This week marks the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Overture to the Second World War. The war in Spain was an international war, though contained in a relatively small space, since both sides in the conflict were backed by support from abroad. The International Brigades are extremely well known, since they attracted so many artists, thinkers and idealists from all round the world, including black Americans. Less well known, though, is the involvement of some 100 Chinese volunteers.
The three men in the photo are Xie Weijin, Lui Huan feng and Zhang Ji, proudly standing in front of a Spanish banner. Lui, who was born in 1890, came from Shandong in North China, which supplied many of the 150,000 men who were hired to work on the western front in the First World War. Nearly all those men were peasants signing up to escape dire poverty at home, with no concept of life in the west. In France, their graves fill whole cemeteries. Most did not return. Read China and the Great War : China's pursuit of a new national identity and internationalism by Xu Gouqi (2005) the classic work, details here. Highly authoritative, the best in the field. Men from Shandong are tall and sturdy: in photos and films taken on the western front, we can see them wrestling and doing feats of strength like lifting weights, grinning for the camera.
But by no means were the Chinese volunteers in Spain all dislocated peasants. Zhang Ji, for example, born 1900 in a wealthy family in Hunan, had gone to the US, graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1923. Like so many others in the Depression, he became disillusioned with capitalism, and went to Spain with other Americans, joining the International Brigades. Zhang was last heard of in Hong Kong at the start of the second wave of the Japanese invasion.
The Comintern, under an agent codenamed Borodin, were involved in the 1925-7 uprisings, though they were very much a Chinese response to specifically Chinese situations. But we can see why Xie looks quite comfortable the in his Republican uniform and pointed cap. Xie served in the Austrian Brigade as a machine gunner until he was shot in the leg. It's possible that he may have known Hanns Eisler's elder brother, an Austrian who had been a Comintern agent in China in the 1920's. After Franco defeated the Republicans, Xie was imprisoned in a notorious camp in France, before returning to China where he served in the elite Chinese Air Force before falling victim to Mao's purges. Irony, indeed.
A similar fate lay in store for Bi Dao wen (Tio Oen Bik), a Chinese doctor from Java,who was involved with the "Spanish doctors",a group of medical personnel who came from places like Hungary, Germany, Poland and Austria, who, being socialist and often Jewish, couldn't return home after Hitler. Nearly 20 years ago, I found a file about these men and women. At the time, someone, a wealthy HKU medical school graduate who chose to serve in China with the Quaker medical unit, was still around, and knew some of them personally. Bi eventually went back to Java where he seems to have been killed in Suharto's massacres of Chinese people in Indonesia. Read more here on recent research. There's another study of the Chinese in the International Brigades from 2004 which I haven't read.
And, as ever, Ernst Busch tells us like it was. Below, a clip from a live performance when he marks the date "July 1936" and sings Mamita Mia, merging into the anthem Thälmann,Kolonne, aka Spaniens Himmel, (composer Paul Dessau) with its refrain
Die Heimat ist weit, doch wir sind bereit.
Wir kämpfen und siegen für dich: Freiheit!