Controversial still, John O’Leary

A Communist In The Family
Elspeth Sandys
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988531601

Families are complicated things. Members don’t necessarily agree with one another, or even like one another; relationships can be strained, or snapped, then re-made across the years. This is never truer than when one family member breaks ranks and does something out of the ordinary.

Rewi Alley was just such a person. He followed his star and went off to China to live a life that was admired by some, but condemned by others. Sandys’s book is the story of that life and of her own and her extended family’s relationship with Alley. It is also, in a way, the story of the relationship of New Zealanders generally with him, as over the years he became more or less famous in the country of his birth.

It was a relationship that had its ups and downs. Admired in the 1940s for his part in helping the Chinese people in their struggle to modernise, Alley became less popular as the Cold War deepened and the Vietnam War heated up. Later, there came a kind of rehabilitation – David Lange described Alley in 1986 as New Zealand’s “greatest son”. It’s a judgement that many would dispute, which only proves how Alley remains, even now, a contentious figure.

Sandys tells two stories in her book, Alley’s own and that of her journey with other members of the Alley family to China in 2017 to mark the 90th anniversary of Alley’s arrival in the country. We learn of his fairly conventional upbringing in Canterbury; not entirely conventional, however, for his parents took on board the suggestion that he be named after the Maniapoto warrior – something which suggests that Pākehā New Zealanders of the period were not as closed off to the indigenous Other as is sometimes asserted.

It was a family presided over by an authoritarian father, against whom Alley strongly rebelled, and in such rebellion lay the seeds of his later political orientation. This was slow to develop: for a time after WWI, he farmed a hopeless plot of land in Taranaki as a returned serviceman, while during his early years in China he worked humbly as a municipal firefighter and factory inspector in Shanghai. But what he saw in that city – the hideous poverty, the street executions of the Guomindang – drew him into the ambit of leftist activists, both Chinese and foreign. Unhurriedly, chapter by chapter, Sandys traces her relative’s growing radicalisation, which saw him help establish the Gung Ho (“Work Together”) co-operative movement and set up training schools in remote provinces. By 1943, he had settled in Shandan, in China’s remote north-west – a rough, dusty, frontier sort of place where he spent his happiest years. When the communists took over in 1949, he was quietly but firmly removed from his post at the school he had set up. Relocated to Beijing, he spent the rest of his life writing for and travelling on behalf of the regime – but his heart remained in Shandan, and his ashes were scattered there after his death.

Sandys’s account deals with much more than just Alley’s political and educational career. She details his love of ancient Chinese antiquities, of which he amassed a vast collection, and notes his translations of classical Chinese poetry. She also includes chunks of his own verse, which he appears to have written down almost as diary entries, to remind him of what he saw or did on a particular day. Alas, he was no poet: his verse, while honest and well-intentioned, is pedestrian, with none of the haunting allusiveness of the Tang dynasty poets he so admired. Sandys deals with more personal aspects of his life, too. She doubts he was gay, believing his explanation that he remained a lifelong bachelor because a war wound had rendered him incapable of being a husband in the fullest sense. She has no truck with the notion that he was a pederast.

Between her chapters on Alley’s life, Sandys gracefully interleaves her account of the Alley whānau’s journey round China in 2017. They are an articulate, opinionated lot, and not everyone shares the same view of their famous relative. Amid all the bus journeys, banquets and official brouhaha, Alley remains for Sandys a disappointingly distant figure – until, towards the end of their journey, freed at last from the tour programme, she is able to wander on her own through a Lanzhou park and connect spiritually with her relative: “For a few precious moments past and present are one, and I am a privileged witness to both.

Alley is still in some respects a controversial figure, and there remains the question of his complicity with a regime that caused the deaths of millions of its own citizens. Sandys addresses this issue at a number of points in her book, suggesting that her relative’s support of the regime was understandable, if not always admirable. I am less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt – was it not his duty, as a high-profile “outsider” with access to an international audience, to speak up in face of the disaster of the Great Leap Forward and the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, of whose dire effects he cannot have been unaware? It’s a case, I think, of family loyalty trumping a cooler, more objective assessment of the man. But family bonds run deep, and families are complicated things.

John O’Leary is a Wellington writer and researcher working on his third book, a biography of Sir George Grey’s intellectual life.

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