by Alice Li.
One of the most consequential events of our times has been the rapid and immense rise of China both economically and politically. Therefore, one invested in the affairs of the future must also understand the role China occupies in the world and its effect. Three narratives have been told by the West. One – that China lies and cheats and steals. Two – that its government is oppressive and its people do not have freedom. And three, that it seeks to threaten US democratic ideals and impose its immorality upon the rest of the world. Due to these dominant untruths or uninformed half-truths, there is only hysteria, suspicion, and antagonism towards China.
What does the West know about truth? Our history, the history of the United States, has been filled with diversion and deception through the education we receive, the news and media we consume, and the leaders we follow. “Truth” has been told in the interests of the ruling elite devoted to a system that creates immense wealth by propagating brutal and endless war, racism, and poverty. That is the lens through which Americans have been taught truth about ourselves and the world around us.
Instead, we should look to revolutionary leaders of the Black Freedom Struggle, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, to know truth. In a chapter titled The Propaganda of History in Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois proposed that truth should be scientific – that it is to accurately portray people, events, and the times without conforming to dominant but unsubstantiated opinions. As someone committed to changing the world, Du Bois knew that it could only be done when the fact of matters and way of the world were uncovered. Furthermore, for Du Bois, truth had to be told not for the ruling elite but rather for the working masses of the world. It had to be told so that the masses could unite to create a principled and positive future based on peace, love, and justice.
It is in this tradition that Du Bois sought to understand, unhindered, China for his times. Despite the prevailing anti-China and anti-Communist sentiments and the persecution of American intellectuals and leaders during the Cold War, Du Bois saw the potential for unity between African Americans, who represented a revolutionary force fighting for freedom, and the working masses of the New China that had emerged. He described in Our Visit to China in 1959,
“Negroes have progressed in their fight for equality, but their battle is not yet won. The cause is that when the African slave trade ceased, there arose Colonial Imperialism which sought to reduce most of the world’s workers to serfs of Western Europe and North America, and to build civilization on their exploited labour. To this scheme the rising socialism of the Soviet Union and China is a fatal threat; but this fact the mass of American Negroes do not yet realize.”
Both the animosity towards and lack of understanding of China are not unique to our times. By turning to Du Bois, we can learn what is to be a new basis of a relationship between China and America and what our role is to be at this current moment of anxiety.
Du Bois in China
Du Bois first saw China during a one-week trip in 1936. The China he had seen in 1936 was one divided by foreign imperialist powers and had reduced China to a semi-colonial society. China’s subjugation was a result of a history going back to the Opium Wars during the early and mid-19th century through to the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. By delimiting boundaries, claiming rights to seaports and railways, and pouring loans and investments, Japan, Europe, America commanded China’s industries and markets and reaped immense profits. All the while, China’s masses were deeply impoverished with little to no say over the wages, prices and taxes dictated by imperialist interests. Du Bois’ observations of Shanghai reflected the conflict that had engulfed the nation at the time.
“Shanghai was an epitome of the racial strife, the economic struggle, the human paradox of modern life. Here is the greatest city of the most populous nation on earth, with the large part of it owned, governed and policed by foreign nations. With Europe largely controlling its capital, commerce, mines, rivers and manufactures; with a vast welter of the greatest working-class in the world, paid less than an average of twenty-five cents a day; with a glittering modern life of skyscrapers, majestic hotels, theatres and night clubs. In this city of nations are 19,000 Japanese, 11,000 British, 10,000 Russians, 4,000 Americans, and 10,000 foreigners of other nationalities living in the midst of 3,000,000 Chinese. The city is divided openly by nations; black-beared Sikhs under British orders police its streets, foreign warships sit calmly at her wharfs; foreigners tell this city what it may and may not do.”
Following Du Bois’ initial visit, revolution swept through China. In response to the demands of American big business seeking to maintain a stronghold in China, the American government backed Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Despite this, the People’s Liberation Army of the Communist Party, an army consisting of and supported by Chinese workers and peasants, prevailed in the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, China’s long-robbed sovereignty was restored and the People’s Republic of China, a new state led by workers, was established. In the decade following, America began its containment of and crusade against China through alliances with those along its borders, such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Military bases were built and troops were deployed. As part of its strategy, the US also forbade all trade with and travel to China.
It was in this climate that in 1956, Kuo Mo-jo, President of the China 1956 Committee for Commemoration of Great Figures in World Culture and Chinese People’s Committee for World Peace, invited Du Bois to China for a month to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin. Du Bois was not foreign to the life of Benjamin Franklin. Earlier that year, he had written a 50-page pamphlet on Franklin as a response to a request by the World Peace Council. In it, Du Bois told of a man whose search for truth and moral imperative against injustice led him to become an opponent of slavery and fight for America independence against British colonial rule. Both Du Bois and the Chinese people recognized that they, who were fighting for social uplift and peace in the world, had much to learn from Franklin. Despite this, the US State Department refused Du Bois and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, passports for travel and unfortunately, Du Bois had to turn down Kuo Mo-jo’s invitation. In place of his attendance, Du Bois wrote an address to the China Committee for Commemorating Great Figures, in which he expressed his deep appreciation for the invitation and the occasion,
“[Americans of Negro descent] are still second-class citizens of the United States, even though the best Americans are striving worthily to break the last of our bonds. Men like Benjamin Franklin began our emancipation and recognition, and it is fit that through me the Negroes of America, on the occasion of Franklin’s birthday, can make at least spiritual contact with the great Chinese people in the day of their finest triumph.”
Subsequently, in 1958, the US Supreme Court declared that the State Department had no “authority to withhold passports to citizens because of their beliefs or associations”. With the ruling, Du Bois embarked on his four month trip through the Soviet Union and China, of which he spent ten weeks in China. When he arrived in Beijing from Moscow, Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois were welcomed by Kuo Mo-jo, Premier Zhou Enlai, Vice Premier Chen Yi, and Vice President of the Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries Ding Xiling. China had transformed greatly since his prior visit in 1936 and reflecting on the changes that Beijing had undergone, Du Bois wrote,
“…a city of six million; its hard workers, its building and re-building; that great avenue which passes the former forbidden city, and is as wide as Central Park; the bicycles and pericycles, the cars and barrows…They all wore raincoats beneath the drizzle. We saw the planning of a nation and system of work rising over the entrails of a dead empire.”
On February 23, 1959, Du Bois’ 91st birthday, the China Peace Committee and Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries held a celebration for Du Bois at Peking University. The University Vice-Chancellor Zhou Peiyuan welcomed him to a room of professors and students and Du Bois gave a speech titled, “China and Africa”. In his speech, Du Bois commended the masses of Chinese people who worked in cities, in factories, and on farmlands. They had fought victoriously against the feudal warlords, capitalists, and foreign imperialists who had been exploiting them and in their new society, the working masses were creating a society not just for those who were respected, wealthy or educated, but for all. Du Bois declared,
“The essence of the Soviet Union and China and in all the “iron curtain” nations, is not the violence that accompanied the change: no more than starvation at Valley Forge was the essence of the American revolution against Britain. The real revolution is the acceptance on the part of the nation of the fact that hereafter the main object of the nation is the welfare of the mass of the people and not of a lucky few.”
In the same speech, Du Bois spoke to the many African nations facing the collapse of a European order following two great wars and an economic depression. Africa was to determine the trajectories of its nations and Du Bois urged it to look to and learn from China. China was free and it was shaping an industry that was to raise its masses.
“China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood. China is coloured and knows to what a coloured skin in this modern world subjects its owner. But China knows more, much more than this: she knows what to do about it. She can take the insults of the United States and still hold her head high. She can make her own machines or go without machines, when America refuses to sell her American manufactures, even though it hurts American industry, throws her workers out of jobs. China does not need American nor British missionaries to teach her religion and scare her with tales of hell. China has been in hell too long, not to believe in heaven of her own making. This she is doing.”
Du Bois also asked China to help Africa in its struggle towards self-determination and peace – both through offering capital on honest terms and establishing friendship through exchange of its culture and people. In “I Sing to China”, which Du Bois dedicated to Kuo Mo-jo, he wrote,
“Help her, China!
Help her, Dark People, who half-shared her slavery;
Who know the depths of her sorrow and humiliation;
Help her, not in Charity,
But in glorious resurrection of that day to be,
When the Black Man lives again
And sings the Song of the Ages!
Swing low, Sweet Chariot –
Good news! The Chariot’s a’coming!
Then again, Peace! Then forward the World,
No more Murder!”
Following the celebration at Peking University, the China Peace Committee and Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries hosted a birthday banquet for Du Bois at the Peking Hotel. At the banquet, music and dances were performed, with Negro folk songs sung in Chinese. Guests left autographs and gifts for Du Bois and among the gifts were longevity peach buns (寿桃包) from Premier Zhou Enlai and a copy of the Chinese translation of Du Bois’ work In Battle for Peace.
Through Du Bois, the Chinese people found a friendship with the revolutionary African American. Kuo Mo-jo relayed these sentiments in his tribute to Du Bois at the banquet.
“We see in Dr. Du Bois a worthy representative of the American people with whom we hope very much to maintain peaceful and friendly intercourse…Spring has come for mankind. Supported by your continued efforts, future developments will further encourage and strengthen the confidence of the peoples of the United States, Africa and the whole world in a glorious and happy tomorrow.”
W. E. B. Du Bois toasting with Kuo Mo-jo at Du Bois’ 91st birthday celebration
After his trip to Beijing, Du Bois went to Shanghai and was welcomed by Vice-Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee Soong Ching-ling (also known as Madame Sun Yat-sen). Correspondences between Du Bois and Soong had begun as early as 1948, when she had reached out to him to become a member of the China Welfare Fund in America – an offer which he had accepted. The China Welfare Fund had been active in various programs in China, among them theatres, clinics and experimental farms, and it had hoped to communicate its strivings and progress to America in order to tell the truth of China and to build relations with revolutionary forces in America. In her letter to Du Bois in 1948, Soong wrote,
“We fully understand the tenseness of political conditions in your country, but we have faith in the resurgence of the people’s voice and strength. Our new committee could be made part of the awakening that must come. This means our program must be taken to the American people direct, a feat that has not been accomplished to date in the China relief field. Past campaigns have been too aloof in method and message. We feel that the common people of one land should work with and help the common people of others. Their plights and struggles are synonymous; one section of the world does not succeed or suffer without affecting the others.”
When Du Bois’ passport was granted in 1958, Soong Ching-ling was one of the first people he had written, in addition to Kuo Mo-jo, to inform of his wishes to visit China soon. During his trip to Shanghai, Du Bois also met many other officials and lectured at Shanghai University.
In addition to Beijing and Shanghai, Du Bois and Shirley visited Wuhan, Chengdu, Kunming, Guangdong, and Hangzhou. In Wuhan, they met and had dinner with Chairman Mao Zedong. In Chengdu, they visited one of China’s many People’s Communes. In Kunming, they visited a state school. Shirley also visited a worker’s community center. In Guangdong, they visited a commercial center. In Hangzhou, they visited a steel mill and met its workers. On their trip, Du Bois and Shirley also trekked the Great Wall of China.
W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois at a People’s Commune in Chengdu
During his ten weeks, Du Bois witnessed China on a level of breadth and depth rarely experienced. He traveled “five thousand miles, by railway, boat, plane and auto”. He went to universities, factories, villages, theatres, tea parlors and people’s homes among others. He met with and conversed with China’s many leaders, both national and local, who were guiding the new nation’s systems of government, industry, education, and culture. Similarly, he met some of the many workers who made up the nation and were carrying out its tremendous rebuilding. Du Bois saw the spirit and lives of the Chinese people in work and in leisure, with their friends and with their families. Of his trip, Du Bois wrote in The Vast Miracle of China Today,
“I have traveled widely on this earth since my first trip to Europe sixty seven years ago. Save South America and India, I have seen most of the civilized world and much of its backward regions. Many leading nations I have visited repeatedly. But I have never seen a nation which so amazed and touched me as China in 1959.”
When W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois returned to America, they were asked to turn over their passports for having gone to China. Despite this and his deteriorating health, Du Bois went on an 11-month journey across the United States to speak of his trip to China and what he had seen. He also wrote The Vast Miracle of China Today and other writings documenting his trip. With his speeches, writings, photos, and correspondences with the people of China, Du Bois left future generations with the truth and potential of China as he had seen it in 1956.
The Truth Today
Du Bois shows us that if we are invested in the truth, we cannot blindly follow the trends of our times. Rather, we should ask basic questions to get to the root of matters. What is the history that China has emerged from? How is one to interpret its government, its people, and its actions? What is to be the basis of relations between the US and China? Whose interests ought we be fighting for in asking these questions? It is through working to find answers that we may then see the contributions that both the Black Freedom Struggle and China have made to humanity.
With the rise of the new Chinese worker, Du Bois saw the potential for unity between the revolutionary forces of both the United States and of China. It is through the lens of the revolutionary African American that Du Bois was able to and we, today, can understand China and its working masses. It is by understanding the black struggle for peace and justice against war, racism, and poverty, that we can grasp the truth of this historical Chinese worker who labored to build a new nation. Du Bois wrote in a letter to the China Committee for Commemorating Great Figures,
“As an American of Negro descent, born of those ten million black slaves who were stolen and transported and who toiled to make America and dreamed to make its ideals come true, I am especially glad to make contact with your great nation at the time when socialism has triumphed here and you are forging forward to make a people, free of race prejudice, devoted to Peace on Earth and especially determined to rid your working millions of that exploitation of labor which has cursed Europe, Asia, and Africa, and especially enslaved my people in America since 1619, and is not yet wholly abolished.”
It is this history that we must look to when speaking of US and China relations today. The threads that have held together a world order ruled by American thought and ambitions have been unraveling. China has emerged onto the world stage and is no longer the nascent nation it was. New conflicts have arisen. However, by looking to Du Bois, we can still find hope and potential for unity and cooperation, rather than the restlessness and despair of rivalry and competition, between the two nations with varied histories, models of government, and people. It is through unity and cooperation built upon a brotherhood of the working masses towards peace, love and justice that the two most powerful nations in the world can begin to heal deep wounds.
Du Bois writes in The Propaganda of History,
“Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”
- W.E.B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction
- W.E.B Du Bois, The World and Africa
- UMassAmherst W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, 1803-1999 (bulk 1877-1963)