As the Army for the Defense of the Republic faces defections from the revolutionary nationalist cause as well as powerful warlord enemies, Zhu De rethinks the military vocation.
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
Xiong Kewu, Nationalist general turned warlord
Xiao Jufang, Zhu De’s first wife
Zhu Baozhu, Zhu De’s son (later took name Zhu Qi)
Chen Yuzhen, Zhu De’s second wife
Tang Jiyao, Opium growing Yunnan warlord
Lei Yongfei, Social bandit in control of part of Sikang province
Welcome to episode 79 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we followed the story of Zhu De from his time as a physical education teacher through his taking up a military vocation in anticipation of the revolution of 1911-12, and up through his participation in the resistance against Yuan Shikai. The episode ended with the victory of the Army for the Defense of the Republic in Sichuan province, leading to Zhu De’s mentor, Cai E, taking up the governorship of Sichuan, and Zhu De himself marching into the city of Luzhou, where he would have his headquarters for the next five years. These next five years, from 1916 to 1921, saw sharply contradictory developments in the life of Zhu De, as he was drawn into the progressive politics of the New Culture and May 4th movements, while simultaneously serving as a general for armed forces which, despite Zhu’s intentions, were drawn into the warlord competition that devastated China during the 1910s and 1920s.
At the point where we ended our last episode, directly after the victory of the Army for the Defense of the Republic in Sichuan in 1916 over the forces that had aligned with the dictator Yuan Shikai, things seemed to be looking up. Zhu De and other leaders of the Army for the Defense of the Republic were aligned with Sun Yatsen’s revolutionary nationalist vision for China, and even though Sun Yatsen did not come to power after the fall of Yuan Shikai, Zhu De thought that Sichuan could serve as a model of progressive reform and that the positive example that they could set in Sichuan could expand out across China. The role that Cai E would play as governor of Sichuan was central to this vision of a progressive Sichuan as an example for the rest of China. Cai E had been Zhu De’s mentor and was the overall leader of the Army for the Defense of the Republic. Cai E was widely respected and was particularly influential in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. But Cai E had long neglected his health for the sake of his patriotic work. He had been suffering from tuberculosis for some time, and not long after he became governor of Sichuan, he had to leave for Japan in the hopes of getting cured. But he had delayed treatment for too long, and died in Japan in November 1916, not long after arriving.
The absence of Cai E left a void in the Army’s leadership. The militarists who the Army for the Defense of the Republic had defeated began regrouping, and the capital of Chengdu changed hands a couple times in the conflict with the old warlord forces before the Army for the Defense of the Republic was victorious again. But warlordism had systemic roots in China during these decades, due to the weakness of the central government and the inflow of foreign capital which sought to suborn Chinese institutions to foreign interests. In the absence of a powerful and respected unifying figure like Cai E, the temptation to abandon the nationalist cause and to use their positions for personal gain led some of the Army for the Defense of the Republic’s generals to abandon their cause and to become warlords themselves.
The biggest example of this was Xiong Kewu, who took over the leadership of the Army for the Defense of the Republic and became governor of Sichuan for a time. In Zhu De’s words, after taking power Xiong began acting just like the warlord who had preceded him: “scraping the earth, building up a great landed estate, and sending his cash to a British bank in Shanghai until, within two years, he had a fortune in cash said to be over a million Chinese dollars.” One of the big tricks that these warlords used to gain money and land was to demand several years’ worth of taxes in advance from the peasantry. Then, when inevitably some of the peasants couldn’t pay, to confiscate their lands. This guy Xiong Kewu, by the way, ended up having quite the long political career, and even went on to become part of a group of Chinese politicians who the United States promoted as liberals and democrats who were the best candidates to set up a democratic China after World War II.
Anyways, the Army for the Defense of the Republic forces which remained aligned with the Guomindang eventually managed to pull themselves together and drive Xiong Kewu out of Sichuan temporarily, but he later came back with more troops and funding from Beijing (and, ultimately, from places like Japan, the UK and the United States), and began a drawn out war in Sichuan which devastated the province. Between this fight against Xiong Kewu, the fighting against smaller warlord armies, and the degeneration of sections of their own army into warlordism, the Army for the Defense of the Republic lost ground. By the end of 1920, it was half the size it had been in 1916 and only controlled southern Sichuan. Zhu De’s brigade had been reduced to the strength of one regiment.
But before we get into what happened then, let’s talk some about Zhu De’s life during these years. After Zhu De occupied the city of Luzhou, his wife, Xiao Jufang, came up from Yunnan to join him. She was already pregnant, and had to be carried in a sedan chair. She gave birth to their son , Zhu Baozhu, in September, but then she died, probably from typhoid, in November. The deaths of first his mentor and then his wife close on the heels of each other reportedly left Zhu De prostrate with grief, but the ongoing warfare that he was participating in forced him to pick himself up and move on.
Zhu De’s comrades urged him to remarry, and the fact that Zhu Baozhu didn’t have a mother around to take care of him added some urgency to the question. It was not considered unusual at the time for a man to marry again shortly after the death of his wife. Once again, one of Zhu De’s army comrades set him up with a sister of his who was educated and had revolutionary nationalist political commitments. In this case, Chen Yuzhen had been an underground worker for the Guomindang both during the 1911 revolution and the struggle against Yuan Shikai in 1916, and had refused to marry any man without meeting him first. And she had rejected everyone who had been brought to her before. But Zhu De passed muster and they were soon married.
The issue of whether Chen Yuzhen was Zhu De’s 2nd or 3rd wife (and whether Xiao Jufang was his first or second wife) is actually a little confusing, so let’s clear that up real fast here. While Zhu De was away studying, his parents married him off to a woman who then came to live with them and take care of them. Zhu De himself never recognized this arranged marriage, but you can find some Chinese sources that refer to this woman as his first wife, although it’s more common for her to be kept off the list of Zhu De’s wives in the sources that I’ve been looking at. You might recall that there was a similar issue with enumerating Mao Zedong’s marriages back in episode 70, and this speaks to how some revolutionaries rejected marriages that were arranged for them when they were young.
Anyways, here’s how Zhu De talked about his marriage with Chen Yuzhen when Agnes Smedley interviewed him in 1937:
“I suppose I was attracted to her because she was very serious and had such poise and dignity; and because she had been an underground worker in the 1911 and 1916 revolutions. She came from a well-to-do scholarly family that had taken an active part in the reform movement from the earliest days. We talked together and found that we both read a great deal and that we both liked music. We had many things in common but I can’t remember what they were. We were married shortly afterwards and she made a home for us that was simple, modern, very clean, and kept beautiful with flowers both inside and out. We loved flowers and she made beautiful gardens. She loved my child as her own and I do not think he ever knew that she was not his own mother. When he began to toddle around, I would often come home and find the two of them in the courtyard, playing hide-and-seek among the flowers.”
As we can see, Zhu De’s family life was on the one hand fairly traditional. But in addition to the traditional gender roles that were performed within the marriage, the marriage was also a political and intellectual partnership. Both Zhu De and Chen Yuzhen were influenced and inspired by the New Culture movement, and later the May 4th Movement, emanating from Beijing and Shanghai (and which we discussed back in episode 13). As part of ‘keeping house’ for Zhu De, Chen Yuzhen stocked a library with progressive publications emanating from the coast, including New Youth, the journal edited by Chen Duxiu, one of the co-founders of the Communist Party who you’re very familiar with if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while. And of course Chen Yuzhen was reading all this stuff, not just buying it for Zhu De.
Zhu and Chen organized what they called a study group where people came and read and discussed the new ideas being put forward in these journals like New Youth. I say they called it a study group, because reading Zhu De’s description, it sounds much more like a salon, or a kind of mix of discussion and socializing among a kind of trendy progressive elite. Here’s how Zhu De described it:
“Feudal social customs were still very powerful in Sichuan, but my wife and I, together with our friends, made big inroads on them. Many of us lived much as do Western intellectuals, giving dinner parties—sometimes followed by mah jong parties on a Sunday evening, where men and women met as social equals. Men brought their wives and sisters who, for the first time, learned to discuss ideas with men who were not members of their immediate families. Of course the old feudal forces called us wild and immoral though we were most respectable. The emancipation of women was one of the many aspects of the May 4th Movement. Democracy, science, national and racial equality were other aspects, while such social theories as anarchism and communism were others. All China resounded with debates on capitalism, anarchism, and communism, but not all the debaters knew what they were talking about. Our study club in Luzhou could not conceive of the proletariat guiding a revolution. We had no Marxist literature other than articles in magazines and we thought of the proletariat as servants, coolies, and salt workers who could not read and write. It was confusing because Communist writers who preached Marxism were themselves high professors, students and other intellectuals and not workers. The ideas that most influenced our study club were those of racial and national equality, the right of subjected colonial peoples to independence, and the industrial and cultural development of the country.”
So that quote, I think, gives you a sense of the development of Zhu De’s political thinking at this time. He was part of this national trend of modernizing liberalism which was also open to learning about Marxism, but really didn’t have a firm grasp of what all was involved with Marxist thinking. We talked at some length about this back in episode 13, but here with this quote we can see more particularly how Zhu De was situated within the New Culture and May 4th Movements. But in Zhu De’s case there was also this kind of contradiction where, on the one hand, he was into this progressive politics and the Army for the Defense of the Republic was allied with Sun Yatsen and the Guomindang. But on the other hand, the Army for the Defense of the Republic fell into this dynamic of ongoing armed competition with the warlords, and as the years ticked by more and more leading figures from the Army for the Defense of the Republic became warlords in their own right and abandoned their revolutionary nationalist aspirations.
The way that Zhu De described his last years in Luzhou to Agnes Smedley in 1937, it is clear that from the perspective that he had gained by 1937, he saw himself falling into some of the old feudal habits that he had been trying to break with. In 1919 he brought 20 members of his family to Luzhou to live with him, proving himself a filial son who could take care of a large family. He immediately got his two younger brothers started with officer training in his brigade, with the idea that a military career could be as successful for them as it had been for Zhu De. After all, in his position as a general in the Army for the Defense of the Republic, Zhu De had a pretty generous salary with many expenses paid for. For poor peasants like the family that he came from, he must have appeared to have now become a quite wealthy man.
My first reaction in reading about all this was just that Zhu De was trying to take care of his family, and what is there to criticize in that? But it’s interesting that from the perspective that he had gained by 1937 he was quite critical of his younger self for his attachment to feudal customs in setting up and providing for a large household of so many family members, and for stuffing his army with family members in an act of nepotism just like the corrupt warlords would. None of this turned out very well. His parents were accustomed to very different circumstances and were socially quite conservative, and didn’t really know what to make of the sorts of parties that Zhu De threw, and had nothing to do with themselves all day now that they had been removed from the village life that had been familiar to them.
The situation with Zhu De’s brothers turned tragic. His own long career in the army and his luck in not being seriously wounded had blinded him to the risks involved for his own brothers. At the end of 1919 the Army for the Defense of the Republic got in a short war with a local warlord in eastern Sichuan, and Zhu De sent his two younger brothers out to get their first taste of combat experience. But Zhu De’s brigade was defeated with heavy losses, and within a week of setting out both of his brothers had been killed in action.
In response to this loss, feeling grief, guilt and humiliation at his inability to protect his family, Zhu De began smoking opium, and quickly became addicted. The drug was ubiquitous at the time, but he had refrained from smoking it until now. Then, in late 1920, the Army for the Defense of the Republic got in one last bloody war with Xiong Kewu and was defeated, with Zhu De’s forces being reduced to a single regiment, as I mentioned earlier in this episode. Seeing that they had been defeated in Sichuan, the leadership of the army made a plan to leave Sichuan and take Yunnan province, where they had come from originally after all, but which had been left in the hands of an opium-growing warlord known as the Little King, Tang Jiyao, since Cai E had led the Army for the Defense of the Republic into Sichuan in the battle against Yuan Shikai’s allies back in 1916. Tang Jiyao remained formally allied with Sun Yatsen, but was considered (accurately) by Zhu De and his comrades to be totally corrupt. At the very beginning of 1921, the Army for the Defense of the Republic swooped in and took control of Yunnan.
The province was taken with very few shots fired. In fact, many of the old officials and generals who had been in charge of the various cities and regions within the province transferred their allegiance to the Army for the Defense of the Republic. But Zhu De was now very skeptical of the whole situation. He knew that these people had not changed their nature just because the Army for the Defense of the Republic had returned. And with the combined weight of the deaths of his brothers and the way in which so many leaders of the Army for the Defense of the Republic had given up their revolutionary nationalism and become self-serving warlords over the years, he didn’t think any longer that any well-intentioned army could really lead China to liberation. But he also didn’t know what could. So he resigned from the army and announced his intention to go to Europe and study, with the idea that over in Europe he could find out some set of ideas that would shed light on how to modernize and liberate China.
However, Zhu De was a pretty big guy in the Army for the Defense of the Republic at this point, and his resignation really surprised his comrades, who felt that they needed him and so they prevailed upon Zhu De to stay on in Yunnan at least for a time and to serve the new provincial regime in the capacity of police commissioner. So Zhu De put off his plans to go to Europe and study. Then, in 1922, most of the Army for the Defense of the Republic marched out of Yunnan to go and aid the new government that Sun Yatsen had set up in Guangzhou, leaving only a small force behind in Yunnan. Only a few weeks went by, when Tang Jiyao returned to Yunnan and overthrew the Army for the Defense of the Republic’s government, with the officials and generals who had previously served under Tang shifting their alliance back to him.
The provincial capital of Kunming fell quickly, and Zhu De quickly gathered up the money that he had saved for going to Europe, armed himself and got on his horse and joined up with a group of 19 other Guomindang leaders who faced execution if they stayed in the city. They took some cavalry troops with them and crashed through the western gate of the city. Their plan was to flee over the border into Burma. However, while they were on the road they learned that the old revolutionary comrade of theirs who held the territory that they would have to pass through on the road to Burma had gone over to side with Tang Jiyao. Then came a great debate among them: they could divert themselves to the north and try to skirt around the area held by the Sichuan warlords by going through Tibet and up through the mountains where the Yangzi River begins, and try to find a route to the coast. This would take months. Or, they could trust that their old revolutionary comrade would let them pass through his territory to Burma and escape because of their old friendship. It was a bitter debate in which these Guomindang leaders had to assess just how much an old political friendship and shared struggles counted for, and whether someone who had sold out the struggle could be trusted. And there was a lot of room for wishful thinking, because the route through Burma would be much easier than going northwest.
In the end, almost all of the party decided on the northern route. And the general who went south ended up being tortured in public by the man whose friendship he had trusted in. As it happened, he also revealed the route that the rest of the party took, and so Zhu De and the rest of the northbound refugees had to ride hard for the upper reaches of the Yangzi, where some of them were finally overtaken by pursuing warlord troops while reconnoitering the crossing of the treacherous high gorges of the river. This treacherous region would be a difficult point during the famous Long March that the Communists’ armed forces would embark on in 1934, and Zhu De’s familiarity with the region from this escape from Yunnan would be an advantage when he returned to the region with the Communist army.
Finally, having crossed in to what was at the time the Chinese province of Sikang, and is today either in the far western part of Sichuan province or the eastern part of Tibet, Zhu De and his comrades entered the territory ruled by the social bandit Lei Yongfei. On a hunch, Zhu De displayed the secret hand signs of the Elder Brothers Society, which we might recall from last episode that Zhu De had been inducted into by soldiers that he had recruited to support the Guomindang during the revolution of 1911. Although already predisposed to help Zhu De and the other Guomindang refugees from Yunnan, this cemented their warm welcome from Lei Yongfei, who then commanded his forces to drive off the pursuing warlord troops who had chased Zhu De and his comrades all the way from Kunming.
Zhu De and his comrades stayed with Lei Yongfei long enough to get new disguises so that they could travel posing as merchants. And after a long and meandering route, the refugees made it to Sichuan. While they originally thought that they could pass disguised, agents of the warlords ruling Sichuan recognized them. But, amazingly, they were not molested. Indeed, Zhu De was invited (an invitation which it was more or less compulsory to accept) to visit with an old comrade of his who now ruled eastern Sichuan from the city of Chongqing. As it turned out, these warlords were so secure that they held no grudges against the generals they had been fighting against just a couple years earlier. Rather, they were expanding and greatly in need of trained military men, and hoped to recruit the Guomindang generals who fled Yunnan into their staffs. But Zhu De insisted that he was now going to go to Europe, and was allowed to pass through Sichuan on the way to Shanghai. Which is where we will catch up with him next time.
And, before we go, I want to just recognize that it has been a little while since our last episode, for those of you who are listening when this episode is released. As I mentioned last episode, things are going to be a bit chaotic until the end of the year for me here, but I don’t expect it to be quite as long again between episodes. Anyways, thanks for listening, and thanks especially to all of you who have been supporting the show.