Bold Plum: with the Guerrillas in China's War against Japan
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Review in Asian Affairs vol. 39, no. 2 (July 2008)

Bold Plum: With the Guerrillas in China 's War against Japan


Hsiao Li Lindsay. Lulu Press, Morrisville , NC , 2007. pp. 359. Illust. Index. Pb. $19.95. ISBN 9 7814 3030 2926

This is a remarkable document. Originally written in 1947 in English while the Lindsays were in Cambridge , Massachusetts - itself no mean accomplishment - it has been twice translated into Chinese and published, but this is its first appearance in published form in English. It tells a fascinating story.

Hsiao Li Lindsay was born Li Hsiao Li (Li Xiaoli in the current pinyin system of transliteration) in 1916, the youngest child of a wealthy landowner in Taiyuan , Shanxi Province in North China . Unlike many girls at the time, she received a good education, first locally and later in Beiping ( Beijing ). From 1937 to 1941, she studied at Yenching (Yanjing) University. One of her teachers was Michael Lindsay, who had arrived at Yenching in 1938 to teach Economics, Logic and Scientific Method. Lindsay was tall and very English - she had trouble following his Oxford accent, which led to extra classes and eventually to a proposal of marriage. They married soon after her graduation in the summer of 1941. It is not clear how much she knew of the full extent of his extracurricular activities, but she soon learned. North China had been occupied by the Japanese since the summer of 1937, but communist guerrilla forces operated in the hills nearby. Lindsay admired the stand that the guerrilla forces made against the Japanese, and, was in contact with them from 1938. As the struggle with the Japanese continued, Lindsay, an amateur radio engineer, smuggled radio parts to them at the weekends and in the vacations and generally helped with communications. This was dangerous but foreigners were still protected by extraterritoriality and the Japanese left Yenching alone, whatever they knew or suspected about the contacts of some of the foreigners. Others involved in supporting the guerrillas included the Canadian, Dr Norman Bethune. Marshal Nie Rongzhen, the commander of the communist forces and later the father of China 's nuclear bomb, pays tribute to Bethune, Lindsay and others in his memoirs.1

The attack on Pearl Harbor, which fell on 8 December 1941 in Beijing , changed all that. The Lindsays and some other foreigners fled just before the Japanese arrived to arrest them, and began what was to be four years with the guerrillas. For the first 30 months or so they remained close to Beijing - often when moving around to escape Japanese patrols, they could see the lights of the city in the distance - operating in what was known as the Shanxi-Qahar-Hebei base area. To avoid the Japanese, it was often necessary to move suddenly, usually at night, and on foot. Long mountain treks in the dark became a standard routine. Frequently on their return to their previous position, they found a trail of death and destruction left by the Japanese forces. Michael Lindsay was commissioned as Wireless Technology Instructor and Advisor, while Hsiao Li taught English and acted as an interpreter. She also gave birth to her first child, Erica, born in a remote Hebei village during a Japanese offensive.

In 1944 Michael Lindsay decided that he could do little more useful work in the Shanxi-Qahar-Hebei base area, and asked to transfer to the Chinese communist headquarters at Yenan (Yan'an). This involved a 500-mile journey, mostly on foot, dodging Japanese patrols and crossing the Japanese lines at night; they arrived after two months, and were to remain in Yenan until November 1945. Hsiao Li again taught and interpreted - and had a second baby - while Michael worked as Wireless Advisor to the Eighteenth Group Army and also helped the Xinhua (New China) News Agency to establish a proper international service. He wished to provide more information to the allies, based on what the communist forces collected, but his efforts were frustrated by an apparent lack of interest on the part of the allies and the deliberate attempts by the Chinese Nationalist government to prevent information flowing from the communist areas.

Hsiao Li's account of Yenan includes pen pictures of Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and his wife Jiang Qing. The latter, much demonised after the end of the Cultural Revolution, here comes across as a rather glamorous woman, who studiously avoided politics. There are also accounts of the US liaison group, the Dixie Mission, and the extraordinary visit of General Hurley, the US Ambassador, whose Indian war whoops caused some confusion. Life was easier in Yenan, well behind the lines, and there are idyllic accounts of horse riding and dances. When they left in November 1945, Mao and Jiang Qing gave them a farewell dinner, and Hsiao Li casually mentions dancing with the Chairman. Equally casually, she told him to listen to what Michael had to say about what was wrong with Yenan!

The story effectively ends with their departure from Yenan. The Lindsays went to Britain , staying in Oxford with Michael Lindsay's parents at Balliol College , where his father, by then Lord Lindsay of Birker, was the Master. Later, Michael Lindsay held teaching posts at the University of Hull , the Australian National University and the American University in Washington DC . Hsiao Li brought up her family - a third child was born in 1951 - and did occasional teaching and library work. Michael became the second Lord Lindsay of Birker in 1952, though Hsiao Li never took to being Lady Lindsay. Their eldest daughter, Erica, died in December 1993, and Michael died in February 1994. Hsiao Li, after spending some time with her granddaughter Susan Lawrence and her family in America , moved back to Beijing in 2006, to an apartment given to her by the Chinese government.

I confess that I began reading Bold Plum more out of a sense of family obligation than anything else.2 But once I began it, I could not put it down. Michael Lindsay had published an account of these years, together with many photographs, in 1975.3 But Hsiao Li's account, compiled soon after the events to which it relates and which reproduces a few of those photographs, is altogether more exciting and informative. The two together make a fascinating and poignant account of battles long ago.

J. E. HOARE 2008