China 1927

Memoir of a Debacle

Zhu Qihua

Translated by Zhu Hong

Forward by John C. Ma


2013, 342 pages • map • photos • index

ISBN 978-1-937385-14-9 Paper $35.00
ISBN 978-1-937385-15-6 Cloth $75.00

“Zhu Qihua’s memoir—never intended for publication—is a unique document portraying a young man hungering for adventure and passionate about a revolution that he is still too young to understand. Following the Northern Expedition from Canton to Wuhan and then the Second Northern Expedition into Henan and then retreating back south after the Guomindang splits with the Communists, Zhu argues with Li Lisan, criticizes Guo Moruo, and envies He Long’s culinary tastes. Starting out as a romantic revolutionary, Zhu wonders about the meaning of the revolution as he cradles the lifeless body of a young woman and friend. Superbly translated by Zhu Hong (no relation), this memoir humanizes the revolutionary movement in a way no other document does.”
—Joseph Fewsmith, Boston University

“Zhu's memoir of the fateful year of 1927 is a compelling, unsparingly honest, and illuminating picture of revolution at the ground level.  Gifted with a sense of humor as well as an appreciation of nature, Zhu tells a story filled with unexpected twists and turns, alternating peaks of optimism and valleys of despair, danger, and death. This is an absorbing and invaluable contribution to the literature on twentieth century Chinese history.”
—Steven I. Levine, The University of Montana



“Few historical memoirs of the Nationalist Revolution of the 1920s were written at the time of the events they record. Zhu Qihua’s eyewitness account of the military and political fortunes of Communist and Nationalist forces on the Northern Expedition, first drafted in 1928, appeared in Shanghai in 1933 under the title Memoir of 1927 (Yijiuerqinian huiyi). It reads with the ease and freshness of a contemporary record written by a guileless young man.

Zhu was certainly young. He joined the Communist Party in Shanghai in its inaugural year, 1921, as a fourteen-year-old typesetter. At seventeen he was dispatched to the revolutionary base in Guangdong to join the political section of the Whampoa Academy, and within a year was directing the Propaganda Section of the Guomindang Military Affairs Department in Guangzhou. At eighteen he was appointed head of propaganda for the Nationalist Fourth Army’s Politbureau on the Northern Expedition. The following year, 1927, Zhou Enlai invited him to direct propaganda operations and, in time, Party Organization for the General Political Department in the wake of the left’s break with Chiang Kai-shek during the later stages of the Northern Expedition. The General Political Department was a peak agency, within the left-wing rump of the Nationalist/Communist Alliance, that was headed by Guo Moruo.

Zhu Qihua was appointed Director of Propaganda and Organization to help manage the aftermath of the Nanchang Uprising of August 1, 1927, a date subsequently commemorated as marking the birth of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). A handful of military and revolutionary leaders who styled themselves the Wuhan Revolutionary Government—including He Long, Ye Ting, Zhu De, Zhang Guotao, Li Lisan, Liu Bocheng, Zhou Enlai, and others-had escaped to Nanchang from Wuhan a few days earlier and were pondering their next move when commander Zhang Fakui ordered them to proceed to Jiujiang. Sensing a trap, Zhu informs us, the leaders staged a military coup, disarmed soldiers loyal to Zhang Fakui, and reconstituted themselves as the Revolutionary Committee. It was all over in half an hour. “There were no mass rallies, no spark of revolutionary fervour in the air. . . . Rather than having gone through a revolutionary coup, Nanchang looked as if it had suffered a bandit rampage” (p. 218). It was then that Zhou Enlai, Guo Moruo’s superior, tasked Zhu with penning the “Outline for the Declaration of the August First Uprising.” By this account, one of the documents underlying the founding myth of the PLA rests on a few bold statements by Zhou Enlai elaborated by a peripatetic nineteen-year-old who had slept through the half-hour coup.

The memoir offers a lively account of the political intrigues, military battles, occasional coups, forced marches, and desperate hunger that accompanied one wing of the Northern Expeditionary forces as they traipsed from Guangdong north through Jiangxi to Hubei and on to Henan, then back south through now-desolate landscapes in Henan and deserted villages in Jiangxi to Fujian, and finally to Guangdong, from the latter half of 1926 through to the end of 1927.

Along the way, Zhu offers memorable pen-portraits of his fellow journeymen and women, lending interest and coherence to the story. We meet chubby and overfed Sun Fo, happy-go-lucky Peng Pai, useless and philandering Guo Moruo, self-aggrandizing Tan Pingshan, treacherous Wang Jingwei, strutting “toady” Li Lisan, the forceful Song Qingling, classes of women comrades from revolutionary academies in Guangzhou and Wuhan, and the slippery if serene figure of Zhou Enlai, whom Zhu depicts as a poor judge of character but a sincere and hard-working “quack.” Some years later, Zhu Qihua was branded a Trotskyist. Although little in his political reflections bears out this claim, the accusation could well be justified by the harsh judgments he casts on his Leninist comrades.

While closely following the route of the Fourth Army, the narrative arc of the memoir traces the revolutionary armies’ rise and fall from a band of heroic conquerors, driven by revolutionary zeal, to a starving and thieving rabble. Still, the story is not without its romance and romantic moments. The odyssey is peppered with snippets of classical poetry and historical references to sites through which the revolutionaries passed, where heroes of the Warring States and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms had left their mark many years before. Readers are also invited to share Zhu’s reflections on the amorous passions and dalliances that distracted his comrades, and from time to time Zhu himself, from their commitment to the revolution. Two of his comrades found the loves of their lives among the girl students of Baoling Girls School in Nanchang.

The memoir ends with an account of a meeting in Shanghai with veteran Nationalist propagandist Shao Lizi, editor of the Party’s Shanghai Republican Daily, during the closing weeks of 1927. Shao had recently turned down an offer to serve as director of the General Political Department under Chiang Kai-shek in Nanjing, explaining to Zhu that he felt caught between old friends in the Nationalist Party and sympathy for new friends in the Communist Party. But he cautioned Zhu against the Communist Party itself. The leadership is “excessively demanding,” Shao said, with the result that would exaggerate figures in reports to the district level, which would further multiply figures in reports to county level, and so on up the chain of command, so that the central leadership was invariably dealing with figures way out of touch with reality. “This goes on in a vicious cycle level after level, inevitably leading to catastrophe,” Shao cautioned (pp. 303-4).

Zhu did not live to see Shao Lizi’s warnings borne out in the People’s Republic. He was executed by the Nationalists in 1945.”

— John Fitzgerald
Journal of Asian Studies



“Charming. Above all, charming. I never thought I would write those words about a member of the Communist Party of China who, in the CPC’s traumatic early years when he was not yet twenty, associated with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Madame Sun Yatsen, Zhu De, and other historic leaders. Set during 1926-1927, this is Zhu Qihua’s diary of his time as a mid-level Party propaganda official. The Party was about to lose its links with Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (GMD). After a brief honeymoon period with Chiang, when the senior Party leaders imagined they would march north to rid Peking of its warlord rulers and bring all of China under revolutionary rule, the Communists were forced to flee from the GMD. Mao escaped into the mountains and eventually onto the Long March; others, including Zhou Enlai—and Zhu Qihua—made a headlong flight on foot from bandits and Chiang’s soldiers, during which many of them were killed. Zhu, wounded and helpless, and robbed of a small fortune in Party funds by some gangsterly opponents, managed to get to Hong Kong and then safety in Shanghai. It is sad to read that in 1945 he was executed in one of China’s mindless bloody episodes.

China in 1927 is elegantly translated by the incomparable Zhu (no relation) Hong. What makes it memorable is Zhu Qihua himself. Although very young, he has important responsibilities in many of the events he records: writing propaganda leaflets, haranguing large audiences and sometimes bemused peasants, and eventually caring for the wounded as the victorious march north turns into a flight under fire. He is usually armed, and every now and again feels like shooting some cowardly or corrupt colleague, but I don’t think he ever fires a shot in these pages, confining himself to the occasional insult.

But don’t read this book for important information or analysis. The great men and famous events are, for the most part, peripheral to the narrative.

No, what really grips Zhu, in ascending order, are scenery, food, and pretty girls.


Everywhere he goes, even in desperate times, he notices the landscape, flowers, and interesting buildings. As he works near, though rarely with, those in supreme power who, as today, are very nice to themselves, he gets plenty to eat, records what it is, and comments on its quality. In all but the most desperate days, Enlai, as Zhu calls him, and his colleagues, manage to eat shark’s fin. But it is girls that really transfix him, even in headlong retreat. He admires them from afar and up close, and while he never touches any (despite steamy fantasies), he seems to be attractive to them as he hopefully chats them up. A mysterious unnamed woman in Canton flits in and out of the narrative, sends him money, longs to see him again, and even tries to track him down to Hong Kong. Around him the leaders and young cadres help themselves to girls and women. Zhu, totally ignorant of what they are doing, tries to spy on them, and makes clear that he thinks revolutionary sex is great.

There are scenes worthy of an old-fashioned black-and-white movie. A pretty young comrade—one of the many in this account who defy their traditional families to join the revolution—is shot dead during the retreat, Zhu gathers her in his arms, and carries her to a house where he leaves her with a note entreating anyone who finds her body to give her a good burial. One day, as he sits penniless in a Shanghai park, a married woman he slightly knows spots him. He is eighteen, she somewhat older. She leans against him. They go to an expensive restaurant, where he eats one of those meals he loves, and after a night of passion—his very first, I believe—she departs, leaving him with a generous tip.

I felt sad when Zhu ended this memoir on his twentieth birthday with these words: “Twenty years of my life have passed, and what achievements do I have to show for those years? I am buried in shame.” Well, well. On that same day he sends a poem to the mysterious “young lady in Canton.” It ends with “I am ready to meet you with my valor intact.”

I loved this book and I congratulate all those at MerwinAsia, the publisher; thanks for helping bring it to life.”

— Jonathan Mirsky
Human Rights in China

 “The year 1927 was a tumultuous one in the political history of modern China. It saw the last phase of the Nationalist Northern Expedition, the open split between the Kuomintang left and right, the collapse of the KMT–CCP united front, the purge of the Communists, the establishment of the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Nanjing, the Nanchang August uprising and the Guangzhou December uprising. The year ended in a debacle for the Communists and the complete eclipse of the CCP.

China 1927 is the memoir of a 20-year-old hot-headed revolutionary’s involvement in the events of 1926–27. Coming from a working-class background and apparently a member of the CCP and a Trotskyite, Zhu Chihua had taken part in the Shanghai workers’ movement before leaving for Guangzhou in September 1925 to become head of a propaganda team in the Allied Revolutionary Government’s General Political Department. In December 1926, he followed the Revolutionary Government’s move to Wuhan, the center of Wang Jingwei’s leftist regime, via Nanchang. From Wuhan the revolutionary leadership launched the Henan campaign. Later developments forced them to return to Wuhan, and later to Nanchang, where the August 1927 uprising was to take place. They then marched south, fighting local warlords and other enemy forces on their way, culminating in the disastrous Guangzhou uprising. After the debacle, Zhu became a fugitive in Hong Kong, before making his way back to Shanghai.

Written in late 1927–28 but not published until 1933, the memoir provides an interesting account of what Zhu lived through in two fateful years. He worked diligently in his propaganda role, giving speeches at mass rallies as a KMT representative. He was a guest at a dinner given by Chiang Kai-shek. For the best part of 1927, he was in good company with such revolutionary figures as Zhou Enlai, He Long, Ye Ting and Guo Moruo, among others. Notably, he met with the Russian adviser Galen, and wrote down the Manifesto of the August First Uprising as dictated by Zhou Enlai. He rubbed shoulders with Mao Zedong. Following his instincts and not afraid to express his views and feelings, he mocked Chiang Kai-shek, who at a speech given in Nanchang had promised to accomplish the revolution in a thousand days. Zhu blasted those in the Nanchang office of the General Political Department who were behaving as though the revolution was already accomplished. He criticized the operations of grass-roots revolutionary organizations, which suffered from a lack of competent cadres. He quarreled with the head of the Political Security Department, Li Lisan, describing him as “a nuisance”, “a toady” and “a fawning dog” (p. 222) toward Tan Pingshan, a member of the presidium of the Revolutionary Government, who, also “a nuisance”, styled himself Chairman. Zhu was also sarcastic about Guo Moruo’s womanizing and He Long’s culinary tastes. Observant and with a flair for detail, he was acute in his analysis of the ever-changing revolutionary situation.

Zhu was caught up in some of the fierce fighting. He survived and remained brave and optimistic, but the death of an idealistic 18-year-old female comrade named Hong right before his eyes moved him to tears as he embraced her dead body; he wanted to bury her but, under enemy fire, had not the slightest chance. In sorrow and despair, he could only comfort himself by saying: “It was not a tragedy, but a glorious death” (p. 278).

Political memoirs are more often than not self-serving, but not this one. Zhu hardly took credit for what he may have done for the revolution. His honesty is extraordinary. He confesses to having bourgeois taste and sentiments. He castigates himself for lacking a truly revolutionary spirit, blaming it on his youthfulness and natural instincts. He fails to kill the Nezhdanov beneath his revolutionary exterior. Open about his sexual desires and love for beautiful girls, he enjoyed reading Zhang Jingsheng’s book on the history of sexuality and often talked about it heatedly. He was infatuated with “the young lady from Canton”. He tried to take advantage of a pretty young lady on the street where he was hiding as a fugitive in Hong Kong (until he discovered that she was the daughter of a detective with the Guangdong Provincial Security Bureau). He had an affair with an old acquaintance in Shanghai, the beautiful second wife of a Mr X, taking her to a hotel, where they had sex, and accepting 80 yuan from her before they parted. He confessed to being “completely shameless” (p. 298).

Indeed, one of the merits of the memoir lies in the humanizing of the revolutionary movement. The revolution is not glorified. Instead, the memoir lays bare the natural tendencies, if not moral weaknesses, of many of those involved. They would indulge in drinking, gambling and playing mahjong when they got bored; they would sometimes look down upon the rural folks for whose cause they were supposed to be fighting; they would become part of the ruling class in the townships occupied by the revolutionary forces; and they would enjoy fine foods and good wines and the occasional privileges of “revolutionary aristocrats” (p. 34), while urging others to go down to the masses. Zhu used to imagine occupying the mansions of the rich capitalists with their mistresses after the revolution was won. He felt ashamed of himself, thinking that he and other revolutionaries were “a bad lot” sometimes (p. 170).

In short, China 1927 makes compelling reading. It is fascinating and riveting— there is not a dull moment in the story. Besides being a personal record, it is a rare source of information for scholarly research on the period. It has also benefited from the superb translation and annotation by Zhu Hong (no relation), despite a couple of errors of Romanization (Zhu Zhixin, not Zhu Jixun, and Deng Yanda, not Deng Yinda). It deserves to be widely read by students of the Chinese revolution of the 1920s.”

— Edmund S. K. Fung
The China Journal