In 2005, the Chinese anarchist Ba Jin (Pa Chin) died at age 101. Upon reading about his death, I recalled hearing bits and pieces about Chinese anarchists in the United States (mainly from the late Sam and Esther Dolgoff, Abe Bluestein and others of that generation). I also recall reading that the late Ba Jin referred to Emma Goldman as his “spiritual mother” and dedicated his collection of short stories The General (1934) to her. However, I will leave his story to others to write.
Upon review of some materials in my possession, I thought it important to share some of my observations and the words of the Chinese-American anarchists with others. While this article is merely a glimpse of the Chinese-American anarchists, we get a picture as to who some of the anarchists were and what they did. I recognize that this article is incomplete and imperfect. Since embarking on this article, I have come across additional information, mainly in Chinese. So please accept this as a work in progress on the life, times and ideas of Chinese-American anarchists.
This article includes complete transcriptions of two articles from the 1920s written by the Chinese-American anarchist organization The Equality Society. Both articles appeared in the New York City-based English-language monthly newspaper The Road to Freedom. In America, Chinese anarchists were few (“not more than 100”), but they were active in the struggle. Some were workers, toiling in restaurants and garment shops. Others were students. I am unaware of there being much written, in English at least, about Chinese-American anarchists.
Ideologically, the Chinese-American anarchists seemed to be influenced by the classical anarchists, such as Peter Kropotkin. This tends to reflect a similar perspective amongst anarchists in China.1 The classical anarchist-communist perspective was also promoted among Chinese-American workers with the distribution of a reworked version of Alexander Berkman’s “ABC of Communist Anarchism in 1930.” The comrades were also ardent anti-militarists and anti-nationalists and produced
propaganda on these topics.2
Who were these anarchists?
In her autobiography, Bread upon the Waters, Rose Pesotta briefly mentions a “group of Chinese students” in San Francisco who were known by, one can only presume, an anarchist “friend” in New York in the mid-1930s. (p. 71) When Pesotta was on a union organizing visit to San Francisco, she met with some of these “students.” In the tenement apartment, Pesotta writes, she saw copies of Chinese “pamphlets with portraits of … Kropotkin, Prodhoun… and others.”
Although Pesotta was a known anarchist when she wrote this book (1944), she also served as a vice president of the AFL International Ladies Garment Workers Union at the time of her San Francisco visit. Pesotta never wrote about anarchism or anarchists in her autobiography. Her autobiography was written years after she left union officialdom and her return to the garment shop as a rank-and-filer. So we can only infer that the initial people she met, Ray Jones, Chih Ling and Yung Lee, were either active anarchists or sympathetic to anarchism even if Pesotta did not directly come out and say so.
From the article by Joseph Spivak below and Pesotta’s description of her physical surroundings, it appears that Pesotta and Spivak were talking about the same people.
We do know there existed an anarchist organization named The Equality Society. Mention of them appears in the English language anarchist paper The Road to Freedom. There was a similar group in China by the same name. It appears that they were in contact with each other. I am aware of correspondence between the U.S. corresponding secretary, Ray Jones, with Ganfei Li and Chienbo Lu of the China society. They discussed the possibility of publishing The Equality Journal in both countries.
Writing in his column, “Our Organized Movement: A Coast to Coast Observation”, Joseph Spivak glowingly reported that:
The most encouraging group in San Francisco is the Chinese group, not because they do much work “they are very few in number’s but on account of their enthusiasm. The members of the Chinese group have the same enthusiasm as the early revolutionists in Russia. I went up to see Comrade Red [Ray] Jones the secretary of the group. He lives on a second floor of a very old-fashioned building in the Chinese section of San Francisco. He, as well as most of the Chinese there, is very poor. He occupies a small room and according to the number of beds in this room is occupied by three. Yet when I entered the room I felt I was in an atmosphere of Ideal! The room was actually filled with literature, every inch of space is made use of for this purpose.
Comrade Jones immediately began to show me one book after another in the Chinese language which were received from China and which he spreads among the Chinese population. I could not read the books, but from the pictures of the authors, I could see they were translations from Kropotkin, Bakunin, Berkman, Malatesta and almost every other anarchist writer.
They also issue in China two monthly publications which this group spreads in San Francisco. In China, Comrade Jones told me, our comrades carry on a fight against the Nationalist party [of Chaing Kai-Shek, the KMT] who are only a bunch of politicians: we do not want to make the same mistake as the Anarchists made in Russia. [Apparently a reference to some anarchists early alliances with the Bolsheviks and being soft on the bolshevization of the revolution.]
This little group also issues their own publication in Chinese language, Equality, which they distribute free of charge. They also have a class in Chinese every Sunday for those who are interested. [Sorry, the page with the date when this article appeared is not in my files. I presume it was in 1927 as there are references to the execution of Sacco-Vanzetti, which took place in August 1927.]
In Paul Avrich’s important book “Anarchist Voices” Sam Dolgoff spoke about “a few Chinese members” (of the Vanguard and Challenge groups) “who worked in a cooperative restaurant on Second Avenue.” Louis Genin (of the Vanguard and later Challenge groups) puts the cooperative restaurant on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street on New York City’s Lower East Side. The restaurant was also the place where dinners were held “to raise money for the movement.” (Dolgoff).
“Its main figures,” Sam says, “were Yat Tone and Eddie Wong, who came to New York from the Equality Group in San Francisco.” Sam and others observed that the Chinese comrades were both dedicated and idealistic Yat Tone traveled to Spain in 1933 and then returned to China. In China, according to Sam, he set up a Modern School. In Jo Ann Burbank’s interview with Paul Avrich, she thought he was killed in the Japanese bombing of Shanghai. Dolgoff believed he was arrested and executed by the Chinese nationalists.
The main center of the Chinese-American anarchists was San Francisco. It was here they published most of their literature, including their paper. From what I can determine, the comrades who participated in the Equality Society also went by other names. However, there seems to be a direct link between the different groups or publishing imprints (for example, the Anarchist-Communist Alliance).
Let me close with a report published in Road to Freedom:
The Equality Society issued a report to the October 1928 Anarchist Conference (held at the International Center, 149 E 23rd St., NYC). The comrades reported:
“1. The Chinese in America: Except for a few well-to-do class, most of the Chinese in America are sweat earners. On account of their ignorance, even [if] they feel their own sufferings under the present economic order, they do not have class consciousness and revolutionary spirit. However they are not to be blamed, for they do not have any education at all. Even [when] they do have, they have only the education under the capitalistic regime. Naturally, they object to all radical changes of the present order. Under this situation, the Chinese comrades have a very hard task to convert these poor Chinese workers to be revolutionists. However, they begin to realize the solidarity of the labor class.
“As for the well to do class, they can never give up their selfishness. What they do care is to build up a bourgeois government in China to protect their interest.
“2. Chinese in America toward Anarchism: The Chinese in America who really believe anarchism are not more than one hundred. The reason for that is they are followers of nationalism and have confidence in politics and government. [My note: Of the then-ruling KMT in China].
“3. A short history of the Equality Society: The Chinese in America who are interested [in] anarchism in America are less than one hundred. We realize that the organization and propaganda are very important, so we had this society organized in 1925. In the course of this short history, there were several troubles with those well to do class, as they tried to make this organization a failure but in vain. A few months ago, the imperialistic government of America threatened to destroy this society by arresting comrade Jones and confiscating all our literatures. However, this only made us more militant than ever before.
“4. Some of the work of the Equality Society: In spite of the fact that we do not have many comrades, we have made an effort to publish a monthly in Chinese called The Equality. Just a few days ago, the Chinese government notified the Chinese post office not to circulate the same in China and send them abroad. This what they are doing now and afraid of. Besides, we have published and send free all sorts of pamphlets to all who understand Chinese from time to time. We also distribute literature concerning anarchism in both English and Chinese.
Now, we are going to hold regular meetings even we have little time to do so, as we are all long hour, poor working conditions and low pay workers.
“5. The Anarchist movement in China: Comrades in China are very faithful to their work for anarchism. They do it either by large combination or small organizations. The ones which are worth to mention are the Young Anarchists Federation in China and the South China Anarchists Federation.
“Every organization has its publication. There is a bookstore in Shanghai named the Freedom Bookstore, [which] has made a great contribution in handling our anarchist literatures.
“Suggestions to the Conference:
“We suggest that: 1. The anarchists should pay more attention to the current situation of all countries in the present day. 2. Anarchists should have a well organized organization to facilitate our work. 3.
All local organizations, if possible, should hold regular meetings. If possible, some kind of social gatherings should be held occasionally for comrades of all nationalities in big cities. 4. All organizations better send their news in English to Road To Freedom. 5. The Road To Freedom better expand materials and pages. If possible, cheap paper may be used for achieving these purposes.” The Equality Society, per MING HSI
1. The Chinese Anarchist Movement by Robert A. Scalapino and George T. Yu.
2. For example, “Leaflet To the Working Class by the San Francisco Anarchists Unite Group: Campaign to destroy militarism and capitalism in order to establish anarchism” (1932).
3. Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America by Paul Avrich.
This article appears in the Summer 2006 issue of «Anarcho-Syndicalist Review»