When Attlee met Mao
Passport to Peking, A very British mission to Mao's China by Patrick Wright

Reviewed by Michael Rank

Contrary to popular belief, United States president Richard Nixon was not the first Westerner to visit China since the communist takeover in 1949. As far back as the early 1950s there was a steady flow of foreign delegations that came to observe, probe or pay homage to China's mysterious new rulers, but their visits achieved few breakthroughs and were soon forgotten.

Patrick Wright, a cultural and political historian at Nottingham Trent University, has dug deep into the archives and shed valuable light onto early British contact with Mao Zedong's China, focussing much of his attention on a colorful delegation of artists

and intellectuals who visited Peking in October 1954 for the fifth anniversary of the communist victory.

The group included the highly eccentric Christian visionary painter Stanley Spencer who wore his pyjamas under his clothes, and for whom the center of the world was his home village of Cookham, as well as the urbane, philandering philosopher A J Ayer, "who was more than at ease with his own celebrity as the man who had made logical positivism a subject of conversation among the British middle classes".

Ayer loathed Spencer, calling him "a vile little man, boring on an unwholesomely lavish scale ... ". So there was plenty of scope for dissent and bad temper before the group even reached the unfamiliar surroundings of Peking.

Although this was surely the most colorful British delegation to visit China in the early years of the revolution, it was by no means the only group, and in protocol terms at least it was overshadowed by a visit by former prime minister Clement Attlee. The Labour party leader was granted an audience with Mao, while the artists and intellectuals were received one step lower in the pecking order, having to make do with a meeting with premier Chou Enlai.

In the best anecdote in the book, Spencer declared that he would agree to attend the meeting "on one condition: that politics are not mentioned". Spencer's remark was met with "ribald hilarity" by a group of Labour members of parliament who were also due to meet Chou, but he was finally prevailed upon to take part, and apparently broke an awkward silence at the encounter with the premier by declaring, "Yes ... we ought to know the new China better. And the new China ought to know Cookham better. I feel at home in China because I feel that Cookham is somewhere near."

Another member of the delegation, the architect Hugh Casson, was concerned about the vast amount of construction work that was going on as Mao sought to rebuild Peking as a communist capital. But Casson felt that the rebuilding was not on a scale that could "destroy this feeling of this being in a place unchanged", and Ayer too concluded that Peking was still "in the main a medieval town".

Another visitor to Peking around this time was the pro-Soviet Marxist scientist J D Bernal, who seems to have been more perturbed by the planned destruction of the ancient city than the two members of the haute bourgeoisie. For Bernal Peking the walls and gateways must been "one of the gayest and most exciting sights in the ancient world" and he was deeply concerned about plans to raze them to the ground.

He discussed the plans with the architect Liang Ssucheng (Liang Sicheng), who assured him that there would no rebuilding "inside the old city boundary". The old wall and gates were ruthlessly destroyed within a few years just as Bernal had feared, however, one irony that the author is not apparently aware of is that Liang was a fearless opponent of the plans, and was viciously persecuted during the Cultural Revolution for standing up to Mao.

Flying to China took several days in the 1950s, with refueling stops every couple of hours and almost inevitably a night or two at least in Moscow.

The book includes detailed accounts of stopovers in Moscow by several delegations, and none of the groups reaches China until about page 220 as the first half is taken up with a detailed, if not always terribly relevant, survey of European-Chinese relations since medieval times. It also has a fascinating account of leftist Anglo-Chinese friendship groups in the 1930s and 1940s during the anti-Japanese war.

There was sharp disagreement between doctrinaire communists and more independently minded figures such as the Oxford don Michael Lindsay, who became increasingly convinced that the Chinese leaders he had known and respected in Yenan were, as they were about to seize control of the entire country, operating in a "psychopathic state of emotional and intellectual confusion".

The book contains some valuable insights into the intellectual, artistic and political atmosphere of the early Cold War period, although it is somewhat overlong and I could not help feeling that it was not necessary to include for example, an entire chapter on the sojourn in Moscow of the now totally obscure Labour member of parliament Ellis Smith.

But there are some delightful vignettes, such as Hugh Casson's delight at getting the autograph of the 19-year-old Dalai Lama, having been undeterred in his advance by "the half-horrified, half-envious glances of my friends". At a more serious level it is interesting to note that the firmly anti-communist Attlee was motivated by a desire to establish whether the new Chinese government was seriously bent on establishing an "imperial hegemony' in Southeast Asia.

The book contains some attractive illustrations, such as a photograph of Attlee taking a nap in Hangchow as well as paintings and sketches by Spencer, and the dust jacket, based on a 1925 print of one of Peking's gates, is a delight. Although it could have done with more editing, this book uncovers much little-known material and is a fascinating account of a forgotten era before Peking became Beijing.

Passport to Peking, A very British mission to Mao's China by Patrick Wright. Oxford University Press, October 2010. ISBN 978-0-19-954193-5. Price US$32, 516 pages.

Michael Rank was a British Council student in China from 1974 to 1976 and a Reuters correspondent in Peking 1980-84. He is now a journalist and Chinese-English translator living in London