21 December 2009

‘Nixon in China’? Yes, but what about Clement Attlee in Hangzhou eighteen years earlier?

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It’s not just admirers of John Adams’ opera, who have come to believe that western rapprochement with Communist China began with President Richard Nixon’s visit of 1972. I’ve been researching an earlier attempt to lift the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ – this one carried out by Clement Attlee and other leading members of the Labour Party in 1954. The full story of this forgotten mission, which also involved the philosopher A.J. Ayer, the physicist J.D. Bernal, the novelist and classicist Rex Warner, and the artists Paul Hogarth and Stanley Spencer, is reconstructed in my forthcoming book, Passport to Peking, to be published by OUP in October 2010.

Clement Attlee lies stretched out in a bamboo armchair beside a rocky sunlit garden. A cigarette smoulders in his right hand and a walking stick rests between his loosely crossed legs. There is an ancient and ornately framed scroll of calligraphy on the wall behind him and a ‘Chinese interpreter’, wearing a bright floral dress, looks out from the terrace with an engaging smile. ‘It was a beautiful place’, says the General Secretary of the Labour Party, Morgan Phillips, of the government guest house in which the eight members of his National Executive Committee were accommodated.

Britain’s former prime minister is slumbering in Hangchow (Hangzhou), a city in the Yangtze Delta known for its lakes, pagodas and temples. Though the famous West Lake was being energetically dredged of silt by the new authorities, the waters still abounded with lotus flowers and enormous goldfish: including, perhaps, the very ones that the American President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat would be shown feeding for the benefit of the world’s press (‘I never saw goldfish that big’) during their altogether more carefully staged visit of 1972.

Claude Roy, a French writer who passed through two years earlier, had been puzzled by the various temples of Hangchow, finding them filled with an apparently indistinguishable apparatus of joss sticks, bronze vases and gongs. He had deemed it impossible to ‘unravel the threads’ of the ancient Chinese religions that had long since become ‘stunted and adulterated into confused cults, monotonous rituals and the like’. Attlee, Bevan and the others had also been guided round this place of Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist residues, the latter represented by the Lingying temple, a large and very ancient Buddhist establishment which, as they discovered, retained a small community of monks. The British inspectors were left in no doubt that the temple was undergoing extensive restoration and that the repairs were being done ‘at immense cost’ too.

Hangchow had been laid on as a tranquil interlude in an otherwise busy itinerary, and the British politicians were generally content to boat on the lakes, wander in the hills, and, as Morgan Phillips would later attest, inspect the ‘Poets’ Corner too’. When informed, as was every foreign visitor, of the old Chinese saying: ‘Above is Heaven, below is Hangchow’, the Labour leadership could only agree that this was indeed ‘a place where one can go to rest and thoroughly enjoy the beauties that abound’. . .

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This entry was posted on Monday, December 21st, 2009 at 12:24 pm and is filed under Articles General, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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