The first international Marxist study group in Shanghai

We are pleased to republish this fascinating history, written by Zhang Wei and published in the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries‘ quarterly magazine ‘Voice of Friendship’ (June 2021), about the first international Marxist study group in Shanghai. The group was supported by Soong Chingling and included such legendary friends of China as Rewi Alley, Agnes Smedley and Helen Foster Snow.

In 1934, encouraged and supported by Soong Ching Ling, about 20 Chinese and foreign leftists established the first international Marxist study group in Shanghai. They studied classic theories, conducted social research, discussed current affairs and actively joined in and assisted the struggle of the Communist Party of China. In fact, the group became the foreign ally of the Chinese revolution.

Three core members

Rewi Alley, a core member of the study group, was a social activist and writer from New Zealand. At the time, he was chief inspector of the fire department and the chief of the industrial department under the municipal council in the Shanghai international settlement. He was shocked to witness a large number of Chinese people in deep distress during an inspection of the factories. He gave an important description of the study group in the 1980s when recalling those days. He presented a clear list of the members of the group as follows:

“In 1934, like-minded people gradually gathered together to discuss politics. The idea was mainly put forward by German political economy writer Hans Shippe. He wrote articles for the English magazine Pacific Affairs under the pen name Asiaticus. His Chinese name is Xibo. Agnes Smedley said that “we were supposed to know the theories,” but she was too busy and didn’t understand the theories herself. Alec Camplin, an electrical engineer who lived in the same apartment with me in a three-story building on Yuyuan Road, joined our study group. There was also Dr. Hatem, whom Agnes considered a potential participant for the revolution. Other members included the young Austrian progressive Ruth Weiss; Hans Shippe’s wife, Gertrude Rosenberg; the Dutch manager of the leftist Zeitgeist Book Store, Irene Wiedemeyer; four secretaries of the Young Women’s Christian Association, namely, Talitha Gerlach, Maud Russell, Lillian Haass, and Deng Yuzhi; and a teacher at Medhurst High School, Cao Liang. Hans Shippe served as our political instructor. Later, he was killed by enemies while working in the New Fourth Army at Yimeng Mountain, Shandong.”

When Helen Foster Snow returned to China in 1972, Alley told her his friends had organized a social science study group in Shanghai around 1933. Helen said: “The members included two secretaries of the YWCA, Talitha Gerlach and Maud Russell; and Irene van der Hoek; Hans Shippe (Alley said he was killed by the Japanese when he was with the New Fourth Army) and his wife Gertrude Rosenberg; Ruth Weiss; Dr. George Hatem; Agnes Smedley and Alec Camplin. Camplin was the chief engineer of Shanghai Power Co and lived in the same building as Alley.”

According to Ye Junjian, the study group was proposed by Baring and Shippe. Henry Baring was usually introduced as an editor of an English newspaper and school principal. To be precise, he was the editor of the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury and a teacher at Thomas Hanbury School for Boys. He first appeared in a letter from Alley in October 1929 as “schoolmaster”. which was later mistaken as “principal”.

Baring had a profound influence on Alley. When Alley asked Baring his view on the execution of six communists who organized a labor union in Wuxi, Baring gave him a copy of Capital and some works by Lenin, exposing Alley (who was concerned about people who suffered and who was engaged in charity) to scientific socialism. According to Alley, rumor had it that Baring had committed suicide in 1935 (some said 1933) because of a mental disorder, but Smedley said that Baring was actually shot by hit men from the Green Gang. According to the National Probate Calendar for England & Wales, Baring died in Shanghai on September 14, 1930, and it was probable that he had not actually participated in the activities of the study group. Hans Shippe was an Austrian political economy writer under the pseudonym Heinz Grzyb. He and Alley were the core members of the study group. As George Hate recalled:

“With the support of Comrade Soong Ching Ling, several foreign friends in Shanghai organized a group to study Marxism-Leninism and improve their theoretical knowledge. Back then, Alley, Shippe, Rosenberg, Smedley, Weiss and I also joined the group. Alley and Shippe were group leaders.”

Shippe was important because he assumed the role of instructor. Alley once said, “Shippe has a good mind. He is devoted to study and good at analyzing problems from a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint. We all admire him. This man is cut out for revolution.”

Gertrude Rosenberg was Shippe’s wife. Gunter Nobel, a member of the German Communist Party who was taking refuge in Shanghai, said about her: “Hans Shippe’s widow, Gertrude Rosenberg, is a close comrade-in-arms of Soong Ching Ling. After Shippe’s death, she continued to make important contributions to the revolution and development of China.” But he added: “There are some others that feel obliged to mention, though I am not familiar with them. Heinz Grzyb was also a key member of the German Communist Party. He played a crucial role in the development and growth of the Jewish Communist Organization in Shanghai. He lived in Shanghai under the rule of the Kuomintang for many years. He maintained close ties with the Communist Party of China and the New Fourth Army under its leadership near Shanghai. He also set up a group of eight to 10 communists in Shanghai and trained them with high political standards.”

In fact, the Grzyb that he was not very familiar with was none other than Shippe, and the “group” he mentioned may refer to the study group.

Four cultural workers

American writer Agnes Smedley was a major member of the group. George Hatem praised her saying, “She inspired our study group, headed by Rewi Alley, Hans Shippe and Ruth Weiss, like a spark. She helped us learn more about the people that were really fighting in China and the great Communist Party of China that was ready for self-sacrifice.”

Ye Junjian mentioned that the group members also included German cultural worker Frid Maya and Canadian journalist Brown. Frid Maya and Austrian Werth Maya together opened a foreign bookstore in North Sichuan Road. She also took turns with Alley and Camplin to safeguard a secret radio station. Wu Dianyao also noted that there were two women from the German Communist Party, Werth Maya and Phillie Maya, that assisted Camplin with his work. “Werth Maya” is a reference to Irene Wiedemeyer’s surname; she has also been mistaken by Alley as Irene van der Hoek. “Frid Maya” or “Philip Maya” probably refers to her friend Werner, and may be a combination of the German word and her name “Maria”.

Irene E. I. Wiedemeyer (or Weitemeyer) was the German manager of The Zeitgeist Book Store, that is, Yinghuan Book Company, also commonly known as the German Bookstore. Some said it was located beside Suzhou Creek, while others believed it lay at the end of Nanjing Road near the Bund. The address recorded in a directory in the late 1920s was 130 North Suzhou Road, while an advertisement of Literary News in June 1932 listed it as 425 Bubbling Well Road (near Mohawk Road), now West Nanjing Road (near North Huangpi Road) where a comprehensive service department for technology development stood.

In fact, when the bookstore opened on Nov 10, 1930, its address was indeed 130 North Suzhou Road opposite the general post office at the corner of North Sichuan Road. It was relocated to Bubbling Well Road in early March 1932. The relocation notice specified its English name. The bookstore is a branch of the Comintern publisher Münzenberg, specializing in leftist books and political journals. It was a place where left-wing sympathizers in Europe and Asia met and contacted each other. In 1935, Yu Ling bought an English version of Inprekorr, which contained the documents of the 7th World Congress of the Comintern, so that the Chinese Leftism Cultural League, including the League of Left-Wing Writers, could keep abreast of changes in policy approach when their contact with the Politburo was cut off. The manager, Weitemeyer, was a close friend of Smedley. It was in the bookstore that Hotsumi Ozaki met Smedley, who then introduced him to Richard Sorge.

Weitemeyer had a good friend, a German Jew named Ursula Maria Kuczynski, whose alias was Ruth Werner or Sonja. She was member of the Sorge a intelligence group and also the wife of Rudolf Hamburger. She said the bookstore was opened by “Irene” and that she often offered to help there. Lu Xun called her “Madam Hamburger” in the “Yinghuan Book Store.” In her autobiography, she mentioned that her friend Isa (Weitemeyer) used to be a “clerk in a bookstore in Berlin” and later opened a “small bookstore full of progressive books in German, English and French” in Shanghai, but she “wasn’t very familiar with the sales industry”. In addition to this, Isa worked underground in Shanghai. Her life partner was a Chinese comrade who had lived in Moscow for a long time. Later, when he joined a Trotskyist group, the two separated. Weitemeyer’s husband was Wu Zhaogao, a member of the German branch of the Communist Party of China and a member of the Sorge intelligence group. He was also known as Petraschevsky; thus, Weitemeyer was sometimes called Petraschevskaya.

Ruth F. Weiss was an Austrian progressive youth with a doctorate in philosophy. In an interview with Erhard Scherner in February 1991, Weiss said she “met the two of them (Heinz Grzyb and Gertrude Rosenberg) via Agnes Smedley in 1934 or 1935. She printed out Grzyb’s scripts for his speeches to friends Grzyb tried to elaborate on his understanding of problems of China’s strategy and tactics for revolution based on Karl Marx’s thoughts on precapitalist social relations and Chinese society.”

Anneliese Martens, or Anna Wang, was a German journalist and writer. She came to China with her husband Wang Bingnan in 1936. A year later, she was engaged in collaboration with Chinese Industrial Cooperatives and the China Defense League in Shanghai. Chen Weibo and Lin Xuejuan pointed out that she, together with Alley, Smedley, Hatem, Camplin, Ruth Weiss, Talitha Gerlach, Lillian Haass, Maud Russell, Deng Yuzhi, Anna Wang, Gertrude Rosenberg, Weitemeyer and Cao Liang, participated in the Political Situation Study Group headed by Shippe.

Three electrical engineers

Alec B. Camplin was a British electrical engineer. He lived with Alley between 1930 and 1938. Their residence was located in a three-story building at No 4 Lane 1315, Yuyuan Road in Changning district. According to the Shanghai Street Directory of the 1930s, Camplin was working at the power generation office of the Shanghai Power Co. As a communist, he also managed a secret radio station set up by the China group of Communist International in his small attic on the top floor. It was sometimes used to contact the Red Army.

Alley told Snow that there were two Chinese engineers working under Camplin, both of whom had returned to China after studying in the United States. One was Frank Lin and the other was probably Wu Chufei. They were also members of a “social science study group”. In 1938, they helped Alley draw up the first technical plan for Chinese Industrial Cooperatives and later became cadres.

Helen said in an interview: “When I asked Alley about ‘Lin and Wu’ in 1972, he said that when he last heard about Wu, he was an engineer in Zhejiang. But it had been years. He hadn’t heard from him since the 1950s. I said someone told me that he was dead. Alley added, ‘It is very likely that he is dead now.

Frank Lin now lives in Shanghai, in the house where he lived before participating in the Gung Ho movement. He had stomach cancer and underwent surgery’.”

That indicates that the “Frank Lin” and “Wu Chufei” mentioned by Alley are actually Lin Fuyu and Wu Qufei, engineers from Shanghai Power Co, who were later among the first to join the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, of Gung Ho movement. Lin Fuyu graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at New York University in 1927. After returning to China in 1928, he served as assistant engineer, deputy engineer and later as head of the test improvement division of Shanghai Power Co. After the Liberation in 1949, he became the director and chief engineer of Yangshupu Power Plant and Central Laboratory of the Shanghai Power Authority.

After graduating from Tsinghua University in 1923, Wu Qufei worked on a master’s degree at the University of Michigan before he was hired by Dodge Brothers Motor Company. In 1931, he returned to Shanghai, where he worked in a repair shop, a vocational school, and Shanghai Power Co. After the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, he joined a power plant in Hangzhou. From 1952 on, he served as the deputy chief engineer of the construction committee of the No 1 Automobile Factory in Changchun, deputy chief power engineer of No 1 Tractor Factory in Luoyang, chief machinist of a chemical plant in Quzhou and deputy chief engineer of a steam turbine factory in Hangzhou.

The archive on Helen Snow in the library of Brigham Young University contained a photo of Camplin and Lin Fuyu in the late 1930s. On the back of the photo it specified that both were friends of Alley and engineers of Shanghai Power Co, and that Wu Qufei was also a friend of Lin Fuyu.

Five doctors

Group member Shafick George Hatem was an American doctor of Lebanese descent. After he came to Shanghai alone in 1933, he often went to the Zeitgeist Book Store to read. In 1934, Pyle, an American, introduced him to Alley.

In addition to Hatem, as mentioned by Alley, there were probably four other doctors in the group. Herbert Wunsch, a Jew from the German Communist Party, met Smedley in Shanghai, where he opened a dental clinic after being expelled by German fascists in 1931. Later, he joined the Marxist-Leninist study group championed by Soon Ching Ling and organized by Smedley, Snow, Hatem, Alley and other foreign progressive youth in Shanghai.

There is also Hans Muller, or Mueller. Lu Guangmian, one of the founders of Gung Ho, recalled in August 1978: “He (Alley) organized a Marxist study group with his progressive foreign friends who were working in Shanghai at the time. The participants included George Hate (doctor), Smedley (famous reporter), Talitha Gerlach (secretary of the YWCA), Russell (secretary of the YWCA), Hans Shippe (a famous reporter who later worked in the New Fourth Army and was sadly martyred) and Mueller (doctor). These people later became friends of the Chinese people and made contributions to the Chinese revolution.”

Smedley and Hans Shippe have now passed away. Talitha Gerlach, George Hatem, and Mueller are still working in China. Russell is now in his eighties and is still working In the United States for the US-China friendship.

The third doctor was Jakob Rosenfeld, a Jewish Austrian called “General Luo”. He fled to Shanghai in August 1939. At first he worked as a doctor in the urology department of a Jewish refugee hospital. Later he opened a clinic with others in an apartment in Grosvenor Garden on Route Cardinal Mercier (now Maoming South Road) under the name Le Sunte. He came to Shippe with a letter of introduction from a friend of the Social Democratic Party of Austria, and participated in the activities of the Marx-ist-Leninist study group.

The last doctor was Shen Qizhen, who was later the first dean of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. Xu Buzeng mentioned that when Rosenfeld was in Shanghai, “Shen Qizhen, chief of medical affairs of the New Fourth Army, came to Shanghai and secretly mobilized progressive intellectuals to join the New Fourth Army in northern Jiangsu. Shen lived in Shippe’s home and also participated in group discussions.”

Five Christian representatives

Cao Liang, the Chinese national mentioned by Alley, was a teacher of history, geography and society at the church-affiliated Medhurst High School (now Jiguang Senior High School). He was the first Communist Party member of the school, and one of the leaders of the left-wing cultural circle. He once worked in the school group of the National Association of the Chinese Christian Youth Association, and organized the Current Affairs Research Society (Shishe) with Deng Yuzhi and others. He was also the husband of Liang Shude, director of the adult department of the Chinese Young Women’s Christian Association. According to an interview with one of his students, Chen Yiming, after an introduction by the American Communist Party members Max Cranich and Grace Granich, the couple who founded the progressive publication The Voice of China with Alley, Cao Liang got to know Alley and recommended he be named director of Medhurst High School. Invited by Alley, Cao Liang participated in the international Marxist-Leninist reading club organized in 1934 with Deng Yuzhi, Talitha Gerlach, Lillian Haass and others to introduce the Chinese revolution. It is said that Cao Liang was commissioned by the underground party, and “in the group he often introduced the struggle in Jiangxi and news about Chiang Kai-shek’s encirclement and suppression of the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet area.” As Alley described it, “A Chinese liaison a will bring a big map of Jiangxi province, pointing out the place where Chiang Kai-shek carried out encirclement and suppression and later struggles started.”

Alley mentioned that the four secretaries of the YWCA Talitha Gerlach, Maud Muriel Russell, Lillian Katherine Haass and Deng Yuzhi also joined the study group. Among them, Talitha Gerlach, an American, was the secretary of the student department. She met Alley while in office. Maud Muriel Russell, also an American, converted to communism during her service in China. She introduced Alley to Smedley at the end of 1932. Lillian (Lily) Katherine Haass, another American, was the training director. Chinese national Deng Yuzhi (English name Cora Deng) was the secretary of affairs related to military families.

The participation of YWCA secretaries in the study group reflected the marriage between the activities of such international religious and women’s organizations in the labor community and the work of women in the Communist Party of China, which became increasingly revolutionary in social movements. In the early 1930s, the YWCA established a labor service office. They rented a place at Sanheli on Ferry Road (now 21-23, Lane 910, Xikang Road) to run the Huxi Women’s Workers Association and set up a night school for female workers. Deng, Haass, and Gerlach all moved to Sanheli. Cao Liang, then-secretary of the student department of the National Association of the Chinese Christian Youth Association, also often shared information on current affairs at Sanheli.

Deng Yuzhi shifted from the student department of the YWCA to the labor department under Lillian Katherine Haass in 1928. Maud Muriel Russell introduced her to Marxist works. She joined a Marxist study group in 1930 and had close contacts with Talitha Gerlach, Alley, and Smedley during this period. After liberation, a film crew from New Zealand came to Shanghai for shooting. Alley said, “They also filmed me talking with Talitha Gerlach and Deng Yuzhi. Both of them were members of our original
political study group.”

Venues of study group

The venues of the group’s activities were not fixed and are difficult to verify. The only thing that is clear is that they used Smedley’s residence on Avenue Joffre for safety reasons. In Alley’s words:

“Such gatherings were held at different locations from time to time as decided by the members. Whenever we used Smedley’s small flat in the French Concession, we had to find another door to the Bearn Apartments. We climbed up the roof, and then went down the stairs that led to her flat. She was convinced that the front gate was being watched. Sometimes, she used a house that other people didn’t know much about, but never used mine as a site. Even to get into the flat in the French Concession where Agnes lived it was wiser to climb to a roof on one side of the Bearn Apartments, go over the roof and then down a stairway that led past her flat. Visitors invariably went out through different hallways after any small-scale meeting or party at her place.”

Janice R. MacKinnon derived his narration from Alley’s account.

“Alley and Smedley were neighbors in the Bearn apartment complex on Rue Joffre. The Bearn straddled a whole city block that was hexagonal in shape. The complex had more than 20 entrances and exits and was thus ideal for harboring fugitives and evading surveillance by French, British and Chinese police.”

As George Hatem recalled in 1980, when Smedley lived in the Bearn apartments in Shanghai, she often had meals with her close colleagues and encouraged them in their work. They always took a detour, because the Kuomintang secret police often monitored her home, and she and her visitors were often stalked.

The Bearn Apartments mentioned by Alley and McKinnon is now the Shanghai Lady Fashion Department Store located at 449 Middle Huaihai Road. This is in line with what McKinnon recalled: “The old Bearn complex now houses a giant women’s department store at the street level.” The Bearn Apartments were a few hundred meters away from Dubail Apartments at 85 Avenue Dubail (now 185 South Chongqing Road) where Smedley once lived. They are close but not adjacent.

Content of Study

Alley mentioned that the group members not only studied theory, but also current affairs.

He recalled: “We studied Marxist classics, such as the Communist Manifesto and Wage Labor and Capital, as well as other expositions on the theories of surplus value, land ownership, the social evolution and development, and the revolutions in Asiatic societies. We discussed current affairs in China and abroad, especially the situation in Shanghai.”

According to McKinnon’s interview with Rewi Alley and Gertrude Rosenberg, they discussed topics such as feudalism, Oriental despotism, marriage and family. They said:

“Smedley seems to have been much less involved with Shanghai’s German community of leftists after she returned in 1934. The Eislers, Ewerts, and Sorge had left China; Irene Wiedemeyer’s bookstore had been closed; and of course, Smedley was no longer writing for the German press. Her German friends during this period were newcomers such as Trudy Rosenberg and her husband, Hans Shippe. Regularly on Sundays they dined on fried chicken and argued such theoretical points of Marxism as the definition of feudalism or Oriental despotism. In anger, Smedley would insist that Trudy should divorce her bullheaded husband.

She also advocated the dissolution of marriage as an institution and insisted that having children restricted a woman’s involvement in politics.”

The “revolutions in Asiatic societies” and the “Oriental despotism” described by Alley, as well as Shippe’s pseudonym “Asiaticus”, indicate that, from Marx’s theories, they explored the path and strategies of revolution by analyzing the nature of Chinese society and the history of its development. In February 1991, Ruth Weiss told Erhard Scherner the theoretical differences between Shippe and German-American sociologist and sinologist Karl August Wittfogel.

She said: “On the eve of Karl August Wittfogel’s departure to the United States, when the Anti-Japanese War broke out, Grzyb had a fierce argument with him. In his book Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas (1931), Wittfogel put forward the theory of ‘hydraulic society’ based on Marx’s concept of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. That is, centralized state power dominates both man and nature. The quarrelsome Grzyb believes that there is an exploiting class that owns land, and therefore the conditions of a feudal society are available for China.”

Focus on real world events was a feature of the group. Cao Liang was invited to introduce the situation of the Chinese revolution. Gu Mu also said that in addition to studying Marxism-Leninism, the international Marxist-Leninist study groups organized by Shippe, Rosenberg, Smedley, Hatem, and Alley “focused more on major events that occurred across the world and in China. For example, the rise of fascism, Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-communist encirclement and suppression, the revolutionary struggle of the Chinese people under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, etc.”.

As Alley recalled, Shippe once emphasized in the group the need to test the effectiveness of theoretical study through revolutionary actions. “Learning is good, but it is useless without application. We should find ways to engage in revolution.”

Hatem particularly mentioned that, thanks to the efforts of Soong Ching Ling and Alley, the group learned by combining theory with practice. He said: “Comrade Soong Ching Ling is very concerned about our political growth. It was thanks to her care and arrangement that read Marxist-Leninist works like the Communist Manifesto, Capital, and Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Such study shows me that the root cause of income inequality lies in the social system also learned to observe and understand the world with Marxist-Leninist positions, viewpoints and methods.

“Comrade Soong Ching Ling allowed us to conduct social surveys to help us understand the living conditions of the working class in Shanghai. With the help of Rewi Alley, I went to more than 20 factories to investigate occupational diseases and malnutrition in the name of research, and wrote an academic report: Chromium Poisoning in the Electroplating Industry. In the report, I exposed serious social problems such as the cruel exploitation of child labor and occupational poisoning. After reading this report, Comrade Soong Ching Ling was very satisfied with my work and gave me great encouragement. Through investigation and interview, I saw the miserable life of the working class in China, which stunned me and led to my determination to sympathize with and support the Chinese revolution.”


The group’s composition was loose, and even the boundaries of the group were fuzzy, which can be seen in the complex identities of the group members. According to an interview with Ruth Weiss by Anne-Marie Brady in September 1997, the participants in the study group were only Hatem, Weiss, Shippe, and Rosenberg, while Alley’s memories and Maud Russell’s diary mentioned a similar list of members but belonging to another political discussion group. However, the members of the Marxist-Leninist study group and the political discussion group are all related to Soong Ching Ling.

It is generally believed that the study group started in 1934, or 1933 according to some sources. Opinions about the termination of the study group also vary. Some say the group was more active in 1934 and 1935, and dissolved after the spring of 1936, when Smedley and Snow left Shanghai one after the other. Others say that the group still existed until at least 1939, but with different members led by Shippe, who often talked during studies about his experience in the New Fourth Army area.

It is indisputable that the members of the study group increased their awareness under mutual influence and successively embarked upon the revolutionary cause. For example, Hatem realized that the solution to China’s social problems was to change the semifeudal and semi-colonial social system.

As he said, “I participated in the Marxist study group led by him (Alley) and read many classic Marxist works. My understanding has greatly improved.” Ruth Weiss also said, “That I learned about the thoughts of Marx and Engels not in my German-speaking hometown but in the Far East, is extraordinary yet gratifying. One will encounter many such unusual things in his or her life.”

Because the members came and left, the group acted as an important “circle,” prompting some foreign members to directly contribute to the revolution in China. For example, Herbert Wunsch met Liu Ding and established a transportation station in Xi’an; Jakob Rosenfeld met Shen Qizhen and participated in the New Fourth Army in northern Jiangsu. George Hatem, Wang Anna, and Talitha Gerlach joined the China Defense League initiated and established by Soong Ching Ling, thereby facilitating national salvation against the Japanese.

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