Background on Qu Qiubai before he became Communist leader in 1927.
Tsi-an Hsia, The Gate of Darkness: Studies on the Leftist Literary Movement
Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution
Paul Pickowicz, Marxist Literary Thought in China: The Influence of Ch’u Ch’iu-pai
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Qu Qiubai, Named head of new provisional politburo at August 7, 1927 Emergency Conference
Wang Shouhua, President of the General Labor Union
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Besso Lominadze, New Comintern head in China starting in July 1927
Welcome to episode 58 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, I want to take a step back and, as promised, get into some details of the life of Qu Qiubai up to the point at which he became the top Chinese Communist leader at the August 7 Emergency Conference in 1927. I think some listeners might have been surprised that someone who we had barely talked about beforehand became the top leader at that point. This is not because Qu had played an unimportant role in the Chinese Communist movement up until that point. Far from it. Rather, it’s because I’m trying to be economical with my narrative here and how many names I throw at you. There are just so many people involved in the Chinese Communist movement, and therefore just a ton of people who were playing important roles in the various events that we have described in this podcast, that it would be cumbersome to the narrative to name everyone involved, so I try to keep the names that I give to a minimum. I also recognize that, for people who are unfamiliar with Chinese names, that there is a certain learning curve in becoming familiar with Chinese names, and that definitely affects the retention of those names in your memory. And because the main audience for this podcast tends to not be super familiar with Chinese culture and history, that’s another reason why I have kept the number of names I throw out there to a minimum. Although I do want to say that I am flattered by the fact that some of you listening do have a lot of familiarity with Chinese culture and history and still find it worthwhile to listen to this podcast.
But this also means that we have a little catching up to do if we want to know something about this guy who took over the top leadership position in the Chinese Communist Party in the summer of 1927, Qu Qiubai.
One biographer of Qu has characterized him as a “tender-hearted Communist.” This is in contrast to the stereotypical figure of a hard and tough Communist, which is promoted (albeit in different ways) both by anti-Communists, who portray Communists as hard-hearted and cruel, and by many Communists themselves, who craft their own personas as tough-minded people who can make difficult decisions regarding life and death and who are ready to face all the hardships of a revolutionary process, including life in a guerrilla camp in the mountains for years on end, or in the dungeons of the enemy once captured. Obviously, anyone who has spent some time among Communists knows that they are people with the whole range of personalities that one finds among other social and political groups. But, in a political milieu which gave rise to works like How the Steel was Tempered, a coming-of-age story about the socialist revolutionary process in Russia published in 1932 in which the transformation from fresh youth to man-of-steel comrade is put forward as a process of personal transformation that readers should strive to emulate, one has to admit that this stereotype of the tough or hard Communist is one that many Communists have tried to live up to, historically in general and definitely in the 1920s in China, the Soviet Union and worldwide in the International Communist Movement. To use trendy language, you could say that there was a lot of performative toughness in the International Communist Movement. Certainly, when Ioseb Jughashvili changed his name to Joe Stalin, the Russian word for steel, this was some performative toughness. Which isn’t to say there wasn’t real toughness there.
Toughness, both performative and real, was cultivated for very good reason. I mean, the history we’ve covered so far in this podcast has been really violent, right? We’ve had people get their heads chopped off by executioners in the streets of Shanghai for handing out leaflets. There has just been one massacre after another of workers and peasants, and very cruel treatment of the Communists who fell into the hands of the enemy. Remember how the Green Gang allies of Chiang Kai-shek killed the leader of the Shanghai General Workers Union, Wang Shouhua, back in episode 49?
I remember a conversation that I had with someone who had been a Jesuit in Africa and, during all the changes in the world in the 1960s, had changed to becoming a Maoist, based a lot on what he saw in Africa and how it changed his perception of the world from how he had been raised as a middle class American. And we were talking about the Communist movement and the conversation at some point came to the issue of the whole ‘need to know’ way in which information is supposed to be parceled out within Communist parties and one thing he said to me was very vivid and, even though I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years, this always stuck with me. He said, that his people had this ‘need to know’ policy because, when “the enemy is putting a cigarette out in your eye, you can’t tell them anything that you don’t know.” So, this realistic attitude toward what one might expect under conditions of arrest in many parts of the world and for most of the 20th century, and certainly in China in the 1920s, definitely lends itself to Communists trying to be, or performing being, and even becoming ‘tough guys.’ So, this is my long, rambling, preamble to Qu Qiubai, and him being, according to one of his biographers, “a tender-hearted Communist,” as opposed to all the big bad other Communists who were tough guys. Anyways, let’s look at Qu and his life and see why this biographer said this about him.
Qu Qiubai was born in 1899 into a well-off landed family in Changzhou, about 175 km up the Yangzi River from Shanghai. But despite the advantages of his birth, Qu’s father was an opium addict, and he squandered his wealth and was not able to capitalize on his social position. This led to Qu’s father moving away to take a teaching job, and he didn’t send any money to help out his family back in Changzhou. He had left Qu’s mother behind to take care of six children and a mother-in-law. The family was hounded by debt collectors and apparently Qu’s mother was treated pretty badly by his father’s family. As the family sank further into poverty, Qu had to quit school and take a job as a school-teacher himself. Then, when Qu’s grandmother was sent off to Hangzhou to be cared for by a different branch of the family which could better afford to take care of her, the journey was too difficult for the sick old lady and she died soon after arrival. The death of the old matriarch opened the floodgates for Qu’s mother’s in-laws to pile on their abuse: she was unwifely, so her husband had left home; she was unmotherly, so her son had to drop out of school and work; she was undaughterly, so she hastened her mother-in-law’s death by moving her to another city. All these problems, of course, were the result of Qu’s father squandering the family’s wealth and then abandoning them, but this is not how his family saw things. So, tired of the poverty and abuse, when Qu was 16, his mom killed herself by scraping match heads off of a box of matches and drinking the phosphorous powder down with tiger bone wine, a really strong liquor used in Chinese medicine which is about 120 proof.
After his mother’s death, Qu moved to Wuhan to stay with an older cousin, and then followed the cousin to Beijing when the cousin got a government job there. Qu Qiubai had a good education already, and so in Beijing, while he couldn’t afford to enter any of the regular universities, he was accepted in the summer of 1917 into a new Russian Language Institute that had been created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This new Institute was intended to meet China’s need for a cohort of people to serve in government and business who could speak Russian, and students were given a stipend and promised employment upon graduation, either in government service or on the Russian-controlled China Eastern Railway, which ran across Manchuria and constituted something of a Russian colonial possession on Chinese territory. (Which, you might recall, we discussed back in episode 16, when the issue of whether the Soviet Union would give the railroad to China after the Russian Revolution came up.)
Whereas many of the people who would go on to found the Communist Party went through a period of transformation from Liberals to Marxists that was catalyzed by the May Fourth Movement, as we discussed back in episode 13, Qu was more into Buddhism as a path toward reforming China at the time when he entered the Russian Language Institute. Here is how he described his thinking:
“The three years from my arrival in Beijing to the eve of the May Fourth Movement were the most solitary in my life. I had then no friends. The new bureaucracy in the capital, with their ‘republican’ way of living, disturbed me as a source of painful irritation. I became more and more convinced of my misanthropic views of life with the three years’ study of philosophy. But a change had come over my mind, since I felt then a positive disgust which took the place of my earlier escapist attitude. My interest in classical studies led me to the ambition to reform such studies through a revival of the ‘Modern Text School.’ My attempts at solving life’s problems through Buddhism resulted in another ambition: to humanize Buddhism and practice altruism as contained in the idea of Bodhisattvahood. These were the vain and boastful wishes of a young man, but they epitomized the dualistic view of life evolved in my solitude. I allotted a part of my time to preparing for the discharge of my ‘worldly’ duties—training for a career in which I was supposed to make a livelihood. Another part of my time was used on the ‘transcendental’ level, for I had also to prepare myself diligently for the ‘service’ (a rough translation of gongde, a specifically Buddhist term) of saving China by cultural means. I never relaxed in my philosophical studies which added heavily to the load of work at the Russian Language College. That I had to live like an ascetic and to study more than eleven hours a day was only a manifestation of my pursuit of the dual aims. Social intercourse could not have a place in my life. I studied Russian because thereby I could someday eat my own rice; for the rice I then ate was not mine, but my cousin’s. My parasitic existence could not fail to stimulate me, now and again, into thinking about social problems, the problem of the relationship between man and man.”
So that was how Qu Qiubai was thinking when the May 4th Movement broke out in 1919. On the day of the demonstration itself, Qu reportedly came home spitting blood. And as the movement progressed, he was jailed for three days as part of a mass arrest of 800 activists at one point. So while the founders of the Chinese Communist Party were drawn to socialist ideas away from liberalism, Qu was drawn to socialism from a sort of reformist Buddhism. But, they all ended up in the same place. Qu ended up working on a magazine that got closed down after a few issues for promoting socialist ideas, and he became well-known to Li Dazhao and other members of Li’s proto-Communist circle in Beijing.
In the summer of 1920, Qu was offered a fateful opportunity. The main liberal newspaper, the Beijing Morning News, wanted to place a correspondent in Moscow to cover the unfolding socialist revolution in the Soviet Union. Qu was offered the position, possibly because of the influence of Li Dazhao, who contributed to the Morning News, although there were not a lot of fluent Russian speakers to choose from to offer the job to, so it is hard to say. The job itself was finally an opportunity to become self-sufficient, which was clearly a concern of Qu’s. The job paid $2000/year, which must have seemed a huge sum, when you consider that as a school teacher before his mother died Qu had an annual salary of $72. But the large pay was supposed to compensate for the anticipated hardships of the journey and the difficulties of living in an unknown and dangerous place. Qu’s friends tried to dissuade him from the journey, but he responded in the following way:
“Let us ignore the facts of hunger and coldness, that there one will have nothing to eat, nothing to wear, etc. The significant fact is that this is the first country that has realized socialist revolution: it is the center of world revolution where the western and eastern cultures meet. I shall not be troubled by the means I take to make the trip possible… I know I am not qualified for the task assigned me but I’ll go as a newspaper correspondent. I should not accept the offer but I have accepted it. Nor shall I ask excuse for my ambition in my attempt to lead our thoughts with my power of persuasion to the right path out of the ideological confusions as reflected in the Morning News. I believe there is no private possession of thought, and that’s why I have made up my mind to go.”
So we get a picture of Qu setting out for Moscow in 1920, an unapologetically ambitious man, committed to socialism and to clearing up ideological confusion, even while unsure himself of the specifics of his own thinking, but determined to report on what he sees happening in the first socialist state. But setting out to Moscow already committed to socialism as a cause, it is predictable that Qu would soon come to engage with the revolution as more than just a newspaper correspondent.
Qu only arrived in Moscow in January 1921, after having been detained along the way by the ongoing civil war making travel impossible between Manchuria and European Russia. During his two years in Russia, Qu wrote two books and 59 long newspaper articles, 44 of which were actually published. The articles painted a picture of life in the Soviet Union, and while the author was supportive of socialism, he did not spare on negative details and hardships of life. But the account left in the two books are, I think, the reason that the biographer I mentioned earlier labeled Qu the ‘tender-hearted Communist.’ The books are remarkable for their descriptions of Qu’s inner life while in Russia. In the books, details about important events and figures are terse, these details went into the newspaper articles that he sent back to China. For example, in the books Lenin, who Qu met at the Third Comintern Congress in the summer of 1921, is briefly described as someone whose large head made an impressive silhouette and whose tone of voice sounded determined. Rather, in the books he follows a romantic Chinese literary trend which emerged out of the May 4th period in which writers would focus on their own inner life and which prioritized self-expression.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. In the postscript to the first book, A Journey to the Land of Hunger, Qu wrote:
“Human history throughout the centuries is but a series of visions, one nightmare quickly succeeded by another, which appears in one’s consciousness as in the moment when the blood is rushing to the heart. Therefore we cannot have more than faint impressions of them. Social phenomena, with all their endless involvements and myriad reflections, cannot also but leave faint traces, because they are only so many undulations of the heart-wave. Everything in human life rests on Reality, just as so many rivers find their home in the heart-sea… The heart-sea is ever in motion and the heart-wave heaves and rolls in every possible manner. They compose the phantasmagoric world of ours. The closer we are to awakening, the more real, and probably also the more terrible, the dreams appear. Since the heart-sea is all pervasive, so the world is in one dream; but since the heart-waves rise and fall in all grotesque shapes, the starlight they catch glitters with a brilliance that is different from here to there… [Then Qu Qiubai stretches the metaphors and alludes to himself.] So long as the compass points to the right direction I shall someday make a circuit of the universal heart-sea and return to my real Homeland.”
This was written in October 1921, as Qu was being drawn further and further into assisting with a variety of Communist activities, mainly as a translator.
And, to give you a flavor of his second book, A History of the Heart in the Red Capital, here’s a representative passage from that:
“Unite Ego with Non-Ego and there is likeness. Oppose Ego to Non-Ego and there is the awareness of the uniqueness of personality.
“There must be a way to unite the two; and that is Love.
“It is nothing censurable for a child to like to play. But if he does not know that there is Mother’s bosom for him to return to, then he will become lost in his play. He will experience fear. Our prideful nature, if not improved by Love, will become likewise our curse.”
So we can see this lingering Buddhist influence, mixed with Qu pursuing this literary trend of self-expression and romanticism. It’s really not the sort of thing you expect to see when you are given a window into the soul of someone who is on the fast track to playing a leading role in a Communist revolution.
So, aside from working as a newspaper correspondent, what else was Qu doing in the Soviet Union between January 1921 and January 1923, when he went back to China? There was a growing wave of Chinese students coming to the Soviet Union during this time, and so he was drawn in to working as an interpreter for these students, as well as in various official meetings where Chinese Communists attended which had to do with the development of the International Communist Movement, such as the Comintern Congress mentioned earlier where he met Lenin, and the Congress of the Peoples of the Far East in 1922. He was also trusted to make translations between Russian and Chinese where fine points of Marxist theory were meant to be conveyed in translation, which was not always a simple task. A subtle theoretical point could easily be distorted through a sloppy translation, and Qu was more and more introduced to the fine points of Marxist theory while in the Soviet Union. He also took up a teaching position for a time at the University of the Toilers of the East, which had been set up for educating Communist cadres from across Asia and Africa, and at which the largest cohort of students were Chinese until a separate university was split off for the Chinese students in 1925.
On his return to China, Qu was immediately elevated to the party Central Committee, despite having little experience of the Communist movement in China itself. This was the first example of a trend that would quickly develop, of Communists trained in the Soviet Union being elevated to leadership based on the Comintern’s sense that they were more dependable because of their time in Russia. Certainly, the ability to talk in Russian with Mikhail Borodin was a great advantage to Qu, and he and Borodin became quite close politically. A position was quickly found for Qu as the Dean of Social Sciences at Shanghai University, where the Communists were very influential. He held that position from early 1923 until late 1924, when political battles at the school led to his ouster. While Dean, he reorganized the curriculum to reflect revolutionary priorities, but of course his main work was as a Communist leader. Because of this, the writing voice that he had developed while in the Soviet Union disappeared. Now Qu wrote for the Party, not for himself. But despite the fact that he no longer pursued the avant-garde writer’s vocation, he was very respected in literary circles and was a great asset for Party work with intellectuals in cosmopolitan Shanghai.
If one of the main functions of the leader of the Chinese Communist Party was to be able to interface well with the Comintern representatives in China, Qu seems like a very logical choice for the role. When Besso Lominadze came to China, he spoke no Chinese, so it had to be very appealing to Lominadze work with a Chinese leader who spoke Russian. And, by the time 1927 rolled around, Qu Qiubai had accumulated four years of very active leadership experience in the Party, even if he didn’t quite stand out in the way some other leaders may have.
All right. I think this brings us up to date on Qu’s background. Of course, the association of the ‘tender hearted Communist’ with the new line of armed struggle whenever and wherever possible is no doubt intended as ironic on the part of the biographer who gave that label to Qu. But, if Che Guevara was right when he said that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love,” maybe it isn’t inappropriate.
Alright, that’s it for this episode. And remember, reviews and ratings can help other people to find this podcast, so please do consider leaving a review or rating in you enjoyed this episode or learned something. And thank you to everyone who has already left a review or rating.