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Republic of China (1912-1949)

photo of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China and the Kuomintang nationalist party
photo of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China and the Kuomintang nationalist party. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons public domain in the United States

On January 1st 1912, Dr. Sun Yat-sen was inaugurated as the first president of the Republic of China, just as it had been widely expected due to his leading position in the fight against the Qing government. However, under Yuan Shikai's deal with the Qing government, Dr. Sun Yat-sen had to agree to resign from his position as president after the abdication of the Qing emperor, in order to let Yuan Shikai become the next president.

This came to happen soon after on the 12th of February 1912. Dr. Sun Yat-sen resigned as president of the republic, in order to let Yuan Shikai take his place as a supposedly provisional president until a proper constitution and institutional structure for a new permanent system of governance were all put in place. The election of a provisional national assembly was scheduled for the autumn of 1912.

That legislative body was then supposed to draft a new constitution for the republic. Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Kuomintang national people's party, that had become the political successor of his earlier Revolutionary League, was the clear winner of this election. Dr. Sun Yat-sen himself had decided not to take a seat in the provisional assembly, presumably because he aspired to become the president again and wanted to keep himself available for that post.

However, Yuan Shikai was not really willing to give up his position as president either. Yuan Shikai is suspected of having orchestrated the assassination of Song Jiaoren (1882 - 1913), the leader of the Kuomintang nationalist party in the provisional assembly, just when Song was about to board a train in Shanghai, that would have brought him to Beijing in order to take his seat in the assembly there. That assassination didn't stop the assembly from beginning its deliberations about the future of the republic though. After Yuan Shikai had coerced the assembly into electing him as president (for a 5-year term) in late 1913, he expelled all Kuomintang delegates from further participation in it.
photo of Song Jiaoren
photo of Song Jiaoren. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A rump legislature, that was filled with his supporters and that didn't include any Kuomintang delegates, continued to meet after that. It eventually approved a constitution that named Yuan Shikai as president for life!

Yuan Shikai in uniform
Yuan Shikai in uniform. By Not stated, marked as "Copyright 1913 The Bobbs-Merril Company" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In late 1915, Yuan Shikai even tried to establish a new imperial dynasty with himself as the Great Emperor of China! He had ceremonial robes made for himself that had characterized the outfit of emperors, assembled a group of officials that were supposed to constitute his Confucian imperial cabinet and even performed the sacrificial rites according to the ancient customs at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the traditional place for Chinese emperors to pray to heaven for a good harvest!

The Temple of Heaven Travel Information for the Temple of Heaven in Beijing is now one of Beijing's most popular tourist attractions, an absolute must when visiting Beijing.

Yuan Shikai's attempt to establish himself as the new emperor strained the support of even his loyal followers beyond the breaking point and he had to flee from the capital a short time afterwards. In early June 1916, Yuan Shikai died from kidney failure.

Despite Yuan Shikai's hubristic ambitions, he turned out to be the last strong charismatic leader that somehow held China together. That became evident during the next decade, when China's former unity fell apart and various warlords ruled the different areas of China like their own personal domains. These warlords had been either former generals or otherwise high ranking officers in the imperial Qing army, political heavyweights during the early years of the republic or simply opportunists, who grabbed power for themselves in this period without strong central leadership.

Unbelievably, there was no effective central government in China between the years 1916 - 1926/1927, even though some short-lived governments claimed to be the legitimate governments of China from their capitals of Beijing or Nanjing. These governments had no control over most of China, where various ruthless warlords in ever - shifting alliances fought amongst themselves and caused great hardship and intolerable suffering for vast numbers of ordinary Chinese people.

Meanwhile, foreign nations continued to increase their power and influence over China. Particularly Japan became more ambitious in its efforts to control Manchuria in the Northeast of China. China as a whole had never been weaker and more divided in its history, but this ultimate period of chaos and humiliation turned out to be the breeding ground for new ideas, that would transform China even more radically soon afterwards.

Map of Manchuria
Map of Manchuria. By CIA (The World Factbook) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the aftermath of the breakdown of the Qing dynasty, as in any period when what was certain and right before was suddenly gone, many Chinese (not only the educated elite) embarked upon a truth-seeking journey to fill the spiritual and ideological void, that the complete breakdown of the old dynastic system had created in their minds. After the collapse of the old imperial order, many Chinese not only rejected the old political institutions, ideology and culture, but many traditional forms of behaviour and further aspects of traditional Chinese culture as well. Nearly everything that was old was suddenly seen as problematic, holding China back from the necessary modernization and reform efforts.

This critique of traditional culture and ideas went into full bloom during the years when China was fragmented into the domains of various warlords. During these years of hardship and suffering for many Chinese, many new ideas about China's future germinated and began to find a following. This period in the mid to late 1910's is now known as the New Culture Movement. Its primary aim was to create a new cultural system for China, while breaking with the old culture.

Chinese women demonstrating on the street during the times of the New Culture Movement
Chinese women demonstrating on the street during the times of the New Culture Movement.

One of the pillars of old Chinese culture had been the use of a classical literary form of the Chinese language among the educated elite circles of society. This sophisticated form of Chinese was preserved in the around 2.000-year-old writings of Confucius, Mencius and other sages. Over the preceding centuries, the traditional attachment to this old form of Chinese among elite circles of society had led to an increasing alienation from the common speech of the ordinary Chinese people.

Educated Chinese that supported the New Culture Movement began to advocate for the use of baihua (baihua = colloquial language). The written vernacular Chinese had until then only been used in works of fiction. It was henceforth used more and more in articles and essays about politics, history, literature and art, where the use of classical Chinese had previously dominated. Whereas some individuals of the educated class continued to use classical Chinese, that was more and more seen as old-fashioned, the use of baihua came to be seen as a sign for an individual's progressiveness and openness to modern ideas.

leaders of the New Culture Movement and May 4th Movement
leaders of the New Culture Movement and May 4th Movement: Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi, Li Dazhao, Lu Xun (from left to right)

Not only the use of classical Chinese, but also the values and ideas of Confucianism came to be seen as an obstacle on the path to China's modernization. The Confucian emphasis of hierarchical relationships (between ruler and subject, husband and wife etc.) began to be seen as oppressive and the - according to Confucius - reciprocal nature of these relationships (i.e. if the ruler wasn't a just ruler, he didn't have to be obeyed any longer) had been mostly forgotten. Confucianism came to be seen as a facilitating ideology in the oppression of certain groups within society (i.e. women, peasants, workers etc.), whereas it raised the societal value of other more privileged groups (like men, the educated elite etc.).

John Dewey at the University of Chicago in 1902
John Dewey at the University of Chicago in 1902. By Eva Watson-Schütze (1867-1935) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons public domain in the United States
Bertrand Russell in 1916
Bertrand Russell in 1916. By Photographer not identified (Bertrand Russell (1916). Justice in War-Time.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

New ideas that were more egalitarian in nature and more suitable for China in the 20th century were sought and popular circulating journals (especially the journal New Youth) became the platform, where a wide range of new ideas were debated. Many of these newly circulating ideas were inspired or directly drawn from the work of certain Western thinkers. Some of these popular Western thinkers like John Dewey, George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell travelled through China on speaking tours in the late 1910's and/or early 1920's.

Other more controversial new ideas also emerged, particularly those of anarchism, which was an important political movement in the West in the early 20th century (often connected to trade union movements). In the 1910's, anarchists began to build worker organizations, that created favourable conditions for the later socialist transformation. Anarchist ideas also came to China through the actions of Chinese students oversees, many of whom sent journals and pamphlets back home from their place of study like Japan or Paris (where these ideas were popular at that time). It was probably the anarchists who first brought the ideas of socialism, feminism and egalitarianism to China. Later on, special groups that were specifically devoted to those ideas began to emerge as well.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen with Chinese students in Brussels
the "father of modern China" Dr. Sun Yat-sen (middle row, 3rd from left) with Chinese students in Brussels, 1905. public domain in the United States

The First World War, that plunged Europe into chaos from 1914 - 1918, turned out to benefit China economically. Certain Chinese industries that competed on a global scale (particularly the textile industry) benefited from the reduced competition during these times and expanded their worldwide market share. Most of their European competitors were either closed or had their production efforts diverted towards wartime needs during this time. What's more, hundreds of thousands of mostly young Chinese found work in factories in Europe (particularly in France) during this time, replacing the locals who had gone to war.

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps entertain British troops and Chinese workers at an open-air theatre at Etaples in 1918
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps entertain British troops and Chinese workers at an open-air theatre at Etaples in 1918. The British and Chinese audience members appear to be separated by a fence. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While working in these European factories, they not only experienced better working conditions than back home, but also benefited from access to better education, the assistance of trade unions etc. Modern ideas such as democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity were embraced by many of them (not only intellectuals but even ordinary workers) and shared with their friends and family members back home in letters. The monetary remittances that these workers sent to their families provided a further boost for the Chinese economy at that time.

the list of the Twenty-One Demands
the list of the Twenty-One Demands. By 不详 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the European powers occupied in the First World War, Japan tried to seize the opportunity in 1915 to extend its domination over China by delivering a list of demands (the Twenty-One Demands) to the Chinese government of president Yuan Shikai. The essence of the Twenty-One Demands was that Japan wanted to assume a special role among all the foreign powers in China, that would have given it a dominating position over parts of the economy (Japan wanted special economic concessions) and public life (for example Japan wanted to have the right to place Japanese officials as de facto overseers in Chinese government offices). The Twenty-One Demands were of course rejected by the Chinese government.

However, a few years later after the end of the First World War, Japan was awarded the former German concessions on Chinese soil in the Treaty of Versailles (signed on the 28th of June 1919) as an act of gratitude for the Japanese support in the war against Germany. China had also contributed in the war against Germany and was indignant that these former parts of its territory were not returned to its control. Even though the Chinese government never accepted the terms of the Versailles treaty, it was imposed anyway by the Western powers, even without an official signature from the Chinese delegates.

William Orpen's painting The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles 1919
section of William Orpen's painting "The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles 1919" showing a view of the interior of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, with the heads of state sitting and standing before a long table.
Front Row: Dr Johannes Bell (Germany) signing with Herr Hermann Muller leaning over him. Middle row (seated, left to right): General Tasker H Bliss, Col E M House, Mr Henry White, Mr Robert Lansing, President Woodrow Wilson (United States); M Georges Clemenceau (France); Mr D Lloyd George, Mr A Bonar Law, Mr Arthur J Balfour, Viscount Milner, Mr G N Barnes (Great Britain); The Marquis Saionzi (Japan). Back row (left to right): M Eleutherios Venizelos (Greece); Dr Affonso Costa (Portugal); Lord Riddell (British Press); Sir George E Foster (Canada); M Nikola Pachitch (Serbia); M Stephen Pichon (France); Col Sir Maurice Hankey, Mr Edwin S Montagu (Great Britain); the Maharajah of Bikaner (India); Signor Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (Italy); M Paul Hymans (Belgium); General Louis Botha (South Africa); Mr W M Hughes (Australia).
By William Orpen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

News of these events reached Beijing by telegram from Paris on the night of May 3rd 1919. On the following day, May 4th 1919, thousands of students gathered at noon in front of Tiananmen Gate, where they protested in what came to be known as the May 4th demonstration against the perceived unfairness of the Versailles treaty.

Student Demonstrations on June 4th and 5th 1919 in Beijing which started the May 4th Movement
Student Demonstrations on June 4th and 5th 1919 in Beijing which started the May 4th Movement. By Sidney David Gamble (Internet Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The protesters saw the disregard for Chinese interests in the treaty stipulations as a betrayal of China and they were disappointed with their own government (and especially foreign ministry), which they perceived as too weak to stand up to the Western powers. That demonstration marked the beginning of the May 4th Movement. The demonstration proceeded with the students marching eastward towards the diplomatic quarter of Beijing (where the foreign nations had their diplomatic missions). When the police blocked the access roads to the diplomatic quarter, the students turned north through a maze of narrow alleyways, that led them to the residence of the Chinese foreign minister Cao Rulin. After forcing their entry inside, the students proceeded to beat up the one man they encountered before burning the compound to the ground. The foreign minister managed to flee from the approaching rioters through a back door, disguised in the dress of a female servant! When the police arrived at the scene, they confronted the students and forcefully broke up the riot and demonstration. Many students were violently beaten and several arrested.
Cao Rulin (1877 - 1966), the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs
Cao Rulin (1877 - 1966), the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Beiyang Government and an important member of the pro-Japanese movement in the early 20th century. By Unknown; scanned by Internet Archive (http://archive.org/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

photo showing the arrested students being taken to jail, 1919
photo showing the arrested students being taken to jail, 1919. By Sidney David Gamble (Internet Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During the following days of heated political discussion, officials from the government and Beijing university got involved, arguing on behalf of the students and demanding that the Versailles treaty won't be ratified by China. The arrested students were released, but the May 4th Movement nevertheless began to spread to other Chinese cities and even beyond the ranks of students. The movement's popularity within the population increased substantially within a short time. Especially its call for a boycott of Japanese goods was hugely popular and many Chinese merchants joined the movement (perhaps also for the opportunist reason of hoping to increase their profits through the sale of their Chinese goods).

Tsinghua University students in Beijing burn Japanese goods in 1919
Tsinghua University students in Beijing burn Japanese goods in 1919. By Tsinghua University [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The May 4th movement continued its course for another 2 years or so, during which it sort of merged with the New Culture Movement. Its significance is related to the huge loss of faith in Western ideas among many young educated Chinese in its aftermath. Especially this new generation of Chinese had until then seen the West as a sort of role model, that needed to be emulated on China's path to modernity. Western political systems and ideas like that of a democratic republic had been widely discussed in these circles and were seen by many as a viable alternative for China's future. The unfair imperialist doctrine that became apparent in the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles exposed the rhetoric of Western powers during the First World War (during which more self-determination for colonial peoples had been promised repeatedly) as blatant lies.

Western pragmatism, that was characterized by each Western country caring first and foremost about its own interests, had led to yet another humiliation of China and a loss of face of the West. Suddenly, even more radical ideas for China's future, that were inspired by the ideas of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, began to look a lot more appealing in the eyes of progressive Chinese.

poster of the Russian Civil War
A poster of the Russian Civil War, 1918-1922 with the slogan: Long Live World October [revolution]! Workers conquered power in Russia. Workers will conquer power in the entire world. public domain in the United States

Substantive reports about the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia on the 7th of November 1917 had reached China only by the spring of 1918. Some educated Chinese had followed these emerging information closely, because they saw parallels between Russia's and China's situation. Both countries had been ruled by absolute monarchs (the emperor in China and the tsar in Russia), controlled a huge territory and were mostly agrarian-based with a large and mostly poor peasantry and beginning industrialization efforts in some cities. The ideas of the Bolshevik Revolution like Marxism, Leninism and Communism were well-received among some progressive Chinese, who saw them as political alternatives for the future of China. The idea of a Chinese communist party, that could lead China into a socialist future, began to emerge and was realized soon after.

Li Dazhao, Chinese agent of the Communist International in 1930
Li Dazhao, Chinese agent of the Communist International in 1930. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Over a period of several years, Marxist study groups sprung up in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. After having grown in size from very modest beginnings, they began to reach out to workers organizations and form loose networks with socialist groups in other parts of the country. After 1920, these Marxist study groups began to receive organisational help and advice from both Soviet agents (that the Russian communists had sent to assist in the process of revolutionary organisation) and advisors from the Communist International (an international communist organization). This assistance was crucial in the preparation of establishing a national communist organisation/party in China.

Before the Communist Party of China (CPC) was even founded, these advisors helped to suggest the terms of the party program and the organisational format for the new party. The international advisors assisted with the organisation of the founding National Congress, that took place in July of 1921 in Shanghai and later on a tour boat on Jiaxing's South Lake. The Communist Party of China (CPC) was officially founded during these days as an institution. The site of the founding First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai Travel Information for the site of the founding First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai is now a museum that history buffs shouldn't miss when visiting that metropolis.

Location of the founding First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai
Location of the founding First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai. By Pyzhou (Own work) [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Only about a dozen party delegates had made their way to Shanghai to attend the founding congress. Many others had been unable to travel there. Whereas some of the first delegates never attained a position of prominence within the CPC during its later ascent to power, one of those founding members later became the CPC's famous chairman - Mao Zedong (1893 - 1976). Mao had become involved with a Marxist study group while working in a minor position at the Beijing University Library.
photo of the young Mao Zedong in 1927
photo of the young Mao Zedong in 1927. public domain in the United States

Interestingly, agents from the Communist International had not only helped with the founding of the CPC, but had helped Dr. Sun Yat-sen's nationalist Kuomintang party as well. The advice of these foreign experts had led to an effective reorganization of the Kuomintang party. Though personally opposed to the ideas of communism, Dr. Sun Yat-sen was nevertheless open to useful cooperation. Since he was not a great organizer himself, he had welcomed the advice of the agents of the Communist International, which had led to a reorganization of his nationalist party after the model of the Russian Bolshevik party. This successful reorganization of the Kuomintang had substantially increased internal discipline, cohesion and made the nationalist party much more effective in its operation.

Furthermore, the advisors of the Communist International had recommended the formation of a United Front between the CPC and the Kuomintang. Unlike in the situation of a merger, both parties continued to exist as separate entities after the First United Front was put together. It allowed members of the CPC to join the Kuomintang as well (to be therefore members of both parties at the same time) and even to serve as officials within its ranks.

Mao Zedong was one of the many Chinese communists, who subsequently joined the Kuomintang. He even became the leader of the Kuomintang's peasant bureau, which wasn't a prestigious position since the industrial proletariat was the more coveted target group of both parties at that time. Both parties ultimately benefited from their collaboration under the First United Front. The diligent work of the communists in many sectors benefited the Kuomintang and the collaboration helped the CPC to slowly gain a larger following (its membership numbers lagged far behind those of the Kuomintang at that time).

1940 photo of Chiang Kaishek in full military uniform
1940 photo of Chiang Kaishek in full military uniform. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
After Dr. Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, the nationalist Kuomintang party needed more then a year to find a new strong leader. One military man, whom Dr. Sun Yat-sen had earlier sent to Russia for a few months in order to study the Bolshevik Revolution there, began to rise to political prominence in the times that followed the death of the "father of modern China". Even though Chiang Kaishek (1888 - 1975) had been impressed by the might of the Red Army and the organisational skills and techniques of the Russian communists, he was nevertheless strongly opposed to their political program.

Chiang Kaishek at Dr. Sun Yat-sen's funeral in 1925
Chiang Kaishek at Dr. Sun Yat-sen's funeral in 1925. By 中文: 不詳 ,愿聞其詳 at zh.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

After his return to China in 1924, Chiang Kaishek had become the commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy outside Canton (Guangzhou). The network of personal connections within the nationalist military, that Chiang developed during this time, contributed to him being named commander of the nationalist army in 1926. And so, more then one year after Dr. Sun Yat-sen's death, Chiang Kaishek had become the new political leader of the Kuomintang while simultaneously keeping his position as military commander of the party-affiliated National Revolutionary Army (NRA).

Chiang Kaishek as commander of the Whampoa Military Academy
Chiang Kaishek as commander of the Whampoa Military Academy. public domain in the United States

In 1926, after having sufficiently consolidated his power base within the nationalist party and army, Chiang Kaishek launched an effort to reunify China, that came to be known as the Northern Expedition. With most of China in the hands of warlords, the nationalists only controlled their base area of Guangdong province in the south of China at that time. From there, the nationalist army under Chiang Kaishek's leadership followed almost the same route as the Taiping Movement during the previous century, up through Hunan province in central China to the Yangtze River Valley before turning eastwards to Nanjing.

Within just a few months, the Northern Expedition was successful in bringing most of southern China under military control of the nationalist forces. That was achieved through a combination of tactics. Most of the battles that the nationalist army fought ended in victory and resulted in the incorporation of the defeated warlord armies into the nationalist forces. Sometimes, Chiang Kaishek also gained the loyalty of local warlords through political negotiations. A few times, he resorted to outright bribery to gain their allegiance. By the spring of 1927, the entire territory south of the Yangtze River was in the hands of the nationalist army.

The National Revolutionary Army enters Wuhan in 1927 during the Northern Expedition
The National Revolutionary Army enters Wuhan in 1927 during the Northern Expedition. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By April 1927, the nationalist army stood outside the city of Shanghai. Shanghai was already China's most industrialized city back then. Many thousands of workers worked in the factories there. Most workers were organized in trade unions. Some of these unions stood under the dominion of the Communist Party of China, others merely maintained links with the communists. The First United Front between the nationalists and the communists, that Dr. Sun Yat-sen had put in place, had been reluctantly maintained by Chiang Kaishek until then. Despite his strong opposition to communism, Chiang Kaishek didn't want to jeopardise his position as the political heir of the "father of modern China". When his nationalist army stood outside Shanghai, Chiang Kaishek saw an opportunity to eliminate the communists as a political rival once and for all.

Kuomintang and communist organizers within the city (many of which were embedded within the unions) had devised a plan for an uprising within Shanghai. The uprising was supposed to start once the nationalist army approached the city. The communists had to seize control of the city then, sparing the nationalist army from the difficult task of having to fight their way in. The communists' 3rd attempt to launch a large-scale uprising in late March 1927 was initially successful, taking the power back from the local warlord leader and opening the way for Chiang Kaishek's army to enter the city.

Worried about the growing power of the CPC within the city in the days after the uprising, Chiang Kaishek initiated a purge of communists from within the ranks of the Kuomintang. Members of the Shanghai underworld (the Green Gang) assisted Chiang to carry out this bloody purge. Striking workers and communist organizers were violently attacked and many of them died or were injured while fighting in the streets. Hundreds more were subsequently arrested, imprisoned and some of them executed. This bloody purge of the communists in Shanghai destroyed them as a significant political movement in that city. It also marked the end of the First United Front between the CPC and the Kuomintang.

Communists being rounded up during the days of the purge in Shanghai
Communists being rounded up during the days of the purge in Shanghai. public domain in the United States

The organisational base of the CPC within the urban proletariat was subsequently destroyed in other ports and industrial centers as well. The former alliance between communists and nationalists was only maintained in the central Chinese city of Wuhan for a while longer until the end of summer 1927. There, a left wing group within the nationalist party continued to collaborate with the communists until Chiang Kaishek convinced them to reunite with the Kuomintang's right wing. After these events, Chiang Kaishek had become the undisputed leader of the Kuomintang nationalist party.

Meanwhile, the Chinese communists found themselves in an extremely difficult situation. Marxism emphasized the primary role of the urban proletariat on the way to building a socialist society. The CPC had therefore concentrated its efforts on the organization of urban workers. That organisational structure had been destroyed. Mao Zedong began to play a more significant role within the CPC during that time. His vision of organising the Chinese peasantry, that he had begun to develop as the leader of the peasant bureau of the nationalists, slowly began to gain a following over the course of several years until it eventually became the party's new dominant orientation. Mao Zedong had observed the power of budding peasant movements in the countryside (including his home province of Hunan) and saw their immense potential. He now wanted to turn them into a revolutionary force under the leadership of the CPC.

Mao Zedong addresses some of his followers at an unknown location
Mao Zedong addresses some of his followers at an unknown location. public domain in the United States

Before the CPC's reorientation towards leading the peasantry (after the destruction of its urban organisational structure) was completed, the remaining urban party leadership urged communists in various parts of the country to launch uprisings. This "greater revolution" within the cities had disastrous results. Even Mao Zedong himself led a peasant army to capture the central Chinese city of Changsha. Mao's army never established full control of the city before they were forced to retreat by the better armed and organized nationalist army. After this defeat, Mao Zedong retreated with his remaining troops to the mountains of southern Jiangxi province.

Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai
the Chinese communist leaders Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai (from left) that were both involved in the leadership of the Jiangxi Soviet, photo taken at a later time in 1939. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
the Chinese communist Red Army leader Zhu De in the 1930's
photo of the Chinese communist Red Army leader Zhu De in the 1930's. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There, he collaborated with local communists and the leaders of other abortive uprisings to create a new model for the Chinese communist movement. In the early 1930's, Mao Zedong, his political ally Zhou Enlai (1898 - 1976) and the communist military leader Zhu De (1886 - 1976) tested many of their communist theories (land reform, reforming the Chinese family system etc.) practically in the Jiangxi Soviet. This rural communist base in southern Jiangxi, that was populated with several million peasants, became a testing ground for communist ideas. Many of those were later implemented on a national level after the CPC had risen to power.

2nd meeting of the Chinese communist delegates at the Jiangxi Soviet in 1934
the 2nd meeting of the Chinese communist delegates at the Jiangxi Soviet in 1934. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chiang Kaishek completed to pursue his goal of reunifying China after 1927. In 1928, his forces defeated or formed alliances with the remaining warlords in the north of China. Conflict with the former warlords flared up once more in 1930 when the Central Plains War pitted Chiang Kaishek's forces against those of three of his former warlord allies. Even though Chiang Kaishek's side triumphed in this war, it was a very costly victory, both financially and concerning the number of human casualties.

the warlords Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan with Chiang Kaishek before the outbreak of the Central Plains War
the warlords Feng Yuxiang (left) and Yan Xishan (right) with Chiang Kaishek (middle) during a Kuomintang conference before the outbreak of the Central Plains War. By 民國九十五年 (Old Photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the warlords removed as a threat to China's unity, the Japanese started to become troublesome, however. Japanese military units were based in Shandong province in order to protect Japanese-owned railway lines and their economic concession of Qingdao. Military confrontations between the Japanese military units and Chiang Kaishek's nationalist army broke out in Shandong province during the 2nd part of the Northern Expedition in 1928. The tensions between China and Japan became more and more apparent by the end of the 1920's and the beginning of the 1930's. Chiang Kaishek, however, saw the Chinese communists as the greater threat, (in-)famously calling the Japanese a disease of the skin but the communists a disease of the guts."

Instead of dealing decisively with the Japanese threat, he subsequently concentrated his efforts on the fight against the communists. The Jiangxi Soviet was not the only area where local communist forces had established their control. Chiang Kaishek's military began to launch a series of encirclement campaigns in the 1930's. These military blockade tactics had the nationalist military surround the Jiangxi Soviet, before trying to move ever closer to its center. At first, the communists were able to fight back and even drive off the nationalist soldiers. After the nationalists began to receive military advice and assistance from the German Nazis in the mid-1930's (that assistance was suspended later when Germany allied itself with Japan), it became harder and harder for the communists to protect their area.

soldiers of the Chinese Red Army during the time of their resistance against Chiang Kaishek's first encirclement campaign of the Jiangxi Soviet
soldiers of the Chinese Red Army during the time of their resistance against Chiang Kaishek's first encirclement campaign of the Jiangxi Soviet. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By October of 1934, it had become clear that the Jiangxi Soviet wouldn't be able to resist these encirclement campaigns much longer. To escape the mounting pressure, the communist leaders decided to try to break out of the encirclement in order to march to another communist base in the Northwest of China, that was centered around the city of Yan'an in Shaanxi province. In mid-October 1934, 115.000 individuals broke out of the encirclement and began the Long March towards Yan'an. A small contingent of fighters was left behind in the center of their longtime base. Their last stand was intended to keep the nationalist forces occupied from pursuit.

photo showing Mao Zedong riding his white horse during the Long March, 1934-1935
photo showing Mao Zedong riding his white horse during the Long March, 1934-1935. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, the communist long marchers were constantly harassed by pursuing nationalist forces during the course of the next year. The long marchers finally reached their new base at Yan'an by the end of 1935. However, only 15.000 individuals had successfully completed the arduous trip of several thousand kilometres (that had first led south and west, before turning north in a wide arc) across several provinces and through swamps, deep river gorges and across mountain ranges. The heroism and indomitable spirit of these long marchers is still celebrated in China today! Mao Zedong had been named chairman of the communist party early on during the Long March, a position he continued to hold until his death in 1976.

Mao Zedong at work in his Yan'an office in 1938
Mao Zedong at work in his Yan'an office in 1938. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At their new Yan'an base Travel Information for the Yan'an sites of the Communist Party of China, the communist party continued to experiment with new policies and organisational methods. In December of 1936, an event occurred that gave the Chinese communists (that were firmly established at their Yan'an base then) an opportunity to join a Second United Front with the nationalists, this time with the focus of resisting the Japanese invasion. This event came to be known as the Xi'an Incident.

photo of the warlord Zhang Xueliang
photo of the warlord Zhang Xueliang. public domain in the United States
Zhang Zuolin,the warlord who controlled Manchuria from 1916 to 1928,father of Zhang Xueliang
Zhang Zuolin, the warlord who controlled Manchuria from 1916 to 1928. father of Zhang Xueliang. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Xi'an is located in the southern part of Shaanxi province, which in 1936 was under the military control of Zhang Xueliang (1898 - 2001), a warlord who had pledged allegiance to Chiang Kaishek. Zhang Xueliang's father Zhang Zuolin had been the warlord of Manchuria (from 1916 to 1928) until the Japanese assassinated him in 1928. Understandably, Zhang Xueliang wanted the nationalists to take a stronger stand against Japanese aggression and was particularly frustrated with Chiang Kaishek's apparent unwillingness to do so. Perhaps out of that frustration, Zhang Xueliang had Chiang Kaishek placed under house arrest, when the latter came to visit him in Xi'an. The kidnapping of Chiang Kaishek actually happened at the Huaqing Hot Springs Travel Information for the Huaqing Hot Springs near Xi'an about 25 km east of Xi'an. Zhang Xueliang then invited the communists to send representatives from their Yan'an base to Xi'an in order to negotiate the terms of a Second United Front.

Zhou Enlai represented the communists in the successful negotiation of that agreement, before Chiang Kaishek was released again and allowed to return to the capital of Nanjing. Perhaps out of vengefulness, Chiang Kaishek turned the tables upon his return to Nanjing by having Zhang Xueliang placed under house arrest. The nationalists even went so far as to take him along to Taiwan, when they fled from the Chinese mainland in 1948/1949!

Japan had invaded and occupied Manchuria in the Northeast of China in 1931 and later founded the supposedly independent state of Manchukuo with the last emperor Puyi as its puppet ruler. The Japanese invasion of China was triggered by the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which took place on the 7-9th of July 1937 southwest of Beijing. The Japanese provocation of that incident led to the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The Japanese troops subsequently invaded China from two sides, southwards from their Northern puppet state of Manzhougou to Beijing and along the railway lines towards China's center as well as westwards from Shanghai. The 2nd Shanghai front started in autumn of 1937, when Japanese troops that were based there started to attack the western part of the city. Their original plan to quickly move west along the course of the Yangtze River in Blitzkrieg fashion was rendered impossible by the fierce resistance of the Chinese.
wedding photo showing Puyi and his Japanese wife Lady Hiro Saga
wedding photo showing Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty and emperor of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo with his Japanese wife Lady Hiro Saga, 1937. See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

photo showing a Chinese soldier trying to defend Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing from Japanese invading troops in 1937
photo showing a Chinese soldier trying to defend Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing from Japanese invading troops in 1937. public domain in the United States

The Jiangnan region had resisted invading armies heroically before in Chinese history (i.e. during the Manchu conquest) and so it was only in December of 1937, that the Japanese troops reached Nanjing. After having quelled the fierce resistance of that city, the Japanese troops unleashed a campaign of terror upon its civilian population (the Chinese nationalist army forces had already largely withdrawn by then). During this "Rape of Nanking", unimaginable cruelties were committed by the Japanese occupation troops. More than 300.000 people are estimated to have been killed (often cruelly massacred) and the rape of Chinese women was commonplace. This terrible event in Chinese history is still a sore point in the relationship between China and Japan today. When visiting the city of Nanjing, the Memorial Hall to the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre Travel Information for the Memorial Hall to the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre is the place to go to learn more about this terrible event.

photos showing Japanese soldiers bury Chinese people alive during the Rape of Nanking
photos showing Japanese soldiers bury Chinese people alive during the Rape of Nanking (also known as the Nanjing Massacre). By Unknown吉本千代治 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chiang Kaishek greeted by a crowd in Chongqing, ca. 1939
Chiang Kaishek greeted by a crowd in Chongqing, ca. 1939.
The two advancing armies of the Japanese invaders eventually reached their central Chinese target city of Wuhan, but needed 4 months to take that city (on October 27th 1938). The Chinese nationalist government, that had withdrawn from Nanjing to Wuhan earlier, was thereby forced to retreat further through the Yangtze River Gorges to the city of Chongqing. There, the nationalists under Chiang Kaishek established their permanent wartime headquarter, while maintaining a secondary center of operations at the city of Kunming (Yunnan province) in China's southern border regions.

After the Japanese occupation of Northern and Central China was completed, the further advancement of their troops slowed down considerably. Japanese troops never managed to gain full control of southern China, where nationalist troops continued to operate out of several pockets of resistance. Despite continuing acts of cruelty from the side of the Japanese occupiers, the Chinese civilian population also contributed greatly to the stiffening resistance against Japanese aggression.

From their Yan'an base in northern Shaanxi, the Chinese communists maintained a guerilla warfare campaign all over North China against the Japanese aggressors. Sudden ambushes and acts of sabotage (many carried out at night), like the blowing up of bridges and railway lines, tied down the Japanese troops within their occupied areas. The Japanese army effectively only controlled the cities and areas near the railway lines. The war continued in this way for several years and the Japanese were unable to invade major additional parts of China.

By 1944, major American victories in the Pacific signalled a turning of the tides and the inevitable defeat of Japan. In anticipation of an eventual defeat of the Japanese by the Americans, Chiang Kaishek's nationalist forces began to limit their war efforts to the static strategy of preventing Japan from gaining more territory, without launching any major counteroffensives. A large part of the American weapon and ammunition deliveries was stored away for an eventual confrontation with the Chinese communists, that Chiang Kaishek expected to break out after the defeat of the Japanese. That frustrated China's Western allies and especially the American military advisor Joseph Stilwell (1883 - 1946). The mounting tensions between Stilwell and Chiang Kaishek led to Stilwell's recall by the American government.
Joseph Stilwell with Chiang Kaishek and his wife
Joseph Stilwell (right) with Chiang Kaishek and his wife. public domain in the United States

The Chinese communists anticipated a revolutionary confrontation with the nationalists as well once the war had ended. Already then, the communists and the Red Army enjoyed widespread support among the civilian population (particularly in Northern China), thanks to their more active resistance against the Japanese aggressors along with modest programs of social reform. The communists' propaganda apparatus presented Chiang Kaishek and his nationalist party as incompetent, unpatriotic and corrupt protectors of the imperialist interests of Western nations in China. Even though nominally still united under the Second United Front, tensions between the two parties intensified considerably during the course of the war.

After Japan's surrender in September 1945, negotiations about forming a coalition government took place between the two parties. American negotiators, that had been specifically sent to China for that purpose, participated in these negotiations. Meanwhile, both parties continued their preparations for the eventual outbreak of hostilities. The Russians provided military aid to the Chinese communist forces, while simultaneously stripping bare industrial factories in the Northeast of China (as war reparations). The Soviet army had occupied these parts of China near the end of the war. Chiang Kaishek's nationalists received confiscated Japanese arms from the United States. While both sides continued to strengthen their positions militarily in this way, the coalition negotiations dragged on until eventually breaking down by the end of 1946.

marines of the Soviet fleet hoisting the banner in Port Arthur
photo showing marines of the Soviet fleet hoisting the banner in Port Arthur (now the Lushun district of the Chinese city of Dalian in China's Northeast) during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on the 1st of October 1945. RIA Novosti archive, image #834147 / Haldei / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Fighting then quickly broke out between the communist and nationalist forces. The nationalists achieved a meaningless victory near the beginning of the Chinese Civil War by driving the communists out of their Northwestern base area at Yan'an. By that time, the communists' position was already much stronger in Manchuria and the North China Plain. These areas quickly fell under their control after the outbreak of the civil war. With the north of China in the hands of the communists, China's south and southwest initially remained nationalist and the stage was set for a long confrontation.

Chinese communist soldiers fighting in the Battle of the Huaihai
Chinese communist soldiers fighting in the Battle of the Huaihai. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In November of 1948, the Battle of the Huaihai on the plains surrounding the Huai River (which is located between the Yellow River in the North and the Yangtze River in the south) became a crucial point in the war. The nationalist forces suffered a demoralizing defeat in that conventional tank battle and the communists began to see their ultimate victory on the horizon. Communist propaganda became more and more effective in presenting the communists as the patriotic wave of the future. The obvious misery, corruption and inflation that was apparent in the areas that the nationalists still controlled, eroded their support among their remaining sympathizers. Anticipating defeat after the Battle of the Huaihai, Chiang Kaishek began to withdraw his remaining forces to the island of Taiwan.

Large areas in southern China were still under the control of nationalist forces at that time. Too far removed from the sea, evacuation to Taiwan was difficult if not impossible for some of them. A large contingent of nationalist forces in the Southwest of China escaped from the communists by crossing the border into Burma (where some of them and their descendants still live today).

Late in 1948, the indigenous Taiwanese population started an insurrection against the nationalist forces from the mainland, that had started to take over their island. Many of them, along with other groups that resisted the nationalists, were massacred by Chiang Kaishek's forces. The state of martial law, that was imposed on the island in 1948, stayed in effect until 1987!

Chiang Kaishek's evacuation efforts intensified in 1949, after the communist forces drove the nationalists farther south. Some nationalist forces found themselves isolated in various parts of China. Sometimes they were allowed to surrender to the communists, at other times completely wiped out. Chiang Kaishek's last evacuations to Taiwan took place in December of 1949, with himself and his wife on the last boat.

photo showing the Chinese Red Army entering the Chinese city of Yinchuan in 1949
photo showing the Chinese Red Army entering the Chinese city of Yinchuan in 1949. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In April of 1949, Beijing surrendered to the communists, who had besieged the city since autumn of 1948. Careful negotiations had broken the impasse between the defending nationalists and besieging communists without a major battle, that might have caused substantial destruction of the city and its priceless cultural heritage sites. By the summer of 1949, the communist forces had advanced to every corner of China where nationalist forces still held out. Meanwhile, the communist leadership had begun to settle in Beijing, where they started preparations to establish their new government.

Mao Zedong declaring the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the 1st of October 1949
Mao Zedong declaring the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the 1st of October 1949. By Hou Bo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On the 1st of October 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in a rousing speech (famous quote: "The Chinese people have stood up.") from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace Travel Information for the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) in Beijing (Tiananmen). 300.000 people had assembled to witness this historic event on the adjoining Tiananmen Square. The Communist Party of China (CPC) portrayed the founding of the People's Republic as the culmination of the Chinese people's struggle for a better future, that had started with the overthrow of the imperial regime in 1911.

Read on what happened after the founding of the People's Republic in the next chapter. next chapter button
Access to History: The People's Republic of China 1949-76 [Second Edition] eBook recommendation: Access to History: The People's Republic of China 1949-76 [Second Edition]
Flag of the People's Republic of China
Flag of the People's Republic of China. By Drawn by User:SKopp, redrawn by User:Denelson83 and User:Zscout370Recode by cs:User:-xfi- (code), User:Shizhao (colors) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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YouTube video recommendations

part 1 - China in Revolution - 1911-1949

Watch the 2nd and 3rd part of the documentary "China in Revolution" on the page about the People's Republic of China. watch part 2 here

The Second Sino-Japanese War

documentary about the Nanjing Massacre

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