The Unsung Heroes — Reflections on Participating in the 2023 Armistice Day Ceremony (中英双语)

Weien Zong
Master of Global Media Industries, King’s College London
Bachelor of Communications, South China University of Technology
Freelance Media Person, Cultural Influencer, Chinese Cultural Event Planner

On November 11th, I had the chance to participate in the Armistice Day Ceremony organized by the Western Front Association at Cenotaph London. Despite several days of continuous rain, the weather turned sunny on this particular day, gradually dispelling the chill of early winter. Coming out from Charing Cross station, I felt a surge of people heading towards the monument commemorating the end of World War I. Crowded streets were adorned with individuals wearing poppies, symbolizing the remembrance of international fallen soldiers.

As a Chinese, I was a little out of place in the crowd. The occasional sideways glances seemed to inquire, “Why are there Chinese people participating in Armistice Day?” This was the reason why we, as a group of Chinese representatives, gathered here — to commemorate the 140,000 Chinese labourers who participated in this most brutal war in human history. Due to China’s weakened national strength, the impact of the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act’, and various stereotypes and prejudices against Chinese people, the contributions of the Chinese Labour Corps to World War I are seldom mentioned in mainstream British society. For a long time, discussions about World War I marginalized the Chinese Labour Corps, and few representatives were advocating for them. In recent years, thanks to the tireless efforts of a group of dedicated individuals who have been collecting information and organizing activities, the stories of the Chinese Labourers’ contributions to World War I have gradually come to light. Their contributions are gradually gaining recognition and appreciation in European society.

White Chrysanthemums Wreath for CLC
Photo by Iris Yau (SACU Trustee)

CLC mostly consisted of farmers from northern China and also included hundreds of students serving as translators. In 1916, facing a shortage of wartime labour, the British Cabinet approved the recruitment of Chinese labourers. This marked the beginning of a tumultuous journey for China seeking international status and for ordinary individuals trying to make a living in turbulent times. Each Chinese labourer toiling on the Western European battlefield carried the expectations of a family and a struggling nation. What deeply moved me was that their journey to the West was not driven by noble reasons, but rather by a practical desire for survival, prosperity, or a chance to see the world while bringing honour to their country.

The 1918 British military report stated, “Most labourers are proficient at their work, consistently demonstrating high efficiency in railway, ordnance factories, and tank workshops.” A French officer also remarked, “They can handle any job, be it as a merchant, shoemaker, blacksmith, or engineer; they are almost indispensable.” The Chinese labourers, known for their endurance and willingness to work, engaged in the dirty and Labourious tasks that even British and French soldiers were reluctant to undertake. Despite promises from the British and French governments that they would not be sent to the frontlines, many of these commitments were cast aside once the war erupted. According to recollections from Chinese labourers, there were instances where the trenches they dug were only 50 meters away from the German forces. Sometimes, after completing the trenches, British soldiers would enter the battlefield in combat with the Germans. In a battle in Picardy, France, in 1917, when the German forces broke through the British and French Allied lines, hundreds of Chinese Labourers working at the frontline were unable to retreat in time. Armed only with shovels and hoes, they had to confront the German forces. By the time the British and French Allied forces arrived for support, most Chinese labourers had already perished. Additionally, the contracts for Chinese labourers stipulated a mandatory 10-hour workday, seven days a week. In the British military’s Chinese labour units, leaving the camp to interact with locals was strictly prohibited.

After the war, the contributions of the Chinese labourers, who played a crucial role in helping the Allies win the war, did not receive the respect and recognition they deserved. Before the war’s end, the painting “The Temple of War,” commemorating World War I, was displayed in Paris. However, due to the United States’ entry into the war in 1917, the original depiction of the Chinese Labour Corps was replaced with Americans. The hardworking and enduring nature of the Chinese labourers contributed to the Western stereotype of the Chinese as diligent but was also seen as a means of resource acquisition.

CLC Representatives at the Cenotaph
Photo by Weien Zong (the Author)

A similar situation unfolded in post-World War II Britain. After the outbreak of the war, the British government needed a large number of merchant sailors to transport food and weapons, leading to the recruitment of 20,000 Chinese sailors in 1940. However, their wages were only half of what British sailors received. After the war, around 2,000 retired Chinese sailors remained in Liverpool. However, with severe post-war unemployment and inflation in Britain, Chinese and local sailors faced intense competition. Shipping companies, eager to rid themselves of Chinese workers, reduced wages and reclaimed war risk bonuses, making it difficult for them to survive. On October 19, 1945, the British Home Office decided to act, “forcibly repatriating unwanted Chinese sailors.” Some were even arrested while buying milk for their daughters on the street, without the chance to bid farewell to their families before being deported. These Chinese sailors, known for their diligence and affordability, were expelled after being exploited.

Wreaths for CLC at the Cenotaph in London
Photo by Iris Yau (SACU Trustee)

Diligence and affordability have perhaps been a double-edged label for underdeveloped countries and regions since the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries, during the Age of Discovery and the Industrial Revolution. Countries that did not achieve capital accumulation through colonization could only engage in resource exchange with colonizers through labour-intensive industries. In a conversation with a British mobile phone retailer, he proudly mentioned his frequent trips to Shenzhen, China, to purchase phone components. He found factories there to process and assemble the components. He told me about the significantly lower cost of producing imitation Apple phones compared to the genuine ones, allowing him to make a substantial profit. However, shortly afterwards, he expressed a sense of “sympathy” for the exploited workers and criticized the harsh working conditions. Intrigued, I asked him, “Have you ever considered the fundamental reasons behind the cheap labour and poor working conditions in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia?” He began analyzing the government, corporate exploitation of workers, and the work ethic of Asians. I couldn’t help but interject, “Have you never thought that it might be due to the original accumulation of capital obtained through colonization by Western capitalist countries? This drove progress in industrial and technological revolutions, leaving formerly colonized countries unable to compete in the post-colonial era, forcing them to rely on cheap labour and natural resources for development in the age of economic globalization. While you profit from the cheap labour and resources in China, seeking benefits, you then shift the blame to the government and corporations, claiming that the thinking pattern of hardworking Chinese people is rigid. Don’t you find this hypocritical?”

Chinese representatives for CLC
Photography by Gu Hongyan (Mother’s Love of Bridge)

Standing at the site of the memorial ceremony, I was deeply moved. On this day, I witnessed over fifty Chinese representatives organised by the Meridian Society laying wreaths in tribute to the Chinese Labour Corps. Proudly, they reclaimed their rightful recognition—even if covered in mud, they are still heroes, still “hidden dragons.” At some point, diligence became stigmatised, discriminated against, and even used as a weapon for political attacks. As Chinese, we might have, to some extent, felt displeasure with phrases like “you work very hard,” associating them with the stereotypical image of low-level labourers. Nobody prefers to be labelled in this way. However, it was this group of labourers who earned China its victorious position in World War I and gained a little confidence to refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles in Paris, rejecting the transfer of German privileges in Shandong.

They achieved all this through their quality of enduring hardship. Today, more and more people are learning about the Chinese Labour Corps. Our memory and respect for them are the best comfort to their spirits, as well as a modest effort to advocate for fair media exposure and treatment for the Chinese community.

About the author
Weien Zong graduated from King’s College London with a background of 5 years of media and documentary education and work experience. She has extensive media experience, interning at Guangdong Radio and Television Station, NetEase Games, the United Nations Youth Leadership Development Program, and with independent documentary filmmakers. Currently, she is dedicated to creating original videos of Chinese traditional culture and medicine on major social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili. Additionally, she organizes offline Chinese cultural events to promote traditional Chinese culture and wisdom.







11月11日,我有幸参与了由Western Front Association组织在Cenotaph London举行的Armistice Day Ceremony战停战纪念仪式。连续多日阴雨绵绵却在这天阳光明媚,初冬的寒意在暖阳之下逐渐消散。从Charling Cross出站后,便感受到一股涌向一战停战纪念碑的人流。人头攒动的街道上,人们胸前佩戴着象征国际纪念阵亡将士的罂粟花标志。作为一个中国人,我在人群中显得有些格格不入。周围时不时投来的斜视仿佛在疑惑: “一战停战纪念日为何有中国人在凑热闹?”



1918年的英军报告中指出:“大多数劳工都能熟练地工作,而且他们一直都在铁路、兵工厂和坦克车间高效率地工作。”一位法国军官也指出:“他们能胜任任何工作,商人、鞋匠、铁匠、工程师,几乎无所不能。” 华工以吃苦耐劳、任劳任怨而著称,在这场并非属于他们的战争中,他们从事着英法士兵都不愿意做的脏活累活。尽管出发前英法政府承诺他们不会到前线参战,但战争爆发后许多承诺都被抛诸脑后。根据中国劳工的回忆,有时他们挖的战壕距离德国人仅有50米,经常是挖好战壕后,英国士兵再进入战壕与德国人交战。1917年,在法国皮卡的一次战斗中,由于德军突破了英法联军防线,正在前线挖战壕的数百名中国劳工来不及撤退,只能靠手中的铁锹、锄头与德国人搏斗。等到英法联军赶来支援时,大部分中国劳工都已阵亡。此外,中国劳工的合同规定每日必须工作10小时,每周7天无休。在英国军队的华工中,甚至不允许踏出营地与当地人交往。




Joseph Needham and ‘Brand China’

Steve Bale lives in central Beijing and on the north Norfolk coast. He first travelled to China in 1988 and has been helping his clients build brands there since 1997. Many of Steve’s photographs and stories are on his website


Joseph Needham in his study at Cambridge University

Mention ‘China’ and ‘science and technology’ in the same breath to someone, and what kind of response are you likely to get?  These days, ‘innovative’, and ‘advanced’ are two of the words that might trip off the tongue. Quite a difference from, say, 20 years ago, when ‘copycat’, ‘laggard’, and perhaps lots of head-scratching may well have been the typical response.

By any measure, the rapidity of China’s progress in science and technology in the last two decades has been nothing short of astounding. The rest of the world’s view of China’s development in this field has been informed by writers, analysts, academics and – most significantly – by people’s own views of China’s brands and, of course, of the country itself.

In 2018, ‘foreign-tourists’ made 30.5 million visits to mainland China; an increase of almost five per cent compared with 2017. Many of those visitors avidly shared their impressions of China to friends, family, and colleagues via word-of-mouth and the numerous social-media channels.

Consequently, hundreds of millions of people all over the world are hearing about China’s impressive modernity from people who have experienced the airports, the high-speed rail network, the subway systems, the 4 and increasingly 5G connectivity, the electric-vehicles and the ‘cashlessness’ themselves.

The burgeoning fascination with all things Chinese has spurred a wave of interest in Chinese history. One of the popular subjects in this genre is ancient China’s technological superiority. Long-overdue news of China’s ‘four great inventions’ [si da faming] – paper making, printing, gunpowder, and the compass – has at last reached large numbers of people in the Western world. To the extent that, these days, any half-decent pub quiz team would be expected to know all the names of the ‘four-greats’.

The story has travelled far and wide. But, as is so often the case with stories, very few people know the name of the storyteller.

This would not have worried Joseph Needham (1900-1995) in the slightest. He was fully focused on one, albeit Herculean task: to give China the long-overdue respect it deserves for its scientific contributions to humankind.

Joseph Needham studied biochemistry at the University of Cambridge under the tutelage of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, who would be jointly-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1929. Needham was a brilliant student and equally exceptional researcher, who would go on to author more than 100 scientific publications between 1921 and 1942.

A Harvard reviewer was so impressed by one of those publications, a book titled Biochemistry and Morphogenesis, he or she was moved to write: “[It] will go down in the annals of science as Joseph Needham’s magnum opus, destined to take its place as one of the most truly epoch-making books in biology since Charles Darwin.”

Surely, then, it would only be a matter of time before he followed Sir Frederick’s path all the way to the Nobel rostrum.

Perhaps he would have, had he not met Lu Gwei-Djen (Lu Guizhen), also a biochemist at Cambridge. She had arrived there in 1937 to pursue post-graduate studies, after fleeing from war-torn Shanghai.

Lu ignited his intense passion for studying Chinese characters, which he went on to describe as, “…A liberation, like going for a swim on a hot day. [For it gets you] entirely out of the prison of alphabetical words and into the glittering, crystalline world of ideographic characters.” Lu, whose father was a distinguished Nanjing pharmacist, also fired Doctor Needham’s fanatical interest in China’s long and illustrious history in numerous fields of science.

Informed by professor Luo Zhongshu, who was close to scientists in Chengdu (beyond the vast territory occupied by Japanese forces), Joseph Needham realised that China’s scientific institutions were in a parlous state.

Determined to help, he persuaded the British government that he should be its man in charge of the British Scientific Mission in China. By 1946, he and his team of 10 Chinese and six British scientists had visited 296 ‘places of learning’ on journeys totalling many thousands of difficult miles.

During this grand tour of schools, universities, laboratories, and industrial units, the work of this small team resulted in the provision of ‘tons of scientific equipment’ as well as some 7,000 science books.

Many scientists and others he met were keen to talk about China’s incredible science history. They also introduced him to the literature that provided the all-important evidence that supported the many wondrous stories.

In the ‘Acknowledgements’ [Preface, page 11] of the first volume of Science and Civilisation in China [1954], Joseph Needham would write, “The work gave unimagined opportunities for acquiring an orientation into Chinese literature of scientific and technical interest, for in every university and not a few industrial installations, there were scientists, doctors and engineers who had themselves been interested in the history of science, and who were not only able but generously willing to guide my steps in the right paths.”

The longest of the physical ‘steps’ towards his enlightenment was a four-month expedition from Chongqing to the ancient Mogao Grottoes, also known as the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’, near Dunhuang, Gansu province.

Surrounded by boundless desert, the small ‘oasis town’ of Dunhuang became an important site for merchants traversing the ‘southern section’ of the Silk Road – the ancient superhighway between China and the Western world.

In the 1,000 years that followed the excavation of the first grottoes in the 4th century AD by Buddhist monks, the Mogao Grottoes developed into one of the Buddhist world’s greatest cultural sites.

Mogao became a staging post for the spread of Buddhism from India to China; as well as the place where Chinese monks could worship and meditate, before continuing their ‘Journey to the West’.

For Joseph Needham, also, this was as much a spiritual journey as it was an arduous physical one. His quest was to see with his own eyes the place where the Diamond Sutra was ‘discovered’ a few decades before. This document, found in the ‘Library Cave’, is regarded as one of the most important artefacts in the history of science.

Remarkably, it is precisely dated. The date that appears on the sutra corresponds to the 11th May 868 in the Gregorian calendar. Even more remarkable is that it was not hand-drawn. It was printed…

…587 years before Johannes Gutenberg printed the Bible in Germany [1455]; and 608 years before William Caxton published The Canterbury Tales, England’s first printed book [1476].

Recorded on the Diamond Sutra is the Chinese translation of a ‘question and answer’ dialogue between a disciple, Subhüti, and the Buddha. An alternative name of this sutra, ‘The Perfection of Wisdom Text that Cuts Like a Thunderbolt,’ seems entirely fitting as well as prophetic in that, more than any other, this was the ‘China first’ that had inspired Joseph Needham to embark on what would be a more than 50-year mission to persuade the world that China had been the home of the world’s most advanced ancient civilisation by far.

A section of ‘The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’, Mogao, Dunhuang, Gansu Province (Photo courtesy of Steve Bale)


His experiences and rich encounters during the numerous journeys that followed the ‘Dunhuang Expedition’ would convince him that the plan to write a “single slim volume” on the history of science in China needed to be re-thought: “During my time in China I realised that one volume would not be enough, and that it would probably have to be seven,” he wrote.

Back in Cambridge, Joseph Needham began to type the pages that would become the monumental Science and Civilisation in China. He was surrounded by mountains of beloved books from numerous Chinese sources. A kid in the world’s biggest and best sweet shop:

“What a cave of glittering treasures was opened up! …One after another, extraordinary inventions and discoveries clearly appeared… often, indeed generally, long preceding the parallel, or adopted inventions and discoveries of Europe. Wherever one looked, there was ‘first’ after ‘first.’”

Indeed, there were so many ‘firsts’ after ‘firsts’, that, although the plan for seven volumes didn’t change, volumes 4 to 7 were split into 24 parts. Several of these were completed by academics from the Needham Research Institute and published after his death in 1995.

The final book in the collection, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 7, Part II: General Conclusions and Reflections, lists the 262 ‘firsts’ that were described in earlier volumes of the work.

But, why then didn’t China go on to develop ‘modern science’ before the ‘industrial revolution’ in Europe, instead of seemingly running out of creative steam at around     1500 AD?

This is known as the ‘Needham Question’.

A Google search for the term and ‘1500 AD’ yielded 4,230 results, including links to numerous attempts to provide possible answers.

Here’s one more:

Could it be that, after four millennia of frenzied activity, the Chinese Dragon had simply decided to take a well-deserved nap?

It’s worth remembering that, for Chinese Dragons, 500 years is but a blink of an eye.


References at:


Science and Civilisation in China


A selection of 20 of the 262 ‘inventions and discoveries’ that are described in Science and Civilisation in China:

  • Air-conditioning fan in 180 AD
  • Algorithms in the first century AD
  • Antimalaria drugs in the 3rd century BC
  • Camera obscura, an explanation in 1086 AD
  • Clockwork mechanism in 725 AD
  • Coinage in the 9th century BC
  • Crop rotation in the 6th century BC
  • ‘Chinese triangle’ in 1100 AD
  • Natural gas as fuel, in the 2nd century BC
  • Diabetes (link to some foods) in the 1st century BC
  • Gear wheels (chevron-toothed) in AD 50
  • Inoculation against smallpox, 10th century AD
  • Metal used to fill tooth cavities in 659 AD
  • Nova, a recorded observation, 13th century BC
  • ‘Pi’, an accurate estimation in the 3rd century AD
  • Porcelain in the 3rd century BC
  • Rockets (two-stage) in AD 1360
  • Rotary fan in the 1st century BC
  • Seismograph in AD 132
  • Silk, the earliest spinning in 2850 BC

“The mere fact of seeing them listed brings home to one the astonishing inventiveness of the Chinese people.” 

Joseph Needham


Understanding China – an essay on SACU’s 50th Anniversary

Jenny Clegg is a Vice-president of SACU. She was a Senior Lecturer in International Studies, and a China Specialist at the University of Central Lancashire and is the author of ‘China’s Global Strategy ; Towards a Multipolar World’ published by Pluto Press. She talks here about SACU’s place in the increasing of understanding on China.

SACU was launched in May 1965 with the basic aims to spread knowledge of China in Britain, dispel misconceptions and counter misrepresentations. In his inaugural speech, Joseph Needham, SACU’s founding chairperson, highlighted the problems of ‘whopping lies’ – racial stereotypes such as “All Chinese are inscrutable’ ‘Chinese people look exactly alike’ …‘you can never tell what they are thinking…’; half-truths, frequently arising from a lack of historical perspective, for example, the pride of Chinese people in their humanistic heritage is taken for a ‘superiority complex’ when in fact they are amongst the most internationally minded people on earth; and ‘blind ignorance’ especially the failure to grasp why it is important, even urgent, to understand China.

For Needham, the point in a nutshell was that ‘the British people and the Chinese people must come to know each other better’. The international situation in 1965 was rapidly deteriorating with China increasingly isolated. Throughout the 1950s, China had come under frequent threat from US nuclear weapons; now the US was on the brink of another war in Asia barely ten years after the Korean armistice. China remained excluded from the UN, with Britain supporting the US demand for a two-thirds majority vote on its admittance. Following the Sino-Soviet split, it was even more vulnerable.

So in Needham’s words, it had become ‘urgently necessary for our understanding of world affairs today that the Chinese point of view on all kinds of matters, political as well as cultural, should be made known’. The point was to do so ‘without preconceived bias or ideological inhibitions, yet not necessarily without constructive comment and sympathetic criticism’. In this way, SACU could make ‘a great contribution to the development of world peace and international comprehension’.

The Society was to be a broad-based movement, building support for China initially in cultural and academic circles. It was to be non-political, that is ‘not designed for direct political action, but …concerned with politics in the sense that we want to know and make known what the Chinese think and say about them, especially having in mind the basically humanistic and altruistic aims of the society which they are building in their country’.

Fifty years on, the international situation is very different. Long gone are the days when China was a beleaguered country in need of international support. China today is changing the world, transforming itself as it does so with breathtaking speed. Ten years ago, the Chinese economy was more or less the same size as Britain’s; now it is four times larger. A future in which China’s economy is two, even three, times larger than the US is not unimaginable.

The challenge of understanding China remains; indeed it is vital to our future. But Britain has been slow to respond. The view that ‘China matters little,’ in the words of the much-acclaimed mainstream China expert, Gerald Segal, (Does China Matter? Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct 1999), has held too much sway, whilst SACU’s call over the years for China ‘to be treated seriously’ has been contained at the margins.

It is true that momentum is picking up: not only are more and more schools, businesses, universities, and NGOs building direct links with counterparts in China; they also operate there. And the exchange is becoming two-way: Britain now hosts the largest number of Confucius Institutes of any country in Europe. But in 2013, there were only 2,245 students taking Mandarin A-level, fewer than one percent of the total and up a mere 445 from ten years previously in 2003.

SACU Council members (Zoe Reed, Chris Henson and Linda Rosen) with the Chinese ambassador, Liu Xiaoming , at the Embassy to celebrate 40 years of diplomatic contact between the UK and the PRC during March 2012.

The level of public discussion and debate about China’s rise is woefully inadequate. At last year’s Labour Party conference, whilst the leadership pronounced on Britain’s global role, in the main hall, the Chinese for Labour group were hard pushed to draw more than 30 to 40 people to their fringe meeting on ‘What can we learn from China’. The Conservative party may be doing a bit better.

In my classes I see students struggle to find ways to talk to each other across the gulf between our own deeply rooted liberal humanitarian aspirations and China’s authoritarian developmental state. Whilst the British students complain that Chinese students ‘keep themselves to themselves’, the latter ask me: ‘Why do they always ask about Tiananmen?’

Then again, take the massive public coverage of the World War One Centenary last year: where was there mention of the 140,000 Chinese labourers who worked in and around the battlefields of France? We have memorials in Britain to war horses but not to the thousands of Chinese who lost their lives in the service of the British army. Will this year’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the WW2 victory be different and mark our alliance with China? Who in Britain knows, as Chinese schoolchildren do, of the battle of Yenangyuang in Burma, when, in April 1942, Chinese troops rescued some 7,000 British soldiers encircled by the Japanese army from annihilation?

One prominent politician who is taking China seriously is Liam Byrne, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, whose book, Turning to face the East (it’s all about China in fact), argues that we need to re-orientate towards China, and fast. Our political leaders, he suggests ‘should know as much about Sun Yatsen as they do about Abraham Lincoln’. Let us recall how, then Premier Wen Jiabao and President Xi Jingping, both on recent visits to Europe, made a point of expressing appreciation of the works of leading figures of European civilisation – Wen Jiabao of Shakespeare; and Xi Jinping of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Sartre and others.

Addressing the problem of lack of trust, Byrne criticises ‘megaphone diplomacy’ – ‘wading in as foreigners with loud, insistent arguments about what China is doing wrong and how it must change’. ‘We should acknowledge that China is reforming itself’, he says, ‘and when we frame arguments about human rights, the rule of law and democracy, we at least need the good grace and self awareness to know our history’.

Byrne hits the nail on the head when he complains of too much punditry going over and over the same ground: Whither China? Is it going to implode? Is it going to master the capacity to innovate? Is its economy going to land soft or hard? Will it ever improve its human rights record?’ The ‘rights’ business, he argues, is not a one-dimensional affair but an agenda. ‘And on much of that agenda China has made extraordinary progress in developing the economic and welfare rights of its citizens…’ Indeed I would point out that as we enter the final year of the 1990-2015 Millennium Development Goals, China’s reduction in poverty of 660m people comprises over 70 per cent of the world total. Should we not at least say we share some values with China?

Over the years, well over ten thousand people have been members of SACU at one time or another. But following China’s twists and turns over the decades has proved arduous as the society has sought to adapt and change with the times. SACU has continued to keep a thread of cross-cultural ‘understanding’ alive, offering a source of information and a focus for those with a particular China interest. Relations with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries,(CPAFFC), which were broken off after 1989, have now returned to a firmer footing.

What then is the ‘understanding China’ experience? I’ve known some businesses to prepare their staff for a visit to China with an A4 list of tips on local customs (e.g. use both hands when presenting your name card) so as to ‘avoid cultural misunderstandings’. Many of us seek the individual approach, offering a hand of friendship especially to the Chinese students coming to Britain or going ourselves to teach in China.

For SACU today, its original mission to help overcome misplaced suspicion and misunderstanding of China in Britain remains relevant. However understanding China requires more than simply rebutting the distorted images of Sinophobia, or acquainting ourselves with the positive, not just the negative, aspects of Chinese life. It demands a more holistic approach.

Needham’s key point was that, ‘with China being not simply a different country but a basically different civilisation’, this required a ‘genuine effort towards understanding’. Sinologist and radical scientist, Christian and socialist, Needham, through his profound study of China’s science and civilisation, had reached the conclusion that China and Europe were equal but different, having followed unique paths of historical development. They could simply not then be compared through the same prism.

The challenge that Needham set was to understand ‘the meaning of China, past and present’. No doubt this is very different for people from different countries: from Venezuela to India to Britain and so on. SACU in fact stands within a network of friendship associations which each has its own history and status in relation to its own government. The Brazilian friendship association for example was set up in 1984 by a lawyer who, in 1969, had pleaded in court on behalf of the members of delegation from the People’s Republic of China who were arrested by the Brazilian military government. Today, the association has a much stronger standing under the Workers’ Party government.

China can stand up for itself. The question Byrne poses is: can Britain? On the business front, trade delegations from Britain to China invariably face a barrage of public criticism for putting ‘business before human rights’. For its part, China approaches business in a more holistic framework of understanding and friendship which is deeply embedded in the Chinese psyche: as one Chinese businessman in Manchester once told me: why would I do business with someone who is not my friend?’

We should be thinking about our own economic future, our own human rights in the form of jobs. ‘We would do well’, says Byrne, ‘if we spent half of our time reflecting not just on China’s future, but on our shared future…globally, there are causes – counter-poverty, climate change, tackling piracy – on which we work together’. Meanwhile students of Chinese at our universities are graduating with often unrealistic expectations of going to China to find work, only to discover themselves competing with their Chinese classmates for jobs. Instead they should set to work building up a ‘China sector’ within Britain.

Our view in SACU remains that a flourishing relationship between China and Britain grows on a broader basis of understanding among the public, one that, if not uncritical, starts at least from a friendly frame of mind. China is now telling its own story, something we can engage with. And SACU also has its own distinctive voice to add with its story of its own people-to-people connection. In this we should see ourselves as inheritors of the traditions of support for the Chinese people dating back to the Chartist opposition to the Opium War.

Our 50th anniversary provides an opportunity to further public debate and discussion about what it means to understand China. Let’s have less of the punditry and speculation about matters that are no more possible to determine about Britain’s future than China’s. Whatever we do, let’s get talking about China.

Early SACU Tours

There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when travel to China by Westerners was very limited. At this pivotal stage of its modern development, SACU offered one of the only ways of going on a tour to China. Strange to say now, participants needed to pass an interview before being to considered to go on the tour, so it was a rare opportunity. Neil Taylor, a founder member of SACU and an expert on tourism, relates his experiences.

It is hard to realise quite what a commitment joining a SACU tour involved in the early 1970s when it had the virtual monopoly on tourism from Britain. However, as a student caught up in the revolutionary fervour of the late ’60s it was not hard to convince the SACU tours committee of my devotion to Maoist China. China at that time presented a very favourable image to the visitor from abroad; food was sufficient in the markets and the department stores offered an array of goods unavailable in most of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Communes, factories and schools all ticked over happily and the shortness of the visit prevented cultural sterility arising; revolutionary opera is seductive for two or three weeks. Colour too helped enormously; even the most polluted town exuded optimism and satisfaction, bedecked in red flags, yellow bunting and massive pictures of smiling national minorities. The picture was the same in 1972, hardly changed by the fall of Lin Biao, the Nixon visit or the Chinese entry into the UN.

Sometimes our details were noted by diplomatic messengers on their way back from Ulan Bator to Beijing (the trans-Siberian was a popular route for SACU groups). This was discovered by a tour participant who could not understand why a messenger was reluctant to give up an old newspaper until it transpired that it had been used as an impromptu notebook.

At the time the Foreign Office could hardly be expected to look positively on China. Only four years previously the embassy building had been burnt down by Red Guards. However, such was our enthusiasm for China and SACU that we were willing to sacrifice many potential careers. Many businesses were clearly jealous of the success of the ‘icebreakers’, a trading group of 48 British companies and individuals who had managed to initiate and sustain unique and profitable links with China during the Cultural Revolution. Taking on a SACU member was seen as openly admitting failure. Other businesses were so frightened of ‘disruption’ spreading from the mines and the universities that taking on an employee who had willingly visited ‘Red China’ was out of the question, however neatly cut his hair or well-cut his suit.

I expect the dogmatic advice given to participants could have stayed the same from the beginning of the SACU tour programme in 1970 until the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976; never give tips, never contradict the guides, never show any signs of intimacy, never ask for free time and never ask what happened to the local landlords after 1949. Choosing a tour leader often caused the Warren Street office headaches; sometimes a leader would emerge naturally from the group, sometimes the office was forced to impose the position on a tour member – the success of which tended to vary. Sometimes groups elected leaders at their briefing weekend, the final compulsory hurdle before being sure of a place on the tour. Even this procedure was not foolproof; one potential candidate resigned when another participant claimed that a SACU tour could not be led by a member who admitted religious belief.

Unrewarded leadership

Leaders throughout the tour had a tough time and no recompense. Every visit required a farewell impromptu speech which had to avoid offending the hosts and yet be intellectually credible to the group. For Chinese hosts the speech was a rare and long planned special occasion. For the tour participants it was yet another predictable diatribe. Only the most nimble of sinologists could benefit from them, observing which phrases were omitted or added. In 1972 such experts could follow the ambiguous official line on Lin Biao and similar wavering on Deng Xiaoping in 1976. The best leaders resorted to irony in their speeches, which was lost on the hosts as it could not be translated.

The Chinese expected firm leadership but could never get it. The compulsory ‘rest’ after lunch and the time before bed was used for plotting tactics. If the transport buff sacrificed a railway station visit to the art fanatic wanting to see peasant paintings, the favour would need to be returned when debate turned to a library or a cadre school. Should the group turn down a third kindergarten visit or agree to it thanks to the children who had long prepared for their ‘foreign friends’? Tension ran high; a newspaper commission with ultra capitalist reward could await a successful story. China was a once-only visit so anything missed would never be seen again.

On the trans-Siberian route, the trickiest task of leadership was allocating berths on the return journey. Five compartments of four berths can only be divided in a finite number of ways. Does the leader take account of liaisons that started during the tour but which may have waned? Is it sexist or practical to divide the men from the women? Will the evangelical non-smoker accept the aftermath of a corridor cigarette smoked by a neighbour? Toleration of fellow travellers lasts two weeks, a SACU tour usually three or four. A mistake made in Beijing cannot be remedied until Moscow and may never be forgotten. At this stage the shrewdest leaders opted out completely by staying with the company that awaited them in their compartment.

Breaking ranks

Rebellion did occur; after all Mao himself did assure us, ‘To rebel is justified.’ Much of this behaviour was juvenile, but perhaps excusable. After three days in Jingganshan, where Mao’s every movement was lectured to us, one participant wondered out loud; ‘We now know everywhere he sat, will they tell us where he “shat”‘. Attendance on all visits was of course compulsory but we gradually took it in turns to ‘have diarrhoea’ which allowed four hours for revising notes, a short solitary walk and surreptitious reads of Stuart Sharm’s biography of Mao. We invented a new verb; to ‘b.i.’ An abbreviation of ‘brief introduction’ which was the misnomer that began all visits.

The most dramatic breakout occurred on the last day of our tour in Beijing. A psychiatrist, fed up with being told for three weeks that mental illness was only a capitalist problem, plotted his escape with the collusion of one of the Chinese speakers in the group. He had some details of a mental hospital and using various maps, its location was found. Lingering at the back of a walking tour, the two convinced a taxi driver that he had an appointment at this hospital. The ruse worked then and also on arrival; surely no foreigner would turn up without permission? His surprisingly positive report on treatment at this hospital would be the first report on mental health in China for several years.

Sycophancy, by contrast, also gave tours their amusing moments. The Russian revisionists were always fair game and the best compliment to a chef was to contrast his food with that in a Russian hotel.

As the Conservatives had resumed power in Britain and the Republicans in America, the Chinese were constantly told of imminent revolution in both countries. Graphic descriptions of the plight of the Kent peasantry were regularly supplied. It is a pity that no British group was in China in January 1974 when it now transpires from their memoirs, British Government ministers were genuinely, if only briefly, worried about such a scenario.

Winds of Change

Change came slowly from 1975 and then quickly from 1977. Tour operators who had some links with SACU were granted an occasional group under their own auspices. There was no discussion on the dates, the itinerary or the price. We happily took what was offered for the prestige of being ‘first into China’. If that meant three days in Shijiazhuang, so be it. It meant no single rooms, those who had never shared in their lives suddenly had to do so. If it meant only three months notice to tour dates, we were willing to live with that too.

Whilst such operators felt rightly privileged in 1976, with the sudden opening of China in 1977, they soon became lost. To some extent, SACU had a similar problem: on the one hand, their expertise could enhance a tour to China as a role for a specialist can always be found. On the other, suddenly having to compete against enormous operators willing to cut every corner in order to dominate the market meant either a withdrawal from the field or a high-risk strategy of massive promotion. It is to SACU’s credit that in the 1980s, a decade that saw endless travel failures and an increasingly tight legislative environment, the tour programme was successful for so long. Specialist groups who travelled with SACU in the early ’80s had the benefit of some positive elements from the old days remaining; impeccable organisation, no corruption and little crowding at the major sights. But this was linked with necessary changes; restaurants willing to serve dinner after 19.00, guidebooks written in an apolitical manner, and the availability of coffee.

What is perhaps sad now is how ordinary tours to China have become. For our tour leaders the problems are identical to those anywhere else. The participants will probably have amongst them the usual travel bore, a secret alcoholic, a lecher or a hopeless timekeeper. On the hosting side will appear the rapacious guide, the chain-smoking driver and the long wait outside a commission shop that nobody wants to visit. A case will not appear from a flight and toiletries will disappear from bedrooms. One cannot blame China for these problems but it is sad that China can no longer be sold as a unique destination.

SACU’s Foundation

To mark SACU’s golden anniversary this article by Rob Stallard looks back to the events leading up to its foundation using some previously unpublished documents.

SACU’s formation on 15th May 1965 was a significant national event, receiving attention from the national press and the support of a veritable who’s who of eminent people. Bishops; MPs; professors; artists; writers; trade union leaders all lent their names to support the new society. It may come as a surprise to learn that early SACU meetings took place in a House of Commons committee room.

Previous organisations

SACU followed in the footsteps of a number of friendship organisations. The British China Friendship Association (BCFA) was founded in December 1949 soon after the People’s Republic had been proclaimed in October. It was the only UK friendly society with good connections with the new government. Agnes Smedley spoke at the inaugural meeting. Joseph Needham took the post of President. Businessmen such as Percy Timberlake; Roland Berger and Jack Perry all joined BCFA and formed the ‘Ice Breakers’ and ‘the ’48 Group’ to open trade with the embargoed P.R.C.

Derek Bryan (1910-2003)

Very often when we think of the foundation of SACU one name springs immediately to mind, Dr. Joseph Needham, however, focusing on the Chairman can mean that the massive amount of work undertaken by the secretary can go unrecognised. So I take this opportunity to introduce Derek Bryan, SACU’s founding secretary, to the story first. Derek went to China in 1932 working at the British Consular Service. It was later in 1944, at the war-torn capital of Chongqing he first met Joseph Needham and it was also at this time that Derek met Liao Hongying, who had studied at Oxford in 1927-36. They soon married and dedicated their lives to promoting friendship with China. His socialist and pro-Chinese sentiments made the foreign office jittery about his allegiances and when they offered him a posting to Peru rather than China in 1951 he decided to resign and return to Britain.

Derek Bryan of the China Policy Group meets Dan Zhenlin V.P. of National People’s Congress 15/04/1977

Derek Bryan became secretary of the British China Friendship Association (BCFA) Cambridge branch 1952-56 where he met up again with Joseph Needham. Hongying and Derek were both Quakers, and a number of Quakers have played an important r?le in SACU to the present day. Derek wrote some recollections of China and SACU for our magazine in 2000 and there is a book by Innes Herdan giving a full and fascinating biography of Liao Hongying ‘Fragments of a Life’.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995)

There has been much written about this most charismatic and quintessential of learned scholars. Here are the bare facts and I encourage you to explore the story elsewhere, most notably Maurice Goldsmith’s UNESCO profile Joseph Needham: 20th-Century Renaissance Man. Joseph Needham first found fame as an eminent biochemist, and in 1941 was appointed as a fellow of the Royal Society for his work. When Lu Gwei-Djen arrived at his laboratory in 1937 he turned his attentions increasingly to Chinese science; language and culture. He made a ground-breaking visit to China in 1943, where he was helped by Zoe Reed’s father K.C. Sun. After returning from China, where he is known as李约瑟 Lǐ Yuēsè, he embarked on what he thought would be a short study of Chinese Science and Civilisation, but it continued to fascinate him for the rest of his long life. Needham was a well known figure on the British Left and supported many progressive causes. In the early 1940s he joined the Cambridge branch of the China Campaign Committee set up to help the Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation. Needham provided throughout the 1950s one of the only ways to visit China because he retained friendly links with the Chinese government; a young David Attenborough was one who took advantage of this to make his first visit to China. An assertion he made in 1952 that America had used germ weapons in the Korean War caused him many problems. He continued the work to the end of his life at Cambridge where he became Fellow; President and then Master of Gonville and Caius College. The Needham Research Institute  has taken up his baton and carries out scholarly research into Chinese culture to this day.

Trouble at the BCFA

The BCFA fell victim to world events, in 1960-62 China broke its ties with the Soviet Union (USSR); Chairman Mao did not want to be under the control of Khrushchev, and suffer the same fate as Hungary in 1956. China had developed its own version of Communism to meet its own needs. This Sino-Soviet split had wide ramifications not just in the USSR and China. Many members of the BCFA were communists and the split forced them to take sides. The BCFA was proscribed by the Labour party and did not have broad left wing support; it decided to follow the Soviet line. It was impossible for Needham to continue close and friendly relations with China and still remain President of the BCFA.

It is important to add some global context to these events. The Cuban missile crisis took place in October 1962; the new U.S. president Lyndon Baines Johnson on 24th November 1963 stated “the battle against communism… must be joined… with strength and determination.” This reversed Kennedy’s more placatory approach during the ongoing Vietnam War. After the Sino-Soviet split, Russia supplied help to China’s enemy India in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. On October 16th 1964 at Lop Nur, China exploded its first atomic bomb; the arrival of a nuclear armed communist state in south-east Asia gained everyone’s attention. America feared China would arm its friends with nuclear weapons and drew up plans to attack China’s nuclear facilities. Johnson sent 3,500 Marines into Vietnam on 8th March 1965 and this increased substantially to 200,000 by December. Most countries, most notably the United States, still acknowledged Chiang Kaishek as the leader of the Chinese government in exile on Taiwan; the PRC did not even have a seat at the United Nations. From 1949 until 1972 Britain did not have full diplomatic relations with the PRC and a trade embargo remained in place. In 1965 with China in a state of total isolation, the stage seemed set for a full scale attack.

Need for a new organisation

The very first documented mention for BCFA’s “metamorphosis into a new organisation” comes in Needham’s letter to the PRC’s Chargé d’Affaires, Dr. Hsiung Hsiang-Hui dated 7th June 1964. Here Needham mentions discussions at a Cambridge BCFA branch meeting and his last, futile attempt to keep BCFA together at the AGM in May.

A number of disaffected BCFA members set up the China Policy Study Group and published a journal called ‘The Broadsheet’. Liao Hongying witnessed how difficult it was to find a united position by reporting “that no-one liked anyone else’s article”.

During the summer and autumn Derek Bryan, Liao Hongying, Joseph Needham and others set up small local groups under the name ‘Friends of China’ at Cambridge; Cheltenham; Manchester and several in London. Meetings were held which invited China experts to come and talk about events in China. The BCFA had concentrated on politics and economics, these new groups wanted to embrace Chinese culture too. There was a passionate debate between those who felt the grass roots movement formed of loosely knit local branches was the way forward and those who thought a high profile national organization was better placed to advance understanding. In the end Liao Hongying was persuaded that the way forward was with a national organization.

The idea of forming an alternative society came into focus when Needham visited Beijing in October 1964 to join celebrations marking the 15th anniversary of the PRC. He was met by no less a figure than Premier Zhou Enlai with whom he continued a friendly correspondence for many years. He also met with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC). Another crucial encounter was with Joan Robinson, who had worked with the ‘Ice Breakers’ group and was soon to become Professor of Economics at Cambridge; she became an enthusiastic supporter and Deputy Chairman of SACU on its foundation. Needham came back to Britain resolved to make the break.

Resignation from BCFA

We have key documents covering Needham’s resignation as President (he retained his life-membership). His letter dated 26th Jan 1965 sets out his reasoning: “About half the active membership was strongly opposed to the Policy Statement which forbade discussion of the Sino-Soviet dispute, and this part of the Association was then deeply hurt by the refusal of the platform to allow the rebuttal of the accusation of racialism brought against the Chinese” and “…But apart from all this I had long been dissatisfied with the position of the Association in the public life of our country, unable as it always was to exert influence of weight commensurate with the need of the international situation. This, in my view, was caused by its unduly close connection with the British Communist Party, a circumstance which prevented the development of a really broad-based organisation.”

The Secretary of the BCFA, Jack Dribbon, wrote back with words of regret on 3rd Feb 1965. “Your resignation did not come as a surprise to me as I gathered only a month ago this would happen when I had a conversation with some mutual friends. However, I am surprised at your reference to the C.P. [Communist Party]. In our long association, and in our numerous personal conversations, you gave me no indication of your views: Had this been otherwise I am sure many of your doubts would have been easily cleared up. I am sorry you did not mention them.”

However, the personal friendship with Jack Dribbon did not prevent a fairly vicious letter to BCFA members commenting on Needham’s resignation. Dated 15th Feb 1965 it states: “As to his intention to form another organisation we can only say that whereas our intention has always been to preserve the unity of those striving for friendship with China, his proposed move will split the movement and do great harm to the cause of British-Chinese friendship … Dr. Needham says that the Association was always unable to ‘exert influence of weight commensurate with the need of the international situation’ and gives as his reason a supposedly close connection with the Communist Party. This Communist smear tactic is much to be regretted in a man of Dr. Needham’s standing.” The animosity is most evident in the line “We recall a previous effort to disrupt our organisation by founding a new one. This was in the early days of the People’s Republic. It failed. We believe this new similar effort will prove just as abortive.”

The aggressive tone of the letter was counterproductive as it forced BCFA members to take sides. In Needham’s letter to Lord Boyd-Orr (Nobel Peace Prize winner) on 16th April 1965 explains the situation succinctly successfully dissuading him from taking his place as BCFA President. It was the BCFA that soon fell apart and SACU that rose like a phoenix.

Choosing a name

So what to call the new organization? Clearly anything similar to ‘British China Friendship Association’ would cause confusion. There was also the ‘Friends of China’ group; so in actual fact the choice was limited. Luckily we have the memorandum giving Needham’s view and from it we learn something of his mindset and character so I include it in full.

Memo: DB (Derek Bryan); JR (Joan Robinson); JN (Joseph Needham); RB (Roland Berger)

18th March 1965
I have given some more thought to the question of the name of the organisation, and the more I do so the more I prefer SACU as it is.
1) Understanding seems to be agreed on all hands. Gwei-Djen and I have found very interesting and appropriate translations and mottoes for emblem and symbol, and these were sent to RB for the artists a few days ago.
2) The idea that Anglo- excludes Ireland, Wales and Scotland, seems to me far-fetched, and I can’t take it very seriously. Since Anglo-Chinese has never been used for a mixed-blood community that argument seems also weak to me.
3) I greatly dislike double names, and Britain-China is “patented” anyway, in the present situation.
4) I also greatly dislike double adjectives, and British-Chinese or Chinese-British seems to me about as bad as Marxist-Leninist.
5) The only alternative so far mooted with which I could sympathise is Sino-British. My wartime outfit was the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office. I don’t think this is too “academic”; nobody thought so during the war. But I still prefer Anglo-Chinese. And it has the strong advantage of needing no change. Also, in Chinese usage, for anything in the UK, the UK term ought to precede the other. This militates against China-Britain (cf. 3).
6) Britanno-Chinese and U.K.-Chinese are also possibilities, but I find them most unpleasant.

Needham’s use of ‘Anglo’ did however cause problems and is one reason why the Scotland China Association (SCA) was founded by Rev. Ralph Morton; John Chinnery and others in May 1966. However as Needham spoke at its inaugural meeting it should not be considered a break-away group and friendly relations have persisted to the present day.

Choosing a logo

Amongst the ‘Needham papers’ are some paper napkins on which possible SACU logos have been drawn out with biro. The eventual winner was the character for friendship ( yǒu) which was made by the calligrapher Fang Zhaoling. I include one of the napkins, others can be seen online.

Foundation Plans

In early 1965 Roland Berger planned the launch of the new society with Liao Hongying working as a full-time secretary.

One of the first actions was to amalgamate the ‘Friends of China’ groups under SACU. This was fairly urgent because a launch of a National Friends of China was planned for 7th March 1965. In a letter from Needham to the members said: “We feel, however, that in order to avoid misunderstandings, both amongst those working for China and the general public, it would be wise, before any public declarations are made, for FoC and SACU to come together for mutual discussions with the object of arriving at a common understanding and a united body as quickly as possible.”

It was decided that the new society would benefit from sponsorship of many public figures who were broadly sympathetic to the Chinese cause. An invitation letter was drawn up jointly by Needham and Robinson to attract sponsors which states the aims of the organisation: “Our intention is that it would organise public meetings, exchange of visits, film shows, exhibitions and the like. It would provide a forum for the discussion of all aspects of Chinese life, thought and policy. Furthermore, we would aim to get lively branches established all over the country.”

Rough plans for the structure of SACU are preserved on a piece of notepaper. Possible committees included: parliamentary; trade union; scientific; cultural; events; information and finance. SACU would have direct connection to local groups. There would be eminent sponsorship and vice-presidency. SACU would have activities at a high level for trade and foreign policy and maintain relations with the Embassy; organize cultural tours; conference; libraries. A Consultative committee would meet quarterly.

There was debate about who should be invited as sponsors. In an enlightening note from Sir Gordon Sutherland (Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge) to Derek Bryan, dated 9th March, Sir Gordon thinks Spike Milligan  and Charlie Chaplin were not appropriate as it “could easily lead to ridicule.”

Positive responses came back thick and fast and an advertisement in the New Statesman on 7th May entitled “SOCIETY FOR ANGLO-CHINESE UNDERSTANDING to provide information; to dispel misconceptions; to create understanding” listed 172 eminent sponsors who had already been recruited. A full list is available to view online. I have added a link to biographies of the sponsors where available. It includes eight MPs; five bishops; 40 professors; 23 knights of the realm; 29 fellows of the Royal Society; actors; journalists and others. I was surprised to find that there are no fewer than 11 Nobel prize winners on the list (Peace:2, Physics:5, Medicine:1, Chemistry:2, Literature:1). Eventually 250 people, leaders in cultural, scientific, artistic and political circles agreed to be sponsors.

The Inauguration meeting 15th May 1965

For the meeting a prospectus was printed setting out the aims of the organisation and included the list of sponsors and a membership application form with a £1 annual fee. It sets out the aims for SACU: “While SACU, as a British organisation, will not identify itself with Chinese policies, it is essential that Chinese views on all matters should be made known. This does not exclude constructive comment and sympathetic criticism. What it will attempt is to foster friendly relations between our countries, making more widely known to the British people the currents of thought and tradition that ran unbroken through the old China, by tracing the transition from the old to the new and by reporting and analysing all the varied elements that make up the totality of present-day China. The study of China’s culture, history, science, agriculture, industry, commerce, politics, education, social welfare and sport illuminates all the aspirations, problems and great achievements of the Chinese people, past and present. Thus we hope that SACU may become a living link which will deepen understanding and appreciation.”

Anticipating quite a crowd, Westminster Church House which overlooks Westminster Abbey was hired. Rooms within the hall were allocated to different functions (sponsors; bookstall; overflow; tearoom). How many people arrived does not seem to have been accurately recorded Tom Buchanan says 600-700 while other sources say 1,000.

Inaugural Meeting 15th May 1965. Joseph Needham is speaking; Derek Bryan is on his right and Joan Robinson on his left.

We are lucky to have Needham’s notes for the meeting which was carefully planned out. Once again there is not enough space to reproduce the full programme of events; these are available to look at online.

The organisers first met at 1:30 with the press for half an hour; then they were joined by 55 of the sponsors. Joseph Needham then led the sponsors into the main Assembly Room. Messages were read out from those unable to attend including ones from the Bishop of Manchester; Benjamin Britten (composer); J.B. Priestley (writer); the Bishop of Llandaff and Dr. Dorothy Crowfoot-Hodgkin (Nobel prize winner). Needham then gave an opening speech which is available online and was summarized in the first edition of SACU News.

J.B. Priestley telegram

In the speech Needham gave a breathtaking analysis of historical contacts with China he then described the aims of SACU: “The point in a nutshell is that the British people and the Chinese people must come to know each other better. It is urgently necessary for our understanding of world affairs today that the Chinese point of view on all kinds of matters, political as well as cultural, should be made known. We want to do this without preconceived bias or ideological inhibitions, yet not necessarily without constructive bias.”

The Chairman’s speech was followed by a statement by His Excellency Dr. Hsiung Hsiang-hui, Chargé d’Affaires of the P.R.C. During his talk, tapes were played giving greetings from Guo Moruo (Kuo Mo-jo) President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and from Chu Tunan, President of the Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC). After further messages, Dr. Han Suyin (writer) gave a ten minute speech and then the resolution to formally inaugurate the society was proposed by Joan Robinson. Ernie Roberts (Assistant General Secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers) seconded the resolution.

At 3:47 the meeting was opened for general discussion which lasted an hour. It was Joan Robinson who summarised the discussion and then the resolution to form the society was voted upon and duly adopted. Derek Bryan outlined the planned activities for the first year. Joseph Needham started to wrap up proceedings by announcing people willing to serve on the first Council of Management, these were: Mary Adams; Peter de Francia; Dr. N. Kurti F.R.S.; Ernie Roberts; Vanessa Redgrave; Joan Robinson; Sir Gordon Sutherland; Peter Swann; George Thomson; Dame Joan Vickers, MP; Professor Wedderburn and Dr. Lisowski. He indicated that a Liberal and Labour M.P. may join the committee, which they did and they were Jeremy Thorpe (North Devon) and Philip Noel-Baker (Derby South).

The meeting was then closed with tea available; which at 2/6d a cup seems quite expensive for the time. Those who joined the society were invited to an evening reception.


The press who covered the event were broadly positive, the launch was welcomed by the ‘Tribune’ magazine and it seemed that SACU tapped into a deep well of interest in Chinese culture and sympathy for China’s international isolation that extended beyond the left-wing. Hugh Trevor-Roper, with Arnold Toynbee and Benjamin Britten wrote jointly a letter to the Guardian stating “This society is being formed to foster mutual comprehension between Britain and China in many different fields.”

The Cambridge Varsity magazine covered the event with the title “Caius President leads a new Society. Three heads of Colleges have joined Dr. Joseph Needham, President of Caius in the formation of a new breakaway Anglo-Chinese Friendship Society. The society has had the blessing of the Chinese Communist party.”

However, the press was not universally favourable. The Spokesman Review published in Washington State, USA titled a piece “A New Apparatus Aids Communism … Chief purpose of the new organization, of course, is to feed propaganda to the British people and to the world at large. This will be done through many avenues, in the thin guise of informing the British about the Chinese ‘ideas, achievements and policies… both in history and today.’ Such so-called ‘information’ will consist of a giant drum-beat campaign, in which none of the failures of the Chinese Communists and their system, and certainly no descriptions of their cruelty and oppression as imposed on others, will be mentioned.” The report concludes “It is important that the British and the world at large be aware from its inception that SACU is a propaganda machine for the Chinese Communists, and the joiners will be contributing to that cause and no other.”

From the foregoing pomp and acclamation it must seem a bit of a mystery as to why SACU did not live up to its great expectations. I am reminded of King Arthur’s round table, where the great and the good all subscribed to a noble aim: friendship and understanding; and to stretch the analogy a Sir Mordred was already amongst them. Within a year many of the sponsors had resigned and political, financial and administrative difficulties stymied progress both in China and the UK. However, exploration of this ‘interesting time’ must wait until next year; let us leave SACU after its first meeting forming branches; holding film shows; publishing the monthly ‘SACU News’ and organising pioneering trips to China.


Background to the formation of SACU in 1965

This article by Derek Bryan, SACU’s First Secretary, recounts the events leading up to the formation of SACU in 1965 and was written to mark its tenth anniversary in 1975.

In the busy confusion of the new premises in Camden Town in 1975, it requires an effort of memory to think back to the days in the spring of 1965 when SACU was coming into being, and to the years at Warren Street that followed. When the society was founded, in May 1965, Britain was still in the first year of Harold Wilson’s premiership, but the People’s Republic of China was already over 15 years old. At the time of China’s Liberation in 1949, the post-war London government was still in office under Attlee. Although according partial diplomatic recognition in January 1950, it was this government, subservient to the US, that took Britain into the Korean War, and set the tone for British-Chinese relations throughout most of the ensuing 13 years of Conservative rule.

Except for a brief interval of détente after the end of the Korean War, this was a period of clear-cut official British hostility to all that China stood for. Throughout the nineteen-fifties, the main source of public information about all aspects of China’s internal policies and developments, and about her stand on external issues, was the British-China Friendship Association, which had been founded in late 1949. The Association consistently attacked British participation in US aggression against Korea, and British complicity in US policy towards Chiang Kaishek, Taiwan and the exclusion of China from the United Nations.

But it was still the era of the Cold War, and the BCFA was a narrowly based organisation with little influence outside small left-wing circles. As Soviet relations with the West started to unfreeze, China began to replace Russia as the big bogey, and new sticks were found with which to beat her: the communes, Tibet, the India-China border dispute. With the coming into the open of the Sino-Soviet dispute in the early nineteen-sixties, the BCFA’s work became more and more difficult, and in the end virtually ceased (cf. China Policy Study Group Broadsheet, June 1964).

Interest in China, on the other hand, was growing, and the moment seemed propitious to make a fresh start with an organisation that would have really broad support. The response to the initial invitation far exceeded expectations, and in a very short time a galaxy of talent, including many of the most distinguished names in the arts, sciences, universities and public life generally, had subscribed to SACU’s aims of fostering friendship and understanding between the British and Chinese peoples. Many of them attended the inaugural meeting in Church House, Westminster, on 15 May 1965, at which our first Chairman (and President) Joseph Needham, gave the keynote address, later reported in the first issue of the newsletter SACU News.

SACU’s First AGM in 1966, the speaker is the author of this article, Derek Bryan. Hugh Trevor-Roper is on his right and Joan Robinson on his left.

SACU’s launching was a great occasion, but it was not easy to keep on course. It soon became apparent that some of those who had lent their names, and even accepted-positions of responsibility in the Society, were interested in coldly ‘objective’, rather than friendly ‘understanding’; a small minority indeed proved actively unfriendly. Early meetings of the Council of Management, held (to suit the convenience of MP members of the Council) in the faded and pompous gloom of House of Commons committee rooms, were often concerned more with inquiring into the propriety of the work of SACU than with furthering it.

It was not only the right that wanted to twist SACU’s purposes, but also the ultra-Left. The first Annual General Meeting held on 21 May 1966, was a stormy one, and in the ensuing year difficulties were aggravated by the fact that official Sino-British relations, as a result of events in Hong Kong and Peking in the summer of 1967, reached their lowest point since the Korean War – indeed, they were in some ways even worse. Throughout SACU’s second year the right and the ultra-left dropped off, a process which helped the Society in the second half of 1967 gradually to re-set its course. The files of ‘SACU NEWS’ from June to December of that year contain much interesting evidence of the way in which this took place, culminating in the policy statement adopted by the Council on 11 November, and printed in the December ‘SACU NEWS’.

But it would be highly misleading to report only the storms of the first two years, spectacular as they often were at the time. The achievements were both more numerous and more significant. The fifty-odd issues of SACU NEWS, containing many articles of lasting value, pioneered the way for CHINA NOW (which last month published its 50th issue with no fanfare at all!). The building-up of the Library started from the very beginning, and has gone on steadily ever since. Indeed, with the exception of tours to China (which owing to the Cultural Revolution did not get under way until 1970) almost all the main activities of the Society – public meetings, film shows, discussion meetings, weekend schools, speakers service, information service and branches – were started in the first year. Some, notably the speakers service, have developed steadily; others have had their ups and downs; no other single event, for instance, has so far equalled the success of the premiere of Felix Greene’s film ‘China!’ at the Academy Cinema, London, in September 1965.

Seeing it all in perspective is not particularly easy for anyone who was involved. But there is one continuous thread – a constant endeavour to provide information and education about China for everyone interested who could be reached. The Cultural Revolution and the ‘Little Red Book’ had a powerful impact on young people in the West, as was seen in Paris in the spring of 1968 and in Britain in a generally less spectacular way in the growth of a new spirit of independence among the young. The steady rise in SACU’s activities from 1968 onwards, particularly the opportunity for increasingly informed discussion about China, provided a focus of interest and an opportunity for political study from which many benefited.

So when, early in 1971, China suddenly became a respectable object of interest, and even fashionable, SACU was able to respond in an informed way. The story is an open ended one: as the crisis in Britain and in the West as a whole deepens, more and more people are asking what is the secret of China’s success, and what lessons can be learned from Chinese experience. In official quarters, however, China may be becoming slightly less fashionable, as the reporting of the Times from Peking, for example, certainly suggests. Much has happened both in China and in Britain since, under Heath, the British government finally bowed to reality in 1972 by recognising that Taiwan is part of China, and put official relations on a correct footing. Even the great Chinese archaeological exhibition of 1973-74 already seems almost to belong to a past era.

In 1975, as always, SACU must continue to be alert to changes in the Britain in which it works, and must go on doing its utmost to show the British people how the Chinese people are working – in the words of the Preamble to the new Constitution of the People’s Republic – to make a greater contribution to humanity.