5:00AM Saturday March 03, 2007
The story of how a young Englishman, George Hogg, took 60 orphans on a journey of hundreds of miles to safety across war-ravaged China in the winter of 1944 is one of the more remarkable tales of World War II.
In the town of Shandan, in Gansu province on the Mongolian border, Hogg and his friend and mentor, the New Zealand philanthropist Rewi Alley, are remembered with a statue and affection, but Hogg is little known outside China.
This is all set to change with a film called The Children of Huang Shi which is being made by the Canadian-born director Roger Spottiswoode.
With Japanese forces snapping at their heels as they made their western advance across China in 1944, and with the help of Mao Zedong's communist guerrillas, Hogg escorted the boys across 1100km of mountainous terrain in northwestern China to a temple town in Shandan. Just one year later, Hogg contracted tetanus after he injured his toe playing basketball with the students. With no medicines to stop lockjaw, he died, aged 29.
A privileged Oxford graduate, seemingly destined for middle-class security, Hogg landed in Shanghai at the tender age of 23 during a trip around the world. He worked as a journalist for the United Press news agency and among the historical events he witnessed was the brutal occupation by the Japanese of the then-capital Nanking, now Nanjing.
In China, no one talks about World War II. Instead people talk about the Anti-Japanese War, which ran from 1931, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, until 1945 when the Japanese capitulated.
The war still has political ramifications in China and relations between the two Asian powers have yet to recover fully - the Chinese believe the Japanese have never expressed proper remorse.
In 1937 marauding Japanese troops began what has become known as the Rape of Nanking, killing many thousands of Chinese civilians. The massacre remains a contentious issue between the countries: China says that 300,000 people were killed, while some Japanese researchers consider the death toll to be between 100,000 and 200,000.
Hogg became involved with Alley, who had set up a scheme known as the Industrial Co-operative, a Chinese version of the American New Deal programme of industrial development. The co-operative's slogan - Gung Ho - has passed into the English language. In 1942 Alley set up a system of schools called the Bailie Schools after his friend Joseph Bailie, an American missionary who pioneered the idea of integrating theory and practice in education in China.
Hogg, who relates the story in his book I see a New China, ran the school at Shuangshipu, around 200km west of Xi'an, in Shaanxi province, with great success, but was forced to pack up the school on carts and head for Gansu as the war encroached.
It was a dangerous journey - poor mountainous roads, and Japanese soldiers everywhere. Two boys died during the journey. In Shandan, Alley rented a few old temples and turned them into classrooms and workshops, and appointed Hogg as headmaster.
The £10 million ($28 million) movie, which features epic battle scenes, a strong emotional dimension and a sympathetic reading of recent Chinese history, is due in cinemas early next year. The Rape of Nanking is set to feature in a number of Chinese and foreign film projects this year, but while being set in the China of its time, The Children of Huang Shi is not solely a movie about the atrocities of war but of one Briton's heroism and his journey of discovery.