Aking Chan: a Chinese volunteer in the Basque militia

Post date: 26/04/2021

Hwei-Ru Ni is co-author of the pioneering 'The Call of Spain: The Chinese volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)'. Here she writes about Aking Chan, the only Chinese volunteer who came to Spain directly from China, using new information drawn from the manuscripts of Basque militia fighter Luis Ariznabarreta.

This is an edited and translated version of an article which was originally published in the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekend, 18 February 2021.

Aking Chan (right) and Ben Raadi, a Moroccan prisoner of war, in San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp, 1938. (Photo: Carl Geiser)

Not many people know about the Chinese volunteer Aking Chan. He was one of 12 Chinese volunteers who fought fascism during the Spanish Civil War, but he was the only one directly from China and his experience is full of legends.

Last autumn I was forwarded an email from a woman called Begoña Ariznabarreta, or Bego for short, who claimed to have information about the Chinese volunteer Aking Chan. 

Residing in the Basque autonomous region of northern Spain, Bego was forced to stay at home because of the pandemic and unexpectedly found a manuscript left by her late father, written in 1979, recalling his experience of the Spanish Civil War. She found two articles of particular interest, the subject being about ‘a Chinese in the Basque army.’

During the Spanish Civil War, traveling across the world was extremely difficult. In the minds of the Basques, the Chinese seemed to be people from another planet. Why was there a Chinese participating in the Basque army! Bego was taken aback, and immediately searched the internet. She was pleasantly surprised to find that Laureano Ramirez translated the book ‘Chinese Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War’, which she bought and studied right away.

‘When I read the name of Aking Chan in the first pages [table of Contents], I immediately turned to his chapter and read his story. I clearly realized that he was the same Chinese brigadista who appeared in my father's writings,’ Bego wrote.

So did Bego's father fight the Spanish Civil War with Aking Chan?

Bego seemed to anticipate my question. She went on to write, ‘He participated in the Civil War with my father in Asturias, in the same squad as the Basque Brigade.’

This news made me very excited, since Aking Chan indeed participated in the war in Asturias! Bego's letter also revealed that her father and Chan not only fought in the same squad, but also encountered similar experiences. She wrote, ‘Aking Chan was captured together with my father and also locked up in a concentration camp.’

More than 80 years have passed since the Spanish Civil War broke out. Yet a Spanish fighter’s descendant is looking for me to provide information about a Chinese comrade in her father’s manuscript. This warmed my heart, and I immediately replied to her letter.

‘From your letter, we know that your father and Aking Chan, who was two years older than him, were not only on the same squad, but also held together as prisoners of war. To our comfort, your father finally came out of prison alive. However, Aking Chan’s fate remains unknown.’ I told Bego that we continue our research on Chinese and Asian volunteers who participated in the Spanish Civil War. ‘I hope you can share with us your father's manuscript about Aking Chan, so that we can add fragments of Aking Chan’s life in Spain, through the eyes of his comrade – your father.’

Bego's father was named Luis Ariznabarreta. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 87 and Bego has been putting her father's manuscript in digital format, making it easier for us to read. This is when we began regular communication.

How did Aking Chan end up fighting fascism in Spain? In fact, when he left China and went to Europe by ship, he didn't know that a civil war had broken out in Spain. But meeting a Vietnamese cook on the ship changed the course of his life.

Aking Chan, who grew up in Shanghai, China, was 24, and was being hunted down by the Chinese National Government for helping the communists organise a trade union. In desperation, he jumped on a British steamship, Gerta Moora, working as a cook's assistant.

On the ocean sailing to Europe, Aking Chan slowly got to know the cook. He found that the cook spoke not only French, but also several Chinese dialects. What surprised him most was the knowledge of the cook who seemed to know everything about the world. After working every day, Aking Chan listened to the cook talk about politics and Vietnam's search for independence, learning French from him.

When the steamship approached Europe, the cook told Aking Chan some serious news: Spain is in a civil war, German and Italian fascists are fully supporting Franco’s rebels and want to overthrow the democratically elected Spanish Republic. Western countries are not only failing to save the Spanish Republic, but also prohibit her from buying arms to save herself. If fascism succeeds in Spain, a world war will be in sight. Now is a crucial moment. He hoped Aking Chan could go to Spain and fight fascism.

The cook's impassioned words touched Aking Chan’s young heart. In August, when the steamship docked at Gijón, the port of Asturias in northern Spain, Aking Chan jumped ashore and went to join the local militia until he was arrested by Franco's army in late October. What experience did Aking Chan have during these two months? The manuscript of Bego's father, Luis, helps fill the gap in this period.

Luis was born and grew up in Soraluze in Basque. He received professional training in the armory school and worked in a factory operating a lathe. When the gunfire of the Spanish Civil War erupted in July 1936, Luis, almost 21 years old, immediately organized a militia with local young people to resist Franco’s rebels.

Due to insufficient military power, Luis’s militia retreated westward in April 1937. On their way, they looked to the east toward Guernica, and witnessed combustion flames from the brutal German aircraft bombing. Four months later, they retreated to Ceceda in Asturias, where they formed the Basque Brigade, composed of four companies. At this time, ‘a Chinese man from Shang[h]ai arrived there with two Basques to join our Brigade. He was assigned to my squad,’ Luis wrote.

Aking Chan was courageous. After getting off the ship in Gijón, he set foot on a completely unfamiliar land, not knowing how to speak the local language. Where could he join the army to fight? What's more, how could the army just accept a stranger to join? Apparently the Vietnamese cook who convinced him to come ashore had made some arrangements on the ground, allowing Aking Chan to go south to Ceceda to join the Basque Brigade.

They spoke Basque in the Brigade. Facing the language barrier, Luis speculated the meaning of Aking Chan’s expressions and guessed that he was a sailor on the ship. Luis supposed that Aking Chan, after getting off the ship in Gijon, got drunk, missed boarding and was left on shore.

Although Aking Chan did not understand Basque and had to ‘talk’ using body language and hand gestures, he insisted on participating in the war. Luis wrote in his manuscript, ‘This Chinese was involved in all our battles... He fought among the Basques, we called him 'Shang[h]ai' because he came from there. He was a Basque among us, in the fight as well as later in prison.’

Aking Chan arrived at the right time, when Asturias was fully embroiled in the war. On 6 September 1937, he followed the Basque Brigade to El Mazuco near the coast. A fierce battle began and the rebels, with seven times more troops than the Republican force, surged westward in waves. Although their weapons were sophisticated, they still couldn't conquer Mazuko. So Hitler’s German Condor Legion bombers appeared in groups and carried out carpet bombings, and Mazuko fell in the middle of the month. Aking Chan and the others walked west to Peñas Blancas, where there were three peaks. The terrain was rugged and difficult to navigate, forming a natural barrier. Aking Chan and the others guarded the top of the mountain where the freezing rain turned into snow. Again, the rebels used the same combat mode: airplane bombings followed by artillery and infantry attacks. The rebels took Peñas Blancas on 22 September. Aking Chan and his squad retreated north to Fito to continue the fight. The outstanding performance of the Basque Brigade on the battlefields earned them a special commendation from the Basque government. The entire Brigade was awarded the Republican Medal of Freedom.

Finally, they went north to La Berruga, where they received the message that the warship Jose Luis Diaz sent by the Basque government, was waiting in Gijon harbor, to send them the next morning to the Catalonia region to continue the fight. They headed north to Trubia where the commander told them that Franco's troops had occupied the entire coast of Asturias and they had been surrounded. They refused to surrender despite the siege, escaping to the southeast. Arriving in Mieres, Aking Chan, Luis and their comrades of the Basque Brigade were arrested by the rebels on 21 October 1937. Northern Spain fell completely under the control of Franco.

In the last two months of their fight in the war, Luis was always together with Aking Chan as the latter did not understand the Basque language. After they were captured in Mieres, Luis was transferred to a prison in León, and separated from Aking Chan. After that, the two comrades lost contact with each other.

Many years later, a Basque comrade told Luis that while he was in the Miranda de Ebro concentration camp, there was a Chinese who had fought in a Basque Brigade in the mountains of Asturias. When Luis heard this, he said, ‘Undoubtedly, this is my friend, our friend “Shang[h]ai”.’ He was extremely disappointed not to see Aking Chan there. When Aking Chan was taken to Miranda de Ebro concentration camp on December 10, 1941, Luis had already left the concentration camp in mid-November of the previous year. The two never met again.

Bego writes, ‘I believe that our father used writing about his war experiences as therapy. He would write on any paper, without caring about its appearance. When the whole family went to the countryside in the summer, I would see him sometimes write on the back of wrappers for chocolate bars that the children had eaten.’

In this way he left numerous manuscripts, jotting down his and his comrades’ deeds in the Spanish Civil War. Among them, he wrote a chapter ‘A Chinese in the Basque Army’, that ended with: ‘Friend 'Shang[h]ai', at the corner of Gasteiz in Basque Country, I give you warm greetings and hugs, from the bottom of my heart.’


Posted on 26 April 2021.

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