One of the first letters sent by the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong to any western leader, a plea for help sent to Clement Attlee as head of the Labour party, has sold at auction for £605,000, more than four times the highest pre-sale estimate.
After a flurry of bids in the Sotheby’s saleroom and on the phone, the letter – written in a remote province in north-west China in November 1937, four months after the Japanese invasion – was sold to a private Chinese collector.
The huge price reflected its rarity: it is only the second autographed Mao letter to be sold in recent decades. In 1937 the Labour party was scarcely in a position to respond with the requested “measures of practical assistance”, but it bore fruit many years later.
Attlee was prime minster when Mao proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and early in 1950 the UK became the first western country to recognise the new republic.
In 1954 Attlee became the first high-ranking western politician to meet Mao, when they discussed international affairs for four hours over bowls of tea.
The letter was typed – and presumably translated from the original Chinese – by New Zealand-born journalist James Munro Bertram. He had managed to cross Japanese lines, escorting the wife of one of the Communist party’s leaders, and reach the Communist headquarters in the extremely remote province of Yan’an. The letter concludes with the sentence: “Long live the Peace Front of the Democratic Nations against Fascism and Imperialist War!”
Mao, then aged 43, already had a formidable reputation as a guerrilla fighter and leader, and Bertram was very impressed, being reminded of the fight against the rise of fascism in Europe. He knew Attlee personally, and was probably able to tell Mao that the Labour leader was leading his party away from its traditional pacifist stance.
The letter was signed by Mao in Chinese characters and his name transliterated as Mao TzeTung, and by other leaders including general Zhu De, one of the founders of the People’s Liberation Army.
Whatever Mao hoped to achieve with the letter, Bertram clearly knew it would not have any immediate practical effect. He sent it to Attlee with a hand-written covering note. “I have the distinction (for what it is worth!) of being the first Englishman to visit the Chinese Communists on their home ground ... You should keep the enclosed letter, if only as a curiosity. It is probably the first time that the signatures of Mao and Chu have ever been seen in England.”
It was kept in Attlee’s family ever since, and was sold by his daughter-in-law, Anne Attlee.
This article was written by Maev Kennedy, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 15th December 2015 17.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010