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Ch’en Yi Edit Profile

also known as Chen I

military , politician

Ch’en I was a top Red Army commander in the three decades after the birth of the Red Army in 1927. He was with Mao in the Chingkang Mountains and the central Soviet areas in Kiangsi from 1928 to 1934, and he was among those who remained behind when the Long March began in 1934. After the Sino-Japanese War began he headed a detachment in the New Fourth ’Army, and from 1941 to the end of the war he was the army’s commander.


Ch’en was bom into an “old family of scholars”1 in Lo-chih, 50 miles east of Chengtu, the Szechwan capital. He spent a few years of his childhood in Hunan where his father was a district magistrate during the last years of the Ch’ing dynasty.


Returning to Szechwan, Ch’en studied at a vocational training institute in Chengtu. In 1918 he enrolled in a new school which had been established to encourage young Chinese to prepare themselves for further training in France. Early in 1919 Ch’en won a provincial government scholarship, and in the summer he left for Paris to take part in the work-and-study program (see under Ts’ai Ho-sen). He is reported to have studied in St. Germain and Grenoble and to have earned his living as a dishwasher and by loading barges.


By 1922 Ch’en was back in his native Szechwan, and after a brief stint in the headquarters of Szechwan warlord Yang Sen, he was associated in 1922-23 with the Hsin-shu jih-pao (New Szechwan daily). This newspaper was then edited by Hsiao Ch’u-nii, one of the most important Youth League leaders and ideologues in the early history of the Communist movement. In 1923 Ch’en went to Peking where he joined both the CCP and the KMT. In the same year he enrolled in the Université Franco-Chinoise, a school whose purpose was to prepare students for study in France, but which was also attended by a number of students who had already studied in France. A Russian biographic sketch of Ch’en asserts that in the 1923-24 period he worked in the “youth movement” in Peking; this may refer to the activities in connection with the Socialist Youth League or with one of the numerous Marxist-oriented youth organizations that sprang up in the wake of the May Fourth Movement under the guidance of Li Ta-chao and other important early Communists.

In 1926 Ch’en went to Canton, then the revolutionary center of China. There he joined the staff of his former colleage in France, Chou En- lai, who was then a top official in the Whampoa Military Academy’s Political Department. As the Northern Expedition was getting underway in mid-1926, many recruits were drawn from Whampoa. The National Revolutionary Army was then modeled after the Soviet Red Army, and therefore it had “party representatives” the equivalent of political commissars at various levels within its hierarchy. Ch’en, still a member of both the KMT and the CCP, served as a KMT representative, probably in some unit under the well-known Independent Regiment led by Communist Yeh T’ing. By the fall of 1926 the Northern Expeditionary forces had taken Wuhan, where the KMT government was soon to make its headquarters. In 1927 Ch’en became secretary of the CCP Committee of the MilitaryPolitical Academy (in effect, the Wuhan government’s branch of the Whampoa Academy). However, on the eve of the Nanchang Uprising, now celebrated as the birth of the Red Army (see under Yeh Ting), Chen was with the 73rd Regiment, which was headquartered not far north of Nanchang. Ch’en’s role in the insurgency is not known, but the important part played by this regiment is described in the biography of Chou Shih-ti, the regimental commander.

Late in 1927, as the Chu-Ch’en-Lin forces moved across southwest Kiangsi, they reorganized their troops. Now down to 600-700 poorly equipped men, they formed a column (tsung-tui) under Chu Te, with Ch’en I as his deputy.0 Despite the Nanchang and Swatow insurrections, the Chu Te force still maintained the fiction that it was fighting under the “KMT banner,” an arrangement that enabled the Communists to get some supplies from Yunnanese General Fan Shih-sheng. Fan, whose 16th Army held the area for the KMT, had been acquainted with Chu Te several years earlier when both men were soldiering in Yunnan. One hostile account (by ex-Communist Kung Ch’u) describes this as a capitulation to the KMT and one to which Ch’en had agreed. Maoist historians, on the other hand, assert that this was a clever ruse by Chu and Ch’en to gain a breathing spell, get additional supplies, and to induce members of Fan’s army to join the Communist cause. In any case, the Chu-Fan “truce” did not last long, because in early 1928, when Chu’s army moved into southern Hunan and took I-chang, the agreement with Fan was broken and Chu’s men now declared themselves to be a Communist army. The subsequent series of uprisings in south Hunan led by Chu, Ch’en, and Lin Piao in the early part of 1928 are described in orthodox accounts as an integral part of a series of revolts against KMT authority, which began at Nanchang and which include the Autumn Harvest Uprisings, the establishment of the Hai-lu- feng Soviet in Kwangtung, and the Canton Commune.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Chen became mayor of Shanghai. He also served as vice premier from 1954 to 1972 and foreign minister from 1958 to 1972 and president of the China Foreign Affairs University from 1961 to 1969. As vice premier, he was present during the breakup of Sino-Soviet relations. In August 1960, Chen Yi attempted to ease tensions with the Soviets, declaring on one instance to the Soviet Ambassador to Beijing that Moscow should stop "severing the friendship between the two nations," and two weeks later to the Soviet deputy foreign minister that Moscow and Beijing should both try to save the alliance. During the Cultural Revolution, he was criticized in 1967, but never dismissed, so Zhou Enlai performed the duties of foreign minister in his place. He was a member of the 8th CPC Politburo from 1956 to 1967 and he was not admitted to the 9th Politburo (1969), though he was a member of the 9th CPC Central Committee.

After Marshal Lin Biao's death in 1971, he was restored to favor, although not to his former power. Mao Zedong attended Chen's funeral in 1972. This was Mao's last public appearance and his first appearance at anyone's funeral during the Cultural Revolution.


The subsequent merger of the forces led by Chu, Ch’en, and Lin with those under Mao Tse-tung’s command is treated in detail in the biography of Chu Te. These complex political and military maneuverings took part in the spring and summer of 1928. The details surrounding the establishment of the Fourth Red Army during this period are a matter of historical dispute, some accounts claim this was done in May 1928, others in August. In any case, the Chu-Mao forces were gathered together by the spring of 1928 in the Chingkang Mountains on the Hunan-Kiangsi border, and it is evident that Ch’en was one of the major figures in establishing the Fourth Red Army.10 Chu Te was the Army commander, Mao was the Party representative, and Ch’en served under Mao as head of the Political Department.

Coincident with the establishment of the Fourth Army, the First Party Congress of the Hunan-Kiangsi Border Area was convened at Mao-p’ing in Ning-kang hsien (May 20, 1928). Ch’en took part in the meeting, and at that time or shortly thereafter he became secretary of the Army Committee of the Party. He probably also became a member of the Party’s Border Area Special Committee, of which Mao was secretary. The Special Committee was then, in effect, the highest authority in the border area. Mao Tse-tung has reviewed many of the events in this period in his famous essay “The Struggle in the Chingkang Mountains.” This piece is no model of clarity, but it is evident that he was plagued both by attacks from local military forces and by the political maneuverings of his own provincial CCP committee, which was not enthusiastic about developments in Mao’s territory. Later in the year, when it appears that Mao had matters in control, a Second Special Committee was elected at the Second Border Area Party Congress (October). Mao, Chu, and Ch’en were all made committee members,12 but a month later, when a new Army Committee of the Party was established, Chu Te replaced Ch’en as the secretary. Soon after this, Ch’en was with Mao and Chu when they abandoned the Chingkang Mountain base and moved eastward toward the Kiangsi-Fukien border over the winter of 192829. Writing a quarter of a century later, Ch’en also reviewed the events in Chingkangshan in 1928, and predictably, he aligned himself with Mao’s “correct” actions.


In November 1930 he was one of the speakers at a meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the Kiangsi Provincial Soviet, which met in Chi-an (Kian). According to Ch’en, a recently adopted and controversial land law had been countermanded on orders of the Kiangsi Southwest Special Action Committee, an opposition group headed by Li Wen-lin and «others, who were allegedly from the rich peasantry. He further claimed that Li's supporters had prevented the division of land in many parts of Communist-held territory in Kiangsi. It was Li and his Southwest Special Action Committee that openly rebelled against Mao in December 1930 (the Fu-t’ien Incident; see under P’eng Te-huai). According to Chang Kuo-t’ao, Ch’en initially wavered in his support of Mao during the incident, but he ultimately upheld Mao and took a direct hand in the bloody suppression of the rebels.

When the Chinese Soviet Republic was established in November 1931 at luichin, Ch’en was elected a member of the republic’s highest organ, the Central Executive Committee (CEC). This took place at the First All-China Congress of Soviets, and when the Second Congress met in January-February 1934, he was reelected to the CEC. lust prior to the Second Congress, Ch’en was elected (December 1933) to the Executive Committee of the Kiangsi Provincial Soviet. His colleagues in this organization included such prominent figures as Tseng Shan, Li Fu-ch’un, and Ts’ai Ch’ang.


Few of the young Chinese in France had arrived with a clear-cut political ideology, and it is doubtful if Ch’en differed from the group in this respect. Nonetheless, he and his colleagues were political activists, and in short order they formed various politically oriented associations which ultimately led to the establishment of a French branch of the CCP (after Ch’en’s departure from France). Although documentation is lacking, it is probable that Ch’en was affiliated with the Kung-hsueh hu-chu she (Work and study cooperative society), which was established by Ts’ai Ho-sen and others. In any event, he was constantly in touch with a corps of young intellectuals whose chief interests were neither in study nor work, but in politics. Speaking with unusual candor to a group of foreign language students four decades later, he remarked that when “we went to study in France . . . some of us were busy with the organization of political campaigns, the discussion of Marxism and the printing of publications, and had no time to study the French language.” In speaking of “political campaigns” he may have had in mind an incident in the first part of 1921 when a number of these students demonstrated in front of the Chinese legation in Paris in connection with their protests over the termination of financial aid to the students.

In the same year the Institut Franco-Chinois, with some support from the French government, was founded in Lyons for Chinese students in France. This school was a branch of the Université Franco-Chinoise in Peking, which Ch’en was to attend a few years later. Thinking they would be admitted to the school, Ch’en, Ts’ai Ho-sen, Hsiang Ching-yii, Li Li-san, and others went to Lyons. However, when the Chinese sponsors barred their admission, Ch’en and his colleagues occupied the buildings by force on September 21 (only a few weeks before the school officially opened). The French gendarmarie immediately moved in and placed the students in jail for a few weeks. The school at Lyons continued in existence for many more years, but the Li-ta yun- tung (Lyons University movement), as the Communists have termed it, proved to be a failure for the 104 students, Ch’en among them, who were deported from Marseilles in October.


Ch’en’s first wife was killed in Kiangsi in 1934. In 1947 he had two children, apparently by his first wife. Since at least the 1950’s he has been married to Chang Ch’ien, who is obviously much younger than Ch’en. The fact that she was a member of a drama society attached to Ch'en’s New Fourth Army during the war years, suggests that he met her at that time. She remained in the background until the mid-1950’s, but since then she has assumed a number of minor and presumably honorific posts. Chang has been a member of the National Women’s Federation’s Executive Committee since 1957, a vice-chairman of the China-C-ambodia Friendship Association since 1960, and a deputy from Hupeh to the NPC since 1964. She has accompanied her husband on many of his trips abroad.

Chang Ch’ien