IN-DEPTH / IN-DEPTH
Chen Yannian & Chen Qiaonian: Revolutionary brothers representing early, educated contemporaries in CPC's founding
Young inspirations
Published: Jul 07, 2021 07:20 PM
On July 4, the 94th anniversary of the martyr Chen Yannian's sacrifice, people come to Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery in Shanghai to lay flowers and pay tribute. Photo: VCG

On July 4, the 94th anniversary of the martyr Chen Yannian's sacrifice, people come to Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery in Shanghai to lay flowers and pay tribute. Photo: VCG


At the verdant Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery in downtown Shanghai, some 10- and 20-somethings stand in front of the tomb of revolutionary martyr Chen Yannian. Gently and quietly, they place flowers and bow low in honor of the young hero who sacrificed his life for China and its people in the 1920s.

July 4 marked the 94th anniversary of Chen's ultimate sacrifice. Lots of citizens continue to flock to the cemetery to pay their respects to Chen, with many bringing flowers, letters and snacks as small tokens of appreciation to him, the Global Times reporter found.

"I have come to say 'thank you' to Chen," a 22-year-old visitor surnamed Zhang told the Global Times. "I want to thank him for what he had done for us - it was the efforts of numerous revolutionary predecessors including Chen, that laid the foundation for our happy life today."

Chen Yannian and his younger brother Chen Qiaonian, two early leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and sons of the main CPC founder Chen Duxiu, were respectively killed by the enemy in Shanghai in 1927 and 1928 at the very young ages of 29 and 26. 

This year, the Chen brothers were once again introduced to the Chinese public after the airing of the hit red TV series Awakening Age, which narrates the story of how the CPC was founded in 1921. 

The brothers' courage and determination through dedicating their lives to the cause of communism and the peace of China in the turbulent times of the early 20th century, both well presented in the series, have impressed many audiences, especially the younger demographic, observers found.

Letters across time

The tombs of the Chen brothers at Longhua cemetery are surrounded by many letters, along with numerous bouquets. Most of the letters are written by fans in their teens and twenties, a staffer of the cemetery told the Global Times.

Compared with the elder generation, young Chinese people who are of a similar age to the Chen brothers have a closer emotional connection with them, and, "it's heartening to see this respect and admiration toward the two heroes naturally growing among their 21st-century peers," observers said.

Data analyst Ge Shengjie, 22, told the Global Times that she couldn't help writing letters to the Chen brothers, and delivering them to their tombs in person, after watching Awakening Age.

In the letter to Chen Yannian, Ge wrote that her eyes turned red with tears the moment she saw him saying "I will sacrifice myself without hesitation" in Awakening Age. "I miss you so much," she wrote. "You were so young at that time, but you resolutely devoted your youth and life in exploring a road of survival for the then?feudalistic and backward China."

This year, more than 1,000 letters written to the Chen brothers have been mailed or delivered in person to the cemetery within months, the cemetery staffer said. 

"Daily numbers of the letters were particularly high at the beginning of this month, as July 1 marked the CPC's centennial, and July 4 marked the 94th anniversary of Chen Yannian's sacrifice," she told the Global Times on Monday.

Each day, the newly-arrived letters are carefully placed around the Chen brothers' tombs, the Global Times found at the cemetery. Through letters, young people shared with the martyrs China's new achievements and promised to take over the responsibility of protecting and developing the nation.

"Hello Yannian, I've been crying too much watching Awakening Age recently," a letter to Chen Yannian read. "It's regrettable that you didn't even see the founding of the People's Republic of China. China's future is bright. The bright future is innumerable great people like you traded with lives."

"Qiaonian, I bring your favorite snack - stir-fried peanuts - to see you, although the peanuts may not be as delicious as the ones fried by Mr.Zhongfu (courtesy name of Chen Duxiu)," read a letter beside Chen Qiaonian's tombstone. "You were so brave. Your and Yannian's stories have touched a lot of people. Thank you so much for what you have done for China."

In another letter, the author affectionately called Chen Qiaonian "younger brother".

 "Dear younger brother Qiaonian, you were only 26 when you made the ultimate sacrifice, one year younger than I am now," the person wrote, adding that along with the letter he (she) also brought the martyr a recent newspaper, which covered that three of our Chinese taikonauts had entered China's own space station. 

"Look, today's China is very strong, and we have a high international status," the person wrote. "Please rest assured, no one dares bully us anymore."

The tomb of Chen Qiaonian at Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery in Shanghai is surrounded by flowers, letters and gift candies on July 1, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. Photo: VCG

The tomb of Chen Qiaonian at Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery in Shanghai is surrounded by flowers, letters and gift candies on July 1, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. Photo: VCG

Young backbones

In Awakening Age, one scene in particular has left quite the impression on audiences: The Chen brothers walk to the ship bound for France at a Shanghai harbor, with smiles on their faces; then after a quick cutaway, the brothers, faces covered in blood, walk to the execution grounds to be killed by the enemy, also with smiles on faces. 

"I shed tears over the scene," Ge told the Global Times.

Growing up in a decent, open-minded family, the Chen brothers received modern education in Shanghai, and then took a work-study program in France. During their days in France, the brothers built a local Chinese Communist organization together with other Chinese students there, and later came home and engaged in revolutionary causes in China as CPC leaders until they were ultimately sacrificed.

It is also worth noting that, almost all the core members in the early days of the CPC were neither top elites nor grassroots farmers or workers, but young intellectuals like the Chen brothers, said Ma Wan, a research fellow at the Party history research office under the CPC Shanghai Committee.

The brothers represented thousands of young patriotic students who had been to Western countries to seek for a road to save China, Ma said. Premier Zhou Enlai and Vice Premier Chen Yi also studied and did part-time jobs in France in their teens and twenties, she added.

These students had a lot in common, Ma noted. "Firstly, they were neither too rich nor too impoverished, meaning they could afford the college education in China and a ship ticket to France, but still had to do part-time jobs to make a living in France," she said.

Secondly, many of the students, who once believed Capitalism could save China, changed their minds after they personally did part-time jobs in France, Ma said. "Through working with front-line workers there, they profoundly learned about the misery of workers being exploited by capitalists and  realized that proletariats can form a great strength when united," she said.

Only Communism can save China then became a consensus of these patriotic young intellectuals. They positively led and organized strikes across China to fight against the oppression of capitalists, and to protest against the then-government's weak response to foreign aggressors, according to Ma.

The average ages of representatives attending the first and second National Congresses of the CPC were 28 and 27.

"Young people were the backbones of that era," Ma said. She cited a Chen Duxiu's remark being published in his influential magazine New Youth, "Youth, for a society, is like the fresh vital cell in a body." 

Spirits live on

Inspired by young predecessors like the Chen brothers, Ge said she submitted a letter of application on July 1, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC, wishing to become a member of the Party. 

"I'm looking forward to learning from the predecessors, realizing my self-worth by contributing to the motherland," Ge said.

Zhang Han, a 26-year-old employee at a foreign enterprise in Shanghai, said he applied to join the CPC in March. 

"Now after work, I do some volunteer work of COVID-19 vaccination at my community," he told the Global Times, saying that he is trying to practice the Party's tenet of serving the people through small things.

Looking back at history, from fighting against invaders and reactionary forces to constructing a new socialist China, numerous young people have made invaluable contributions during the decades of the development of the CPC and China, said Ma. 

Their spirits - patriotic, courageous, devoted and enlightened - continue to inspire today's young Chinese generations to contribute to the country and people in various positions. "No matter how times have changed, the keen sense of responsibility for the country is deeply rooted in the hearts of Chinese youth and will never fade," Ma noted.

Du Qiongfang contributed to this story
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