Charming. Above all, charming. I never thought I would write those words about a member of the Communist Party of China who, in the CPC’s traumatic early years when he was not yet twenty, associated with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Madame Sun Yatsen, Zhu De, and other historic leaders. Set during 1926-1927, this is Zhu Qihua’s diary of his time as a mid-level Party propaganda official. The Party was about to lose its links with Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (GMD). After a brief honeymoon period with Chiang, when the senior Party leaders imagined they would march north to rid Peking of its warlord rulers and bring all of China under revolutionary rule, the Communists were forced to flee from the GMD. Mao escaped into the mountains and eventually onto the Long March; others, including Zhou Enlai—and Zhu Qihua—made a headlong flight on foot from bandits and Chiang’s soldiers, during which many of them were killed. Zhu, wounded and helpless, and robbed of a small fortune in Party funds by some gangsterly opponents, managed to get to Hong Kong and then safety in Shanghai. It is sad to read that in 1945 he was executed in one of China’s mindless bloody episodes.
China in 1927 is elegantly translated by the incomparable Zhu (no relation) Hong. What makes it memorable is Zhu Qihua himself. Although very young, he has important responsibilities in many of the events he records: writing propaganda leaflets, haranguing large audiences and sometimes bemused peasants, and eventually caring for the wounded as the victorious march north turns into a flight under fire. He is usually armed, and every now and again feels like shooting some cowardly or corrupt colleague, but I don’t think he ever fires a shot in these pages, confining himself to the occasional insult.
But don’t read this book for important information or analysis. The great men and famous events are, for the most part, peripheral to the narrative.
No, what really grips Zhu, in ascending order, are scenery, food, and pretty girls.
Everywhere he goes, even in desperate times, he notices the landscape, flowers, and interesting buildings. As he works near, though rarely with, those in supreme power who, as today, are very nice to themselves, he gets plenty to eat, records what it is, and comments on its quality. In all but the most desperate days, Enlai, as Zhu calls him, and his colleagues, manage to eat shark’s fin. But it is girls that really transfix him, even in headlong retreat. He admires them from afar and up close, and while he never touches any (despite steamy fantasies), he seems to be attractive to them as he hopefully chats them up. A mysterious unnamed woman in Canton flits in and out of the narrative, sends him money, longs to see him again, and even tries to track him down to Hong Kong. Around him the leaders and young cadres help themselves to girls and women. Zhu, totally ignorant of what they are doing, tries to spy on them, and makes clear that he thinks revolutionary sex is great.
There are scenes worthy of an old-fashioned black-and-white movie. A pretty young comrade—one of the many in this account who defy their traditional families to join the revolution—is shot dead during the retreat, Zhu gathers her in his arms, and carries her to a house where he leaves her with a note entreating anyone who finds her body to give her a good burial. One day, as he sits penniless in a Shanghai park, a married woman he slightly knows spots him. He is eighteen, she somewhat older. She leans against him. They go to an expensive restaurant, where he eats one of those meals he loves, and after a night of passion—his very first, I believe—she departs, leaving him with a generous tip.
I felt sad when Zhu ended this memoir on his twentieth birthday with these words: “Twenty years of my life have passed, and what achievements do I have to show for those years? I am buried in shame.”  Well, well. On that same day he sends a poem to the mysterious “young lady in Canton.” It ends with “I am ready to meet you with my valor intact.”
I loved this book and I congratulate all those at Doug Merwin, the publisher; thanks for helping bring it to life.
China 1927: Memoir of a Debacle
Translated by Zhu Hong
MerwinAsia (Distributed by the University of Hawaii Press)
Paperback: 323 pages, $35
Jonathan Mirsky is a historian and journalist specializing in Chinese affairs. In 1990, he was named British International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China. Until 1998, he was the East Asia editor of The Times of London.