Rewi Alley



shithead or brilliant satirist?

[note: I’ve been reading the English original]

The story: in the mid-1960s, Rewi Alley from New Zealand has been a friend of Communist China for some decades, living comfortably (and rather overweight) in a special compound in Beijing. From 1966 on, he starts embarking on several trips through the country. His aim is to document the glorious advancements brought about by Chairman Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”.

the shittiness

The book is so shitty I have a hard time finding a suitable adjective – shitmatic?

It’s too long (588 pages), but that’s not it. The problem is rather that its contents are 100% propaganda. Alley roams all over the country, inspecting villages and cities, taking pictures (some of which are in this book), and making up horrible poems about the greatness of the dictator.

Here’s one of his works:

“Wulien / desolation on desolation / mountain peaks raised / in supplication. / Wulien / with peaks like / arms raised in salute / Wulien / the impossible done / and a land / made over again / in the way of Mao Tsetung.”

Isn’t this just taking shitty to a whole new level?

Rewi Alley and Mao’s behind

Alley is a long-term resident of Mao’s country, so he does his absolute best to brown-nose the big guy. There are no “travel notes” in here, no personal insights, no stories, just propaganda. Here’s a sample:

“The damage done by the Liu Shao-chi line in the years when it was paramount dealt a severe blow to the fine spirit that the Great Leap Forward generated, but with the Socialist Education Movement in the countryside and then with the Cultural Revolution, a deeper understanding of Mao Tsetung Thought as related to self-sufficiency gave new impetus.”

Yay! And this goes on and on for hundreds and hundreds of pages. I hated every bit of it, but then another thought entered my mind.

maybe it’s all just satire?

Of course Alley had to make a living somehow. And since he was a foreign “friend of China”, the only thing he could do was produce propaganda materials. But maybe he was being secretly subversive?

Here’s a line that’s just hilarious:

“‘How do you keep up your French?’ the student who had been to Morocco was asked. ‘I can read the Selected Works of Mao Tsetung in French whenever I like,’ came the answer.”

Maybe Alley really meant to show the craziness of it all?

Or how about this one:

“With regard to work with domestic pigs in the farm piggery, the manager shook his head and said, “We must study Chairman Mao’s works better and find out how we can improve this part of our work. It has not been so successful as other branches!”

Domestic pigs? Chairman Mao? Right.

how to read this without going nuts

If you choose to buy this book, don’t think it’s in any way “travel literature” or “literature” at all. There are only three ways to read it:

  1. Just look at the photographs and nothing else (highly recommended)
  2. Read selected parts of it in order to find out about the insanity of Chairman Mao’s idolization (also recommended).
  3. Read the whole thing, pretending that it’s a brilliant satire, something along the lines of “Animal Farm”.

who might want to read this

Alley’s feat of traveling through China as a government propagandist isn’t impressive at all. His storytelling is bad, his writing style is worse, but some of the info he shares has some historical meta-value.

If you’re into official propaganda from China during the “Cultural Revolution”, by all means read this.

Also read: anything really.

3 thoughts on “Rewi Alley”

  1. Hi Christoph,
    have you ever tried “Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret.
    Since I was young I have always been a China-enthusiast but reading the mentioned book totally changed everything for me and re-boosted my interests (at the age of 21). I loved it and even read it more than once.
    I would like you to have a look on it and share your view with us.
    You’re more in this whole culture-thing than I’ve ever been so your remarks are of high value for me.
    For any comment please contact me: .

  2. have you read “china road” by rob gifford? though i haven’t read your book yet, i guess there’s a similarity there, travel and write about china. good book, i like it. it helps me understand more about my own country



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