Rewi Alley Postscript

Rewi Alley Postscript

Rewi Alley Postscript

Gung Ho

In November of 2002 a book on Rewi Alley, Friend of China – The Myth of Rewi Alley, by Anne-Marie Brady (Routledge Curzon, $102.95) was published. A series of reviews followed, responding to Brady’s revision of Alley’s character and the mythology surrounding his life. 

Some reviews claimed the book as substantiation for barely disguised parochial opinions of Alley’s life; other reviewers, (while some interrogated particular claims in Brady’s thesis), found it added valuable shade to a complex life lived in extraordinary circumstances; while others saw it as the definitive undercutting of the Alley myth. Heroes are not usually straightforward and often their status is contested. NZEDGE has published below a selection of the reviews to accompany the NZEDGE bio of Alley.

Friend of China – The Myth of Rewi Alley sets out  to examine how Alley became iconised in his own life-time and a symbol of wide-ranging political objectives in both his adopted and native countries. Brady stresses that her work is not a biography but a “revisionist assessment”.

One of Brady’s key research interests is the place of foreigners in China’s diplomatic relations (she is a political scientist at the University of Canterbury, speaks Chinese fluently and teaches Chinese history and politics) and Alley becomes something of an example.Friend of China probes the myth and reality of Alley’s life, employing the life partly as an analogy to explore the role of foreigners in China’s diplomatic relations and their sensitive place in China after 1949.

Central to Brady’s thesis are two assertions. Firstly, that Alley was gay – Shanghai and China providing him the freedom to explore his homosexuality with other expatriates and the Chinese in a country and time when this behaviour was not tolerated in his country of origin, New Zealand. Brady’s implication is that this was a key influence in shaping the choices Alley made and the masks he wore. Secondly, that Alley made a “Faustian choice” to remain in China post-Mao and the revolution, becoming essentially a propagandist for the Chinese government.

Many of the claims are still controversial (though not so radical, as Friend of China’s reception implies, as to have been unacknowledged by previous biographers), with some reviewers using Brady’s research to cast Alley as a pariah, while others have questioned the veracity of some of Brady’s more salient points (see Geoff Chapple’s refutation of Brady’s claim that “… it is undeniable that he had sex with his students” below).

Friend of China, represented 10 years of research for Brady, and is scholarly, yet readable, making a valuable contribution to the historigrapical debate and understanding of Alley’s life. It is indicative of the man and the fullness of a complex life lived in extraordinary times, that his myth remains territory to be contested and claimed. Brady writes in her introduction:

“In Alley’s long and eventful life, a web of often conflicting myths was constructed by Alley and others in order to present him as an iconic symbol.

“However, to say that Alley was mythologised does not take away from his actual achievements in China: in Shanghai as a factory inspector, in the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives and at the Shandan Bailie School in the 1940s, and in the 1980s, the strength of vision which saw him working to re-establish the co-operative movement and the Shandan Bailie School.

“To assess the value of his work as propagandist for the Chinese government is more difficult, and perhaps worthy of further study. Nonetheless, most myths have some basis in reality, no matter how remote, and the Rewi Alley myth is no different.”

Friend of China – The Myth of Rewi Alley can be ordered at amazon.com. Below, in the order of most recent first, are a selection of reviews and responses to Brady’s book.

  • ‘Rewi Alley outing’, Letter to editor, John F Johnson, The Listener (22 March 2003)
  • Response to Chapple, Letter to editor, Anne-Marie Brady, The Listener, (15 March 2003) 
  • They say he was gay,’ Geoff Chapple, The Listener, (01 March 2003)    
  • ‘On contradiction, or messing with Mister In-Between,’ Douglas Brown, Books in Canada, (March 2003)
  • ‘More truth than fable,’ Derek Round,Christchurch Press, (14 December 2002)
  • ‘The gay Red,’ Jack Body, The Listener, (14 December 2002)
  • ‘Rewi Alley on a sex mission, too’, Nicholas Reid, Dominion Post, (30 November 2002)
  • ‘Rewi Alley ‘not a saint’,’ Neil Birss,Christchurch Press (23 November 2002)
  • Review, Jonathan Mirsky, Asian Wall Street Journal, (13 November 2002) 
  • ‘A glimpse inside a darker Alley,’ Anthony Hubbard, Sunday Star Times, (03 November 2002)

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‘Rewi Alley outing’, Letter to editor, John F Johnson, The Listener (22 March 2003)

Dear Editor

Of the Europeans who were in Shantan in the 1940s I am one of the last still living. I support Geoff Chapple (Books, March 1). In my mind, there is practically no evidence to support Brady’s theories.

I went to China with Courtney Archer and five others in 1945 to join the Friends Ambulance Unit, a tight-knit group of pacifists who were soon scattered to all corners of China. I met Alley at the old school at Shaman, where my unit was delivering supplies. He greeted me like an old friend, as he had known my father, probably in the 1914 war. I also knew Rewi’s brother Geoff and two of his sisters through my father’s work in the WEA.

We stayed at Shantan for a few days to service our trucks, and again on our return journey from Suchow. The following year, in midwinter, I helped deliver the first trucks the school had owned.

By this time Courtney was working at Shantan and I stayed with him, sharing his kang at nights. Kangs were brick beds with flues through them. Straw was burnt and the heat passed through the kang to make it warm to the touch. In the really cold weather families would spend the whole day and night on the kang. I remember on one trip to Lanchow with Alley and a whole truckload of boys of all ages, we stopped for the night at a roadside fantien and the whole lot of us piled on to the same kang. Alley’s quarters had a kang and his family of boys shared it when they were there, as I have done. A prurient mind can easily put any sort of construction on this practice.

The school had up to a hundred boys (I can’t remember the exact number). They were nearly all “rescued” from the surrounding country, malnourished, disabled and totally illiterate. They had formal lessons in the morning and trade training in the afternoon. This included making all furniture and textiles, cooking meals, etc. The boys’ committee organised the school, which was run on spartan lines – I imagine, in the manner of the 1914-18 New Zealand Army. There were no women there.

The school occupied an old “Earth Spirits” temple, which had hundreds of life-size grotesque effigies lining the walls and some of the boys worshipped them. They also paid obeisance to George Hogg’s grave in the school compound.

Alley would not let any missionaries near them to evangelise. This upset other Europeans, most of whom were fundamentalist in their belief and whose mission in life was to save souls. They had no interest in practical socialism. It would be quite easy to spread rumours of homosexual practices. Male-only Catholic missions also suffered from this treatment. Alley could have gained vast financial support, especially from North America, if he had allowed evangelism.

I would be surprised if Courtney Archer was an avowed homosexual at that time. In a tight-knit community such as our ambulance unit, there is little that is not known about members’ social proclivities.

Alley was an aggressive battler who believed the end justified the means. I have been told that this type of personality doesn’t fit that of a paedophile.
John F Johnson
(Mt Pleasant, Christchurch)

Response to Chapple, Letter to editor, Anne-Marie Brady, The Listener, (15 March 2003)

Dear Editor,

Geoff Chapple’s three-page attack on my book Friend of China – The Myth of Rewi Alley, (Listener March 1-7 2003) was a bizarre example of what I describe in the book. Chapple’s main objection to the book is the “outing” of Alley as a gay man, as someone who was attracted to young Chinese men, including some of those at the school he ran in China in the 1940s at Shandan. Why should the news that a public figure such as Alley was gay cause such a stir in this day and age? The answer is that, as I argue in the book, from the 1930s and up to the present era, the life and works of Rewi Alley have been mythologised to fit a series of stereotypes: hero, villain and fool. In the New Zealand context (publicly at least) Alley is a national hero, a symbol of New Zealand manhood abroad, combining number 8 wire knowhow with warm humanitarian ideals. As Chapple’s article aptly illustrates, this model of New Zealand masculinity is implicitly heterosexual: hence no New Zealand he

When I began my research on Alley I was initially reluctant to focus on his sexuality as I felt it was irrelevant to the concerns of my area of specialisation, political science. As I conducted my research however I came to believe that Alley’s sexuality was a key to understanding how he managed the contradictions between his public and private persona in various periods throughout his life. Contrary to Chapple’s claims, I provide ample evidence in the book from interviews I conducted over a period of ten years that attest that Alley was in fact gay. These include interviews with those who knew him both in the 1940s in Shandan and in the years after the communist takeover in 1949. Although two of these sources are now dead it does not make them unreliable. What I find curious is that Chapple, who interviewed Alley many times in preparation for his own book and film on Alley’s life in China, and who admits he knew the rumours that Alley was gay, never dared to ask him himself about their truth.

‘They say he was gay,’ Geoff Chapple, The Listener, (01March 2003)

Intro: A new biography has outed Rewi Alley – and reviewers have excitedly gone along with the claim, despite a serious lack of evidence.

It started last November. The Sunday Star-Times interviewed Anne-Marie Brady, whose book Friend of China – The Myth of Rewi Alley was just then published. Brady had a book to sell, an outing to perform, scandalous detail to impart, and Anthony Hubbard did an obliging interview.

“As a soldier fighting in France during World War I,” wrote Hubbard of Alley’s alleged “first significant sexual experience” while on R & R from the trenches at age 21, “Alley and a gay friend had an encounter with two men from the Chinese Labour Corps.”

Ah – a gay friend. I’d read Alley’s account of this long-ago meeting – the only account. He and his mate were on brief furlough behind the Somme front lines when they met the Chinese. The four men drank wine, ate crusty French bread, and quarrelled about who should have the privilege of paying the bill. Alley’s account made no mention of sex. He made no mention that his friend was gay. So how do we know this? Answer – we don’t. We made it up, because it suits a larger theory, and we have set the scene to pronounce further on why Alley went to China when his postwar farming venture in back-country Taranaki failed. “Sex, in fact,” wrote Hubbard, “was part of the reason the 30-year-old left New Zealand for China.”

This led through to the still-more controversial Brady claim that, 30 years on from his alleged enjoyment of Chinese takeaways with his French bread. Alley was having sex with his Chinese students at his Shandan School in northwest China.

No book reviewer subsequently challenged Brady’s assertions on Alley’s homosexual practice. Nicholas Reid, writing for the Dominion Post under a heading “Rewi Alley on a Sex Mission, too”, simply took it as datum, and admonished Brady for not condemning more roundly Alley’s dalliance with young Chinese men. The sex claims became the springboard of a litany of distaste. Reid went on to accuse Alley more or less of cowardice for not protesting or intervening when his adopted sons were beaten up and imprisoned in the Cultural Revolution, claimed that almost everything New Zealanders had written about Alley was “hagiographic drivel”, that the Chinese leadership did not respect him, and so on. His claims extended far beyond anything in the book. Reid’s review was a classic case of a reviewer standing astride someone else’s book and proclaiming his own prejudice.

Jonathan Mirsky, in the Asian Wall Street Journal, took the same hostile approach, beginning his review: “China produces a lot of sad stories, and this must be one of the saddest…” Thus, again, one of the great New Zealand stories is apparently struck down, but again we should ask whether the reviewer is not simply exercising his prejudice, and whether he can be trusted.

Derek Round reviewed the book more fairly in the Press, but then, as an ex-bureau chief of Reuters in Hong Kong, he knew more about the actual circumstances of the Alley story. He praised much of the book, though he dismissed Brady’s claim to have exploded any Rewi Alley myth, and commented, discreetly, that she made too much of Alley’s sex life. Jack Body’s Listener review criticised Brady’s cavalier dismissal of Body’s 1998 opera Alley, when she apparently hadn’t seen it. Brady’s determination that everyone parroted the Rewi Alley “myth” had caused her to miss the fact that the opera was structured, exactly as the book is, on the so-called “Faustian choice” of 1952 when Alley decided to stay on in China and accept the role of writing acceptable propaganda for the revolutionary government. But Body, too, found much of the book exciting – an almost racy read.

No one, as it turned out, directly addressed the most sensational claim in the book – Alley’s alleged homosexual transgressions with his students. This is perhaps strange, because it is here that Brady most obviously departs from the academic rigour evident elsewhere in the book. Alley’s active homosexuality at his famous school is presented as fact, but is predicated mainly on the theory of one man.

From the start, Brady is determined to out Alley – not any kind of slur these days, one should add – but an ethical problem exists here. Should one unequivocally out someone such as Alley, who never declared his sexuality? Brady, like any writer, wants to pattern her story and it is an obvious structural strength for her to link the dissemblance required by a gay in last century’s New Zealand, and post-revolutionary China, to the other masks Alley adopted to survive in China. To me, this is insufficient reason to break the ethical caveat, but this is her book.

Even so, she has a problem. For if Alley was dead by the time Brady got started, and if he did not describe sexual encounters in letters, and did not directly discuss sexual encounters with anyone to whom Brady had access, how can she know?

From the 1930s period her technique is this. She combs the literature for examples of the “sexual tourism” indulged by Christopher Isherwood, W H Auden, Noel Coward and others who visited Shanghai in the 1930s, who were delighted by, and wrote about, the open attitude to gay sex in this cross-roads city of East and West – youths available to soap you and perform whatever favours in the bathhouses, and by offer in the street.

She then writes that in the liberal climate of Shanghai, Alley “was able to explore his sexuality for the first time”. Well, as with that alleged sexual encounter in World War I, maybe, maybe not. The correct language here has to be conditional: “Alley would have been able to explore…” There is no evidence that he did, aside from two photos, published in the book, that are mildly homoerotic. Brady’s categories proliferate as she tries to nail Alley on this one. Homoerotic, homosexual, even – a new one for my vocab at least – “homosocial”. But however many categories, you can’t get beyond the fact that no one knows. Alley at this time was still an Anglican, imbued with ideas of social reform, seeking out missionaries in Shanghai, exploring the surrounding countryside and pitching in with famine relief. You wouldn’t exactly call him a sybarite.

Then come the 1940s, and Alley’s Bailie School in Shandan, a school that taught almost exclusively peasant youth. Here the subject is further ramped, and Brady makes her claim: “But it is undeniable that Rewi Alley had sexual relations with his [male] students…”

The main evidence for this comes from Courtney Archer, a respected flour mill owner in Rangiora who died in 2002, himself a homosexual, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s the Shandan Bailie School’s accountant. In the course of doing my own book on Alley in 1980, I talked extensively with Archer, was familiar with his claim that Alley was gay and that he slept with the students, but never came away with any evidence that Alley had sexual relations with them, other than Archer’s belief that he did. Archer’s claim, I thought, was in no way malicious, but personally I tended to discount it. The homosexual world may be offended by this, but gays put their own spin on the world – some at least portray the whole heterosexual world, its apparent dizzy attractions between men and women, as a kind of hoax, because, one assumes, that’s how it feels to them. Some at least, eager to validate and expand the homosexual tribe, will lay claim to anyone who is unusual, who is unmarried, for example, at an age when others might expect them to be. If they’re also famous, so much the better – as I recall, Prince Charles was under claim for a time.

Archer and Alley were colleagues, but not sufficiently close to be confidants. Archer was something of a scholar, somewhat in awe of Alley’s charisma, and the biographer’s question must be: did he simply want, in later years, to induct Alley, and to have him behave as he himself had behaved? This behaviour is not something I’d normally bring into the public domain, but since all the claims on Alley’s active homosexuality, including that long-ago alleged tryst with the men from the Chinese Labour Corps, are predicated on Archer’s theories, I think any judgment of Brady’s book demands an assessment of Archer’s behaviour at the school.

The former head boy at the old Shandan school, Ni Cai Wang, was later appointed headmaster to the proposed new Shandan school. In 1986-87 that school was under construction, and Ni shared a small hut alongside the building site with a New Zealand teacher, Tom Newnham. They spent a severe Shandan winter there, and one night, under no kind of duress and apropos of nothing to do with any scandal, Ni made the casual comment to Newnham that, back in the late 1940s, he and some of the senior boys at Shandan had surprised Courtenay in flagrante delicto with one of the younger students. They beat him up, and told him if there was any more of it, they’d report him to Alley. It was just a passing comment, but it doesn’t square with the kind of school culture Brady or Archer paints.

The only other seemingly reliable Shandan witness quoted in the text is Dr Bob Spencer, a medic at the old Shandan school clinic, who, in a 1994 telephone interview with Brady, told her: “We were vaguely aware of Rewi Alley’s proclivities and sexual activities. It didn’t appear to be affecting the boys in any way.”

What does this mean? What did he know? What was he told and by whom? Was it Archer, in which case these independent witnesses are one and the same? A biographer who wants to pursue the homosexual topic should have asked Spencer these questions. Without that kind of clarification, the Spencer statement remains suggestive but ambiguous. In preparing this article, I tried to trace Spencer to sort it out, but he, too, is now dead. As a journalist and author myself, I think Brady fails, not in raising the topic, but in stating more than she has evidence for. She makes her unequivocal claim: “But it is undeniable that Alley had sex with his students…” and then softens it on cultural grounds “… and while this is anathema to contemporary Western mores as an abuse of the fiduciary relationship, in the social climate of China in those times it was not at all unusual”.

But whether softened by that cultural context or not, that “undeniable” cannot be correct, for, quite simply, it is deniable. Brady presents the case for, but seems reluctant to give any weight to the case against. True, the Chinese attitude to same-sex activity up to 1949 was relaxed, but the new Communist government was prudish, and – as Brady notes – made homosexuality a punishable crime. At the time of liberation Alley came under severe attack at the school by Communist cadres. It was a power struggle that he initially won, against charges that Shandan’s teachers were US spies, that the school’s modus operandi was akin to missionary paternalism, that a Chinese and not a foreigner should be headmaster, etc. In that atmosphere, one might have expected that any charge that could be made against Alley would be made, but no sexual allegations surfaced. Two years later, during the China-wide Sanfan movement that attacked corruption, Alley stood accused again – of being an agent of Western powers, an authoritarian, a spy and anti-revolutionary. Again, Brady has found no mention of what would by then have been damaging charges of moral turpitude.

These absences might force a more careful academic to state the case more cautiously, but Brady’s response is: “Curiously … he was never criticised for his homosexual affairs.”

She convicts on dubious evidence, and dismisses evidence that does not suit her case. It is a star chamber method, and, good as the book is for much of its length, this section is simply polemic. Not even Brady can deny the fact that the so-called hagiographers did not, in essence, deceive. Alley had, as she notes, a “charismatic presence that appealed to both sexes”. And she writes in the introduction: “To say that Alley was mythologised does not take away from his actual achievements in China: in Shanghai as a factory inspector, in the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives and at the Shandan Bailie School in the 1940s, and in the 1980s, the strength of vision that saw him working to re-establish the co-operative movement and the Shandan Bailie School.” A less blinkered analyst might even admit that the reason so many people saw fit to mythologise him was itself a sign of greatness.

 

‘On contradiction, or messing with Mister In-Between,’ Douglas Brown, Books in Canada, (March 2003)

I experienced a small epiphany-I won’t say revolution-in historical understanding 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.” 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. His 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’d 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 hand…up 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.

 

‘More truth than fable,’ by Derek Round, Christchurch Press, 14 December 2002

No-one, not even someone with Alley’s status and reputation, was really safe. University of Canterbury political scientist Dr Anne- Marie Brady set out to re- examine what we know and understand about one of the most famous, or indeed infamous, foreigners in modern China — Rewi Alley.

Rather than a biography, this is a revisionist history, she says. The publisher’s blurb describes it as a radical and controversial analysis of Alley’s life and work.

Born in Springfield, educated at Christchurch Boys’ High School, wounded in World War 1, and a Taranaki back-block farmer before arriving in Shanghai in 1927, Alley has for a long time been a controversial figure. To many New Zealanders, and Chinese, he was a hero for his work in setting up the Gung Ho (work together) industrial co- operative movement. Others saw him as an unashamed apologist and propagandist for the Chinese communists. Some called him a traitor.

Alley was one of a group of foreigners living in China once described as The Hundred Percentors. Appalled at the widespread poverty, corruption. and exploitation they found in China in the 1920s and `30s, they were seen as supporting 100 per cent the revolutionary cause of the Chinese communists. Alley was probably the best known of them. Others included American writers Anna Louise Strong (who in later years was to share a house with Alley in the grounds of the old Italian legation in Beijing), Agnes Smedley, and Edgar Snow, and Canadian Dr Norman Bethune. The stocky New Zealander has been described as the most widely travelled foreigner inside China, and the most knowledgeable.

Brady’s analysis of Alley’s life and work is, as the title indicates, focused on the myth of Rewi Alley.

But, to this reviewer, who covered China as a foreign correspondent in the turbulent 1960s and `70s and talked with Alley several times in his Beijing home, it is questionable whether myth is the right word to use.

There has been some nonsense written and talked about Alley by some of his more uncritical admirers — and by his detractors. Some of it was patently exaggerated and untrue. But most of what has been written about him over the years is factual and true — if not always the full story. Hardly mythical.

A myth, according to the dictionary, is a popular idea, an imaginary person, a widely held but false notion. Alley and his story were none of these. He was a very real and human person, as Brady shows.

Brady speaks Chinese fluently and lectures in Chinese politics. Her book is the result of 10 years of research, and she has produced a valuable and very readable (at $102.95 it would need to be) account and analysis of Alley’s 60 years in China.

Some readers may think undue emphasis appears to have been given to Alley’s sexuality. He wasn’t a womaniser and he wasn’t a pederast, Brady says. He was apparently homosexual (the possibility he was bisexual is not discussed) and was comfortable living in China at a time — before 1949 — when homosexual acts there were accepted, while being a criminal offence in his own country.

Brady acknowledges that Alley was a very private person, and some readers will question whether his sex life, surely a comparatively minor aspect of his life and work, warrants the attention and research the author has devoted to it, especially as she correctly dismisses any suggestion he was blackmailed into writing favourably and uncritically about communist China.

“The function of a man like myself, a foreigner in China, is to try to make clear what the Chinese people are trying to do,” Alley, author of more that 30 books about China, told an interviewer in Beijing in 1976.

Even with the respected and official status of a friend of China, Alley, like diplomats and correspondents, found it difficult to know what was really going on under secretive communist rule and to work out the twists and intrigues in the Chinese leadership. Privately, he once described Mao as a prick — surely the words of an honest New Zealander.

Alley’s adopted Chinese sons and their families had a rough time during the Cultural Revolution, and he saw some of the foreign friends thrown into prison. Alley sensibly kept his head down and bit his lip — even though he probably found this painful to have to do. No- one, not even someone with Alley’s status and reputation, was really safe.

Brady’s analysis is on the whole a very fair one and a useful account of Alley’s role in Sino-New Zealand relations. And she makes it clear there should never have been any myth about him — even if this was not her intention.

Derek Round was Reuters bureau chief in Hong Kong, and is a former editor of the New Zealand Press Association.

 

‘The Gay Red,’ by Jack Body, The Listener, (14 December 2002)

I FIND MY OWN NAME IN THESE PAGES.

“In 1998 Jack Body and Geoff Chapple wrote the opera Alley, which was performed at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in Wellington [along with Stuart Hoar’s Yo Banfa]. Both productions were disappointing to many in the audience, not least because they maintained the myth of Alley rather than attempting to get beyond it.”

It’s a shame that Anne-Marie Brady did not get to see the opera for herself, rather than relying on second-hand opinion. The motivation behind the opera was to do this very thing, to strip away the myth and to explore the drama and paradoxes of Alley’s remarkable life. I find her misrepresentation of our opera disturbing, and I suspect other readers will find equal cause to protest other aspects of this book.

But provocation is clearly its intention. Alley’s life is widely known from the several authorised biographies, including a (ghostwritten) autobiography. These, together with his own published poetry and prose, tend to leave us with an impression of a two-dimensional personality, about whom the only news is good news. In 1997, when I was working on my opera, the then artistic director of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, having done some background reading, referred to Alley disparagingly as a “do-gooder Scoutmaster”.

However, the eyes that stare out at us from the blue monochrome cover of Brady’s book are more those of an apparatchik than a scoutmaster; the masklike face over a formal, buttoned-up collar gives nothing away. This is certainly not the conventional view of the great humanitarian, the Kiwi adventurer, the man of action, the lover of life, the good friend of the Chinese masses. But the book, as clinically academic as it may appear from the cover, is a compelling, almost racy, read. And it is a book that needed to be written.

Although some will doubtless interpret the book as character assassination, I believe that it provides us with the opportunity to understand better the man, a real human being, fallible, flawed, vulnerable. The 60 years through which he lived in China, the huge social and political convulsions that he observed and was a participant in, are beyond the imagining of most of us. It is a story with an epic sweep.

It’s easy, in hindsight, to expose and deride the compromises of Alley’s later years as an apologist for the Communist government as a betrayal of his earlier humanistic idealism, but, if viewed within the ever-shifting social and political landscape of post-1949 China, the issues become far more complex. This book provides insights into the forces at work, the pressures being brought to bear, the turning point being “the Faustian choice” described in chapter six, when Alley chooses to remain in China after the Communist victory.

The following chapter, “Friend of China”, is by far the longest in the book. Here, a new kind of drama unfolds. Who can know the details of Alley’s inner life through this period, his uncertainties, his fears? Deprived of the kind of social engagement that he had previously relished, Alley’s life superficially appeared to become one of comfort and privilege, but, as this book reveals, the dangers became increasingly acute. As the Cultural Revolution was unleashed, everyone from the highest to the lowest was vulnerable. Foreign friends were in no way immune from arrest and imprisonment or deportation. In 1968, Alley instructed Pip, his brother in New Zealand, to burn all his letters to his family, fearful that they might contain comments that could compromise and endanger him.

Undoubtedly, the most controversial issue that this book raises is Alley’s homosexuality. Brady argues, persuasively I believe, that this fact, which was hidden from public view for much of Alley’s life, is an important key to an understanding of his personality and the choices he made. The wearing of a mask, the strategy that many gay men are forced to adopt, makes dissemblance into an art. Alley’s inner world, the world he grew increasingly wary of sharing either in conversation or in letters, can only be imagined.

This book lays the ground for enabling us to begin to penetrate this world. Although some of Brady’s commentary occasionally strikes me as a little too strident and lacking in empathy for her subject, in dismantling the image of Alley as an impossible hero, she has opened up the path for a clearer and more balanced understanding of one of the most colourful and remarkable lives ever lived by a New Zealander.

 

‘Rewi Alley on a sex mission, too,’ Nicholas Reid, Dominion Post, (30 November 2002)

REWI ALLEY was partly attracted to China by sex. He was homosexual. New Zealand in the 1920s was not very accepting of his orientation. The male bath-houses of Shanghai seemed a better bet. He did have some genuine and very admirable humanitarian concerns, but in both his Gung Ho movement and the school he helped to run, young Chinese men were a great part of the attraction.

Anne-Marie Brady is at pains to stress that Alley was not a paedophile. His many Chinese sexual partners were all older teenagers or in their early 20s. Still, there may be an element of unnecessary politeness in Brady’s approach.

Would she have described Alley’s sexual activities so courteously if he had been, say, a heterosexual bedding young Chinese women? Or a missionary misusing access to orphaned teenagers? For the reality is that Alley was a privileged Westerner who had power over his young men. He “adopted” two, but later did not protest or intervene in any way when they were beaten up and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.

Brady, lecturer in political science at Canterbury, has not written a biography of Alley, but a detailed, scrupulously researched and very fair-minded examination of Alley’s reputation.

A eulogistic journalist once claimed that Alley displayed an admirable Kiwi “lack of bullshit”. The direct opposite appears to have been the case. Bullshit was Alley’s life-blood. In the 1930s, his Gung Ho (Chinese industrial cooperative) rapidly became as corrupt and inefficient as the factories it was supposed to supplant. The experimental school in the 1940s ended up being run on traditional authoritarian lines. In other words, his two main humanitarian ventures were failures. And yet they were the only substance to his later inflated reputation as a humanitarian.

Once the Communists took power in 1949, Alley stayed in China by conforming to their new Puritanism, suppressing his sexuality, and grinding out propaganda for them. As honest reportage of China, everything he wrote is worthless. Brady says he displayed “the natural human desire for security and safety” under a totalitarian regime. That is to say, he behaved just like most occupied Europeans under the Nazis. Privately he grumbled and he once referred to Mao as a “prick”. Publicly, for 40 years, he slavishly followed the party line. He supported the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution when they were in progress, denounced them when the leadership denounced them, lived comfortably while millions died during the 1950s famines, accepted Deng’s new state monopoly capitalism, and opposed the democracy movement in the 1980s.

Did the Chinese leadership respect him? Of course not. His myth was simply a propaganda tool to influence one small insignificant country on the periphery of the Western alliance.

Before this book, almost everything that New Zealanders (journalists, politicians, academics) had written about Alley was hagiographic drivel. Negative rumours about Alley were airily dismissed as Cold War, or “McCarthyist”, rhetoric. But the negative rumours were essentially true. Notoriously, writers of hagiographic drivel are fairly shameless people. Still, it would be nice to think that Brady’s temperate, reasonable and well-documented book does provoke at least some red faces.

‘Rewi Alley ‘not a saint’,’ Neil Birss, Christchurch Press (23 November 2002)

Our adulation of Rewi Alley could haunt New Zealand when the Chinese shake off the vestiges of communism and reassess the terror it brought.

In the 1930s and 1940s Alley was to the world a secular version of Mother Teresa.

Churches collected money for Alley’s work in China in the 1930s. New Zealand children sent savings to him. Corso, when it was still the major aid organisation in the country, supported Alley’s industrial cooperative movement and his Shandan Bailie School.

A monument at Springfield commemorates his work in China, which led to Christchurch’s sister city relationship with the province of Gansu. This is where Alley did much work before the communist takeover. His old school in Christchurch remembers him proudly.

Among the few New Zealand sceptics was Sir Robert Muldoon, who refused to be photographed with him.

While Alley may have done good work, he whitewashed the abhorrent.

Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Leap Forward killed 20 million to 43 million people from 1959 to 1961. No-one know the true number. It was the bloodiest bungle in history, and the worst famine. Far from the Western-liberal myth of the Red Emperor at least feeding the Chinese people, Mao caused such starvation that some peasants resorted to cannibalism.

Yet here’s what Alley wrote of the Leap: “Out of this struggle have come the strides into the future, the seething up of the people’s communes with their spate of inventions and scientific discoveries, the feeling that the new way works, that it gives the people the power to do anything they want to. They can make the rivers flow over the mountain ranges, raise the agricultural and industrial production to heights scarcely believable – more than doubling steel production in one year.”

Asian-affairs journalist Jonathan Mirsky in the New York Review of Books more than a decade ago suggested that the “deeply compromised” Alley misled American writer Edgar Snow into believing there was no famine in China.

Alley’s defence of Mao’s madness makes George Bernard Shaw’s defence of Stalinist Russia look trivial.

University of Canterbury political science lecturer Anne-Marie Brady in a new book questions Alley’s reputation. The University of Auckland turned it down as too controversial. So the book comes to us from London.

“He was a human, not a saint,” said Dr Brady of Alley, known among sceptics of the day in China as Screwy Roo-ie, partly because of his outlandish Kiwi shorts and socks. “Because of his public role, any other imperfect aspects of his life were air-brushed out. First by Edgar Snow, then by Roo-ie himself.”

The Mother Teresa-type myth had a dark side: allegations that Alley was a paedophile. Dr Brady does not support this view, but believes the rabid homophobic attitudes of New Zealand in those days helped to keep Alley, who was gay, in China.

She’s right. The concern is about his whitewashing a horrendous crime against humanity.

Dr Brady, who has lived in China, believes Alley had no alternative but to be an apologist for Mao. “If he had criticised him he would have gone to jail, and his adopted children would have been in terrible trouble.”

The Communists exploited this Leftist but surprisingly non-ideological fellow traveller. They used his persona for their own purposes.

“Rewi Alley made himself useful,” Dr Brady said, adding, however, that she believes he tried through his life generally to do good.

Alley published some books at Christchurch’s Caxton Press, paying partly with funds raised in New Zealand for his good works.

Dr Brady, whose book on Alley will be reviewed in The Press, has another book on China coming out, this time about how the People’s Republic manages foreigners.

This is relevant to New Zealand Leftists’ claims of a special New Zealand-China tie. China has managed New Zealand well. Generations of our politicians have swallowed the line that China and New Zealand have a special relationship.

Dr Brady’s take on this: “That’s what China says to all countries: it’s a form of politeness and also a form of diplomacy.”

Dr Brady’s book on Alley, Friend of China, the Myth of Rewi Alley, will be available through Macmillan publishers.

Right on hopes Christchurch City Libraries, which has a stack of Rewi Alley material, including some for children, buys sufficient copies of Dr Brady’s Allen book. It’s a big purchase for an individual at $102.95. Canterbury people need copies in the libraries so they can make up their own minds about Alley.

 

Review, Jonathan Mirsky, Asian Wall Street Journal (13 November 2002) 

China produces a lot of sad stories and this must be one of the saddest and most revealing. Rewi Alley lived in China for 60 years – 1927 to1987 – and his life consisted of two great lies: he was a homosexual who could never admit it after the Communist victory; and he closely watched every somersault in Chinese government policy, saying whatever necessary to remain in the seedy luxury the Communists reserved for their tame “foreign experts.”

Marie-Louise Brady, a New Zealand political scientist, has combed through this depressing life, revealing much about Alley, the most famous foreign resident of the People’s Republic from its beginning until his death. She explores how China manipulates its “foreign friends,” and shows how Alley became, for many deluded New Zealanders, the model good-egg no-nonsense man of the soil.

She admirably controls her sources, both Chinese and English, and this must be the last word on the Alley myth – which Ms Brady demolishes. It was a useful myth for New Zealand, whose diplomats wrote home cynical dispatches making plain that while Alley was at best a questionable character he was the country’s only asset in China. Inside China, he was, to use Jacques Marcuse’s phrase, quoted by Ms Brady, “eminently useable rather than eminently useful.” [173]

Before the Communist triumph Alley had been genuinely useful. He served in the Shanghai fire brigade which gave him a good look at the dire conditions in which most people lived. But even in a low-prestige (among Westerners ) occupation like fire-fighting he enjoyed the elite status of a white foreigner, turning up at fires in silk shirts. This was one of the first aspects of his long life in China which he took care to minimize in his memoirs and biographies after 1949. But wha really attracted Alley to China, as it did Auden, Isherwood, Coward and many others, was the free and easy homosexual life which one could lead without shame or fear as long as one was discreet. As one Western professor at Tsinghua University said “You can take anyone to bed. Just don’t talk about it.” When Alley became the headmaster of the famous Bailie school in west China in 1945 he slept with the boys; the school’s reputation was such that other homosexuals came to teach there. This would become a possibly capital offence in China after 1949 and would get a teacher a stiff jail sentence in the US or Britain today.

When I first read through Ms Brady’s book I felt she made too much of Alley’s homosexuality, but when I read it again I became convinced she was right. Alley was raised by a homophobic father in a country where homosexuality was a crime. He never told anyone in New Zealand the truth about himself, revealed it only to a few fellow gays in China, and created a personna for himself as a devilishly attractive heterosexual bachelor who gave up women to help the Chinese. “Alley had learned from an early age,” Ms Brady writes, ” to play out a role in order to disguise his sexual orientation. Alley’s homosexual role-playing served him in good stead for all the other roles he adopted at various times throughout his life.” [ 170]

Alley’s biggest service for China was as the Field Secretary for the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, INDUSCO, set up in the late Thirties to produce Chinese-made goods for the Nationalist and Communist armies which were briefly allied. The enterprise received most of its money from foreign well-wishers ; the workers were Chinese refugees from the Japanese-occupied areas. Alley organised over 1700 manufacturing groups with 26,000 workers in 18 provinces. For two years, abandoning his comfortable Shanghai life, and often in bad health, he travelled 18,000 miles setting up and inspecting the co-ops. Ms Brady makes a good point when she says that Alley had joined that great army of Westerners who for a century devoted themselves to China, a role later to be condemned by the Chinese Communists as “bourgeois humanitarianism.” Made famous by Edgar Snow, who was largely responsible for the image of the selfless Alley, INDUSCO attracted millions of dollars from abroad. As Brady further notes there were already co-ops in China, but Snow had distorted Alley literally into another Lawrence of Arabia. In a tragedy for him, in 1942 he was fired from INDUSCO, accused by the Nationalists of producing materials for the Communists. Three years later he turned his attention to the Bailie School, providing technical training to refugee children. The boys were encouraged to wear as few clothes as possible. One of Alley’s friends recalled that “nobody thought anything of Rewi sleeping with the boys. It just happened. Very innocent… Rewi used to joke that all the pretty boys of the school were spoken for.” [ 44 ] In 1949 he called a meeting of the gay Western staff “and told them to be more circumspect because the Red army was very puritanical about sex.” [ 49 ]. After 1949, when it was no longer suitable for a foreigner to run a Chinese school, Alley made a what Ms Brady calls a Faustian choice. Like many other “foreign friends” and “foreign experts,” he was ill-suited to his own country, in his case because of his sexuality. Like most of those foreign friends, too, he led a comfortable life, and probably a celibate one, acquiring a collection of antiques and eating
too much. He was aware that this comfort would continue so just as long as he performed as cheerleader, flack, and deceiver for the Communist regime.

Until his death in 1987, therefore, what Alley did was pump out propaganda. In 1967 with China wracked by the Cultural Revolution and tens of thousands being killed, Alley wrote to his biographer: “Struggle there is in plenty, but Chairman Mao is good, and the people are good, and it will all work out.” [ 111 ] He admitted to a few close friends he was often bored and unhappy. But in thousands of letters to friends and relatives abroad, to visiting foreigners in China, and in now-unreadable books and poems, Alley twisted and scrambled through every vagary of political life, condemning and praising Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and Hu Yaobang, to name just three, depending on whether they were in or out of favour. He saw his “foreign expert” friends fall victim in various campaigns, and his Chinese friends be killed or kill themselves; for some years he under virtual house arrest. His adopted sons condemned him to save themselves and later asked him for help going abroad, which he refused. It proved dangerous to have a family, much less friends. As soon as the turmoil ended Alley, keen to embrace the newest line, instructed one of his friends in New Zealand that “it is important to take a firm positive stand and the older concepts must bow before the newer ones. ” [ 105 ].

Ms Brady is wholly right to call Alley “more than anything a survivor; the kind of person who would do whatever he had to do to get through the most difficult of times.” [ 171 ] As Gladys Taylor Yang, a long-time British resident of China imprisoned for several years during the Cultural Revolution, remarked: “Rewi behaved very wisely during this time .[ he] did not always stand on principle. You could not survive if you did.” [ 112 ] He was never “smashed” by the regime and during the great famine of 1959-1961, when millions were dying of hunger and he was denying this to Edgar Snow – who spread that lie abroad – Alley gained weight. “How does one get one’s weight down?” he wrote to his brother in 1961. ” I am 200 and should be 170. Only one way, I suppose. That strong push away from the table.” [ 105 ] Ms Brady has written a very important ( and wildly over-priced) book about a big subject: how the Chinese Communists over many years used resident foreigners to create a false picture of China. And Rewi Alley’s lies survived his death. Six years later, in 1993, Ms Brady was about to give a paper on Alley to a scholarly audience in New Zealand. Because of a single sentence on Alley’s sexuality in the advance copy,some of his devotees, unable to face the truth about their hero, urged the organizers to withdraw the paper because it was “not in the national interest.” Fortunately a senior government official reminded these zealots “This is New Zealand, not China.”

 

‘A glimpse inside a darker Alley,’ Anthony Hubbard, Sunday Star Times, (03 November 2002)

Rewi Alley devoted his life to China, and for decades many New Zealanders thought of him as an expatriate saint. A new book reveals the fallible man behind the myth. Anthony Hubbard reports.

REWI ALLEY became a hero in China and in his native land. New Zealanders honoured him as a sort of male Mother Teresa: the Kiwi who spent 60 years in China fighting for the poor.

Chinese leaders lauded him as a special “friend of China”. He was pictured shaking hands with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping. He became perhaps the most famous foreigner living in that country. In old age he was a legendary figure, an ancient eagle. Visitors to his apartment in Beijing found a hook-nosed sage surrounded by masterpieces of Chinese art. He had witnessed epic events and their aura still clung to him. Alley had a gravely charisma.

Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist from Canterbury University, seeks to demythologise the hero. Her new book – Friend of China – The Myth of Rewi Alley shows a flawed and complex creature, a human being rather than a colossus.

Her aim, she says, is not to destroy his reputation, but to see him in the round. “The problem is,” she says, “that the stuff that’s been written about him was so hagiographical”. In China, 15 years after his death, adulatory Alley documentaries are still made. The two biographies published in New Zealand, she says, were censored by him. And his autobiography was “carefully processed”. Alley was actively involved in the myth-making.

Brady points out there has always been a counter-mythology, though not so widely published. Alley’s enemies portrayed him as “a womaniser who keeps a woman in every Chinese city he visits” or as “a pederast who stayed on to write propaganda in communist China after 1949 because he was supplied with young boys by the Chinese government”.

Others said he was blackmailed into writing for the Chinese government because of this sexual preference. In fact, Alley was gay, a fact he never publicly admitted, but Brady says he was no child molester.

While Alley was idolised in China and New Zealand, Brady discovered many sinologists were harshly critical of him. To them, he was an uncritical propagandist for the Chinese communists, prepared to lie about dreadful events and alter his story to suit the latest change in the party line.

Brady finds a link between Alley’s sexuality and his later role as a political propagandist and mythmaker. “As a gay man living in an era when homosexuality was a punishable offence [in New Zealand], Alley was forced from an early age to play out a role in order to disguise his sexual orientation. His ability to play-act and suppress his natural inclinations would stand him in good stead.”

Sex, in fact, was part of the reason the 30-year-old left New Zealand for China. As a soldier fighting in France during World War I, Alley and a gay friend had an encounter with two men from the Chinese Labour corps. “It was the first time that I had any inkling of what China meant,” he wrote later.

Although Alley portrayed the meeting as merely one of friendship, his friend Courtney Archer, who spent six years with him in China, believed it was his first significant sexual experience. And China’s attitude to homosexuality, says Brady, was traditionally much more tolerant than New Zealand’s.

“It’s only really since 1949 [when the communists took power] that intolerance for homosexuality has developed in China – and even then it’s still very much a top-down, artificially imposed attitude,” she says.

Alley had failed in his post-war attempt at farming in New Zealand and felt himself the black sheep of the family, unable to match the academic achievements of his siblings. In Shanghai in 1927, he found a job as a fireman and a society that accepted his sexuality. “When he arrived in China,” Brady writes, this later champion of China “took an instant dislike to the Chinese”. He preferred the “well-organised” Japanese.

“After a holiday in Korea he wrote: ‘This Japanese dictatorship is the best thing that has happened in Korea. She is dragging the people up to a decent standard of living’,” Brady says.

This, however, was omitted from Willis Airey’s 1969 biography of Alley, a book Alley and a friend “went through with a fine-tooth comb” before it was published. And the letter it came from was destroyed at Alley’s request.

Brady, a fluent Chinese speaker who began her research into Alley in 1989 for a masters thesis, found Alley’s brother Pip destroyed all the letters he received from Shanghai. “A terrible tragedy” for a researcher, she says. But these letters would have been big trouble for the later hero of communist China.

In these early days Alley was an admirer of the British Empire, like many other Kiwis of his generation. In one surviving letter he spoke contemptuously about “Red organisations” fomenting trouble among impressionable Chinese students. He also seems to have shared some of the expatriates’ contempt for the downtrodden Shanghainese. These attitudes slowly changed. In the 1930s, as a factory inspector in Shanghai, he witnessed dreadful scenes of child labour and exploitation. He became involved in the Chinese Industrial Co-operative Movement, whose abbreviated form in Chinese was Gung Ho – a phrase that entered the English language.

It was this work that earned him the reputation in New Zealand as a great mover and shaker in the industrialisation of China. Alley was “more than any other individual, responsible for the development of Chinese industry,” said an article in New Zealand’s School Journal in 1946.

The reality was much more modest. Alley was boosted as the public face of Gung Ho, partly to attract international funds. But “despite the glorious publicity CIC received,” says Brady, “the scheme to develop a co-operative movement in China never really succeeded.”

Alley was sacked from the movement’s executive in 1942 after it was found he had allowed its factories to make guns and blankets for the Communist Party. He switched to the Bailie School, where young Chinese combined book learning with practical work in industry. As headmaster of the Shandan Bailie School in dirt-poor Gansu province, he gained further fame and a good deal of money raised through Corso, in New Zealand.

“My father remembers collecting pennies for Rewi’s school,” Brady says.

Archer told Brady, “Nobody thought anything of Rewi sleeping with the boys [of the school]. It just happened”. It is important to remember, says Brady, all of the pupils at the school were called boys, regardless of their age. Alley had sex with students, but only those in their late teens and early 20s.

“Alley was not a paedophile.” And while sleeping with students is now condemned in the West, she says, it was not unusual in China at that time.

After the communist takeover in 1949, no foreigner could last for long as a school headmaster. In 1952, during the “Three Antis” movement against “corruption, waste and bureaucracy”, Alley was accused of being an agent of Western powers, a reactionary spy and anti-revolutionary. He shifted later that year to Beijing: it was the start of a 35-year-long career as propagandist.

This is the most controversial part of his life. Alley propounded the party line even when he disagreed with it. He publicly defended actions that now seem indefensible. He lied about appalling events. In the early 1960s, for instance, a famine killed millions of Chinese. Alley wrote articles rejecting Western reports of the crisis. Alley knew about the problems China faced, says Brady, though he might not have realised its extent.

“His Chinese family [he had two adopted sons, plus grandchildren] unable like himself to get extra food rations, struggled during this time,” says Brady. “Alley had the reverse problem; as millions starved he became obese and he wrote to friends and family asking for suggestions on how to lose weight.”

During the Cultural Revolution, he denounced the official ogre, Deng Xiaoping, and praised Mao. His adopted son Alan was beaten repeatedly and imprisoned during this period; his son Mike was forced to dig ditches for two years. In 1977 Alley said he “breathed a sigh of relief” when Deng came to power. And privately told friends he thought Mao was a “prick” for what he did to his comrades in the Cultural Revolution. Later, he privately opposed Deng’s free-market reforms while praising them publicly.

Many condemn him for all this. He was the kept liar of a dictatorial government, the critics say, a willing tool of a brutal state. Brady is not so harsh. Chinese dissidents who spoke out, she says, risked being shot or sent to the Chinese gulag. If a foreigner like Alley did so, his family was likely to suffer.

Alley was trying to counter the extremism of the anti-communists, who could see no good in anything the Chinese government did and would seize on the smallest criticism made by Alley and use it in their crusade. And Alley did voice criticisms to officials – but in private. Other pro-communist foreigners, such as Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, eventually broke with China “because they didn’t like what was going on. But they had other lives. Alley was first and foremost a China person”, says Brady. There was nothing for him to return to in New Zealand.

After spending so many years studying the man, says Brady, it is hard for her to stand apart from him. “He wasn’t a saint at all. He’s a complex individual and has very human desires and aspirations. He had achievements and he had terrible failings. I just lay it all out on the table and leave it for the reader to decide.”

Archer said Alley made a Faustian choice when he decided to remain in China after the revolution. He wanted to spend the rest of his life there and he would do so, even if it meant the suppression of his own sexuality and of his personal convictions. Archer was right about the Faustian choice, says Brady, “and the implication of that is that you sell your soul”. And in a sense, she concedes, that is what Alley did.

NZEDGE.COM EXECUTIVE EDITOR BRIAN SWEENEY


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Ettie Rout

Ettie Rout

“To no woman has it been permitted to do the same amount of good, and to save more misery and suffering, both during and after the war, than to Miss Ettie…