Jump to content

Li Dazhao

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Li Dazhao
Personal details
Born(1889-10-29)29 October 1889
Laoting, Zhili, Qing China
Died28 April 1927(1927-04-28) (aged 37)
Peking, Republic of China
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
Political party
Alma materWaseda University, Tokyo, Japan; Beiyang College of Law and Politics, Tianjin, China.
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese李大釗
Simplified Chinese李大钊
Courtesy name
Chinese壽昌 守常

Li Dazhao or Li Ta-chao (October 29, 1889 – April 28, 1927) was a Chinese intellectual and revolutionary who participated in the New Culture Movement in the early years of the Republic of China, established in 1912. He co-founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with Chen Duxiu in July 1921. He helped build a united front between the CCP and Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist Party (KMT) in early 1924. During the Northern Expedition, Li was arrested and then executed by warlord Zhang Zuolin in Beijing in April 1927.


Early life[edit]

Li was born into a peasant family in Laoting County, Hebei (previously Zhili) province in 1889. His childhood was miserable. His father died a few months before he was born, and his mother died when he was a baby. At the age of ten, Li married Zhao Renlan, who was nearly six years older; Li's foster grandfather arranged the marriage for Li's protection. He received his traditional education in three village schools in Laoting County for a decade.[1] He started his modern education at Yongpingfu Middle school in 1905. From 1907 to 1913, he completed his college education at Beiyang College of Law and Politics in Tianjin. From 1914 to 1916, Li studied political economy at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan[2]: 32  before returning to China in 1916. While there he lived in a YMCA dormitory and participated in Bible studies at the church of Yasuzo Shimizu.[3] He did not finish his learning as he was expelled from Waseda for absence from his classes caused by his participation in the campaign against Yuan Shikai's imperial endeavors, for which he returned to Shanghai in early 1916.[4] A reporter visited the Waseda University Historical Museum to trace the youthful imprints of Li Dazhao during his study in Japan. In the winter of 1913, after graduating from Beiyang Law and Political School, Li Dazhao went to study in Japan, residing at the YMCA in Tokyo. In September 1914, he officially entered the Department of Political Economy at Waseda University. At Waseda University's History and Archives Center, the reporter saw two tuition receipt books related to Li Dazhao, clearly recorded with a fountain pen: Li Dazhao paid 5 yen on September 9, 4.5 yen on October 26, 4.5 yen on November 9, and so on. Professor Emeritus Ando Hikotaro of Waseda University, in his book "Building a Bridge to the Future: Waseda University and China," not only showed Li Dazhao's transcript but also detailed the 11 courses he took and their respective instructors. He commented, “Compared to other Japanese students, Li Dazhao's grades were quite good.” The scanned copy of Li Dazhao's student registration card provided by the Waseda University Chinese Alumni Association clearly shows his name, address, place of origin, and enrollment information. Kawasoko Fumihiko noted that during his time at Beiyang Law and Political School, Li Dazhao actively learned Japanese and translated Nakazato Miyazosu's "The Program of Tolstoyism" into Chinese in 1913, demonstrating his proficiency in Japanese even before arriving in Japan. In Japan, he continued to actively learn English while residing at the YMCA. In January 1915, during Li Dazhao's first year at Waseda, Ōkuma Shigenobu, the then Prime Minister of Japan, and his cabinet secretly proposed the "Twenty-One Demands" to China. This provoked a strong response from Chinese students studying in Japan, and Li Dazhao actively joined their protest. He refused to take courses from professors like Ukita Kazutami, an ardent advocate of the "Twenty-One Demands," and Hagino Nagayasu, a legal advisor to Yuan Shikai. Li Dazhao criticized them in articles like "National Conditions." In February 1916, his student registration card was stamped with a withdrawal date and the reason "removed due to prolonged absence." In April 1916, Li Dazhao, along with hundreds of other Chinese students in Japan, abandoned their education at prestigious Japanese institutions to join the domestic opposition against Yuan Shikai.[5]

Head Librarian and Professor at Peking University[edit]

After returning to China, Li served as an editor in Beijing for a few newspapers on which he published numerous articles to promote democracy, freedom, constitutional rule, and national resurgence. As a leading intellectual in the New Culture Movement,[2]: 32  he lashed out at China's feudal tradition, criticized the old tyrannical past, and strongly endorsed the representative system. In January 1918, Li was hired by Cai Yuanpei to be the head of the library at Peking University in Beijing, and a couple of years later, he became a professor of politics, history, and economics there. He taught many different courses not only at Peking University, but also at four other universities in Beijing. He was invited as a speaker by associations, colleges, and other organizations throughout China. At Peking University, he influenced students during the May Fourth Movement of May 4, 1919, including Mao Zedong, who worked as an assistant in the library's reading room.[6] In a number of ways, "Li's urgent calls for democracy, science, and constitutional rule are an essential component of the brilliance of the May Fourth Movement."[7]

More importantly, Li Dazhao was a prominent leader during the May Fourth Movement;[2]: 32  he advised and coached young students in Beijing to take action against the Beiyang government and to protest against the imperialist powers' decision at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to transfer the former German colonial privileges in Shandong to the Japanese Empire. During this time he published productively on a variety of topics championing new and progressive ideas, and became China's earliest self-converted communist.[8] He was one of the earliest scholars to explore the Bolshevik government in the Soviet Union as a possible model for his own nation. Throughout his life, Li maintained cordial relationship with other New Culture Movement figures such as Hu Shi and Lu Xun, even though they had diverse scholarly opinions and assumed different political stances.[9]

Co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party[edit]

By many accounts, Li was a nationalist and believed that the Chinese nation could enjoy a renaissance by accepting a new culture, rejuvenating its people, and remolding its civilization. It is interesting to note that Li admired America for years but changed that attitude to be a pro-Russian intellectual in 1919.[10] Like other intellectuals of his time, Li's thinking was impacted by diverse elements such as Kropotkin's anarchism. After the May Fourth Movement, he and other intellectuals started to turn to Marxism. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution was a factor in remolding his political views.

Later, Li combined his original nationalist thoughts and his newly acquired Marxist views to fashion his political visions for national salvation.[11] Recent studies demonstrate that Li mainly read communism-related works from the Japanese sources which helped deepen his understanding of the communist ideology.[12]

Li's theory of political economy differed from the typical Marxist view that the urban proletariat was the revolutionary class.[2]: 32  In Li's view, China's rural peasantry would be the key class-leveling force and the political source for revolution.[2]: 32 

Although some piecemeal articles referencing Marxism had been published in China previously, in 1918 Li became the first person in China to spread Marxism through significant published articles.[13] In his 1919 essay My Marxist Views and his 1924 essay The Essentials of Historical Study, Li stated that generations make their own futures through harnessing social energies.[2]: 32  In Li's view, historical change occurred through linear stage-oriented progressions of civilizational improvement directed by via human agency.[2]: 33 

Li initiated the Peking Socialist Youth Corps in 1920.[14] He built China's earliest socialist and communist groups in Beijing even before the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai. Li and Chen Duxiu were regarded as co-founders of the party.[2]: 32 

United Front with Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist Party[edit]

Under the leadership of Li and Chen, the CCP developed a close relationship with the Soviet controlled Comintern. After the establishment of the CCP, Li and other early communists worked diligently to mobilize Chinese railway and mining workers to fight for their own rights. Directed by the Comintern, Li and Chen joined the Nationalist Party in 1922 and forged a close tie with Sun Yat-sen. Li was elected to the KMT's Central Executive Committee in Guangzhou (Canton) in January 1924, which marked the formal formation of the First United Front between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party. Both parties worked together to fight against their common enemies: the warlord government in Beijing and imperialist powers, which dominated many spheres of influence in China.

Li visited the Soviet Union in late 1924 and stayed there for months.[15] Upon his return from Russia, he wooed the Christian warlord Feng Yuxiang to the Nationalist side, recruited young people into the two political parties, and organized numerous revolutionary activities. He urged Feng Yuxiang to adopt a strategy to fight against Zhang Zuolin from Northwestern China to Henan Province, which was crucial for the success of the Northern Expedition to topple down the warlord regime in Beijing.[16]


Li's final poem before his execution

Tension between the Comintern and the CCP on one side and the KMT on another led to political intrigue, especially after Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925. In any case, Li was instrumental in the United Front of the two political parties for which he served as its leader in North China. He helped organize anti-government demonstrations, in particular on March 18, 1926, in which government guards fired into the crowd, killing forty-seven people and wounding more than 200. After the March 18 Massacre, Li was put on the Beiyang government's list of the most wanted. He took refuge in the Soviet Embassy in Beijing yet continued to lead political maneuvers in North China to topple the warlord's government.[17] When the United Front collapsed in 1927, Zhang Zuolin of the Fengtian clique ordered a raid on the Embassy on April 6, even though violating diplomatic immunity, this action have already received support from Western diplomatic missions. Li, his wife and daughter were jailed, but his wife and daughter were released shortly after Li was being executed. Li and nineteen other allies, both Nationalists and Communists, were secretly sentenced to death, and they were executed by strangulation on April 28, 1927.[18][19]


Statue of Li Dazhao at his tomb

Li Dazhao left an enduring legacy upon modern Chinese history. As a leading intellectual of China's New Cultural Movement, he wrote hundreds of articles to promote democracy, support constitutional government, endorse individual freedom, and called for a national revival. His ideological world might be complex as he incorporated diverse thoughts.[20] His turn to communism was dramatic; from 1918 to 1919, he became China's first communist, about a year earlier than Chen Duxiu.

Li's thoughts on the role of peasants heavily influenced Mao Zedong. As one of the co-founders of the CCP, Li's key role in decision-making for early communist activities and in bringing forth new theories significantly impacted the initial stage of the Chinese communist revolution. In a particular sense, Li Dazhao was a special bridge between the first two generations of the communist leadership; Maurice Meisner remarked that Li Dazhao was the CCP's "first true leader and its greatest martyr" and that he "represents the link between the older generation of democratically oriented and Western-educated intellectuals of the early phase of the New Cultural Movement (ca. 1915–1919), from whom the first Chinese Marxists emerged, and the new generation of young Communist intellectuals who inherited the party leadership after 1927."[21]

In 2021, The Pioneer, a biopic was released about Li Dazhao starring Zhang Songwen as Li Dazhao. It premiered on July 1st, 2021 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.[22]



  • Zhao Renlan (1884–1933).


  • Li Baohua (1909–2005) served as the governor of the People's Bank of China from 1978 to 1982.
  • Li Xinghua (1911–1979)
  • Li Yanhua
  • Li Guanghua
  • Li Xinhua



  1. ^ 唐山市委党史研究室 [CCP Tangshan Municipal Committee Party History Research House]. 李大钊与故乡 [Li Dazhao and his hometown]. Beijing: Central Party Literature Press, 1994, pp. 1-90.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Rodenbiker, Jesse (2023). Ecological States: Politics of Science and Nature in Urbanizing China. Environments of East Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-1-5017-6900-9.
  3. ^ Hua, Shiping (16 August 2021). Chinese Ideology. Routledge. ISBN 9781000422245.
  4. ^ Meisner 1967, p. 28.
  5. ^ "通讯:在日本追寻李大钊之青春印记-新华网". Xinhua News Agency. Retrieved 2024-01-11.
  6. ^ Murray, Stuart. The Library: An Illustrated History. New York, NY: Skyhorse Pub, 2009.
  7. ^ Patrick Fuliang Shan, “Assessing Li Dazhao’s Role in the New Cultural Movement,” in A Century of Student Movements in China: The Mountain Movers, 1919-2019, Rowman Littlefield and Lexington Books, 2020, p. 20.
  8. ^ Patrick Fuliang Shan, “Assessing Li Dazhao’s Role in the New Cultural Movement,” ibid, pp. 3-22.
  9. ^ Meisner (1967), p. 221.
  10. ^ Patrick Fuliang Shan, “From Admirer to Critic: Li Dazhao’s Changing Attitudes towards the United States,” in Sino-American Relations: The New Cold War, The University of Amsterdam Press, 2022, 31-54.
  11. ^ Meisner (1967), p. 178.
  12. ^ Patrick Fuliang Shan, “Li Dazhao and the Chinese Embracement of Communism,” in Shiping Hua (ed.), Chinese Ideology, Routledge, 2022, 94-110.
  13. ^ Huang, Yibing (2020). An Ideological History of the Communist Party of China. Vol. I. Qian Zheng, Guoyou Wu, Xuemei Ding, Li Sun, Shelly Bryant. Montreal, Quebec. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-4878-0425-1. OCLC 1165409653.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  14. ^ Pringsheim (1962), p. 78.
  15. ^ Patrick Fuliang Shan, Li Dazhao: China's First Communist, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2024, 175-182.
  16. ^ Yan Zhixin. Li Dazhao and Feng Yuxiang. Beijing: People's Liberation Army Publishing House, 1987, p. 202.
  17. ^ Zhu Zhimin. 李大钊传 [Biography of Li Dazhao]. Beijing: Hongqi Publishing House, 2009, p. 358.
  18. ^ Meisner (1967), p. 259.
  19. ^ Yang (2014), p. 516.
  20. ^ Arif Dirlik, The Origin of Chinese Communism, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 43.
  21. ^ Meisner (1967), p. 12.
  22. ^ Xing, Yi (1 January 2021). "Films to celebrate the centennial of CPC". China Daily. Retrieved 1 November 2023.


External links[edit]

  • Media related to Li Dazhao at Wikimedia Commons