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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 11. 22 July 1970

Book Review — A Learner in China: A Life of Rewi Alley

Book Review

A Learner in China: A Life of Rewi Alley

"The weight of ignorance weighs heavily on the Western world, it would seem" wrote Rewi Alley of Western attitudes towards China and the Chinese Revolution. A Learner in China, Professor Willis Airey's account of the life and work of this "extraordinary ordinary New Zealander", will, in most cases I think, convince readers that his subject's contention is correct.

Alley first arrived in China "to have a look" forty-four years ago and found himself sickened at the conditions in which the vast majority of Chinese, exploited by their own Government in collusion with the West, lived and worked. First as a factory inspector, then in famine and relief work and finally as one of the guiding lights in the development of the Chinese Industrial co-operatives during the Japanese war, Alley set about "doing what he could".

He quickly became convinced of the, at best ineffectiveness, at worst corruption and avariciousness of the Chinese Nationalist Goverment headed by Chiang Kai-Shek.

Indusco (the Industrial 'Co-operatives) were conceived as a way of helping keep the Kuomintang (chiang kai-Shek's Nationals) in the war. The task was never easy; elements of the Kuomintang, while paying lip service to the worth of Indusco, unofficially harried its workers unmercifully, distrusting its co-operative nature. Alley himself appears to have incurred considerable odium in Kuomintang circles because of his work, and was classed as a political undesirable.

It had been Alley's opinion from the late thirties, however that "the reds would win in the end". Accourdingly, after his discharge by the them Chinese Government in 1942, he "ceased trying to organise co-operatives in a big way. I then took up very small work—that of training worker and peasant boys as technicians for the new China which it was obvious was now emerging".

Professor Airey, in recounting Alley's work, has succeeded in weaving together a fascinating and detailed biography, interspersed as it is by relevant but somehow curiously dated excerpts from Alley's writings and letters (machine drawing is a "nice exact thing"). Surprisingly however, having gone this far Airey, in a sense, fails to deliver the goods. He mentions little or nothing of the development of Alley's political thinking, relying largely on the contention that Alley was interested in peace and the lot of the common man, and peace and the common man was what the Revolution was all about. Hints of the existence of a greater degree of political sophistication, however, are to be found. As early as 1932, Alley had "turned to the theoretical study of Marx-Leninism and began to see how thing! fitted together and what the base of the new society should be". We learn no more than this.

Airey also erects an early barrier between himself (and possibly Alley) and the reader by reason of his lengthy, and often rambling, attempted justification of Alley's adolescent attitudes which could, perhaps uncharitably, be described as militaristic. The fact that they were adolescent attitudes should have been enough.

Attitudes towards Alley, towards China, and Alley's and Chine's attiude (or attitude) toward! the West, are dealt with in the doting chapters of the book and it is here that the reader can learn something more than about the work of a great humanitarian and historical justification.

Alley, as Airey is at great pains to point out, is a great man; he was, we are told, sounded out by the British Government as to the possibility of his accepting a Knighthood (hardly a standard, one would have thought, by which Alley would like himself judged) while Nehru asked him more than once to work in India. Alley, as the Security Service made clear during his visit to New Zealand in 1960, is also, however, a communist which, in the public mind, renders his greatness and his opinions suspect. "I remain a New Zealander," says Alley, "but I have become a Chinese too." In him the twain have met but the East remains red and the hordes remain yellow.

Photo from 'A Learner in China: A Life of Rewi Alley'

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