Wang Fanxi


Foreword to Chen Duxiu's Last Articles and Letters 1937-1942


Source: Benton, Gregor (Ed.), Chen Duxiu's Last Articles and Letters 1937-1942, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1988 (ISBN: 9780824821128), pages 10 and 11.  Available online:
Transcription/Markup: Marxists Internet Archive, 2015.




When Gregor Benton asked me to write a foreword to this collection of Chen Duxiu's last articles and letters to introduce their author to Western readers, I felt duty-bound to accept, as Chen's disciple, correspondent, and occasional critic. However, my great age and poor health prevent me from writing seriously about the subject. In any case, the translator has already provided a detailed introduction to Chen's life, work, and thought, his prodigious role in China's modern history, and the changing evaluation of him by succeeding generations of Chinese Communists, as well as explaining in footnotes various events and characters relevant to an understanding of the text. Moreover, the book concludes with a series of appendices that evaluate Chen's stature as a thinker and a revolutionary. As a result, there is little left for me to say. Even so, I would like to take the chance to write a few lines about the special features of Chen's life and thinking.

The first collection of Chen's writings, published in 1922 by Shanghai's Oriental Book Company, contained several dozen essays and a large number of contemporary comments and letters written by him between 1915 and 1922. In a brief preface to the collection he wrote:

These several dozen essays are not only not works of literature but even lack a systematic exposition. They are simply a direct account of my various intuitions. However, they are all my own intuitions, and in them I forthrightly speak my mind. I parrot no one, nor do I strike sentimental poses. In that respect, they may be worth publishing. The themes covered by these several dozen essays are numerous and varied, thus demonstrating that literature is the product of social change. In that respect, too, they may be worth publishing.[1]

In just a few lines, Chen gives the reader an extremely accurate description of his literary style and his character as a man. First, he tells us that he writes straight from the heart about his intuitions, that he plagiarises no one, and that he adopts no sentimental poses. Second, he points out that literature - which should be understood not in the narrow but in the widest sense, as writing of all kinds — is the product of changes in society, so articles written by him at different times tackle different themes. 

These two characteristics epitomise the worth of Chen's writings throughout his life, including in his last years. So the preface that Chen wrote for his "first articles and letters" serves perfectly to introduce his "last articles and letters".

More than twenty years separated Chen's early collected writings from the articles and letters collected in this present volume. In those twenty years, Chen played a leading role in Chinese affairs. At the same time, his knowledge — particularly of Marxism — and his experience progressed enormously. Even so, his essential nature — both as a thinker and as a doer — remained unchanged throughout those years. He continued to be directed by intuition, to speak straight from the heart, to avoid parroting the views of others, to refuse to strike sentimental poses, and to think and act independently.

In that respect, his attitude was the same as that of Marx, illustrated in the preface to Das Kapital by a line from Dante: Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti! (Follow your course, and let the others talk.)

This independent attitude is common to all great men and women. How¬ever, unless supplemented by another characteristic — the ability to change when confronted by something good and admirable or when the thinker's intuitions are seen to be incompatible with the real world — independence of this sort can turn into something stubborn and immutable, a reactionary posture left behind by the advances of the epoch. Many great people in all ages and cultures are susceptible to this sort of degeneration when they grow old. Chen Duxiu, however, was different. His refusal to tread that path can be attributed to the second characteristic mentioned in his preface, namely, that his writings are "the product of social change", that they change along with social thinking.

It was precisely on the grounds of this interpretation of Chen Duxiu's character that I argued in my memoirs that the views set out in Chen's Last Articles and Letters cannot be seen as final. Only his life was finite, not his thinking. In the new world and in the new China, Chen's ideas and his analysis would certainly have changed. Had he lived, what changes might his thinking have undergone? To answer that question would make a rather interesting study. I myself am convinced that he would have returned, on fundamentals, to the positions of Lenin and Trotsky.


[1] Chen Duxiu, "Zixu" ("Author's preface"), Duxiu wencun ("Collected writings of [Chen] Duxiu"), Wuhu: Anhui renmin chubanshe, 1987, pp. i-ii.