Chen Yun, one of the “eight immortals” of the Chinese Communist Party, meets with the Chinese Table Tennis team in 1961—a decade before “Ping-Pong diplomacy” changed the relationship between the United States and China.

Chen Yun, one of the most influential of China’s early Communist leaders, occupied a central place in the inner circle of leadership for much of the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He served on the Central Committee for 56 years and on the Politburo for over four decades—longer than Deng Xiaoping—but was never a contender for the party’s top post.

Considered to be one of China’s “eight immortals,” a group of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) patriarchs who held significant power after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Chen Yun was perhaps most famous for his theory of the “bird-cage economy.” He held that China’s market should be allowed to perform like a bird in a cage. The cage should not be so small that the bird cannot fly, but the bird should remain within the confines of a cage, lest it fly away.

Born in Qingpu near Shanghai on 13 June 1905, Chen worked as a typesetter in Shanghai before joining the CCP in 1925. He participated in the early part of the Long March before being sent to Moscow for training. After returning to China, Chen emerged as a key economic thinker and ideological theorist, especially during the 1942 Rectification Campaign. After the Communists came to power in 1949, Chen became the head economic planner, successfully managing the first phase of industrialization and ending runaway inflation. His economic policies, heavily based on the Soviet model of industrialization, provided the basis for economic development into the mid-1950s. But when the Chinese leadership decided to abandon the Soviet model to follow a more Chinese path to socialism, conflict between Mao and Chen began to emerge.

Chen rejected Mao’s view that economic development could be attained through the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. Instead, Chen argued for slower and more stable economic growth, saying that the market, rather than mass political mobilization, should play a role in boosting agricultural production. Mao’s view won out, however, in 1956 when he pushed through a plan for collectivization of agriculture and rapid industrialization that eventually led to the Great Leap Forward and the deaths of 40 million Chinese from starvation between 1958 and 1961.

Following the Great Leap Forward, Chen toured the countryside to assess the movement’s failures and later found support for his criticisms from key leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi, and Zhou Enlai. By 1962, Chen’s economic theories were again accepted, and he succeeded in achieving a measure of economic recovery. But his policies were set aside once more in 1966 at the onset of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). His political survival skills served him well, however, as he managed to hold on to his seat on the Central Committee while many other leaders, including Deng, suffered political persecution.

The Cultural Revolution caused significant damage to the Chinese economy, and in 1978 Chen was called on to put things right. He helped bring about the return of Deng, and for a short time the two developed a partnership that sought to privatize some land for farmers and allow limited foreign investment—ideas that later formed the core of the Deng-era reforms. However, the two came to disagree over the speed and scope of reform. By 1984, Chen had become one of Deng’s harshest critics as the economy moved further from central control and more toward open markets.

In 1987, Chen “retired” from his official post on the Central Committee but remained highly influential behind the scenes. After the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989, he came out in support of Deng and the military. But he remained a constant critic of economic reforms into the 1990s, faulting the reformers for producing unbalanced regional growth and for failing to balance the budget. By the time of his death on 10 April 1995, he held little political influence. His economic theories, once considered to be advanced, were now seen as hard-line and conservative. China’s economy had already flown too far toward open markets to be brought back into the “bird cage.”

Further Reading

Becker, J. (2000). The Chinese. New York: The Free Press.

Chen Yun. (2003). A dictionary of political biography. Oxford University Press, 1998, 2003. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2008, from

Evans, R. (1995). Deng Xiaoping and the making of modern China. London: Penguin.

Fairbank, J. K. (1986). The great Chinese revolution, 1800–1985. New York: Harper & Row.

Roberts, J. A. G. (1999). A concise history of China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Salisbury, H. (1992). The new emperors: China in the era of Mao and Deng. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Spence, J. (1990). The search for modern China. New York: W. W. Norton.

Wudunn, S. (1995, April 11). Chen Yun, a Chinese Communist patriarch who helped slow reforms, is dead at 89. The New York Times. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2008, from

Source: Campbell, Joel R.. (2009). CHEN Yun. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 312–313. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

CHEN Yun (Chén Yún ??)|Chén Yún ?? (CHEN Yun)

Download the PDF of this article