Chen Geng (Chinese: 陳賡; pinyin: Chén Gēng; February 27, 1903 – March 16, 1961) was a Chinese Communist military leader, one of the ten grand generals of the People’s Liberation Army.
Born in Hunan province, Chen was second of 12 siblings. However, because his elder brother died early due to illness, Chen became the eldest son. His grandfather, Chen Yiqiong (陳翼瓊) was an officer in the imperial Chinese army and was rewarded handsomely due to his bravery. After his retirement, Chen Yiqong was able to purchase farmland with his reward money and by the time Chen Geng was born, his family had several hundred mu of land, and became one of the wealthiest local families. Chen’s father was Chen Daoliang (陳道良), and his mother was Peng Xuexian (彭學嫻). When he was 13, his father arranged a marriage with a bride who was two years his senior, but Chen refused have an arranged marriage, and left home to join the army. However, military life in a warlord’s army was not what Chen had expected, and did not yield any glory like his grandfather’s. Instead, military life only gave Chen scabies, and influenced his remaining brother to join the military. This brother later died of an illness while he was serving. The disillusioned Chen left the army at the age of 18 and found a job at Hunan Railway Bureau as a desk clerk, and during this period, he met Mao Zedong, an event that changed his life forever.
Chen joined the Communist Party of China in 1922 and enrolled in the Whampoa Military Academy in 1924. Chen, along with Jiang Xianyun and He Zonghan, were considered the three best students of Whampoa Military Academy at the time. Chen earned Chiang Kai-shek’s deep trust and became the commander of Chiang’s garrison. In October 1925, during the second campaign against local warlord Chen Jiongming, Chiang’s vanguard force, the 3rd Division commanded by Tan Shuqing (譚曙卿), advanced too quickly and became isolated in their advance after taking Huizhou, Chen Jiongming’s base, and was ambushed by Chen Jiongming’s force commanded by warlord Lin Hu at Huayang. Against the advice of Chen, Chiang insisted on going to the frontline to command, but the situation was impossible: after beheading half a dozen deserters and personally leading the charge with a sabre in hand in an attempt to counterattack, Tan Shuqing proved unable to control his fleeing troops and the force completely collapsed. Chiang was ashamed, but refused to flee, and attempted to commit suicide. Chen succeeded in taking away Chiang’s pistol and carried Chiang away from the battlefield by force, and thus saved the life of Chiang Kai-shek, who, in turn, trusted him even more. However, when the Kuomintang broke with the Communists in 1927, Chen began to work as a secret agent for the Communists in Shanghai.
In March 1933, Chen was sent to Shanghai to have better medical treatment of his leg wounds, and gave some first-hand accounts of the Chinese Soviet Republic in Jiangxi to Agnes Smedley, becoming a source for her book China’s Red Army Marches. But while in Shanghai, he was captured by the Kuomintang. However, as he had saved the life of Chiang Kai-shek, his life was spared. Chiang was still very grateful to Chen and ordered his transfer to a much better facility to put Chen under house arrest instead of jail like ordinary prisoners, but taking this opportunity, Chen escaped a month later with the help of communist agents. Once again, Chiang spared Chen for saving Chiang’s life previously by not ordering the nationalist military and police to capture Chen at all cost like other important communist figures, but instead, claimed that Chen was to be released soon anyway.
After his escape in Nanjing, Chen was ordered by the communists to return to the communist base in Jiangxi via train, but he was recognized by nationalist officers riding on the same train. The former vice president of Whampoa Military Academy in charge of educational affairs, Qian Dajun (錢大鈞), Chen’s instructor at Whampoa Military Academy, also happened to be on the same train, and, along with his followers, recognized Chen. Qian ordered his deputy to invite Chen for dinner in his personal coach, and Chen initially refused, trying to pass himself off as a businessman, but his attempt only drew laughter from the nationalist officers, since both knew the true identities of the other. Knowing he was discovered, Chen had to go to Qian Dajun’s coach, and the two chatted for a while, when Qian revealed that he was sent by Chiang Kai-shek to Jiangxi to help to plan another campaign to exterminate the communists. Chen was obviously nervous and made an excuse to leave, claiming that he had to get off the train after the train had passed Xuzhou and Qian let him go.
Chen then boarded the same train and sat in the corner of a different section in a different coach in order to reach his destination, but once again, Qian’s deputy officer appeared in front of him with a smile on his face: “Mr. Chen, you haven’t gotten off the train yet, General Qian is asking for you again.” Chen had no choice but to go and this time he stayed longer and finished the meal with Qian Dajun before he was finally let go. Chen and Qian’s subordinates were equally baffled why Qian let Chen escape, and Qian revealed later that since Chiang would not order Chen executed and allowed his escape by claiming Chen was to be released anyway, arresting Chen and having him executed would put Chiang in a very difficult position because public opinion would be against Chiang. Furthermore, Qian Dajun personally liked the excellent student, who was a favorite of his, despite their political difference, and thus allowed Chen to escape. Chen eventually managed to enter the Communists’ base in Jiangxi and later completed the Long March in 1935.
When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, the Communists’ Red Army organized as the Eighth Route Army and Chen was appointed the chief commander of the 386th Brigade. He led the 386th brigade to several victories against the Japanese and his brigade had been called the best brigade in China by Evans F. Carlson. In 1940, he commanded his brigade in Shanxi during the Hundred Regiments Offensive. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Chen’s 386th brigade evolved into the 4th Column of the Shanxi – Henan – Hebei – Shandong Military District. He led his troops in many important battles of the Chinese Civil War, such as the Shangdang Campaign in 1945, the Datong-Puzhou Campaign, Linfen-Fushan Campaign, and subsequent Lüliang Campaign in 1946, the Campaign in the Eastern Foothills of the Funiu Mountains in 1947, and the Huaihai Campaign in 1948. By the time the civil war ended, the 4th Column became the 4th Army Group and Chen served as commander and political commissar. His troops entered Yunnan in 1949.
At the request of Hồ Chí Minh, who was a long time friend of Chen, Chen entered Vietnam and helped Võ Nguyên Giáp to launch a series of successful attacks on isolated French bases along the Chinese border in 1950. Back from Vietnam, he went to Korea and served as the commander and political commissar of the 3rd Army Group of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. When the Commander of Volunteer Army, Peng Dehuai went back to China, Chen worked as the CPVF Chinese General Headquarters as the acting Commander. He was conferred the rank of general in September, 1955. Chen’s brother-in-law, Tan Zheng, who was married to Chen’s younger sister Chen Qiuju (陈秋菊), was heavily influenced by Chen and thus joined revolution, and was also rewarded the rank of general with Chen in the same time.
After returning from the Korean War, Chen founded the Military Engineering Academy in Harbin, engaging in developing high-tech weapons. This school became one of the most famous universities in China within a few years. Although defunct in 1970, many military engineering colleges today in China such as the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha, can trace their origins to the Military Engineering Academy. Due to this experience, Chen later focused on the ballistic missile program and nuclear weapon program of China. However, he did not see the success of these programs. He died of a heart attack March 16, 1961 in Shanghai.
Chen is also famous for his straight forward and humorous personality. He often joked with his colleague, even with senior officers such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Lin Biao, and he has been said as the only one that dared to joke with Peng Dehuai. Chen’s first wife is Wang Genying (王根英), who was killed by Japanese troops in late 1938 in southern Hebei during a Japanese mop-up operation. His second wife is Fu Ya (傅涯).
In addition to his courage, Chen was also known for his cunning, which he used to his advantage among his comrades just like the way he fought his nationalist adversaries: during the time at Yan’an, the communists faced great material shortage and there was time that not enough food was available. To help to increase their food supply, the communists tried anything possible, and the commander-in-chief of the communist forces, Zhu De, took a good care of an apple tree in his yard and Chen convinced his buddy, another communist commander Chen Xilian (The two are not biologically related) to “harvest” the apples in Zhu De’s yard when the apples were ripe: since Zhu only had a single body guard and the local garrison for the communist leaders had to patrol all the residences of communist leaders, Chen Geng suggested that Chen Xilian go to Zhu’s residence during windy days when the local garrison was away patrolling other areas. Chen Xilian would talk to both Zhu and his wife as well as his bodyguard to distract them by keeping them in the room, while Chen knocked down as many apples as possible.
Chen would then go to Zhu’s room and pretend to meet Chen Xilian by accident and as the two were leaving, Chen Geng would tell Zhu that there were so many apples on the ground and they would like to have some. Zhu always agreed and the two would take as many as possible. When asked why not just take the apples and leave or just let a single person take the apples, Chen Geng humorously but honestly answered that he discovered when asking instead of stealing, Zhu would always help them to load apples into their bags and pockets, and he was capitalizing on Zhu’s free labor. In addition, Zhu had always given a slightly higher amount per capita when more people were present in comparison to a single person. Everybody would then burst into laughter, accusing Chen of stealing the apples and exploiting the commander-in-chief’s free labor to help thieves like Chen to steal his own apples. It was rumored that Zhu already realized Chen’s trick but allowed it to be played out because he like to help his comrades.
Another example of Chen’s cunning was that every communists cadre must volunteer his/her own labor for production or construction, and Chen, was assigned as one of those to build Yan’an airfield with Chen Xilian. Chen Geng told Chen Xilian that they were wasting energies by walking a long distance and pushing a cart on the way, and suggested that he would allow Chen Xilian to ride the cart, and he would push, so that once they reached the construction site, they would have more energy to contribute to actual work. On the way back to home, the role would be reversed with Chen Geng would be riding in the cart and Chen Xilian being the one would do the pushing. Chen Xilian was originally very happy to do so, but soon discovered that he was played by Chen Geng: on the way to work, it was not a problem of pushing the cart with a man in it because the day was just starting and no work was done. However, once off work, everybody was so tired because of the hard work and pushing a cart with a man in it was very exhausting. Obviously Chen Xilian demanded the practice to be changed with the two rotating the roles, Chen Geng refused and even though Chen Xilian stopped the practice after Chen Geng’s refusal, Chen Geng already had a week’s free ride.
In August, 1948 at Wuhan, Chen played a role as a matchmaker by introducing Wang Xuanmei (王璇梅), the younger sister of his first wife to his friend Chen Xilian, who is now the commander-in-chief of III Corps. Chen Xilian, whose first wife Su Ge (粟格), died of illness in the autumn of 1948, soon married Wang Xuanmei afterwards, and the two families remained good friends after the death of Chen Geng.