Following Zhu De from his time as a teacher of physical training at a modern school, through his time at the Yunnan Military Academy, the Revolution of 1911 and the rebellion against Yuan Shikai.
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Some names from this episode:
Cai E, Republican general and governor of Yunnan after the 1911-12 revolution
Yuan Shikai, leader of the Beiyang Army and dictator after the fall of the Qing
Xiao Jufang, Zhu De’s first wife
Lu Shaozhen, reactionary chief of staff of Yunnan Army’s First Division
Welcome to episode 78 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we made a short biographical sketch of the childhood of Zhu De, the man who would go on to be Mao’s closest collaborator in leading the armed forces of the Chinese Communist Party for many years. We saw how Zhu De was raised in a poor peasant family, but managed to pass the exams which would have enabled him to become a government official. But, rejecting Confucian learning and the pursuit of a career in government, Zhu De opted to become a physical education teacher. Zhu De saw the new schools that were springing up at the beginning of the 20th century which embraced educational subjects derived from Europe and the United States as being key to China’s modernization and liberation, and physical education in particular appealed to Zhu De as a way to make China’s people strong and able to eventually confront their foreign oppressors. We’re picking up Zhu De’s story this episode where we left off last time.
Zhu De and his four friends from school set up their new, modern school in the county seat of Yilong County, the same regional center where he had sat taking the exams for a month that would have allowed him to become a magistrate. And while there was now, in 1907, some degree of official encouragement for the setting up of modern schools, there was a lot of local resistance from the local gentry. The traditional Confucian scholars overwhelmingly were drawn from the gentry, and so while in some of the large cities there may have been some acceptance of the need for new types of education, in more remote parts of China the local gentry was not going to permit the founding of a modern school without a fight.
Initially, only 12 students enrolled in the school. They were drawn from the families of merchants and intellectuals who had some sense of the way the wind was blowing, that their sons would not be well-served any longer by a traditional Confucian education because of the way that China was changing. But even this small number of students was perceived as a threat. The conservatives began a rumor campaign against the school, speculating about what unnatural acts these teachers were engaged in: Why were the teachers not married? Why was there a class called ‘body training’ in which a teacher drawn from the poorest of classes (Zhu De, of course) made the boys strip naked and go through contortions? Why did the teachers cut their fingernails (it was traditional for Confucian scholars to demonstrate their contempt for manual labor by growing their fingernails long)?
But the families of the students attending the school stood up for their teachers. Fathers and grandfathers of students sat in on Zhu De’s classes and then told everyone how the students were clothed, not naked, in the physical education classes. And anyways, didn’t they think that it was better for the kids to be stronger so that they didn’t succumb to disease or foreign invaders. With the families of the first students standing strong, more students began trickling away from the old Confucian schools and coming to study at the modern school. This led the conservatives to escalate their attacks. Zhu De was accused of teaching an indecent subject and the school was temporarily closed while a magistrate heard the case.
But the tide had now turned, first in the court of public opinion and now in the legal arena. Zhu De’s students’ families testified on his behalf. And it was here that the 20-year-old Zhu De gave his first public speech, a rousing endorsement of physical education as a way for the Chinese people to become strong and avoid becoming a colony like India. In 1908, the school had grown to have over 70 students. And, having failed with rumors and in the courts, the reactionaries turned to violence. The conservatives began hiring thugs to attack the teachers and students in the streets, to intimidate them into closing the school. Here’s how Zhu De says that he responded:
“I began training my students to fight in self-defense—by jujitsu, with their fists, and with sticks. We carried sticks and fought pitched battles with gangsters in the streets. We even captured some of the ruffians and hauled them to court, where they betrayed their paymasters to protect themselves.”
Except in the big cities, students had to literally fight for their right to the new style education across China.
But the fighting with the reactionaries awakened something in Zhu De. He realized that teaching was not necessarily the right path for himself. He had been corresponding with a friend in Chengdu who told him about another friend of theirs who had gone off to enter a new military academy in Yunnan. The appeal of this, and other new military academies that taught a modernized form of military education, was somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, these academies were obviously training officers to join the military of the Qing Empire, which Zhu De and many other students opposed. But on the other hand, it was a source of modern knowledge, and in particular the sort of military thinking that was current in the foreign armies that had been defeating China. In particular, the Yunnan Military Academy was modeled on Japanese military academies, and many of the Chinese instructors had studied in Japan. For Zhu De, as for many other patriotic Chinese youth, the question was one of first gaining the knowledge needed to liberate China, then later finding a way to use that knowledge, even if in the meantime this meant participating in an institution that was training officers for the imperial Qing armed forces. After all, these armed forces had a contradictory character for someone like Zhu De: they were simultaneously the armies of the enemy Manchu dynasty, but they were also the armies that would defend China from foreign imperialism.
Zhu De was not at the Yunnan Military Academy for very long before he was recruited into the Revolutionary Alliance, the organization led by Sun Yatsen that was the forerunner of the Guomindang. Zhu De’s main task as a member of the Revolutionary Alliance was to conduct work with regular soldiers in the Sichuan Regiment that was stationed near the Military Academy. The method of work that he applied was to gather together a group of soldiers who he suspected would be sympathetic, and to sit with them in an isolated spot and talk with them about their personal and economic problems. Because the soldiers were illiterate, he would write letters home for them to their families. And on the basis of the trust established in this way, Zhu De would move on to discuss China’s national problems with them.
The recruitment was actually a two-way street. As Zhu De was recruiting common soldiers drawn from the poor peasantry into the orbit of the Revolutionary Alliance, the first group of soldiers that Zhu De conducted political work with saw themselves as drawing Zhu De into a sworn brotherhood known as the Elder Brothers Society. Zhu De allowed himself to be recruited, and he became a member after going through an initiation rite where many soldier members of the sworn brotherhood gathered together at an isolated temple in the hills. There, Zhu De and the others took a bowl of wine and each of them cut a vein in their wrists and allowed a few drops of blood to fall into the wine. The bowl was passed around and all of the participants in the rite drank a little bit. Just as with the later Communist work in the unions in Shanghai that we discussed back in episode 19 and in other episodes, joining the sworn brotherhood really facilitated Zhu De’s work among the common soldiers, since he could rely on the other members of the Elder Brothers Society to protect him.
In July 1911 Zhu De graduated from the Academy with the rank of second lieutenant. Now, you probably remember that 1911 was the year that the revolution broke out that ended the Qing Dynasty. We talked about those events back in episode 11, so I won’t give very much background here, except to remind you that the revolution broke out on October 10. So by the time that Zhu De graduated in July, the monarchists had already perceived the widespread republican sympathies among the officers that were trained in the modern military academies and were not giving them command of any troops. So Zhu De was initially sent to be an adjutant to a company commander who used him for things like running errands and making tea. Eventually, though, a progressive military commander, Cai E, was able to get Zhu De transferred to his brigade.
After the revolution began in Wuhan, the question for Zhu De and other progressive officers was how to spread the revolution into Yunnan. The Revolutionary Alliance gave Zhu De the task of carrying on agitation among the bodyguard of a conservative divisional general whose headquarters was near where Zhu De was stationed. He appears to have done a good job, because after the revolution spread to Yunnan on October 30, the bodyguards shot their officers and joined the revolution. In Yunnan the revolution took the form of a coordinated mutiny, in which the republican forces in the military, led by Cai E seized the capital, Kunming. Zhu De then joined in with an expeditionary force of eight battalions that marched into Sichuan and tipped the scales in favor of the revolution in that province.
When the revolution ended with Sun Yatsen being forced out of the presidency in favor of Yuan Shikai, Zhu De and his comrades were dispirited, but under Cai E’s leadership as the new governor of Yunnan, they took the approach of trying to turn Yunnan into a model republican province. Zhu De was promoted to major and assigned to work on training cadets at the Military Academy. He also got married to the sister of one of his army friends. Zhu De was 26, and his wife, Xiao Jufang, was 18. She was a student at the teachers’ college, came from a progressive family and had never had her feet bound. Zhu De’s friend arranged the marriage for him, but, Zhu De and Xiao Jufang felt that they were being very progressive by the standards of the time because they met and talked in the presence of Xiao Jufang’s family and determined that they liked each other before agreeing to the match. They only saw each other on Sundays, since that was the day that Zhu De was at liberty, and he continued living at the military academy while Xiao Jufang stayed in the dorms of the teachers’ college.
For a short time, Yunnan served as something of a refuge from the repression that Yuan Shikai unleashed in the rest of the country. But, in 1913, Yuan moved against Cai E by ordering him to report to Beijing to take up a position as chief of the Land Demarcation Bureau, thereby separating him from his power base in Yunnan. Before he left, Cai assigned Zhu De’s division to guard the border. The French had been arming bandits in China who would make raids into the French colony in Indochina, giving the French an excuse to make incursions in Yunnan and to try and hold territory there. Cai E feared that the French would try to seize Yunnan, which was already in their designated sphere of influence and which they had long wanted to add to their colonial possessions. So Zhu De spent the next two years stationed on the border, fighting bandits armed with good French rifles with the goal of preventing France from occupying and annexing Chinese territory.
It was apparently a pretty miserable assignment. He spent most of his time going between high mountains and tropical valleys, dealing with extremes of temperature. Everyone got sick with stomach disorders. And after the departure of Cai E, Zhu De’s divisional commander and chief of staff reverted openly to their old reactionary ways, which they had been dissembling since the fall of the Qing. Zhu De would later get to go head to head on the battlefield in Jiangxi against this reactionary chief of staff, Lu Shaozhen. The high points of the assignment came when Zhu could spend time in the city of Mengzi, where he got mail from his wife, and where he had made friends with a French businessman, who he would ask questions about life in France of and who introduced him to the writings of Voltaire.
At the end of 1915, a major crisis broke out in China when, taking advantage of the preoccupation of the European powers with World War One, Japan took over the German colony in Shandong and issued 21 demands to China, which mostly boiled down to demanding all kinds of special economic rights, such as joint Sino-Japanese administration of a huge iron and coal works in central China, and special economic rights in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. Yuan Shikai acquiesced to these demands in exchange for Japanese recognition of when Yuan declared himself emperor. In this context, Cai E returned to Yunnan and began organizing the resistance to Yuan Shikai.
In mid-December 1915, Zhu De, who was now a colonel, was brought into Cai E’s plans one day while walking the streets of Mengzi. He ran into an old friend and fellow Guomindang member (Zhu De had become a member of the Guomindang when Sun Yatsen founded that organization to succeed the Revolutionary Alliance in 1912), who bowed to him very formally, as if meeting a chance acquaintance, and then while bowing quietly said for Zhu De to bring his most trusted officer friends to a meeting that night at a temple on the outskirts of town. That night, this emissary presented a letter from Cai E. They were ordered to stage a revolt at dawn on December 25, when Cai E would lead a simultaneous revolt in Kunming. The idea was to start a national movement that would thwart Yuan Shikai’s plans to become a new emperor.
As ordered by Cai E, Zhu De and his comrades staged a mutiny in Mengzi and then commandeered trains to take them to Kunming to join up with Cai E. Just as in 1911, Yunnan fell quickly and easily to Cai E, but Sichuan was going to be another story. Yuan had well-armed loyalists in Sichuan, and so just as in 1911 and 1912, Cai E organized his forces to march into Sichuan to take on the conservatives. Because of its two years of experience in guerrilla fighting with bandits backed by the French along the Yunnan border with French Indochina, Zhu De’s regiment was chosen as the spearhead for the first assault in Sichuan. Aside from having been hardened by the experience along the border, it was thought that because Yuan Shikai’s loyalists only knew positional warfare, that Zhu De’s experience of guerrilla fighting would allow him to deploy tactics that would confound the enemy.
The first battle between the Yunnan Army, which had now been renamed the Army for the Defense of the Republic, and Yuan’s loyalists in Sichuan lasted three days and nights and saw fierce fighting. Zhu De’s regiment became famous for their night fighting and hand-to-hand combat, and on the second day of the battle two more regiments were placed under his command. In addition to standing out for his display of valor on the battlefield, this was also Zhu’s first experience at using political mobilization of the local population to his advantage in battle. As he later told Agnes Smedley:
“We did our first mass work among the peasants during this war… Led by the [Elder Brother Society], the peasants rose in arms, attacked enemy transports, and delivered food and ammunition to us. Boatmen moved up and down the river with supplies for us, ferried our troops across the river, and carried our wounded from the battlefield.”
In the wake of the battle, although the Army for the Defense of the Republic and its peasant allies had been victorious, casualties had been so heavy that the Army had to be reorganized, and in the reorganization Zhu De was promoted to the rank of general and given command of his own brigade. Fighting raged across Sichuan until Yuan Shikai’s death in early June 1916. While the Army for the Defense of the Republic had basically won the war for Sichuan by the time Yuan died and a truce was declared, it hardly controlled the entire province. The legacy of Yuan Shikai was warlordism, after all, and power would be held after his death by those who had the armies to enforce their rule. When Cai E moved from his wartime headquarters to take up his position as governor of Sichuan in Chengdu, he had to take five regiments of troops with him, fighting his way there through the troops of local militarists who were not fighting out of any loyalty to the now dead Yuan Shikai, but rather to assert their claim to whatever territory they could hold for themselves.
After Yuan Shikai’s death, Zhu De was ordered by Cai E to garrison the city of Luzhou. a major port on the Yangzi River in southeastern Sichuan. Here’s how Zhu De described his entry to Luzhou, where he would spend the next five years: “By then, my brigade was so dirty and ragged that it looked like a band of beggars… More than half of its original forces had been killed in action, and even the replenishments were now veterans. We cleaned ourselves up and entered [Luzhou]. The people welcomed us with firecrackers, waving banners, and with shouts and songs. As we entered, the northern garrison troops withdrew from the opposite gate, stealing and looting as they went. They had come to [Sichuan] like conquerors and were leaving like bandits.”
Cai E would only be governor for a short time. He had long been suffering from tuberculosis, and had sacrificed his health in order to fight for a republican China. He left for treatment in Japan, but died there in November, soon after arriving. But both his personal influence on and patronage for the military career of Zhu De were of decisive importance for the history of China.
Next episode, we’ll keep on following Zhu De’s path to his joining forces with Mao in early 1928. But I think that after this episode you can already tell that when Zhu De and Mao do team up to become the dynamic duo of the Communist revolution, they’re going to be quite the force to be reckoned with.
Alright, before we end, I just want to let you know that there’s a good chance in the next period of time, let’s say until the end of the year, that there are going to be some weeks where I’m not going to be able to release a podcast episode. There’s just a lot going on, and in order to get everything done that has to get done, I think that although I’ve been trying to put out an episode every week, there are going to be some weeks where that isn’t possible. So, I’ll try and keep the number of missed episodes to a minimum, because I do want to keep on marching forward with our story. But with everything on my plate right now, it does look like there are going to be some missed weeks.
Alright, and on that note, I do want to reiterate my thanks for your ratings, reviews, and contributions. They are all very much appreciated.