Sine magazine

Sine issue : Spring 2006 - 40 years of the SCA Part I

by John Chinnery

As an introduction to this subject, I could not do better than to augment the first page of a short article I wrote on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the foundation of our organisation, printed in the November 1996 issue of 'Sine'.

The forerunner of the SCA was the Britain–China Friendship Association, which was set up in London in 1949. Its inaugural meeting was addressed by, among others, the celebrated American journalist Agnes Smedley who had been resident in China since the 1930s and was acquainted with many of the leaders of the new government.

The People's Republic of China was formally recognised by Britain shortly after its foundation, but this recognition was not followed by the exchange of ambassadors, since Britain at the same time agreed to permit the representatives of Taiwan to retain their occupation of China's seat in the United Nations. Therefore, right from the start the BCFA was a campaigning organisation, rallying support for restoring China's seat at the United Nations and opposing the American policy of stationing its 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Straits, thus frustrating the PRC's attempt to complete the unification of China. The BCFA also endeavoured to expand friendly exchanges with China at many levels, including the exchange of delegations and individual visits, and ran its own programmes of meetings, conferences, lectures, language classes, etc. It was able to maintain its own premises until it disbanded sometime in the 1960s.

The disbandment of the BCFA was a result of the Sino–Soviet split of that period. Although its policy was to welcome all who shared its aim of developing friendship with China, no matter what their political persuasion, its leadership was still strongly under the influence of the Communist Party of Great Britain. When the Chinese government expected it to side with China against Russia, the BCFA refused. This decision split the organisation, and those who disagreed with it decided to set up their own successor organisation, the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU).

Some Scottish members of the BCFA had long desired to establish their own links with China and, perhaps goaded by the use of the word “Anglo” in SACU's name, a decision was taken to start a society to promote direct people-to-people links between Scotland and China.

The SCA was formally established at a meeting held in the University of Edinburgh in May 1966. The meeting, which was attended by people from all over Scotland, was addressed by, among others, the eminent scientist Dr Joseph Needham, a long-time friend of China and Honorary President of SACU, and by the Chinese author Han Suyin. The aim of the Association was declared to be “to foster friendship and understanding between the people of Scotland and China, both through its own efforts and by co-operation with other organisations and individuals at home and abroad who share the same aim”.

The first National Chairman of the SCA was the Rev. Ralph Morton, deputy head of the Iona Community, who had worked for many years in northeast China and had written and lectured extensively on China, including the Chinese Church. Two vice-chairmen were appointed, both from the universities: John Chinnery of Edinburgh University and Jack Gray, the historian of modern China who had recently been appointed to a post in Glasgow University. The first secretary of the SCA was Elsie Collier, who remains one of our most active members. Lord Boyd Orr was Honorary President, and vice-presidents included Compton Mackenzie, Lord Birsay, H. Stewart Mackintosh, The Rev. Principal Norman W. Porteous, and the sculptor Benno Schotz; Tam Dalyell became a vice-president in 1972 and remains so today.

During the first few years of its existence, the SCA continued the campaign for China's representation at the UN and for strengthened links between Scotland and China. The early efforts of the Association were also concentrated on education. In addition to the SCA branch meetings, film shows and other events were held regularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow and weekend schools and conferences were held in Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow, usually in co-operation with university extramural departments. Conferences on China for secondary school children were held in Edinburgh, Glasgow, the Trossachs and elsewhere. These were jointly organised by the SCA and either local education authorities or the junior branch of the UN Association. The Association also had its own journal, Sine. Starting modestly, it has developed over the years under the editorship of several individuals, most recently Neil McFadyean and Dale Finlayson.

Although the membership of the SCA has never exceeded a few hundred, its influence was far wider and it has always been broadly representative of all sections of Scottish society. This diversity is exemplified by two of its most prominent members during the 1970s, Tom Murray and Col. John Logan. Tom was a lifelong socialist and veteran of the Spanish Civil War whose interest in China dated back to the time when he read the news of the 1911 Revolution to his blind father. He was one of the prime movers in the foundation of the SCA, and the competition the Association now holds for school children was appropriately named after Tom. John Logan spent his younger years working for BAT in China, inspecting tobacco crops. As a prisoner in World War II, he planned several escapes from Colditz and subsequently became Commandant of Stirling Castle and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Stirlingshire. He joined the SCA early in the 1970s and continued to lecture and show his films to audiences all over Scotland.

Tom and John were both involved in an incident involving the SCA. An acrobatic troupe from China came to Scotland to perform. They decided to donate their takings, amounting to hundreds of pounds, to the SCA. At the subsequent SCA National Committee Tom Murray moved that we should not accept it, since it might open us to the accusation of accepting “Beijing gold” (receiving “Moscow gold” had in the past been an accusation levelled against left-wing organisations and individuals in Britain and, indeed, in China). John Logan was about to visit London, and so he undertook the embarrassing task of returning the money to the Chinese Embassy.

One of the weaknesses of the SCA has been that it has never had its own premises but has had to rely on members and friends to provide meeting places. Our first chairman was of great assistance in this respect, arranging for us to meet in the Iona Community premises in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. The universities were often helpful in this regard, and over the years we have also met in Edinburgh at the premises of the Saltire Society, Abbeyhill School (whose then-head teacher, Sheila Mackenzie, was a Committee member), and at the Quaker Meeting House; in recent years Glasgow meetings have been held at the Multi-Cultural Centre in Rose Street.

Although the SCA has had only three chairmen – Ralph Morton, myself, and, for the past several years, Janice Dickson – it had several secretaries in succession in its early years. Elsie Collier was invited to go with her husband Johnny to teach in Guangzhou in the late 1960s, which meant that she had to leave the post. Subsequent secretaries included Jennifer Scarce, John Barr, his daughter Betty, Isabel Hilton, Valerie Waggot, Dale Finlayson, Tom Nisbet, and, for several years now, Euan Petrie. In fact, the Barr family - John, Ruth and Betty - with their long experience of China, were a great strength during the early days, and Betty has continued to contribute in numerous ways ever since, not least with the books written by her husband George Wang and herself in Shanghai and with George's frequent contributions to Sine.

Another drawback of having no premises was that the Association’s archives became scattered and largely lost. The SCA should now make an effort to gather together whatever it can, so that at least some of it can be retrieved. But having no premises also meant having few overheads, which gave it a kind of Taoist strength. SACU suffered from overreaching itself and having to curtail its activities in times of crisis. The SCA has survived such crises by never losing sight of its main aim as set out in its constitution and not being diverted from this aim by involving itself too deeply in political arguments. As a result, with the present amazing developments in China and the multiplication of personal and organisational contacts between Britain and China, its future is assured.

Just to mention two of the successful activities undertaken by the SCA in its first twenty years. One was those surrounding the visit of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, led by Chu Tunan in 1978. We organised a piper to welcome them to Waverley Station at the reasonable cost of one bottle of whisky. This got their visit off to a good start. I can still remember the scene as they solemnly processed from their train to the waiting cars led by the piper. They enjoyed a full programme of visits to people and places in Scotland. Their organisation has always given the Association great support, including numerous invitations, from 1972 onwards, to send delegations to China that have enabled visits to all four quarters of the country.

Another event was the China Week held in November 1986 at the Assembly Rooms in George Street, Edinburgh, and opened by Hu Dingyi, who served in London first as Cultural Counsellor and later as Ambassador. A whole week of activities, including film shows, exhibitions, a talk by our then-Honorary President, now Patron, the composer Ronald Stevenson, a concert of Chinese music, noodle-pulling and vegetable carving by one of Edinburgh's Chinese restaurateurs, and face-painting for children. These are but two of the events I remember with pleasure from our first twenty years. I am sure that if we can gather more information, it will be possible to put together a full account of SCA history. Perhaps our target for this should be 2016 - our 50th Anniversary !