The Death of Phyllis Li

Anecdotes are the opium of popular history. They are the easiest things to add into any historical narrative or description, need few or no connections with the general subject, and are seldom subjected to a hard look by picky reviewers. They are one of the rewards of reading stacks of dusty books, otherwise so often sadly lacking in useful data, and can be conveniently stored on file cards allowing easy retrieval.

Such anecdotes play an essential role in popular accounts of 20th century Chinese history, and are part of the traditional wisdom passed on from one sloppy writer to another, even when they are obvious errors, exaggerations, or lies. It is a hopeless task to try and get rid of all these anecdotes, but tilting at windmills is one of the fun parts of research and scholarship, and it never hurts to add a footnote to such stories, even if no one reads it.

My footnote for today is on an anecdote from Vincent Sheean’s autobiographical account of his career as a free-lance journalist, Personal History (1935). The book describes how Sheean traveled to China in 1927 and managed to interview several important people, including Michael Borodin, Russian advisor to the KMT and Chinese Communist Party, and Soong Ch’ing-ling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen.

Coming at a crucial moment for which Chinese accounts have been hard to come by, Sheean’s book has been cited by serious historians such as C. Martin Wilbur, casual writers such as Helen Foster Snow and Jung Chang, and hacks such as Sterling Seagrave. Unfortunately, the casual writers and hacks used the book with less care than they should have, as this post will show.

To understand Sheean’s anecdote, you have to know something of the historical background. The anecdote concerns Li Ta-chao (Li Dazhao), the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party. Originally a professor at Peking University, Li was deeply involved in revolutionary activities in Peking from 1921 onward. By December 1926, however, Peking fell under the control of Chang Tso-lin (Zhang Zuolin), a general whose army held large portions of Northern China and who was strongly anti-communist.

The Russian government had earlier been recognized by the northern government and established an embassy in Peking. Beginning in 1924, the Russians had also established an alliance with the government of Sun Yat-sen, whose party, the KMT, had built a foothold in the southern city of Canton. The Russian condition for alliance was that the larger KMT accept individual members of the Communist Party. Sun agreed, and through Canton the Russians poured money, weapons, and advisors into China, in the hope of making China the next victory of Communist revolution.

Sun died in 1925, but his party the Kuomintang (KMT) continued, and in 1926 set out on a Northern Expedition intended to unify all of China, including Peking, under their control. Chang Tso-lin was of course opposed to this, and attempted to capture or kill the KMT and Communist Party activists in Peking. The activists, including Li Ta-chao and his family, took refuge in Russian housing in the Legation Quarter, the section of Peking where all the foreign embassies were located. The quarter enjoyed extraterritorial rights, meaning that it was exempt from Chinese laws and government.

After acquiring evidence that the KMT and Communists were using their refuge in the Quarter for revolutionary activities, the Peking authorities went to the Legation authorities and asked for permission to enter and arrest Chinese citizens in the Russian section of the Quarter. The authorities agreed, and on April 6, 1927, the Peking Police arrested about a hundred people, both Chinese and Russians, including Li Ta-chao, his wife, and two of his daughters. Li was put on trial, and together with 19 other KMT and Communist party members was sentenced to death by garroting (strangulation). They were executed on April 28th.

Sheean’s anecdote concerns “the revolutionary spirit” that Borodin transmitted to the Chinese around him:

There were educated Chinese girls who risked death in the effort to tell the workers and peasants who their real enemies were. One of these girls–we all knew her in Hankow–was disembowelled by Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers on June 21st in Hangchow for saying that the Nanking war lord did not represent the party or principles of Sun Yat-sen. Her intestines were taken out and wrapped around her body while she was still alive. Girls and boys were beheaded for saying what they believed; men were hung up in wooden cages to die of hunger and thirst or were broken on the rack. Little Phyllis Li, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the hero Li Ta-chao, was tortured by Chang Tso-lin’s men for three days and three nights before they mercifully strangled her, and in the whole time she told them nothing. (Sheean, 227)

From a later discussion (Sheean 241-242), it is clear that this long description of the martyrs to the revolution is a quote from Soong Ch’ing-ling, who told Sheean these particular details on July 1st, 1927.

The development of the anecdote in print is not complex. Sheean first mentioned Phyllis Li’s death in a 1927 article in Asia magazine; the section of his 1935 autobiography quoted above was first printed in the Atlantic Monthly in Dec. 1934. The passage has since been quoted or used numerous times, including books by Helen Foster Snow, Sterling Seagrave, Jung Chang, and Gus Lee. Only Snow and Chang manage to trace the anecdote back to Sheean; Seagrave incorrectly attributes it to Harold Isaacs, and Lee simply inserts it into a dialogue without any citation.

The details of most of Soong’s anecdote are of course impossible to verify. The anonymous martyr in Hangchow doesn’t seem to align with the biographies of any well known figures. I have not found any newspaper reports of such gruesome incidents. Beheading apparently did occur at the time. The New York Times carried a story of street beheadings in Shanghai in Feb. 1927, but the norm of course was shooting. Wooden cages were used to display captured enemies. Fang Chih-min, a prominent Communist in the 1930s, was paraded through the streets of Nanchang in a wooden cage, but following this he was executed, not starved. I don’t know what the word rack is supposed to mean in this context; the western rack was not a common device in China.

The one figure who it is possible to identify is “Phyllis Li.” Although I have not found any other sources for the name Phyllis, the age makes it clear that the girl was Li Hsing-hua (Li Xinghua), Li Ta-chao’s oldest daughter. Li Hsing-hua was born in 1911, thus she was 16 in 1927; the one year discrepancy is due to using the Chinese style of counting age, in which you are one year old (yi-sui) at birth. However, Li Hsing-hua was not strangled in 1927; she died in 1979, at the age of 68. In 1943 she wrote an account of the raid, titled “Remembering 16 Years Ago”, which was later published in a book called “Biographies of Chinese Communist Martyrs.” This is now a very well-known account in China; it is used in the national Chinese language textbook for sixth grade. The essay is a sad tribute to her father’s memory and describes her own experiences during the April 6 raid (she was with Li when he was arrested), but she does not mention being tortured.

Going back to the source of the anecdote, it seems unlikely that Soong Ching-ling actually thought that Li Hsing-hua had been strangled. According to Hsing-hua, she, her sister, and her mother were all released on the 28th, the day of Li’s execution, so while her fate might have been unknown prior to then, her family and friends would have immediately learned of the news. Soong told the story to Sheean two months after this, and Soong’s connections with Peking were good; it seems impossible that she did not know Li’s family had been released.

So why would Soong lie? Soong told the anecdote to both Sheean and Rayna Prohme, an American woman working in Hankow, and Sheean writes that he thought Soong was trying to get Prohme to apply for refuge in the American consulate because of the dangerous situation in the city. This is as good a guess as any.

Sheean seems to have never discovered that the story about Hsing-hua was not true. This is not surprising; he was not an expert on China, read no Chinese, and probably never had occasion to reexamine this particular story, though he did maintain his friendship with Soong up until his death. That Foster-Snow repeats the story (Foster-Snow 140) in 1967 is surprising. Foster-Snow was very familiar with the conditions of the Chinese Communist movement, lived in China for a lengthy period in the 1930s, and continued visiting the country up into the 1980s. One would expect her to be better informed than Sheean. It is even more surprising that Jung Chang’s biography of Soong Ching-ling repeats this anecdote (Chang and Holliday 56) without comment; Chang grew up in China and should have been much more familiar with the story than her account shows.

Sterling Seagrave’s confused account of the anecdote (Seagrave 228, 485n) is typical of his style; Seagrave’s preference is for as gruesome as possible accounts of reactionary atrocities and their truth is secondary for him. Still, it is amusing that he misattributes the anecdote to Harold Isaacs’s book The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. Isaacs was an important source for Seagrave’s book, The Soong Dynasty, and the fact that Seagrave attributes Sheean’s anecdote to Isaacs shows how careless his research was. Gus Lee’s book (Lee 280) is supposedly a non-fiction biographical account, but it actually incorporates large amounts of fiction, with details of varying authenticity borrowed from various sources; in this case, he is probably using Seagrave.

The distorted versions of Li Hsing-hua’s experiences, repeated again and again for decades, show the hazards of using hoary anecdotes without checking. It also shows the distance that sometimes exists between western accounts and Chinese reality. In this case, it is literally true that these writers’ mistakes could have been corrected by a Chinese sixth grade student.


Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Madame Sun Yat-Sen: Soong Ching-Ling. London: Penguin, 1986.

Lee, Gus. Chasing Hepburn: A Memoir of Shanghai, Hollywood, and a Chinese Family’s Fight for Freedom. New York: Harmony, 2003.

Sheean, Vincent. Personal History. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., 1935.

Snow, Helen Foster. Women in Modern China. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.

Seagrave, Sterling. The Soong Dynasty. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

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