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Robin Hyde

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New Zealanders in China
We have detailed articles about Rewi Alley and Kathleen Hall. Now, a new series of articles has been introduced to the NZCFS website featuring New Zealanders who played signiificant roles in China, both famous and less well known. Some will have direct connection to NZCFS, others will have established a profile outside of NZCFS.

In the first article, Miles Barker profiles Robin Hyde. Those who attended the Hamilton National Conference will recall the highlight of that conference: Miles’ presentation titled Robin Hyde, Rewi Alley and varieties of Mahi Tahi. The Robin Hyde story starts here with Robin Hyde: A Godwits Late Flight to China.

Robin Hyde: A Godwit’s Late Flight to China

Many people today recognize Robin Hyde (1906-1939) as ranking with Katherine Mansefield and Frank Sargeson among New Zealand’s greatest writers and poets. In her brief life Hyde produced an enormous volume of poetry, diaries, articles and ten books. Probably the most well known of her books is The Godwits Fly, published in 1938, a central theme of which is the recognition by many New Zealander writers of their artistic origins in Britain and Europe, and their need to acknowledge and explore these origins. Indeed, this quest is alluded to in the ‘godwits’ of the title – and the annual northerly migration which our bar-tailed godwit/kūaka populations make. On their outward journey, it is now well known, godwits from Aotearoa put down briefly in China and Korea to recuperate on the mudflats and marshlands surrounding the Yellow Sea before carrying on to Alaska to breed.

Far fewer people are aware, however, that late in Hyde’s own life she mirrored the godwits’ brief interlude in China: for a period during February to June 1938, initially on not much more than a whim, she interrupted a northerly journey (actually to Britain) to touch down in China. And the China she experienced – then beset by the Japanese invasion, as well as China’s perpetual problems of poverty, famine and unrest – caused her to become a passionate and relentless advocate for China during the remaining year of her life. During her time there, Hyde suffered the vulnerabilities, horrors and indignities of all powerless people caught in a war zone; but she also managed to interview some of the most influential national figures in China’s struggle, including Soong Qing-Ling.

‘Robin Hyde’ was the pen-name of Iris Wilkinson. She grew up in Wellington and left school at age fifteen to work as a reporter, initially for the Dominion newspaper, then as a proofreader, freelance journalist and editor with other newspapers and publications. She pursued this career over the next sixteen years and somehow, whilst employed in the male-dominated and financially insecure world of the Press, she also managing to maintain her own prodigious and diverse literary output. Her personal life was edgy and difficult; she was somewhat medication-dependant because of a severe injury to her right knee in her teens (she used a walking stick for the rest of her life); and with the birth of her son Derek Challis she had to endure considerable perceived social disapproval.

Living in Auckland in the nineteen-thirties, she met regularly with, and was encouraged in her writing by, people who already were or would become well-known in the New Zealand literary scene: Alan Mulgan, Rex Fairburn, D’Arcy Cresswell, John Mulgan, Jane Mander, Frank Sargeson and others. Her style of interaction – sparkling, penetrating and sometimes brittle – was becoming well-known and respected. In 1933, beset by pressures and stress, she self-admitted to The Lodge, a neuropathic unit in Mount Albert. Here, the sensitive therapy she received from Dr Gilbert Tothill was strongly and successfully based on encouraging Hyde in her writing. Towards the end of 1937, now with a considerable volume of material submitted to publishers, Hyde decided to journey to Great Britain to meet her editors, publicise her writing and gain further literary experience. She would take a photo of Derek, now seven years old, a reminder of her anguished decision to leave him with his foster parents in Auckland. Her plan was to sail for Sydney, Hong Kong, Kobe and Vladivostok, then take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow, and make her way via Warsaw to London.

However, by early February 1938, when the Changte anchored off Victoria Island, Hong Kong, Hyde was contemplating inserting in her itinerary a diversion to China. During the voyage she had developed an unanticipated and profound empathy with some of her fellow Chinese passengers; and her reporter’s instinct for being in the middle of action was drawing her attention towards the threatening conditions in northern China following the Japanese invasion. On landing in the British colony the misery she observed amongst the refugees from the mainland only strengthened her resolve.

Hyde therefore took a coastal steamer up to Shanghai – and the chaos which the military conflict was causing there was immediately obvious: the city had been under Japanese control for four months, damage and anguish from the bombing were everywhere, thousands of refugees were still arriving, and social services and social cohesion were unravelling. Her most significant personal encounter, with New Zealander Rewi Alley, happened quite by chance when she was inquiring for someone else. Alley, then Deputy Chief Inspector of Factories in the city, found time over the next week to show Hyde the carnage wrought on schools, hospitals, temples, factories and dwellings, and to introduce her to his American co-workers Edgar and Peg Snow and to the tense atmosphere of Shanghai’s international enclave. Although it seems that they came increasingly to irritate each other (both Hyde and Alley were driven and intense personalities) Hyde benefited immensely from Alley’s taking the time to share his knowledge of Chinese language, customs and politics with her, even if he may have perceived this unusual russet-haired woman as being overly romantic and sentimental. One of Alley’s introductions was to prove especially significant: J. H. Timperley, the Manchester Guardian’s Far East correspondent, offered her funding to go to Canton (Guangzhou) and report on the situation there.

Back in Hong Kong, Hyde made another crucial contact: New Zealander James Bertram – Rhodes Scholar, author and fluent Mandarin speaker – who had been attached to the Eighth Route Army and had been involved in the distribution of refugee and medical aid in China. Predictably, time with Bertram only intensified Hyde’s identification with China’s plight and her own desire to be involved. She made her way to Guangzhou by ferry and train, but was now seeing the move as a stepping stone to Hankow, where the Nationalists had set up government. In Hankow she interviewed the mercurial American Agnes Smedley and, always ambitious to be nearer the military action, Hyde obtained the necessary passes from the British Consulate and the Chinese authorities to journey northward. On a crowded troop train she made her way to Chengchow (now Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province) and then east to Hsuchow (Xuzhou). When she arrived there on May 1st, now only seventy miles from the military front to the north-east, the city was under heavy bombardment; and after making a number of graphic news reports to London, Hyde soon knew she would need to leave.

The nearest haven was the British Consulate at Tsing Tao (Qingdao) on the coast of Shandong province to the north, but this involved Hyde making her way deeper and deeper into now Japanese-held territory. Amazingly, she resolved to reach Tsing Tao by setting off alone walking (or rather limping, aided by her walking stick) along the north-bound railway line towards Tsinan (Jinan). The epic journey took her six days, during which she walked about fifty miles, and she reached Tsing Tao on 22nd June, exhausted, suffering from sprue (a tropical disease which affects the digestive system) and with injuries to an arm and her left eye. Following recuperation, she journeyed by sea down to Shanghai, but with Alley now having moved inland, Hyde carried on to Hong Kong. Here, with enormous admiration, she interviewed Soong Qing-ling (Madame Sun Yat-sen). On 11th August she set sail for London, but this time her itinerary was very different: Manila, Singapore (where she broke her journey for a spell in hospital), Suez and Algiers. She arrived in Southampton on 18th September 1938.

Hyde’s goal of liaising with her London publishers paid off – in November she had the satisfaction of seeing Hurst and Blackett finally publish The Godwits Fly. By January 1939, after astonishing industry even by her standards, they accepted for publication a book she had only begun writing on her arrival, Dragon Rampant, a graphic account of her time in China. Dragon Rampant (the ‘dragon’ signifies the armies of Imperial Japan) was Hyde’s response to her realisation that Britain was now transfixed by political developments in Europe, and there was hardly any awareness of the military events she had experienced so graphically in Asia. It deals not with the political arena; rather, it resonates on every page with the immediacy of the agonies which the people of eastern China were experiencing in mid-1938: “… the agony of the drops which show human faces for a single moment as they go over the waterfall”. Hyde herself confesses that Dragon Rampant is sometimes vague about dates and place-names (Bertram even describes it as “fragmentary and chaotic, and not easy to follow”) but the prose is alive with Hyde’s passionate responses to the China she had found.

China now often featured elsewhere in Hyde’s writing too. It was the subject of many of the free-lance and commissioned pieces that she wrote for newspapers in Britain and New Zealand. Her poetry, was influenced too. For example, the trenchant and didactic poem Ku Li (meaning ‘bitter strength’, but also the origin of our word ‘coolee’) dwells on the terrible plight of war-time China:
Child-like he plays at horse without the bridle:
And carts a world along, and carts a war …

With very little income and still in poor health, but often receiving help from sympathetic New Zealanders, Hyde changed lodgings constantly. She rented a caravan in Kent, lived in digs in Bloomsbury where James Bertram now also boarded, stayed with relatives in Surrey, and was a guest of New Zealand poet, editor and teacher Charles Brasch in Wiltshire. In March 1939 she was admitted briefly to London’s Hospital for Tropical Diseases. By August, with the outbreak of World War II in Europe apparently inevitable and with her health, finances and morale continuing to be precarious, friends – especially author John A. Lee and the New Zealand Commissioner Bill Jordan – had arranged her repatriation. However, a returning migration to Aotearoa was not to be for Hyde. On the morning of 23rd August an unnamed friend found her unconscious in her attic apartment in Kensington. She had taken benzedrine tablets and had ended her own life. Hyde was buried in Kensington New Cemetery, West London.

Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) occupies a singular place amongst New Zealanders who have famously befriended China. Her China-awareness apparently extended only over the final eighteen months of her life – a period which she spent entirely beyond New Zealand’s shores, and during which she was actually in China for less than four months. For Hyde there was no patient strategic or political networking with other Kiwis sympathetic to China’s plight; her response, immediate and unwavering, was individual, idiosyncratic and visceral. Hers can hardly be said to be a peculiarly “New Zealand” response; rather, her motives were humanitarian and compassionate in the very widest sense. At a time when much of the world’s attention was drawn elsewhere, she co-opted her life-time of literary and journalistic skills, and her courage and single-mindedness, to portray and publicise the plight of China and its people.

Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Barker, Miles A. (2018). Robin Hyde, Rewi Alley and the Varieties of ‘Mahi Tahi’. Paper presented at the annual National Conference of the New Zealand China Friendship Society, Hamilton, 25-27th May.
  • Boddy, Gillian & Matthews, Jacqueline (1991). Disputed Ground: Robin Hyde, Journalist. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
  • Bridge, Diana (2008). China, Imagined and Actual, in Robin Hyde’s The Godwits Fly, Two Journal Entries and ‘China’ Poems in M. Edmond-Paul (2008), pp.89-106.
  • Challis, Derek & Rawlinson, Gloria (2002). The Book of Iris – A Life of Robin Hyde.

Auckland University Press.

  • Edmond-Paul, M. (2008) (ed.). Lighted Windows – Critical Essays on Robin Hyde.

Otago University Press.

  • Hyde, Robin (1984). Dragon Rampant. Auckland: New Women’s Press.