Passport to Peking
Today western visitors to China come and go in their millions. In 1954 there were just a handful. China was only five years into its Communist rule, enjoying a window of stability after more than a century of war, invasion, warlordism and hunger. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang party (KMT), carrying the more valuable contents of the Palace Museum, had decamped to Taiwan where it had imposed its own dictatorship on the reluctant Taiwanese. The US was to support it for another 15 years.
China seemed keen to build its diplomatic presence and the visiting foreign delegation was a favoured propaganda instrument for socialist states. The British had recognised the Communist regime in Beijing but treated it with a certain political distaste. Britain, of course, had friendship societies and support groups for China. Outside those circles, though, China’s new Communist leaders were a largely unknown quantity, chiefly recognised through Edgar Snow’s hagiographic Red Star over China (published by Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club in 1937), now many years out of date.
Early in 1954 Zhou Enlai had charmed observers at the Geneva conference (convened to seek a settlement of the war in Indochina) with his urbane and sophisticated diplomacy. He issued a general invitation to westerners to visit China and this is the story of the three British delegations – two Labour Party and one cultural – that made the long and difficult journey to China in response.
The first was a delegation of Labour’s National Executive led by Clement Attlee and including Nye Bevan and Edith Summerskill. The second Labour delegation was more junior, but included Barbara Castle; a lecturer in anatomy, D.W. James; and Edward Pulleyblank, then Professor of Chinese Studies at Cambridge, as well as several trades union leaders who seemed to distinguished themselves chiefly by getting drunk. The cultural delegation was a strangely assorted group: Leonard Hawkes (a geologist), Hugh Casson (an architect), A.J. Ayer (a philospher), Rex Warner (a classicist and writer) and the artist Stanley Spencer, whose incessant chatter about Cookham drove his fellow delegates mad, only slightly redeemed by his habit of wearing his pyjamas under his trousers, the cord trailing. This unlikely crew was assisted by John Chinnery, then a young lecturer at SOAS and a long standing member of the Communist Party. (Full disclosure: I studied Chinese at Edinburgh under John Chinnery and we remained friends until his death last year. The comic aspects of the delegation in his charge would certainly not have escaped him.)
The early 1950s were a brief golden age in the Chinese revolution: the violence unleashed by land reform was over, there was peace and stability after decades of war and fear and a sense of optimism and energy in the young revolution. The next wave of violence – the Anti-Rightist Movement that would see many of the people these delegates met sent to labour camps – was three years off. The mass starvation of the early sixties that followed the Great Leap Forward was not yet in sight. People were busy building a socialist future, unaware that this short interlude of optimism would be the best that the revolution would offer until Mao’s death in 1976 brought a second liberation.
Those British intellectuals who had praised Stalin’s USSR had been judged fools or knaves back home. In Patrick Wright’s carefully researched account the visitors to China in 1954, with the exception of a sprinkling of embarrassingly unconditional Communists, acquitted themselves with reasonable credit. These delegates may have been useful, but most were not idiots, and the first Labour delegation, at least, was well briefed before departure on the revolution’s hidden horrors. While a few may have hoped that this could be a socialism that the world could applaud, they were also aware that they shouldn’t lose sight of what they were not permitted to see.
Nye Bevan argued with his Chinese hosts and complained about the wearisome repetitiveness of their terminology; the delegation correctly predicted the Sino-Soviet split, seven years before it happened; they met Mao, Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi and judged Mao impressive, but over reliant on dogma. Most gave credit where it was due, but maintained a cautious scepticism.
Passport to Peking is full of fascinating diversions from the main narrative: the extensive biography of the Anglo-Indian author C.L. Dover, for instance, is something of a gem, but more background on some of the Chinese personalities who crop up might have been useful: men like Liang Sicheng, architect, planner and son of the statesman Liang Qiqiao, who fought valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to save historic Beijing from destruction at the hands of the Party. He makes a fleeting appearance, but his story would have repaid exploration. For those who know China, Patrick Wright’s insistence on rendering names in the Wade- Giles transliteration, a system responsible for much mispronunciation and not in use in China for more than 50 years, creates a curiously archaic impression to no obvious advantage. No doubt the delegates, labouring under many Wade-Giles induced confusions, thought they had a passport to Peking, but their Chinese hosts had no doubt that they were in Beijing.
These quibbles aside, this is a fascinating recreation of a moment in British political and cultural history. The impact of China on the delegates, drawn from diaries, letters and interviews with participants is tracked and we catch a glimpse, through their eyes, of a China that has gone forever.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology