|Rewi Alley, social reformer,
educator, fireman, writer, poet, translator, great internationalist,
industrialist, revered citizen, potter, soldier, a hero and a
China. Edgar Snow, the famous American journalist: "Rewi Alley is
unique because he has achieved greatness in a country where few foreigners
ever manage to achieve an authentic ripple." The most travelled
European in the Chinese interior and its white veteran, associate of
Mao and Che Guevara. Author of 66 books, always with the aim of bringing
about a greater understanding of his second homeland and its people. The
man who introduced Gung Ho into the Western idiom.
The remarkable story of a country boy from New Zealand who came to witness and influence some of the great transformations of the Twentieth Century in a vast complex country that houses a fifth of humanity a journey that encountered oppression, civil war, Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Alleys quixotic life was a thread woven into an unlikely and rich pattern - an allegorical bridge between West and East. All this from an intensely practical person whom biographer Geoff Chapple, in defiance of the politicisation of the Alley myth, describes as "the god of digging the long drop where it could not contaminate the well water." A believer in Taoist simplicity and a self-proclaimed country-bumpkin, Alley humbly wrote to his family: "dont believe printed matter about me either good or bad. I am a very ordinary person."
Rebellion, Adventure and Death
In 1916, fuelled by ideas of rebellion and adventure, he falsified his age and enlisted in the army. He served in France where he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery and twice wounded. He describes his companions in a tent full of wounded soldiers, an Indian next to him with his buttocks blown off and a German dying on his other side with a hole in his chest, as "tortured children together in hell." Here and at the front Alley credited the experience of war for teaching him the values of comradeship. On his return from the war he took a soldiers loan to break in a back-country Taranaki farm with high-school mate Jack Stephens.
They lived in a whare and spent six years enduring "loneliness and struggle". The work was rugged and arduous toil in isolated country, and when wool prices slumped Alley was forced to leave. He returned to the family home in Christchurch and announced that he was off to China. Within a few years one brother would become an All Black and graduate with an MA, another brother would become an engineer in Nelson and his younger two sisters would be training to become a teacher and nurse respectively. After such a typically Kiwi upbringing how did Rewi get from here to become a hero of the Chinese people?
Shanghai: Checking out the Revolution
He took the opportunity to observe further the disgusting labour and living environment that common people worked in. From using No.8 wire on his farm he now witnessed eight-year old girls working sixteen hour shifts getting whipped bloody with it by their foremen, and, on a visit to Wuxi to witness the springtime plum blossoms, saw silk workers accused of being communists executed in the streets.
In 1932, Alley was appointed League of Nations representative in charge of dyke repair at Wuhan, and again experienced first hand the effects of corruption and cruel oppression. The local governor was determined to eradicate the communists from the city, including thousands of refugees fleeing the floods, "Theyre communists, " the commander told Rewi. "Get them out in two weeks or Ill turn the machine guns on them." Driven out by bayonet, Alley arranged for their passage to distant parts of the dyke. Sir John Hope Simpson, the British official in charge of Alley, credited him with saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
In Wuhan Alley adopted his second son, Mike. On a visit to an orphanage
which needed a wheat supply he was told by a commander "see that boy?
He is a Red Army kid. If you leave him here the Guomintang will take him
away and shoot him. Why not take him as a brother for your other
child." Alley agreed, but arranged for him to be safeguarded until
his return from a trip back to New Zealand with Alan. In New Zealand they
experienced oppression of a different kind, when Alan was taunted for
being a "fucking chink in first class" on a South Island train, and
refused entry into public swimming baths in Australia.
On his return to China Alley was appointed Chief Factory
Inspector of the Shanghai Municipal Council where he pushed for better health
and safety standards. But the Council was corrupt and largely impotent.
Eager for change, Alley joined a small group of western Marxist
intellectuals, including YWCA organisers and American journalists Agnes
Smedley and Edgar and Helen Snow, (Edgar Snow was originally dispatched to
China to establish that the new order in China was safe for foreign
travel). In the years 1932-37 he wrote (under aliases) for the radical
journal Voice of China and worked secretly for the Communist
underground, including having to wash bloody money obtained by Red
Army raids executed under the guise of anti-Japanese strikes.
The Japanese had dreams of an Oriental empire and began in 1937 to launch attacks against China. Alleys family was split up when his boys decided to fight with the communists against the Japanese and in Shanghai he faced the problem of dealing with hundreds of thousands of unemployed and displaced factory workers in a fierce and chaotic war-zone. With Edgar Snow, covering the Shanghai battle for the British Daily Herald, Alley surveyed the scenes of death and loss and wondered about solutions.
Both men had now lived in China for many years and knew the language and
history. They knew why industry had grown up around the international
concessions (zones) and that these concessions were clustered around the
coastal ports. Militarily this was a disaster and the Japanese had exposed
this, blockading and knocking out 80 percent of Chinas industry.
Gung Ho and Don Quixote
Their answer, whose genesis occurred in a meeting chaired by Helen spark plug Snow (as Alley called her), was to keep production going inside the blockades. Their plan was to divert production away from the coast to the inland areas and to provide jobs for fleeing refugees. This would be achieved through a series of Chinese Industrial Co-operatives. Under the slogan Gung Ho, meaning work together, a revolutionary idea was born. Alley arrived with a suitcase and a slogan in the then capital of China, Wuhan to sell the idea to the Chinese Government, and gained the support of writers W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (who were in China to write a book on the war) and also the British Ambassador. As the British still had considerable investment in China, Alley got an imperial warrant from the Chinese Government to freight factories inland and to keep them producing. Alleys theory, as always not concerned with polemics or semantics, was simple: get the people to do it themselves and build on a group consciousness. A just do it for the people, a slogan that sold action, not shoes, one that would become internationally synonymous with a particular attitude.
The setting up of the various co-ops required exhausting and dangerous travel for Alley. Needing to be wary of all factions, he secured loans and, travelling by bus, as a covert passenger past checkpoints, on the backs of trucks, by train, by boat, bike and foot, he established co-op headquarters over a vast area of China. It was a process that was often lonely and disheartening: as he watched a flea crawling up his bunk, the smell of incense drifting in the night to appease spirits before entering the rapids of the Gong river, he wrote:
History was to prove this a needless worry - in fact Alleys work perhaps proved to be too successful. Starting small, with scant resources and broken machines, the co-ops proved highly skilled appropriators and successful factories were soon producing everything from trucks, to grenades, helmets, machinery, irrigation, boilers, furnaces, blankets, cotton, cloth and boots.
The co-ops a popular chord and, crucially, provided leadership, employment and most importantly, survival for the workers involved. They were set up easily, the loans were paid back quickly and the factories worked efficiently. Their success aroused suspicion though, and in the chambers of commerce and government, rumours spread among the Guomintang that the communists had come factories were being set up without owners!
Alley a Politically Powerful Symbol
President Roosevelt enquired from time to time on the progress of the Gung Ho programme and received a report back from prominent American politician Wendall L. Willkie:
Creative Education at Shandan
The official Chinese government played on the Alley myth, using it for political ends while progressively removing actual funding. After reaching a peak in 1940/41 the anti Japanese war, and civil war between the Guomintang and Communists, eventually made Gung Ho unworkable. Undeterred, Alley used the considerable foreign funds at his disposal to set up schools to train Gung Ho cadres. In 1942, together with Oxford-educated English teacher George Hogg, they retreated to the remote Gobi desert in Chinas north-west to set up a technical school, initially in Shuangshipu and then in isolated Shandan (1944) to distance themselves as far as possible from suspicious Guomintang spies. Hogg would act as headmaster while Alley would travel around China raising funds, quelling political opposition, recruiting teachers and creating co-ops to work alongside the school. It was founded around ideas of balance: "Create and Analyse" was its motto, bringing together what Alley saw as the two sides of productive ability.
It was a method of half work and half theory and a personalised reaction to a world, as Geoff Chapple writes, "tipped crazily into war, corrupt cities, racial hatreds and individual self seeking." Strapped at school every day himself as a child, Alley felt this wasnt quite the way and, drawing on his own experiences of what worked, he fostered a loose, creative learning environment where lessons were realised in practical achievement. A major principle was the combination of education and production with well developed social, economic and pedagogical goals. Lessons linked practice, emphasising co-operative activity, promotion of economic decentralisation and self-reliance, integration with the community, and development of the individual.
Modestly Alley never applied his principles beyond the village environment, never extended them to a general theory of social organisation. For Alley it was simply a solution to a problem, like keeping a truck on the road through making a gasket out the resources he had around him: his kit bag, cellulose and glue. Chapple calls him "the god of running repairs". The school worked on the principles of starting small and sought, against enormous political pressures, to avoid what Alley called the corruption of bureaucracy.
Alley saw the simple application of energy and creativity as a way to achieve his goal for Chinas peasant youth: "to stampede darkness". The Shandan Bailie School transformed the village in which it operated and achieved an international reputation. Articles appeared in the New York Times and Christian Science Monthly, a United Nations Food and Agriculture pamphlet outlined the schools achievements, visits from foreign governments, including the British ambassador flying in on a DC-3, led to the school being viewed as a model in how to obtain a big result from a relatively small input of aid. Along with the interest it attracted in Asia it seeped into aid and education debates in the West, making a particular appeal to these working with development theory and practice. This productive pocket in the arid and poor Chinese north-west continues to be influential, especially in the developing African nations. A 1999 posting on a University of Waikato discussion board pondering the future of education in the new millennium reads:
Liberation: Elation and Despair
Besieged by the evacuating Ma Bufing militia (Guomingtang) and with trucks of explosives having arrived for the job of destroying the school, Rewi and his students warily continued their daily routine. "Of course I was not scared of being killed. I had been through all that in World War 1. But a lot of kids depended on me. If I had been shot it would have been chaotic." By good fortune they were spared the chance of demonstrating heroics when the Liberation Army cut off the supply road to the west of the school. On September 19, 1949 came the day that Rewi and George Hogg had been working towards since the schools inception. Red Army Soldiers entered the east gate of the school.
The schools reputation was high after liberation, having dismantled their trucks and buried gasoline in disused mine shafts to keep them from the Guomintang. Yet within two years Alley was to have control taken away, a victim of political decisions decreeing a different educational emphasis to that of Shandan. The Communist Party had decided to stress the development of heavy industry.
Describing the years at Shandan as "the richest and happiest years of my life", Alley was deeply saddened at the loss. As he wrote in a letter to a friend:
After the Revolution: Observation and Travel
He was a voluminous letter
writer, corresponding with
friends and associates at the BBC, the New York Times, the Far
East Report, filmmakers, writers. Although often uneasy about working
with words rather than action, Alleys main occupation during this time
was writing and observation. While previously his production efforts had
resulted in goods and capable people, now, through his speeches and
writings, the outcome was the construction of an international network to
further understanding. His first book Yo Banfa! and its sequel The
People Have Strength set a pattern that his other works were to
follow: using observation and past experience to measure the size of
Communist achievement. In Man Against Flood, Alleys account of
the 1954 floods, he is able to draw a comparison between then and his
time in Wuhan when he was in charge of the dyke repairs. The 1931 flood
killed 145,000 people, and 30,000 more died in the 1954 flood. The Yangtze
actually ran higher during the 1954 flood, but the post-Communist
Revolution Chinese were better organized. An army of workers increased the
height of the levies with over 5 million sandbags. Alley wrote that the
people worked while singing the flood chant:
As well as pioneering English translations of Chinese poetry, history and peasant stories, he spent the end of the 1950s working on a manuscript that distilled his experiences as a headmaster. Shandan an Adventure in Creative Education, published firstly in 1958, was to become enormously influential, reprinted internationally many times. Alleys ideas had a natural affinity with thinkers concerned with small, autonomous, ecological solutions to development problems, such as the economist E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered) with his emphasis on decentralism; and Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) who argued that modern technological schools made students powerless. Alleys book was republished in Sweden in 1979, and by the African Book Collective in 1989, "both for its intrinsic importance and for its relevance to the southern African region today." Alley was invited twice by the Indian Prime minister, Nehru, to come to India to begin a movement of village co-ops there, but his commitment to China remained firm and his work for the peace movement gave him the capacity to remain in China in an official role.
In 1958 Alley travelled 40000 kilometres around Chinese provinces, by truck and jeep, observing the practical progress of the Liberation, writing Chinas Hinterland in the Great Leap Forward, the only book published in English documenting the Great Leap Forward. Observing a group of transport workers shifting bricks, "stripped to the waist and wearing shorts, sandals and a wide-brimmed straw hat the Hebei peasants make" he paints a picture of a familiar scene, but notes acute changes:
Some of the writing is unashamed propaganda - the books after all were published by the Chinese Government - and Alley unabashedly recounts tales seemingly unlikely to jaded Western eyes. One man, claims Alley, rowed into the flood to rescue an out-of-control sailing junk loaded with bamboo. His last words before the Yangtze claimed his life: "This is public property! We must not lose it!" His pictures of China are a positivist account of the Communist improvement. Alley notes that there was some starvation in some areas of China; this is an extraordinary understatement if you believe other accounts that over 30 million people died during this period. He did have some doubts about policy, but these rarely appear in the books. The Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett recounts that before the Great Leap Forward Alley was apprehensive about centralisation and the state controlled organisation of productive resources:
For the most part Alley was an ardent supporter of the
revolution. Carried forward by its momentum; a regenerating China was indeed achieving
exciting and energetic advances, especially in river control, food
distribution and industry.
Return to Godzone
In 1960 NZ Alley returned to New Zealand for three-months, his first visit in 23 years, meeting the Prime Minister Walter Nash and giving accounts of the new China. He looked forward to "that excellent New Zealand institution, a cup of tea in bed, with the newspaper to glance over " , but found he was saddened by the materialism of a newly rich and affluent society, settling into quarter acre apathy, and by newspapers seemingly dedicated to the Queen. The internationalist, with an anthropological eye, made some telling observations about the land of his birth:
On this and later visits Alley was not afraid of speaking out against what he saw as American imperialism in Korea and Vietnam, a stance which saw him treated as "a kind of criminal, very suspect." New Zealand was tied by military pacts, ANZUS and SEATO to the policies of the United States, and in the midst of paranoia over the red scare, China was a dirty word. Displeasure in conservative elements of New Zealand society was offset by reunions with relatives and good friends, and by satisfaction and enjoyment in New Zealands beauty. He drew inspiration from the whakapapa of his namesake, was inspired by the Maori collective way of working, and over the course of his visits he drew pleasure from a sense that there was a growing interest in China. Alley also made original perceptive comments about New Zealands future, particularly New Zealands self-satisfied reliance on Britain and a lack of willingness to look beyond its shores and acknowledge its edge status. These observations gain even more poignancy as we enter the third millennium. In his journal Alley wrote,
In his autobiography he wrote,
As always, Alley the laid back positivist, focused on the solution
and the path to getting there: "New Zealand is asleep
good, the youth of New Zealand needs challenge, a realisable object, the
way to work together." In 1962 Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, the
Cuban revolutionaries, visited Beijing and at the invitation of Guevara,
Alley made a reciprocal visit to Cuba. In this period through until 1966,
Alleys written output remained high and he continued to translate the
old Chinese poets and ballads, as well as publishing volumes of his own
poetry. He continued his peace work, attending anti-nuclear conferences, in China, Sweden, Vietnam, Japan, and finally in Indonesia in
The Cultural Revolution: Changing Fortunes
In 1966 the Red Guards stormed into Beijing to launch the Cultural Revolution, a complex and tragic usurping of power that would last for the next ten years. An atmosphere of persecution, oppression and xenophobia returned to sully the optimism of the Liberation years. For Alley it meant a falling out of favour and he became isolated in his adopted home. Beijings New World Press which had published half of Alleys books up until then, published only one over the next ten years. Alleys honorary title of headmaster of Shandan School was revoked, his house was raided by Red Army agents, and as part of sweeping changes the anti-old campaign harshly criticised the work Alley had done translating the old Chinese poets. Museums and galleries were targeted, including Alleys priceless collection of ancient scrolls, pottery and bronze and ivory artefacts accumulated on his travels. With the ascendancy of the infamous ultra-orthodox Gang of Four China was thrown into chaos, revolutionary heroes were indicted (including Alleys son Alan), Gung Ho and Shandan were unmentionable, foreigners were ignored for fear of criticism. "You couldnt say that I was a target in any way as the thing went on. Foreigners at that time were just ignored and not wanted. I was very small potatoes, just a subsidiary on the edge." Books were pulped, but Alley was not forgotten.
The Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai remained a good friend of Rewi's, and on one occasion in 1970, at a sports stadium (Chinese size: 400 000 capacity) in Beijing, Zhou left his seat in the praesidium and came down to the lower benches where Alley was sitting by himself. To the astonishment of people all over the stadium he remained with Alley throughout the function, "Thats the kind of thing he [Zhou] would do to support people he felt were also working for the same kind of thing that he wanted."
"Ai-Lao": Honored and Revered
He vigorously continued translating, writing, corresponding, and meeting the international demands of magazines and papers. On his last visit to New Zealand, in 1972, Alley was conferred an honorary Doctorate of Literature by Victoria University in Wellington. In 1984 the first anthology of modern Chinese poetry was translated by Alley; his translation work is recognised as authoritative. The well-known American poet William Slaughter writes in e-zine Webdelsol:
In 1984 Alley was officially recognised by the New Zealand Government when he was awarded a Queens Service Order for services to the community. For the notorious Rewi Alley it represented a reconciliation between the country of his birth and his adopted homeland. In 1987 Geoff Chapple and David Harre produced a final documentary on Alley, with then Prime Minister David Lange narrating it a symbol of a final homecoming for a man who had always followed his instincts and was often uncomfortably at odds with his home countrys foreign policy. The documentary was screened in New Zealand on Dec 2 1987, Rewis 90th birthday, and a copy of the film was couriered to him. He died, aged 90, three weeks later on December 27th.
A portrait of Rewi hangs in Beijings national gallery. In 1997, to mark the centenary of his birth, the Great Hall of the People in Beijing was opened in his honour for a banquet and speeches, and a great tomb was erected in Shandan to house Alley's remains.
In New Zealand to commemorate the centenary then Prime Minister Jim Bolger announced a NZ$100 000 grant for a Rewi Alley agricultural extension unit at Gansu University. The University of Waikato has a prize for modern Chinese studies named in Alleys honour, and a plaque commemorates his life-work and achievement at his cherished old school, Christchurch Boys High. Silk threads from Alleys life continue to work interesting patterns. In 1998 Alley, an opera composed by Jack Body and written by Body and Geoff Chapple, debuted at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, for which it was commissioned. Opening to widespread acclaim: "a brilliant piece of musical theatre", it was performed by a collaboration of New Zealand and Chinese artists, a cultural meeting that Alleys life stood for. Renowned New Zealand percussion group From Scratch released an album Three Pieces From Gung Ho 1,2,3D in 1982, and American rocknroll legend Patti Smiths latest album is named Gung Ho. Working together - the connection that Alley made between a phrase with an idea, with action, has slipped powerfully into the global language.
A Bridge to Understanding
It is almost embarrassing to have to conclude, to lionise and celebrate Alleys life: like learning the stupefying simplicity of a zen lesson from a Bai Juyi poem. Some words seem superflous, you feel conscious of constructing Rewi Alley, against his example and action. His educational philosophy is as much his life theory:
The Communist Revolution was a history-changing broom that swept through China. Alleys life is framed by it, arriving 20 years before and departing nearly forty years later. He came from one of the smallest nations in the world to move and be moved by one of the largest countries in the world. Edgar Snow wrote that,
His life was a meeting of edges, powered by a belief in
harmony, action and simplicity; "trees and grass" is the slogan
of an Alley school. Alleys life is an allegory, a bridge between East
and West. But the superlatives shade a man who was primarily a "god of
small things", a fixer of problems, a passionate practical worker who found
the idea of a knighthood absurd.
Rewi was at work in Shandan in early 1945, his sleeves rolled up and covered with dust, when suddenly two middle-aged gentlemen in cutaway coats and bowler hats, MPs from England, arrived. One of them George Wood, carried the offer from the British Government of a knighthood. Chapple recounts Alleys sharp response to the title Sir Rewi Alley:
Rewi Alley: a humanist with the "Gung Ho" attitude a soul behind the slogan.
Thanks to Geoff Chapple for photo permission and for help with
compiling this story. Geoff is currently doing a Kiwi version of the Long
March for the Te Araroa
Trust . The aim of the trailblazing Te Araroa (meaning 'long pathway')
to create a continuous foot trail route from Cape Reinga to Bluff by the
end of 2000.
Books and articles:
Alley, Rewi (1986). Rewi Alley: An Autobiography, New World Press, Beijing, 1986, New Zealand Edition, 1987.
(1998). Review of Alley, The Opera, "Alley shines bright as musical theatre", Dominion, February 28.
(1998). Preview, "Composer Identifies with Alley", Dominion, February 27.
Chapple, Geoff (1997). "The God of Running Repairs", Sunday Star-Times, November 30.
Brady, Anne-Marie (1994), "Man to Myth: Rewi Alley of China", MA thesis, The University of Auckland.
For the definitive biography of
Gung Ho: Rewi Alley of China, Directed by Geoff Steven, written
by Geoff Chapple, produced by John Maynard, New Zealand Film Commission, 1980. Includes a
video of a From Scratch performance, Drum/Sing, directed and
produced by Gregor Nicholas, 1985.
Short biographical entry on Alley:
"Friends of the Chinese Revolution".
Piece from China Today to mark the 50th
of the Revolution
Alley, the Opera:
Chinese star Chen Shi-Zheng about the cultural bridges formed in Alley
Geoff Chapple on the opera (plus photos of rehersal)
Alley translation of Bai Juyi poem, "A piece of fine Liao
silk" on appreciating whats under your nose
Alley translation of a poem by Li Po (701-762), "Alone and
Drinking Under the Moon"
University of Waikato web-board discussion on the future of education
Patti Smith: Gung Ho album web-site
National Library media release about the Alley archives given to the
National Library of New Zealand by the Chinese People's Association for
Friendship with Foreign Countries:
Christchurch Boys High School records the 1999 Chinese Premiers
visit, includes pictures of the Rewi Alley memorial:
University of Waikato Scholarship in Chinese studies
Leeds University, MA in Theatre Studies: Alleys text on the Peking
Relationship with the Canadian writer George Ryga
WRITTEN BY PAUL WARD
IP HOLDINGS LIMITED 1998-2011.
Aitken | Alda | Alley
| Atack | Batten | Bowen |