Chinese Bolshevism: The Ripples of the Russian Revolution

By Charlotte Im

The Russian Revolution of 1917 not only heralded the establishment of a new Russian regime, but also sparked the beginnings of Bolshevik thought in China, which would later transform into the socialism that dominates China’s political system in the present day. A large number of Chinese participated first-hand in the Revolution – their experiences, along with the Russian success story, inspired a popularity of Bolshevism amongst many schools of Chinese intellectuals. In-line with the political context of China at that time, Bolshevism was forced to gradually take hold in the form of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the sovereign body of modern-day China.

 

First contact between the Chinese and Bolshevism was not ideological, but physical. Imperial Russia, then, shared borders with what can be loosely identified as Northern China. Many Chinese lived in the in-betweens, and when the cry of war was raised, many took up arms arms in response. Some for the White Army, and some for the Red. The Beiyang government, the leading cabinet in China at that time, joined the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. They sent forces numbering 2,300 to join the White Army in Siberia and North Russia beginning in 1918, after the Chinese community in the area requested aid. Many of these soldiers later defected to the Red Army for reasons which are still unknown to this day.

 

Even before war had broken out, there were large numbers of Chinese people living and working in Siberia in the last years of the Russian Empire. However, the outbreak of war caused this to change, and many of these migrant workers were transferred to the European part of Russia and to the Ural during World War I because of the acute shortage of workers there.[1] After 1917 many of these Chinese workers joined the Red Army.[2] The vast majority of these Chinese were apolitical and became soldiers solely in order to gain rights as workers in a foreign country.[3] These former works often worked in harsh conditions in mines, and their identity as foreigners meant that they were often discriminated against by Russian owners. When war broke out, many joined the Soviet army to continue supporting themselves, and in doing so, they went on to form complete regiments in the Soviet Army, with some even going into commanding positions.[4] Chinese branches of the Soviet army were frequently honoured by the Bolsheviks for their military contributions. One Chinese man, Li Fuqing, even became the personal bodyguard of Lenin.[5]

 

However, there were also Chinese men who entered the conflict because of their determination to support the Bolshevik cause.  The first Bolshevik of China is commonly identified as Ren Fuchen, who raised arms exclusively for the Soviet cause during the Russian Revolution.  He was eventually killed in 1918, and was posthumously awarded with a Red Flag medal in 1989 by the Soviet Union.  He was an ardent supporter of Bolshevism and is hailed as a national hero by many contemporary Chinese historians.

 

Ren was born and later employed in his hometown, Tieling, which was in the north-most province of China.  During the Russo-Japanese War, he acted as a translator for the Russian army and had his first contact with several military officers that belonged to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which would later become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  He was deeply moved by their battle against the class struggle, and their quest to liberate the proletariat. In 1907, Ren moved to Harbin and became a Chinese instructor for the Russian Army overseeing the Chinese Eastern Railway, which belonged to Imperial Russia. Eventually convinced by Marxist-Leninst thought, he joined the Bolsheviks in 1908.

 

Ren was forced back to Chinese controlled territory due to his Bolshevik activities, but he actively continued to shield Bolsheviks which were exiled from Imperial Russia; he eventually returned to Russia in 1914 to work as one of the miners in the Urals. During his stay, he campaigned actively to emphasise the contemporary class struggle, and even helped the workers organize strikes against the mine-owners for better welfare and rights.

 

When revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, he rallied these workers into fighting for the Soviet cause, eventually creating an official regiment of the Soviet army, fighting mainly in the Ural district and were dubbed the Red Eagle Battalion.[6] They gained many military victories under Ren’s leadership and was praised by various Soviet propaganda for being committed to the liberation of the proletariat. Upon his death in battle in 1918, he was honoured as a fellow comrade by the Communist Party.

 

Multiple Chinese sources, spanning from 1949 to present day give high regards to Ren, portraying him as the first Chinese revolutionary hero.[7] In 1993, a statue of him was erected in his hometown of Tieling to commemorate his work. With his sacrifice, and the sacrifice of so many other Chinese men which had taken place in Russia, the end of the October Revolution heralded the birth of Marxist thought in China.

 

In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, public opinion was very divided. Prominent activists such as Li Dachao emerged to advocate Marxist-Leninst thought. They wrote articles in various newspapers, thus constituting the first active researches of Bolshevism in China. They, in turn, inspired many activists and radical students to seek Marxist-Leninst thought for the future of China, some even going abroad to study in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of China started out as independent academic study groups, brought together later by agents of Comintern.

 

Collectivism appealed well to a nation that had thought itself suffering from western imperialism, as well as the apparent failures of a democratic government in making China strong.  Collectivism and collective identity was not unfamiliar to the Chinese – there is a similar emphasis on social institutions in Confucian thought, but the similarities would stop there.[8] Confucianism had long been dismissed in the late Qing period, having been seen as backward and conservative. While few would still subscribe to Confucian thought, various elements of it had already been internalized by Chinese society. Cultural elites of the early 1900s had tried to transform China in accordance to western values of individualism, but ultimately failed to change the inherent hierarchy deeply entrenched in Chinese society. The root problem of China, as pointed out by various Chinese educated elites, was the constraints placed on individuals by the elitist class system and family unit. Marxist-Leninst appeared much more appealing to the public masses, as society could still retain order, but individuals had more capacity to grow, away from their class and family boundaries. In an ideologically dying nation, the new strand of thought in Bolshevism proved to be the third way out. Autocracy did not work, nor did democracy. The Chinese people were disappointed with the results of the 1911 Revolution, which had provided a democratic government that was prone to power play and internal struggles, failing to bring immediate transformations to Chinese society. They no longer admired the western institutions that did not work for them and democracy was no longer attractive. [9]

 

Many now turned to Marxist-Leninst thought for a new ideological weapon against imperialism and as a way of transforming Chinese society. Chinese intellectuals sensed that Marxism-Leninism brought together one of the strongest dilemmas amongst Chinese society: “how to be modern, Western, and scientific in their outlook and at the same time be uncompromisingly anti-imperialist, and therefore nationalist, and therefore Chinese.”[10] Transformation of China now no longer had to be a foreign-dominated movement, but could be achieved within. In an article written by Mao Zedong in 1919, he stated that China has always been trying to learn from the West, but has always failed, and has always been oppressed by the West in the process. Few people had wanted to learn from Russia – but with the October Revolution, Russia had demonstrated the power of the classless and the proletariat, their power “erupting like a volcano” all of a sudden and making the international community perceive Russia in a new light.  A new strand of thought has emerged in China, that Marxist-Leninst thought was the only ideology that could truly transcend borders (unlike the failed attempts to learn from the West).  He concluded that China had to walk on the same path that the Russians had.[11]  The Russian Revolution was a success story, and one that seemed could also apply to China.

 

Such sentiment was particularly strong amongst the rural population – they had suffered the most from the recurring conflict, but had benefitted the least. To them, the values of the government mattered little. When the Communist Party of China was formed in 1921, no less helped by USSR’s Comintern, rural work was much of their focus. Class struggle was their priority, because there were so many rural Chinese who were living in poverty. Their opponents, the Kuomintang (KMT), which was practically synonymous with capitalism and western nations, clearly focused more on their economically wealthy population, such as that of Shanghai.

 

Throughout the struggle between the two political parties, the CPC were highly effective in mobilizing the rural population. Many peasants lacked upward social mobility, often being exploited by the ruling class.[12] The CPC’s promise of uplifting the rural class through social struggle and doing away with the bourgeoisie was highly attractive to them.

 

The Chinese model of Bolshevism was not just about class struggle, or uplifting the rural population – it was also about anti-imperialism, anti-western sentiments, and grasping for a new way out in the stifled political situation. Such ideological thought has now been remodeled throughout the last century, and arguably, has lost most of its Bolshevist colours in Deng Xiaoping’s “Chinese-style socialism”. But people like Ren Fuchen, Li Dachao, and Mao Zedong live on amongst the pages of Chinese history, lauded as heroes, as pioneers and as valuable comrades that had contributed to the socialist transformation of China, allowing the nation to regain its former glory from a century of humiliation.

 

[1] Alexander Larin, Reds and whites: red army soldiers from China (2000), Motherland, Vol. 7, 2000.

[2] Arthur Ransome, “Kamanev and the Moscow Soviet” in B.W. Heubsch (ed.) Russia in 1919, (New York 1919).

[3] Larin, Reds and whites.

[4] Alexander Lukin, The bear watches the dragon: Russia’s perceptions of China and the evolution of Russian Chinese relationships since the eighteeneth century (New York 2002), p. 98.

[5] Mark O’Neill, From the Tsar’s railway to the red army (London 2014), p. 41.

[6] O’Neill, From the Tsar’s railway, p.40.

[7] 任辅臣:苏俄红军“中国团”团长 http://www.zg1929.com/jiyi/shiji/20120627/50243.html (Last accessed 10 March 2017).

[8] John Fairbank, ‘The Chinese Pattern’, in Gary Bertsch and Thomas Ganschow (eds.), Comparative communism: the Soviet, Chinese, and Yugoslav Models, (San Francisco 1976), p. 52.

[9] Michael Gasster, ‘The rise of Chinese Communism’, in Gary Bertsch and Thomas Ganschow (eds.), Comparative communism: the Soviet, Chinese, and Yugoslav Models, (San Francisco 1976), p. 107.

[10] Ibid, p. 108.

[11]李友唐,十月革命的炮響是怎樣傳到中國的 中國共產黨新聞網 http://cpc.people.com.cn/BIG5/64162/64172/85037/85038/6696325.html (Last accessed 10 March 2017)

[12] John Fairbank, ‘The Chinese Pattern’, p. 56.

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