Zhang Tailei: ‘Thunderstorm’ of China’s revolution

In this paper, presented at the Fifteenth Forum of the World Association for Political Economy (WAPE), held 18-19 December 2021 at the Shanghai International Studies University and online, John Riddell introduces the life of an early pioneer and martyr of the Chinese revolution, honoured in his own country, but who deserves to be better known internationally. John, a lifelong socialist activist, is the founding editor of the Comintern Publishing Project and probably the foremost contemporary scholar of the early Communist International (Comintern) working in the English language. He has translated and edited numerous volumes of Comintern proceedings. We are grateful to him for making his paper available to us.

To understand the rise of China, it is helpful to get acquainted with the life and work of lesser-known figures who contributed to the liberation struggle. Such an activist is Zhang Tailei (1898–1927), whom I learned of while translating the proceedings of a global Communist congress held in 1921.[1] Little documentation on Zhang is available in the West. This brief sketch aims to highlight his main achievements; I hope it may help lead us to an account based on fuller access to Chinese sources.

Among the early leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Zhang Tailei was one of the first to propose unity in action of diverse political forces to defend China against aggression by the imperialist powers. Zhang was a respected leader not only of his party but also of a world revolutionary association, the Communist International.[2]

Zhang particularly stressed the need in China for unity in action against the looming threat of Japanese invasion. He thus foresaw the course actually taken by the Communist Party in the 1930s while resisting Japan’s imperialist war against China. Zhang is honoured today in China as a hero of its liberation struggle. He deserves to be better known among Marxists and defenders of freedom around the world.

Born Zhang Zengrang in 1898 to a poor family in Jiangsu province north of Shanghai, Zhang managed to complete middle school and was admitted to the law school of Tianjin Beiyang University in 1917.

May Fourth Movement

In 1919 Zhang joined the May Fourth Movement, a progressive anti-imperialist and cultural organization. Zhang took part in widespread student and popular protests against the Versailles Treaty of 1919, denouncing the treaty’s approval of Japan’s colonialist seizure of Chinese territory. That same year Zhang organized a student action group, whose initiatives led to his expulsion from university.[3]

In 1920, Zhang moved to Beijing, where he joined a newly formed Communist group. There he made contact with the trade union movement and set up a training school for railway unionists. Early in 1921, he organized a local socialist youth league.

Mission to Moscow

In March 1921, Zhang travelled to Moscow in Soviet Russia, where he became director of the China department in the Communist International’s Far Eastern Secretariat. When the International’s Third World Congress convened in Moscow in June 1921, Zhang became the first delegate sent from China to take part in one of the International’s global congresses.

To be sure, Chinese delegates had been present at three earlier Communist International gatherings: the first two world congresses and the Baku Congress of 1920. However, these delegates had represented Chinese workers living in Soviet Russia, of whom about 50,000 had served in the Soviet Red Army. When Zhang left for Moscow, the rail route through Eastern Siberia was still blocked by the Japanese army. To reach the congress site in Moscow, Zhang probably undertook the difficult sea voyage to Europe, arriving in Moscow only after a journey of several weeks.

The Third Congress records list him as Zhang Tailei, the name by which he is known in Chinese history. Tailei, in the Chinese language, suggests “downpour” or “rainstorm.” Zhang’s chosen name served as an apt metaphor for both his personal outlook and for the mission of the Chinese Communist movement as a whole.

In contrast to the first three Communist International world gatherings, the Third World Congress allocated very little time to discussion of colonial liberation struggles in Asia and Africa. A brief discussion on this topic was squeezed into the congress’s twentieth and final day. An influential delegate from India, M.N. Roy, speaking immediately before Zhang, denounced the way this debate was scheduled as a “purely opportunistic” outcome.[4]

Speech to Communist International Congress

Communist International congress proceedings were conducted mainly in German; translation was organized into Russian, French, and English. Presentation of summaries in Chinese required a second translation – a difficult and inadequate procedure. However, Zhang’s selection to deliver a speech was a great honour to him. Tall and commanding in appearance, Zhang Tailei was introduced to the hundreds of delegates from the congress platform. Although the only speaker from China, Zhang received no special consideration; he was allocated only the regulation five minutes. Judging from the stenographic record, he spoke for exactly that length of time.

The still unknown Chinese delegate, only twenty-three years old, apologized that he did not have time to describe the Communist movement in his country. He then presented the imposing revolutionary gathering with a sober assessment of the colonialist threat in the Far East. Drawing attention to the peril posed by Japanese imperialism’s advancing encroachmentss in China, Zhang stressed the pressing danger this posed to the world proletariat as a whole.

“The Chinese proletariat and other revolutionary forces in China can be of great assistance to you,” Zhang said, “if only you will pay more attention to China’s development. We need to lead these forces along the correct path and not leave them to anarchism and reformism…. For us, this is precisely the time to work for communism…. We must bring this nascent movement under our red banner.”

Zhang referred proudly to the fighting prowess that Chinese proletarians had demonstrated in defending Soviet Russia against imperialist invasion and Russian counterrevolutionaries. Zhang also noted that Chinese migrant workers had been conscripted during the First World War into imperialist armies, where they served as front-line labourers.

Zhang declared that it was up to the world Communist movement to ensure that “the rich natural and human resources of China” were enlisted to serve “with the proletariat against capitalism.”

The World Congress elected Zhang as a member of the Communist International’s Executive Committee. In addition, the Communist Youth International named him to its global Executive Committee.

In October 1921, Zhang carried out a mission to Japan to help Communists there coordinate joint resistance to imperialism. His visit helped prepare the Congress of Toilers of the Far East that took place in Moscow the following year.[5] Zhang’s assignment in Moscow continued until the spring of 2021, when he returned to China.

Anti-Imperialist Unity

During Zhang’s stay in Moscow, the Communist International adopted a global policy of building a united movement of resistance to capitalist attacks – a “united front.”[6] One historian tells us that Zhang – through direct discussions with the Russian Communist leaders – was “the first Chinese Bolshevik who grasped the meaning of the Communist International’s united front policy.” He was also among the first who drew close attention to the peasant question in China.[7]

Later in 1921, Zhang was elected general secretary of the socialist youth leagues in China, which were aligned with the Communist movement.

In July 1922, the Communist Party of China resolved to seek a united front with the Kuomintang, China’s major bourgeois-led nationalist organization, while maintaining and continuing to build their own Communist movement.[8]

During 1925-27, the Chinese people rose up in struggle against warlordism and reaction. In 1927, the “Northern Expedition” of Kuomintang forces advanced through southern and central China, while allied Communist forces led an insurrection in Shanghai.

In April 1927, however, Kuomintang leaders organized a murderous assault on Communist and other progressive forces in Shanghai, which claimed thousands of victims. According to Chinese scholars Cheng Enfu and Jun Yang, the Communist International was partly to blame for this defeat:

Privileging the [Kuomintang] as the leading force of the revolution compromised the [Communist Party’s] independence, and it lost opportunities to take resolute actions and countermeasures.[9]

As the Communist Party struggled to recover from this assault, it named Zhang as one of five standing members of its Central Provisional Political Bureau. Zhang was assigned to work in the southern port of Guangzhou as head of its Guangdong provincial party committee.

Uprising in Guangzhou

Seeking to recover from the Shanghai setback, Communist forces in Guangzhou began preparing an armed insurrection, planned for the month of December. It is not clear exactly how the Communists in Guangzhou received the order for this action. However, according to Cheng Enfu and Jun Yang, the Communist International encouraged an “adventurist” policy. An emissary of the International, Heinz Neumann, was present in Guangzhou to help plan the uprising.

Zhang Tailei was the Guangzhou uprising’s central organizer. On December 11, 1927, the Communist-led forces rose in rebellion. The following day rightist forces counterattacked. The uprising was quickly crushed. Zhang Tailei, making his way by car to the front lines, was ambushed and killed.

Today, Zhang Tailei is honoured in China as a hero of the Chinese revolution. His contribution is featured at a memorial institute in his birthplace, Changzhou. Huang Mingyan, a research librarian at this institute, provides a fitting conclusion to this brief study:

Dedicated to the cause of China’s revolution, possessed of outstanding talents, and high enthusiasm, Zhang Tailei demonstrated his firm ideals and beliefs and the power of communist ideals.[10]


[1]. John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Leiden, Brill, 2015, p. 856–7.

[2]. Outline biographies of Zhang Tailei are available on Wikipedia in English, Chinese, Japanese, and German.

[3]. See Japanese Wikipedia article on Zhang Tailei.

[4]. Riddell, To the Masses, p. 855–6.

[5]. See Japanese Wikipedia article on Zhang Tailei and John Sexton, ed., Alliance of Adversaries: The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019.

[6]. See Riddell, “The Comintern and Asia.”

[7]. Pantsov A. (2019). “Zhang Tailei and Dissemination of Bolshevism in China.” in Problemy Dalnego Vostoka (4), pp.125-144.

[8]. See Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999, p. 31;Pierre Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste 1919–1943, Paris: Fayard, 1997, pp. 425–43.

[9]. Enfu Cheng and Jun Yang, “The Chinese Revolution and the Communist International,” Third World Quarterly, volume 41, 2020.

[10]. See article on Zhang Tailei in Chinese Wikipedia.

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