Following Zhu De in Shanghai and Germany, finishing up our four-part detour through the early life of Zhu De.
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Some names from this episode:
Chen Duxiu, first general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party
Zhou Enlai, organized branches of the Chinese Communist Party in Europe when he was a student there in the early 1920s, before returning to China to become a leading Communist
Sun Bingwen, Zhu De’s friend who traveled to Europe and joined the Communist Party with him
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of Chinese Communist Party
Welcome to episode 80 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we saw how Zhu De became disillusioned with being a part of the Army for the Defense of the Republic. Despite being allied with the Guomindang and the revolutionary nationalist cause, which he continued to support, Zhu De felt that the Army for the Defense of the Republic had been sucked into the dynamic of competition among warlords that was having such a devastating effect on China. And this was an especially acute feeling as he saw so many former comrades degenerate into outright warlords themselves, abandoning the high-minded patriotism that they had earlier espoused. And so where we left Zhu De last episode, he was on his way to Europe to see what could be learned there, and was making a stop at Shanghai on the way.
Now, one thing that came up last episode was that Zhu De had become addicted to opium while he was mourning the loss of his brothers. Well, while Zhu De was making his long retreat from Yunnan last episode through the upper reaches of the Yangzi River, he managed to kick the habit. His brothers had died at the end of 1919, and Zhu De had to beat his hasty retreat out of Yunnan at the beginning of 1922, so he was an opium addict for a bit over two years. Anyways, even though he beat the habit while he was running for his life, one side effect of quitting opium was that he had trouble sleeping. He would often stay up all night, unable to sleep. So when Zhu De got to Shanghai, the first thing that he did was go to the French hospital there and check himself in while they tried to cure him of his insomnia.
He stayed in the hospital for a week, and while he was there he read voraciously. The press that Zhu De read while he was in the hospital was full of news about the surging Chinese labor movement, including the victorious Hong Kong Seaman’s strike that had recently ended, and the ongoing Communist organizing on the Beijing-Hankou railway, like we talked about back in episode 19. Very impressed with this new organization, Zhu De determined that he would look for an opportunity to join the Communist Party. When he got out of the hospital, he was eventually able to track down and visit Chen Duxiu at his home in Shanghai. However, the meeting did not go how Zhu De had hoped.
Zhu went to the meeting assuming that all he had to do to join the Communist Party was to apply, and that he would be accepted. That was, after all, what the process for joining the Guomindang had been like. But Chen Duxiu was very cool and reserved. He asked Zhu De why a general from a far western warlord province would want to join the party of the Chinese poor? Chen continued to explain that a man like Zhu De could join the Communist Party if he adopted the workers’ cause as his own and was prepared to give his life to it. This, however, would require long study and time spent demonstrating his commitment.
Zhu left the meeting depressed. He had knocked on the door of the future and it had refused to open for him. As he put it, “Those were terrible days. I was hopeless and confused. One of my feet remained in the old order and the other could find no place in the new.”
Before departing for Europe, Zhu also sought out and met with Sun Yatsen. This was a much warmer meeting, and Sun Yatsen tried to persuade Zhu De to remain in China rather than go to Europe. Here’s how Zhu De recalled the meeting, which he attended with two of his comrades from Yunnan:
Sun Yatsen “had been betrayed and driven from [Guangzhou] by one of his own generals, but was planning to recapture [Guangzhou] and re-establish his republican government. To do this he could depend on the Yunnan Army, then in Guangxi province, and asked us to help him. He wanted us to return to the Yunnan Army and reorganize it. He could give us an initial sum of $100,000. General [Jin] accepted the offer at once, but [Sun Bingwen] and I refused.
“Dr. Sun listened carefully to the reasons for our refusal. [Sun Bingwen] and I had lost all faith in such tactics as the alliances which Dr. Sun and his [Guomindang] followers made with this or that militarist. Such tactics had always ended in defeat for the revolution and the strengthening of the warlords. We ourselves had spent 11 years of our lives in such a squirrel cage. The Chinese revolution had failed, while the Russian Revolution had succeeded, and the Russians had succeeded because they were Communists with a theory and a method of which we were ignorant.
“We told Dr. Sun that we had decided to study abroad, to meet Communists and study Communism, before re-entering national affairs in China. The great Hong Kong strike victory, together with the rise of the labor movement in China, proved to us that the Communists knew something we needed to know.
“Dr. Sun had no prejudice against Communism, but he asked us why, if we wanted to study abroad, we did not go to America, which had no feudal background and where there were many progressive institutions. We replied that neither of us had enough money to study and live long in America, and that we preferred Europe where the socialist movement was said to be strongest. America might be alright for Americans, we reminded him, but it had never helped him in his struggle for the Republic. It had only helped and recognized his enemies. Yet he had looked to America for help in all the years he had spent in the revolutionary movement. European countries had done the same, of course, but now there were new social forces in Europe which would be of more help to us.”
And so, having met with Chen Duxiu and Sun Yatsen, and having spent some time getting to know Shanghai and Beijing after having spent his whole life in the west, Zhu De went to Europe to try and find out about Communism, even after having been met coolly by Chen Duxiu. When he arrived in France, Zhu De went to stay in the home of a Chinese merchant who took on lodgers, and there he learned that Chinese students in France had organized a Communist Party branch there. He learned that the main organizer was a student named Zhou Enlai, who had left for Germany to organize a branch of the Chinese Communist Party there. Someone tracked down Zhou Enlai’s address in Berlin for Zhu De, and off he went to Berlin to find Zhou.
Zhu De and his friend Sun Bingwen arrived in Berlin in October 1922 and went directly from the train station to Zhou Enlai’s address. Refusing to sit down, they each told their stories to Zhou and asked to be admitted to the Communist Party. Zhou heard them out and then questioned them, and then said that they could be admitted as candidate members while their applications were sent to China. It took a few months for a reply to come from China, but both Zhu and Sun were admitted to the party as full members. This was a reversal from Chen Duxiu’s initial assessment that Zhu and Sun would have to go through a lengthy period of remolding themselves before joining the party. Clearly, some evaluation of Zhu De’s potential usefulness to the Communist Party because of his longtime membership in the Guomindang was made when the membership applications were received in China, because the unusual decision to keep Zhu De’s party membership a secret from all except the comrades that he was working with was made, with the idea that he might be able to play a special role in China in the future because of the connections that he had from his past. As it turned out, this was a wise decision, and facilitated the role that he later played in the Nanchang Uprising, as we discussed in episode 55.
Sun Bingwen would also go on to play an important role in events in China when he returned, but his part in the revolution would be briefer. He was killed by the Guomindang when they turned on the Communists and began massacring Communists and other progressives in Shanghai in 1927, as we discussed back in episode 49. As it happened, Zhou Enlai adopted Sun’s daughter after Sun’s death.
The Berlin party branch was made up of students, and was dedicated more or less entirely to study at the time when Zhu De joined. They met three nights a week to discuss Marxist literature that had been translated into Chinese, and to discuss political journals sent from China, especially the party’s theoretical journal. Zhu turned 36 in December 1922, and so he was this one older guy sitting in these meetings with these much younger students. He himself began studying German and would enter a German university soon.
But as we know from past episodes, Zhu De was a very physically energetic man, and so he didn’t just study by reading. He went out almost daily to visit different parts of the city and to see how things were in Germany. He got a street map of Berlin and translated it entirely into Chinese, and then methodically went and visited just about every museum, school, art gallery, beer hall, restaurant and factory that would let him in. One of Zhu De’s friends at the time later reminisced about how he would go out walking with Zhu De but would have to drop out after a while, because he would get tired but Zhu De would just keep on tramping about the city.
One museum visit left a deep impression on Zhu De, when he visited a military museum and saw a banner that German troops had captured during the Boxer Uprising. He said that for days after that, he would fantasize about erecting barricades in Berlin and fighting side by side with German workers and Chinese revolutionaries and defeating the German military. Interestingly, when he recalled this memory when Agnes Smedley was interviewing him in 1937, he criticized himself for having a mind that “seemed to think in only military terms.” Which, I think, speaks to the way in which, despite his years of military experience both before and after becoming a Communist, he was working to keep politics in the forefront and to subordinate military thinking to political imperatives.
In 1923 Zhu De enrolled in the political science program at Göttingen University, which had a large number of Chinese students and a strong branch of the Communist Party. He rented a room from an old Prussian baron who had served in the German military. In addition to studying at the university, he paid the baron to give him some military lessons, but in the end felt that he learned little new from this old Prussian officer.
Not surprisingly, Zhu De’s political commitments outweighed his studies, and after just a year in Göttingen he returned to Berlin in 1924. Now that the Guomindang was being revitalized by the alliance that Sun Yatsen had struck with the Soviet Union, Zhu De was tasked with setting up a branch of the Guomindang in Berlin. What he found was that the Chinese student community had become sharply divided by the ongoing events in China. Here’s how he recalled the situation:
“Instead of joining the new branch of the [Guomindang], many rich Chinese students in Berlin formed a so-called Youth Party to fight us. They even sought allies among German monarchists and other similar classes, and they asked the German police to suppress our organization and the little Chinese newspaper that I founded.
“Since we had no Chinese printing press, our newspaper had to be put out in mimeographed form. I was everything on the paper from business manager to office boy and porter. I took charge of the articles, operated the mimeograph machine, addressed wrappers, licked stamps, and carried the paper to the post office to be mailed. Everywhere my comrades and I went we were followed by German detectives. We learned interesting things about those detectives—they were ‘colonial experts’!—Germans who had once lived in [Qingdao], and they spoke the Chinese language.
“The German imperialists were seeping into the Weimar Republic and dreaming of the day when they would again take possession of the [Qingdao] naval base and former German possessions in China. They had entered the police and our own countrymen used them against us. I learned my first serious lessons in the class war in Germany when Chinese united with German imperialists against us…”
When the May 30th Movement broke out in China in 1925 (we discussed this back in episodes 26 and 30, for those of you who need a refresher), Zhu De’s organizing activities in Europe escalated, as Chinese communists and Nationalists, in coordination with European progressive organizations, called a series of mass meetings in several European countries. In response, Britain, the main target of the May 30th Movement because of its leading role in slaughtering protesting Chinese patriots, prevailed upon Germany to ban the active participation of Chinese citizens in political activities in Germany. As a result, Chinese people in Germany could attend political meetings and listen, but were forbidden from organizing the meetings or speaking at them. Of course, behind the scenes Zhu De and his comrades continued organizing despite the new law, but now they could no longer speak in public.
But with the criminalization of Chinese political activity in Europe and the escalation of the revolutionary struggle in China, Zhu De knew he would be returning to China soon. In preparation for his eventual return, he began working intensely at studying Marxism with German Communist instructors, while continuing his work building the support and solidarity in Europe. Finally, in mid-June 1926, the German government made the decision for him about when he would be returning to China. After a mass meeting at the Sports Palace in Berlin, Zhu De and nine other Chinese activists were arrested. Here’s how Zhu De remembered it:
“I had been arrested twice before, but each time released. This new arrest did not worry me. I was merely curious to learn what imprisonment was really like. The jail was calm and peaceful, and since I had been working very hard for months I used the time to catch up on sleep. Each morning a guard entered my little cell and placed a tin cup of thin coffee and a chunk of black bread on the table. After eating it, I exercised, sang a few songs to pass the time, and went back to sleep. At noon and at night the guard again entered and placed a plate of black beans and a chunk of black bread on the table and withdrew.
“So it went for ten days, when we were all brought to court, asked to show our passports and answer a few simple questions. The police judge then informed us that we were troublemakers and that we were ordered to get out of Germany within 24 hours…
“I was already prepared to leave for China, and I had just enough money left to buy a third-class railway ticket to Shanghai by way of the Soviet Union… I took my three trunks of books, maps and documents and set sail from Stettin for Leningrad.”
And so, in the summer of 1926, Zhu De returned to China after almost four years in Germany. After returning, he was quickly incorporated into the military structure of the Northern Expedition. He was also given political tasks aimed at winning over his old comrades who had become warlords back in Sichuan to either support the Nationalist revolution or to at least some sort of friendly neutrality. As it happened, his old friends weren’t going to do anything unless there was some money on the table for them, which meant in practice that they didn’t ‘join’ the Nationalist cause until Chiang Kai-shek had purged the Guomindang’s ranks of the Communists and other progressives. And this, more or less, brings Zhu De’s story up to where we encountered him back in episode 55, when we discussed the Nanchang Uprising.
So, let’s talk for a minute about why I decided to take this four episode detour and catch us up on the life of Zhu De before rejoining the main narrative arc that we have been following in this podcast. In the main story that we have been following, Zhu De is about to lead his troops from the defeat of the Southern Expedition on over to participate in an uprising in southern Hunan in early 1928 that Mao Zedong is also going to get drawn into from the nearby Jinggangshan base area. We’ll tell the story of that uprising next episode. But this joining of Zhu De with Mao Zedong in early 1928 is the beginning of a partnership that will be close for the many years of China’s revolutionary war. And of course later on Zhu De will be a leading figure in socialist China until his death in 1976, the same year that Mao died.
But in particular during the revolutionary war, Mao and Zhu will become very close partners. To the extent that, for a time, some people had the confused idea that the revolution in the countryside was being led by a figure named Zhu Mao. They both had a profound influence on each other. And as we can see, Zhu was one of the few older figures in the Communist movement, especially after the first few years, what with the murder of Li Dazhao and with Chen Duxiu being deposed from his position as general secretary in 1927. The Communist Party was overwhelmingly made up of young people, so it is very interesting and unique to look at this long trajectory that Zhu De had in coming into the movement and then rising to play an important role in it. Mao was older than almost everyone that he worked with, but Zhu De brought life experiences to his partnership with Mao that undoubtedly played a major role in Mao Zedong becoming the world-shaping figure that he became.
Most of what I drew on for these episodes on Zhu De came from the biography that Agnes Smedley wrote about him, based largely on her interviews with him done in 1937 in the Yan’an base area. In particular, I’ve drawn from the quotes that she gives from her interviews with Zhu, which I think are quite rich and I hope that you agree. In general, this book is a great read. That said, almost all of the factual statements in the book, while not wrong, usually need to be amended a bit based on further reading, as is often the case with journalism done in the midst of rapidly moving events. So while I definitely recommend the book to listeners, I just want to add that one qualification, that it should to be read in conjunction with other, more updated texts on Chinese history.
Alright, that’s it for now. Thanks for listening, and thanks especially to all of you who have been supporting the show.