Honest words and honest deeds, Mary Roberts

Capes of China Slide Away
James Bertram,
Auckland University Press, $39.95


James Bertram spent ten years of his long life in Asia. Those years prompt the use of Auden’s quotation as the title of his book and occupy over half of the three hundred or so pages of his autobiographical ‘memoir of peace and war’. As he says ‘some of my experience was perhaps out of the common run’ and his biography is largely an account of that experience in China and Japan.

James Bertram was lucky and enterprising enough to be in China at a crucial period in her history and to meet and get to know some of the people who played a significant role in that history. He was on the spot for the aftermath of the Xian incident. He can offer an assessment of Mao Ze Dong, Zhou En Lai, Zhu De, Norman Bethune, He Long, Rewi Alley, and of course the much beloved Song Qing Ling – Madame Sun Yat-sen. In his introduction Bertram points out that China and Japan seem closer to New Zealand than they did fifty years ago and that New Zealanders need to know more about their large northern neighbours. He is well qualified to help them. After Waitaki Boys’ High School came Auckland University, a Rhodes Scholarship and New College, Oxford. James Bertram’s ambition at this time in his life was to become one of those glamorous figures of the thirties, an international correspondent. To this end he got a job on The Times of London, which proved uncongenial. He moved to a teaching position, and then the opportunity to pursue the desired career arrived. Lord Lothian, General Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, established a travelling scholarship for former Rhodes Scholars to study and travel in China and Japan. Bertram was offered a scholarship and equipped with letters from The Times and The Manchester Guardian set out for China where he applied himself to learning Chinese and was quickly caught up in turbulent Chinese politics.

In 1936 Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped at Xian and, in effect, secured his own release by promising to prosecute the war against the Japanese more vigorously. When the Xian incident broke it was clearly the budding international correspondent’s chance. Bertram got to Xian, which had been blockaded by the Nationalist government, and reported from there with a mixed group of journalists which included the celebrated Agnes Smedley. The only medium which could not be censored by the Nationalist government was the radio, and for some weeks Smedley and Bertram were members of a team which broadcast events in Xian to the outside world. As Bertram rightly says, the Xian incident marks a turning point in modern Chinese history – the end of the fighting between Communists and Nationalists and the beginning of what was to be, for a while, a reasonably effective united front.

After the Japanese invaded Peking in the summer of 1937 Bertram left again for Xian. There he received an invitation from Mao Ze Dong to become the first official ‘British’ visitor to Yanan. Bertram spent nearly a month in Yanan, conducting a series of interviews with Mao and getting to know the other inhabitants of this ‘anti-Japanese base, humming with energy’. Yanan in those days had a magnetic drawing power for patriotic young Chinese. The Communists seemed to be the only people who were effectively resisting the Japanese and Yanan was bursting with hope and defiance.

From Yanan Bertram went to join General He Long at the front line in Northern Shansi. On the trip to He Long’s headquarters he had the opportunity to meet and get to know General Zhu De and Zhou En Lai. He spent five months with the Eighth Route Army before leaving for Hong Kong to help organise desperately needed medical relief. From this point on James Bertram’s fortunes were bound up with those of the China Defence League chaired by Madame Sun.

Bertram first knew Mme Sun when she was in her early forties. As he says ‘Now that she has passed into history as the dignified elder stateswoman who died in her eighties as Honorary President of her country, it is not easy to recall the magnetism and romantic charm she exerted, especially on the young, in those first years of China’s war’. But it is strongly evoked in Bertram’s The Shadow of a War published in 1947 before Mme Sun’s ascension to elder stateswoman.

It is difficult for anyone who has known Mme Sun, and almost impossible for one who has worked closely with her, to suggest what her own sweetness and dignity and passionate devotion to the Chinese Revolution have meant over the last decade … she sums up in one person more of the qualities and destiny of her own people than any other single figure in the Chinese scene.


The declaration of war between Britain and, consequently, New Zealand and Germany seems to have caught James Bertram emotionally off-balance. His loyalties to China and to New Zealand were in conflict. Under the initial impact of the news he came rushing back to New Zealand only to find there was no immediate demand for his services. In 1940 he got permission to return to Hong Kong on war work: the ‘organisation of medical relief’. Thus Bertram was in Hong Kong when it was invaded by the Japanese and after taking part in the defence of Hong Kong, where his schoolboy skills with the Lewis gun, acquired in the Waitaki cadet corps proved valuable, he, along with many others, became a Japanese POW after the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas day 1941. In December 1943 he was moved to Tokyo with a batch of prisoners most of whom were destined for labouring jobs to replace Japan’s drafted man-power.

After his return to New Zealand James Bertram married, became a much-respected lecturer at Victoria University, published several books of literary research and criticism and returned to both Japan (shortly after the end of the war) and China. This section of the book adds James Bertram’s own graceful and lively recollections to the growing literature on the New Zealand of the period.

The experience of being a prisoner of war does not perhaps provide the best environment for a well-rounded assessment of one’s captors. James Bertram gives a lucid and unvengeful account of his years as a prisoner, but inevitably he was seeing Japanese society from the bottom up. Although in retrospect he was glad to have the opportunity to experience life as it was lived by the vast majority of Asians at that time, nevertheless his experiences in Japan do not provide him with the same range and depth of material as his experiences in China. The account of his years in China is particularly welcome to a New Zealand audience because it adds much needed density and texture to the New Zealand view of China. It is a view which is still all too vague and partial and which is still all too likely to come to us through an English or American prism.

Although New Zealand’s relations with China have been reasonably cordial since the normalisation of diplomatic relations in 1972, prior to that they were marked by a distressing ignorance on New Zealand’s part. We followed blindly in America’s footsteps on the issue of government recognition of China until the Labour government of 1972 came to power. With the clarity of hindsight we may now see America’s policy towards China in the 1950s to have been tragically wrong. The State Department’s ‘men who lost China’ saw clearly enough at the time what the policy should have been; one of encouragement and support and maybe, if their advice had been heeded, the history that records the Great Leap Forward, the devastating famine in the early sixties, and the Cultural Revolution would now have a different tale to tell.

Capes of China Slide Away reminds one of books of the thirties and forties written by foreigners in China who were sympathetic to the communists. What makes it surprising today is that in the last few years we have read so much about the collapse of communism, the horrors of communism, and the evils and/or inefficiencies (some writers would appear to equate the two) of the Chinese communist system that such a generally positive view has come to seem unusual. It is salutary to be reminded what the Communists were like in the 1930s and 1940s and what they were up against. Bertram describes riding through Shansi to meet up with He Long s armies:

the provincial troops had stripped the country bare. It was only where a village was occupied by the Eighth Route Army that we found the local peasants still on view: if the troops were of another persuasion (Japanese or KMT), the villagers had already taken to the hills.


It has become fashionable today to point out the many weaknesses of a socialist economy and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. That those weaknesses exist is undoubtedly true but there are strengths also. It is perhaps worth considering that the economic reordering of the 1950s in China and the relative social stability that preceded and briefly followed the Cultural Revolution may bear some of the credit for the economic and social revolution that is taking place now in China. When I was a student in China in the 1970s, we learnt that a ‘Communist spoke honest words and did honest deeds’ (gongchandangyan shuo laoshi hua, zuo laoshi shi). James Bertram’s book is a timely reminder that there was a time and place where that slogan could be uttered without a sneer.


Mary Roberts is a doctorate student in the Linguistics Department at Victoria University of Wellington, and lived in China for four years.


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