Man Below the Wind—Ba Ren in the 1940s, a Chinese Marxist’s encounter with colonialism

Portrait of Ba Ren (Wang Renshu)

In 1941, under Zhou Enlai’s orders, Wang Renshu (Ba Ren) planned to travel to the US to run the Overseas Chinese Daily News. Getting a passport turned out to be harder than he had anticipated, and he never made it out of Singapore. There he met Hu Yinzhi, who ran the Nanyang Business Daily newspaper, and in October he started teaching in Nan Chiau Normal University, writing articles for a local magazine in his free time. In December the Asia- Pacific War broke out. The Overseas Chinese Resistance Mobilization Committee was quickly organized in response in Singapore, under the leadership of Chinese businessman Chen Jiageng, while a group of intellectuals including Ba Ren, Hu Yuzhi, Yu Dafu and Yang Sao formed the Overseas Chinese Wartime Cultural Operation Team. After the Japanese army began shelling in February, the British army retreated and Singapore fell. Ba Ren escaped with Liu Yan (Lei Derong), Yang Sao and 28 others in a small motorized sampan to the Riau Islands in the Sumatra region of Indonesia. Sumatra was invaded by the Japanese in March, and Ba Ren and Yang Sao started living in western Sumatra, where, in October , under the name He Xiusheng, Ba Ren organized a progressive resistance force of overseas Chinese youth. In January 1943 Ba Ren arrived in the city of Medan, where he led the Anti- Fascist Alliance and edited an underground anti- Japanese publication. When the Japanese army launched the Mass Reporting of Internal Enemies to the Authorities Campaign on 20 September 1943, many members of the Anti-Fascist Alliance were captured, but with the help of friends, Ba Ren and Liu Yan were able to escape to the wildlands of slash-and-burn agriculture, concealing their identities and preserving their strength until the Japanese were defeated, in September 1945.

There is no shortage of writing about and by the intellectuals who fled Singapore during the war (the disappearance of Yu Dafu is legendary; not only did his contemporaries repeatedly write about it, but the story continues to appear in literary and film adaptations). But of this group only Ba Ren decided to set up in Indonesia and organize the anti- Japanese resistance. He firmly believed that in the global struggle against fascism, losing ground to the Japanese in Indonesia translated to losing ground to the Japanese in China, a position that was not without its opponents in the movement. Ba Ren’s Writings in Indonesia was written during this three-year period and combines an observer’s travel notes, nonfiction, interviews, rumors, and the regrets, reflections, and analyses of activists at the time. It is a vivid depiction of Ba Ren’s transformation over the course of his explorations in the region, from newcomer to an Old Southern Oceaner. It was also a time of great change in Sumatra. The end of the nineteenth century saw capital and a rampant vampiric class draw people of all colors to Sumatra as contract laborers (a process the Chinese referred to as “selling piglets”). Chinese and Javanese laborers were worked to the bone to cultivate the wild, inhospitable terrain so that colonial powers such as the Dutch, Americans, and French could set up rubber, tobacco, and Manila hemp plantations, transforming the entire region into a “plantation society.” The area bound by Aceh to the north, the Karo Highlands to the west and the Strait of Malacca to the east was referred to by the Dutch as “cultuurgebied” (the “plantation belt”). The great profits provided by its fertile soil meant it was also called the “Dollar Land of Delight.” The drastically different trades were divided among Chinese laborers depending on their place of origin, each with their own line of business, whether Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka or Teochew. Chinese merchants were not the majority of the 2.2 million overseas Chinese at the time, but their ability to adapt to different political systems and spend large sums of money meant that they played a significant role in shaping the image of Chinese people in the area. Javanese and Malays who lived in villages at the borders of these plantations also endured various tribulations during this period. Farmers who lost their land were forced to flee en masse to the cities to live as vagrants. “The chains that bound them together had been smashed,” Ba Ren writes, explaining that the “gotong royong” (the commons of the wilderness) was a principle of shared labor that brought pride to Indonesian farmers. There was a spirit of mutual cooperation when seeds were sown or the harvest collected, something that was exploited by the Japanese army when they transformed the “gotong royong” into a system of labor that was carried out as a form of military duty. The countryside began relying on the free market, which led to “me-ism”. The concept of private property forced its way in via colonialist economics and a system of law that led to the plundering of local resources: “The notion of fairness gradually departed from public consciousness,” Ba Ren continues. As his vigorous and rich writing unfolds, it is not only his life on the run that one sees in his words, but every activist’s struggle to produce a new world. Ba Ren’s Marxist outlook means that he is especially sensitive to the violence of imperialism, local despots and capital. In the name of “civilization and modernity,” these different forms of violence destroyed the region’s former way of life. An insightful quote by Ba Ren sums up the situation of the plantation: “The great farm developed as a result of the combination of the capital of Westerners, the land of Indonesians and the labor of the Chinese.”

Letter of Appointment of Ambassador Ba Ren to Indonesia
Courtesy to Ningbo Archives

An exile in the havoc of war, engaged in various occupations, Ba Ren spent a lot of time in a kind of “in-between” state, looking with longing toward his motherland, his motherland not returning his gaze, surrounded on all sides by a terrain both unfathomable and exhausting. Trapped in the dense forest, Ba Ren occasionally tried to discover news of the movement, but it was as though it had evaporated, with only vague outlines occasionally materializing in the mist. (He read in a Japanese magazine of the Yan’an Rectification Movement, but did not know the details.) On December 30, 1944, Ba Ren came down with typhoid and was taken by a friend to a hospital in a farming complex in East Sumatra. East Sumatran society had already been completely transformed by the new agricultural industry, and all the best hospitals were in the plantations, huge western buildings with both Indonesian and western doctors. He was treated by a Dutch doctor: “We’ve not got any medicine. All you can do is go back and try to get some rest.” On the bumpy four-hour journey back, convinced that he was going to die, Ba Ren wrote a letter to his revolutionary comrades and Liu Yan, the woman who after assuming the identity of his wife was gradually becoming the real thing: “Little Liu knows about all my activities overseas, she can tell you everything about it. I might have made some mistakes, but I have done everything I could to help with the movement.” After a month under the loving care of Liu Yan, Ba Ren’s fever subsided. The two of them would go on to laugh about how the disease had brought them closer together. Their words were not only a mixture of romantic and revolutionary love but also a reflection of the “in-between” state of exiles: “Your body belongs to me but also doesn’t, for it is the property of the Communist Party.”

Reading the bodies of the inhabitants of the region became a useful method for understanding local culture when language barriers meant Ba Ren was unable to communicate with them. The body after all is a rich text that does not lie, and the people Ba Ren met in the villages were usually engaged in the kind of arduous labor that leaves its mark. In his writing, Ba Ren is always interpreting the bodies of the people around him, and interestingly he often cannot help but unconsciously sexualize, exoticize and racialize the objects of his scrutiny. As with many colonial painters, Ba Ren also observed how the sarongs worn by local women revealed their arms and the outline of their breasts, and he took note when Malay women bathed in the rivers and lakes of the rainforest. “Her eyes fixed on you with that dreamy look that Malay women have.” The combination of uninhibited women and all- consuming desire rendered previous moral convictions unimportant. A redistributive society is after all simply part of the “natural order.” His understanding of men’s bodies, however, was imbued with sympathy for the proletariat, like the “emaciated body” of an ill Javanese farmer, or Ren Sheng’s father-in-law, whose life “is an accumulation of jet-black shadows. The sound of his onerous snoring is an indictment of our world.”

Some manuscripts of Ba Ren’s writings
Courtesy to Ningbo Archives

As a Marxist who spent most of his life on the Chinese mainland, Ba Ren’s understanding of class and race in the kaleidoscopic world of colonized Southeast Asia was bound to have its limitations. His faith in the superiority of Chinese civilization and his occasionally self-pitying regard for the Chinese people’s plight sometimes leaps out of his writing in way that makes one unsure whether to laugh or cry. But his untrammeled honesty and almost childlike inquisitiveness always triumph over his ignorant pride. No matter how remote and inhospitable the place he finds himself in, even for example the “red-arsed monkey kingdom” he writes of in “In Village Surabeia”, where “monkeys outnumber people by a factor of dozens,” he inevitably adopts a buoyant, positive attitude to observe the society around him and search within it for possibilities for political activity. The opportunities for effective action in history are rare, but when it comes to a sense of political responsibility and solidarity, Ba Ren is undoubtedly a master. In each of his essays, Ba Ren engages in dialogue with one or two farmers, using his patchy Malay to “chat about their experiences,” which he then records word-for-word in his journal. There is the taciturn Guangxi farmer Ren Sheng, who despite his best efforts was unable to acquire his own piece of land, and the Chinese man who came to Indonesia as a “sold piglet” and died unmarried and childless, lamenting the fact he had no son to burn joss paper for him after his death (“Ren Sheng and the People Around Him”). There is the man who traveled from Java to Sumatra who sweated and toiled to work off his plantation contract before settling down with a local woman in a nearby village (“Neighbors”). There is the Batak from North Sumatra who after a Dutch-run plantation appropriated his land had no choice but to work there as a hired laborer (“In Village Surabeia”). Ba Ren, who had initially read mostly of class antagonism in books, was now laughing and crying with people as they shared their stories, developing a class and racial antagonism that came from real experience. However, such a drastic change in personal experience is not an easy process: “The love of a farmer and the love of a poet, the love of reality and the love of fantasy, are like the sun and the moon, they can never meet” (“Ren Sheng and the People Around Him”). Each time Ba Ren hears a story of someone deprived of everything, or how farmland could be rented for a little money, rendering the farmers who originally lived and worked there homeless, he often reacts with stunned disbelief, which is another of my favorite parts of the book. “In what way are we not looters ourselves?” “Is the essence of humanism no more than what looters preach to disguise their true selves?” He constantly reflects on the gulf between the bourgeois intellectual and the masses, subjecting himself to a relentless revolutionary critique while turning an affectionate and encouraging eye to these “wretched and endearing people.”

The author Dui Fang is a co-founder of Rumah Kaca. Ru- mah Kaca is a publishing project focused on Southeast Asian literature and thought. They hope to carry on the spirit of the long lost Asian-African literary movement, advo- cating direct translation and shared read- ing. They look forward to collaborating with friends in different regions and together throwing seeds to the wind.

Translated by Stephen Nashef

Ren Sheng and the People Around Him (excerpt)

Ba Ren

Once, during my travels, I found myself struck by the Chinese people’s strength of character. It is like a seed, which, even if dropped in a crack in the rocks, will absorb all it can from the ground on which it finds itself to germinate and sprout: “Take root, spread out, grow and flourish!”

It is for this reason that I say that ours is a people that takes root wherever it goes.

Maybe an old Southern Oceaner who is used to all this wouldn’t think anything of it, but for someone like me who found myself stranded by chance in the lands across the Southern Ocean, I can’t help but be astonished by what I have seen. Why is it that no matter where you go, you come across our fellow countrymen who have taken root in another people’s land? Whether in the arid planes of a desert or marshes deep in the mountains, you can always find our countrymen, seeds that have floated over in the wind, thriving in their new environment.

At the end of March in 1942, we were forced to flee to a small island in the Riau province of Sumatra. The administrative capital of this island is called Selat Panjang, which in Indonesian means “Long Channel,” because the small island lies in the Bengkalis sea, just beyond a long and narrow channel separating it from Sumatra. It was over a month since Singapore had fallen and we had heard that Japanese troops had arrived in Medan, the administrative capital of Sumatra. A close friend told me it wasn’t a good idea for us to stay in Selat Panjang and that we should look for a small village to lie low in. I discussed it with Old Ya and asked if he would come with us, because we couldn’t speak Hokkien or Cantonese. The Chinese who lived here would call us “standard people,” because we spoke standard Mandarin. Standard people were a novelty in Southern Ocean society and none of our compatriots were willing to let us stay with them. Maybe you would have to pretend to be relatives if you wanted to avoid an unhappy end after the Japanese army arrived, and what would happen if you couldn’t speak the same language as your host? Old Ya was staying with someone from his hometown in Fujian at the time. The landlord knew he was an intellectual but didn’t care. If we were to go to a small village and didn’t have him to help us translate, we wouldn’t be able to survive.


During my time living on the island, I gradually came to know the story of how Ren Sheng and his father started a family business on this land. I will write a quick outline of it here.

It’s said that Ren Sheng’s father was a tall, strapping farmer who was full of energy. People often praised him as a man who could lift half the sky with one arm. The earth would split under his heavy footsteps, willingly offering up all of its hidden treasures. His great strength also endowed him with an unshakeable confidence in himself. He saw himself as a solitary, independent figure in this world who could do as he pleased. Of course, his fate did not turn out as he hoped. His home of Guangxi province did not provide him with the opportunity to make use of his strengths and he often compared himself to a leech. Where a leech needed the nutritious flesh of a person’s leg, what he needed was some fertile land, from which he would suck all he could until there was not a drop of blood left. People say that the reason the Chinese set out on the Southern Ocean was simply to find food. There is certainly truth to this, but a lot of people also wanted their own land. This is not because there are too many people in China or not enough land, but because what land there is does not belong to people like Ren Sheng’s father. He managed to get by in his hometown for some thirty-seven or thirty-eight years thanks to his great strength, but there was nothing in the way of opportunities to improve his lot in life. When his son grew up, there was an extra pair of hands to work the land. This freed up half of his time and energy, which some years he spent working on rented land and others he spent doing paid jobs for other people. He was a jack of all trades. Not only was he capable in all aspects of farming, but he could also do basic carpentry, build houses and make household utensils. But the soil of his hometown in China did not provide his life with the conditions to blossom and grow, and with his son of working age, the excess manpower that was going to waste began to weigh heavily on him. He often heard fellow villagers talk of the great opportunities in the Southern Ocean and, one night, he decided it was time to take the plunge. He got some savings together and went to Singapore. At first, he stayed with someone who came from his town in Guangxi, doing odd jobs for room and board. This system is called “numpang” in Indonesian and is peculiar to the society of Chinese overseas. When someone arrives in a new land from China for the first time, they inevitably first live with someone from the same town in China who gives them a place to stay and food. In exchange, the newcomer helps out with various jobs until they find their own work. This is of course an example of the spirit of mutual support between fellow townspeople, but it also means providing unrecompensed labour. Ren Sheng’s Father was living and working at the rubber plantation owned by his fellow townsman who also ran a shop in Singapore. During his time there, he began to get an idea of the situation for Chinese wanting to buy land in Malaysia. Land was expensive and people who lacked capital all went to the Riau Islands. You couldn’t buy land in Riau, but you were able to rent it from the head of the local village. There was a lot of land and only a handful of people. The rents weren’t too high and there wasn’t much danger of people fighting over land. Many Chinese went there to start a panglong business, renting densely forested land where they would cut down trees for lumber to ship overseas. There were also those who had sago-palm processing plants. The sago palm grows by the sea and the pith can be removed, ground into powder, washed with water and strained to extract the starch. This is the basis of the sago we eat. All of these processes didn’t require much money. The only investment you needed was hard work. The question was how to organise labour. Having gotten to terms with all of this, Ren Sheng’s father finally felt he had somewhere he could make use of his strengths. He discussed it with his landlord and borrowed a little capital. His landlord had a business in Selat Panjang that acquired local produce and shipped it to Singapore to be sold. He considered Ren Sheng’s father’s proposal as well as how it might benefit his own business and agreed to help him. “If you want some start-up money, you can pay it back at my local produce business there,” he said. So Ren Sheng’s father went to Riau to explore his options, and settled on this place near the sungai sempit. He wrote a letter home telling his family to leave China for the Southern Ocean: “Sell the land and house back home. With a bit of capital, we can make an investment here! I don’t miss home. The Tang Mountains are no place to live. Here it’s much easier to get a bit of land of your own.” This was the gist of what he wrote. However, no matter whether here or back in the motherland, life has a way of turning out differently from the way you expect. Back in the motherland, Ren Sheng’s father was a farmer and a hired labourer, a man with two modes of employment. Here, the land he rented was his to do with as he pleased for fifteen years, but the money he used to rent it came from somewhere else: his fellow townsman’s loan. He was working under a kind of “limited partnership.” He had not factored in the fact that in poor harvest years, his fixed loan repayments would continue to eat the same amount into his much more variable yields. It was 1925 and seventeen-year-old Ren Sheng, his fifteen-year-old brother and his mother arrived in this strange, new country. Ren Sheng’s father saw his land not as a way to make food but to get rich, to make money in the market. The officials here don’t want people planting crops. What they want is rubber trees, betel nut or anything good for export. In this regard, the authorities know what they’re doing. Rice comes cheap from Siam or Myanmar so there’s no need for people to plant their own food here. It’s a different system, but the money you make at the end of the day can be spent anywhere. Rice farmers in Siam, Myanmar and Vietnam are ruthlessly exploited, most living no better than slaves to produce cheap rice that is exported to the people here who can then expend their labour on farming produce for export. This way, the authorities also profit from the sweat and toil of Siamese, Vietnamese and Burmese farmers. They tax imported rice and acquire foreign currency reserves from exports. It is not only the local authorities that profit from both sides. The activity of these three groups all feed off one another. Ren Sheng’s father set out to adapt his way of life to this new system. He planted a few vegetables for the family to eat, built a thatched hut for the family to live in, and then used the slash-and-burn method, cutting down the dense forest and burning it to cultivate the land for rubber and betel-nut trees. The betel nut and rubber weren’t enough to cover his daily expenses, so he also worked on producing sago and raising pigs. Most of the sago he produced he sold straight away. Occasionally he’d put some aside for the family to eat, and the sediment left over from sago extraction could also be fed to the pigs. He could just about get by on the tiny profits he made. He pegged his hopes and dreams on his rubber and betel nut trees. He thought that with the first harvest he could satisfy the basic needs of his children and grandchildren, but his small profits still had to cover the debt he owed to his fellow countryman. When the rubber and betel nut were harvested, Ren Sheng’s family appeared to be flourishing. Ren Sheng’s father expanded their sago operation, investing in a machine to help with sago extraction. They lacked labour power, so Ren Sheng’s father wrote a letter home inviting his uncle and others to come out and help. They were all single men, which was what he needed. Everyone came together to eat and work like a family. He also hired Agen to work in the sago plant. A few years ago, he built a new house, which didn’t require too much money. He invited a few people from his hometown living in Singapore to do the woodwork, decoration and design. Ren Sheng and his father both helped cutting wood, sanding columns, digging foundations and levelling the land. The carpenter that came to help with the house is the little old man who is now Ren Sheng’s father-in-law. It’s true that all sorts of good things come when you are doing well financially. While they were building the house, the carpenter and Ren Sheng’s father came to an agreement and the two families were joined by their children’s marriage.

Ren Sheng’s father thought he had two inexhaustible sources of wealth: his family’s labour power and his time on this earth. After the rubber and betel nut trees were planted, he used his time to grind sago until it was time to harvest the rubber and betel nut again. Then he hired people from his hometown to grind sago while he collected the rubber and betel nut harvest. With the spare time he had after the rubber and betel nut were harvested, he started building a new house. He said he was committed to making the most of these two sources of wealth so that he had something to leave behind to his children and grandchildren, but this is not the whole story. He also enjoyed his work. To combine labour and time in a way that reaped the most from his environment was something in which he took genuine pleasure. For him, to work was to be human. He often said, “If you have nothing to do, you’ll get sick. Better to be dead than idle.”

But two forces of fate were weighing down on him that he wasn’t even aware of. The flow of capital, even for a middle-aged man, can turn a head of hair that is greying at the temples completely white. He borrowed a little capital for the first few years, which was able to cover some of the things he needed. But what starts as a small debt can grow and, combined with the rent he had to pay, his burden began to increase. There wasn’t a good market-price for rubber with the first harvest and he had to sell the fruits of his labour for cheap. Luckily for him, a great monster appeared from a country far away and began to massacre people all over the world. Ren Sheng’s father was saved by the arrival of war and the accompanying increase in prices. In the years of 1933 and 1934, while the rest of the world’s economy experienced a long period of depression, Ren Sheng’s father’s business thrived and his financial situation began to improve. Within a few years he had two more wives living with him and had freed himself from the grip of most of his debt. He had three kinds of produce, not including what he made from raising pigs, and although he had never planned to find enjoyment in a life of luxury, he felt a certain freedom in his new situation. He continued to put even more effort into his work, but in 1939 Hitler dealt him a massive blow. Hitler’s blow to the people of Poland also struck Ren Sheng’s father. First of all, they had lost a major buyer of betel nut. According to Ren Sheng, betel nut was a big seller in Germany, mainly as a dying pigment. But now that market was gone! Then sago sales started to dry up. A huge amount of rubber was sold to the Americans, but the Western rubber companies in Singapore completely controlled the market. The money Ren Sheng’s father made selling the little rubber he produced went through a series of intermediaries before reaching him, and by the time they had all taken their share what was left to him wasn’t enough to live on. On top of this, he had also accumulated new debts when his sons had gotten married. He had already taken loans from lenders in the city, borrowing against his future revenue, but in the new market his produce wasn’t worth much. And so his situation saw a massive turn for the worse and there was nothing he could do about it. He stopped harvesting betel nut and let the fruit fall to the ground and rot. He stopped grinding sago and the processing plant went out of business. He mortgaged off most of his rubber plantation, leaving behind only a small patch of land behind his house for himself, as his last remaining hope. And worst of all, in 1941, his youngest son, Ren Sheng’s brother, stabbed himself to death. The old man began to rue his misfortune: the passage of time was cruel, fate was against him, his land and resources gone. But he still believed that his strength could open a new world to him. He had to start over. In the latter half of that year, he went to the other side of Selat Panjang, to a place called Yellow Mud Hills near the island’s opposite coast hoping to make a life for himself on a new piece of land. He left Ren Sheng behind and went with his first wife, his widowed daughter-in-law and two numpang workers from his hometown in China. Ren Sheng meanwhile became the master of the little land his father had left behind. Over the previous few years, Ren Sheng had become aware of a kind of force that weighed down on their lives, an oppressive force that, no matter how frugal and hardworking they were, there was nothing they could do to resist. You could call it fate if you like and he wouldn’t disagree with you. If you never did much work and instead smoked a bit of opium, relaxed and refreshed your mind, you would find that the oppressive force seemed to lose some of its strength. He had discovered a new way of life: if you did what you needed to get by without committing yourself too much to anything, passing your time in a zombie-like state, you found you had a little more room to breathe. A few years ago, to put food on the table, he hooked up with Bao Chao and started smuggling alcohol. It was easy work and it meant he didn’t have to worry much about anything. He didn’t even put much effort into raising the pigs. In many ways, he was liberated by his father’s departure to start a new life on the other side of the island.

This is the story of the rise and fall of Ren Sheng’s family, and the reason that their land now lies barren.

“People shouldn’t take things too seriously,” Ren Sheng said to me once. “Look at Agao, working himself to the bone to make money. It’s not even a question of him being rich enough to be buried in a stone coffin. I’m saying that the time will come when even he’s poor and struggling to get by. I tell you, money, you could say it doesn’t have legs, but it sure likes running away from you. Of course, those shops in the towns and cities are always gonna do a lot better than us in the villages, but money is a strange beast that loves chaos. Any chance it gets it will make a break for it and run to the big skyscrapers in the cities. Dad never got it. He always thought that you could dig gold from the ground. But it’s not true. The way I see it is money’s got legs and it knows how to run around, so I’ve found a new approach. If you see it on the road, pick it up and put it in your pocket. But it likes to circulate, doesn’t like staying put, so the best thing to do is to spend it quick, let it roam free, run from place to place. This is what I do. People say that my opium habit brought my family to ruin but I don’t think so. I don’t smoke too much and perhaps my family will see better days again in the future. If I have money I smoke, if I don’t I stop. We mortgaged off our land because we had no choice. How is that my fault?”

This is Ren Sheng’s worldview, which is a result of his experience and a justification for the way he lives. When you reflect on the deeper meaning behind this statement, you are struck by an icy sensation colder than the milk from a freshly cracked coconut.