Time for Telling Truth Is Running Out
Vera Schwarcz, a professor of history at Wesleyan University, met the Chinese philosopher Zhang Shenfu (1893-1986) in 1979 and spent many hours interviewing him over the next five years. Schwarcz presents Zhang’s life in six chapters, each organized around an important aspect of his career.
Chapter 1, “The Making of a Bookish Rebel,” recounts Zhang’s youth. He was born Zhang Songdian in Hebei Province in 1893, son of a military official. He named himself Shenfu when he was about twenty, a name borrowed from an “ancient, virtuous minister.” In 1911, Zhang married Zhu Denong, who died three years later after the birth of their daughter. By 1918 Zhang was a follower of Bertrand Russell and in 1921 he converted to Communism.
After the death of his first wife, Zhang ardently preached the free sexual relations advocated by Russell—thus the title of chapter 2, “Libertine and Liberationist.” When Zhang joined a group of young Chinese intellectuals, including Zhou Enlai, in Europe in 1921, he began a relationship with an intense young woman named Liu Qingyang. Liu eventually became the second of his four wives, and they remained together until 1948.
In chapter 3, “An Eccentric and Almost Forgotten Communist,” Zhang tells how he successfully recruited Chinese students in Europe—notably Zhou Enlai—into the Communist organization, and in 1921 established the first Chinese Communist cell in Europe. His difficult personality—arrogant and demanding—cost Zhang favor, and in 1925 he returned to China and left the Party. Only in the 1980’s was he credited with his early accomplishments and rehabilitated.
In “Between Russell and Confucius,” Chapter 4, Zhang admits to suffering from “za,” a term from Chinese philosophy meaning “broad-mindedness to the point of muddiness.” His scholarship never produced a substantial long work, only a series of articles on various topics. His goal of melding Confucian humanism with Russell’s analytical logic was never fulfilled.
Chapter 5, “In the Realm of Red Dust,” draws its title from a Buddhist metaphor for the distracting passions of common life. In the 1930’s Zhang taught several years at Qinghua University and for his support of student demonstrators was jailed for three months in 1936. Zhang also helped sponsor the New Enlightenment movement in 1937, an attempt to educate the masses.
In the concluding chapter, “Final Regrets, Final Retorts,” Zhang looks back at his life and expresses satisfaction at being politically rehabilitated and recognized for his important role in the Party’s early days.