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"The Children of Huang Shi" a story of eastern "Schindler's List"

By CatherineYen(20,979) CatherineYen

Posted Sunday, March 16, 2008
View All Blog Posts submitted by CatherineYen

photo of film " The Children of Huang Shi" 

The heroic Englishman China will never forget
The writer James MacManus reveals the untold story of a Brit in China who risked his life to save a group of schoolboys from the invading Japanese troops, this is a story of eastern “Schindler's List"

James MacManus

In the spring of last year in a crowded Beijing restaurant a 75-year-old Chinese man rose to his feet and silenced his fellow diners with a song he had learnt as a child: “Three blind mice, three blind mice, See how they run, see how they run . . ."

Nie Guang Han and the other elderly Chinese guests had gathered to share their memories of the young Englishman who had taught them to sing nursery rhymes and to whom they owed their lives. His name was George Aylwin Hogg, and in a few brief years at the height of the Sino-Japanese war in the 1940s, he achieved legendary status. Although unknown in his own homeland, he remains well loved and remembered in China.

It was in Beijing in 1984 that I first came across his story. In the British embassy club I overheard a diplomat complain that he had to fly to Shandan in the remote northwest because the Chinese authorities had erected the bust of an Englishman there. Strange things were happening at the time. Deng Xiaoping had begun the economic liberalisation that set China on the path to today’s market economy. Businessmen were arriving with every flight. Nevertheless, the idea that China would honour an unknown Englishman seemed preposterous.

It turned out to be true. Some 80 elderly gentlemen gathered in Shandan with VIPs from Beijing to mark the reopening of a school and reconstruction of a tomb desecrated during the cultural revolution. Flowers were laid. A statue was unveiled. Old men shed tears.

The man whose memory was being honoured was the youngest child in a prosperous family in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. Strongly influenced by his mother’s Quaker pacifist philosophy, he had been brought up to think the best of people and to do his best for them. After graduating from Wad-ham College, Oxford, he set out to meet Gandhi in India with his aunt, Muriel Lester, a well-known pacifist. On the way, however, he visited China – and stayed.

China had been in chaos since the 1920s when the struggle had begun between the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist party. It had been easy prey for Japan’s war-minded army officers. From the start of the 1930s Japanese troops had advanced into northern China and gradually encroached further south. By the time Hogg arrived in 1937 the nationalists and communists were in an uncomfortable alliance fighting the invaders.

Hogg initially made a living as a journalist. He witnessed repeated atrocities inflicted upon defenceless civilians. Yet his letters home are coloured by a belief in the essential benevolence of humanity and a refusal to be downcast by evidence to the contrary. This led him to work for the Chinese industrial cooperatives movement (CIC), which employed refugees and war orphans to provide basic materials for both nationalist and communist forces. Initially, he was publicity director or “ocean secretary" – “ocean" in Mandarin denotes anything foreign – but in 1942 he became headmaster of a CIC school in the remote mountain town of Shuang-shipu.

Here, at the crossroads of the Tsin-gling mountains in Shanxi province, he found his destiny.

At 27, Hogg was the head of a school that, even by the chaotic standards of China at that time, presented huge problems. Three brick classrooms stood on a steep and bleak hillside. There had been seven headmasters in 18 months. There were no books or writing materials. The kitchen was bare. There were no beds. The boys were covered in scabies, malnourished and lice-infested.

The first step was to find somewhere for the children to sleep and food for them to eat. Hogg borrowed a few local coop workers and turned a neighbouring cottage into a dormitory. He established credit in the town and managed to buy millet and vegetables. Mud walls were built around the classrooms and dormitory to create a compound. Vegetable gardens and basketball courts were laid out.

It was as if everything Hogg had experienced before had prepared him for the task of disciplining, schooling and nurturing a group of unruly Chinese war orphans. He sang with them, swam in the river with them, played sport with them and walked in the mountains with them. They called him Ho Ke. He organised them along lines that would be recognised in any English public school. The boys were split into three teams. Each elected a captain, who was responsible for looking after his team. Discipline was enforced by praising those who dressed smartly or had done well at their lessons and by making it clear to malefactors that failure to fall in with the new regime would result in the school returning to anarchy.

Funds for the school were allocated by the CIC, but, occasionally, Hogg had to ride his bicycle 60 miles over the Qinling mountain pass down into the city of Baoji to plead and argue for his money at CIC regional headquarters. He was able to do the round trip in a day by hanging on to the back of lorries. The return journey was always by night. Twice, he outpaced bandits on his bike.

Local nationalist military commanders were suspicious of Hogg, particularly when he resisted their efforts to recruit his pupils into the army to fight the Japanese. He was arrested for a week, and by late 1944, the pressure was becoming unbearable. Soldiers ransacked classrooms searching for boys to conscript. A teacher was arrested. On a cold afternoon, one of the boys saw Hogg climbing the mountain above the school, and followed him. At the summit he found his headmaster seated on a rock, looking down at the school and crying.

With misgivings Hogg decided to move the school to the safety of Shandan, a town 700 miles away on the edge of the Gobi desert. The boys would have to cross a mountain range on foot. Some argued it was too far – a journey to the edge of the world.

The plan was to leave without the local garrison noticing. An advance party of 33 boys set off over the mountains in November. The departure of the rest of the boys would be more complicated. Hogg was obsessed with the school’s rare cotton-milling machine, one of only three in the whole of northwest China. Although it weighed more than two tons he was determined to take it to Shandan. A joke went round the school that he would happily leave a few boys behind but never his machine.

His old boys remember his desperate search for a truck of any kind, as heavy snowfalls in the mountains made the need for motorised transport more urgent. This was bandit season, when slow-moving convoys in bad weather were likely to be ambushed. Heavily armed gangs might be attracted by the prospect of hijacking valuable machinery.

On or around January 20 a convoy of five large carts drawn by a mix of mules and horses, one lorry, 30 boys, three staff and the headmaster left Shuangshipu before daybreak and headed into the hills. The smallest children sheltered under a tarpaulin slung over the cargo. The others walked. The higher they got, the heavier the snow fell. It was the coldest winter for 20 years. The road became little more than a mud and gravel track as it rose towards 10,000 feet.

The first day the weather and terrain secured them from pursuit. On the second night one or two of the older boys turned back, leaving Hogg with a group of 27 plus his precious equipment. One cart toppled into a ravine, taking its horse and load of equipment with it. Boys walking beside it jumped clear just in time. Another cart overturned but was righted again and its cargo saved.

It took almost a month to reach the regional capital, Lanzhou, and there were 250 more miles to go over high terrain to Shandan. Fortunately, a local official allowed Hogg to hire six vintage Mercedes diesel trucks.

Sometime in February the headmaster, his boys and their equipment drove into the foothills of the Qilian mountains. The lorries slipped and slithered through ice and snow. Wind-screens cracked, tyres burst. Vehicles had to be hauled back onto the road.

The convoy passed the western end of the Great Wall – not the majestic stone wall of northern China but a humble mud rampart 30ft high. Sand-storms and human activity had taken their toll. Around March 10 the headmaster and his exhausted boys reached Shandan. They drove down streets caked in ice and mud and lined by double-storeyed wooden buildings. Most were empty.

The advance party had camped out in a ruined temple. About 60 boys now gathered there to rebuild their school and their lives. Nie Guang Pei, then aged six, recalls: “We were all very tired when we arrived and we were very disappointed – there was nothing in the temple, hardly even a roof. It was filthy."

Hogg fitted out workshops, classrooms and dormitories. He was in his element. He had turned 30 in the mountains, and he now knew the answer to the question he had often asked himself: What was he doing in China? He had created a school from the chaos of war. He had moved it against the odds to the rim of the Gobi desert. He had rebuilt it as a refuge and place of safety for some 60 pupils.

His old boys remember his extraordinary energy and rollicking high spirits. Fan Wenhai said: “Remember that in our society the man who was the head of the family, or of the school or of the company where you worked, was a figure of awe. You respected them sometimes because you were afraid of them. Hogg was so different. He spent so much time with us, and it didn’t matter whether he was singing with us, playing sport with us or working in the classroom. He was always with us. That was very different. That was why we loved him so much."

Sometime in the second week of July Hogg was playing basketball with his boys. Wearing his usual open-toed sandals, he stubbed and cut his toe. A few days later, it became sore and swollen. His jaw began to hurt and stiffen. The next day he had a high fever, and spasms shook his entire body. It was clear that he had tetanus. Telegrams were sent to Lanzhou asking for a doctor and serum. Two boys set off by motorbike on the 500-mile round trip.

For three days Hogg suffered the agonies of a disease that always ends in a cruel death if untreated. The victim remains conscious but unable to speak due to the tightening of facial muscles – hence the name lockjaw.

“He lay on his back and was too weak to move," said Fan Wenhei. “I turned him over with help from another boy. He was dripping with sweat from his chin to his forehead. Sometimes he would ask for water in a very weak voice. First, I could feed him by spoon, but after a while his mouth would not open. I had to hold his lower jaw and pour water through gaps between his teeth."

Serum was finally found in Lanzhou. But the rescue party were unable to cross a high mountain pass by night. When they reached Shandan Hogg’s funeral procession was winding its way through the streets. He had died the previous day.

Nie Guang Chun, who was 79 when I met him, said: “Ho Ke was gentle, he was kind. We had had other headmasters, all Chinese, who punished us. Ho Ke didn’t do that. He was firm but he became a friend. When we went over the mountains with him, we didn’t really know why. We were too young. But we just followed him. We had never met anyone like him. We never will."

Extracted from Ocean Devil The Life and Legend of George Hogg by James MacManus, published by Harper Perennial  .
The grand film is cooperated by Australia, Germany and China and will be published in April, 2008

This Blog Post has been read 628 times.
Posted to ProBlogs.com on Sunday, March 16, 2008
View other posts by CatherineYen

Comments on this blog post:

Polly Y. from United Kingdom: (49 days ago.)
Kindness which is shown to Chinese will never be forgotten.
Thank you Catherine Yen for this blog. Most of all a big thank you to James MacManus for this book telling about the kind English gentleman,George Hogg and the suffering of the ordinary Chinese people which many of us in the West don't know about.

Catherine Yen from Taiwan: (49 days ago.)
Dear Polly, thank you for visiting my blog, my main purpose of the blog creating is to prevail something different in thoughts, concept, point of view of oriental world including art, movie, life-style etc. although there is language barrier for me to write better. Anyway, thank you for the comments, it's an encouragement.

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