20080218-Agnes Smedley archives night meeting.jpg
Night meeting in 1920s
The story goes that in July 1921, a small gathering of communists in Shanghai’s French Concession was broken up by French police, forcing them to go to flee to a tourist boat, where they founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Carrie Gracie of the BBC wrote: “The founding congress of the Chinese Communist Party took place at a house at Shanghai girls' boarding school. At the time, they can hardly have imagined that they were men of destiny. They had to present themselves as a student group on vacation ...But these rebels ended up running China, they do not need to dwell on the miraculous good luck which brought them to power in 1949.” The house and the boat are now “red tourism” sites. [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, 10 17, 2012; Christopher Harding, The Telegraph, June 25, 2021]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Chinese Communist Party began in 1921 (with Soviet advice and support) as a Soviet-style Communist Party. It was based in the urban areas and tried to organize the industrial working class to carry out revolutionary activities. From 1922 to 1927, the Communist Party, at the direction of the Soviet Union, was allied with the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) in the “First United Front” in order to help to defeat the warlords and unite China under Kuomintang leadership. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

China at the time that the Chinese Communist Party was shaped was a brutal, hierarchical society where men could kill their wives with impunity and ruthless landlords could seize grain and leave farmers to starve. “When I was little, people ate the husks [of rice] and wild greens,” one survivor of the era told The Guardian. Revolutionary movements that preceded the Communist Party were made up of mainly of former students at Beijing University, a center of political and intellectual dissent after the Qing collapse. Mao Zedong and Chang Kuo-tao, another pioneering member of China’s Communist movement, were old University of Beijing school chums. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, September 27, 2009]

The Communist Party's struggle for power took almost 30 years to achieve. Urged on by the Communist International and Russian Communists who had come to China in 1920 after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party was created from several Chinese Marxist groups.

Websites: Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party ; Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao Internet Library ; Paul Noll Mao site ; Mao Quotations; ; New York Times; Early 20th Century China : John Fairbank Memorial Chinese History Virtual Library offers links to sites related to modern Chinese history (Qing, Republic, PRC) and has good pictures

Communism Takes Root in China

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Although socialism and communism had been known in China long ago, this line of development of Western philosophy had interested Chinese intellectuals much less than liberalistic, democratic Western ideas. It was widely believed that communism had no real prospects for China, as a dictatorship of the proletariat seemed to be relevant only in a highly industrialized and not in an agrarian society. Thus, in its beginning the "Movement of May Fourth" of 1919 had Western ideological traits but was not communistic. This changed with the success of communism in Russia and with the theoretical writings of Lenin. Here it was shown that communist theories could be applied to a country similar to China in its level of development. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Already from 1919 on, some of the leaders of the Movement turned towards communism: the National University of Beijing became the first centre of this movement, and Chen Duxiu (Ch'en Tu-hsiu), then dean of the College of Letters, from 1920 on became one of its leaders. Hu Shih did not move to the left with this group; he remained a liberal. But another well-known writer, Lu Xun (1881-1936), while following Hu Shih in the "Literary Revolution," identified politically with Chen. There was still another man, the Director of the University Library, Li Dazhao (Li Ta-chao), who turned towards communism. With him we find one of his employees in the Library, Mao Zedong. In fact, the nucleus of the Communist Party, which was officially created as late as 1921, was a student organization including some professors in Beijing. On the other hand, a student group in Paris had also learned about communism and had organized; the leaders of this group were Zhou Enlai and Li Lisan. A little later, a third group organized in Germany;Chu Tê belonged to this group. The leadership of Communist China in the 1940s and 50s was in the hands of men of these three former student groups. See Separate Article MAO ZEDONG, HIS EARLY LIFE AND RISE IN THE CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY

Site of the first
Communist Party meeting
“After 1920, Sun Yat-sen, too, became interested in the developments in Soviet Russia. Yet, he never actually became a communist; his belief that the soil should belong to the tiller cannot really be combined with communism, which advocates the abolition of individual land-holdings. Yet, Soviet Russia found it useful to help Sun Yat-sen and advised the Chinese Communist Party to collaborate with the KMT (Kuomintang). This collaboration, not always easy, continued until the fall of Shanghai in 1927.

“In the meantime, Mao Zedong had given up his studies in Beijing and had returned to his home in Hunan. Here, he organized his countrymen, the farmers of Hunan. It is said that at the verge of the northern expedition of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao's adherents in Hunan already numbered in the millions; this made the quick and smooth advance of the communist-advised armies of Chiang Kai-shek possible. Mao developed his ideas in written form in 1927; he showed that communism in China could be successful only if it was based upon farmers. Because of this unorthodox attitude, he was for years severely attacked as a deviationist.

On May 4, 1919, there were student demonstrations against the Beijing government and Japan. The political fervor, student activism, and iconoclastic and reformist intellectual currents set in motion by the patriotic student protest developed into a national awakening known as the May Fourth Movement. Yangyang Cheng wrote in Sup China: “It’s hard to overstate the significance of the May Fourth Movement to the course of modern Chinese history. The intellectual unrest of the scholar elite, combined with the spirit of mass uprising, directly contributed to the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The October Revolution that overthrew the Russian Tsar a few years earlier made the new theory of collectivism particularly appealing to those in China who had lost faith in the corrupt and dictatorial Nationalist government and were eager for new ideas to save their country. See Separate Article MAY 4TH MOVEMENT AND THE POLITICAL IDEAS AND REFORMERS ITS SPAWNED

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) was one of the leading intellectuals of the May Fourth movement. Dean of Peking University in 1916, and, in 1921, co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen also edited and published the popular New Youth magazine. See Separate Article EARLY CHINESE COMMUNIST IDEOLOGUES AND THEIR IDEAS AND GOALS

Founding of the Chinese Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party was formed in Shanghai in July — maybe July 21 — 1921. Among the 12 delegates at the first Communist Congress was Mao Zedong. In China, the event is known as the "First Supper," and nobody is really sure who else was there, when exactly it took place and what happened. Fearing a raid by French police, the meeting was adjourned after a short time and continued later on a houseboat on the Grand Canal near the town of Jiazing.

The main discussion point during the July 1921 meeting, it is said, was whether or not to break ties completely with bourgeois society or form a tactical alliance with merchants and landlords. Ignoring recommendations by two Communist International advisers from Moscow, the Chinese delegates decided to take a radical approach and have nothing to do with capitalism and demand the immediate surrender of land and machinery.

Other pioneering members of the fledgling Communist movement in Shanghai included Zhou Enlai, Chang Kuo-tao, and Deng Xiaoping. Fearing detection and massacre by the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, the early Chinese Communists met in safe houses in Shanghai. Eventually they were forced out of Shanghai by a joint force of Kuomintang Nationalists and Shanghai gangsters.

The epic founder of the Chinese Communist Party was the stern Li Dazhao. Qu Qiubai was the tragic communist intellectual who ended up facing a Nationalist firing squad while his comrades were roaming the country in what later was called the Long March. His ill fate didn't even finish with his death, as during the Cultural Revolution, some 30 years after his demise, he was bitterly criticized as a renegade by the Maoist Red Guards who then were in control of China. He had to wait until 1980 to be officially rehabilitated, and today he is held in very high regard by the party. [Source: Francesco Sisci, the Asia Editor of La Stampa, from the Asian Times]

Communist Party of China Not Founded on July 1

Li Dazhao

On July 1, 2011, the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China was celebrated with great fanfare. Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “When President Hu Jintao said in a pomp-filled ceremony in the Great Hall of the People on July 1, “The Communist Party of China was founded 90 years ago today,” and, “From then on, the Chinese people embarked on the bright road of striving for independence and liberation and the glorious pursuit of prosperity and strength,” he was wrong...About the date, anyway...The party’s true founding date is July 23, 1921, according to official documents. An autobiographical account by one of the party’s founders and, remarkably, memories and news reports of a murder in a Shanghai hotel corroborate that, providing important clues for historians keen to establish the truth. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow , New York Times, July 20, 2011]

“Ultimately, the strange story of the wrong founding date of the world’s biggest political party is the result of Mao Zedong’s mistaken memory and the party’s disregard for truth, historians say. While the true date is now recorded in some Chinese history books, to this day most Chinese are unaware of the error and are astonished when they hear of it.

According to a Russian-language document of the Communist International, published in Chinese in June by the Party Literature Research Office, 12 people — 10 Chinese and two Soviet organizers “attended the party’s founding congress in Shanghai on July 23, 1921. The document was held by the Soviets, and, coupled with the chaos of civil war, revolution and the Japanese invasion, that opened the door for Mao to reimagine the founding date. Holed up with his Communist fighters in caves in Yan an, Mao wanted to commemorate the party’s 20th anniversary in 1941 but had forgotten exactly when that would be, wrote Zhang Baijia, deputy head of the Party History Research Office, in an article published in May in History Reference, a magazine belonging to People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper. “No one remembered the opening date of the first party congress,” wrote Mr. Zhang. “They just remembered it was in July, so they decided on July 1.”

The mistake matters, said Zhou Xun, a historian at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s actually rather important,” Ms. Zhou said. “We’re talking about real historical events and real historical truth...This is a good example of how the party makes up all kinds of things, such as events, historical figures, and how they eliminate facts. It’s just a constant thing.” “But for the president of China to stand up and formally say the wrong date, as Mr. Hu did recently, “is pretty amazing, really,” she said.

Said a party historian, who requested anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the subject, “The most important reason they don’t change it is that it was decided by Mao.” To this day, he said, “Even many scholars don’t know.” The truth began to emerge after 1978, with Mao two years dead and the new leader, Deng Xiaoping, urging Chinese to ‘seek truth from facts.”

Some historians do not see a problem with the dueling dates. “All important things are a process,” said the party historian. By July 1921 there were already half a dozen small, independent Communist groups in Chinese cities, he noted. “I don’t think the date itself is important,” he said. “I think what is important is that the party was set up in that period, and the reasons why.” Ms. Zhou, of Hong Kong University, disagreed. “They don’t want people to remember the details,” she said. “They want you to remember what they want to tell you, and not what the truth is, whether you know already or not. And even after you know, it still doesn’t matter.”

Some Details from the First Communist Party of China Meetings

Qu Qiubai and his family in Moscow in 1929

In a collection of autobiographical essays, “Cold Wind Anthology,” published in Shanghai in 1945, Chen Gongbo, a founding delegate from the southern province of Guangdong who, disillusioned, left the party a year after it was founded, wrote dramatically of events at the end of July 1921.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “Two things happened in quick succession on July 30 and 31. The first was that on the evening of July 30, a date many participants agreed was about a week into the congress, the police raided the home of one of the delegates, where the fledgling party was meeting. Mr. Chen wrote that he and that delegate were the only ones who did not flee when seven police officers “three French and four Chinese “burst in. After hours of interrogation, the police allowed the two men to leave. “

Mr. Chen said he shook off a tailing police officer by slipping through a cinema. He returned to his room at the Dadong Hotel, shaken by the narrow escape. “Who knew that barely had one wave passed than another arrived,” he wrote. Hours later, in the early morning of July 31, he heard a gunshot and a scream. Frightened, he opened the door and looked down the corridor but saw nothing. The next morning, a room attendant told Mr. Chen and his wife that a young woman had been murdered in the hotel. They fled to the nearby city of Hangzhou, with Mr. Chen reckoning that he was by now a security risk for the party. A report in the Aug. 1 edition of Shenbao, Shanghai’s leading newspaper, confirms Mr. Chen’s account.

In what was apparently a failed murder-suicide, a young man surnamed Zhang shot and killed his female companion in Room No. 32, on the fourth floor, the report said. He left later without paying his bill. Mr. Chen, who followed the case avidly from Hangzhou, wrote that the man had not shot himself, as the couple had agreed. The motive for their pact was a thwarted desire to marry, Mr. Chen wrote, citing Hangzhou newspaper accounts. Mr. Chen never returned to the congress. In 1946 he was executed by the Nationalists for collaborating with the Japanese.

As Mr. Zhang wrote in History Reference, the exact date the party congress ended remains a mystery, but the timing of the hotel shooting, at the end of the month, rules out July 1 as the founding date.

"Beginning of the Great Revival"

20111106-Wiki C Mao_and_Wang_Ming.jpg
Mao and Wang Ming
In June 2011, "Beginning of the Great Revival", a blockbuster movie chronicling the founding of the country's ruling Communist Party was released. The Economist reported: “It opened at every cineplex in China on June 15th, in time for the party’s 90th birthday. Competing films with a shred of drawing power were blocked, even the awful “Transformers 3". Many state-owned firms ordered their staff to attend. Schools organised trips so that pupils could watch and learn from the exploits of a youthful Mao Zedong. Government departments deployed waves of bureaucratic bottoms to fill seats...The film was not, as you might imagine, a piece of government-produced propaganda. It was a piece of for-profit propaganda, produced by the country’s biggest film company, the China Film Group (CFG).

Needless to say the film was nearly universally panned. A screenshot from a Chinese microblog user taken before disabled its rating system showed the film receiving overwhelmingly negative reviews, with 87.8 percent of participating users giving it one star. Others on the Web discussion boards have called the film an attempt by authorities to "brainwash" the public in an effort to create more support for the Chinese government. “I was confused throughout the entire movie,” Liu Yang, sophomore at Tsinghua University Medical School, told the New York Times after watching “Beginning of the Great Revival.” “It featured way too much romance with Mao Zedong.” Liu Ye played a young Mao Zedong. Actress Tang Wei , who was blacklisted from appearing in Chinese films or on TV for a time, was rehabilitated in time to play Mao Zedong's first love. Lu Chuan and Sheng Ding directed parts of the film besides chief director Huang Jianxin. The cast did not work for free as they had for other Communist Party block busters but receive basic compensation and expenses.

Chinese Web users poked at the irony of the film. A 24-year-old from Beijing told PC World, "On the Web I saw this saying: people are allowed to sing revolutionary songs, but they are not allowed to actually lead a revolution," he said. "Chinese people are not dumb. They understand the humor of all this." "So I think with this film, it won't really have a brain-washing effect. Instead it will have the opposite," he added. "The movie is saying open party politics is crucial. But in reality, China does not have that. From the movie's images, it proves the importance of democracy and having open party politics." [Source: Michael Kan, PC World June 22, 2011]

Early Chinese Communists Goals and Structures

In the early days, the Chinese Communist Party was an army of volunteers who believed that land should be confiscated from the rich landowners and given to the poor peasants and that industry and production should be controlled by the Communist party not foreigners and rich industrialists. Peasant organizations within the Communist Party demanded that 1) rents be reduced to 25 percent of the crop; 2) that the private armies of the warlords be abolished; and 3) the seizure of land to pay for debts be prohibited.

Li Dazhao, Chinese Communist Party founder, with Jiang Menglin, Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi

The Communist soldiers were told to have respect for peasants in the countryside, and there was even a song about it.
Replace the door when leaving the house
Return and roll up the straw matting
Be courteous and polite to the people and help them
Return all borrowed articles
Replace all damaged articles
Be honest in all transactions with the peasants
Pay for all the articles purchased
Be sanitary; establish latrines at a safe distance
from people's houses."

"During the 20 year struggle that preceded the revolution," historian John Reader wrote, "Mao Zedong and his colleagues placed China into a network of party cadres. Throughout the country, individuals were selected and secretly trained as links in a unified command structure which steadily transformed the rural population from a largely unprotesting peasantry into the conscious agents of change." After the revolution this structure laid the foundation for the country's bureaucracy. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perennial Library, Harper and Row]

Image Sources: 1st and 3rd images, photos by Agnes Smedly, University of Arizona ; Others Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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