Reviewed: March 2018
Whether your interest is China in the 1930s and 1940s, the industrial cooperative movement, the role of foreigners in relief and development work in Asia, or just a very good biography about an ordinary but extremely talented and courageous Englishman who did extraordinary things in his short life, you’ll find Blades of Grass: The Story of George Aylwin Hogg (1915 – 1945) a fascinating read. Authored by his nephew, Mark Aylwin Thomas, it’s based on the memories of family and friends and, most importantly, contains Hogg’s personal and very detailed letters and writings. Less known in the west, Hogg is viewed in a heroic light in China, especially for his work in support of the “Gung Ho” cooperative movement and technical training schools, during a period of violent regional military and political conflicts that were blossoming into world wars in Asia and Europe. Illustrations, a map of China, a Chinese historical timeline, a key to pronunciation, and lists of references and sources are included.
I really enjoyed reading the portrait of George Aylwin Hogg presented in Blades of Grass. Thomas’ narrative is engaging, well-organized, well-paced, and educational. Hogg’s own writings make his experiences and adventures vivid and real. I was immediately captivated and didn’t want to put the book down, as one adventure led to another. Hogg’s qualities as a human being and a man shine through his writings. He wasn’t alone in doing what he could to provide relief to the Chinese people during these chaotic decades when many were left homeless, hungry, and orphaned. His story gives credit to others with whom he worked. But, George Aylwin Hogg had a unique spirit, capability, and courage that will inspire those who read this book.
KIMBERLEE J BENART
Reviewed: March 2017
Blades of Grass is an in-depth and well-researched homage to George Aylwin Hogg’s vision for a democratically industrialized China.
Mark Aylwin Thomas presents an informative and meticulously researched portrait of his late uncle and namesake, the humanitarian George Aylwin Hogg, in Blades of Grass.
Blades of Grass draws heavily on letters, journals, and articles published in international news outlets, mostly from Hogg himself, to illustrate Hogg as an intellectually curious young Englishman whose wanderlust led him to a remote pocket of northwest China in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War.
Moved by the plight of the Chinese people in the face of Japan’s imperialist rule, Hogg immersed himself in the local culture and became the headmaster of a technical school for Chinese boys and young men, training them in cooperative farming methods. Blades of Grass, aided by Hogg’s research on the subject, makes a convincing case in support of such training.
The bulk of the book chronicles the political and practical challenges of Hogg’s work, as well as its legacy. For the most part, it is helpful to see these events unravel from Hogg’s first-person perspective. He writes with a vivid, engaging voice, and establishes himself as a trusty guide within a fraught historical moment through his rigorous anthropological lens.
Hogg’s analysis even offers up eerie insights into the current state of affairs. After hitchhiking across the United States, he draws comparisons between the conditions in the South and those that lend themselves to the rise of fascist regimes; of both, he writes that the poor working class tend to be “ignorant and bigoted, also convinced of their own superiority; men such as they form the lower bureaucracy under every dictatorship in the world.”
….. Hogg’s analysis is often sharp and prescient, [and when] Thomas’s voice is present, he also proves to possess a clear, compelling voice……
Thomas excels at providing consistently thorough historical context to the events of Hogg’s young life (he died of tetanus at age thirty)………
Blades of Grass is an in-depth and well-researched homage to George Aylwin Hogg’s vision for a democratically industrialized China.
Any book that has me in tears at the end has been worth my time. Any book that has me hoping it will end differently to the way I know it must is worth the reading. Any book that convinces me that maybe there is still hope in the world – that for all the mistakes made thus far, still being made right now, there is a common humanity which ultimately, eventually, must do some good – that is worth the writing and the reading and the time. Blades of Grass is one such book. It’s a forgotten story, an unknown story to most people. It is one that should be told – and reflected upon.
The author confesses his connection up-front: George Aylwin was his uncle. That middle name that they share derives, they think, from the Celtic ”Aaelfwine” – usually translated as ‘noble friend’ or ‘wise friend’. Hogg was both of those things to the Chinese people he came to know and love and work with.
Hogg was of that class of people that most of us only come across in period dramas. He lived in a sizeable house, had a nurse and a governess, and a Montessori-style early education. He had a year in Switzerland in his youth, then St George’s and then, of course, he went to Oxford. It was – let’s be honest – a very privileged upbringing. On the other hand that schooling in Switzerland also taught him that ”class” wasn’t everything, nor was rank, nor indeed the very privilege that got him there. That may have coloured his attitude to everything that followed. It certainly coloured his approach to educating peasant children in China some years later.
Added to this – he had an adventurous spirit. Student holidays were spent hitching around Europe just as events in Germany were gearing up to threaten the whole world.
Newly graduated, and not entirely sure what to do next, he elects to accompany his Aunt on her latest round the world tour. As you do.
We need to put this in perspective though. For all his privilege of opportunity, Hogg still had to find his own way in the world. Aunt Muriel was delighted to have her nephew along, but her first question was whether or not he could pay for it. In what we’ll learn was typical Hogg fashion he answered to how much he could fund, and what he’d do along the way about working out the rest.
That is the quintessence of Hogg for me. Decide what you’re going to do, then figure out how you’re going to pay for it. A maxim not too far removed from my own – so of course, I’m in awe of the guy already, and we’re barely into Chapter 2.
What follows is a close personal study of what it was like to travel across America, via Japan and into China in the political upheaval of the late 1930s; and then to follow the growth of the co-operative movement in China, and the small attempts to build sensible schools answering to local conditions – not just ”in China” with all that that entails culturally and logistically, but in a China at war with Japan, in a world with other wider wars impacting on the outside influence and capability and capacity to help, in a China working towards being at war with itself. The Empire has fallen, the Republic is trying to find its future path, but in some of what goes on between the lines of these pages, the birth pangs of the People’s Republic are also squealing.
For the most part, Thomas has (rightly, I think) chosen to act more as editor than author. Wherever possible he has allowed the letters and other writings of the protagonists to speak for themselves. This makes it a very personal piece. It made me care very much about the people involved, and want to know more (though I never will) of the stories of the Chinese people who make brief appearances.
The other important thing that this approach does is to avoid colouring the experience with what we know about what happened next. Hogg was SO full of enthusiasm and belief in what they were trying to do. By ”they” I mean and his small band of brothers, but mostly the Chinese people involved in the Co-operative movement that was his introduction to the work, and the Baillie schools that grew out of it. Reading this in 2017, with the knowledge of everything that has intervened, does make me think again – about where China goes next, and how.
I am intrigued and enthralled and entranced by the country. But I still resist going because I am also angered and appalled by it. Hogg’s story has given me another insight into the Chinese people as people, rather than as the political pawns and players that we normally see. The book has been published as a personal honour to a family memory, but it is bigger than that. It is bigger than honouring the memory of George Hogg and of Rewi Alley and the work they did. It is a call to rethink where we are now, and what of those experiences are worth re-purposing for the modern world…
If that all sounds a bit worthy and not your cup of tea, skip that idea. Consider instead an adventure story of a young man who goes off to China for a couple of months as a sort-of missionary, gets involved in creating producer and consumer co-ops, wanders about the country-side with the guerrillas in a time of war, hauling his trust typewriter on reluctant mules so he can write articles for the posh papers back home. Consider the romance (yeah, right!) of getting typhoid and being nursed back to health, and malaria, ditto. There’s bound to be a pretty young nurse in the story. Will they live happily ever after? Or will she be a brave hero in her own story? Assume that there will be cats purring and mules braying which bring fears of their own: humour worthy of Cervantes or Dumas. His few months to get to know the place turn into years, commitment, family…
Blades of Grass is all of those things: an ‘in memoriam’, a political treatise, a social history document and a very old fashioned adventure story. That it should end in the banal way it does is actually quite fitting. Anything more dramatic would, weirdly, undermine the simplicity and solidity of everything that goes before.
I learned a lot reading this book. It has made me start to consider my views on some things. It didn’t grip me in a fast-turning-the-pages kind of way, but it did draw me in and make me want to know more, and more, and left me feeling the same way. Which is a very good thing.
In Blades of Grass: The Story of George Aylwin Hogg, Mark Aylwin Thomas recounts the life of his uncle, a British explorer caught up in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 and the Chinese Civil War.
Shortly after graduating from Oxford, Hogg embarks on a worldwide trip that eventually brings him to China in 1938, where he decides to stay. He begins reporting on the country for United Press and becomes involved with grassroots industrialization efforts. His observations form the basis of his own book, I See A New China, published in 1944.
Hogg, however, is most known for leading a technical school associated with the industrial cooperative movement for 60 orphaned boys. In the face of encroaching Japanese advancement, he subsequently relocates the school after an arduous 700-mile journey. Seven years after arriving in China, he dies at age 30 from tetanus that infected a stubbed toe injured during a basketball game with the boys.
Blades of Grass follows Hogg’s life from childhood through death.
…… Hogg’s lyrical anecdotes of the people he meets provide insightful firsthand accounts of war-torn China. He writes descriptively, whether describing his own travails or those of others, such as the peasants who “had lived through the fury of a war, seen the snuffing of hopes and happiness, felt the birth of bitterness.” Thomas himself also writes gracefully. He reflects that Hogg knew “he had to build where others destroyed; not to build edifices, but to build human values.”
……. this narrative provides an intimate window into modern Chinese history. Readers will also appreciate the included photos, recommended reading suggestions, and sources.
This debut book tells the story of the author’s uncle, George Aylwin Hogg (1915-1945), an English journalist who spent the last seven years of his life in China.
Thomas frames his biography with his 1988 visit to Shandan, where Hogg died. The author participated in memorial events for New Zealander Rewi Alley, Hogg’s colleague in the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives; connected with the headmaster of the Bailie School that the journalist helped found; and met the Chinese brothers Hogg temporarily adopted.
Hogg certainly packed plenty into 30 years. Born in Harpenden, England, he attended Montessori-style schools and studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford. Early adventures included hitchhiking around Europe and spending time on a Mississippi cooperative farm. After graduation, he joined his Aunt Muriel, who worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, in the Far East. He started in Japan in 1937, sending home letters full of keen observations about war propaganda and Korean slums.
In 1938, he proceeded to China and became a journalist for the American United Press Agency. “It is quite exhilarating in a way, being packed with seething humanity,” he declared, but sobering
too: he encountered dead soldiers, refugees on evacuation trains, cholera and dysentery victims, flooding, and famine.
Hogg’s lively letters and journalism thus serve as a rare witness to the Sino-Japanese War. He entered guerrilla territory as a cooperative inspector and CIC publicist before becoming dean of the technical school in 1942. Tragically, he died of tetanus after a foot injury; medical help didn’t arrive soon enough.
Hogg is a captivating figure, ………
…… a fitting homage to “a wise and noble friend to the people of China.”
A meticulous and congenial ……… tribute to an enterprising reporter in Asia.
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