Taking a look back at the early life of Zhu De, the man who would later be Mao’s main partner in revolution.
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Some names from this episode:
Zhang Tailei, leader of the Guangzhou Uprising of December 1927
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Shi Dakai, Taiping general who fought a campaign in Sichuan
Emperor Guangxu, Emperor of China who tried to assert his power during Hundred Days Reform only to be thwarted by the Empress Dowager Cixi
Xi Bingan, Zhu De’s teacher
Empress Dowager Cixi, power behind the throne from 1861 to 1908
Welcome to episode 77 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, I want to introduce someone who we have mentioned a good number of times already on this podcast, but we’ve never really spent any time on his biographical details. I’m talking about Zhu De, one of the most important, if not the most important, of the communist military commanders, aside from Mao Zedong himself. We’re at the point in our narrative where Zhu De is about to end up joining his forces with Mao’s in the Jinggangshan in spring of 1928, and so I want to take a step back and spend some time looking at Zhu De’s background, before we end up following him from the defeat of the Southern Expedition near Shantou up to the uprising in South Hunan that he joined in with at the beginning of 1928.
Zhu De was one of the older Communist leaders. You might recall from earlier episodes that Mao, who turned 34 in 1927, was quite a bit older than many of the other communists. Zhang Tailei was 29 when he died leading the Guangzhou Uprising, and many communist cadres had joined as teenagers or in their early 20s, and already when they were in their early or mid-20s were serving as mid-level cadres. So this was an extremely youthful movement. So already at 34, Mao stood out for his age and experience. And Zhu De was even a bit older than Mao. Zhu De was born in 1886, making him seven years Mao’s elder, and making him 41 already when he joined up with Mao in early 1928. And so he brought quite a bit of experience with him into a very youthful movement. So, let’s talk about Zhu De and where he came from.
Zhu De was born into a poor peasant family in Sichuan province. There has been some confusion about his background because Edgar Snow, in his widely read book Red Star Over China, said that Zhu came from a family of rich landlords. When Snow was in Yan’an drafting Red Star Over China, he had heard a rumor to that effect, and in general the Communist leadership did not talk a lot about their personal backgrounds, so there was some mystery about where they came from and of course that kind of mystique always leads to rumors. So, even though later versions of Red Star Over China contained a correction in Zhu De’s biographical note, this was the source of a lot of misinformation about Zhu’s class background. One side benefit for us of taking some time now and looking at some aspects of Zhu De’s youth is that, at least early on, his experiences were very much conditioned by his class background as a poor peasant, and so looking at Zhu De’s biography also gives us an opportunity to explore some social history.
In any case, Zhu’s family was very poor. He was the fourth of what would be 13 kids, but only the first eight survived. The last five were drowned at birth because the family couldn’t afford to feed any more kids. When we examined Mao Zedong’s childhood, back in episode 12, we talked about how Mao said that his family only ate eggs once a month and meat three or four times a year. Mao was from a rich peasant family. So, as you can imagine, someone like Zhu De from a poor peasant family had an even more restricted diet. Here’s Zhu’s own testimony on the meals that he ate as a child:
“All the meals were the same the year round. The men all ate together, for such was the custom, and after them the women and children. We were too poor to eat rice except on rare occasions. Breakfast was a gruel of sorghum, with perhaps a little rice or some beans mixed in, and with a common bowl of vegetables. We also had tea, but without sugar, of course. Dinner and supper consisted of about the same things.” [This interview was done in 1937, back when what we call lunch today was called dinner, and when the evening meal was called supper.] “Instead of gruel, the sorghum mixed with rice was cooked dry and there was a common bowl, or perhaps two, of boiled vegetables. When my brothers and I managed to fish without being caught—we loved to fish—we might have a bowl of rice. Meat or other special food was served only at the lunar New Year celebration, if at all.
“Though Sichuan was a salt-producing province, salt was so expensive that poor people bought as little as possible. There were three kinds of salt: the refined white grain salt for the rich, a brown salt for people in medium circumstances, and a blackish, unclean salt, sold in solid cakes to poor people like ourselves. This salt was so precious that it was not cooked with the food. It was either dissolved in hot water and a bowl of the liquid placed in the center of the table into which we dipped our vegetables, or a solid piece of salt was placed in a bowl in the center of the table and we wiped our vegetables on it.
“My grandmother apportioned not only the work, but she also rationed the food according to age, need, and the work being done. Even in eating we did not know the meaning of individual freedom, and we always left the table hungry. I grew up hungry, so that later, in the revolutionary movement, it did not bother me so much as if I had never known it.”
The landlord who owned the land that Zhu De’s family lived and worked on was known as the King of Hell by the region’s peasants. In this same interview, Zhu De described the sort of rent and labor that his family had to pay the landlord. The annual rent was “over half the grain crop together with feudal dues such as extra presents—eggs, a chicken here and there, and sometimes a pig. We all hated these ancient feudal dues—I call them feudal despite differences of definition of the word, because the landed gentry imposed all sorts of obligations and duties of a servile character on us and other peasants.
“For example: when our landlord moved his big joint family to their cool mountain home each summer, the men of all his tenant families were obliged to drop everything and transport them, without cost. In the autumn they had to bring them back. Also, in times of social unrest, such as during bandit activities or peasant uprisings, his tenants were obliged to assemble at his home where they were handed weapons and ordered to fight for their lord and master. The peasants accepted these ancient feudal customs with fatalistic despair. They saw no way out.”
There was one main road that ran through the peasant village that Zhu De grew up in, and along this road would come itinerant artisans who met some of the needs that peasant households couldn’t meet for themselves. The women in Zhu De’s household would spin cotton thread, and then each winter an old itinerant weaver would come and weave the thread into cloth and dye it an indigo blue. After the coarse, woven cloth was hung out to dry on bamboo poles, the women in the family would cut the cloth and sew it into clothes, bedding, and whatever else the family needed cloth for. Back in episodes 64 and 65, I talked a little bit about how Wang Zuo, one of the bandit leaders whose gang was merged into Mao’s army in the Jinggangshan, had worked as an itinerant tailor in the region when he was young. So, these itinerant artisans were one of the main ways that poor peasant families got some of their needs met.
Anyways, this old itinerant weaver who would come to Zhu De’s household was a veteran of the Taiping Revolution, which we talked about back in episodes three and four. And of course, he would have to sit there weaving all day, and while he was weaving, he would tell stories. And he would tell stories of Shi Dakai, the Taiping general who led a force into Sichuan. The emphasis in the tales that this weaver told was on the righteousness of the Taiping’s struggle against the Manchus and the foreigners. And if his stories didn’t necessarily match events as they occurred, they did represent the way in which the Taiping Revolution was recast in the popular imagination as an anti-imperialist movement, reflecting the further subjugation of China and deepening resentment at the plunder of China by foreigners in the decades after the defeat of the Taiping in the 1860s (Zhu De would have been hearing these stories in the early 1890s). Decades later, Zhu De remembered these tales as his earliest moments of political education.
Three generations lived in the household that Zhu De grew up in. The heads of the household were his grandmother and grandfather, and with them lived their four sons, with their wives and children. Now, the oldest of Zhu De’s uncles didn’t have any children of his own, and so, because of the poverty of Zhu De’s parents, this uncle and his wife ended up adopting Zhu De as their own, both to relieve the burden on Zhu De’s biological parents, and in order to have a son, since they couldn’t have children of their own. This, as it turned out, was the sheer chance that would end up being a major factor in Zhu De managing to break out from living the life of a poor peasant himself as he got older.
Zhu De’s family pooled its resources to send three boys to school. It was a big sacrifice in order to pay the tuition, but the family perceived that education was the path for social mobility into the gentry, and because they were a large and thrifty family, they were initially able to send three kids to school, including Zhu De. They were the only peasant children in the school, and they faced discrimination from the other students, who nicknamed them “the three buffaloes;” kind of like how Yuan Wencai was called the ‘cowherd scholar’ as we discussed back in episode 65.
Not long after Zhu De and his cousins started school, Sichuan was hit by a drought that lasted two years, causing harvests to fail. Many people starved during this time, but Zhu De’s family managed to pull through, making major sacrifices, but remaining intact and having no one die of hunger. However, during the drought they couldn’t pay rent. So, when the drought was over, their landlord, the aforementioned King of Hell, raised the rent on part of their land in order to make up his own losses during the drought from all the peasants who couldn’t pay him rent. They couldn’t afford to pay the higher rent, though, so the family split up, with Zhu De leaving his natural parents behind to go with his adoptive parents, who relocated to a place where they found a very good teacher for him, and he was able to continue his schooling.
The school that Zhu De ultimately went to for the longest time was in one sense very traditional, in that much of the day was spent in memorizing classical Confucian texts. However, Zhu De’s teacher had heard of the new forms of modern learning that were entering China. And while he wasn’t familiar with the subject matter, he recognized that it was important and encouraged his students to learn about it if the opportunity ever came their way. They were, however, very far out of the way in the remote corner of the countryside that they occupied. For example, at one point a traveler gave a booklet to Zhu De’s teacher and told him that it was a textbook on western science. For a while, classes were totally focused on reading and memorizing this booklet, just as the Confucian classics were memorized in a normal class. But as it turned out, it ended up just being a pamphlet about a new soap factory in Chongqing that had been set up using modern machinery.
This school, in a remote rural corner of Sichuan, became a place where students and teacher worked together to try to learn what they could in order to support China’s modernization, which was understood as involving the adoption of the non-Confucian knowledge systems that had allowed the Europeans, Americans and Japanese to dominate China, as well as ending the rule of the Manchus and the imperialist domination of China. Whenever someone from out of town passed through the hamlet where they studied, classes were halted and the visitor was asked to tell the classes about events in the provincial capital of Chengdu, or in Beijing if the visitor had been that far. When Zhu De was 11, in 1898, during the Hundred Days Reform that we talked about back in episode eight, the students and teacher got very excited and thought that China would finally be saved, only to be totally crushed when the Guangxu Emperor was placed under house arrest and many of his advisors executed. Then, two years later, the students and teacher breathlessly followed news of the Boxer Uprising (which we discussed in episode nine). However, this also provided the first opportunity for Zhu De to confront the need for a scientific outlook to inform China’s rebels. He later recounted this experience in an interview with the progressive journalist Agnes Smedley. I’ll give the passage as she gives it in her book, which I’ve relied on heavily for early biographical details on Zhu De since, amazingly, the book remains the only biographical treatment of him in English, despite being published all the way back in 1956 (which, if you’re an Agnes Smedley fan, you know means it was published after she died, but that’s a whole other story that we don’t have time for here). Anyways, here’s the quote from the book:
“During the summer of 1900, [Zhu De] and his schoolmates often gathered in the home of their old teacher to talk about the Boxers and about what they should do should the uprising spread to their region.
“Sitting in the midst of his students, old Mr. [Xi] would say to them:
“‘Consider the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, the Sino-Japanese War. In these wars, one single foreign nation, or two at most, defeated China. Is China stronger today than in the past?’
“‘Weaker,’ the boys answered in chorus.
“‘Can the [Yi He Quan] hope to win against the combined might of eight foreign armies now arrayed against them?’”
Yi He Quan, by the way, was the name of the Boxer movement in Chinese, and is usually translated as Boxers United in Righteousness, but can also be translated as Righteous and Harmonious Fists. Going back to the quote:
“‘Can the [Yi He Quan] hope to win against the combined might of eight foreign armies now arrayed against them?’
“‘No,’ replied the boys sadly.
“‘Has The High’” The High was the name that they used for referring to the arch-reactionary Empress Dowager Cixi.
“‘Has The High more regard for the welfare of the country and people today than in the past?’
“‘Less,’ came the tremulous answer.
“‘Who ordered the [Yi He Quan] to fight, then fled in safety to [Xi’an]?’ asked the old man significantly and with deep bitterness.
“‘The High,’ breathed the boys.
“‘I have taught you the way to save China. What have I taught you?’
“‘We must study until we can go abroad and master Western science.’
“‘Then, is the [Yi He Quan] way the right way or the wrong way?’
“‘The wrong way,’ came the sad, and, in some cases, the tearful reply.”
So we can see that 14-year-old Zhu De was receiving a patriotic education which emphasized the need for science, and for a scientific approach to changing China, even though the education that he received from his teacher Xi Bingan was more something to do until the opportunity to study modern sciences abroad arose.
Zhu De continued studying the Confucian classics until 1906, when at age 19 he went to take the examination which would allow him to become a government official. The exams were held in a regional center that was only 25 miles away from where he lived, but it was further than anyone in his family had ever gone. The exams lasted a month, with the candidates sitting for exams for five days straight, before a two day recess was held while the week’s work was graded, and some students would get weeded out each week. Zhu De was successful, but despaired of his family ever being able to come up with the bribe money that would actually be needed to get the government position that he was now qualified for. Besides that, he was disgusted by the system and didn’t really want to be an official anyways. But while he was off taking the exams, he heard from other students about the Higher Normal College in Chengdu, a school with modern learning that had a special physical education department where you could study athletics and physical training and you could graduate with a degree in a year and get a job as a teacher of physical training. This greatly appealed to Zhu De, and so despite his success in the official exams, he took off to Chengdu to study physical education.
His family only found out what he had done when he returned home after getting his degree. His family expected that he was on his way to becoming a great official, and they refused to permit him to participate in any of the physical labor on the land. They also expected that they could marry him to a wealthy girl because of his status, and that the dowry that his wife would bring in would liquidate the family’s debts. So they were very upset when he told them that, instead of becoming an official, he was going to set up a modern school with some of the friends that he had made while studying, and that he was going to teach physical education. His family had never heard of physical education before, and when he described it to them, they were outraged.
Zhu De later recalled his father’s reaction: “The effect of my confession was terrifying… First, there was a long, shocked silence, then my father asked what physical training meant. When I explained, he shouted out, saying that the whole family had worked for 12 long years to educate one son to save them from starvation, only to be told that he intended to teach boys how to throw their arms and legs around. Coolies could do that, he shouted in violent bitterness, then turned and ran from the house and did not return while I was there. That night I heard my mother sobbing.”
But Zhu De saw physical education as playing a major role in China’s liberation. He, and many other modernizing youth, felt that China needed a more active and strong population in order to defeat the foreign imperialists who kept on preying on China. He felt that the Confucian tradition of contempt for physical work had made China weak, and this was why there was an emphasis on physical education in the modern schools that were being set up across China, including the one that Zhu De set up with his friends.
I think this is a good place to wrap up this episode. Next time, we’ll begin by talking about the surprisingly contentious career that Zhu De had as a physical education teacher.
And, before I go, I want to thank everyone again for your ratings, reviews, and contributions. They are all very much appreciated.