The Chinese Revolution and Chinese Communism
to 1949. *
(Note: The new Pinyin (P) transliteration of Chinese names into English is used for most key leaders
and place names; in cases where the "P" system has not become established usage in the West, the
old Wade-Giles (W-G) transliteration is either used, or given in brackets).
The People's Republic of China (PRC) was established on October 1, 1949. However, an assessment of Chinese communism cannot begin there. It must begin about 30 years earlier, because the preceding years shaped the PRC as a communist state.
Chinese communism has had a remarkable continuity of leadership. Mao Zedong (W-G: Mao
tse-Tung, 1893-1976) and his colleagues were party members in the 1920s. Mao was instrumental
in establishing an early form of Chinese communism in the years 1928-34. He helped to develop it
and create the military and political strategy in the Yenan years of 1935-45 that won the civil war in
1949. He then went on to mold communist China and ruled it - in his last years at least in name - until
his death in September 1976.
However, we should also bear in mind that while most veteran communists followed Mao
from the late 1950s on, some came to oppose his more extreme policies. Here we should mention
the long-time Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai (W-G: Chu En-lai, 1898-1976), and the
leader of the PRC after Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p'ing, b. 1904), who was to set the
country on the path of economic reform in 1978. However, Deng was also determined to preserve
the party's monopoly of power, and crushed the massive student democracy movement by force in
To understand the rise of communism in China, we must see it within the context of Chinese
* I would like to thank Professor Dan Bays for his help in writing the original version of this chapter,
and Professor Terry Weidner for helping me revise it in fall 1996.
I. Conditions in China in 1917.
China has a 4,000 year history, and was a unified state under several imperial dynasties. The
last dynasty, the Qing, was founded by the Manchus in 1644, after their conquest of China. It ruled
for almost three hundred years, until it finally collapsed in 1912. By that time the imperial system had
fallen into decay and was totally discredited.
Most historians attribute the decline of China at least in part to the inability of its rulers to
understand and adapt modern technology. While this is true, another key factor was the quadrupling
of the population under the Qing, which put enormous pressure on government resources. In fact,
by the early 20th century, Japan was the only Asian country to achieve achieve modernisation and
cope with a rapid population increase. We should note, however, that in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, there were some outstanding Chinese thinkers who wanted to modernize China. Some
hoped for a constitutional framework, i.e., parliamentary monarchy, while others worked for a
democratic republic. Most wanted the abolition of the feudal-Confucian system; all wanted the
abolition of foreign privilege and the unification of their vast country.
The man who came to lead the strongest movement for reform and unity was Sun Yat-sen
(1866-1925). Sun was born near Canton; he was raised by his elder brother in Hawaii and graduated
as a medical doctor in Hongkong in 1892. Two years later, however, he began to devote himself to
political work for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty His goal was to create a strong, unified, modern,
Chinese republic. Between 1905 and 1912, Sun developed a political movement called the
Revolutionary Alliance, which was funded by donations from Chinese businessmen living outside of
Sun's main backer was Charlie Soong (d. 1927). He came to the United States around 1880, converted to Christianity, and found generous Americans to pay for his education in the U.S. Later, he became a successful businessman in Shanghai. He began by printing and selling bibles, but made his fortune on noodle factories. We should note that Soong's children went on to play important political roles. His two daughters received an American education, after which Ch'ingling married Sun Yat-sen, while May'ling married Chiang Kai-shek. Soong's son, Teseven (T.V.) studied at Harvard and Columbia Universities and became Chiang's Finance Minister.
In 1911, a military revolt led to revolution and the fall of the Qing dynasty. Although the
revolution aroused great hope for democracy, the Republic established in 1912 proved a miserable
failure. The Guomindang (Kuomintang, KMT) or Nationalist Party developed by Sun Yat-sen after
the revolution on the base of the old Revolutionary Alliance, was still very weak, and the country was
in the grip of war lords, who created their own satrapies and had their own armies. Meanwhile, the
central government came under the rule of Gen. Yuan Shikai, who died in June 1916 before he could
consolidate his power as Emperor. He was succeeded by Li Yuanghong, who had been Vice-President. There followed an insurrection in spring 1917, led by Gen. Zhang Xun, who tried to
restore the Qing dynasty in the person of its last male heir, the boy emperor Puyi (1906-1967), but
the insurrection collapsed. In August 1918, a new Chinese parliament elected Hsu Shih-ch'ang (W-G)
as President, and he retained this post until 1922. However, the central government was weak and
faced a rival government in Guangzhou (Canton).
In the meanwhile, China had lined up with the entente powers and Japan against Germany
and Austria-Hungary in World War I. Although the Chinese authorities did not send soldiers, they
did send some 100,000 laborers who were used by the allied armies in France and Belgium, while
others worked for the Allies in Mesopotamia and Africa. However, in January 1917, Japan obtained
special rights in the former Chinese provinces of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, extending them
in 1918. Finally, the Versailles Treaty of June 28, 1919 (peace treaty with Germany worked out by
the victor powers) did not return the former German concession at Shantung to China, but gave it
to Japan. This caused strong anti-Japanese and anti-western feelings in China.
B. The Semi-Colonial Status of China.
In the course of the 19th century, foreign powers had firmly established their separate enclaves (concessions) in the major coastal cities. They had extensive economic-political privileges, including extra-territorial status, the best example of which was the foreign enclave in the great port city of Shanghai. These concessions were won by force and spelled out in the unequal treaties.
Along with the power of local warlords, these foreign privileges were a major obstacle to any Chinese
political movement aiming to unify the country.
C. The Need for Social Reform and Change.
The social structure of China was obsolete. In particular, the gentry class (landlords who
sometimes were also local officials) was an obstacle to modernization. They dominated the peasants,
who made up the vast majority of the population. Almost all of them lived in abject poverty, dying
like flies in the recurrent famines. At the same time, most of the merchants in the coastal cities lacked
capital and vision, while those who tried to develop more modern methods were checked by foreign
privilege. The urban workers - about 2 million out of an estimated population of some 300 million
in 1918 - were mostly unskilled and also lived in dire poverty. Thus, social reform was a third
priority, coming behind national unity and independence, because reformers saw them as the basic
prerequisites for the modernization of China.
D. Intellectual Ferment.
Many members of China's small educated class were deeply worried by the situation; they
were desperate for change and looked for answers. The constitutional monarchists were led by Kang
Youwei (1858-1927), who hoped that the Qing emperor Guangxu would achieve this aim. However,
the Emperor died in 1908 and the reins of government were taken over by the old dowager empress
Cixi, who acted as regent for the boy-emperor, Puyi. Another reformist thinker was Liang Qichao,
a disciple of Kang. Liang rejected violent revolution, but worked for an informed citizenry and
political discipline. Like Kang, he also argued for the liberation of women and their participation in
political life. Marxism began to gain adherents in China with the translation of Marx's Communist
Manifesto in 1906, but some thinkers were more attracted to anarchism. Finally, there was Sun Yat-sen and his Revolutionary Alliance (see above).
The yearning of educated Chinese for a reformed, united, China, free of foreign privilege, was
clearly expressed in the May 4th Movement of 1919. This student-led movement protested against
the unfair treatment of China in the peace treaties following World War I, whereby Japan took over
the German concession in Shantung and expanded its control over Manchuria. The May 4th
Movement also attacked the privileges of the foreign powers, and made radical and democratic
demands for changing the social and political system. The students, encouraged by radically inclined
professors, especially at Beijing University (Beida), were soon joined by businessmen and workers.
Thus, there was considerable potential for mobilizing a national movement.
II. The Impact of the Russian Revolution and of Marxism-Leninism on China.
A. The Beginnings of Chinese Communism.
Many Chinese intellectuals were attracted by Marxism. Those active in the in May 4th Movement, as well as others outside it, saw socialism as a means of preventing the conflicts caused by capitalism - particularly because at a time of great ambivalence toward the West, Marxism could be seen as as a western "ism" that could be used against the West. Finally, many
Chinese socialists were attracted to anarchism.
In June 1918, the head librarian at Beijing University, Li Dazhao, saluted Lenin. Li saw the
revolution in backward Russia as a model for China. He established a Marxist study group at the
university, which Mao Zedong joined in 1919. Mao had moved to Beijing and worked as a clerk in
the university library. Chen Duxiu, a dean at Beijing University and editor of the progressive journal,
New Youth, decided to devote a special issue to Marxism; it was published on May 1, 1919, under
the editorship of Li Dazhao. Li's article analyzed Marxist concepts, introducing them to the journal's
readers all over China.
As with Russian Marxists, the main problem facing the Chinese Marxists was the fact that
the vast majority of the population was made up not of workers, but of peasants. Li Dazhao
circumvented this obstacle by claiming that foreign exploitation of China made all its people an
exploited proletariat. Moreover, he claimed that China could not be liberated without the liberation
of the peasants. He urged young Marxists to go into the countryside, and they began to do so in
A member of Li's Marxist study group, Qu Qiubai, was one of the most successful organizers
of China's peasants. He even visited Moscow that same year - 1920 - and wrote an enthusiastic report
in the Beijing Morning News. He wrote that he was happy he had seen "the lighthouse of the mind's
sea." Two years later, he was still in Moscow and became a member of the communist party.
B. Early Sino-Soviet Relations.
Chinese Communists benefited greatly from the fact that Sun Yat-sen obtained no support
from the Western powers who were, after all, attached to their special privileges in China. (In fact,
to begin with, he was seen as too close to the West and had to take a harder line anyway). It is not
surprising, therefore, that he turned to Moscow. In January 1918, he congratulated Lenin on the
successful Bolshevik revolution (November 1917).
There was little reliable information about the Bolshevik revolution in China before 1920. We
know that study groups were organized to study Marxist thought but it was not until spring 1920,
that a Comintern agent, Grigorii Voytinskii, arrived in China with information and political writings.
Many of these were translated into Chinese at this time. It was also Voytinskii who worked
successfully to transform the existing Marxist study groups into communist groups and then into the
Communist Party of China. Here we should note that Voytinskii was assisted in this organizational
work by the Soviet government's proclamation that it would give up the old Russian privileges in
China. In particular, the Soviet government promised to return the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER,
a branch of the Trans-Siberian railway) to China. Though this promise was not implemented, it
made Chinese authorities more friendly to Moscow and allowed some travel between China and
Thus, it was in the period between spring and winter 1920, and with the active help of
Voytinskii, that the Chinese Communist Party began to take shape. It was based on the Marxist study
groups previously organized in Beijing and Shanghai. The party was secretly constituted in that city
in July 1921, formalizing the organization formed the previous year. The General Secretary was Chen
Duxiu, while Zhang Guotao was made head of the organization section, and Li Dazhao was head of
propaganda. Communist nuclei around the country were transformed into party branches with local
secretaries in Hunan (Mao Zedong), Guangzhou, Wuhan, Beijing, and Jinan. Shanghai had its own
branch. The party program closely followed the Bolshevik program in Soviet Russia. However, some
radical Chinese intellectuals rejected the Bolshevik model; they were either supporters of democratic
socialism, or joined the Guomindang (Kuomingtang). Voytinskii was succeeded by Maring (alias of
Hendricus Sneevliet), who continued to guide the fledgling communist movement in China.
Here it is appropriate to give a brief biographical sketch of Mao Zedong. He was born into
a prosperous farming family in Hunan Province in 1893. He rebelled against his father and refused
to accept an arranged marriage. He read much on his own and majored in ethics at the First Normal
School (Teachers' College) in Changsha. He resented the superior airs of Chinese scholars, and it is
then that he probably acquired the anti-intellectual attitudes, strengthened later at Beijing University,
that he manifested as a leader. In his essay on physical education, published in the progressive
journal, New Youth, in April 1917, he attacked the "passive" Confucian thinking and way of life;
he called for physical education to strengthen the body, for violence, and anger. Soon, he was
advocating the equal rights of women, and attacking the practice of arranged marriages. Above all,
he expressed a determination to fight for his beliefs. He was to implement all these early thoughts
when he became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and then of China. (1)
III. The Comintern and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to 1927.
Lenin was convinced that the Russian Revolution could not survive unless successful
revolutions took place in other countries, which would then become socialist allies of Soviet Russia.
But he knew from his own experience that in economically backward countries -- and Russia was
a backward country in 1917 -- the revolutionary leaders were not workers or peasants, but
bourgeois, i.e., middle class intellectuals. Therefore, he developed the policy of supporting "bourgeois
nationalism" in Western-ruled colonial areas, seeing it as the primary instrument of anti-imperialist
revolution. This was, in turn, to lead to the fall of "imperialism" which he saw as the highest stage
of capitalism. This explains Lenin's primary interest in the nationalist Guomindang (Kuomintang
Thus, in the early 1920s, the Soviet Union supported Sun Yat-Sen's KMT. The Soviets agreed
to give Sun military, political, and organizational help. The latter consisted of building a party cell
structure in the country which strengthened it greatly. Official diplomatic relations were established
in 1924. In May of that year, the Soviet government fulfilled some of its earlier promises by giving
up formally the old Russian concessions in Tianjin (Tientsin) and Hankow, as well as paying the
outstanding part of the indemnity for Chinese losses incurred by Russian action in the great power
intervention during the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901). These Soviet moves cost Moscow very little,
while increasing Chinese goodwill toward the USSR.
Sun Yat-Sen had his base in Guangzhou (Canton). His primary goal was the reunification of
the country. To do this, he had to accomplish two key objectives: defeat the Chinese warlords and
force out the foreign powers. But first, he had to make the KMT an effective, political and military
force, and to do this, he needed outside help. Since he received no help from any of the foreign
powers, he welcomed that of the Comintern.
After Voytinskii and Maring, the foremost agent of the Comintern in China was Michael
Borodin (real name: Gruzenberg), whom Sun Yat-Sen invited to China in 1923. He acted as
Comintern adviser to the Central Committee of the KMT until 1927. (He was later a victim of the
Stalin purges). Borodin acted as Comintern agent to the KMT Central Committee until 1927. He
helped Sun reorganize the KMT along Bolshevik lines, i.e., to give it a Bolshevik party structure. At
the same time, Soviet military advisers led by General Vasily K. Blyukher, (known in China as Galen),
helped establish a military force under KMT control. (Blyukher was also to be a victim of the Stalin
purges). The establishment of this military force saw the rise of Chiang Kai-shek (P: Chieh-shih,
1887-1975). After studying in Moscow, he began his career as the Commander of the Whampoa
Military Academy in May 1924, with the communist Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai) as his second in
We should note that Lenin, and later Stalin, ordered the CCP to join the KMT and many
leading communists did so, including Mao and Zhou Enlai. The goal was to strengthen and, at the
same time, infiltrate the KMT. Nevertheless, though Soviet advisers gave the KMT ideology an anti-imperialist slant, the bulk of the movement remained distinctly non-communist. Ironically, the CCP's
major contribution to the KMT was to organize worker support for it in the coastal cities. The peak
of CCP-KMT cooperation came in the years of the Nationalist Revolution, in 1925-27. This was
crowned by the great campaign launched against the warlords of central China by Chiang Kai-shek
in 1926. It was known as the Northern Expedition because he started from the south.. Chiang won
a series of impressive victories and unified about half of the country by 1927.
Chiang's triumph signalled the end of cooperation between the KMT and the CCP. The
generally accepted view is that the split was precipitated by CCP radicalism. This targeted not only
foreign privileges and symbols, but also rich Chinese. Wealthy Shangai industrialists were alarmed
and offered to bankroll Chiang if he freed himself from dependence on Moscow. This suited Chiang
and in March 1925 he arrested the political commissars in his army and placed the Soviet advisers
under house arrest. In April 1927, when the Northern Expedition forces approached Shanghai, the
communist-led labor unions rose to take the city from the inside. When Chiang entered the city, he
ordered a massacre of the communists. This became known as the "Shanghai massacre" or more
commonly "the White Terror." Also in April 1927, KMT leaders met in Nanjing (Nanking),
proclaimed the establishment of a National Government and outlawed the CCP.
Stalin did not want to admit the defeat of his China policy, so he ordered the CCP to continue
cooperation with the KMT. It is not clear whether he sanctioned an unofficial test of strength, or
whether the CCP -- perhaps encouraged by Borodin -- disobeyed his orders. In any case, it carried
out an uprising in the city of Nanchang in August 1927. Although the communists held the city for
only a few days, the rising is notable for the participation of future leaders of the Chinese Red Army.
The communist rising in Guangzhou in December 1927 also failed. We should note that Leon Trotsky
openly criticized Stalin for the failure of his policy in China. This criticism, together with his
opposition to Stalin in the debate on industrialization (1926-27), led to his internal exile to Alma Ata,
Kazkhastan, in 1928, and then his exile from Russia in 1929.
There was, in fact, no way that the CCP could have seized control of the KMT in the 1920s
or 1930s, because at that time the KMT embodied the dominant drive toward unification and
symbolized Chinese national goals. But we can at least wonder whether a different Soviet policy
toward the CCP might not have averted its annihilation. For example, it is intriguing to speculate
what would have happened if Moscow had ordered the CCP to split off from the KMT in March
1926, and/or supported Mao's later policy of concentrating the party's efforts on the peasants - as the
CCP frantically requested (?) However, such a policy seems most unlikely for while Trotsky opposed
CCP cooperation with the KMT, neither he nor Stalin ever sanctioned Mao's strategy to build
Chinese communism with the support of the teeming millions of Chinese peasants.
Still, though the Stalin-Comintern Chinese policy had exposed the CCP to brutal repression,
at the time it seemed to achieve the primary Soviet goal of aiding a strong national movement to
victory, thus loosening the hold of the imperialist powers on China and thereby benefiting the Soviet
Union. But this was a theoretical benefit at best. In fact, Great Britain, which of all the imperialist
powers had the greatest investments in China, made its peace with the KMT. Furthermore, Germany
gained a foothold in China by extending help to Chiang -- including military advisers -- to fight the
communists in Jiangxi (Kiangsi). However, Chiang's chances of consolidating his power over China
were ended by the Japanese attack on the country in 1937. This was to drive him to Chungking
(Ch'ung-Ch'ing, southwest China), where he waged only limited military action against Japan until
the end of the war.
IV. The Development of a Unique and Ultimately Successful CCP Revolutionary Strategy, 1928-1945.
A. The Jiangxi (Kiangsi) Period, 1928-1935.
At this time, the KMT led by Chiang continued the struggle to unify China up to the Yangtze
River and beyond. However, the Japanese overran Manchuria in 1931, made it a puppet state, and
called it Manchukuo. Marshal Zhang Xueliang (Chang Hsueh-liang, son of the Manuchrian warlord,
Marshal Zhang Zuolin, assassinated by the Japanese in 1928), moved his troops south of the Great
Wall on Chiang's orders. Meanwhile, the Japanese made the last Emperor of China, Puyi, their puppet
ruler in Manchuria. Still, in 1936, the KMT exerted at least a loose form of control over two-thirds
of the population of China.
However, the peasants soon found that nothing changed much except for the national flag.
Warlords loosely allied with Chiang still ruled large parts of China and there was no land reform.
Many intellectuals became alienated from Chiang by the end of this period because he did not
introduce democratic reforms. On the contrary, he seemed to favor his own dictatorship, and to see
fascism as a desirable model of government.
At this time the communist movement was rebuilt by Mao and Zhu De (Chu Teh) -- one of
the leaders of the Nanchang rising -- in the southern part of the province of Jiangxi. Meanwhile, the
official party leaders, who remained loyal to Moscow, went into hiding in Shanghai, where they
stayed until 1930.
It was during this period that Mao redirected Chinese communism from the workers to the
peasants who, after all, made up the vast majority of the population. Thus Mao changed the
communist goal in China from a workers' revolution to a peasant revolution, which he saw as the
first step toward a socialist revolution.
Furthermore, in cooperation with Zhu De, Mao evolved the strategy of operating from a
stable base area, and of harassing government troops by guerrilla tactics. These tactics were not new;
they were rooted in traditional Chinese military strategy which Mao knew very well from hisr reading.
They were to play a central role in the ultimate victory of Mao's forces over Chiang.
Equally important was the fact that in the area under their control in southern Jiangxi, the
communists carried out land reform. This really meant distributing the land equally, except that
landlords and richer peasants were to get less than the others. This did not always work out that way
because some landlords and rich peasants kept more land in return for supporting the communists.
But overall, the communists obtained solid support from the peasants, for whom land reform was the
most important issue. The key to such success as the communists achieved at this time was the
moderate nature of their reforms. This moderation was, in fact, mandated not by communist dogma
but by the existing production shortages which were exacerbated by the ruthless KMT blockade of
Mao emerged as the leading spokesman for these policies. They were embodied in the Chinese
Soviet Republic, known also as the Jiangxi Soviet, which existed from 1931-34. This was the model
which mainstream Chinese communism was to follow from then on. These developments took place
independently of Moscow. However, the CCP went on to impose a very radical regime when other
Chinese communists, called "Bolsheviks," returned to Jiangxi from Moscow and replaced Mao
sometime around 1933. This regime had disastrous results. Mao resumed power at the beginning of
the "Long March" at the Cun Yi conference in 1934. The Jiangxi Soviet came to an end in late 1934-35, when KMT military pressure became too great. At that time, the communists had to break out
and move elsewhere to survive. This resulted in the Long March, an event of enormous significance
in the history of Chinese communism. (2)
The Long March.
In October 1934, about 100,000 people broke through the KMT armies in south Jiangxi and
trekked some 6,000 miles by a round about route to the northwest province of Shaanxi (Shensi),
which some 20,000 survivors reached in 1935. Yenan became Mao's main base there in 1937. This
was a terrible ordeal, and a defeat in the sense that it was the consequence of the KMT's military
victory over the communists. However, the Long March and the arrival of its survivors in Shaanxi
signified the survival of Mao's brand of communism in a secure base. Here, it could gather its forces
and, by waging a guerrilla war against Japan, lay the groundwork for its later conquest of China.
Also, the Long March provided a heroic myth for Chinese communists in the future, much
as Valley Forge had done for Americans. It deepened the communists' sense of destiny. Finally, it
provided the leaders of future communist China. Of the few hundred top PRC leaders that still lived
in the 1980s and those still alive early 1990s, some 90% were/are veterans of that odyssey. (3)
B. The Sino-Japanese War and The Yenan Period, 1937-1945.
In September 1936, the Japanese government presented secret demands to the government
of Chiang Kai-Shek. Disguised as proposals for a common war against the communists, their
acceptance would have meant Japanese domination over China.
In December 1936, Chiang went north to coordinate a campaign against the Yenan
communists with Marshal Zhang Xueliang. The Marshal, angered by the Japanese assassination of
his father had supported Chiang, but he became angry at the latter's preference to fight the
communists rather than the Japanese. Zhang was in touch with the communists and when Chiang
began to move against him, he invited the KMT leader to a meeting - - and kidnapped him . At a
meeting with communist leaders and Zhang, Chiang was "persuaded" to give up his anti-communist
campaign and agree to wage a common fight against Japan. Chiang agreed, and flew back to his
capital with Zhang. However, while he proclaimed a common war against the Japanese, he never
forgave Zhang. He kept the marshal under house arrest all through the war, after which he took him
along to Taiwan, and kept him under guard for decades. (Chiang died in 1975; Zhang was reported
to have left Taiwan in the late 1980s, to visit relatives in the U.S.).
On July 7, 1937, an accidental fire fight between Chinese and Japanese troops at
Lukouchiao, near Beijing, gave Tokyo the long desired pretext for attacking China. Japanese armies
seized Beijing and Tientsin; then they proceeded to occupy most of eastern China. Many historians
suspect that this fight was precipitated by the Japanese. Whatever the case might be, the Japanese
invasion of China had a dual effect on the country: (a) it swept northeast China clear of the old
authorities, whom the KMT had never been able to control effectively anyway; and (b) it bogged
down the Japanese in a large area of China which they could not control either. This situation
provided the ideal opportunity for guerrilla war, or as the communists called it -- "The People's War
The communist guerrillas, who were led by "The 8th Route Army", were able to establish links and contacts throughout northern China. These forces did so by harassing the Japanese, while at the same time fighting hard - not always successfully - to protect the peasants in the villages.
The 8th Route Army gave the CCP a very strong claim to represent Chinese nationalism, especially
since the KMT, after putting up a hard fight at the beginning, reduced its resistance to the minimum
when the government settled in far away Chungking.
But this was only part of the CCP achievement. The other was its use of wartime resistance
to effect a permanent penetration of the villages. Here the communists generally treated the peasants
well by paying for what they needed, and also implemented popular social-economic policies. Of
these, the most important were rent and interest controls and an end to abuses in tax collection, both
very popular with the peasants. These measures were accompanied by education, i.e., teaching the
peasants to read and write a basic form of Chinese. These policies, which followed precedents set in
Jiangxi, gave the CCP a mass base, which no Chinese government had ever had, including the KMT.
(Some new studies show, however, that the CCP was not always as good as this in treating the
By the end of the war, the results were dramatic. The CCP controlled 19 base areas with a
population of about 100 million and had an army of about half a million. The Party itself had about
1 million members. Thus, the CCP was all set for a test of strength with the KMT. From hindsight,
the factors outlined above were bound to result in a communist victory. At the time, however, the
KMT had such superiority in troops and weapons that the CCP doubted it could win.
We should also note some key developments within the CCP during this period. It evolved
a self-image stressing egalitarianism, self-sufficiency, and dedication. At the same time, Mao
implemented the process of rectification or systematic thought control, i.e., the use of mass pressure
to make everyone accept the party line. This presaged Mao's mass campaigns to promote "correct
thinking," after the CCP came to power. Furthermore, the party, i.e., Mao, exercised control over
literature and the arts on the premise that they "must serve the revolution"; this followed established
Soviet practice and, like thought control, led to the repression of dissent.
Although the above-mentioned thought and cultural control were related to Soviet models,
it is a mistake to assume that the Yenan CCP was under the control of Moscow. In fact, from June
22 1941, Stalin was too busy fighting the Germans to bother with Mao and he continued to recognize
Chiang's government in Chungking as the government of China. Thus the Yenan model was Mao's
work, reflecting his anti-intellectual and dictatorial character. He was to apply these policies on a
massive scale after coming to power.
In conclusion, we should note that by the end of the war in 1945, Chinese communism under
Mao's leadership had both a significant social-revolutionary content and had become the
embodiment of Chinese nationalism. The CCP had accomplished all this on its own by developing
a distinctly Chinese revolutionary strategy which drew on Chinese traditions and tapped directly into
the two great goals of modern Chinese reformers, communist and non-communist alike, i.e., (a)
effective national unity, and (b) real independence, or freedom from foreign domination. What is
more, the CCP led the way to the third goal, which most Chinese reformers agreed should follow the
first two: social-economic reform, especially the abolition of the feudal system in the countryside.
V. The Civil War.
A. The Background.
The roots of the conflict between the CCP and the KMT go back to the late 1920s, and to the
Jiangxi period in particular. It is true that their basic differences were papered over by the formal
1937 agreement to cooperate in the war against Japan -- an agreement extracted by force from a
reluctant Chiang Kai-Shek during his kidnapping by young marshal Zhang Xueliang in December
1936. But, in fact, the 8th Route Army fought the Japanese on its own, while Chiang waited for U.S.
victory over Japan and used American aid mostly to build up his strength for the war he planned to
wage against the communists for control of China.
Chiang's passive stance toward Japan was strongly criticized by the U.S. military adviser in
Chungking, General Joseph W. Stilwell (1883-1946). Hi s relations with Chiang soon developed into
mutual hostility. (He called Chiang, "the Peanut"). However, the U.S. media, with the aid of the
popular, American-educated, Mme. Chiang, had built up Chiang and the KMT into the embodiment
of free China. Therefore, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not believe it politically wise to
abandon Chiang in favor of the more active communist army.
The President did, however, send Gen. Patrick Hurley (1883-1963) to try and patch things
up between Chiang and Mao. He also sanctioned the sending of a U.S. mission to Yenan. This was
called "The U.S. Observer Mission." In the U.S., it was informally known as "The Dixie Mission,"
because it went into "rebel" territory. The mission was led by Colonel David Barrett and established
itself in Yenan in July 1944, where it stayed until 1946. Its members were very favorably impressed
by Mao and his movement. Indeed, if the war with Japan had not ended with the bombing of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japanese troops had remained in mainland China, the United States
might have given military aid to the communists because they represented a significant anti-Japanese
fighting force there. (4)
B. The Civil War.
The Japanese surrender, forced by the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
caught everyone by surprise and created a conundrum for the American government. The problem
was which Chinese forces were to take over Manchuria and north China, and how could a civil war
President Harry S. Truman sent General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) as special
ambassador to China in December 1945, with the task of mediating an agreement between the
communists and the KMT. However, the U.S. government was, at the same time, helping Chiang by
airlifting his troops to north China. Officially this was done because the Japanese were ordered
tosurrender only to the KMT or to American troops, but it obviously favored Chiang..
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan on August 8th and sent its troops
into Manchuria, occupying it without encountering much resistance. The Soviets allowed Chinese
communist troops to take over the region as well as the weapons of the defeated Japanese. At the
same time, however, they looted the industrial equipment and sent it to Russia, just as they did in their
occupation zone in Germany and in the former German territories allocated to Poland.
But Stalin did not want a confrontation with the U.S. so he signed a Treaty of Friendship and
Alliance with Chiang on August 14, 1945. In accordance with this treaty, Chiang ceded Port Arthur
and control of Dalian (in Russian, Dairen), in southern Manchuria to Russia, thus implementing
the promises Roosevelt had made to Stalin at Yalta. The Russians agreed to give up some key cities
to the KMT, but this did not happen until they pulled out in early May 1946. In the meanwhile, Gen.
Marshall managed to arrange a truce between the KMT and the communists, which was signed in
Chungking on January 16, 1946. While neither side intended to observe it for long, the communists
seemed more willing to abide by it than Chiang.
War broke out in summer 1946. Although on paper the KMT army was three times the size
of the communist army, the men were demoralized and badly led. Above all, most of them were
peasants, so they were naturally attracted to the CCP program of land reform, which was
implemented in all regions that came under the control of The People's Liberation Army (PLA). We
should note here that, just as they had done in Jiangxi in 1931-34 and in north China in 1938-45, so
now the communists distributed the land to poor and landless farmers, but also left some land to the
landlords and rich farmers. They did not want to alienate them, but make
them allies of the CCP. However, this did not apply to those perceived as "exploiters," or others seen as enemies. Many of
them were killed.
Chiang fought the communists in his old way, i.e., by garrisoning fortified places. However,
they were soon surrounded by Mao's troops. Masses of KMT peasant soldiers deserted to the PLA,
perceiving they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The PLA captured their equipment and
soon overpowered the KMT. Even the mainstay of the KMT, the merchants and civil servants, had
become alienated from Chiang because of the terrible inflation that followed the end of the war with
Japan. They looked all the more hopefully to Mao, because he carefully avoided proclaiming any
radical measures, such as the abolition of private property.
Newly declassified Russian documents show that in January 1949, after Chiang asked for
great power mediation, Stalin advised Mao to accept - but Mao refused. It is clear from the Russian
record that Stalin was anxious to avoid a clash between the United States and Mao in China, which
might invovle the USSR. Mao, however, pursued his own policy. (5)
The PLA crossed the Yangtze river in April and reached Guangzhou (Canton) in October
1948. Chiang resigned as President of the Republic of China on January 21, 1949, although he kept
power in his own hands. On October 1, 1949, the The People's Republic of China (PRC) was
proclaimed in Beijing (Peking), the old capital of China. The remnants of the KMT fled to Formosa,
i.e., Taiwan, where they set up the government of "Free China."
The communist victory in China was a great shock to U.S. opinion. Wartime propaganda had
portrayed Chiang Kai-shek as the heroic leader of China. At the same time, the imposition of Soviet
domination over Eastern Europe, the Greek civil war and the Berlin Blockade (1948-1949) marked
the beginning of the Cold War. (See ch.6). Therefore, it was natural for U.S. opinion to see the
establishment of communism in China as directed from Moscow, and to seek an explanation for the
defeat of America's ally, Chiang, in some kind of communist "plot."
This perception was so widespread that it allowed Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957, R. Wisconsin) to launch his campaign against "spies" in the U.S. State Department in 1950,
and to expand it into a general witch hunt against American communists and sympathizers. McCarthy
had so much support among millions of Americans that President Truman and, for a certain time,
President Eisenhower, did not dare oppose him, even in defense of the State Department's China
experts, who were fired. It was not until McCarthy attacked the Army -- by which time U.S. opinion
was becoming disgusted with his methods -- that Eisenhower put his foot down and the McCarthy
era came to an end.
As it turned out, there were, in fact, some Soviet "moles" in the State Department, but the
Chinese communists did not owe their victory either to them or to the Soviets. In fact, Stalin was so
anxious to avoid a confrontation with the U.S. until he was ready for it, that at one point he had
advised Mao to accept a demarcation line with the KMT on the Yangtze River, thus leaving south
China to Chiang. As mentioned above, he also advised Mao not to reject great power mediation in
in January1949. Finally, he continued to recognize Chiang's government as the government of China
until Chiang fled to Taiwan.
Stalin's careful policy was probably dictated by two factors: (a) he wanted to consolidate the
growing Soviet hold on Eastern Europe.Therefore, he had to avoid a confrontation with the United
States until he felt he had a good chance of consolidating his gains. As we know, he risked a
confrontation over Berlin in 1948-49 and lost his bid for Germany. He was not about to seek another
confrontation over China, particularly since (b) the U.S. had the monopoly over the atomic bomb until
the Soviets successfully exploded theirs in 1949. But, even then, they had to wait a few years to
produce a stockpile and to develop a delivery system, while the U.S. had both the bombs and the
long-range planes to deliver them. (We should note, however, that U.S. policy was to use these
bombs only in self-defense and possibly in defense of Western Europe).
Finally, Stalin probably did not trust Mao, who had developed his own brand of communism
and his own power base without Soviet input and control. As with Tito in Yugoslavia, with whom
he had split in 1948, this presaged tensions and an eventual split between the two communist regimes.
But that was to happen many years later. Furthermore, he probably did not want a strong, united,
China on the Russian border in Asia. China had lost much territory there to Imperial Russia and the
Chinese communists kept these losses very much in mind.
1. For the best general survey of Chinese reformers during the last years of the Chinese Empire, the
revolution of 1911 and Sun Yat Sen, see Jonathan D. Spence, In Search for Modern China, New
York and London, 1990, chaps. 9-13.
On early Chinese communism, see Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism, New
York and Oxford, 1989. Dirlik's study is pathbreaking, in stressing the key role of Comintern agents
Grigorii Voytinskii and Maring in helping to organize the Chinese Communist Party in the early
1920s. He also provides a new analysis of the various types of socialist thought existing among
leftwing Chinese intellectuals up to 1920, particularly the prevalence of anarchist thought, a factor
that was later ignored by Chinese communist historians. See also Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and
After. A History of the People's Republic, revised and expanded edition, New York and London,
1986, Part I; for documents, see R. V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism, vol..
II,1984, 3rd. ed. 1994, v. II, The Rise of Communism in China..
2. For the Jiangxi period, see Spence, In Search for Modern China, ch. 15; for more detail, see Stuart
Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, ch. 6, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1966, and later editions; for more
detailed works, see "Further Reading"; for documents, see Daniels, v. II, pp. 74-79, 87-95.
3. The classic account of the "Long March" is to be found in Edgar Snow, Red Star over China,
London, 1937, and Grove Press, United States, 1968. Snow was an American journalist, who visited
Shaanxi. His book contains Mao's autobiography, as told to Snow in 1936. He remained a steadfast
admirer of Red China until his death in Switzerland in 1972. See also "Further Reading."
4. See David Barrett, Dixie Mission: The United States Army Observer Group in Yenan, 1944,
Berkeley, California, China Research Group Monographs, 1970; see also Lost Chance in China. The
World War II Despatches of John S. Service, edited by Joseph W. Esherick, New York, 1974, "Part
II, The Communist Areas"; also E. J. Kahn, Jr. The China Hands. America's Foreign Service Experts
and What Befell Them, New York, 1972, 1975.
5. For the Stalin-Mao exchange of letters on great power mediation, see: "Rivals and Allies; Stalin,
Mao, and the Chinese Civil War, January 1949;" introduction by Odd Arne Westead, in: "The Cold
War in Asia," Cold War International History Project, Bulletin, issues 6-7, Woodrow International
Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., Winter 1995/1996, pp. 7, 27-29.
1. Chinese Revolutions and Chinese Communism.
Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism, New York and Oxford, 1989.
Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and After. A History of the People's Republic, revised and expanded edition, New York and London, 1986.
Roger Pelissier ed., The Awakening of China, 1793-1949, New York, 1967 (excellent selection of excerpts from memoirs and documents illustrating key events in Chinese history for this period).
Witold Rodzinski, The People's Republic of China. A Concise Political History, New York, 1988 (incisive survey and interesting insights by a former Polish diplomat and Sinologist who served in China in the 1950s and 1960s).
Jonathan D. Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace. The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980, New York, 1981, London, 1982 (a beautifully written account by a well-known Western historian of China, showing the continuity of Chinese intellectuals' struggle for modernization and their fate under various regimes, chaps. 1 through 11 deal with the period 1895-1950).
Jonathan D. Spence, In Search for Modern China, New York and London, 1990 (a brilliant survey of Chinese history from 1644 through June 1989; illustrated, with bibliographies for each chapter).
Stephen Uhalley, Jr., A History of the Chinese Comunist Party, Stanford, California, Hoover
Institution, 1988 (see chaps. 1-6, up to 1949).
B. Biographies, Autobiographies, Monographs, Articles.
Percy Chen, China Called Me. My Life Inside the Chinese Revolution, Boston, 1979 (memoirs of a Chinese nationalist and socialist, who played an active part in the years 1925-49).
Chow Tse-tung, The May Fourth Movement. Intellectual Revolution in Modern China, Harvard University Press, 1960; Stanford, California, 1967.
Charles Fitzgerald, The Birth of Communist China, Baltimore, 1964.
Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance. Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1911-1937, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971 (about a Chinese liberal, disciple of John Dewey, and his efforts to bring liberalism to China).
Same , Chinese Intellectuals and the State, New York, 1983.
Jacques Guillermaz, The History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921-1949, New York, 1972 (the author was a French diplomat who served in China in the 1930s and 1940s).
J. P. Harrison, The Long March to Power, 1921-1972, New York, 1972.
Same, The Politics of Chinese Communism: Kiangsi under the Soviets, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973.
Li-Yu-ning, The Introduction of Socialism to China, New York, 1971.
Robert B. Marks, Rural Revolution in South China, Madison, Wisconsin, 1984.
Maurice Meisner, Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism, Cambridge, Mass.s, 1967 (note new intepretation by Dirlik).
William Morwood, Duel for the Middle Kingdom. The Struggle Between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse Tung for Control of China, New York, 1980 (written by a former U.S.intelligence officer, who was present at the meeting between Chiang kai-Shek and Mao tse-Tung at Chungking, 1945).
Pu Yi, From Emperor to Citizen. The Autobiography of Asin-Gioro Pu Yi, translated with new general and chapter introductions by W. J. F. Jenner, New York and Oxford, 1987 (lst published, Peking, 1964, 1965; basis for film about Pu Yi)..
Mary B. Rankin, Early Chinese Revolutionaries, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971.
Edward E. Rice, Mao's Way, Berkeley, California, 1972, 1974, (chaps. 1-7).
Harrison Salisbury, The Long March. The Untold Story, New York, 1985 (how the author retraced the route in 1984, and what he learned from survivors).
Robert Scalapino, "The Evolution of a Young Revolutionary: Mao Zedong in 1919-1920," Journal of Asian Studies, 42, November 1982, pp. 29-61.
Lynda Schaffer, Mao and the Workers: The Hunan Labor Movement, 1920-1923, Armonk, New York, A. E. Sharpe, 1982.
Herbert Fr. Schurmann and Orvill Schell, eds., Republican China: Nationalism, War, and the Rise of
Communism, 1911-1949, New York, 1967.
Benjamin I. Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1951 (but see Dirlik).
Mark Selden, The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971.
Edgar Snow, Red Star over China, (lst published 1938, revised and enlarged ed., New York, 1968).
Edgar Snow, The Long Revolution, New York, 1971, 1972.
Helen Foster Snow, Inside Red China, New York, 1939, 1979. (N.B. Edgar and Helen F. Snow were U.S. journalists who observed Mao and the CCP at close quarters; they generally expressed uncritical admiration).
Richard C. Thornton, China. The Struggle for Power, 1917-1972, Bloomington, Indiana, 1973 (Parts I and II).
C. The Civil War.
John F. Melby, The Mandate of Heaven: Record of a Civil War. China, 1945-49, Toronto, 1968 (notes by an officer of the U.S. Embassy in Chungking during and after Gen. Marshall's mission of mediation between Chiang and Mao).
Suzanne Pepper, Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-49, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1978.
Trevor Nevitt Dupuy, Col. U.S. Army Ret., The Military History of the Chinese Civil War, New
Dan N. Jacobs and Hans H. Baerwald, eds., Chinese Communism. Selected Documents, New York,
Harper & Row, (the first 3 selections deal with the period up to 1940).
2. The U.S. and China.
Stanley D. Bachrack, The Committee of One Million. "China Lobby" Politics, 1953-1971, New York, 1976, "Part I: Background."
Dorothy Borg and Waldo Heinrichs, eds., Uncertain Years. Chinese-American Relations, 1947-1950, New York, 1980.
Russell D. Buhite, Patrick J.Hurley and American Foreign Policy, Ithaca, New York, 1973.
John King Fairbank, The United States and China, 4th edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979, chaps. 8-13 ( until his death, he was the foremost U.S. historian of China).
John King Fairbank, Chinabound. A Fifty-Year Memoir, New York, 1982 (fascinating memoirs on his study of China, including visits in the 1930s and during World War II; his development of China studies in the United States, the McCarthy Era and after).
Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, eds., United States Army in World War II: China-Burma-India Theater, vol. I, Stillwell's Mission to China, Washington, D.C., Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1953.
Kenneth E. Shewmaker, Americans and Chinese Communists, 1927-1945. A Persuading Encounter, Ithaca, New York, 1971.
Barbara W. Tuchman, Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, New York, 1972.
Tang Tsou, America's Failure in China, 1941-1950, vol. I, Chicago, 1963.
The China White Paper. August 1949, Stanford, California, 1967 (reprint of the original document
of 1949 on U.S. policy toward China until the fall of Chiang in 1949); reprinted as United
States Relations with China, New York, Greenwood Press, 1968.
Ernest R. May, The Truman Administration and China, 1945-1949, Philadelphia, 1975 (discussion
and 50 documents).
Lyman Van Slyke, ed., Marshall's Mission to China, December 1945 - January 1947; The Report and
Appended Documents, 2 vols., Arlington, Virginia, 1976.
3. Russian and Soviet-Chinese Relations.
C. Brandt, Stalin's Failure in Russia, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1958.
Same, Leon Trotsky on China, Monad Press, 1976.
Chiang Kai-shek, Soviet Russia and China: A Summing Up at Seventy, New York, 1975.
Stephen Levine, "Soviet-American Rivalry in Manchuria and the Cold War," in Hsueh Chun-tu, ed., Dimensions of China's Foreign Relations, New York, 1977.
Robert North, Moscow and the Chinese Communists, Stanford, California, 1967.
J. Rearden-Anderson, Yenan and the Great Powers: The Origins of Communist China's Foreign Policy, 1944-46, New York, 1980.
R. C. Thornton, The Comintern and the Chinese Communists, 1928-31, Seattle, Washington, 1969.
R. K. I. Quested, Sino-Russian Relations. A Short History, London, Sydney,and Boston, 1984 (a brief survey from 1200 to 1978).
Allen Whiting, Soviet Policies in China, 1917-1924, Stanford, California, 1953.
A. I. Cherepanov, As Military Adviser in China, Moscow, Progress Publisher, 1982 (covers the years
Andrei Ledovsky, The USSR, the USA, and The People's Revolution in China, Moscow, Progress
Publishers, 1982 (written by a retired Soviet diplomat who served in China from 1942 to 1953
and is described as a Sinologist, the book covers the period 1945-early 1950).