Chen Duxiu

Chen Duxiu

[juhn doo-shyoo]
Chen Duxiu or Ch'en Tu-hsiu, 1879-1942, Chinese educator and Communist party leader. He was active in the republican revolution of 1911 and was forced to flee to Japan after taking part in the abortive "second revolution" of 1913 against Yüan Shih-kai. In 1915 he founded the journal New Youth in Shanghai. Articles by Ch'en, Li Dazhao, Hu Shih, and others encouraged Chinese youth to create a new culture free from Confucianism. He was dean of the school of arts and sciences of Beijing Univ. from Jan., 1917, until forced to resign under conservative pressure in Mar., 1919. Ch'en was converted to Marxism in the period following the student-led intellectual revolution known as the May Fourth Movement (1919). He founded (1920) two Marxist groups, and in 1921 representatives of these groups met with representatives of groups organized by Li Dazhao (neither Chen nor Li were present) to found the Communist party. He was dismissed from party leadership and withdrew from the party in 1927 over his opposition to the Comintern-ordered policy of armed insurrection.
Chen Duxiu
Traditional Chinese: 陳獨秀
Simplified Chinese: 陈独秀
Pinyin: Chén Dúxiù
Wade-Giles: Ch'en Tu-hsiu
Original name: Qìngtóng (慶同)
Courtesy name: Zhòngfǔ (仲甫)
Family name: Chen (陳)

Chen Duxiu (October 8, 1879May 27, 1942) played many different roles in Chinese history. He was a leading figure in the anti-imperial Xinhai Revolution and the May Fourth Movement for Science and Democracy. Along with Li Dazhao, Chen was a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. He was its first Chairman and first General Secretary. Chen was an educator, philosopher, and politician. His ancestral home was in Anqing (安慶), Anhui, where he established the influential vernacular Chinese periodical La Jeunesse.


  • October 9, 1879: Birth in Anqing, Anhui.
  • 1879 to 1901: Early life and education in China.
  • 1901 to 1908: Study in Japan, organising Republican revolutionary groups.
  • 1908 to 1911: Working as a teacher.
  • 1911 to 1915: Participation in the Xinhai Revolution, the post-revolution Republican government, the anti-Yuan Shikai revolution.
  • 1915 to 1920: Leading figure in the May Fourth Movement.
  • 1920 to 1927: Founding and leading the Communist Party of China
  • 1927 to 1932: Leading Communist forces participating in the Northern Expedition, conflict with Chiang Kai-shek leading to the April 12 Incident and massacre of Communists, conflict with Comintern leading to expulsion from Communist Party. Becomes leader of Troskyists in China.
  • 1932 to 1937: Arrest by Kuomintang authorities and imprisonment.
  • 1937 to 1942: Retires from public life.
  • May 27, 1942: Death due to heart attack.

Early life

Chen Duxiu was born in the city of Anqing (安慶) in Anhui (安徽) province. His father died when Chen was very young, and he was raised primarily by his grandfather and later by his older brother.

Chen had almost no formal education, but his grandfather tutored him in classical Chinese literature, especially the Four Books (四書) and the Five Classics (五經). A thorough knowledge of these literary and philosophical works were the pre-requisites for civil service in Imperial China. Chen was an exceptional student, but this lack of formal education resulted in a lifelong tendency to advocate unconventional beliefs and criticize traditional ideas.

Chen took and passed the county-level imperial examination (鄉試) in 1896, but he failed the provincial-level examination (省試) the following year. 1898, he passed the entrance exam and became a student of Qiushi Academy (currently Zhejiang University) in Hangzhou. He moved to Shanghai in 1900 and then to Japan in 1901. It was in Japan where Chen became influenced by socialism and the growing Chinese dissident movement.


Foundation of the Chinese Communist Party

At the turn of the century, the Qing Dynasty (清朝) had suffered a series of humiliating military defeats against the colonial foreign powers, namely the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the war against the Alliance of Eight Nations in the 1901 Boxer Rebellion. At the same time, widespread corruption within the Qing bureaucracy had left the empire in a state of total economic paralysis. Against this background Chen Duxiu became an increasingly influential activist in the revolutionary movement against both foreign imperialism and the Qing government itself.

Influenced by his time in Japan, Chen founded the Anhui Patriotic Association (安徽愛國會) in 1903 and the Yuewang Hui (岳王會) in 1905. He was an outspoken writer and political leader by the time of the Wuchang Uprising (武昌起義) of 1911, which led to the abdication of the last Qing emperor and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. Chen fled to Japan again in 1913 following the short-lived "Second Revolution" of Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), but returned to China in time to take part in the May Fourth Movement of 1919.

In 1921, Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, and other prominent revolutionary leaders founded the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党/中國共産黨). Because of more or less biased Chinese historiography and lack of knowledge elsewhere, it has been generally asserted that Chen, Li and the other Chinese radicals of the time (including future chairman Mao Zedong) formed the CCP out of diligent study of Marxist theories, inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917. However, it is now clear that for this generation of Chinese radicals, Chen included, the road to Marxism was a long one, with several of their number being more or less anarchist or anarcho-communist even at the time of the birth of the Party; several of the prominent members at that time didn't even understand the fundamental premises of Marxist theory. Because of severe persecution and failed attempts at a more anarchistic social revolution, these prominent Chinese revolutionaries finally turned to communism, and were organized through the influence of a Comintern advisor by the name of Grigori Voitinsky who made a tour of China during 1920-21.

At the First Congress of the Communist Party in Shanghai, Chen was elected (in absentia) as the party's first general-secretary, and with the assistance of Li Dazhao, he developed what would become a crucial co-operative relationship with the international communist movement, the Comintern. However, this co-operation with the Comintern would prove to be a problem for the fledgling CCP over the next decade, as aggressive foreign Comintern advisors would try to force policy according to the wishes of Moscow and against the will of many prominent CCP leaders.

Expelled by the Party

At the direction of the Comintern, Chen and the Chinese Communists formed an alliance with Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang (Nationalist party; ) in 1922; almost every prominent member of the CCP was against this decision. China had disintegrated into an era of violent warlordism following the Wuchang Uprising, and the Nationalists were attempting to re-unify the nation under a Republican government. However, Chen became increasingly disillusioned with the Nationalists, which he perceived as rivaling the Qing dynasty in corruption. He also resented the foreign influence of the Comintern over the Chinese Communists. Chen was forced to resign as secretary-general in 1927 due to his dissatisfaction with the Comintern order to disarm during the April 12 Incident, which had led to the deaths of thousands of Communists, and his disagreement with the Comintern's new focus on peasant rebellions.

Afterwards, Chen became associated with the International Left Opposition of Leon Trotsky. Like Chen, Trotsky opposed many of the policies of the Comintern. Trotsky publicly criticized the Comintern's effort to collaborate with the Nationalists. Chen eventually became the voice of the Trotskyists in China, which caused him to be forced out of the pro-Comintern CCP in 1929. Chen continued to oppose nationalist measures like "New Democracy" and the "Bloc of Four Classes" advocated by Mao Zedong.

In 1932, Chen was arrested by the Nationalist-controlled government during the anti-Communist purges of President Chiang Kai-shek (Jiǎng Jièshí, 蔣介石, or 蔣中正). Chen was released in 1937, but his political organization had been shattered in interim. The CCP had been almost completely destroyed in the purges. Both the supporters of Chen and the pro-Comintern leaders who opposed him had been either killed or fallen out of favor with the Communist membership. The Chinese Communist Party only managed to survive the purges by fleeing to the Northern frontier in the Long March of 1934, under the leadership of a new party chairman, Mao Zedong. Mao and this new generation of communists would lead the party in China for the next fifty years.

Chen was one of the few early leaders of the Communist party to survive the turmoil of the 1930s, but he was never able to regain any influence within the party he had founded. For the last decade of his life, he faded into obscurity. Chen later embraced liberalism, and refused to side either with the Nationalists or CCP. Chen Duxiu died in 1942 at the age of 62 in Sichuan province, and is today buried at his birthplace of Anqing.


Writing style

Chen felt his articles must reflect the needs of society. He believed that the progress of society cannot be achieved without those who accurately report social weaknesses and sicknesses.

Chen's articles were always expressive. He criticized the traditional Chinese officials as corrupt and guilty of other wrongdoing. He was under constant attack and frequently persecuted by conservatives and had to flee to Japan four times.

Chen's articles strove to attract publicity, and often arouse discussion by using hyperbole. For instance, he emphasized his sadness about the backwardness and corruption in China, so that people suffering would be willing to send him their opinions. In New Youth, he even wrote different articles by using different nicknames to form a 'discussion', so that the public could be aroused.

Chen's newspapers emphasized the responses from the audience. For instance, there were forums and citizens' columns in New Youth. On average, there were 6 letters from the public in each publication. Whether in praise or strong opposition, Chen encouraged all to write. He also thought that teamwork was very important in journalism and consequently asked help from many talented authors and journalists, including Hu Shih and Lu Xun.

Journalistic works

Anhui Suhua Bao

On March 31, 1904, Chen founded Anhui Suhua Bao (安徽俗話報), a newspaper that he established with Fang Zhiwu (房秩五) and Wu Shou (吴守) in Tokyo to promote revolutionary ideas using vernacular Chinese, a language which was simpler and easier to read for the general public. While Chen was the chief secretary of the newspaper, the circulation increased from only a thousand copies to more than three times that figure in less than half a year to become one of the most popular vernacular Chinese newspapers. During 1904 and 1905, a total of twenty-three periodicals were published. Each had 40 pages - about 15,000 words. However, due to political pressures the paper was barred from publishing in 1905.

Chen had three main objectives in publishing Anhui Suhua Bao (安徽俗話報):

  • To let his villagers (Anhui) keep abreast of the politics of Qing Dynasty.
  • To inject knowledge to the readers through vernacular Chinese.
  • To promote the revolutionary ideas to the public.

Chen found out that Chinese often ranked families at a prior position than the country. Furthermore, most of them were in his view too superstitious. Thus, Chen tried to urge Chinese people to participate in politics through the publication of Anhui Suhua Bao (安徽俗話報). After the sixteenth publication, the newspaper added an extra 16 topics, including military, Chinese philosophy, hygiene, astronomy, etc. Almost all of the added topics were written by Chen. His pen-name was San'ai (三愛). At least 50 articles were published under this name.

Tokyo Jiayin Magazine

In early 1914, Chen went to Japan and was an editor and wrote critical articles in the Tokyo Jiayin Magazine (甲寅雜誌) for Zhang Shizhao (章士釗). Chen once wrote an article entitled "Self consciousness on patriotism" (愛國心與自覺) which conveyed a strong sense of patriotism and instigated people to fight for their freedom. It spread the idea that those who love their country would spare no pains to protect the country and strive for the rights which the people deserve. This group of people should work together towards the same goal harmoniously. The article was threatening to the central government as it tried to arouse the self-consciousness of the Chinese people. This preliminary magazine was released for 10 issues in total before it was stopped from publishing. The magazine was resumed in 1925 in Beijing with the new name Tokyo Jiayin Weekly (甲寅周刊).

New Youth magazine

In 1915, Chen started an influential monthly periodical in Shanghai, The Youth Magazine (青年雜誌), which was renamed La Jeunesse (新青年, literally New Youth) from 1916 to 1919. This became one of the most influential magazines in the May Fourth Movement. Chen was the chief editor of this periodical. It was published by Qunyi shushe (群益書社) and stopped in 1926. The magazine mainly advocated the use of plain language, socialism and Marxism and was strongly against feudalism.

Chen in fact had become the Chinese lecturer of Chinese literature and also the president of the school of Arts in Peking University(北京大学) since 1917. Having the approval from the principal of the Peking University, Chen collected writings of Li Dazhao (李大釗), Hu Shih (胡適), Lu Xun (鲁迅) and Qian Yuan (錢沅) etc. In order to expand the editorial department, New Youth was moved to Beijing. And in February of the same year, Chen used New Youth in promoting science, democracy and new literature, as well as against paleography and old literature. They advocated the use of scientific means and rational proofs in judgement and the achievement of political, economic, social and ethical democracy as their goals.

New Youth was divided into different phases:

  • 1915 to 1918: it opposed the Chinese conservatism (Confucianism) and promoted the development of democracy. So it became the centre of the New Culture Movement.
  • 1919 to 1921: (until the formation of the Communist Party), its nature turned from democratic to socialist, aiming at promoting Marxism.
  • 1921 to 1926: it became the theoretic base for the Communist Party.

Other publications

The Shanghai local government banned the sale of Guomin Ribao (國民日報) on December 1, 1903. After this, Chen twice planned to found Aiguo Xinbao (愛國新報), but failed because of pressure from different groups. Yet, Chen continued to express his discontent towards the government, for instance, when Anhui Suhua Bao (安徽俗話報) was published on March 31 1904, Chen was responsible for all editing and distribution.

On November 27 1918, Chen started another magazine, the Weekly Review (每週評論) with Li Dazhao (李大釗) so as to criticize politics in a more direct way and to promote democracy, science and new literature (baihua). Chen also edited Tokyo Jiayin Magazine (甲寅雜誌) and Science Magazine (科學雜誌). Later, he became the Editor-in-Chief of Minli Bao (民立報) and Shenzhou Daily (神州日報).

From 1908 to 1910, students at Beijing University, namely Deng Zhongxia (鄧中夏) and Xu Deheng (許德珩) founded the Guomin magazine (國民雜誌) and invited Li Dazhao (李大釗) as consultant. From 1912 to 1913, Chen asked for assistance from Luo Jialun (羅家倫) and Fu Sinian (傅斯年) and they founded Xinchao She (新潮社).

Chen's contribution to Chinese journalism

Chen made many contributions in the field of Chinese journalism. He insisted on telling the truth to the Chinese people and strengthening the Chinese media for later generations. By establishing the newspapers and magazines concerning political issues, Chen had provided a main channel for the general public to express their ideas or discontent towards the existing government. Chen believed that the purpose of mass media is to reveal the truth. At a young age, Chen had already established Guomin Ribao (國民日報), promoting the inefficiency of the Qing Dynasty. With a view to the things mentioned above, his contribition was said to be influential to journalism as a whole.

To sum up, Chen was a famous revolutionary advocator and journalist in the modern Chinese history. His experiences in newspapers had born profound impacts in the journalistic arena in China.


In 1918, New Youth published some new poems of Hu Shih (胡適)and Liu Bannong (劉半農), which were written in vernacular Chinese in order to conform with the above advocacy. Later on, all the articles in New Youth were written in vernacular Chinese and new punctuations marked his pioneer role in vernacular Chinese magazine publication.

Intellectual contributions and disputes

Crisis with Cai Yuanpei

In the second edition of New Youth, Chen published Cai Yuanpei's speech, that is the "Speech of Freedom of Religion" (蔡元培先生在信教自由會之演說). He at that time criticized Chen for his misinterpretation about his speech on religion. As he puts it, "The publication of my speech on New Youth committed a number of mistakes." Fortunately, Cai did not become angry with Chen and the publication was then amended before publishing.

Crisis with Hu Shih

This crisis was about the political stand of New Youth. Hu Shih insisted that New Youth should be politically neutral and the publication should be more or less concerned with Chinese philosophy. However, Chen attacked his rationale by publishing "Talking Politics" (談政治) in the 8th edition. At that time, Chen was invited by Chen Jiongming (陳炯明) to be the Education officer in Guangzhou in mid-December of 1920.

He decided to assign the publication to Mao Dun (茅盾), who belonged to the Shanghai Communist Party. Hu Shih was dissatisfied with this and their partnership then crumbled. Later, Chen wrote Hu Shih about his dissatisfaction with Hu’s intimacy with the research faculty. He mentioned, "Please note your close relationship with the research faculty".

Others felt that the faculty was advocated by Liang Qichao (梁啟超), a supporter of the Duan Qirui (段祺瑞) government and their anti-new wave ideology. All of this made Chen greatly dissatisfied.


Chen suggested six guiding principles in an article called "Warning the youth" (敬告青年) in New Youth, which aimed at removing the old beliefs of Confucianism:

  1. To be independent instead of servile
  2. To be progressive instead of conservative
  3. To be aggressive instead of retrogressive
  4. To be cosmopolitan instead of isolationist
  5. To be utilitarian instead of impractical
  6. To be scientific instead of visionary

New Youth is one of the most influential magazines in the early modern Chinese history. Chen indoctrinated many new ideas such as individualism, democracy, humanism and scientific methods which compensate the removal of Confucianism in Communism.

Seen in this light, New Youth then became in a position to provide the alternative intellectual influence for many young people. Under the banners of democracy and science, the traditional ethics represented by Confucianism became the target of attack from New Youth. In the first issue, Chen called the young generation to struggle against the Confucianism by "theories of literary revolution" (文學革命論).

To Chen, Confucianism was to be rooted out because:

  1. It advocated superfluous ceremonies and preached the morality of meek compliance, making the Chinese people weak and passive, unfit to struggle and compete in the modern world
  2. It recognized the familial values but not the individual as the basic unit of society
  3. It upheld the inequality of the status of individuals
  4. It stressed filial piety which made man subservient and dependent
  5. It preached orthodoxy of thought in total disregard of freedom of thinking and expression.

Chen called for the destruction of tradition and his attack on traditionalism opened a new vista for the educated youth. This magazine became the seed of the May Fourth Movement.

Conflict with Mao

Chen came into conflict with Mao Zedong in 1925 over Mao's essay "An Analysis of Classes In Chinese Society". Although Mao had been one of Chen's students, he had begun to question Chen's analyses of China. While Chen believed that the focus of revolutionary struggle in China should primarily concern the workers, Mao had started to theorize the primacy of the peasants. According to Han Suyin in Mortal Flower, Chen "opposed the opinions expressed [in Mao's analysis], denied that a radical land policy, and the vigorous organization of the rural areas under the Communist party, was necessary; and refused the publication of the essay in the Central executive organs of publicity."

Chen, sticking to the orthodox Marxist line (a position that was shared at the time by both Stalin and Trotsky), would not accept Mao's new theoretical analysis as properly communist. Conversely, Mao thought that Chen was incapable of providing a robust historical materialist analysis of China. This dispute would eventually lead to the end of Chen and Mao's friendship.

External links


  • Benton, Gregor, ed. Chen Duxiu's last articles and letters, 1937-1942. University of Hawaii Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8248-2112-2

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