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Historic letter from Mao to Clement Attlee sells for £605,000 at Sotheby's London
Only the second letter signed by Mao to appear on the international auction market in recent decades. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- An historic letter written by Mao Zedong, one of the most significant historical figures of the century, to the British politician Clement Attlee, then head of the Labour Party and the future British Prime Minister, sold today at Sotheby’s in London to a Chinese private collector for £605,000 / HK$7.1m. Estimated at £100,000-150,000 / HK$ 1.2-1.8m, the letter was one of the very first communications between the Communist leader and any Western politician.

Dated 1 November 1937, it was written from Yan’an, a remote part of north-western China where the Communists had set-up their headquarters following the full-scale Japanese invasion of the country. After stating Mao’s solidarity and goodwill to the British people, the letter calls for the Labour Party's urgent practical assistance in the fight against Japanese Imperialism.

This was only the second letter signed by Mao to appear on the international auction market in recent decades.

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s Specialist in Books and Manuscripts: “This attempt to elicit British support against Japan is an extraordinarily early instance of Mao engaging in international diplomacy, and is an exceptionally rare example of Mao’s signature. This is only the second document signed by Mao to appear on the international auction market in recent decades.”

The writing of this letter was facilitated by an intrepid New Zealand-born journalist, James Munro Bertram, who was granted a long audience with Mao on 25 October 1937 after an immense act of bravery won him the trust of the Communist party leaders. Following the invasion of Beijing, he had helped Deng Yingchao (the wife of one of the leading members of the Communist party) to cross Japanese lines, safely delivering her to Yan’an. This exceptionally remote place was rarely visited by Westerners; Bertram was one of the first to meet with the Chinese Communists on their home ground.

Although not a Communist, Bertram was deeply impressed by Mao’s cause. Like many other Socialists in the 1930s, he saw the struggle against Japanese imperialism as part of the same European struggle against Fascism. Seizing the opportunity to foster the international solidarity to which he was deeply committed, Bertram encouraged the writing of this historic letter to Clement Attlee, with whom he was personally acquainted.

Mao’s letter was originally written in Chinese (the Chinese version is not known to survive) then translated and typed. The typist – and presumably the translator – was Bertram. 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.”

This gesture of goodwill from the guerrilla leader in 1937 may have lived on in Attlee’s memory and had a lasting legacy:

 Under Clement Attlee’s leadership, the United Kingdom became the first Western country to recognise the People’s Republic of China after its foundation on 6 January 1950. (Attlee had become the British Prime Minister in 1945).

 Attlee also played an important role in discouraging President Truman from initiating a full-scale war against China during the Korean War.

 Attlee became the first ranking western politician to meet Mao after the founding of the PRC. The two men had a three-hour conversation over tea on 24 August 1954, during which they must surely have recalled this extraordinary missive from Yan’an of seventeen years earlier.

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