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  • James Houser

October 20, 1935 - The Chinese Civil War & the Long March

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

October 20, 1935. The year-long fighting retreat is over. The Communist forces in central China have been totally defeated and driven from their bases, and lost most of their fighting men in terrible battles of encirclement. Only a remnant has escaped to the north – broken, battered, but alive. The Long March is over, but in the process the Chinese Communists have found their leader. His name is Mao Zedong.

This post tells the story of two leaders, both of whom emerged from the wreckage of Revolutionary China and both of whom saw a different path forward for their nation. The collapse of the last Chinese empire, the Qing Dynasty, in 1912 sent the world’s most populous nation into almost four decades of utter chaos. China would never have an emperor again, and no one knew what that meant. After almost four millennia of Imperial government built around the Mandate of Heaven and the Confucian texts, China was now politically and socially adrift in a dangerous modern world. The early 20th Century was not kind to any nation, least of all China.

The Chinese Revolution that had overthrown the Qing Dynasty in had been promising at first. Dr. Sun Yat-sen, an American-educated Christian, was the charismatic and visionary revolutionary leader that had spearheaded the movement. Sun had organized and inspired the revolution, forming a single large party from the numerous smaller organizations that wanted to bring China into the modern age. In 1911 he became the Provisional President of the brand-new Republic of China. His three principles for revolution were: nationalism, democracy, and the livelihood of the people – all things that the Chinese had been so long without. His organization was dubbed the Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as the Kuomintang or the “KMT.” While Sun was provisional president, though, he had not convinced Emperor Puyi of China to abdicate the throne. There was still the possibility of large-scale violence and upheaval if Puyi did not leave peacefully, and Sun wanted to avoid this at all costs.

The commander of China’s Beiyang Army stationed around the capital, Yuan Shikai, promised Sun that he could get the Emperor to abdicate – but only if he was given the Presidency. It was here that Sun, a man of many talents, showed his great weakness: his naivete. Sun happily stepped down and allowed the general to take the Presidency, after which Yuan removed the Emperor – just as promised. Unfortunately, Yuan pretty much immediately started acting like a dictator, and by 1913 political chaos had broken out all across China with local generals or party bosses seizing power. China began to fall apart into the rule of the warlords.

The chaos is less important here than the outcome. By 1917, Sun and his KMT were restricted to the area of Guangzhou or Canton, in southern China – close to Hong Kong. China had been fragmented into a vast patchwork of warlord states, each with his own complex set of political and social policies. The Beiyang government founded by Yuan Shikai – now dead – still ruled much of northern China, and was commonly recognized as the legitimate Chinese government. The glorious dream of a unified China had been shattered in the wake of revolution. The old curse from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms had come round once again: “the Empire, long united, must divide.”

Sun Yat-sen set about the long and unenviable task of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again. To reunify China under a single leader and complete his revolution, Sun needed to organize a better political structure and military – but he also needed outside support. The KMT approached many Western powers, including France, Britain, and the USA, but the first two were busy with sorting out the mess from World War I and the latter had withdrawn from world affairs into isolationism. So it was with great reservation that Sun Yat-sen turned to the brand-new Soviet Union for material support and assistance in completing the Chinese Revolution.

The Soviet Union saw opportunity. Sun Yat-sen’s movement had always had a socialist overtone along with a nationalist and democratic one, so the Soviets were well aware that a strong, unified socialist China was a real possibility. But Sun was altogether not Marxist enough for their purposes. While the Soviets agreed to support Sun, they also insisted on channeling equal support to the nascent Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had begun to form in small cells across the country. Sun worked very hard to bring the KMT and the CCP together into a united front in southern China, which only his personality was able to pull together. During this time, though, two men began to emerge within the KMT hierarchy that between them would shape the future of China. Their names were Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong.

Chiang had been one of Sun’s earliest disciples, all the way back to the 1911 Revolution. He had been in the old Qing Army, an artillery officer educated in a Japanese military academy. Chiang Kai-shek had helped lead the military forces that established Sun in southern China, and had been sent by his leader to Moscow for several months to study the Soviet political and military structure. He met with multiple early Soviet leaders, including Trotsky and Stalin, but came away convinced that the Soviet system would not work for China. By 1924, he was head of the KMT’s military academy and had begun to train the army with which Sun planned to reunify China. Chiang’s experiences in Japan and in the USSR, along with his deep suspicion of the rising CCP, had engendered a deep anticommunism that he would never overcome.

Unlike Chiang, the future Communist leader Mao Zedong had no university education – but was nevertheless a bright student and voracious reader. The son of a rich and abusive peasant father, Mao was a schoolteacher during the early years of the Revolution, and like Chiang had been an early admirer of Sun Yat-sen. By 1917, though, his leanings had become more and more socialist, and began to identify far more with the peasants and workers than with the educated elite that were emerging as part of the KMT. He was among the 13 founding members of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, and helped organize local party branches.

Mao was one of the leading voices within the CCP for an alliance with the KMT, agreeing with Lenin’s advice that only a temporary alliance between the Communists and the “bourgeois democrats” could overthrow the warlords and reunify China. What came next – well, that was a question for later. Mao pushed the Communists to ally with Sun’s movement in 1922 and 1923, and in early 1924 joined the KMT himself. This actually caused Mao to lose much support with the Communists, though he was never trusted by his KMT allies thanks to his Communist leanings. Mao was a strident advocate for the Chinese peasantry, which didn’t help his standing in Sun’s educated and bourgeois revolutionary movement.

The KMT, though, was thrown into chaos when Sun unexpectedly died of cancer in March 1925. He had been the glue that had held the temporary alliance together, able to work with both left-wing and right-wing members of his movement, and his successor was an open question. The fallout was between his old revolutionary comrade Wang Jingwei, the obvious successor, and his young protégé Chiang Kai-shek – the chosen successor. This dispute was “solved” in a very Chinese fashion, when Chiang married Soong Mei-ling (better known in the West as Madame Chiang Kai-shek), who just so happened to be the sister of Sun’s widow. This made Chiang a part of Sun’s family, granting him instant credibility, and led to his ascendancy over Wang. This was fateful, since Wang – much like Sun – had always been an advocate of cooperation with and toleration of the Communists.

Now in full command of the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek launched the military expedition that he hoped would reunify China. As the Roaring Twenties were playing out in America and Hitler was holding small rallies in Nuremburg, Chiang started the Northern Expedition on July 9, 1926. The KMT’s army stormed north, as Wang held a reluctant secondary role and Mao performed rear-area duties rallying the peasants and reforming the land. As the Northern Expedition continued, many peasants took the opportunity to seize the local lords’ lands and kill their former rulers, which engendered sympathy from Mao and anger from the KMT overlords. Wang Jingwei, however, occupied the city of Wuhan and declared it the new Chinese capital, fostering a split within the KMT. He was supported by the left-wing KMT party members as well as the Chinese Communists. Even as Chiang’s great military campaign was succeeding, it was falling apart.

Chiang was growing increasingly leery of the Communist presence in his ranks, convinced that they posed a long-term threat to the stability of China and that they strengthened the hand of his rival Wang Jingwei. But you know what they say about self-fulfilling prophecies. After the KMT had occupied much of central China, including the major cities of Shanghai and Nanjing, Chiang decided that the Communists were no longer necessary. After declaring Nanjing his capital and when a peace overture from Wang fell through, Chiang turned on his Communist allies. From April 12 to 14, 1927, the KMT initiated a purge of the CCP within their ranks. Of the 25,000 members of the Chinese Communist Party, 15,000 were killed in the initial and in later massacres. Known as the “Shanghai Massacre,” the incident widened the rift between Wang and Chiang, but also heralded the end of KMT and CCP cooperation. From now on, the Nationalists and the Communists would be bitter enemies. This marked the real beginning of what became known as the Chinese Civil War.

It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if Sun Yat-sen had lived, or Wang Jingwei had succeeded to leadership of the KMT. Would the Nationalist/Communist alliance have fallen apart? Would the destructive Civil War have occurred, and would China look anything like it does now? It’s hard to say. It is clear that Chiang’s hostility to the Communists was always going to precipitate a break, and that the Communists – in accordance with Lenin’s methods – definitely planned to gain power one day. But it didn’t have to happen as it did. But Chiang had burnt his bridges. There would be Civil War.

Mao – still only one of multiple Communist leaders at this time – had been shocked and enraged by the KMT’s betrayal, and at first aligned with Wang Jingwei in Wuhan. Soon, though, Wang had allied with Chiang against the Communists, and the KMT armies were attacking Communist forces all throughout their bases in central and southern China. Even as Chiang completed the Northern Expedition in 1928, triumphantly entering Beijing and bringing China under one flag again, the Communists resisted. Even as the leaders of the world recognized Chiang Kai-shek as President of China and the Kuomintang as its legitimate government, the leaders of the CCP determined to fight to the end.

For almost seven years, from 1928 to 1934, the KMT of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists would wage a series of bitter and protracted campaigns known as the “Campaigns of Encirclement.” This struggle drained both sides, as the Nationalists tried and failed to cut off the Communist forces from each other, and the Communists merely tried to hold their ground. In essence, the KMT was waging a counterinsurgency campaign with no real plan and little military skill. Both armies were little more than armed mobs, despite Chiang’s attempts to create professional forces and the Communists’ attempt to rally the workers from the cities. Most of inland China was still held by the unconquered warlords, who nominally acknowledged Chiang’s sovereignty but who he had little control over.

Despite Sun Yat-sen’s dream, it was still a very divided, violent and bitter China throughout the late 20s and early 30s, as the Great Depression took hold in the West and Hitler rose to power in Germany.

Mao himself was still only a local leader. He had become the head of a guerrilla band in Jiangxi, where his innovative tactics and broad strategic outlook marked him out. He was unpopular with the Party leadership, though, due to his rejection of traditional Marxist thought. Though they held that only the urban workers could lead a successful revolution, Mao believed that the rural Chinese peasant would be the bedrock of Chinese Communism. The Soviets in particular held to the traditional view, and purged the leadership of the CCP, appointing their own Soviet-oriented leaders to head the resistance to the KMT.

As the years wore on, the KMT finally began to get a grip on the styles of warfare they would need to fight the Communists. Outnumbered, Mao responded with guerrilla tactics influenced by ancient strategists like Sun Tzu, but the CCP leadership favored direct confrontation and conventional warfare. In 1933, though, Chiang himself initiated the Fifth Encirclement Campaign, which applied classic counterinsurgency tactics to the Communist resistance. Chiang’s forces built a wall of barbed wire and concrete pillboxes around the Communist bases, which began to collapse one by one. Finally, Chiang surrounded Jiangxi, where the Communist leadership was located, and soon the CCP’s Red Army was trapped inside the Nationalist encirclement.

The Soviet-appointed Communist leaders tried their conventional tactics against the KMT, but they were outnumbered and outgunned. Aerial bombardment blasted away at the Communist forces inside the shrinking perimeter, and soon food and medicine became scarce. The Communist leadership finally recognized that they had no choice: they had to evacuate southern China and move to their last safe haven far to the north in the province of Shaanxi. It was a long, long way away, and it would require great hardship and privation for the Communists – but it was the only way they could save their movement.

I may be overrating how enormous this all was. We all know that China is a big country, but these are vast campaigns over hundreds of miles involving hundreds of thousands of people, across urban centers and mountains and rice paddies and deserts. Despite China’s size, much of the northern and western reaches of the country are rugged and broken desert and mountains, while much of the south is jungle. The terrain in China is full of extremes, and it was across all these lands that the Chinese Civil War took place.

In October 1934, the Communists staged their great breakout from the Jiangxi encirclement. As soon as they had broken out, though, the forces separated. The Soviet-allied leaders of the CCP took a route leaning more northwest, but the peasants and the hardcore Chinese nationalists followed none other than Mao Zedong.

The Long March, as it came to be known, began with over 100,000 people. They would travel 6,000 miles over the course of a year. Southwest China is a checkerboard of rivers, mountains, and plains. Mao’s troops could not move directly north due to Chiang’s army, and the deadly pursuit of the Nationalist troops meant there could be no rest. At the average of 17 miles a day, Mao’s army moved up and over the mountains and rivers while avoiding the plains and their few roads, where the KMT ruled. On the Long March carrying poles substituted for wheeled vehicles and two-man litters for railroad cars. The long human chain made its way through the most difficult terrain in China, closely pursued by Nationalists the whole way. They used their radio receivers to listen to KMT codes, which were easily cracked; this enabled them to stay one step ahead of their enemies.

The March was perilous. To avoid the Nationalists, the Communists had to take roundabout routes through hostile territory and across nearly impassable terrain. It was here that Mao’s commitment to guerrilla tactics, instead of conventional warfare, became most useful. The Soviet-appointed CCP leadership had tried to move more openly, with fatal results. Chiang’s armies caught up with and eliminated many of Mao’s rivals with the help of their Muslim allies in the northwest – which would cause permanent bad blood between the Chinese Communists and the Muslims of Xinjiang, which I’m sure wouldn’t have any repercussions further down the road.

The Long March ended up being Mao’s rise to power. The remaining Communists rallied under his banner, even as their numbers dwindled and people died of exposure, starvation, or exhaustion. Despite being downgraded before the march by the CCP leadership, Mao’s unorthodox Marxism, his faith in the peasants, and his commitment to guerrilla warfare tactics were finally accepted by his fellow Communists. On the way west and northwest on their brutal, terrible expedition, Mao gained the leadership of the CCP from early 1935 and never lost it.

Marching speed was crucial to stay ahead of the Nationalists. The original many-mile-long baggage train with its thousands of carriers and their heavy equipment, files, supplies, and convalescents were soon discarded. Thousands died along the way, and thousands more deserted – though many were replaced by recruits. Nevertheless, when the Long March finally ended and Mao’s battered followers reached Shaanxi on October 20, 1935, only a few thousand remained of the 100,000 that had begun the legendary expedition. The survivors of the Long March would become the future aristocracy of Communist China.

The Long March *made* Mao Zedong. After it was over, he was the unquestioned leader of the Chinese Communist Party, and his will would prevail. He behaved less like a man of the people and more like an emperor as time went on; his story came to resemble the leaders of the Han, the Tang, and the Ming – men who had risen from nothing to seize everything. Around him he assembled a coterie of Communist leaders who would rule China until almost the 21st Century. With Mao ascendant, the battle lines were drawn for the final struggle of the Chinese Civil War.

These two men – Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong – held the future of China within their grasp. Though they allied once again when the Japanese struck in 1937, and would remain nominally on the same side throughout World War II, they always knew that the struggle would begin again. In 1949, 14 years after the Long March brought Mao to the head of the Communists, the final round of the Chinese Civil War would make him the head of all mainland China – while Chiang and his Nationalists would be exiled to Taiwan. These two men exemplified the broken promises and bitter divisions of Sun Yat-sen’s noble legacy, degenerated into the modern hell-state of Xi Jinping’s China.

Under the reign of Emperor – uh, I mean CHAIRMAN Mao, a new Chinese dynasty had risen from the ashes of the old. “The empire, long united, must divide; the empire, long divided, must unite.”

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