How China Got Marx
In 1899, the Shanghai-based church publication A Review of the Times ran a lengthy summary of a recent partial translation of Benjamin Kidd’s “Social Evolution.” Titled “Da Tongxue,” the piece included reference to “The Communist Manifesto,” attributing that text to the “Hundred Workers’ Leader” — Karl Marx.
As far as scholars are aware, this was the first time Marx’s name appeared in a Chinese-language publication.
Marxism was introduced to China in the aftermath of the ruling Qing Dynasty’s failed Westernization reforms and Chinese intellectuals’ growing interest in Western civilization, from science and technology to the humanities and social sciences. After the failure of the Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao and other prominent modernizers found themselves in exile in Japan, where they came into contact with Japanese translations of Western texts. They began the work of translating them, again, into Chinese.
From 1901 to 1902, while living in Japan, Liang read widely from the translated works of Western scholars and produced a series of articles introducing their basic tenets in Chinese. In September 1902, Liang published his own piece on the work of Benjamin Kidd in the journal New Citizen, wherein he also referenced Marx’s works. “In Germany, the two most influential ideas today are the socialism of Karl Marx and the individualism of Friedrich Nietzsche,” he wrote. “Marx has stated that the problem with today's society is that the weak multitudes are oppressed by the strong few.”
Liang’s article made him the first Chinese scholar to directly summarize Marx. A more complete introduction would come the following year, when the Shanghai Guangyi Publishing House published Zhao Bizhen’s translation of Fukui Junzo’s “Modern Socialism.” Junzo’s book introduced Marx’s theories, including insight on his writing process and the main arguments of key works such as “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital.”
Also in 1902, the Chinese scholar Ma Junwu published “A Comparative Study of Socialism and Evolutionism,” which featured references to Marx and his theories. The text included an appendix, which listed “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” “The Poverty of Philosophy,” “The Communist Manifesto,” “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” and “Capital,” making it the earliest known Chinese-language bibliography of Marx.
After the collapse of the Qing and the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, the center of reform and revolutionary activity shifted from overseas back to China. Shanghai soon became a center of early Chinese Marxism. In 1915, Chen Duxiu founded New Youth magazine out of Shanghai, kickstarting the New Culture Movement and giving Marxism a key platform within China.
In collaboration with Li Dazhao, Chen used the pages of New Youth to publish numerous articles on Marx’s work and ideas. After Russia’s 1917 October Revolution, the magazine became increasingly bold in its promotion of Marxist ideas in pieces such as “My View on Marxism,” “The Victory of Bolshevism,” and “Marxist Theory.” The entire fifth issue of volume six was titled “Marxism Studies.”
The Communist Party of China would not be founded for another four years. It was the revolutionary Kuomintang (KMT) Party that provided key backing for the spread of Marxism in China. KMT founder Sun Yat-sen had studied the socialist movements of Europe, having read “The Communist Manifesto,” while in exile in Britain. In 1919, as the nationalist and pro-modernization May Fourth Movement spread across China, Sun oversaw the publication of articles in favor of socialist revolution and Marxism in important periodicals like Weekly Review, Construction, and even The Republican Daily — the official party mouthpiece of the KMT.
In 1920, Chen Duxiu decided the time was ripe to publish a full translation of “The Communist Manifesto” in Chinese. Dai Jitao, editor-in-chief of Weekly Review, had the same idea. Based on a recommendation from a writer at The Republican Daily, the linguist Chen Wangdao was selected for the task. Dai gave him a copy of a Japanese translation for reference and Li Dazhao borrowed an English translation for him from the Peking University library. Chen returned to his rural hometown in the eastern Zhejiang province where he could focus wholly on the work of translation in his remote village. Finished in early Spring 1920, Chen’s translation is a masterpiece; in idiomatic Chinese, it conveys the brilliance of the original.
As Chen worked on his translation, a representative from the Russian Communist Party, Grigori Voitinsky, arrived in China. His presence marked a major shift, as Russia — and later the Soviet Union — displaced Japan as the main external driver of the spread of Marxism in China. Voitinsky first contacted Li Dazhao in Beijing, and then met with Chen Duxiu, Dai Jitao, and other revolutionaries in Shanghai. From then on, representatives of the Comintern began officially operating in China. Publishing houses were established to promote the translation and publication of Marxist works in Vladivostok, Harbin, Beijing, and Shanghai.
In August 1920, Chen Wangdao oversaw the publication of 1,000 copies of the first edition of “The Communist Manifesto.” The cover of the book featured a misprint, with the Chinese for “Communist Party” written not as gongchandang, but as gongdangchan. Despite the inauspicious error, the printing soon sold out, and a second edition was quickly published — this time with the correct title — in September of the same year.
Just over 20 years after Marx’s name had first appeared in Chinese, the seeds of his ideas were taking root. In the summer of 1920, just before the publication in Chinese of “The Communist Manifesto,” Mao Zedong traveled from Beijing to Shanghai where he met with Chen Duxiu. Years later, Mao told the American journalist Edgar Snow that his trips to Shanghai played a key role in his becoming a Marxist. “I had discussed with Ch’en (Chen Duxiu), on my second visit to Shanghai, the Marxist books that I had read, and Ch’en’s own assertions of belief had deeply impressed me at what was probably a critical period in my life.”
“Once I had accepted it as the correct interpretation of history, I did not afterwards waver,” he added.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, Chinese slowly familiarized themselves with the ideology that would dominate their nation for the ensuing century. Founded in 1921, the Communist Party of China is now the world’s largest political party,but the theories that would guide generations of CPC leaders first crept into China through an easy-to-overlook reference in a missionary magazine, published more than 120 years ago.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A portrait of Karl Marx on display at an exhibition in Nanjing, 2018. Su Yang/People Visual)