Private Xie Weijin versus General Francisco Franco

Around 100 Chinese nationals joined the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939

Captured brigadists, including Xie Weijin (third from left at back), at the Gurs internment camp in France.
Captured brigadists, including Xie Weijin (third from left at back), at the Gurs internment camp in France.

There was no time left. He had cancer, so he pulled aside the curtain that separated his bed from the other patients in the ward, and despite the warnings by nurses and doctors, he feverishly began putting some order into the items he kept inside two large boxes: documents, diaries, photographs of himself with other soldiers, books... He did this day and night. "They are more valuable than life itself," Xie Weijin told his daughter as he gave her these possessions one day in 1976 in Beijing. It was all he had left of his experience as a combatant in the Spanish Civil War. For 38 years, he had lugged all this material across two continents, overcoming the war, two internment camps in France, the Chinese-Japanese War and Mao's Cultural Revolution, including the repression.

Xie Weijin represents a sad, beautiful metaphor. Ever since the Communist government recommended that he retire in 1965 to recover from his "old revisionism," he turned his tiny room in the remote town of Nanchong, 500 kilometers from the capital, into a life-size photo album. It was his refuge, the place where he preserved the evidence of an adventure forgotten by history: the Chinese presence in the International Brigades.

"If not for the fact that we have the Japanese enemy in front of us, we would surely go join your troops," wrote Mao in an open letter to the Spanish people on May 15, 1937. Some Chinese nationals ended up going anyway. Hwei-Ru Tsou and Len Y. Tsou, a Taiwanese couple living in the United States, chanced upon the photograph of an Asian soldier in a book about the 50th anniversary of the International Brigades. They were surprised. Then, deploying all the perseverance of doctors in chemistry, they spent the next 10 years conducting research in three continents, and located around 100 Chinese combatants. The result of their investigation is Los brigadistas chinos en la guerra civil (or, Chinese brigadists in the civil war), the first great monographic study on the subject. As luck would have it, the book is getting published simultaneously in China and Spain.

Only two Chinese nationals were in Spain when the civil war broke out

Mao was partly right. Of all the people located by the Tsous, only Chen Agen came directly from China. There was a reason for this: he was fleeing the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), which wanted to question him for creating a union. On the ship headed for Europe, a Vietnamese cook spoke so earnestly about the noble anti-Fascist fight going on in Spain that the idealistic Chen sailed on to Galicia, then traveled to Asturias. He was made prisoner in 1937, did jail time and endured forced labor, and did not recover his freedom until 1942, when his trail goes cold in Madrid.

Only two Chinese nationals were in Spain when war broke out. One, Zhang Zhangguan, had been a traveling salesman there since 1926. The other one, Zhang Shusheng, spoke fluent Spanish and was thus sent to a fully Spanish army unit, the 195th Brigade of the 50th division. The others trickled in from the United States and Europe, especially France. They were huagong, unskilled workers who had been recruited by Western powers in China to come and work after World War I. Most were Communist party members, like many of the nearly 35,000 individuals from 53 countries who made up the International Brigades, born out of a political decision by the USSR and the Communist International.

The quiet, mysterious Bi Daowen was another example of Asian support for anti-Fascism. An Indonesian doctor born to Chinese parents who kept in touch with Indonesian pro-independence groups back in the Netherlands, where he studied, Bi Daowen arrived in Spain in September 1937, sent by the Communist International, where he worked as a liaison until the 1960s. He came and went and was spotted in China, Russia, Czechoslovakia and his native Indonesia.

Further evidence of their strong personal convictions was these Chinese citizens' decision to fight in Spain and not in their own country, which was being invaded by the Japanese. "They identified the Fascist aggression in Spain with the one against China; besides, this way their families were closer," sums up Laureano Ramírez, a professor at Barcelona's Autónoma University who translated part of the book and helped find a publisher.

They pledged to go and fight back home when they were done in Spain. But the Chinese Communist Party had other ideas, considering the propaganda value of their presence in the Spanish conflict.

They identified the Fascist aggression in Spain with the Japanese invasion"

"Mao Zedong, Wang Ming and other leaders of our party have written to me expressly, asking me to convey to you that you should remain on the front, fighting the enemy," reads a letter that Weijin, the leader of the small group because of his higher position (he was a political commissar) shared with his colleagues.

This elevated international idealism, says Ramírez, is also the reason why most of the Chinese combatants were older. "Many of them were between 44 and 50, while the youngest was 24," he says. As a result, even though there are traces of Chinese blood in the defense of Madrid or the Battle of the Ebro, many of them were in fact barred from the front. And so Zhang Ji,a 37-year-old mining engineer trained at Berkeley, was a truck driver for the Lincoln Brigade. Zhang Ruishu and Liu Jingtian (who had seven years' experience as a soldier in China) wanted to join the machine gunner company, but because they were 44 they worked as nurses.

Ruishu, who was uncommonly brave and was wounded three times rescuing soldiers from the front lines, became such a well-loved figure that he made the cover of the Spanish weekly Estampa in September 1937. "Getting support from people who came from so far away really helped Republican morale," says Ramírez. They were not more popular because they did not have their own regiment, the way they wanted. Mao sent them a red silk standard to make them stand out, and today this banner is preserved at Beijing's Museum of the Revolution.

The Chinese brigadists lost twice over. When the International Brigades pulled out, most of them landed in French internment camps (Argelès and Gurs), where they spent up to eight months with no help from their government. Right after that, they went back to fight in China, and later suffered the kind of persecution reserved for those who had been in contact with foreigners. Ruishu, the war hero who turned down his leaves to remain on the front, ended up an alcoholic. Weijin, wounded near Belchite in Aragon, found himself in exile in Nanchong at age 60.

There does not seem to have been any Chinese representatives at the emotional farewell parade for the International Brigades, held in Barcelona on October 28, 1938. Had there been any, they might have displayed Mao's pennant or the red flag that their fellow Chinese at the Paris-based daily Jiuguo Shibao sent them; the flag had an embroidered inscription that the Chinese brigadists believed in blindly and generously: "The world is our home."

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