A quick peek be­hind China’s wall

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - yard­leyj@wash­post.com

In Septem­ber 1954, Pa­trick Wright re­ports, “sev­eral planeloads of Bri­tons gath­ered in from var­i­ous some­times very loosely de­fined po­si­tions on the left of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum” flew from Eng­land to China, “where they would take part, as in­vited guests of the Chi­nese govern­ment, in the cel­e­bra­tions mark­ing the fifth an­niver­sary of Mao Tse-tung’s Procla­ma­tion of the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of China on 1 Oc­to­ber 1949.” For all the Chi­nese lead­er­ship’s rhetoric about friend­ship and peace, the in­vi­ta­tions clearly were is­sued with pro­pa­ganda in mind, and in the short run they paid off. In the long run, though, the re­sults were mixed, not so much be­cause of changes in the Bri­tons’ pol­i­tics as their (and the world’s) re­vul­sion “as Mao and his fel­low Com­mu­nists pro­ceeded to con­vert China into a nu­clear-armed, fully in­dus­tri­al­ized, and to­tal­i­tar­ian su­per­power.”

What most of us in the West are likely to re­mem­ber about China in the years be­tween Mao’s seizure of power in 1949 and his death in 1976 is the ex­traor­di­nar­ily cruel and de­struc­tive turn that his revo­lu­tion took, be­gin­ning in 1958 with the five-year plan known as the Great Leap For­ward, which killed un­told mil­lions of Chi­nese in the name of agri­cul­tural col­lec­tiviza­tion, and cul­mi­nat­ing in the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion of the 1960s, with the rise of the Red Guards and the chaos they wrought through­out the coun­try. What we are likely to for­get is that, for the first five years of the regime, hopes, within and with­out China, were high. Wright quotes Alan Win­ning­ton, “ the Bri­tish Com­mu­nist jour­nal­ist who stayed in Pek­ing af­ter [Prime Min­is­ter] An­thony Eden had re­fused to re­new his pass­port,” as call­ing this pe­riod “ the golden years” and writ­ing:

“ The Com­mu­nists rode on a wave of suc­cess: cur­rency sta­bi­lized; famine ended, rail­ways re­stored; in­dus­try boom­ing; coal, steel and power leap-frog­ging. We found work­ers ev­ery­where at lathes while build­ing work­ers were fin­ish­ing the fac­to­ries. Ev­ery­one was bet­ter off — very lit­tle bet­ter off but in China that could make the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death.”

The del­e­ga­tions from Bri­tain, in other words, trav­eled to a China al­most un­rec­og­niz­able to those of us who now know it as an eco­nomic gi­ant that some­how man­aged to emerge from the waste­land that was Mao’s legacy. Be­yond that, as Wright says, “ the book is far more about post-war Bri­tain and its in­her­ited per­spec­tives than it is about the re­al­ity of China, ei­ther now or then. It is partly for this rea­son that I have . . . re­tained the old sys­tem of ro­man­ized spellings as op­posed to the more re­cently in­tro­duced pinyin, and partly in or­der to ac­knowl­edge that, what­ever lens it may be viewed through, the walled city that was ‘Pek­ing’ in 1954 re­ally is not the same city as the ‘Bei­jing’ of the early twenty-first cen­tury.”

Now the city is “Bei­jing” to just about ev­ery­one; one of the few con­texts in which “Pek­ing” still is used is in “Pek­ing duck,” which, as it hap­pens, the Bri­tish vis­i­tors of 1954 con­sumed in co­pi­ous amounts. At that time Pek­ing was still very much “an an­cient city wrapped in high crenel­lated walls some 40 kilo­me­tres long and ac­cessed through six­teen multi-storeyed gate tow­ers . . . [and] still rec­og­niz­able as the city of Kublai Khan.” It had “palaces, pe­ony beds, lo­tus-filled lakes, pago­das, dragon walls, carved lions em­body­ing the an­ti­thet­i­cal yet also com­pli­men­tary prin­ci­ples of yin and yang.” It was a jumble “of nar­row walled al­leys (‘ hu­tongs’) with gates lead­ing to res­i­den­tial com­pounds con­tain­ing in­ter­nal court­yards joined by ‘moon gates’ and south-fac­ing sin­gle-storey houses with pitched roofs, paper-cov­ered win­dows, and an­cient wooded lat­tices.”

Thus the city to which these planeloads of Brits trav­eled “still re­sem­bled the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of the an­cient Mid­dle King­dom,” and though the new rulers had plans to erad­i­cate many ves­tiges of what they re­garded as its cor­rupt past, that process had scarcely be­gun in 1954, per­mit­ting the vis­i­tors to see a coun­try and cul­ture that have now al­most, if not en­tirely, dis­ap­peared. It was also a coun­try that had only re­cently ended its cen­tral role in sup­port of North Korea in the Korean War, a coun­try where anti-Western — most par­tic­u­larly anti-Amer­i­can — feel­ings ran deep, es­pe­cially within the lead­er­ship. It “was a chal­leng­ing time for Western­ers in­vited to go be­hind the ‘Bam­boo Cur­tain,’ ” and some mem­bers of the Bri­tish del­e­ga­tions were re­luc­tant to be per­ceived as “fel­low-trav­ellers,” among them the philoso­pher A. J. Ayer, who ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion only “af­ter phon­ing [the ar­chi­tect] Hugh Cas­son, whom he knew to be a man of Con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal opin­ions, and es­tab­lish­ing that he too would be will­ing to go.”

Of course he would. It was too good (and rare) an op­por­tu­nity to be missed. Not merely was China terra incognita to many in the West, not merely was it in the midst of rev­o­lu­tion­ary if risky up­heaval, but “it was scarcely pos­si­ble for a twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Westerner to go to China with­out al­ready hav­ing more or less ex­otic ver­sions of that East­ern land piled up at the back of his mind.” Who could re­sist the op­por­tu­nity to visit “ le­gendary ‘ Cathay,’ ” not to men­tion visit it as the guest of Prime Min­is­ter Chou En-lai, who on a mis­sion to Geneva ear­lier that year had snowed many in the West, who saw “not a rough-necked ‘ agrar­ian re­former’ dressed in padded cot­ton but an ur­bane, cul­tured, and ar­tic­u­late man in a tai­lored suit and silk tie”?

So off they flew to China. One del­e­ga­tion, mem­bers of the La­bor Party’s Na­tional Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee, was led by the for­mer prime min­is­ter, Cle­ment At­tlee. An­other, a “mot­ley group of sci­en­tists, artists, politi­cians, and writ­ers who fol­lowed in the wake of Cle­ment At­tlee’s de­parted del­e­ga­tion,” in­cluded Ayer and Cas­son along with the artists Paul Hog­a­rth and Stan­ley Spencer. They were mostly peo­ple of the left (and mostly men), but they had their share of ar­gu­ments. An “in­tense per­sonal an­tag­o­nism . . . de­vel­oped be­tween A. J. Ayer and Spencer.” Mostly, though, they spent their time trav­el­ing, see­ing the sights of both the old and the new China, lis­ten­ing to en­thu­si­as­tic re­ports from their Chi­nese han­dlers and try­ing with only limited suc­cess to dis­tin­guish “ true facts from the op­ti­mistic pro­pa­ganda in which they were so care­fully wrapped.”

Not many of the del­e­gates re­tained their en­thu­si­asm for Mao’s China through the deeply dis­en­chant­ing years of the Great Leap For­ward and the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. Many seem to have clung, on the other hand, to fan­tasies about sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Bri­tain and China that had al­most no ba­sis in re­al­ity. This is among the char­ac­ter­is­tics that Wright finds par­tic­u­larly and pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish, but it seems to me par­tic­u­larly and pe­cu­liarly hu­man: to want to find the fa­mil­iar in the alien.

Wright, a pro­fes­sor of cul­tural his­tory at Not­ting­ham Trent Uni­ver­sity and the author of many well-re­ceived books, writes flu­idly and en­gag­ingly, but he comes close to tor­pe­do­ing his own aims in “Pass­port to Pek­ing” by re­fus­ing to let go of a sin­gle shred of his re­search. The ma­te­rial is in­ter­est­ing, but is pre­sented at such in­ter­minable length that the reader is soon over­whelmed and turned off. There could be no more telling in­di­ca­tion of how much wretched ex­cess is to be found here that not un­til Page 269 (of 504 pages of text) does Wright ac­tu­ally get the first of his del­e­ga­tions to China. I am sorry to re­port that it is not worth the wait.

PASS­PORT TO PEK­ING A Very Bri­tish Mis­sion to Mao’s China By Pa­trick Wright Ox­ford Univ. 591 pp. $34.95

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