LONDON – In a week that saw Chairman Mao's infamous "Little Red Book" brandished during a Parliamentary debate, a letter from the Chinese leader to then Labour Party leader and later prime minister Clement Attlee reveals an early example of diplomacy between Mao Zedong and Britain as he tried to elicit support against Japan.
TYPED LETTER SIGNED, IN CHINESE CHARACTERS, ALSO SIGNED BY ZHU DE, TO CLEMENT ATTLEE, 1937: FIRST PAGE. ESTIMATE: £100,000–150,000.
Part of the English Literature, History, Children's Books and Illustrations sale on 15 December, this exceptional historic record is only the second document signed by Mao to appear on the international auction market in recent decades.
One of the first communications between the Communist leader and any Western politician, the letter is dated 1 November 1937 and written from his headquarters in a remote part of northwestern China. After stating Mao's solidarity and goodwill to the British people, the letter calls for urgent practical assistance in the fight against Japanese Imperialism.
CHAIRMAN MAO ADDRESSES A MEETING CALLING FOR EVEN GREATER EFFORTS AGAINST THE JAPANESE, AT THE KANGDAH (ANTI-JAPANESE) CAVE UNIVERSITY. PHOTOGRAPH BY HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES.
The correspondence was facilitated by an intrepid New Zealand-born journalist, James Munro Bertram, who in addition to being acquainted with Attlee, was also granted a long audience with Mao in October 1937. As well as carrying Mao's signature, the letter is also signed by the army general Zhu De (1886-1976), one of the principal founders of the People's Liberation Army. The letter was sent enclosed in a handwritten letter from John Bertram:
"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."
TYPED LETTER SIGNED, IN CHINESE CHARACTERS, ALSO SIGNED BY ZHU DE, TO CLEMENT ATTLEE, 1937: SECOND PAGE. ESTIMATE: £100,000–150,000.
This gesture of goodwill from the guerrilla leader in 1937 may have lived on in Attlee's memory: under his leadership, the United Kingdom became the first Western country to recognise the People's Republic of China in 1950, and Attlee became the first ranking western politician to officially meet Mao. The two men had a three-hour conversation over tea on 24 August 1954, during which perhaps they recalled this extraordinary missive from 17 years earlier.