work of New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady [Making the Foreign Serve China: managing foreigners in the People’s Republic 2003] who produced, what many thought a hostile account, in Friend of China – The Myth of Rewi Alley [Routledge 2015]. Exploring the theme of the role of foreigners in China’s diplomatic relations and their sensitive place in China after 1949 – a sensitivity much commented on by Richard Kirby – Brady critically examines fellow New Zealander as a prolific propagandist on the new China, an outspoken ‘foreign friend’ of the Chinese regime. A follow up discussion on the techniques of hospitality and international image building can be found in the May 2014 RHS lecture ‘The Uses of Foreigners in Communist China’ by Dr Julia Lovell, author of Maoism: A Global History.

“Intruder in Mao’s Realm” joins the bookshelves with other accounts of a variety of experiences ranging from one month field visits to years or decades in China. Sidney Rittenberg’s The Man Who stayed Behind [Duke University Press 2001] told less than it could, as did Sidney Shapiro, An American in China: thirty years in the People’s Republic [New World Press Beijing 1979] and Living In China by 20 authors from abroad that included chapters by veterans of life in Mao’s China: Rewi Alley, David Crook, Elise Cholmeley, Sidney Shapiro. [New World Press Beijing 1979]. These authors were all friends of China.

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Figure 1 Mao’s American Friends

Among two “eyewitness accounts” from the committed left whose residency in Beijing overlap and provide contrasting frank accounts of their experiences are ex-CP, early anti-revisionist activist memoir:

Muriel Seltman, What’s Left? What’s Right? A Political Journey via North Korea and the Chinese Cultural Revolution – 2014 Matador; 2nd Revised ed.,

and a long-time resident communist working in China, David Crook’s Hampstead Heath to Tian An Men – The autobiography of David Crook published online http://www.davidcrook.net/simple/main.html . The Crooks published two standard sociological studies, Revolution in a Chinese Village, Ten Mile Inn (London: Routledge & Paul, 1959) and The First Years of Yangyi Commune (Routledge & K. Paul, 1966). The British sinologist Delia Davin wrote in David’s obituary that through that “classic study” and other writings and talks, the Crooks “provided a positive picture of China to the outside world at a time when cold war simplifications were the norm.”

Delia Davin “David Crook A communist who fought against Franco, spied for Stalin and wrote a classic book on change in China” The Guardian, Sunday 17 December 2000

There has been a long pedigree of foreigner’s visiting the little known Chinese communists, one of the best known Edgar Snow, author of the classic travelogue and history’s first journalistic draft, Red Star Over China published in 1937. Like others who became regular visitors behind the “bamboo curtain”, Snow and his wife Helen, went on to produce running commentaries on developments in China : Red China Today : the other side of the river Random House [1962] and China’s Long Revolution [1971] were both mass market paperbacks bring news to an international audience.

The Wall Has Two Sides: a portrait of China today [1962] by Felix Greene was the only US-based correspondent who visited China much in those years. He spent several months there in 1957, 1960 and 1964, travelling (unescorted) throughout the country.

Many friends of China and “political tourists” offered their observations and experiences during a sojourn in the People’s Republic to provide partial insight into the attitudes, ideals, and life styles of the Chinese people:

Israel Epstein, I Visited Yenan: an eyewitness account of the communist-led liberated areas in North West China. First published in 1945, it was reprinted by Beijing-based Foreign Language Press in 2003 as part of the China Society for People’s Friendship Studies series-

Stuart Gelder, The Chinese Communists [Victor Gollancz 1946] is an early example of the reporter drafting the historic record in the drive for national liberation following the defeat of Japan.

Robert Payne, Journey to Red China [Heinemann 1947] was a visit to the liberated region of north China providing an account of people he met there, recording the things they said and hope.

The classic account of newly liberated China was in the prophetic adventure recounted in Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World first published in 1949 [Penguin 1973 ] Reprinted by Foreign Language Press in 2004, James Bertram, Return to China [Heinemann 1957] provided an impression of post-liberation China on the cusp of the Great Leap Forward.

In the early seventies among English-language offerings were,

Daily Life in Revolutionary China [1972] by an Italian Communist Maria Antonietta Macciocchi .

Jack Chen, A Year in Upper Felicity: life in a Chinese Village during the Cultural Revolution, set in North Honan province. [Harrap 1973]

Arthur Glaston & Jean Savage, Daily Life in People’s China based on Marco Polo Bridge People’s commune near Beijing. [Thomas Y. Cromwell Company 1973]

William Hinton, was another American friend of China – a card carrying farmer and Maoist so to say – whose studies around Chinese agricultural developments recorded the changing fortune of Mao’s China and after through, amongst others, Fanshen: a documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, based on events in 1948 ; the sequel Shenfan: The Continuing Revolution in a Chinese Village and Iron Oxen: a documentary of revolution in Chinese farming [1970] ,the Hundred Day War: the cultural revolution at Tsinghua University [Monthly review Press 1972] and The Privatization of China: The Great Reversal [Earthscan 1992].

The Swedish writer Jan Myrdal provided a parallel account through Report From a Chinese Village [1963] set in Lin Ling in northern province of Shensi, and a follow up visit in China: the revolution continued [1970] and China Notebook 1975-78 [Liberator Press Chicago 1979]

Of course, other accounts followed as China “Open-up” in the eighties onwards

Other reads here

and here  and here and Reading about the ‘Naxalites’

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