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China: Behind the bamboo curtain

By Patrick Wright


On 1 October 1954, Sir Hugh Casson, the urbane professor of interior design who had been director of architecture at the Festival of Britain, found himself standing by the Tiananmen Gate in the ancient and still walled city of Peking. In China to present a statement of friendship signed by nearly 700 British scientists and artists, he was watching a parade that the reporter James Cameron reckoned to be “the greatest show on earth”. First came the troops and the “military ironwork”, grinding past for a full hour. This was followed by a much longer civil parade in which the people marched by in barely imaginable numbers, beaming with joy at their elevated leaders who gazed back with the slightly “subdued” expression of still unaccustomed new emperors.

The spectacle with which China celebrated the fifth anniversary of the communist liberation was brilliantly organised, as Casson felt obliged to admit. He was less impressed by the admiring expressions worn by many of the other international guests: “Gold-rimmed spectacles misted with emotion, cheeks creased with years of well-meant service in this cause or in that, shirts defiantly open at the neck, badges in lapels, and there in the middle – could it have been? – an MCC tie.” That particular specimen was Ivor Montagu, a cricket-loving friend and translator of the great Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein.

Sickened by the rapture of the communist regime’s ardent western friends, Casson quickly retreated to the shaded “rest room” beneath the viewing stand. Here he lingered among yellow-robed Tibetan lamas, sipping tea and exchanging impressions with other doubtful Britons: the classically minded and no longer Marxist novelist and poet Rex Warner, and AJ Ayer, the high-living logical positivist who would come home to tell the BBC that China’s parade had reminded him of the Nuremberg rallies.

Enraptured or appalled, none of these British witnesses appears to have regretted the absence of Stanley Spencer. The 63-year-old painter, so famously associated with the little Berkshire village of Cookham, had managed to escape the entire show – thanks, he later explained, to “some Mongolians”, whose timely arrival at the hotel that morning had provided the cover under which he retreated upstairs to his room.

It was the discovery that Spencer had been to China that persuaded me to look further into this forgotten episode. I soon realised that an extraordinary assortment of Britons had made their way to China in 1954, nearly two decades before 1972, when President Nixon made the stage-managed and distinctly operatic visit that has gone down in history as the moment when the west entered rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China. Were these motley British visitors just credulous idiots, for whom “Red China” was another version of the legendary Cathay? That is what the 24-year-old Douglas Hurd and the other diplomats in the British embassy compound in Peking appear to have suspected of these unwelcome freeloaders. Or was something more significant going on?

Nowadays, the rapidly increasing number of British travellers to China think nothing of getting on a plane to fly directly there. Yet Spencer had good reason to feel “trembly” as he and the five other members of his entirely unofficial cultural delegation approached the runway at Heathrow on 14 September 1954. Though Britain had recognised China a few months after the liberation, it had yet to establish proper diplomatic relations with the communist-led government, and the embarking Britons couldn’t pick up a visa until they had reached Prague. That meant crossing the iron curtain dividing Europe. “Did you go under or over it?” one joker would later ask, making light of a passage that was actually more like falling over the edge of the known world. The travellers then had to fly across east Europe before heading across Siberia and then Mongolia – all the time relying on their hosts to finance, accommodate and entertain them, and also to provide the vibrating twin-prop planes in which they would hop to the far side of the world, landing every three hours or so to refuel.

On Saturday 24 April, the Chinese prime minister and foreign secretary, Zhou Enlai, flew into Geneva from Moscow. He came at the head of a large Chinese delegation to join France, Britain and Russia in a conference aimed at finding a settlement to the Indo-China war. Diverse western Europeans were transfixed by the sight of this urbane and highly competent man, smiling into the cameras as he berated America – which had refused even to take part in the conference – and demonstrating his abilities as a regional leader by negotiating ceasefires in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The flights to Peking began shortly after Zhou’s European triumph. From Geneva, as at the Bandung conference the following year, Zhou invited the world to “come and see” what was going on behind the bamboo curtain. And Britons were among those who headed for the airport, including an opening delegation sent by the Labour leadership, headed by Clement Attlee.

The cultural delegation, which comprised Casson, Warner, Ayer and Spencer, together with the geologist Leonard Hawkes and the young sinologist John Chinnery, followed later in the summer. Its membership had been decided by people close to the Britain-China Friendship Association, who were careful to come up with a group that could not easily be dismissed as communist fellow travellers.

There were indeed some pilgrims among the travellers, who saw what they and China’s presenters wanted them to see – docilely imbibing tea and statistics, smiling back at children in model nurseries, and sensing only a bright cooperative future in fields fertilised with the blood of murdered landlords. But the Attlee delegation was not like that. Its members had fought their own battles against communism in Britain, and they had been well briefed before leaving. They stood up to Mao over tea, deplored the regime’s failure to do anything about the booming birth-rate and also criticised the communist-led government for imposing an absurdly distorted idea of the west on their people. If China really believed that the masses in the west sympathised with communism, and were only held down by an evil ruling class, then they might blunder into another war.

Meanwhile, confusion as well as unexpected light followed from the visitors’ habit of applying British analogies to Chinese realities. Attlee himself praised New China’s still expanding network of cooperatives, seeing in them the principle of “voluntary action” that William Beveridge had insisted was the necessary attendant to the welfare state. The national secretary of the Women’s Cooperative Guild, Mabel Ridealgh, likened China’s extensive cooperatives to those of her own organisation and joined Castle in comparing China’s food distribution system to the Co-op in Britain.

Earlier post-liberation visitors had already set about Englishing the new Chinese scene. “It’s the same in Marylebone High Street,” the veteran actor Miles Malleson had remarked in 1953: he was thinking of New China’s appetite for dramas with a contemporary message. Basil Davidson had reserved a different English comparison for a communist group leader in the southern city of Canton. Aware of what the regime’s critics said about such watchful cadres, he insisted that she was “as much a spy on her 50 families as the chairman of my parish council, in rural Essex, is a spy on me”.

Hogarth was merely continuing in this line when he declared arriving in Shanghai to be like “pulling into Manchester from Sheffield”, while Hangchow (Hangzhou) was like “a South Coast English seaside resort whose better days lay at the beginning of the century”. He found a more original English line on China’s revolutionary art. Visiting the Lu Xun museum in Shanghai, he enjoyed the discovery that those stark woodcuts, designed to galvanise illiterate peasants into action against both the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek’s reactionary nationalists, were descended from leafy English scenes portrayed by such far from revolutionary artists as Gwen Raverat, Robert Gibbings and Edward Bawden.

There was a characteristically English way of looking at China’s notoriously bloody “agrarian reform” too. In 1949, Mao had famously proclaimed that the Chinese people had at last “stood up”, and Hogarth was happy to confirm that claim. His drawing of a “Shansi peasant” shows a man standing very upright indeed: clasping the wooden hayfork that rises next to his head, he stares back with a resolute expression that is neither cringing nor deferential.

Made in the field, as was this determined artist-reporter’s way, Hogarth’s drawing evokes an English analogy already employed by Joseph Needham, Davidson and other visitors – the English Diggers and Levellers of the 17th century, who had torn down fences and set to work digging up the commons land stolen from them under the new Enclosure Acts.

It was at once an evasive strategy and a concerted attempt to assert an English tradition uncompromised by a mutually hated British imperialism. Yet it was Spencer who raised the art of being English in New China to its strangest heights. Twenty years earlier, he had recorded the desire to write the story of his life as if it were a wandering “journey to China”, and he had no sooner landed at the airfield outside Peking than he started peering around in startled recognition: “As I drove along the roads from the airports to the towns it was almost comic to see these dreams of mine coming true on either side of the road.” Other delegates cringed as he harassed the guides at various historical sites with peculiar offscript questions, and tormented helpless waiters with requests for fish and chips. As for New China’s artists, Spencer had no prescriptions to offer about socialist realism. Instead he informed his audience at the Central Academy of Fine Arts that he was “possibly the most marvellous visitor to China they had ever had”.

Judging from the notes he wrote after returning home, Spencer made very short work of the Great Wall of China too. Indeed, he reduced it to the garden wall along which he had liked to walk as a child in Cookham. He had, as he explained, climbed up by the coal cellar and triumphed over many challenges as he made his way along its length: not the advancing Manchu army, but the leaning lid of the dustbin, the ivy that stretched over some sections, and the protruding branches of cherry, yew and fir that also had to be negotiated over that wall’s rather less than 4,000 mile length.

As for the future of this attempted rapprochement between Britain and “New China”, the optimistic “spirit of Geneva” evaporated soon enough after the last delegates came home, and the blocs quickly refroze. Yet that moment of hopefulness was not entirely without consequences. Trade between Britain and China was renewed over the years to come, diplomatic relations were established, and cultural exchanges did develop. The Bevanite perspective within the Labour party cannot be said to have thrived, but the insistence on maintaining an independent British stance towards Washington was alive in the 60s, when Harold Wilson refused to commit British forces to America’s war in Vietnam.

Of the British artists who went to China in 1954, neither Spencer nor Hogarth would ever return. Mathews, however, would try to maintain the dialogue even as China went through the suppression of the Hundred Flowers campaign, the collectivisation of the briefly “cooperative” economy, and the monstrously costly “Great Leap Forward”. He used his position as secretary of the Contemporary Art Society at the Tate Gallery to promote an exchange of exhibitions. Working directly with Chinese government agencies, he began by organising a survey show of British Graphic Art, which was taken to China by his fellow organiser and artist Richard Carline in 1955. He himself returned in 1960, accompanying an exhibition of recent paintings entitled Sixty Years of British Painting in Oils.

Patrick Wright is a writer and broadcaster. His highly acclaimed books include The Village that Died for England, Tank, and Iron Curtain. His latest books is Passport to Peking: A Very British Mission to Mao’s China. The above blog post is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The Guardian.

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