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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 1. 28th February 1973

Prisoners Shanghai 1936

Prisoners Shanghai 1936

Drawing of a man shining a light on people

Rewi Alley's latest booklet is likely to be one of his more enduring prose pieces for it shows Alley at his best, recording the heroic in the lives of ordinary people. The incidents described are based on actual stories told to the author by people who had been captives of the Kuomintang during the 1930's and is concerned, less with the atrocities committed against them than with the ability of the prisoners to rise above their situation

The story was written during Chiang Kai-shek's Anti-Communist campaign, but was not published at the time because the Anti-Japanese Front was formed and it [unclear: wa:] decided that "Prisoners " would not help united trout's activities. The manuscript had been sent abroad, and Alley didn't get it back until thirty years later. I don't know what its situation is regarding publication within China, but I can imagine the work being immensely popular.

For the Westerner, no matter how sympathetic to the cause for which the prisoners were lighting, there is a culture gap which is only partly mediated by Alley's pen—he has achieved an identification with the Chinese people which mere reading could never give us here in New Zealand. The Stories though are pretty universalistic—the struggles of prisoners lighting in a just cause to escape and heroic deaths and they are told most often through the mouths of the prisoners themselves. But the whole effect is distinctively Chinese.

Now and again a phrase will jar on the western ear a little, often as political conclusions are drawn out from a story or description in an unfamiliar way (unless you read the "People's Voice"or even better a Chinese publication such as "Eastern Horizon". Thus a paragraph describing a prison ends "it was part of the striking fist of the Kuomintang trying to hold its rule over the Chinese people". Which of course, it was, but there is a difference of literary style which many readers might find distracting. Alley's work is always unpretentious as he writes with the simple honesty of purpose which characterizes his subjects -the Chinese people. When we spoke to Rewi (see interview in this issue of Salient) he told us that he was still travelling throughout China meeting the people and sharing their joy just as he shared their sacrifices during the Revolution. Although getting old now he still writes tirelessly about his travels and experiences. After his short New Zealand visit he was on his way to a six-week lecture tour of Australia.

Alley is convinced that New Zealanders have much to learn from the Chinese experience and Prisoners is a valuable presentation of the reality of political struggle. A particularly revealing passage which sheds much light also on the Vietnamese struggle occurs at the end of the book as two young fighters stand and watch Japanese bombers fly overhead. One remarks on how great a number there are, and how difficult they will be to stop.

"'Ai-yah! Such a stupid fellow!' mused the other, looking reflectively down at the hammer and sickle tattooed on his comrade's forearm. 'Now let's do some figuring. Kuo Fo, how many birds do you suppose there are in China?"

Replied Kim Fo, "Now who's the fool! What the hell do you mean by asking a silly question like that! Why there must be millions of birds certainly far too many for anyone to count'"

'And did you ever in your whole life have one shit on your head?' persisted the first."

The moral if finally drawn out "Its the people who count, we'll come out on top all right".

And he was right they did come out on top. "Prisoners" helps explain why.