Thursday, March 5, 2015

Passport to Peking

Today is International Book Day. Currently reading an interesting(ish) one by Patrick Wright called Passport to Peking (2010). It's a rather long-winded account of three lefty British delegations who were invited to China in the late summer/autumn of 1954: two Labour Party posses comprising mostly MPs & Trade Union leaders, sandwiching a smaller group of cultural figures. 
It was five years after the Communists had come to power, a honeymoon period of out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new. Chou Enlai had famously invited westerners to 'come and see' the New China, so they duly came.
Of course they were shown places the Chinese wanted them to see but basically most went away impressed, not least learning that China had somehow eradicated flies. This was, however, before the Great Leap Forward (or Backward) from 1958-61 and of course the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76.
The cultural contingent at the Summer Palace
The cultural contingent were an odd bunch: the artist Stanley Spencer, geologist Leonard Hawkes, writer Rex Warner, architect Hugh Casson and philosopher AJ Ayer. Here they are, left to right outside the Summer Palace. The photo was taken by John Chinnery, the contingent's interpreter. He would later move to China, become a respected Sinophile, marry two (different) Chinese women, the second marriage of which produced a son, Colin, who became an Arts Manager at the British Council (and was responsible for the excellent Sound and The City project with Brian Eno, David Toop and others). He left to become a full-time artist and curator but I'd occasionally bump into him at openings. 
But I digress. Back to the book. It is interesting, but also frustrating - in that it takes until page 269 before any of the delegations actually set foot in China - the preceding pages being an extended stroll through early 20th Century British-Chinese relations and an equally long account of stopovers in Moscow. The Notes and Index take up a further 100 pages. But worth it for a moment in history when China, coming out of a hellish 50 years of kow-towing to the West, civil war and fighting the Japanese, finally took control of its own destiny. And briefly, it seemed like Communism might be an answer.

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