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How Rewi Alley helped hide 10,000 workers

Liu Guozhong - One of the caves in Shuangshipuzhen
NZCFS Honorary Member Liu Guozhong, in one of the 26 loess caves in Baoji, Shaanxi province. Note the brick lining and the side passage.

A story of enterprise and initiative in the times of Japanese invasion.

In 1937, the Japanese invaded China in force. As well as causing mayhem, death and suffering to the population, factories were targeted, creating hundreds of thousands of economic refugees. Rewi Alley was a key figure in establishing the Chinese Industrial Cooperative movement, moving plant to the vast hinterland, mobilising the people, and providing them with a productive outlet for them to direct their energies and frustrations.

Thousands of small scale cooperative industries were established, often mobile to facilitate quick retreat and relocation. Edgar Snow, writing about Alley and the cooperative movement of the time, wrote “Where Lawrence brought to the Arabs the distinctive technique of guerrilla war, Alley was to bring China the constructive technique of guerrilla industry….”

One large factory, however, stood up strongly against the Japanese air raids searching the country for manufacturing plants serving the war of resistance.  In Baoji, Shaanxi province, during 1940 to 1941, 26 caves were dug into the hillside. Each cave factory was up to 100 metres deep into the hill, seven metres wide, and five meters high, with interconnecting tunnels. This complex allowed up to 10,000 cooperative workers to manufacture the goods needed for the war effort, and not one bomb was dropped on the site.  This had a connection to Gung Ho, and the engineer consulted Rewi Alley on its construction.

Entrance to one of the 28 caves in Baoji, Shaanxi province, used by Gung Ho co-operative workers, late 1930s-1945
Entrance to one of the 26 loess caves in Baoji, Shaanxi province, used by Gung Ho co-operative workers, in the 1940s.

These cave factories of the late 1930s are still in good condition, with little sign of collapse. The ceilings and walls lined with brick still retain their structure, displaying the skill that went into their construction more than 70 years ago, although today we do not see the mass of workers toiling inside!

In the loess soils (50 to 80m thick) of this extensive region in the North West region of China, it was common for people to live in cave houses, or yaodong 窑洞. Travellers can see the remains of these houses as they pass in the trains from Shaanxi in the east through to Gansu. There are still a very small number of families living in these dwellings, or the caves are being used for storage of farm products and equipment.  Perhaps most well-known to NZCFS members are the cave dwellings that Rewi Alley and George Hogg inhabited in Shuangshipu, of Feng County, over the Qinling mountains from Baoji.

This particular site in Shuangshipu has now achieved a new status of historical significance after Chinese premier Xi Jinping has acknowledged the importance of Alley and Hogg.  In 2015, when Xi Jinping visited the UK, an unknowing British public learned of the heroism of George Hogg during this time of chaos in China. And is it not without significance that Xi’s father, based in Feng County in the 1930s, was among the revolutionary leaders to launch the Liangdang uprising , which assisted the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) to establish their base in Yan’an at the end of the Long March. Here, of course, Mao and his compatriots also lived and worked in loess caves during the Chinese Communist revolution from 1936 to 1948.

History lives on, with preservation of these old sites and a desire to keep the spirit of the times alive.

– Dave Bromwich (NZCFS National President)

Editor’s note: NZCFS Honorary Member Liu Guozhong does sterling work for the New Zealand China Friendship Society in promoting co-operatives in Gansu and Shaanxi , and also in training their members. Liu Guozhong and Tim Zachernuk have written a book about the NZCFS’s work promoting co-operatives in China. For more information, click here.