From 1927 to 1950, China was locked in a period of civil strife, it was twenty-three years of Chinese civil war. It had been for a lot longer, actually, but specifically, this time the two main warring parties were – the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), and the Communist Party of China (CPC). Prior to these parties China had been a land ruled for millennia by long-running dynasties. It, however, only took half a century to completely change that. It is quite impressive for a country that had twice the population of today’s U.S. and that was twice the size of today’s India to go from an almost feudalistic, regionalist mess to an industrial, centralized powerhouse. Let’s take a look at how a couple of revolutions brought about such a great transition.
Before we move onto the events of the Chinese civil war, let’s look at the brief history of China before the civil strife.
Throughout the 17th century and up until the 19th century, the Qing dynasty reigned over China which was plagued by regionalism and corruption. It was, however, in the 19th century that the focus of Western colonists and merchants turned to China. These Westerners arriving were driven by financial interests and it is believed that it was the wave of Merchants, who would spell China’s near ruin. Meanwhile, in Japan, things were looking up after their decisive victory over the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese war. This defeat prompted cries for reform and after a series of failed revolts including the 1899 Boxer Rebellion, the Qing government found itself in an even more precarious position.
By 1911 the government was fully overthrown in what was called the Wuchang Revolution. The leaders of this revolution selected the exiled intellectual Sun Yat-sen to be China’s first president in 1912. However, their territories were limited to southern China. Meanwhile, the boy Emperor Puyi remained in power in the north. He was backed by General Yuan Shikai, who had the largest army in the region and therefore the only person who had actual power. Thus, Sun Yat-sen came to general Shikai offering his presidency which the general readily accepted.
The man, however, lacked Sun’s refined political philosophy, he was keener on a direct military dictatorship method. As a consequence, many of the problems the uprising aimed to fix remained. Sun Yat-sen decided he could indulge a democratic approach, forming the Kuomintang political party in Yuan’s parliament. The president saw opposition as an affront, and thus, Sun ended up once again exiled in 1913.
General Yuan then proceeded to blunder through heavy-handedly trying to fix China’s disunity, only making it worse. In 1916, Yuan proclaimed himself emperor of China pretty much missing the point of the rebellion entirely. He quickly lost much of his support and died shortly after. However, with him gone, everything fell apart. He had been the only thing holding this nation together.
After his death, China was once again balkanized into small states and provinces under the control of local Warlords. They had their taxes, laws, and even currencies and were constantly fighting each other. After Yuan died, Sun Yat-sen returned to China and began advocating for Chinese reunification. However, a change could only begin to be ushered in when outrage sparked over the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 – in which former German colonies in China were handed not to the Chinese, but the Japanese.
Consequently, mass demonstrations broke out in Beijing, demanding the abolishment of warlords, the death of old and defunct tradition, the repulsion of an encroaching Japanese, and the creation of a new, strong, and unified China. Sun at the helm of the nationalist Kuomintang party looked to answer this call, beginning a self-proclaimed military government in 1921 to fight from. Shortly after in 1923, they sealed cooperation with the Communist Party of China in exchange for assistance in ending regionalism.
FIRST UNITED FRONT
The two parties were aware – to create a unified China – the warlords would have to be forced to surrender their control. To cooperate, they formed a united front. However, in 1925, the inconvenient death of Sun Yat-sen occurred and as such an iconic figure, so much so being labeled as the Father of the Nation, his departure left a void. His young protege, Chiang Kai-shek, forced himself as heir, becoming Generalissimo. Two years later, he initiated what was known as the white terror, in response to a communist plot to overthrow him. This resulted in mass executions of communists, trade unionists, and peasant leaders in Shanghai and beyond, in the name of purification.
In the aftermath, communist leaders Li Lisan and Mao Zedong began waging a guerrilla war against the Kuomintang. While this was happening, in 1930, the Soviet Union who saw the CPC as their communist allies directed it to take a more aggressive stance against the Kuomintang. As a result, Li Lisan ordered an offensive to be carried out against the Nationalists.
It was a disaster and led to his replacement by a group of Chinese intellectuals called the 28 Bolsheviks. With warlords still in control of numerous regions and the two major political factions of China in the all-out war, leading to the Chinese civil war, the situation was looking worse than ever. Seeing the turmoil unfold, the shadow of Japan once again loomed over China. In 1931, they sent roughly 45,000 men to occupy Chinese Manchuria. With no troops to spare, the Kuomintang was forced to concede without resistance. Soon, Chiang realized that he needed to defeat the CPC before China was fully invaded. Subsequently, Chiang assembled the largest Kuomintang army yet to flush them out.
THE LONG MARCH
In 1934, Chiang encircled Mao’s guerrilla forces stationed in the mountains. The climax of this episode was the long march which began when the CPC devised a near-suicidal plan to break through Chiang’s encirclement and march, over 6,000 miles to regroup in the north, from the most inhospitable areas of China. About half of the CPC’s forces were lost while crossing the Xiang river as a result of a decision of the 28 Bolsheviks.
In the wake of this debacle, Mao took control of the Communists in 1935. By the time the remnants of the CPC reached their northern destination – only 10 percent of them were still alive. Prompting now to launch a massive recruitment effort.
THE SECOND UNITED FRONT
Recognizing that if the Japanese invaded both CPC and the Kuomintang would be destroyed, Mao sought to form yet another United Front. Chiang was vehemently opposed to the offer but his Generals, who saw the threat of Japanese as impending, wasn’t. They took matters into their own hands, taking Chiang hostage and pressuring him to accept Mao’s offer. Chiang eventually decided to accept and formed what was called the second United Front in 1937. When Japan did invade that year, the Kuomintang proved unable to fully repulse the invaders. This was something that worried the Chinese people and Mao capitalized on this discontent to recruit even more men to his cause.
Furthermore, his forces did not engage with those of Japan very frequently, allowing the Kuomintang to bear the brunt of the Japanese onslaught. After Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, the Kuomintang and CPC ended the second United Front.
THE CIVIL WAR RENEWED
Japanese surrender set the stage for the resurgence of the Chinese civil war. Though only nominally democratic, the Kuomintang party continued to receive U.S. support both as to its former war ally and as the sole option for preventing Communist control of China. U.S. forces flew tens of thousands of Nationalist Chinese troops into Japanese-controlled territory and allowed them to accept the Japanese surrender. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union occupied Manchuria and only pulled out when Chinese Communist forces were in place to claim that territory.
In 1945, the leaders of the Nationalist and Communist parties, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, met for a series of talks on the formation of a post-war government. Both agreed on the importance of democracy, a unified military, and equality for all Chinese political parties. The truce was tenuous, however, and, despite repeated efforts by U.S. General George Marshall to broker an agreement, by 1946 the two sides were fighting an all-out civil war. Years of mistrust between the two sides thwarted efforts to form a coalition government.
From 1947 to 1949, as the Chinese civil war escalated, eventual Communist victory seemed more and more likely. While the Communists did not hold any major cities after World War II, they had strong grassroots support, superior military organization, and large stocks of weapons seized from Japanese supplies in Manchuria. After a highly successful guerrilla campaign, both Beijing and Nanjing had fallen to the Communists. With the capture of these two major cities, Mao was victorious and on the first of October 1949, he proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. When Chiang Kai-shek lost control of the mainland, he along with his defeated Kuomintang government was exiled in Taiwan.
The announcement ended the costly full-scale Chinese civil war between the CPC and the KMT, which broke out immediately following World War II and had been preceded by on and off the conflict between the two sides since the 1920s. The creation of the Public’s Republic of China also completed the long process of governmental upheaval in China begun by the Chinese Revolution of 1911. The “fall” of mainland China to communism in 1949 led the United States to suspend diplomatic ties with the PRC for decades.
THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC
After conquering mainland China, Mao Zedong would now have his key communist ideas thrust upon it. In a push to modernize the nation and take a great leap forward, he caused a famine that killed 30 million people. Under his 30 years reign, tens of millions of people starved, even so, it is still debated to this day whether Mao contributed to China’s modernization or whether he delayed its development. Either way, the Chinese government still sees Mao Zedong as one of their founding fathers.