A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley by Elspeth Sandys


About the writer:

Elspeth Sandys has been a full-time writer for the last 35 years. She has published nine novels, two collections of short stories and two memoirs. Her novel River Lines was a finalist in the 1996 Orange Prize. In 2006, Elspeth was awarded the Officer of the Order of New Zealand for Services to Literature in the Queen’s New Year Honours. She has written extensively for the BBC and for RNZ as well as for TV and film. Her stage plays have been produced in the UK, the US and New Zealand. Elspeth lived for many years in the UK but has been back in her home country of New Zealand since 1990.

About the book:

A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley is a multi-layered narrative centred on New Zealander Rewi Alley and his part in the momentous political events of mid-twentieth-century China. Part-biography, part-travel journal, part-literary commentary, A Communist in the Family brings together Alley’s story and that of his author cousin, Elspeth Sandys.

In 2017, Sandys travelled to China with other family members to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Rewi’s arrival in Shanghai in 1927. One strand of this book follows that journey and charts Sandys’ impressions of modern China. Another tells the story of Rewi’s early life, in an insightful meditation on the complex and always elusive relationship between memory and writing.

By placing the man, Rewi, and his work in the context of his time, Sandys is able to illuminate the life of this extraordinary New Zealander in a way that is both historically vivid and relevant to the world of today. Her focus on the role poetry played in his life – both his own and that of the Chinese poets he translated so prolifically – provides moving glimpses of the man behind the myth.

Threaded through A Communist in the Family are Sandys’ evolving insights into a nation that looms ever larger in the day-to-day realities of New Zealand and the world. The strange – and strangely intimate – link between the two countries Rewi regarded as home is one in which he played, and continues to play, a crucial role.

‘Rewi is hugely respected in China.  I do believe New Zealand has Favoured Nation Status in China because of him,’ says Elspeth Sandys.



(Otago University Press, 2019)


Extract from A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley by Elspeth Sandys.


I’M standing, as instructed, by the Cathay Pacific check-in sign, searching the faces of passers-by to see if any of them are my Alley cousins. Ten of us, 21 if you count spouses, partners and family friends, are headed for China to attend the celebrations marking 90 years since Rewi Alley’s arrival in Shanghai. (Nine is a sacred number in Chinese lore, being one of two numbers – nine and five – associated with the majesty of the emperor. There hasn’t been an emperor in China for over a century, but the significance attached to those numbers remains.)

I’m an hour early. A friend recently predicted that the day would come when my fear of missing planes – and trains and buses – would take off into the stratosphere, and I’d end up sleeping at the airport to be sure I didn’t miss my flight! Even when, as today, the journey has been meticulously planned, not by me but by my redoubtable first cousin Jocelyn, anxiety hovers like a threatened headache. Have I packed the right clothes? Did I remember to bring a sleeping pill for the journey? My cellphone is where it’s supposed to be in my handbag but where did I put the charger? Did I even pack it? (I needn’t have worried. The Great Firewall of China will render my phone redundant.)

That this journey, three years in the planning, is happening at all is something of a miracle. ‘When Alleys want you to do something they just keep talking till you give in and do it’  – a saying familiar to me since childhood – probably had something to do with it. Jocelyn may not have had the same hurdles to surmount as our famous cousin, but she was dealing with a bunch of highly independent individuals with built-in resistance to doing what they’re told! That she got us all into line with our fares paid and visas stamped is testament to her good-natured persistence. Whether we will come up to scratch over the next two and a half weeks is not so certain. We’ve been told to pack formal gear for a banquet in the Great Hall of the People and other official occasions. Some of us have agreed under pressure to give speeches. I suspect it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Still no sign of the familiar Alley face: the long nose (Rewi was called High Nose, Gao Bizi, in China); the spiky red-gold hair; the intense gaze (many people remarked on Rewi’s intense blue eyes). On my mother’s side, the Alley side, I have 56 first cousins. The Alleys are famous, some might say notorious, for many things, including an enthusiasm for breeding. My grandfather sired 18 children, which I used to think was a world record till I discovered that Johann Sebastian Bach had 20. Four of my 56 cousins should be appearing any minute: Jocelyn and Zeke (Philip), children of Uncle Digger, my mother’s youngest brother; and Carol and Christine, daughters of the next youngest, Uncle Bert. Digger’s youngest son, Ross, a music lecturer and pianist who lives in England, will join us, along with his friends Peter and Irene, in Beijing. Also on the trip are four cousins less closely related to me: Maurice, son of Rewi’s brother Pip (Philip), a professor at Massey University and active member of the New Zealand–China Friendship Society (NZCFS); Maurice’s niece Sarah; Rachel, granddaughter of my mother’s brother John; and Alison, who is related to Rewi on both sides of the family tree.

Together we will travel, by plane, bus and train, from one side of China to the other, a distance of 6000 kilometres. We will stay in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Fengxi’an, Lanzhou, Zhangye and Shandan. Multiple events are planned for every day. We will have almost no free time. My anxiety, usually associated with travelling on my own, has shape-shifted to a worry that I won’t be up to the task that has been allotted to me. Most of my costs have been paid on the understanding that I will write a book. Not a travelogue, but a book about Rewi, the man to whom we are all, in our different ways, connected, in whose footsteps we are ostensibly walking. (In fact we will be following a circuitous route of our own, ending in Shanghai where Rewi started, doubling back on our tracks to meet the requirements of a complex schedule.) For the last six months I have been reading everything I can lay my hands on by and about him. I have put myself through a crash course in Chinese history. Not enough, the voice in my head accuses. You will never know enough …

Someone is waving. Zeke and his wife Judy. Hurrah! Two hours and some panicked moments later – Carol and Christine couldn’t be found: they’d disobeyed instructions and checked in early – we are all assembled in the departure lounge. Jocelyn does a head count. With the addition of Maurice’s wife Dorothy, Rachel’s husband Stewart, Carol’s husband Laurie, Alison’s partner David, and friends Maurice Beeby, Betty Gray and Helen Foster, the number is 21. This ritual of counting will be repeated every day from now on. On two occasions people will go missing – not for long, but long enough to conjure up images of police searches and diplomatic embarrassment.

We’re a motley lot. Clutching bags and bottles of water, we rummage for our boarding passes and talk, in the way of people who don’t know one another very well, about things common to travellers – past experiences, the best ways to get to sleep in economy class, the prospect of catching up on a film or two. Ahead of us is a 12-hour flight to Hong Kong, a two-hour stopover, then a four-hour flight to Beijing. As it turns out, 18 hours of travel stretches to 22 and we reach Beijing four hours behind schedule. We have five hours to shower and rest before kick-starting our itinerary at noon Beijing time.

On the other side of the world the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has just arrived at Palm Beach to meet with the American president, Donald Trump, in his opulent summer residence, Mar-a-Lago in Florida. The New York Times is describing it as ‘a vital meeting for the two nations, the Asia and Pacific region, and the globe as a whole’. The focus of these high-level talks was to have been trade, but the situation has changed. Top of the agenda now is North Korea.

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