Ocean Devil's labour of love


Last updated at 11:03 28 March 2008

Not many people recognise the name George Hogg. An unknown Englishman abroad to us, he remains a legendary hero to many elderly Chinese, who venerate his grave and memory.

This book rescues from obscurity a saga of good deeds done in a war-torn China where savagery was normal behaviour.

Hogg was mad about China and he had given it his all when he died there, tragically young, just before the war ended.

One of the reasons for his being so little known is that he operated in the obscure provinces of northwest China during a war of which we remember very little: the ruthless invasion of China by Japan from the 1930s until 1945.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Hogg

Brave: Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Hogg in the forthcoming film, The Children Of Huang Shi

After a boyhood spent as a 'golden lad' — head of school, captain of rugby, a handsome six-foot dazzler of girls at his home in Harpenden, Hertfordshire — Hogg went to Wadham College, Oxford, whose famous don, Maurice Bowra, liberated him from the repressed attitudes of his Nonconformist home.

In 1938 he set off for China, arriving in Shanghai as it became the next target of the Japanese.

They had just revealed their barbarity in the 'Rape of Nanking' — a licensed orgy of rape and killing which outdid even the atrocities of the SS. This was the colourful Shanghai of JG Ballard's boyhood, dissolute and desperate in the face of the Japanese advance.

Hogg turned himself into a journalist, filing long dispatches to the Manchester Guardian and New Statesman on the air raids, the refugees and the final abandonment by the Nationalist government first of Shanghai, then Hankow, as it retreated to the mountainous west. Quoted here, they are still vividly evocative.

He reluctantly became aware of the Japanese 'atrocity mentality', whose aim was to cripple Chinese morale by mass murder and destruction. 'Kill all, burn all, destroy all', was the campaign motto.

Japanese troops were indoctrinated with the belief that the Chinese were inferior semisavages who would never rise to Japanese standards of civilisation.

Of the two civilisations, the Chinese was, of course, much older.

Having been expelled from Shanghai by the Japanese conquerors, Hogg worked his way back via Japan, where he saw the religion of militarism for himself.

As a correspondent for American news agencies, he travelled from war zone to war zone, crossing Japanese lines at night, speaking fluent Mandarin. The network of village cooperatives which provided basic goods such as textiles appointed him their secretary and publicist. As an 'Ocean Devil' — the Chinese name for foreigner — he was called their 'Ocean Secretary'. Their badge bore the motto 'Gung Ho' — which meant 'working together' — until it was adopted by the U.S. Marines to mean something more aggressive.

Hogg also managed to visit the Chinese Communist Army encamped in the mountains up north. The war was complicated by the fact that the Nationalist and Communist Chinese armies were enemies of each other, as well as of the Japanese.

One of Hogg's Chinese girlfriends, the one he hoped to marry, left him to join the Communist forces as a guerilla. He never saw her again, but wrote her love letters for the rest of his short life.

Hogg's big challenge came when he was appointed headmaster of a cooperative training school for war orphans, named the Bailie School after an American missionary. It was in chaos, without books, food or equipment.

He had found his metier.

Instituting a spartan regime of cleanliness and exercise, he transformed the boys' health. He also taught them to sing — English nursery rhymes as well as Chinese folk songs. He played games with them. He adopted four of the boys as his 'sons'. The boys called him 'Ho Ke' — the nearest Mandarin could get to Hogg.

Old pupils interviewed by the author make it clear that they worshipped him. 'He was gentle, he was kind. Other headmasters punished us: Ho Ke didn't. He was firm as a friend. He did everything with us.' When the Japanese got within striking distance, Hogg decided to evacuate the boys and the school over the mountains to Shandan in the extreme north west, on the border of Mongolia.

It was a 700-mile trek in winter, some of it on foot, in freezing temperatures through mountains reputed to harbour evil spirits as well as bandits. He lost only one boy, who died.

When his battered convoy reached Shandan, out of danger, they set about rebuilding the school in a derelict temple. It was an epic achievement.

Then, just as the school got back on its feet, George Hogg stubbed his toe during a basketball game. The wound became infected with tetanus, and he died after agonising days of lockjaw, while the vaccine he needed was being brought from a distant town too late to save him.

He was buried by his sorrowing pupils. He was only 30.

His achievements were vilified during the Cultural Revolution but later honoured by Deng Xiaoping, who called him 'a great international fighter'.

His rebuilt school, his bust and his tomb in Shandan are witness to a tough life, lived in terrible times, with exuberance and optimism.

After his death, the school's newspaper carried a tribute written by the boys: 'He is still part of us all.' There has seldom been a better example of Anglo-Chinese understanding.

James MacManus, a seasoned foreign correspondent who discovered the story, has presented it with admirable clarity, illuminating both the contortions of the war in China and the strength of character of this young Englishman who persuaded everyone he met to behave as honourably as he did.

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