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CHINA THROUGH WESTERN EYES
Manuscript Records of Traders, Travellers, Missionaries & Diplomats

Part 8: Diaries, Notebooks and Writings of Rewi Alley (1897-1987) from the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

 

Publisher's Note

This microfilm project pulls together the diaries, travel notes and letters of Rewi Alley from the Alexander Turnbull Library at the National Library of New Zealand. Added to these are articles by Rewi Alley and about him.

He stays in motion now as he stayed in motion all his life. The young Rewi journeyed agog at old China. In his middle years he strove to fulfil a vision of change. Driven by the urgencies of war and revolution, he covered huge mileages. As an old man, he continues. The typewriter keys fall on to the paper. He has a steady determination now to record the changes of the new China. He matches every factory and farm visited with a report for magazines outside China. When he travels, this is his job and anyone who wants to join him as he does it is welcome… Yet what a chance! To go with the white veteran of China. To clock up 10,000 kilometres with the man who must be the most travelled European of the Chinese interior – ever.

Geoff Chapple, author of Rewi Alley of China (Hodder & Stoughton) describing his journey throughout China in April-June 1979 with Rewi Alley before writing his biography.

Rewi contributed in an original way to the development of New China. The Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, which he initiated and organised, provided the blue-print for the communes which now exist under the People’s Government. For many, however, Rewi Alley’s greatest contribution has been his literary achievements. His poems are very personal, close and deeply felt… His documentary and diary accounts are all first hand… these writings are generally good.

National Committee for the Commemoration of Rewi Alley’s Seventy Fifth Birthday, New Zealand, 1972.

Rewi Alley was a New Zealand writer and social worker who went to China in 1927 and stayed there throughout the Revolution, the Long March, the periods of Agricultural Reform and the Cultural Revolution. He lived in China for sixty years, from 1927-1987. His work in China involved him in all the dramatic political changes of this period both as a participant and as an observer. In 1927 he was employed at the Hongkou Fire Station in the International Settlement in Shanghai before moving on to work for the Shanghai Municipal Council’s Industrial Division. During the 1930s and 1940s he became involved with the CCP underground. Working within the Second United Front between the CCP and the KMT he helped set up the Chinese Industrial Co-operative Movement, a nationwide organization which utilised refugee labour in the Sino-Japanese War, which Rewi led under the “Gung Ho” motto. Training for the young workers was organized at the Bailie Schools, named after Rewi’s mentor in Shanghai. Rewi later went on to be the headmaster of the Shandan Bailie School, a remote progressive school in Gansu. During the 1930s he made important friendships with Mao Zedong and other Communist leaders, travelling frequently and often living rough.

After 1949 Alley was one of the few foreigners allowed to stay on and work in CCP China, he devoted himself to international peace work, promoting China’s foreign policy and criticising American military intervention in Korea and Vietnam. He played an important role at international peace conferences and became a prolific propagandist, writing more than 60 books on life in New China. Rewi Alley was recognised by the Chinese as one of the elite group of “friends of China”, a pro-CCP foreigner with close ties to the Chinese leadership. He maintained this position up until his death in 1987. In the last four decades of his life he continued to champion the cause for Chinese youth, stressing the importance of education, training and technical schools. He also tried to foster improvements in Sino-New Zealand relations.

The papers in this collection are an excellent source for the cultural, economic and social history of China in this period. They document the full range of Rewi Alley’s activities in China, especially the Long March, the Revolution of 1949, the periods of Agricultural Reform and the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a strong supporter of Mao. During the Sino-Japanese War, Rewi Alley made an immense contribution to the war effort in encouraging workers, promoting initiatives in schools and in distributing relief aid. Much of the correspondence in this collection relates to his activities during this period, the industrial and social development of China, international aid, and campaigns for world peace.

In the 1930s Rewi Alley worked as chief factory inspector for the Shanghai Municipal Council’s Industrial Division. He met the writer and revolutionary, Agnes Smedley, in 1932 and showed her around the Shanghai factories. He told her of his disillusionment with the miserable conditions and they agreed to work hard to change things. This quickly led to involvement with the CCP underground. An eyewitness of the time, Olga Lang, a scholar of Chinese literature and society, describes Rewi Alley at work:

We visited only Chinese workshops and factories. Rewi was very well known and – one could see at once – very well liked there. The managers did not approve of his inquisitiveness and energetic demands of course. But they were polite without subservience or fear. They treated him as one of theirs, as they would treat a young idealistic Chinese of the modern type. As to the boys and girls (who worked in these factories), they greeted Rewi as they would a friend and protector, and not an alien, but also as their own man – an uncle, or a father.

When Rewi Alley first arrived in Wuhan, China’s capital in the war against the Japanese, in 1938, he had just one small suitcase and one important slogan “Gung Ho”. He had co-founded the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives Association in Shanghai and made badges for members carrying the phrase “Gung Ho” meaning “work together” (in Chinese characters within an equilateral triangle). The simple and bold design would soon appear all over unoccupied China and “Gung Ho” became the driving spirit and motto of the CIC.

Between 1938 and 1944 Rewi Alley led the workers of China’s “Gung Ho” movement in a determined effort against the Japanese invaders. In 1941, Edgar Snow, China’s best known foreign correspondent wrote: “Rewi Alley means to China today at least as much as Colonel Lawrence meant to the Arabs, and perhaps more. Where Lawrence brought to Arabia the destructive techniques of guerrilla warfare, Alley is teaching China the constructive organisation of guerrilla industry.

The Chinese Industrial Cooperatives movement badly needed financial support. A crucial meeting between Rewi Alley and Ida Pruitt paved the way for major fund raising initiatives. She quickly grasped his vision of the cooperatives and volunteered to tie in international sympathisers. She secured overseas funding for “Gung Ho” in mid 1939 through the foundation of the International Committee in Hong Kong, headed by Ronald Hall, the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong and South China. She then set off to America to embark on fund raising there. This led to the creation of Indusco Inc. with the backing of leading personalities such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Luce. Indusco fed money through the International Committee to the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives and the Bailie schools. By mid 1941 the amount of money coming through the Committee for dispersal took a quantum leap when United China Relief, one of the most powerful fund raising organisations in America added its weight to Indusco and its Hong Kong outlet.

The Bailie schools, named after Rewi’s old mentor in Shanghai, Joseph Bailie, aimed to take in workers from the cooperatives, teach them to read and write, give them basic industrial skills, instil a loyalty to the idea of “Gung Ho” – working together – and send them back well trained to the cooperatives.

By the end of the war Rewi Alley had become increasingly concerned about the way aid organisations such as UNRRA and United China Relief were moving into China and the corresponding political machinations in China to absorb the flow of foreign money. In a diary entry Rewi wrote: “Under the circumstances it seems best for me to keep on with the Bailie schools and make lads whose future is tied up with cooperation and who will struggle for their living through it when all the fancy signposts are taken down.”  Later diary entries tell of disputes over funding and increasing military and political tensions.

In the 1950s he became very involved in peace work and the campaign against the Korean War. He denounced American war aims and American imperialism. With the New Zealand peace group and the Asia and Pacific Peace Liaison Committee (based in Beijing) he attended lots of conferences and many meetings in Beijing, Helsinki, Hanoi and Stockholm. These events are recorded in his diary as are his reflections during the Vietnam conflict. Rewi was devoted to international communication and contact promoting peace and China’s Revolution. Relations between China and America were bad. Rewi was aggrieved that his native New Zealand appeared to be following the American lead in South East Asia. In his journal he wrote: “New Zealand is officially drawn into the path that the United States has marked out for her throughout South-east Asia and few New Zealanders realise that this policy, along with the total policy of American imperialism is doomed to total and abysmal failure in the not so very long run.

He was particularly active writing about China in the 1960s and 1970s. Two extracts from his typewritten travel notes give a flavour of his observations:

From Notes on Shanghai, 1969:

…Anyone who has worked in the hinterland of China with diesel trucks and tractors, knows the importance of two things, good crank shaft bearings, and efficient oil injectors. How many a driver in the fifties has cursed the Soviet made spare oil injector he has just used to replace a bad one, when he has found the new one was no better than that just gone wrong! A new one that had come in exchange for a very considerable amount of pork that had made it perhaps the most expensive injector in the world, even though other foreign ones imported through Hong Kong, cost the Chinese worker an ounce of gold!

From Notes on Fukien Province, describing his tour there:

Fukien is a front line province in China’s south east, over the straits from which lies the province of Taiwan. One of 21,000,000 people, it is a land of mountain, forest and stream, the western portion of which being the locality where Chairman Mao organised so well from 1929 to 1934. After a five week’s tour there, I came away with many impressions and much material for writing, so much indeed that it is hard to know just where to begin in talking about it all. In this short account, however, I will concentrate on a few of the construction projects that have been carried through there, starting with that of the Wolung Bridge which is so necessary a link between Foochow and the main highway to the three great cities to the south, Chuanchow, Tsangchow, and Amoy…

In this piece, he also writes about the local children, the revolutionary town of Changting, and centres of trade and commerce.

The project includes significant material for the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Letters to his mother give his earliest impressions of China, 1927-1930. Correspondence in 1935 gives details of the Japanese occupation. Letters to Ida Pruitt provide much material on Indusco, the International Committee, fund raising activities and the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives movement. They also reflect on developments in China after 1949. A series of articles on Americans in China, including Ida Pruitt, Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow and Anna Louise Strong also shed important light on Rewi Alley’s work and perceptions of China during this period. There are a series of Rewi Alley’s diaries from 1934 to 1938 and 1951 to 1985. His typewritten travel notes compiled between 1954 and 1985 provide excellent source material with an emphasis on agriculture, industry and economic development. We also include a series of articles written by Rewi Alley, under various pen names in 1936-1937, for the periodical “Voice of China”.

There are writings and articles on Indusco Inc., the International Committee in Hong Kong, the China Aid Committee, the developments along the Yangtsze River, assessments of China’s Industrial Future, reports on the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives and accounts relating to Shandan Bailie school.

There are also many good source documents on the period post-1949 when Rewi Alley stayed on in China as a propagandist and writer, in close touch with the country’s leadership, and active in many peace initiatives and international conferences. He was much in demand to speak at meetings of the New Zealand China Friendship Association which was set up in 1952. Letters to Jack Ewen between 1967 and 1978 cover the political and economic situation, especially the political power struggles, the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and views on the Gang of Four. We include all Rewi Alley’s articles on China abstracted from the periodical “Eastern Horizon” spanning the period 1961 to 1973. Many of his poems, articles, speeches and essays on China make fascinating reading. They span a full six decades of experience and close involvement with the country.

Rewi Alley is a key figure in 20th century Chinese history. A constant traveller of the interior he developed an immense knowledge of the people and their customs. He first became a close friend of Mao Zedong whilst the Communist leader was still living in isolated caves. This gave him a unique position to forge close links with the political leadership after 1949. Rewi Alley achieved high honour and respect from the Chinese. His great energy and enthusiasm for the country comes across in his diaries and writings reproduced in this collection.

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