When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, it instantly sparked a reaction from the Comintern, which mobilized more than 40,000 volunteers to fight on the Republican side. Among them there were some 100 Chinese, their participation virtually unknown until the publication of this book first in traditional Chinese (Taipei, 2001); it was not until May this year that a European edition (in Spanish) was published, simultaneous with a version in simplified Chinese in Beijing.
The authors Hwei-Ru Tsou and Len Tsou are Taiwanese scientists who are long-time residents of the United States. They came across Chinese names when browsing a commemorative album published by the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1986. Then they embarked on a 15-year research that started from zero—except for a single previous mention of the Chinese volunteers by Beijing Prof. Zhang Zhisan—and which took them to several countries, in the process, re-establishing the original solidarity among ex-combatants and relatives who provided the leads of information. Sadly, the authors did not find any Chinese volunteer still alive, but they succeeded finding the thread of this group’s experience and reconstructing to various extents the biographies of 13 of these men.
The volunteers did not come from China and did not form a separate contingent. They had already settled in Europe or the United States and went to Spain separately on their own. There they were enlisted in the different units of the International Brigades according to the language spoken, French or English; they served as soldiers, doctors, nurses or drivers, alongside men and women from many other nationalities.
In addition to the political and economic forces at play in a conflict that was a prelude to World War II, the war in Spain took on a highly symbolic significance for the progressive movements; it was seen as the last stance for the downtrodden and against injustice everywhere, the occasion for a social revolution with a strong Internationalist undercurrent. From another perspective, the presence of Chinese volunteers here is just another example of China’s engagement with the West, especially at the level of individuals, that began not in latter part of the last century, but was well under way during the 1920s and 1930s.
Glimpses into the lives of some of these volunteers give us insights as to who they were. Chen Wenrao, from Taishan, Guangdong, known for his fine calligraphy, had worked as a waiter in New York’s Chinatown; he was killed in the Battle of Gandesa in 1938. Zhang Ji, from Changsha, Hunan, studied in Berkeley and finished his mining engineering degree in Minnesota, having performed odd jobs in-between; all traces of him were lost in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation in the 1940s. Bi Daowen (Tio Oen Bik), Indonesian-Chinese, studied medicine in Amsterdam; he went to China but eventually returned to Indonesia, where he died in obscurity. Xie Weijin, from Sichuan,who left Shanghai to France in 1919 and studied in several European cities; he was a cadre in the CCP, purged in the 1960s and rehabilitated years after his death. He is buried in the Babaoshan revolutionary cemetery. Zhang Ruishu and Liu Jingtian, both from Shandong, were workers in the Renault factory outside Paris and members of the French communist party; they were in their forties when they went to war in Spain.
The book contains a small but sometimes moving photographic record: the protagonists are seen wearing the berets customary in Spain, posing cheerfully with other comrades or with their compatriots, recovering from their wounds in a hospital, and after the war in French internment camps. A photo taken at a meeting in Berlin in 1927 shows Xie Weijin handing over a banner “from the strike workers of Hong Kong and Kowloon” to the German communist leader Ernst Thälmann. Another photo shows Bi Daowen together with Mao Zedong in Yan’an in the 1940s.
Japan’s full scale invasion of China began in July 1937. The Spanish war was still undecided, and the Chinese volunteers were beset with anxiety as to what to do. They resolved they could not leave their task unfinished. Only after having been demobilized in Spain and liberated from the French concentration camps, did the survivors go to China to support the war of liberation.
They were not the only ones who went to China at this critical juncture. The authors’ research into firsthand accounts and archival materials also turned up another group of volunteers, the so-called “Spanish doctors”, who served with the International Brigades and went to China afterwards. They worked in pitiful circumstances mainly in Kuomintang-controlled areas, where they were seen with suspicion due to their background. None was Spanish, but came from Central and Eastern Europe.
The Chinese volunteers and the foreign doctors were in search of a purpose in life. They also found death, defeat, internment, incomprehension everywhere, even persecution and finally oblivion. This book has honored them at last.
Parallel to their stories runs the authors’ own narrative of their quest of the past. Written in the first person, they share with the reader their hopes, frustrations, and the joy of human encounters rekindling fond memories and unshakable ideals, making this book a thoroughly engaging human tale.
Reviewed by Juan José Morales
Published by Asian Review of Books on 26 October 2013
Los brigadistas chinos en la guerra civil: La llamada de España (1936-1939), Hwei-Ru Tsou, Len Tsou (Los libros de la catarata, May 2013)
© 2013 The Asian Review of Books.