What do we know about the old Zeitgeist Bookshop in Shanghai? And why would we want to know more? Well, the Zeitgeist Bookshop was operating from at least the late 1920s from premises near Soochow (Suzhou) Creek on 130 North Soochow Road (now Suzhou Road North).Or maybe it was somewhere else – the American Communist journal New Masses lists the store at 130 North Soochow, but The People’s Tribune, published by the China United Press in 1933 gives the address as Bubbling Well Road. Of course, what I don’t have but would like is a photograph which would settle the matter?
The Zeigeist was run by a German woman (though Rewi Alley in his autobiography says she was Dutch – but he was 90 when he wrote that!), Fraulein Irene E.I. Wiedemeyer (or Wedemeyer, or sometimes Weitemeyer) and her younger sister. At some point Frau Wiedemeyer married Wu Shao-kuo, a Chinese communist party member she had met in Germany some time around 1925, but always retained her German name. At some point it appears Frau Wiedemeyer studied at the Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow around 1926-27. She was, according to the Shanghai Municipal Police, a member of the Noulens Defense Committee (a notorious comunist spy case) and the Society of Friends of the U. S. S. R. in Shanghai. As to what else we know about Wiedemeyer? she was a German Jew with, according to Ruth Price, a biographer of Agnes Smedley, “freckled skin, milk-blue eyes and unmanageable red hair.” (though how she knows this is not entirely clear as the source isn’t footnoted).
Why should we be interested? The Zeitgeist was generally regarded throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s as a “clearing house” for communist information. Frau Wiedemeyer had links to the Chinese communist movement as well as to the NKVD (later KGB) operating in the city during the decade through her close friendship with Mrs VN Sotov, the wife of the Head of the Russian News Agency TASS in Shanghai. As well as TASS/Comintern agents and Chinese communists, Hotsumi Ozaki, the Japanese informant in the Soviet spy ring connected to Richard Sorge frequented the shop. It was at the Zeitgeist that Ozaki met Agnes Smedley, the American communist. Sorge himself also made contact with Smedley at the Zeitgeist while Roger Hollis (later Mi5 director and suspected Soviet spy), American communist Harold Isaacs, the South African Trostskyist Frank Glass (who of course fell out with the Stalinists running the bookshop) and George Hatem (Ma Haide), the American doctor turned communist, also visited.
The Zeitgeist was in fact the Shanghai branch of the Zeitgeist Buchhandlung group of Berlin, a chain of shops that distributed pro-Soviet books and materials. Funding for the chain came from the coffers of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers in Moscow, a communist front organisation, and was arranged by the Comintern’s Willi Muenzenberg. The shop seems to have remained in operation until about 1933 or slightly long after which the Nazis in Germany cut off her contacts with the German Communist Party who supplied her with materials and books.
What did the bookshop look like? we only really have one or two descriptions and these are that it was about twelve by eighteen feet in size and poorly lit. Despite this rather small location the Zeitgeist did sell books in at least three languages (German, Chinese, Russian) and have the occasional art exhibition – for instance, an exhibition of new German graphic art in 1932.
Frau Weidemeyer was not to be put off. She visited Europe in late 1933 and returned to Shanghai in September 1934 to open a new bookshop in a new location, 410 Szechuan Road, this time as the Shanghai representative of the International Publishers company, an affiliate of the American Communist Party.