In the late 1930s, while the heartland of China was being ravaged by war with Japan, a small number of Chinese were fighting a different battle 10,000 kilometers away. About 100 Chinese were serving on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, playing a small but visible part in the international forces battling the Fascists under Generalisimo Francisco Franco.
“The world is our home,” was one of the mottos of the Chinese volunteers. They were indeed more cosmopolitan than their average compatriots at the time. They had come from North America and Europe, especially France, where they had been employed as industrial workers. They were a diverse group, but they almost all of them had two things in common: They weren’t young, and they were socialists.
Many of the Chinese volunteers were in their late 40s, and the youngest was a mature 24-year-old. As a result, it appears that few if any of them were actually sent to the front. Instead they were placed in support roles in the rear areas, working as truck drivers or medical helpers.
This didn’t prevent them from becoming minor celebrities. Zhang Ruishu, a Chinese already in his 40s, had hoped to become a machine gunner, but ended up as a medic. While pulling injured soldiers to safety he was injured himself three times and was featured on the cover of the weekly magazine Estampa in September 1937.
It seems that the vast majority were Communists, and that many were in close contact with their party leaders at home. This also explains why they chose to stay in Spain even after Japan’s invasion of China escalated into full-scale war in the summer of 1937. The Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong appreciated the propaganda value of having Chinese fighting for the anti-Fascist cause in Spain, even if their services might be needed much more urgently back home in China.
“We know that your victory will directly aid us in our fight against Japanese fascism,” Mao wrote in a “letter to the Spanish people” in May 1937. “Your cause is our cause. We read with emotion of the International Volunteers organized by people from every land, and we are glad that there are Chinese and Japanese in their ranks. Many comrades of the Chinese Red Army also wish to go to Spain to join you… Were it not that we are face to face with the Japanese enemy, we would join you and take our place in your front ranks.”
Despite their modest numbers, the Chinese were an important symbolic factor. “Getting support from people who came from so far away really helped Republican morale,” Laureano Ramirez, a professor at Barcelona’s Autonoma University, told the newspaper El Pais. Ramirez recently translated a book on the subject from Chinese into Spanish under the title Los brigadistas chinos en la guerra civil.
Despite their services to the Communist cause, many ran into extreme difficulties after they returned to China. Especially during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, past association with foreigners was a serious liability which could land you in jail or prison camp. A sad end for soldiers who had seen the world as their home.
Source: “El soldado Xie Weijin contra Franco,” El Pais, June 2, 2013.