Deng Yingchao (1903–1992)

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Deng Yingchao (1903–1992)

Most prominent leader of the Chinese women's movement, who was also the revolutionary comrade and wife of Premier Zhou Enlai. Name variations: Deng Yinzhao or Deng Yin-Zhao; Deng Wenxu; Teng Yingchao; Teng Ying-ch'ao; Teng Ying-chao. Pronunciation: Ying (rhymes with ring) Chao (rhymes with now). Born Deng Wenxu in 1903 (some sources say 1904) in the northcentral Chinese province of Henan (Honan); daughter of an officer in the imperial army under the late Qing Dynasty and a mother who became a schoolteacher; education was typical of Chinese students of the time in Beijing and Tianjin; married Zhou Enlai (Chou Enlai), later premier of Communist China, in 1925; children: none of her own, but did adopt.

Joined the radical students' movement, in particular "The Awakening Society" and met Zhou Enlai (1919); joined the Socialist Youth League (1924); became member of the new Chinese Communist Party and leader in the women's movement (1925); one of the few women to survive the epochal Long March, the formative event in Chinese Communist history (1934–35); worked in liaison groups between CCP and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) throughout Sino-Japanese War (1937–45); continued to direct the woman's movement and held many important offices following the success of the revolution (1949); assisted in drafting the Marriage Reform Law of 1950 (1950); gave last major policy speech, before the Eighth Party Congress (1956); perhaps the most honored woman in the People's Republic of China up to the time of her death.

Deng Yingchao was born in the closing years of the traditional Chinese Confucian society. Like many women of good family at that time, she became a supporter of women's rights and joined radical student groups in their efforts to overthrow the moribund Qing dynasty that had controlled the Chinese throne since the 17th century. As a member of the student movement, she met another young radical, Zhou Enlai. Through their marriage and their work for the Communist Party, the two became, in the words of historians Donald Klein and Anne Clark , "probably the most redoubtable couple in the history of the Chinese Communist movement." After Zhou became premier of China, and over the many decades that he remained the close ally of Mao Zedong, Deng Yingchao carried on her own role as a major leader of the Chinese women's movement. Although modest and unassuming throughout her career, the power of her position was evident as a member of the ruling Central Committee from 1956.

Born Deng Wenxu in 1903, in Henan (Honan) province, Deng Yingchao was the daughter of an army officer in the Chinese imperial army and, some sources say, an unsuccessful landlord. The family's economic status was probably marginal during his life, and, at his death, her mother became a schoolteacher to support them. Little is known about Deng's mother, but she was of the same generation as Yu Manzhen , mother of the later female literary and revolutionary figure, Ding Ling (1904–1985). The two mothers probably shared the aspirations of many in their generation, who wanted a modern education and a more egalitarian life for their daughters than they had themselves known.

Toward the mid-19th century, Confucian institutions and values had guided China for more than a thousand years. Confucianism prized a hierarchical social system, based above all on a respect for authority, which had produced a rigid society that provided for great stability and cultural continuity until it was forced to meet the many and deeply threatening challenges of the modern world. Then China found its sovereignty threatened by the Western powers, principally Great Britain, which gradually gained control over increasing chunks of Chinese territory. Germany, Japan, and France were also nibbling away at its lands and its resources.

Culturally, Chinese had long felt themselves to be at the very center of the world, the cynosure of civilization. But by the time Deng Yingchao was born, it was apparent to most Chinese people that their country was politically weak and extremely backward in a number of ways. One index of its backwardness, felt by many, was the relatively low status attributed to Chinese women. In the great works of Western fiction that became available in translation, Chinese women discovered striking contrasts between themselves and Western women, who were often presented as actively engaged in political and social reform.

Qiao Hong (1968—)

Chinese table tennis champion. Born on November 21, 1968.

In 1989, at the 40th World Table Tennis championships, Qiao Hong walked away with titles in both women's singles and doubles. At Barcelona in 1992, she took an Olympic silver medal in table tennis singles and a gold medal in doubles.

Resolved that her daughter would be a modern woman, Deng Yingchao's mother sent her to college in Tianjin, which was the port city for Beijing, China's capital and cultural center. In 1919, Deng Yingchao was a student at the Hebei First Woman's Normal School in Tianjin, when the country was convulsed by the May Fourth Movement, named for the date when political events exposed the corruption and weakness of the government that had replaced the traditional Qing government in 1912. When events also revealed that the foreign powers, particularly Japan, intended to continue their aggression in China, people throughout China, particularly the students in the large cities, rose up in response and began to organize and agitate for real reform. Out of this ferment, modern China, and many of its leaders, grew.

Deng Yingchao, the wife of Zhou Enlai, is among the most important women in the history of the Chinese Communist Movement. Like most women CCP leaders, her political prominence is largely of her own making, rather than the reflection of her marriage to one of Communist China's greatest leaders.

—Donald W. Klein and Anne B. Clark

Deng Yingchao was active at first in helping to found radical organizations at her school. Like others, she saw that the key to success was to organize beyond the small circles of students and incite Chinese in general to join the reform movement, and her efforts expanded in Tianjin. In her words, as related by Chow Tse-tsung, the critical factor was "to awaken our fellow citizens." Deng Yingchao's special task was organizing speaker's groups to work among Chinese women. It was in the course of a street demonstration that Deng Yingchao met her future husband Zhou Enlai. In September 1919, they began working together in the "Awakening Society," a radical group. She edited a succession of papers and magazines that quickly came and went, suppressed by the military despots dominating the governments in Beijing. Like many students, Zhou and Deng were repeatedly imprisoned for brief periods.

An earlier generation of Chinese youth had been mobilized to desperate and ill-organized acts of violence in hopes that enough disorder would sweep away the Chinese government and with it China's problems. One representative of that group was Qiu Jin (1875–1907), whose heroic martyrdom continued to inspire Chinese women but provided no useful model. The problem addressed by Deng's generation was how to create a revolution. Then, in 1917, occurred the event that was to catch the eyes of the world: The Russian Bolshevik revolution.

Most Chinese thought of Russia as an Asian nation, because so much of it lay in the East. Before its overthrow, the government was also a despotic monarchy, very similar to their own former imperial governments and the more recent warlord regimes. Eagerly studying events in Russia, students like Deng and Zhou learned the importance of organizing a vanguard political party led by dedicated professional revolutionaries. In addition to serving as a model and inspiration, the new radical Soviet Union was also interested in fomenting revolution worldwide. The Soviet government wanted to distract its Western enemies who were weak and vulnerable in Asia. Soviet leaders also believed that all the world would inevitably become Communist.

After 1919, the Chinese activists saw the Soviet example as more and more alluring. In 1920, Zhou left for France to work and study, while Deng Yingchao remained in the Beijing area to work and organize. In 1924, she joined the Socialist Youth League, a precursor to the Communist Party. In 1925, as a member of the new Chinese Communist Party, she became the head of party activities among women in the Beijing-Tianjin region, the political center of China. Following the return of Zhou Enlai to China, they married late that year, in Canton.

After Beijing and Shanghai, Canton became the third center of Communist Party activity. Located in the south, it was important for reaching the peasantry in China's great southern hinterland. Because the Communists were in alliance with the Chinese Nationalist Party, known as the Guomindang (or Kuomintang [KMT]), they could work fairly openly, but the alliance was an uneasy one and doomed to a violent end. The Guomindang, led by a military leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was chiefly interested only in political reform, seeking a strong central government freed of the many local warlord regimes. The Communists believed that nothing less than a thorough social and cultural revolution would fit China for the modern world. While they worked together, the Guomindang provided the military muscle, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supplied the mass organizations such as the Peasant movement, increasingly dominated by Mao Zedong, and the women's movement, led by Deng Yingchao. Deng held high office in both the CCP and the Guomindang. After it was apparent that the Guomindang military arm would indeed conquer the warlord regimes and unite China, Chiang Kaishek turned upon the Communists. The rift began in the summer of 1927, with a bloody massacre in Shanghai, which drove Communists everywhere underground.

Because the CCP was at that time controlled by its Soviet advisors, who wished above all to see a victory in China that would confirm the Russian model of revolution, little bands of workers and peasants controlled by the Communists were wasted in fruitless attacks on urban centers. But in the countryside, Mao Zedong and his ally Zhou Enlai were by then working toward a peasant-based rural revolution. Mao and others established a revolutionary base in the remote south, where Deng Yingchao arrived about mid-1932. There, she continued to be active in the women's movement.

In 1934, Chiang's troops broke Communist defenses and the survivors fled north for thousands of miles, in what became known as the Long March, to join another base area at Yenan. This terrible ordeal involved hundreds of small and large battles, great hardships, and thousands of casualties. Deng became one of the few women to complete the march, although she contracted tuberculosis along the way and often had to be carried on a stretcher. Out of this ordeal emerged the core party leadership, principally Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

In 1937, the Japanese occupied Beijing, during the Sino-Japanese War, which was to last until 1945. That year, Deng Yingchao was in Beijing, seeking treatment for her tuberculosis. In fear of Japanese arrest, she contacted the American writer Edgar Snow, whom she knew from Yenan. In his work The Battle for Asia, Snow says that Deng "possessed one of the most astute political brains" he had "encountered among Chinese women." Snow's wife Nym Wales (Helen Foster Snow ) noted the ordinariness of her looks, referring to her as "a competent-looking matronly woman," then in her mid-30s.

The Sino-Japanese war, which became part of the Pacific Theater of World War II after 1941, brought the Guomindang and the CCP back into uneasy alliance. Deng Yingchao worked in liaison groups, spending much time at the Chinese wartime capital in Chongqing (Chungking). After the Japanese defeat in 1945, the frequently violent partnership of the Guomindang and the CCP continued until civil war broke out again the following year.

The combination of its own corruption, the Japanese invasion, and CCP success at mobilizing mass movements of peasants and women under the banners of nationalism and reform proved too much for the Guomindang. In 1949, after losing a renewed civil war, its leadership fled to Taiwan. Mao was now chair of the CCP, Zhou Enlai was head of the state apparatus as China's new premier, and Deng Yingchao was one of the primary leaders of the women's movement.

In early 1959, Deng Yingchao assisted in the drafting of the most significant document to affect Chinese women since the original works of Confucius and later Neo-Confucian commentators had established the gender-biased balance of power against women in traditional China. After several millennia of dreadful oppression, the Marriage Reform Law of 1950 gave Chinese women equal rights. Chinese women could now at least seek legal redress for many of the injustices they continued to suffer, even after the Communist victory. Although the system had changed, the old values lingered, and in some regards still survive.

The recent past has revealed many weaknesses of the Communist system, in China and elsewhere. But for Deng Yingchao and other modern Chinese women, the Chinese Communist Party that they helped shape and lead was the beginning of the effort to redress the ancient gender inequality of Chinese society. Deng Yingchao continued to hold many important offices, including a membership on the governing Central Committee of the CCP from 1956. Although her address to the Eighth Party Congress that year was her last major policy speech, she served in many public and ceremonial posts after that time. Until her death in 1992, at the age of 88, she remained the most honored female political leader in China.


Boorman, Howard L., ed. "Teng Ying-ch'ao," in Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. Vol. III. NY: Columbia University Press, 1970, pp. 264–265,

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

Klein, Donald W. and Anne B. Clark, eds. "Teng Yingch'ao," in Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Communism 1921–1965. Vol II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 838–843.

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

Wales, Nym. Inside Red China. NY: 1939.

"Widow of Late Premier Dies at 88," in The Beijing Review. July 20–26, 1992, p. 7.

suggested reading:

Hu Hsing-fen. Mrs Li Zhifan: A Memoir about Deng Yingchao. Edited by Israel Epstein and translated by Li Chaotseng and Deng Guangyin. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 1987.

Salisbury, Harrison. The Long March. NY: McGraw, 1987.

Snow, Edgar. "Red China's Gentle Hatchet Man," in The Saturday Evening Post. March 27, 1954.

——. Red Star Over China. NY: Bantam, 1978.

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