Xiang Jingyu (1895–1928)

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Xiang Jingyu (1895–1928)

Most prominent of the earliest leaders of the women's movement of the Chinese Communist Party who was executed in 1928 and became a revolutionary model for the first generation of Chinese communist female activists . Name variations: Xiang Jingyu; Hsiang Ching-yu or Hsiang Chin-yu; incorrectly Hsiang Ching Yu and Xiang Chingyu. Pronunciation: SEE-ahng JING-yew. Born in Hunan, China, in 1895; captured by the Chinese Nationalist Party and executed on May 1, 1928; her father was a well-to-do merchant in the town of Xupu; received a traditional Confucian education and then attended a modern academy, the Zhou-nan Girls' School in Changsha; married fellow provincial Cai Hesen (1890–1931), in 1921; children: daughter Yi-yi (b. 1921); son Bo-bo (b. around 1924).

Started a modern coeducational primary school in Xupu; went to France (1919); attended a French women's school and worked parttime in a rubber plant and a textile mill; returned to China (around 1921) and joined the Chinese Communist Party, becoming the first female member of the Central Committee and head of its women's movement; organized and led strikes in foreign factories in Shanghai (1924) and worked at the Shanghai University; went to Moscow for further education and training (1926–27); returned to China and engaged in radical labor activity; captured and executed (May 1, 1928).

Selected writings:

Only surviving writings are a collection of love poems, "Toward a Brighter Day" (Xiang-shang Tong-meng), which she exchanged with husband Cai Hesen during their trip to France (November 1919); there are excerpts from other pieces of her work in Lieh-shih Hsiang Ching-yu (The Martyr Xiang Chingyu), published in Beijing (1958).

Xiang Jingyu was a leader in the first generation of radical women who saw in the Communist Party the vehicle for the liberation of Chinese women. She is remembered with great reverence as "the grandmother of the Chinese revolution." While she dedicated her life to building the Communist Party, particularly among women, she also had a strong interest in education and a love of poetry and literature. She was not only a tireless agitator and organizer who gave her life for her beliefs, but also a lively, generous, and thoughtful person who was both respected and loved by her comrades.

Xiang Jingyu was born in 1895 into a comfortable Chinese merchant's home in Hunan, the province of China which produced far more revolutionary leaders than any other. At the time she was born, China was in critical transition. The Chinese were the heirs of an incredibly continuous culture, usually characterized as "Confucian," because the scholar Confucius (551–479bce) had become the central intellectual of the society. Confucian China was an extremely hierarchical and well-ordered society characterized by a reverence for the past and an emphasis upon authority, particularly that of the government and the males who dominated that society. Women had a distinctly secondary place.

While Confucianism had provided for a stable and satisfactory life for many Chinese for more than a millennium, by the time Xiang Jingyu was born, it had failed to keep pace with the challenges of the modern world. By 1895, China was threatened by its own weaknesses, particularly by an extremely large population which put incredible pressure upon resources, and by predatory foreign powers attracted to the legendary wealth of the "Center Kingdom." The central government, rather than responding effectively to these challenges, simply became ultra-conservative and hostile to any reforms which threatened the monarchical institution.

Seeing that Confucianism was becoming more of a burden than an advantage, Chinese intellectuals began casting about for alternatives. As a child, Xiang Jingyu received a Confucian education, but one of her brothers, like many children of wealthy and progressive families,

studied in Japan. There Jingyu's brother observed a dynamic society which prized modern education, including coeducational institutions, above all. Many Chinese students returned from Japan determined to see China follow a similar path. Japanese expansionists, however, began to view the weaker China as their natural prey.

In Hunan, there were many Chinese women who saw the liberation of Chinese women from the Confucian tradition as the key to Chinese modernization. These women supported modern schools, including those for women. Xiang Jingyu's family sent her to one of these, the Zhou Nan Girls' Normal School in Changsha, the provincial capital. The scholar and journalist Nym Wales (Helen Foster Snow ), who studied the lives of many radical Chinese women, dubbed it "the cradle of the Chinese communist women's movement."

One of the women who had attended Zhou Nan was Yu Manzhen , mother of the noted Chinese feminist and writer Ding Ling (1904–1985). Ding Ling, who would later attend the school, would be encouraged by her mother to model herself upon Xiang Jingyu, who had become known as an exceptionally serious and mature student. Ding Ling and Xiang Jingyu became good friends and revolutionary comrades. Many young female radicals saw the education of women in modern schools as a sine qua non for reform or revolution. Xiang Jingyu, like the female rebel before her, Qiu Jin (c. 1875–1907), started a school, opening a primary coeducational school in her hometown.

Xiang, Yu Manzhen, and Ding Ling were all active in the series of student protests which occurred in the region. Students, like many of the Chinese, were alarmed at the steady pace of foreign encroachments. They increasingly criticized the inability of the series of Chinese military governments (the "warlords"), which had replaced the monarchy in 1912, to stem the tide of failures. One of Xiang's first public radical acts was to organize students to protest the failure of the Chinese government to resist extortionate demands from Japan for special economic privileges.

Within this inflammatory environment, student-organized protests became more frequent and more violent. Mao Zedong, who eventually brought the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949, was also a student in Hunan. Mao and several radical comrades, the female leader Cai Chang and her brother, Cai Hesen, together organized the New People's Study Society, a group which would produce many of the leaders of the Communist movement. Xiang Jingyu was among its first members and soon distinguished herself for her fiery essays of protest. Because of their Confucian literary heritage, Chinese intellectuals were extremely respectful of those like Xiang Jingyu who could write well and on a variety of subjects. The writings of modern European and American authors were particularly important in exposing them to new ideas coming from the modern West.

Excited by Western ideas, many young radicals wished to travel abroad to better learn how to reform China. Xiang Jingyu and Cai Chang organized a group of Hunanese to go to France on a work-study program. In 1919, the two, as well as Cai's brother Cai Hesen and many other students, set out for France. On the long ocean voyage, Xiang Jingyu fell in love with Cai Hesen. But the fiery radicals felt that the political revolution in China was more important than their own happiness and agreed to postpone their marriage. In France, the two became noted for their leadership of the Hunanese students' movement. Xiang Jingyu attended a French school and worked in factories. She soon learned of the hard life of the industrial laborer, particularly the women often employed in textile mills such as the one in which she worked.

France was a hotbed of revolutionary Marxism. Not only were such international radicals as the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh active there, but many French intellectuals were Marxists as well. Xiang Jingyu came to see a Marxist revolution as an answer to the many problems of China. In particular, she believed that in an egalitarian Marxist society, the difficulties of Chinese women would at last be solved. For her, then, Marxism was a vehicle which both embraced and was broader than the contemporary feminism of the United States and Europe.

Xiang and Cai Hesen married about 1921, and she soon gave birth to their daughter, Yi-yi. At about this same time, Mao Zedong and others were founding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai. When Xiang and her husband were expelled from France for engaging in a demonstration, the two went to Shanghai and quickly became members of the party. Xiang Jingyu, as a noted female radical, was made a member of the governing body of the CCP, the Central Committee, and given the important responsibility of heading the Women's Department, charged with organizing Chinese women to support the revolutionary cause.

Xiang Jingyu's enthusiasm, energy, and prolific pen served her well. A photograph taken of her at about this time shows an attractive woman with the short hair characteristic of the modern Chinese girl and broad features believed by many Chinese to be a trait of the fiery Hunanese. Although she was said to be soft-spoken and slow to put herself forward, it is evident that Chinese female workers in particular found her a sympathetic figure. She is credited with being the guiding intelligence behind the extremely successful work of the CCP among the working women of Shanghai. In 1924, Xiang gave birth to a son, Bo-bo.

[Xiang Jingyu], the famous Communist and leader of the woman's movement in China, is known as the "Grandmother of the Chinese revolution."

—Nym Wales

The following year Xiang Jingyu and her husband Cai Hesen, frequently said to have been more important than Mao in shaping the ideology and activities of the early Chinese Communist Party, went to Moscow for additional study. The Russians believed that their own revolution was threatened by such world powers as Great Britain. Therefore, they decided to support the young Chinese Communist Party, both as a means of distracting the British, who had important interests in China, and as a way of bringing about a worldwide revolution.

The almost two years that Xiang Jingyu spent in Russia were probably a happy time. She could study and was with her beloved husband in a supportive atmosphere which did not require arduous work or dangerous political activities. Xiang and Cai were said to be at their most contented when they were reading together in their apartment. However, no matter where they lived, in France, the Soviet Union, or China, their living quarters inevitably became the scene of lively salons where radicals met and talked.

In China, the course of revolution was proving tortuous. The Russians had chosen to sponsor not only the young Chinese Communist Party, but also the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang). The Guomindang, founded by the noted Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), had been taken over by Chiang Kai-shek, a young military leader, at the time of Sun's death. The Russians then forced the CCP and the Guomindang into an alliance, though each regarded the other with suspicion. The division of labor between the two saw the Guomindang concentrating upon building a military force, and the CCP organizing among peasants, workers, and women, looking forward to the day when their alliance was strong enough to unite China under a modern-reform regime.

But the two parties disagreed on a critical issue: the importance of social revolution. The Guomindang felt that a strong government alone could solve China's problems; the CCP felt that only a complete revolution which overturned the rigid social structure of China would finally modernize China. The CCP-Guomindang alliance was initially successful, marching north from Canton defeating warlord armies. But with victory in sight, the inevitable final split between the two occurred in Shanghai in the spring of 1927. Chiang Kai-shek, with his superior army, massacred many of the young Communists in Shanghai, and drove the party into a retreat which lasted for decades.

During this period, the life of a Communist was a dangerous and arduous one of constant flight and omnipresent fear of the "White Terror" of the Guomindang. Those thought to be Communists were often shot without trial. Xiang Jingyu courageously continued her work, but in 1928 she was captured by the Guomindang in Hangzhou, where she was working in the Communist underground. She was executed on May 1. It is said that she was defiant to the last, and died bravely. Cai Hesen survived her for three more years before he, too, was captured and executed.

Although Xiang Jingyu was now one of the multitude of the early martyrs to the Communist cause, the revolution itself did not die. Due to a combination of its own bad policy and Japanese aggression which prevented it from ever consolidating power, the Guomindang failed to establish a successful government. Mao Zedong, Xiang Jingyu's fellow Hunanese, eventually led the CCP to victory, establishing the People's Republic of China in 1949. Xiang Jingyu was said to be the grandmother of that revolution and was spoken of with great reverence by all the first generation of Chinese leaders, but especially by Chinese female leaders who idealized her.

The Chinese Communists themselves were to prove to be less than perfect rulers of China, but under their leadership China made great progress. Today it is one of the great powers of the globe, quite different from the backward country into which Xiang Jingyu had been born in 1895. And despite the many charges of Communist failure or excess, virtually no one has argued that the women of China were not far better off than they had been. It is sometimes difficult for those educated in contemporary Western feminist ideals to understand the circumstances which persuaded Chinese women that the Communist revolution was the single key to their own progress. But the history of China's 20th century suggests that women like Xiang Jingyu had good cause for their optimism, even if the revolution did not ultimately solve all of China's problems.


Boorman, Howard L., ed. "Hsiang Ching-yu," in Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. Volume II. NY: Columbia University Press, 1970, pp. 86–87.

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

Klein, Donald W., and Anne B. Clark, eds. "Hsiang Ching-yu," in Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Communism 1921–1965. Vol I. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 317–318.

suggested reading:

China Reconstructs. No. 14. March 1965, pp. 24–26.

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

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

Women of China. Vol. 33, no. 233, 1963, pp. 22–25.

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