Kang Keqing (1911–1992)

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Kang Keqing (1911–1992)

Chinese revolutionary veteran who survived the rigors of the Long March, participated in the Communist Revolution, and emerged as an eminent woman leader in the People's Republic of China. Name variations: Kang Ke-ching; K'ang K'o-ching. Pronunciation: KAHNG ke-CHING. Born Kang Guixiu in autumn 1911 (some sources cite 1910 or 1912 but 1911 is documented), in Wanan, Jiangxi, China; died in Beijing, China, on April 22, 1992; daughter of Kang Nianxiao (a fisherman) and Huang Niangu; attended the Red Military Academy at Ruijin, Jiangxi; attended the Kangda (Anti-Japanese Political and Military Academy) at Yanan, Shaanxi; married Zhu De (Chu Teh, a general), in 1929 (died July 6, 1976); children: (stepson) Zhu Qi; (stepdaughter) Zhu Min .

Adopted by peasant Luo Qiqing (1911); served as chair of the Women's Union at Luotangwan, Jiangxi, and was a member of the Communist Youth (1927); joined the Red Army (1928); married General Zhu De (1929); was a member of the Chinese Communist Party (1931); served as commander of the Women Volunteers, Ruijin (1932); participated in the Long March (1934–36); was vice-chair of the Committee for the Protection of Children in the Liberated Areas (1946); was a member of the Preparatory Committee for the Foundation of the Democratic Women's Federation (1948); was a member of the Standing Committee of the Democratic Women's Federation (1949–55); served as secretary of the Democratic Women's Federation (1955); was a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (1949–75); was a deputy for Henan Province to the First National People's Congress (1954) and reelected to the Second NPC (1959); was a vice-chair of the Federation of Women (1957–77); was deputy for Jiangxi to the Third NPC (1965); was a member of the Standing Committee of the Fourth NPC (1975), reelected to the Fifth NPC (1978), reelected to the Sixth NPC (1986); was a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (1975–78); was a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (1977–85); was chair of the Federation of Women (1977–88); was a vice-chair of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (1978–92); was honorary chair of the Federation of Women (1988–92).

On October 16, 1934, the Chinese Communists broke through the Nationalist stranglehold outside Ruijin, Jiangxi, and undertook one of history's longest retreats. Savaged by skirmishes, forbidding terrain, harsh weather, shortage of supplies, and illness, they trekked over 6,000 miles before establishing a foothold in north China by October 1935. Rumors about the "Red-bandits," ranging from Communist brutalities to its dissolution, were then flying around. Not until the visit of Western reporters to the Communist headquarters was the epic march known to the outside world.

Among the first visitors was Edgar Snow, the American journalist. On the heels of his visit came his wife Helen Foster Snow , writing under the pseudonym Nym Wales, who ventured to Yanan, Shaanxi, with an enthusiasm to collect research materials on the Communist struggle. It was evident that the Long March had taken its toll on the Communists. Among other things, Helen Snow noticed that most of the women in the veteran Communist ranks were ill from tuberculosis or the aftereffects of pregnancies. The only exception was the "girl commander" who was in glowing health.

"During the Long March," wrote Helen Snow, "she carried her own rifle and knapsack, and once or twice she carried wounded soldiers on her back.… She had become famous for being one of the best sharpshooters in the whole army, and for having the ability to use a pistol with either hand.… Except for her liking for soldiering, she lacked masculine characteristics and looked like a maternal peasant woman." Agnes Smedley , biographer of General Zhu De, described her as a "grave, disciplined and hardworking veteran." The American writer found in her the "extraordinary independence of the new revolutionary women of China."

The driving force in her life seemed to be to prove … that women are not by nature inferior to men in any field.

—Helen Foster Snow

This strong and energetic woman warrior was Kang Keqing, wife of General Zhu De. As "father" of the Chinese Red Army, the general was proud of his life companion's achievements. Together they made the Long March, fought for the same goal, and celebrated the Communist victory in 1949. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Kang served the party and the government in a different capacity. For several decades, she was one of the important leaders of the Federation of Women in China.

At the time of Kang's birth in Wanan, Jiangxi, in 1911, China was in political turmoil. The 1911 Revolution, which eventually brought down the decadent Manchu regime, opened the way to warlordism. While warlord rivalries plunged the country into a state of anarchy, the revolutionaries continued their struggle in the south.

Kang Keqing was one of the daughters of Kang Nianxiao and Huang Niangu . In order to support his three sons, Kang Nianxiao, a poor fisherman, gave away the daughters to become maids, farmhands, and kitchen slaves. Keqing was adopted by Luo Qiqing, a childless peasant, one month after her birth. As hired laborers, the Luos lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Keqing learned to take care of herself at an early age. Like other poor peasant children, she soon worked in the fields and made strings for sale.

Kang's life took a dramatic turn at the age of 15. By chance, she was drawn into the revolutionary current. In 1926, the Nationalists, having formed a United Front with the Communists, launched the Northern Expedition against the warlords to unify China. Communist cadets were sent to Jiangxi to mobilize the peasants. Luo Qiqing became chair of the village Peasant Union, while Kang joined the Communist Youth and was made captain of the Youth Pioneers. But the tide changed abruptly the next year. In 1927, the Nationalists turned the table and ruth-lessly suppressed the Communists. To evade persecution, Kang and her foster father went into hiding in the mountains. Fortunately, through the help of their neighbors and friends, they were allowed to return to their village.

No sooner had one trouble gone than another appeared. "Although my foster father was a Communist," Kang told Snow, "he still had a feudal mind. He had previously arranged a marriage for me with a shop clerk whom I did not even know, and the marriage was scheduled to take place. I tried to escape, and my foster father locked me in a small room." At that juncture, a detachment of the Red Army passed by the village. Kang escaped from the house in which she was confined and joined the army the next day. She became a member of the Fourth Front Army in 1928. Under the leadership of Zhu De and Mao Zedong, the army formed the core of Communist power in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In 1929, at age 17, Kang married Zhu De who was then 42. It was General Zhu's fourth marriage. His first two marriages had ended in divorce; the third wife Wu Lanying , a radical intellectual, was arrested and executed by the Nationalists in 1929. Kang later confided to Helen Snow that she did not fall in love with Zhu at the first encounter, though she liked him for his personality and integrity. The marriage was built on mutual respect. "Neither of us orders the other around," Kang said. Smedley observed that in terms of social background and character, the couple appeared remarkably well matched.

Shortly after their marriage, the Fourth Front Army evacuated the Jinggangshan base under Nationalist military pressure. In 1930, Mao and Zhu set up a new base at Ruijin in southwest Jiangxi. In mid-1930, Li Lisan, president of the Chinese Communist Party, ordered all the Communist forces to attack the key cities of central China to pave the way for a Communist revolution. When Li Lisan's policy went bankrupt, Mao and Zhu's base emerged as the sole Communist stronghold in China. Between 1930 and 1934, the Nationalists launched four successive campaigns to destroy the Ruijin base, but the Communists successfully thwarted all the Nationalist attempts.

During her first two years in the army, Kang was mainly responsible for organizational and propaganda work. Aware of her handicap as an illiterate, she lost no time in educating herself. Within two years, she was able to read a newspaper. "I had no special teacher, but learned by myself from slogans and the like," she told Snow. Starting from 1930, Kang began to occupy more important positions in the army. She was director of the Youth School for a short while. Afterwards, she headed the Headquarter Guard Regiment. Kang formally joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931 and attended the first Soviet Congress at Ruijin in the same year.

In 1932, Kang was made commander of the Women Volunteers. After six months' training in the Red Military Academy, she was awarded a lectureship in the institution in 1933. Later, she was in charge of field medical services. While she always wore a gun, she never fought in battle. There was, however, one short engagement with Nationalist troops in 1934. When Kang went with a team of Communists to western Jiangxi on a mission, they met an unknown number of Nationalist soldiers by chance. In the confusion, she led the Communists and exchanged fire with their enemies for two hours. Thereafter, she was known as the "girl commander" in the Red Army.

Late in 1934, the Nationalists started the fifth extermination campaign. By the fall of 1935, the situation at Ruijin had reached crisis proportions. That October, the famous Long March began. Mao regained control of the Chinese Communist Party at the meeting of Xunyi, Guizhou, in January 1935. In July, Zhu's army rendezvoused with the forces of Zhang Guotao in Sichuan. After a meeting on plans and goals, the Communist forces split. Zhang Guotao and Zhu De moved westward to Xikang, while Mao Zedong marched north and reached Shaanxi in the fall of 1935. Communist historians often assert that Zhu had been held under duress by Zhang and was thus forcibly separated from Mao. In June 1936, another Communist force from Hunan reached Xikang. After the meeting of the two Communist armies, Zhu and Zhang decided to go north. They rejoined Mao in Shaanxi in October 1936.

Kang Keqing stayed with General Zhu throughout the course of the Long March. She walked with the others and carried all her belongings, sometimes helping those who were weaker. Three years later, she told Snow that it was as easy as taking a stroll every day. According to Kang, the most difficult spot was in northern Sichuan where they found no food and subsisted on a diet of grass, bark, and barley. Despite the difficulties, they marched on and held mass meetings along the way to recruit new members.

In Yanan, Shaanxi, Kang studied at the party school. Later, she enrolled in the Kangda, the Anti-Japanese Political and Military Academy. By this time, the Nationalists and Communists had reached an agreement to form a United Front against the Japanese. The Red Army, which was renamed the Eighth Route Army under the command of General Zhu, coordinated with Nationalist forces in the defense of the northwest.

On July 7, 1937, when the war with Japan broke out, Zhu's army began to conduct frontal as well as guerilla warfare against the Japanese in northern China. Kang at this time served in the Political Department of the Eighth Route Army. As the Sino-Japanese War continued, Chinese Nationalist-Communist differences were exacerbated. Negotiations were held to resolve their differences. In August 1940, General Zhu and Kang represented the Communists to meet with Nationalist generals at Luoyang and Xian, but the effort was futile. Conflicts between the two sides eventually led to the New Fourth Army Incident when Nationalist forces openly attacked the Communists' New Fourth Army in central China in January 1941. By then, the United Front had virtually fallen apart. The civil war resumed after the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945.

Wu Lanying (d. 1929)

Chinese revolutionary. Name variations: Wu Lan-ying. Executed in 1929; became third wife of Zhu De (Chu Teh, a general), in 1928.

All four of Zhu De's wives were involved in reform. In 1912, he married the daughter of a Yunanese reformer. She gave birth to a son in 1916, and died shortly thereafter. In 1917, he married Chen Yüzhen (Ch'en Yu-chen), who came from a small town near Luchou. A Sichuan woman, Chen Yüzhen was active in the revolution and had been involved in the opposition to block Yüan Shikai's 1916 takeover bid. Zhu De and Chen Yüzhen later separated. In 1928, Zhu married Wu Lanying, an educated Hunanese woman whom he had met when his forces occupied her home province. In 1929, Wu Lanying was captured by the governor of Hunan and executed.

In 1946, Kang was elected vice-chair of the newly formed Committee for the Protection of Children in the Liberated Areas. One of the responsibilities was the management of the well-known Los Angeles Nursery, which was founded in 1938 with funds raised by Madame Sun Yatsen (Song Qingling ) in Hong Kong and the United States. When the Nationalists occupied Yanan in mid-March 1947, Kang moved with General Zhu to the Communist controlled areas in Shaanxi and Hebei.

In 1948, the Nationalists were decisively defeated. With final victory in sight, the Communists were busy planning for a new government, and Kang was appointed a member of the Preparatory Committee for the foundation of the Democratic Women's Federation. With the establishment of the Federation in 1949, Kang was elected a member of the Standing Committee. Her role in the People's Republic of China was clear: she would coordinate with other women veterans to guide the Chinese women in the building of a socialist China.

In 1950, the new Marriage Law was passed as one of the steps to liberate women from the restrictions of the feudal order. Mass campaigns were launched to publicize the concepts of freedom of marriage and women's rights. As a result, there was a significant improvement in the status of women. Between 1955 and 1957, Kang was the secretary of the Democratic Women's Federation. In 1957, she became one of the vicechairs of the Federation of Women, a successor of the former Democratic Federation. In accordance with party policies, the new goal for Kang and the women leaders was to mobilize the Chinese women for economic production.

In the People's Republic of China, Kang was one of the more active women leaders. From 1949 to 1975, she served on the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. She was elected deputy for Henan Province to the First National People's Congress in 1954 and was reelected in the Second National People's Congress in 1959. As political leader, Kang went on various cultural missions abroad. She attended the World Peace Council in Warsaw in 1950 and visited North Korea in 1953.

When the ultra-leftists were in power during the Cultural Revolution, both Zhu De and Kang Keqing became the targets of Red Guards. In January 1967, large character posters appeared in the streets of Beijing, condemning Zhu as the "black general," and his house was ransacked by Red Guards. The next month, Kang was under attack. She was branded a member of the "revisionists" and paraded in the streets.

As the tide of extremism receded after the fall of Lin Biao, China gradually opened its door to the West. In 1972, Zhu and Kang appeared in reception parties held in honor of Western guests, among whom was Helen Snow, their American friend. Zhu was then in his 80s. He passed away on July 6, 1976.

The deaths of Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and Mao Zedong in 1976 opened the way for the reemergence of Deng Xiaoping. As one of the senior veterans, Kang assumed greater responsibilities in the government. In 1977, she was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and held the position for eight years. The year 1977 also saw the beginning of her ten-year tenure as chair of the Federation of Women. In her inaugural speech, "Women's Movement in China: Guiding Concepts and New Ideals," Kang urged the Chinese women to contribute towards the fulfillment of the "four modernizations," a goal set by Deng Xiaoping for the reconstruction of the country. In 1978, Kang was elected vice-chair of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. At the same time, she served on the Standing Committee of the Fifth National People's Congress. Busy as she was, she also headed delegations to North Korea, Japan, Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Denmark.

In 1985, Kang stepped down from her post as a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Two years later, her term as chair of the Federation of Women ended, and she was elected honorary chair instead. After the Sixth National People's Congress (1986), she was not reelected to the Standing Committee. In her last few years, she appeared on occasions to greet foreign guests and congratulate the Federation of Women for various achievements. Her role in state and party affairs was essentially ceremonial. On April 22, 1992, she died in Beijing, at the age of 80.

Yang Shangkun, then president of the People's Republic of China, summarized Kang's career:

She is the epitome of the common people of the old society who courageously fight for social liberation. She is the representative of the ordinary women who unfailingly forge onward in their revolutionary pursuits. Fearless on the battlefield, she was once a young military commander. Skilled at mobilizing the mass, she was an outstanding party organizer. Realistic yet judicious, she would not blindly join other factions. She is a good Communist. She has made remarkable contributions to the women's movement.


Kang Keqing. "Women Revolutionaries I Have Known," in China Reconstructs. Vol. 27, 1978, pp. 2–8.

——. "Women's Movement in China: Guiding Concepts and New Ideals," in Peking Review. September 29, 1978, pp. 5–11.

Li, Tesheng, ed. Jiang-shuai furen zhuan (Biographies of the Wives of Marshalls and Generals). Vol. 1. Jilin: Beifang funu ertong chuban she, 1996.

Smedley, Agnes. The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh. NY: Monthly Review Press, 1956.

Snow, Helen Foster. The Chinese Communists: Sketches and Autobiographies of the Old Guard. CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

suggested reading:

Bartke, Wolfgang. Who's Who in the People's Republic of China. NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1981.

Henry Y.S. Chan , Associate Professor of History, Moorhead State University, Moorhead, Minnesota