Hyde and seeking China, Diana Bridge

New Zealand Women in China
Tom Newnham
Graphic Publications, $19.95
ISBN 0473030055

The title of Tom Newnham’s book, New Zealand Women in China, comes in the colours of the Chinese flag. The subtext is provided by Rewi Alley: “Unsung Kiwi heroines in China, overlooked in a man’s world.” Alongside these words on the back cover is a missing persons photograph from a Chinese newspaper of Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde), dressed in a Mao jacket (the English caption reads, intriguingly ‑ and with no relation to the Chinese text ‑ “dressed like a Chinese Amazon”). There is a mid‑section of photographs on the front and of biographical summaries on the back. An endnote points to the existence of other volunteers ‑ missionaries and lay workers from the major organisations that have sponsored work in China: UNRRA, CORSO and the New Zealand‑China Friendship Society. The note is rounded off with the acknowledgment that it was these New Zealanders who “together … have laid a firm foundation for the enduring respect and goodwill between the peoples of New Zealand and China”.

It’s all here in nutshell format on the covers: the promise of an untold history, some rare photographic back‑up, a robustly informational approach and. an indication of the broad ideological stance.

It was Alley, the most famous single New Zealand presence in China, who provided the impetus for this project with his remark to the author, “There needs to be a book written about three New Zealand women in China, Shirley Barton, Barbara Spencer, and Kathleen Hall.” Following up on the idea led Newnham to write, first, a biography of Hall, and then to return to a much expanded version of the original project.

The author is right, I think, to have stopped at 16 and to have consigned the names of other women known to have worked in China to a final chapter entitled “And So Many More”. It might have been hard to take in more of these stories, at least in the form in which they are presented here, which is a blend of spare narrative and quite a lot of free-floating detail ‑ Chinese place names and a cast of background characters, Chinese and foreign, some of whom would benefit from more context. (Perhaps the author judged that names and events were well known to his expected audience ‑ the project was partially funded by the New Zealand‑China Friendship Society.) But about that number of histories is needed to convey the central fact of a diverse, humanitarian, female New Zealand presence in China “spanning the greater part of the twentieth century”. Tom Newnham has supplied a timely balancing of the record.

In the early chapters, where details are thin on the ground or the author is condensing already published work, the record of humanitarian effort tends to run together in the reader’s mind. This is not entirely a disadvantage, for much of the book’s effect derives from the accumulation of examples of bravery and resourcefulness in the face of dire human conditions and wartime tragedy. What we like to call Kiwi ingenuity is taken to its limits; medical volunteers had usually to build the buildings in which they worked (and rebuild them when they were burned down, bombed or otherwise damaged), to train the staff with whom they worked and to improvise equipment. Barbara Spencer, there under the auspices of CORSO during the final years of the civil war and the first year of the new China, was prepared to entrust herself to the facilities she had helped build when she gave birth to her son in the mud hospital attached to Alley’s Shandan Bailie school, in a remote area of Gansu province.

The skeleton stories are hung with scraps of colour, which usually come from letters or, occasionally, from an autobiography. There is Jean Moore’s description of cycling with her Chinese co‑worker to remote villages in South China where “on sighting us the children would shout ‘Jesus has come!’ and run out to meet us”. Sometimes a translated Chinese name, like “Heaven’s Best Guest House”, is enough to brighten a tale. Slotted into accounts of dodging Japanese bayonets and bombs, smuggling medical supplies through Japanese lines or nursing in a “cave hospital”, details like sleeping on bed boards and washing oneself behind the pulpit (Jean Moore) or eating weeds (Isobel Thomson) hardly ripple the surface.

The process of emerging voice reaches its culmination in the chapter on Robin Hyde. This is the longest chapter in the book and, sensibly, Newnham affords as much space as possible to Hyde’s own words. Reading its medley of commentary ‑ articles, poems, letters, excerpts from her final book, Dragon Rampant (of which she herself wrote, “Hurst and Blackett’s [the publishers] have been wanting to see it published as a novel though every word of it is true…”) ‑ is to be reminded of the point made by Gillian Boddy and Jacqueline Matthews in Disputed Ground: Robin Hyde, Journalist, that Hyde was “averse to herding her ideas, impressions and stories into neat fields…”. The generic mix, which includes previously unpublished letters and papers, reads seamlessly here.

In this chapter the reader starts to get a stronger sense of the land. Hyde writes of the timelessness of a day in the Canton countryside: “Yesterday I sat in the 500‑years‑old shadow of a great grey and white pagoda, crumbling away as the villagers pull bricks from beneath its buttresses, to repair their homes … I lay among the wild verbena and risked snakes, watching the white and matting sails of small craft move like a dream between the rice fields. In this low irrigated country you can’t see the water channels and sails just appear from nowhere and glide slowly along to nothingness.” She misses nothing: Alley, unable to “keep down his abrupt compassion for the very poor”; a Chinese pig “born with a sort of dip in the middle which makes you long for a Berlei corset…”

But she was, of course, in China to cover the Sino‑Japanese war. Her letters to her family have the immediacy and eye for detail of the frontline journalist and they are invaded with a terrible matter‑of‑factness which is all her own. “In a single day, May 10 [1938], we saw over 200 blown to bits or roasted to death ‑ and afterwards walked in the hot ashes where their relatives crouched and wailed, or hunted round for any rag of a possession they could find. And of course there was nothing left ‑ there isn’t if you keep dropping 500lb sulphur and phosphorous bombs on clay walls.”

Hyde can domesticate terror. Her anti‑aircraft guns “sound like a great flat hand smacking the top of the roof”. Japanese soldiers “drop off” troop trains “like peanuts”. The voice links up with that of the long, finely tailored letter to her 7‑year‑old son Derek in New Zealand, quoted here. The letter is a persuasively argued history lesson. And it is a plea for her own small son and his teacher and friends to care enough to help by collecting for China.

Hyde’s internationalism included a developing conviction that New Zealand and China were “linked by the destiny of the Pacific”. What she meant by that last phrase is movingly ‑ and presciently ‑ unfolded in another letter to her family begun on the day the city of Xuzhou, with herself in it, fell to the Japanese. It is, Newnham suggests, her testament “to all her fellow New Zealanders”. Hyde’s vision of interaction and co‑operation among the peoples of the Pacific, might today sit comfortably in an Asia 2000 manifesto. And some of its warning notes sound remarkably up-to‑date: “New Zealand’s great danger is not Japan, but the danger of becoming a Pacific Switzerland ‑ all tourist attractions and shop windows…”

Not surprisingly, the chapter on Hyde is the high point of the book. It manages to convey something of the special character of the Chinese people: their good humour and endurance in the face of unimaginable obstacles, their imperturbability (which Hyde penetratingly compares with the greater emotionalism and unpredictability of the Japanese), that sense of a continuing tradition which is uniquely Chinese. It manages to convey, therefore, what it was that attracted ‑ and still attracts ‑ New Zealanders to China. And it articulates an internationalist strand that rarely breaks the surface but which informs the China stories of many of these New Zealand women.

Perhaps because he has more material to work with, we get exactly what we need from Newnham here to understand Hyde’s account. His quiet provision of background complements the colour and excitement of her own style and his placing of excerpts, though determined by chronology, brings out well the organic connection between her writings.

Newnham is better on the whole at providing the joins than at the longer stretches of text, where his narrative style seldom rises above the competent stringing together of well-selected fact. His strengths as biographer lie in another direction. He is always sympathetic to his subjects and handles with care sensitive biographical detail, like whether or not Alley may have proposed to Shirley Barton. The voices of his women usually take off easily from the springboard he provides. The chapter on Ramai Hayward, which reads like well‑edited oral history, is the best example.

Here is the New Zealand practicality and the diffidence, as well as the assurance when it counts. We can almost hear Hayward taking over the loudspeaker system of a Chinese train to substitute Maori songs for Chinese opera on the long haul from Canton to Wuhan. Most dramatic of all is her description of presenting a feather cloak from King Koroki to Mao Zedong on 1 October 1957. (There is a wonderful matching photograph of Mao bundled into the cloak.) Barefoot on the advice of Guide Rangi and dressed in a piu piu given to her by Princess Te Puea, Hayward explained the weaving process to Mao, all the while shaking, not so much at the solemnity of the occasion or the October cold, as at the fact that husband Rudall was filming it all and she was “terrified ‑ I thought they would grab him and throw him over the wall or something”.

Hayward is refreshingly upfront here and elsewhere about the possibility of arbitrary intervention by the Chinese authorities, which is still an inseparable part of the Chinese experience for most foreigners as for the Chinese themselves. This aspect has been painfully apparent in recent weeks during the women’s conference in Beijing. I missed it in the later biographies, some of which come through as too bland.

The angle of not saying enough is most noticeable in the chapters that flank the Cultural Revolution. Newnham comes at this colossal tragedy obliquely in the chapter on Ruth Lake. Lake was in China with her family, teaching English, from 1963 for six years. The account of her experiences is in part apologia for her enthusiastic espousal of Mao’s early educational directives and contains some of the most uncomfortable writing in the book.

The Cultural Revolution is also referred to in retrospect in the words of Lorna Simpson and Gwen Ryan, but as teachers of English in the post‑Cultural Revolution period, they were part of the process of recovery and reconstruction and, not surprisingly, their emphasis is on the positive. Somewhere in the bridging between the chapter on Lake and these later accounts Newnham, as author, needed to name the Cultural Revolution for what it was: the dismantlement and destruction of just about every cultural and social value that China and the continuous Chinese tradition had stood for. A recognition of some of what went wrong in Mao’s China might have allowed the achievements to emerge with more credibility.

I have been living in India, that other huge Asian civilisation, for the past three years. Seen from that perspective, a theme that runs through the later sections of Newnham’s book jumps out. It is summed up in Ramai Hayward’s words: “…the whole nation seemed to be going to school”. Troublingly, no one could say that of the world’s largest democracy nearly half a century after its own liberation. Compared with China, its adult literacy statistics are poor, with female literacy in 1991 at 39%, as against China’s 68%. Newnham’s New Zealand women in China were working in fertile soil. These strikingly positive accounts would seem to owe much to this.

Diana Bridge works on Chinese classical poetry. Her husband is New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India.

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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction and Review
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