Lost History of the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) – How Chinese Labourers Helped Lenin

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Sun Yat-Sen

(Research and Translation by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)

‘Sun Yat-Sen is a revolutionary democrat. The East has finally struck the path of the West… new hundred and hundreds of millions of people will henceforth take part in the struggle for the ideals which the West has worked out.’ (Lenin: 1912)

In his letters to the New York Tribune, Karl Marx had observed that the destructive presence of British imperialist fire-power (devastatingly displayed during the Opium Wars), and the generally oppressive and destructive nature of the Western presence in China, would inevitably unleash Revolutionary, historical forces that would change China forever! In 1911 these Revolutionary forces swept the centuries old imperialist regime into the dustbin of history with the very popular Hakka-Chinese Revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen establishing control of a very volatile but ‘Republican’ China. The response of the Western imperialist powers was one of amusement mixed with a mild caution. A China disunited and fighting amongst itself was acceptable providing Western colonial business interests were not disrupted or eradicated. This led to various factions competing for power in China to pursue policies of attempting to side with the West, and use that association to bolster their claims to political power, whilst ensuring that the Western imperialist presence in China continued. Some of these factions even flirted with the idea of re-establishing a ‘pro-Western’ monarchy. Due to in-fighting, Sun Yat-Sen had to flee China in 1913, with China split into two camps both vying for complete control of the country.

Yuan Shikai was a former advisor to the Manchurian imperial house, and it was through his treachery that the Republican movement was able to succeed in overthrowing that imperial house during the ‘First (October) Revolution’ in 1911. Although Sun Yat-Sen assumed the titular authority of ‘President’ at the time (and was seen by the world as the true leader of the Chinese Revolution), it was Yuan Shikai who retained the greater command and control of the Chinese Army (at least the better armed and trained regiments once loyal to the Qing Dynasty). As Yuan Shikai wanted to appoint himself ’emperor’, Sun Yat-Sen declared war upon his Beiyang Army – the so-called ‘Second (July) Revolution’ – and promptly suffered defeat after defeat as six provinces of South China fell under Yuan Shikai’s control. Sun Yat-Sen fled into political exile in Japan and in October, Yuan Shikai was elected President of the Republic of China.

Imperial Japan sided with the Western Allies during the outbreak of WWI (in August, 1914) against Imperial Germany,  and promptly invaded the German colonies in China’s northern Shandong province. This was seen by Japan as a subjugation of China, and Yuan Shikai (who had also aligned the Republic of China with the Western Allies against Imperial Germany) was forced to agree to the infamous ’21 Demands (Unequal) Treaty’ – a humiliating settlement between China and Japan. For the war effort in France, the Beiyang Government authorised the transportation of over 170,000 Chinese workers (men), accompanied by 400 translators to the Western Front. The Western Allies would not arm, train or protect these men as they were used as human ‘mules’ (and human shields) throughout the conflict, suffering heavy casualties as they were forced into battlezones unarmed to carry ammunition, food supplies and other materials to and from the affected areas. Graveyards still exist for the casualties suffered by the Chinese ‘Labour Battalions’. Although uniformed, the Western Allies treated these men with an appalling indifference, Indeed, the records of those British troops ‘shot at dawn’ for supposed ‘acts of cowardice’ (or other crimes) state that six Chinese labourers were the last men to suffer this punishment. Indeed, the anti-Chinese feeling can be measured by the fact that the British government actively ‘deported’ in 1919 (at bayonet-point) at least 20,000 Chinese people from Liverpool due to a xenophobic backlash following Britain’s victory in WWI in 1918. This disgraceful treatment of Chinese people at the hands of Western Europeans is only half the story of China’s international experience at this time.

In 1918, the British and Americans encouraged a 14 country coalition to invade Revolutionary Russia with the purpose of killing Lenin and crushing the Bolshevik Movement (which had taken power during the Russian October Revolution in 1917). This was termed the ‘entente’ (French: ‘friendly understanding’) and consisted of the following countries: United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, South Africa, USA, France, Japan, Greece, Republic of China, Estonia, Serbia, Italy, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. The purpose of this coalition was to assist the ‘White’ (invariably ‘rightwing’) Russian forces (loyal to the Czar), in their fight against the (leftwing) Red Army of the Bolsheviks, which was loyal to the working class and to Socialist ideology. Chinese language sources state that in July 1918, the Beiyang Government despatched ‘combat troops’ into Mongolia to assist the greater ‘entente’ war aims of stopping the spread of Bolshevism out of Russia. At the same time the Beiyang Government ordered  Chinese warships and army units into Heilongjiang province (of Northeast China), to patrol the Armur River estuary. This action was assisted by ‘entente’ forces in the battle for control of the Russian port of Vladivostok (English language sources suggest that this Republic of China deployment amounted to around 2,300 Chinese military personnel).

Although the Republic of China (as the Beiyang Government) is listed as one of the fourteen ‘entente’ countries, ROC military personnel were careful not to leave Chinese soil and enter Russian territory. In other words, ROC military forces DID NOT take part in the Western invasion of Russian which bizarrely saw British and German troops fighting on the same side (against Socialist Russia) in 1918, whilst British and German troops continued to kill one another at an alarming rate in the WWI trenches of France and Belgium. The complication for China stemmed from the left of centre political views of Sun Yat-Sen who was deposed by the Beiyang Government in 1913 (spending the period of WWI abroad in exile). Following the outbreak of the WWI (in 1914), the Beiyang Government sent over 100,000 Chinese men as (uniformed, but ‘unarmed’ labourers) to the Western Front in France. However, when the United States entered WWI in early 1917, the Baiyang Government further authorised the deployment of a large number of (armed) Chinese troops to the Russian-Austrian border to participate in the war on the side of the Western Allies (these troops fought and died bravely and were treated with respect by the Russian soldiers and officers). Simultaneously, the Beiyang Government also despatched tens of thousands of Chinese labourers into the Russian hinterland to assist the Russian (Menshevik-Socialist) Government in maintaining its functioning infrastructure, and help the Russian people build their defences, plant and harvest their crops, and work anywhere in the developing industrial complex. These Chinese labourers often took the place of Russian men sent to the Eastern Front. However, these Chinese men were not subjected to the racism that their colleagues had experienced (in bourgeois controlled) Western Europe but had entered ‘Revolutionary Russia’ under the influence of Marxism and Leninism. The growing Red Army of Lenin welcomed these Chinese men as both soldiers and officers. A Chinese language account (premised upon Russian language sources) states that the Russian Red Army possessed between 30,000 – 50,000 ‘Chinese’ soldiers with around 1000 Chinese men being recruited as ‘officers’. Many of these Chinese Red Army soldiers participated in the ‘October Revolution’, with Chinese (Russian) Red Army Units even storming the Winter Palace!

Soviet Red Army – Chinese Officers

Chinese labourers migrating to Russia began in the 1860’s, with recruitment at that time happening primarily from the Northern provinces. This was due to Czarist Russia suffering a severe labour-shortage, with Chinese labourers sent to cut-down wood in the vast (and then untouched) Russian forests, or to work in the Siberian mines (in slave-labour conditions). Whereas Chinese labourers were forced to dig trenches in Western Europe whilst being killed by German machine gun fire during WWI, under the influence of Socialism within Russia, Chinese men were treated as ‘equals’ and granted their freedom and their dignity. This is why tens of thousands of Chinese men in Russia joined Lenin’s Red Army so that they could be treated as ‘human beings’ and not pack-animals to be disposed of at the earliest convenience of (racist) Europeans. Groups of Chinese labourers who had come into contact with Bolshevik ideology, declared themselves ‘free’ of their slave status and independently formed numerous ‘Red Army’ detachments that were armed and fought in their own self-defence against all hostile attacks (eventually integrating with Lenin’s official Red Army).

Bao Qingshan (包清山) Soviet Revolutionary

In the spring of 1918, more than 100 Chinese laborers led by Bao Qingshan (包清山) established a free association of armed Socialists known as the ‘Chinese Detachment’ in the North Caucasus which achieved outstanding organisational and military results. It was an important armed force upon which the Terek Soviet Republic relied during the civil war. It achieved a very good reputation during the Russian Civil War, with rumours that Bao Qingshan had been sent from Moscow to the north by Lenin as a special ‘Chinese Red Guard’!

Chinese Officers & Men in the Soviet Red Army

At the end of July, 1918, Zhang Furong (张福荣) was stranded in the Southern Urals area with around 2000 ROC troops that had been assisting Czarist Russia in its effort against Germany. Their path back to China was blocked by fighting between the Red Army and the White Army in the area. Whilst trapped, the Whites and the Reds tried to persuade this Chinese force to join their respective side – but eventually Zhang Furong led his men over to the side of Lenin – joining the Red Army.

Red Eagle Cavalry Division

Ren Fuchen [任辅臣] (1884-1918) was from Tieling County in Liaoning Province (Northeast China). In 1914, he was appointed by the Baiyang Government to lead 2,000 Chinese workers to Russia as a member of the Foreign Affairs Department. Whilst in Russia he became a committed Bolshevik. Soon after the outbreak of the Russian Civil War (on November 25th, 1917), at the Kama mine in the upper reaches of the Volga, Russia, Ren Fuchen organized an armed group of Chinese workers to support the Soviet-Russian regime. This armed force caught the attention of Lenin for its many victories and daring exploits, who signed the order to integrate this force into the Red Army, whilst granting Ren Fuchen a position of command. Lenin met Ren Fuchen and personally thanked him for all his hard work – awarding his military unit with the title ‘Red Eagle Army’ (红鹰团 – Hong Ying Tuan). Ren Fuchen and most of his men died in battle at the hands of the White Russians during December, 1918.

Li Fuqing (李富清)


Russian language records document how Lenin was deeply concerned about the welfare of Chinese people living in Russia and fighting in the Red Army, to such an extent that he took Chinese language lessons to learn the basics of communication, and ordered that all Chinese people be given ‘free’ Russian language lessons together with study materials. This proved an important development, as Lenin in his later years, preferred a ‘Chinese’ personal bodyguard to defend him from the many Western attempts to take his life.  After the establishment of the Soviet Government, the Chinese workers in Russia received great trust from Lenin. More than 70 Chinese workers served as guardians of Lenin at the Smolny Palace in Petrograd – the seat of the Soviet Government. Li Fuqing (李富清), a Chinese worker from Shenyang, Liaoning Province (Northeast China), was one of these Chinese men who served as the team leader of the Lenin Guard. Li Fuqing was renowned for instilling the highest level of alertness and discipline in the Chinese troops of the Lenin Guard. Men were taught never to cough whilst on duty or make loud stepping noises so as not to interrupt Lenin whilst he was busy working in his office. In May 1923, Li Fuqing was elected to the Moscow Military School for formal military training. When Lenin died in January 1924, Li Fuqing served as a representative of the Military School for Lenin.

Lenin & Li Fuqing – Wax Models


Chinese Volunteers Monument in Morozovsk, Rostov Region. The monument is pointed, with a Red Star on the top, engraved in front and back in Russian and Chinese – paying respects to the brave Red Army Chinese soldiers who gave their lives for the Revolution.  The burial here was for those sacrificed around the Morozovsk Station area in July 1919, during the battle to defend the Soviet regime. The Red Army and the White Army were not very well matched – with the latter outnumbering the former. Despite fighting bravely this battle cost the lives of 429 Red Army soldiers, with about 200 of them being Chinese fighters. The Soviet government established the monument here in 1958, in preparation for the 40th anniversary of the battle in 1959. The local government was allocated special funds from the central budget to construct and maintain this monument which is still respected in Russia today.

Chinese Volunteers Monument in Morozovsk

Interestingly, when Sun Yat-Sen returned to China and finally consolidated his power-base as ‘President’ of the ROC in 1921, he defied Western opinion and developed very good and close ties with the Soviet Union, inviting their diplomats and advisors to China. Sun Yat-Sen even told the New York Times during an interview (March, 1923) that he had lost all hope of US or European help in rebuilding China, and was instead on very good terms with Soviet Russia. Sun Yat-Sen thought that Socialism might be a good idea to extract China out of the chaos of its post-colonial era, but that the time was not yet ripe for such reforms (Adolph A Joffe – the chief Soviet diplomat to China at the time – agreed). Of course, Sun Yat-Sen was not in over-all control of China throughout WWI (despite briefly operating out of Guangzhou between 1916-1918), and was not responsible for its foreign policies during this time. The Beiyang Government was busy trying to placate the Western Allies (which included Czarist Russia until 1917), and it was this policy coupled with rapid and radical historical changes in China and Russia that led to Chinese people both fighting for the Western Allies in France and Russia, as well as for the Soviet Authorities within Revolutionary Russia against the very same Western Allies! It would appear that Chinese participation within the Soviet Red Army was a historical (dialectical) prelude to China’s own Communist Revolution.

References (English):

Wilson, Dick, China’s Revolutionary War, Weidenfeld Paperbacks, (1991)

References (Chinese):




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