Cai Chang (1900–1990)

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Cai Chang (1900–1990)

One of the first female members of the Chinese Communist Party, who rose to hold its most important post in the women's movement: chair of the National Women's Federation. Name variations: Ts'ai Ch'ang, or incorrectly Tsai Chang. Pronunciation: Cai (rhymes with sigh). Born Cai Chang in Hunan province, China, in 1900; died on September 11, 1990, in Beijing at age 90; daughter of mother Ge Jianhao (Ke chien-hao); both parents were modern in their outlook and encouraged Cai and her equally famous brother, Cai Hesen (1890–1931), to secure a modern education; sister-in-law of Xiang Jingyü (1895–1928); married Li Fuqun (the economist and revolutionary), in 1923; children: one daughter.

Cai Chang was born in the early 20th century, at a time when traditional, Confucian China was rapidly fading away but a new, modern China had yet to be born. Cai, like many of her contemporaries, came to believe that the Communist Party would be the best instrument with which to achieve progress in her homeland, particularly progress for China's long-downtrodden women. China was to be torn between two competing political parties, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (usually known from the abbreviation of its Chinese name as the Guomindang or Kuomintang). These two parties competed with each other for more than 50 years. The struggle between the CCP and the Guomindang was frequently bloody. Cai Chang's brother and her noted sister-in-law, the Communist female leader Xiang Jingyü (1895–1928), died in the struggle. Cai survived, despite almost constant exposure to the dangers of assassination or execution, and rose through the ranks of the women's movement to become China's most important female political leader.

Cai Chang was born in Hunan province in 1900. Others born in the province around that time included Xiang Jingyü, Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, and noted female writer and political leader Ding Ling (1904–1985). Like many of the young women who were attracted to Communism, Cai Chang had a progressive father. More important, her mother Ge Jianhao was determined to see Cai gain a modern education. In the old Confucian society, women were rarely schooled. Although Cai was not able to begin her formal learning until the age of 11, due to the poor circumstances of her family, her mother saw to it that she was able to attend a modern school for girls, the Zhou Nan Girls' Normal School in Changsha, the provincial capital. Scholar and journalist Nym Wales (Helen Foster Snow ), who studied the lives of many revolutionary Chinese women, termed it "the cradle of the Chinese Communist women's movement."

The Dean of Chinese Communist women was Cai Chang, petite and gentle, but nevertheless a "professional Revolutionary."

—Nym Wales

While at Zhou Nan, Cai Chang met many other radical Chinese women, including Xiang Jingyü, who was to be her inspiration. Cai Chang's older brother, Cai Hesen, was a fiery radical, as was his friend, Mao Zedong. As Changsha was the most modern city in Hunan and contained the best modern schools, progressive youth congregated there in great numbers. Ge Jianhao moved to Changsha after the death of Cai Chang's father. There, her home became a sort of radical salon where many of the future leaders of China met to argue and discuss their country's many problems.

The central challenge facing China at the time that Cai Chang graduated, about 1918, was what sort of government was to replace the Chinese monarchy, which had collapsed in 1911–12. China had gone through a brief period of Republican government led by Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), but the country lacked a foundation of custom and practice in democratic government, and it was soon in the grips of regional military strongmen, known as "warlords."

Radical youth like Cai Chang and her friends read widely from translated works of Western literature, including books on government and political theory, as well as novels and plays. They believed that whatever replaced Confucianism as the animating value system of China, it would probably come from the West, which seemed to them to be the source of modernity itself. At the same time, they were angry and frustrated with the Western nations that had long been taking advantage of China's economic and political weakness. As a result, they were as much attracted to radical critiques of Western nations as to the West itself.

After graduation, Cai Chang worked briefly at Zhou Nan as an instructor of physical education. To engage in serious and extended physical activity, let alone systematic physical training, was very unusual for Chinese women. In the old society, the ideal woman had been a cloistered beauty, often pictured in novels as suffering from some debilitating disease or lingering illness. Although Cai Chang was physically small, she was an active and confident young woman. It may have been at this time that she built the rugged constitution that was to enable her to endure great hardship later in life.

The First World War created a need for vast numbers of unskilled laborers in Europe. At war's end, France took the lead in inviting Asian youth to come to Europe on work-study programs. In 1919, a large group of Hunanese scholars left for France, organized by Cai's brother Cai Hesen, and their mutual friend, Mao Zedong. In France, Cai Hesen soon became the leader of the increasingly radical community of Chinese young people; he also married Cai Chang's friend and classmate, Xiang Jingyü. Now their apartment became the center of the radical youth. While attending the Collège de Montargis, south of Paris, Cai Chang met and, in 1923, married Li Fuqun, another radical Chinese student from Hunan.

While in France, the Chinese students were well-placed to closely study the preeminent event then occurring in the world: the Russian Revolution. Because Russia seemed to them to be a backward agrarian and monarchical state much like their own traditional China, the students were particularly drawn to the Bolshevik revolution as a possible model for their own liberation. They soon founded a Socialist Youth League, then, in 1923, in China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao was a founding member of the CCP, and many of the students in France soon joined as well. Also like other students, Cai Chang and her husband Li Fuqun went from France to the Soviet Union in 1924 where they attended a special school for Asian revolutionaries, the University of the Toilers of the East. Cai Chang remained there until the spring of 1925.

The Chinese Communist Party was only one of several groups competing for the support of Chinese people who wanted political reform and modernization. The most important one at that time was the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang). The Guomindang, like the CCP, had substantial Soviet aid and modelled itself in many important regards upon the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Soviets, desiring to see a strong nationalist China, which might cause difficulty for the Western powers in their Asian colonies, forced the CCP and the Guomindang into an alliance for the purpose of a joint movement that would seize China from the warlords by military and political action. In this alliance, the Guomindang became the main military force, while the CCP took charge of organizing workers, peasants, and women to support the revolution. While this was a dynamic combination that the warlords could not hope to long stand against, it was an alliance doomed from the beginning. While the CCP and the Guomindang easily agreed on the need for revolution, the Guomindang envisioned only a political revolution that would see it at the head of a strong national government. But the idealists and radicals of the CCP wanted a complete social revolution that would create a modern, egalitarian and Chinese Communist society.

Because the CCP was inclined by its revolutionary doctrines to seek support from Chinese women, radical women such as Cai Chang were naturally drawn to it. The party, in turn, eagerly employed them in working among such groups of women as industrial workers and radical students. Cai Chang came to specialize in working among such women and rose quickly through the party ranks. The Guomindang, for its part, largely neglected such social issues as "the woman question" but rather relied upon its erstwhile ally, the CCP, for organizational work among women.

Like many Communists, Cai Chang held joint membership in both the Guomindang and the CCP and served in many posts for both parties. She was a propagandist for the Guomindang and headed a CCP women's bureau in south China. When the Northern Expedition, a joint CCP-Guomindang offensive, was launched in 1926, Cai Chang accompanied the armies into Wuhan, the first important city to be taken from the warlords. Seeing that victory was near, the two allies fell to plotting against each other. Chiang Kai-shek, the Guomindang military leader, seized the initiative by organizing a great massacre of radicals in Shanghai in 1927. All over China radical youth and workers and peasant organizers were rounded up and executed. In some cities, young women were shot as suspected Communists simply for having cut their hair short in the modern fashion. Cai Chang's girl-hood friend Xiang Jingyü, then the leader of the CCP women's movement, was executed in 1928, and Cai's beloved older brother, Cai Hesen, in 1931. Other members of her immediate family and many friends also died in the series of purges. This gave the survivors a steely resolve, which saw them through decades of hardship and constant danger.

In 1934–35, the CCP was driven out of the south of China by Chiang Kai-shek and under-took the fabled "Long March" to a secure northern base area at Yenan. Along with Mao's wife He Zizhen , Cai Chang was one of the very few women who participated in the Long March. It was a terrible ordeal. The troops were under almost constant attack from the Guomindang, warlords, and hostile minorities. They marched more than 6,000 miles through great swamps and over frozen mountains—some of the most difficult terrain in the world—under all weather conditions. This was the formative experience of the CCP. Throughout their lives, the veterans of the Long March were to be united by their common participation in the event, during which more than 100,000 of their comrades died; some figures suggest that only about 10% of those who began the march finished it. On the Long March, Mao Zedong gained full control over the CCP, and at the Yenan base Cai Chang became the leader of its important women's movement.

The political situation at the time was extremely complicated, particularly after the Japanese invasion of China, which soon became a theater of World War II. Cai Chang worked tirelessly. In 1938, American journalist Nym Wales interviewed Cai and had extensive conversations with her in French. Wales wrote that while Cai Chang had been beautiful at one time, her suffering, particularly the deaths of so many of her loved ones, had marked her face with "lines of sad experience." Wales found her to be gentle, "almost spiritual," but also a woman of "individual character and great determination." One of the few personal possessions that Cai Chang had carried throughout the hardships of the Long March was a tattered photograph of her mother Ge Jianhao. During the war, Cai Chang continued to rise in the leadership of the party. She had been an associate member of the leadership group of the CCP, the Central Committee, since 1928. In 1945, Cai Chang became the only full female member of the Central Committee.

After the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Guomindang and the CCP went through another brief period of uneasy truces marked with military clashes. In 1946, the civil war began in earnest. The CCP strategy of relying upon mass organizations rather than solely upon military power proved to be a wise choice. The Guomindang was quickly revealed to have been vitiated by factionalism and corruption; its sudden military collapse astonished foreign observers. The disciplined mass armies of the CCP were victorious by October of 1949, when the founding of the People's Republic of China was declared. Cai Chang and her female comrade-in-arms, Deng Yingzhao (1903–1992), were present at the events. Deng Yingzhao, while herself an amazing woman, shared in part the high status of her husband, the new premier of China, Zhou Enlai. As Mao Zedong's closest confidant for many years, Zhou's position in the new China was second only to Mao. But Cai Chang had won her place in the revolutionary pantheon through her own life of arduous work.

For many Chinese women, particularly for Cai Chang, the signal event of the revolution was probably the creation of the All-China Women's Federation in 1949. The federation became the representative of Chinese women in the political process and took the lead in working to solve women's problems. As its first chair, Cai Chang served her country and her political party in many offices, both honorary and substantive, until growing less active through the 1960s. She was a member of the Central Committee from 1928 to 1982. Although still active and politically involved, Cai Chang's long career as a revolutionary had left her in increasingly frail health. Probably because of her relative retirement, and because of her great standing with the veterans of the Long March, including her childhood friend Mao Zedong, Cai Chang escaped the sort of political persecution that others suffered. On September 11, 1990, Cai Chang died in Beijing at the age of 90.


Boorman, Howard L., ed. "Ts'ai Ch'ang," in Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. Vol. III. NY: Columbia University Press, 1970, pp. 282–283.

Klein, Donald W., and Anne B. Clark, eds. "Ts'ai Ch'ang," in Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Communism 1921–1965. Vol. II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 847–851.

Wales, Nym. Inside Red China. NY: 1939 (reprinted NY: Da Capo Press, 1977).

suggested reading:

Brandt, Conrad. The French-Returned Elite of the Chinese Communist Party. Reprint no. 13. Institute of International Studies, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1961.

Chow Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Snow, Edgar. The Battle for Asia. NY: 1941.

Jeffrey G. Barlow , Professor in the Department of Social Studies, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon