Memorial's message: Youth can live up to idealism of their revolutionary forerunners

In an interview with Zhang Liming, director of the memorial, said that hopefully visitors and Party cadres will continue to be fired up by the idealism of their forerunners.

DURING a recent visit to the Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai, I read an article entitled “The Bitter Sea Engulfing Chinese Youth.”

The article, authored by a Fudan University student Mao Fei, was published in a newspaper in 1920 and is part of the collected items and documents on display at the museum.

My recent visit came partly in response to the visit on October 31 by Xi Jinping and six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee to the site. Many people have since come from around the country to be inspired by the revolutionary zeal it embodies.

My interest in the site was not as a historian, but as a young man hoping to find out more about those enshrined in this cradle of modern Chinese Communist revolution, many of whom, as I discovered later, were themselves young men of my age.

The newspaper article began by pointing out the miserable life of the Chinese youth.

“Nine out of 10 Chinese youth live in the depths of darkness and are cast away at the bottom of boundless seas. If we raise our heads, we’ll see that none of them don’t fit my description, whether they hail from the country or live in cities,” writes the author.

He goes on to detail the anguish of Chinese youth. For example, rural youth received little education because it was deemed useless by parents and some were so poor they were condemned to backbreaking farm work.

Urban youths fared no better. Many slaved away in satanic mills, toiling as blacksmiths under hellish conditions like chronic deprivation of sleep and lack of food. And the author also commiserates on beggars in cities, who “stand slim chance of getting out of poverty through work, provided they can find any.”

Memorial's message: Youth can live up to idealism of their revolutionary forerunners
Ni Tao / SHINE

Foreign visitors at the Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai.

No trivial matter

To be frank, these words appear “trivial.” After all, anguished youth is a timeless subject of novelists and satirists. What exactly does the author want to tell us about Chinese youth then?

To understand his point, we have to bear in mind the time the article was published: 1920, a year after the May Fourth Movement — a reaction to the unequal treaty signed against China at the Paris Peace Conference — that witnessed the passionate involvement of China’s youth in the nation’s tumultuous politics.

China was then a semi-feudal, semi-colonial society, with voracious imperial powers splitting the country into their own spheres of influence. The country was facing an existential crisis; its people suffered.

Against this backdrop, the author rails against the pervasive indifference of many privileged Chinese to the plight of their second-class brethren, in particular, those youth whose well-being is the least of the upper crust’s concerns. Widespread cynicism and apathy is the scourge of Chinese society, the author believes.

And it is also what the CPC, founded in 1921, was destined to dispel.

Struggle for national survival

Undoubtedly, since China succumbed to the gunboat diplomacy of Western powers, wave upon wave of intellectuals and revolutionaries have thrown themselves into the struggle for national survival.

Some enlightened Qing court officials tried and failed, the Nationalists partly succeeded, and it was not until the Communists came along that hopes of a real victory were made apparent to all.

In late July, 1921, the site of what was then a two-story stone-gated villa saw the arrival of 15 dignitaries who attended the First CPC National Congress.

Thirteen were Chinese delegates representing CPC groups in their respective provinces, the remaining two were Communist International envoys sent by Moscow.

Although raids by French Concessions police forced their very first meeting to be suspended and held elsewhere, the shikumen-style villa, now at No. 76, Xingye Lu, is often likened to the “maternity ward” of Chinese Communist movement.

Standing in the middle of this “ward,” I listened as fellow visitors chattered away in different dialects. Some were from Hunan Province, some from Hubei Province, some from Jiangsu Province — exactly where some of the 13 founding members of CPC came from.

What united them is the common cause to save China from privation, civil war and the shame of foreign shackles.

“Ils sont tout jeunes, (they are so young)” an old French lady next to me murmured as she stopped from time to time to study the profiles of personalities on the wall.

Memorial's message: Youth can live up to idealism of their revolutionary forerunners
Ni Tao / SHINE

A replica of the meeting scene at the Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China. 

Young age

Indeed, a remarkable trait of all the 13 members, plus the two foreign envoys, is their young age. They averaged 28 years of age. The youngest was only 19 years old. The French lady was right to point out that many of these men were in their prime age.

Of all the 13 founding members, many were teachers, editors and intellectuals who risked their lives trying to topple corrupt governments.

A few of them died young, such as Deng Enming and Wang Jinmei, both of whom were delegates from Shandong Province. Deng was captured and executed at the age of 30, Wang died from tuberculosis and overwork at 27.

A search on the Internet indicated that Deng was a devout practitioner of values that he imbibed in Soviet Union, such as the food ration hierarchy where Communist members always left the smallest amount of food to themselves, behind soldiers, workers and government clerks.

And tales of Wang working till his death are celebrated as an epitome of dedication in textbooks.

If their selfless deeds and spirit of self-sacrifice have anything to teach us, it is that wholehearted commitment to a worthy cause can sustain oneself against all odds.

In an interview with Jiefang Daily, Zhang Liming, director of the memorial, said that hopefully visitors and Party cadres will continue to be fired up by the idealism of their forerunners.

As natural bearers of the spirit of revolutionary cause, today’s youth, delivered from war, hunger and torture, have a duty to adapt their messages to a modern context, and this could start by paying tribute to their “spiritual home” at the CPC memorial.

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