Yardley reviews "Passport to Peking"

January 21, 2011

PASSPORT TO PEKING

A Very British Mission to Mao's China

By Patrick Wright

Oxford Univ. 591 pp. $34.95

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 offin that regard. In the long run, though, the results were decidedly mixed, due not so much to changes in the Britons' politics as to 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 of 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, though not entirely, 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.

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