*** Chinese history 20th century civil war

The Chinese Civil War (1927-49)

Chinese Civil War

Figure 1.-- Here soldiers are looking for Communists. The photograph was taken by a missionary who himself was detined for a while. The scene is not identified, but may have been Lushan, Hankow about 1928.

The Communists were an important part of the KMT coalition. They had a strong following among workers in many cities. Chiang who did not trust the Communists, fell out with them. The KMT and the Communist split was the beginning of the Civil War. Ching launched a military campaign against the CCP (1927). One of the CCP members who managed to escape was Mao Zedong. The Communists were in the 1920s a largely urban movement. Mao for example while of peasant orgins, became a Communist because he worked in a library where he read Marxist books. To escape the KMT campaign against the CCP, the Communists abandoned their urban base and fled to the countryside. Chiang with German military advisors tried to cut them off and destroy them. Chiang's goal was to "eliminate the cancer of Communism." He almost complete this, but the Communuists broke out from the KNT military encirclement (1934). The Communists were almost completely defeated. Suronded by KMT forces, Mao led the Long March and established the Communists in northwestern China. They began with about 100,000 people. After a year and 6,000 miles they were down to 6,000-8,000 people.

Kuomintang (KMT)

Sun Yat-sen's Republic was not embraced by the European powers who had their colonial possessions to defend as well as the concessions and Treaty Ports in China. Sun Yat-sen did find a potential ally in the new Soviet Union which faced a hostile Europe. Lenin embraced Sun Yat-sen. The Soviet Union renounced Tsarist-era territorial concessions and actually returned Chinese territory. The Soviets supplied weapons and advisers to the Chinese Republic. The Soviets helped establish a military academy under General Vasili Bluecher (Galen) and political commissar Mikhail Borodin. Soldiers that showed special promise received advanced training in Moscow. With Soviet backing, the Kuomintang was able to establish a secure base of operations in Canton. Chiang after Sun's death emerged as the dominant force in the Kuomintang. Chiang's first major action was the Northern Expedition. He suceeded in overcoming all warlords south of the Yangtze river (1927).

Chinese Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded after World War I (1921). Iwas not just a political party, but a revolutiinary movement. It came out of the May Fourth Movement (1919). It rejected both traditional Chinese society as well as Western capitalism and liberal democrracy. The CCP looked at Marxism as the solution to China's backwardness and was enboldened by Bolshevik victory in the Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917-21). Almost uniquely among world Communist parties, however, the CCP was the one iportant national party organization that the Bolshevik secret police groups (beginning with the Cheka) were unable to penetrate and gain control. Important founders were Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu who emerged from the turmoil following the fall of Chinese Empire. Initial successes were achieved by leaders like Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and Li Lisan who began organizing workers in important cities. The CCP was an almost exclusively an urban movement. Virtually all the initial organizing activitives were in the cities. Mao himself was of peasant orgins, but became a Communist because hevpursued an education and read Marxist books. The CCP joined with the Nationalist/KMT Party (1924) and became an important part of the KMT coalition. Both parties had revolutionary ideas. The alliance was sucessful in helping to unify China from war lord control. KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) launced a major campaign against the CCP (1927). The Oarty was driven underground. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai emerged as the primarry leaders as CCP activists escaped from the cities as part of thevLong March (1934-35) into the remote countryside. This began a shift from the urban proleterit to the rural peasantry, a major shift from Marxist orthodoxy.

Communist-KMT Split

Chiang who did not trust the Communists, fell out with them. The KMT and the Communist split was the beginning of the Civil War. Ching launched a military campaign against the CCP (1927). One of the CCP members who managed to escape was Mao Zedong. To escape the KMT campaign against the CCP, the Communists abandoned their urban base and fled to the countryside. Chiang with German military advisors tried to cut them off and destroy them. Chiang's goal was to "eliminate the cancer of Communism." He almost complete this, but the Communuists broke out from the KNT military encirclement (1934).

Chinese Domestic Policies (1928-37)

The period between the KMT attack of the Communists and the Japanese invasion is often referred to as the Nanjing Decade--after the KMT capital (1928-37). The KMT nominally controled all of China. And Chiang significantly expanded the strength and authority of the centeral givernment. Even so, large areas of China were beyond his conrol. Local warlords or warlord coalitions while nominally recognizing the KMT Governent were in effective control of large areas. Especially importabnt were Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan. The Japanese Kwantung Army was a major force in Manchuria and finally seized control (1931). The Communists also resisted repeated KMT attacks finally withdrawing toremote north-western China beyound the reachbof KNT armies. The KMT's control was strongest in the eastern regions of China around Nanjing. The Central Plains War (1930) and the Japanese seizure of Manchuria (1931) helped to strengthen Chiang's authority. Chiang did not respnd to the Japanese seizure of Manchuria. He recognized that his forces involved with fighting the Communists, did not have the capability of fighting the well-equipped Japanese. Rather he continued his series of pacification drives. Chiang insisted, 'pacification first, resistance later'. Popular opinion in China, however, became stridently anti-Japanese. Not only had the Japanese seized Manchuria, but military operations in Shanghai (1932), and the seizure of Jehol (1933). Boycott drives affected sales of Japanese goods, undercutting Japanese economic policy. Many Chinese asked why Chiang was fightingthe Communists rather than the Japanese. iang's generals were also unhappy with him. The Communists in late-1936 helped convince Kuomintang generals to take him hostage (late-1936). Eventually an anti-Japanese alliance was negotiated. Zhou Enlai played an important role. Despite these difficulties, Chiang and the KMT consolidated their power and reported a number of achievemnents during Nanjing Decade. The KMT through negotiation managed to reduce the foreign concessions and privileges. A major achievement was the right to set tariffs (1930). Until then the major foreign powers had set Chinese tariffs. The KMT government pursued reforms and economic initiatives in many areas This included the legal and penal systems. Major highway and raiklway projcts were begun. An important step was legislation against the drug trade. Public health facilities were estanlished. Economic measures included price stabilization, amortizing foreign debts, and banking and currency reforms. The Govenment also promoted industrial and agricultural production. A key measure was the fiat currency (fapi) reform (November 3, 1935). This helped to stabilizing prices and also raisie government revenues. Major steps were taken in public education. Another measure was taken to unify Chinese society. The Government promoted Standard Mandarin language and reduce the influence of local spoken Chinese variats. Newspapers, magazines, and book publishing flourished as never before. Communications facilities began to tie China tigether as never before. The expanding railways helped to facilitate travel in China. This opened up countless villages to the outside world. The KMT pursued the Rural Reconstruction Movement. The KMT as part of its efforts to destoy the Communists restricted political freedom, The KMT pursued a policy of 'political tutelage' and reacted to anti-government protests with extrene violence.

KMT Military Offensive against the Communists (1930-31)

Chiang Kai-shek continue to see the Communists as a serious threat. He wanted to defeat the Communists and then confront the Japanese with a united country. After defeating disloyal warlords, Chiang felt able to engage the Communists. He was aware that the Communists were successfully convining many Chinese in the south of the need for social revolution. He thus decided to attack the Communist strongholds. Chiang ordered an attack with about 100,000 troops to attack the Communists in the Kiangsi border areas as part of the first KMT offensive (1930-31). The Red Army at the time consisted of about 40,000 soldiers. The KMT attacked with a larger force and was better armed. The Red army used guerrilla tactics. Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh were able to isolated KMT units and defeat them in detail. The Red Army was able to capture an important quantity of KMT equipment. This significantly changed the militaery balance. The Communists formally established the Chinese Soviet Republic in Juichin (1931). Chiang ordered additional attacks. The second KMT offensive focused on the Juichin base, but the offensive failed. Chiang personall took command of a third offensive and committed . Although more KMT troops were sent, the attempt also ended in failure. Later, a third campaign was organized and Chiang personally took command. He was prepared to committed some of the best KMT units. It was at this time that the Japanese invaded Manchuria. Chiang canceled the offensive against the Communists. He hesitated, however, to attack the Jaoanese.

War with Japan (1931-45)

Chang also had to contend with the Japanese who proved even more of a threat and in the 1930s a long war with Japan began. The Japanese inherited many of the concessions of the German and Austrains, including extensive concessions in Manchuria. The Japanese army in Manchuria seized the province (1931). The Nationalists did not contest this action militarily. They did protest diplomatically and took Japan to the League of Nations. The Japanese invaded China proper from Manchurian bases (1937). This was the begining of a long dreadful war. Japan occupied Chinese coastal areas and important cities, except for the European concessions. The Jpanese persued the War with unbelievable brutality. The Rape of Nanking was one of the most barabarous attrocities of modern times. China fought the Japanese alone for several years. American support for China was limited by isolationist sentiment and American neutrality laws. President Roosevelt guiding public opinion managed to provide some support including the Flying Tigers in 1941. It was American insistence that Japan end its aggression in China and opposition to other incursions in the Pacific that convinced the Japanese that war with America was necessary. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the War (1941). After America entered the War, more substantial support flowed to China. The Japanese occupied areas of China were only liberated after the Japanese surrender in World War II (1945).

The Long March (1934-35)

Chiang continued to be reluctant to confront the Japanese. He was determined to first destroy the Communists. He launched the fourth KMT offensive (1933). He committed more than 0.5 million KMT troops. The Japanesestruck again, this time in Jehol in North China. Chiang drew back from his offensive againsrt the Communists, but still decided not to confront the Japanese. Insted, Chiang planed a fifth KMT offensive against the Communisdts. His German military advisers developed new tactics. Chiang committed a million man army to the operation. They surrounded Communist-controlled areas, building fortified blockhouses and instituting an economic blockade. The Communists were almost completely defeated. Suronded by KMT forces, Mao led the Long March and established the Communists in northwestern China. They began with about 100,000 people. After a year and 6,000 miles they were down to 6,000-8,000 people. Par of the problem for the ebattled Communists was that Mao was unsure just where to head. They began in Jiangxi Province, about 400 km northeast of Guangzhou. They headed west, past Guilin, and into Yunnan province, in southwest China. They would have set up base there, however, the local warlords were generally hostile. As a result, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, Mao decided to turn north, past Chengdu in Sichuan province, and eventually ended up in Shaanxi, near Yan'an. Here beyond the effective reach of Chiang and the KMT, the Communists began to develop a secure base. And participation in the Long Marcher became a badge of honor within the Party. Deng Xiaoping who played a major role in reorienting China was a Long Marcher. With Deng's passing, there are few, if any Long Marchers left in the Party elite. It wa during the Long March that Mao emerged as the preminent leader of the Chinese Communists.


It was in Yan'an, on the periphery of effective Nationalist power, Mao consolidated his leadership gained during the Long March as the sole leader of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Moving deep into the interior would be the sanme tactic the Nationalists would use against the Japanese.

Soviet Policy

Renewed Civil War (1945-49)

The KMT and the CPC formed a Second United Front to resist the Japanese invasion (1937). In fact the great bulk of the resistance ti the Japanese came from the KMT forces. And the Communists continued the Civil War at a low level. The war with Japan greatly weaknened the Nationalists. Their best divisions were destroyed in the early operations to defend Shanghai and other cities. Finally theu had to retreat into the hinterland where the Japanese had difficulty brining their superior forces to bear on the KMT forces. And KMT operations to secure food, resources, and men caused terrible suffering in the countryside, undermined their relationship with the pesantry, tenous at best even before the War. The Communists who generally avoided combat with the Japanese in contrast were nmore judicious in their contacts with the peasantry. The Soviets smashed the Japanese army in Manchuria The Soviets quickly destroyed the Japanese Kwantung Army and left the Soviets in controlm of Manchuria. They turned massive quantities of arms over to the CPC. Some 0.7 million Japanese surrendered to the Soviets. General MacArthure after the Japanese surrender (August 15) ordered the Japanese in China tio surrender to KMT not CPC forces. Chiang realized that he lacked the resources to prevent a CPC takeover of Manchuria following the scheduled Soviet departure. He negiotiated an arrangement with the Soviets to delay their withdrawal until he had moved enough of the KMT Armjy, including many of his best-trained men and modern material into Manchuria. The Soviet Red Army blocked the KMT troops. The United States airlifted KMT units to occupy the main cities of Manchuria and northern China. Much of the country side, however, was dominated by the CPC. The KMT launced an offensive to strengthen their positionn in the north (November 15). The Soviets spent the extra time given themn in Manchuria to dismantling the extensive Jaoanese Manchurian industrial base and transporting it back to the Soviet Union. Some estimates value the industrial pilage at up to $2 billion dollars. [Lilley] United States Marines were used to hold Beiping and Tianjin against a possible Soviet incursion, and logistic support was given to Nationalist forces in north and northeast China. The CPC forces for the first time were now well armed. America tried to mediate the war, but this was a pipe dream evolving from a limited knowledge of China. General of the Army George Catlett Marshall began efforts to mediate a solution to the Chinese civil war. General of the Army George Catlett Marshall (November 1945). The Nationalists and Communists renewed the civil war in earnest (1946). American policymakers and strategists debated the extent to which the United States should intervene to try to prevent a Communist victory in the Chinese civil war. Marshall who was appointed Secretary of State opposed direct American military intervention, but supported economic assistance. Much of the economic assitance was wasted because of the corruption of KMT officials. The United States thus aided the Nationalists with massive economic loans, but no military support. Battles raged across China, but primarily in the north where the Comminist were strongest. The war was not just for territory, but for the allegiance of the population. Here the KNT was at a disadvantage because of the ppolicies they pursued during the war with Japan. The CPC forces had not taken on the Japanese to the same extent as the KMT and had been more judicuious in their handling of civilians, especially the peasantry. The Communists used Manchuria as a secure base of supply and manpower. KMT forces rushed north to take over after the Soviet withdrawl sized the cities, but could not control the countryside. Communists field commanders in the north after several operational set-backs in attempting to take the major cities finally defeated KMT forces in a series of conventional engagements. These were some of the strongest elements of the KMT Army. The CPC succeded in seizing Manchuria. Mao then began to focus on the war south of the Great Wall. Instead the CPC forces crossed the river. And with manhy if the strongest KMT units destoyed in the northern fighing, the CPC armies swept south. KMT resistance collapsed. Chiang and his supporters retreated to Taiwan. Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) (October 1, 1949). After 4 years, major military action finally ended (1950). The PRC was in complete control of the mainland as well as Hainan. The KMT now controlled only Taiwan, Penghu, Quemoy, Matsu and a few outlying islands.

People's Republic (1949- )

The success of the Communist Revolution led by Mao-Tse-Tung in 1949 brough a massive social change. The Communists iniitated radical reforms aimed at bringing China into the 20th century. Some efforts were effective, others caused imense suffering. Contacts with the West, however, were curtailed as China looked to the Soviet Union and state planning to run their economy. Businesses and private land holdings were nationalized. Everyone was incouraged to think alike and dress alike. The desire was to put everyone on an equal footing.


Lilly, James with Jeffrery Lilly. China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia(Public Affairs, 2004), 417p.

Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China.


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Created: 3:42 AM 7/7/2011
Last updated: 11:02 PM 7/1/2013