Mike Cormack

Anglo-Chinese misunderstanding: an Oxford don visits 1960s Beijing

Though promised free access and movement, Hugh Trevor-Roper was heavily monitored during his stay, leading to much indignation in his journal

This book is a rather startling depiction of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s involvement with the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU), his sponsored visit to China in October 1965 (just months before the Cultural Revolution got under way) and his efforts to find out who actually controlled and funded SACU.

Having been induced to be a sponsor of the society on legitimate grounds of interest in China and its history, Trevor-Roper was a last-minute addition to a delegation visiting Beijing and Xian. He was promised freedom of movement and access, though the reality turned out quite differently. The China Journals thus comprises four sections: Trevor-Roper’s diary of his three-week visit; his diary of his time in Oxford and London two months later, when he tries to get to the bottom of SACU; his suppressed Encounter article on the episode; and a diary of a later visit to Taiwan and Cambodia. This last is tangential to the purpose of the book, but presumably included for balance on Trevor-Roper’s feelings about China. (He uses phrases such as ‘the worthless Chinese’ and others even less complimentary.)

The first section is the most interesting. Trevor-Roper is lumped with three other fellow travellers: Mary Adams, a stereo-typical upper-middle-class committee-joiner and do-gooder; Ernie Roberts, assistant secretary-general of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, a bon vivant and claimer of proletarian virtue; and Robert Bolt, the playwright. He is soon exasperated by the vanities and stupidities of Adams and Roberts, and the diary is littered with amusingly poisonous portraits of them.

But, more seriously, the promises of free access and movement turn out to be worthless. The group is forced to remain together, every visit choreographed and monitored by interpreters and political minders, every question and request for information treated with the utmost suspicion, every interaction guarded. (The one time Trevor-Roper does get to meet Chinese historians they remain almost silent, visibly frustrated at being minded by their voluble professor, a party hack.)

Political discourse is also sterile.

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