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Legendary Life of Chen Hansheng
Chen Hansheng was widely known for his accomplishments in various fields even before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

Now 106 years old, he was once the youngest professor at Peking University. He rigorously researched China's economic problems. He could speak at least five foreign languages and seemed to have friends and connections around the world. He was also an outstanding journal editor and columnist.

However, very few people knew that, first and foremost, Chen was a professional underground revolutionary.

Ever since Li Dazhao, one of the founders of the Communist Party of China, invited Chen to join the Communist International in 1924, Chen's life was in constant jeopardy for the next 25 years.

Chen's reputation as a learned scholar provided him with the perfect cover for his underground activities. His acquaintance with both the left and right wings of the Kuomintang made him priceless for the Communist Party in the intelligence war.

He worked with such famous agents as Richard Sorge, the legendary German-Russian intelligence worker, and Hotsumi Ozaki, the great Japanese patriot who loved his country too much to let it slip into the inferno of becoming a war criminal.

In the early 1930s, Chen first helped them collect intelligence in Shanghai for the Chinese Communist Party, then intelligence in Japan for the Soviet Union.

Before the famous spy group was exposed and both Sorge and Ozaki were arrested and executed by Japan in 1944, Chen had returned to Shanghai. With the help of Agnes Smedley and Rewi Alley, Chen successfully escaped Kuomintang searches and sailed to the Soviet Union, according to researcher Jiang Feng.

This was only one of the three times that he narrowly escaped being arrested by fleeing abroad.

While he was carrying out his undercover work, Chen also impressed the Chinese public with his energetic academic activities.

Born in 1897 into a family of traditional intellectuals in Wuxi, east China's Jiangsu Province, Chen was sent to study abroad by his mother when he was 18 in the hope that his precocious intellect could be developed more fully.

He underwent a very systematic education in Western economics and history. He got a Bachelor of Arts at California's Pomona University and a Master of Arts at Chicago University, both in the United States. Then he got a doctorate at Berlin University in Germany.

At the age of 27, when he had finished his studies and returned to China, he became the then youngest professor in Peking University and was nicknamed the "kid professor." But he was impatient to make his academic work be of immediate use for his country.


In 1927, after Li Dazhao was arrested (being killed shortly after), Chen fled to the Soviet Union, working in a research institute on rural problems.

He was amazed to find that his Russian colleagues were satisfied with quoting the doctrines of great thinkers but rarely undertook any down-to-earth social investigations.

Chen deemed himself a doer and he was determined to carry out his own research work when he returned to China.

Back in China two years later, Chen launched a series of large-scale and well-organized surveys on the rural economy as the country had never seen before. The campaign lasted from 1929 to 1934, covering some of the most typically developed rural areas in North, Southeast and South China.

At that time, all kinds of opinions and theories on the peasant issue circulated in China. A lot of blatant lies and irresponsible assertions came from different directions, with a variety of ulterior motives. With undeniable facts and figures, published in the magazine Rural China and in his book Agrarian Problems of Southernmost China, Chen illustrated the extremely underprivileged and poverty-stricken living conditions of Chinese peasants.

His conclusion was radically revolutionary for the time: "Carrying out a land revolution, abolishing the feudal land system and giving land to the peasants is the only solution to China's rural problem."

Walter Chee Kwon Chun, honorary trustee of the Soong Ching Ling foundations in Beijing and Shanghai, said of Chen: "His book Agrarian Problems of Southernmost China and articles helped me understand China's problems."

Chun returned to China in the early 1930s to work as an English-language secretary for Sun Fo, Dr Sun Yat-sen's son and the top legislator of the Kuomintang. Chun was Sun Fo's brother-in-law.

Chen Hansheng's work greatly helped the land revolution being carried out in areas under the leadership of the young Communist Party.

Later, Chen established the Chinese Agricultural Economy Institute in a bid to strengthen academic research into rural issues.

Out of the land campaign and the institute emerged a group of young economic pioneers, many of whom later became the backbone of economic reconstruction in the People's Republic of China.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the Gang of Four claimed that "there was a black economic front in the 1930s." The term "black" in those days largely meant "capitalistic."

In one sense, they had a point: The scholars did once fight together on the same front.

Before 1949, Chen belonged to that group of people who were more famous abroad than in their own countries. He also spent some time in Hong Kong.


Chen spent most of the first half of his life overseas. He lived and worked abroad during separate periods, once in Japan, once in India, twice in Europe, and twice in the United States in addition to times spent in the Soviet Union.

Abroad, he regarded himself as an advocator for the cause of the Chinese revolution. He became a well-known public figure in international society. His years in the United States and Hong Kong were the most fruitful period of his overseas activity.

In 1936, the Chinese Communist Party sent Chen to the United States to work for Pacific Affairs, a quarterly magazine published by the New York-based Institute of Pacific Relations.

Like most other periodicals about Asia-Pacific affairs published in the United States at that time, Pacific Affairs used to keep a safe distance from substantial and sensitive social issues. Chen and his colleagues turned the magazine into a powerful medium to probe the essential social problems in the Asia-Pacific area and disseminate progressive thought, according to Li Xinyu, an editor of a collection of Chen's theses published between 1919 and 1949.

Meanwhile, Chen actively moved in diplomatic circles in New York and Washington. At that time, the Kuomintang-appointed Chinese official ambassador Hu Shi was spreading biased or false conceptions about China in Western society. These views were sometimes thrown back in his face by Chen.

Several years before in Shanghai, Chen had already become one of Agnes Smedley's best friends. He later also became acquainted with Rewi Alley, Edgar Snow and Anna Louise Strong. He provided invaluable information about China to these Western writers and journalists, through whose reports the Chinese Communist Party's courage and hard work became known to the outside world, according to Israel Epstein, a veteran war journalist and former editor-in-chief of China Today magazine (formerly China Reconstruct magazine).

"I would not be in China if it was not for Chen's work," Epstein added.

During his years in the United States, Chen got in touch with many liberal-minded intellectuals and considerably helped to shape their views on Far Eastern affairs.

One of those most influenced by Chen was Owen Lattimore, who had co-edited Pacific Affairs with Chen and who was an important adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In May 1939, Chen moved to Hong Kong to help Soong Ching Ling, Rewi Alley and Edgar Snow set up the International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives.

During the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45), the committee was a crucial channel for international donations entering China. As the committee's executive secretary and Soong's chief liaison assistant for contacting overseas powers, Chen became an indispensable link in communication between Chinese progressives and overseas sympathizers.

According to an investigation by Stephen MacKinnon, who co-wrote a biography of Smedley and has researched Chen's life, Laughlin Currie -- Roosevelt's envoy to China -- would engage in long talks with Chen every time Currie was passing through Hong Kong.

Through Currie's reports, MacKinnon speculated, Chen must have played a role in changing the Roosevelt government's attitude towards Chiang Kai-shek.

Chen's influence in Western society reached its peak when, under the secret instructions of Zhou Enlai and Liao Chengzhi, he returned to New York after World War II.

He taught as a professor at Washington State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He also lectured at some of the other most important US universities, such as Harvard University, Columbia University, Chicago University, and the University of California, Berkeley.

A central topic of his speeches was the Chinese land revolution, which he vigorously defended. Through his Western educational background and the disarming impression of an enlightened, liberal intellectual that he conveyed, he always managed to win over his audiences.

As his friend Xue Baoding said: "He certainly is one of the best spokespersons that the Chinese Communist Party ever sent to the West."


Although he gave such an impressive display on the international diplomatic stage, the first thing that Chen did when he returned to China after the People's Republic was founded was to decline Premier Zhou Enlai's proposal that Chen become vice-minister of foreign affairs.

Chen's scholarly instinct had the upper hand. "I'd rather do some research work," he was quoted as saying.

He worked quietly and industriously as a senior research consultant for many institutes, hoping he could make up for the time he had dedicated to practical activities for the Chinese revolution.

In 1952, Soong Ching Ling recommended that Chen oversee the editorial work of the newly established bimonthly English-language periodical China Reconstructs (now the monthly China Today). He readily accepted.

Under his charge, the magazine became a window through which the new China could show itself to the outside world.

Israel Epstein said: "Through him, China Reconstructs magazine was founded, and my wife and I joined the work at the magazine."

With the erudition of an economist and historian, as well as a beautiful writing style, Chen wrote some of the best reports and essays of that time to introduce a changed China to the West.

During the "cultural revolution," Chen again engaged himself in semi-underground undertakings that were as daring and adventurous as those of several decades previously.

In the worst time of political chaos, already a victim of the mass political persecution, he taught English in his own small, humble house to any young person who had the desire to learn.

Among his students were many young people from badly treated families, including the son and daughter of Liu Shaoqi, the top figure on the blacklist at that time.

Seventy years ago, Chen revealed his dream in Oriental Magazine: "If a dream is a wish, my wish is to help the progress of human civilization."

He certainly has tried his best to realize that dream.

(China Daily June 30, 2003)

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