Revolutionary China

Chinese Revolutionaries in France

Revolutionary China

An article by Wang Song extracted from SACU's China Now magazine 1992.
Telling the tale of the future leaders of modern China who lived and worked in France in the 1920s.

In the 1920's going to Europe was the aspiration of many a patriotic young Chinese. France, a symbol of liberty and freedom, held a particular attraction for young radicals because of its links with Soviet Russia.

On December 1920 a French packet ship, the André Lyon, sailed into Marseilles with 210 Chinese worker-students aboard. Half of them were from the south-western province of Sichuan, and the youngest and shortest of these was a quiet sixteen year old.

Young Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping blending in to
Parisian life at 16 as a worker

Mr Science and Mr Democracy

It was not long before the new arrivals found that the realities of France in economic recession were far from the imagined ideal. For at least half his stay Deng was regularly on the move seeking work all over the country. For the first three months he enrolled in a secondary school in Bayeux. His priority was to improve his French for, although he had excelled as a student in Chongqing French Preparatory School back home, his French was not adequate for university entrance. He had hoped to be studying 'Mr De' (democracy) and 'Mr Sai' (science), but instead he could only manage part-time study while working to support himself.

His first job was as a fitter at the Le Creusot Iron and Steel Plant in La Garenne-Colombes, a north-western suburb of Paris where he moved in April 1921. Ironically, when Deng Xiaoping's later political fortunes were down and he was sent to work in a tractor factory in 1974 he found himself a fitter again, and proved to still be a master of the skill.

It was in La Garenne-Colombes that Deng met Zhou Enlai, already a well known student leader of the 1919 May 4th Movement in Tianjin, and Ye Rongzhen, a Sichuanese worker-student and later one of the marshalls of the PRC. Deng shared a room with 'elder brother' Zhou who was six years his senior and leader of the Socialist Youth League of China in France. Together with Cai Hesen, who in 1918 had co-founded the New People's Study Society in Changsha, and Li Wenhai, later a political commissar of the Red Army during the Long March, Zhou Enlai had founded the league in Montargis. In February 1922 Deng moved there too taking work at Hutchinson's Rubber Factory. He was only in Montargis seven months, then left to go to Chatillon Secondary School in Chatillon-sur-Seine, but was back working in Hutchinson's again in early 1923. However he lost his job after only a month because of his political activities, but he stayed on in Mantargis until June when he returned to La Garenne-Colombes and worked again as a fitter, this time in the Renault factory, where he remained until he left France.

Work and play

Life was difficult for any self-financing overseas student, and was especially hard for Deng as until he reached 18 he was getting only half pay in his various jobs. There also included spells as a locomotive engine fireman, kitchen hand and a temporary helper in a boot and shoe factory. It seems that he did nevertheless manage to develop a taste for certain elements of the French way of life. Croissants are reputedly one of his favourite foods, and when introduced to brandy for the first time he apparently enjoyed that too. According to David Goodman it was Ho Chi Minh who instructed the young Deng on where to obtain such delights. Legend also has it that, when returning from New York in 1974 he stopped off in Paris and bought 100 croissants which he distributed to Zhou Enlai and other former Paris comrades back in Beijing. It was also in Paris that he learned to play bridge; Harrison Salisbury ranked him amongst the first class bridge players in the world. Deng jokes that his two favourite sports, bridge and swimming, keep him going in both mind and body.

Budding activist

Unlike Zhou Enlai and some of the other 'elder brothers', Deng Xiaoping was too young when he first came to France to have been known for any revolutionary activity beforehand. It was not until 1922 that he joined the Youth league and then in 1924 was recruited to the European branch of the Chinese Communist Party. Since 1923 he had started to help Zhou Enlai with the production of 'Red Light', the CCP's bi-monthly newsletter. Reproduction, Deng's special responsibility, was with hand cut stencils on a hand rolled duplicator. He earned the title 'Doctor of Duplication' from his friends for his skilful stencil cutting and high quality duplication.

By 1925 he was speaking publicly to promote the CCP cause on a number of occasions, for instances calling for an alliance of the Soviet Union and the northern Chinese warlord Feng Yuxiang to fight imperialism. Deng Xiaoping's first significant political appointment was that of 'inspector' of the French Committee of the Guomindang (Kuomintang); he was elected to the post in August 1925, a period of co-operation between the communists and the nationalist party His participation in one of the student demonstrations organised by the CCP which led to the expulsion of many CCP members from France brought him under close police scrutiny but he avoided arrest and eventually left France for Moscow on 5 January 1926.

French connections

Deng Xiaoping's experiences during his five year stay in France illustrate some key aspects of Chinese political culture. The importance of guanxi (connections or interpersonal relationships) is of crucial importance in career development, for both promotion and job security, and as a way of wielding influence. Zhou Enlai was very impressed by his young assistant's capabilities and on his return to China in 1924 recommended Deng as his successor as editor of 'Red Light'. It is no coincidence that he should name Deng again as his assistant during his last days in hospital in 1975. Moreover Deng and his 'elder brothers' were equipping themselves well to meet the criteria expected of future leaders: they should not only be from an educated elite, as the Confucian tradition demanded, but also according to the new Communist standards they should have been steeled by practical experience of fife. In their struggle to broaden their education, Deng Xiaoping and his generation of fellow worker-students in France were certainly also experiencing wider horizons on life.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China Now 140, Page 16, March 1992

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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