Rewi Alley

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Author: Rewi Alley
Title: Travels in China
Time: 1966-1971
Destination: China
Length: 4 years
Type: government transport

Shithead or brilliant satirist?

The story: RA has been a friend of Communist China for some decades, living comfortably (and rather overweight) in a special compound in Beijing, when in 1966 he embarks on several trips through the country. His aim: 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. Shit-o-matic? Shitesque? Shiggidishit? Well, for one thing it’s too long (588p.), but that’s not it. The problem is rather that its contents are 100% propaganda. RA roams all over the country, inspecting villages and cities, taking pictures (some of which are in this book), and making up horrible poems.

Here’s an excerpt:

“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.”

(p.260)

Isn’t this just taking shitty to a whole new level? And here’s another thought: If you deliberately put your head way up into someone else’s behind, you do run the danger of being called a shithead.

Rewi Alley and Mao’s behind

This is what the whole book is about. RA 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.”

(p.199)

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 big fat RA 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 is 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.”

(p.328)

Maybe RA meant to show to the world 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!”

(p.308)

Domestic pigs? Chairman Mao? Eh… right.

how to read this without going nuts

Anyway, if you 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 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”.
I would have given this a score of 0 if it weren’t for the historical photographs.

1/10.

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: eric.patzenhauer@gmail.com .
    rgds

    Reply
  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

    choesi

    Reply

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