Zhang Xun with the warlord Puyi 1917 (zhangxun) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-gr02-067

Modern Chinese History I: The Republic of China 1911-1925



Delegations during signing of the Treaty of Versailles

The Qing Imperial Monarchy was ultimately toppled by a decentralized revolution. Once it had been overthrown, it proved hard to find a new governmental structure that was satisfactory to all the regional economic and political interests which had worked to depose the Manchus. All agreed that China should be unified, that foreign imperialism must be halted and that Chssets. However, revolutionaries wanted to achieve these goals through the wholesale restructure of government and society while conservatives wanted a new political and societal structure that preserved the influence they had acquired during the Qing Dynasty.

The first decade of the Republic of China passed without it being able to install an effective central government. As regional warlords became more powerful and as China became disillusioned with the West following the Versailles Treaty’s transfer of Germany’s Chinese concessions to Japan, many educated Chinese increasingly feared that their country would be sliced up by colonial powers.

In response, intellectuals renewed their search through every kind of political organizational theory in the hope of finding the best governmental structure for China. For instance, the merits of organizing China’s social fabric around Confucianism were hotly debated. As part parcel of this debate, many began to argue for the use of vernacular Chinese in writing and education in order to improve literacy and the accessibility of information.  The advantages of Marxist socialism were explored. In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai with 53 members. Its founding corresponded with a rise of urban labor activism and of a merchant class that was increasingly nationalistic. All the while, western scientific knowledge was sought in order to advance China’s modernization. China’s border regions took advantage of this upheaval to gain greater economic and political independence.

Yuan Shikai, the Kuomintang, the Second Revolution, Failed Dynastic Restoration

General Yuan Shikai, President of the Republic of China

In 1911, the Qing Dynasty was deposed.  On 12th February 1912, the Republic of China was founded. For his help in overthrowing the dynasty, Sun Yat-sen agreed that Yuan Shikai would become the first president of the new Republic. Meanwhile, Sun Yat-sen and his followers founded the Kuomintang (KMT) or the Nationalist Party, also referred to as the Guomindang. The KMT was a loyal opposition party designed to compete in electoral politics with Yuan Shikai and his followers. During the first assembly elections held in December 1912, the KMT won approximately 43% of the vote. Yuan Shikai was not pleased with these electoral results, nor with the KMT’s constant criticism of his policies.

The KMT was particularly censorious of Yuan’s management of national finances. By 1913, ineffective taxation meant that the government was running an approximately 13 million yuan monthly deficit. National cash flow was further hampered by foreign control over many of China’s economic assets. The foreign-controlled Imperial Maritime Customs, for instance, directly deposited China’s custom revenue in foreign banks which was then used to pay the interest on China’s rapidly accumulating foreign debt. Even salt taxes were under foreign supervision. Yet, instead of addressing tax and revenue collection directly, Yuan organized an additional loan of £25 million from a five-power foreign banking consortium. Yuan felt the loan necessary to give him the resources he needed to defend his power. Sun Yat-sen and his followers argued that the loan would further increase foreign control over China’s economy.

Song Jiaoren

In 1913, the KMT campaign manager and a potential-prime minister, Song Jiaoren, was assassinated.  Many assumed that his death was the result of orders given by Yuan Shikai. The KMT responded to the murder by calling for Yuan Shikai’s resignation. When he refused, they launched what has been called the Second Revolution. Yuan Shikai crushed the revolt easily, forcing Sun Yat-sen to flee to Japan. Yuan’s quick victory against the KMT fueled his already growing dreams of grandeur.   While Yuan supported a strong, modern, industrialized Chinese state, he now envisioned that this state would be ruled by a dynasty with himself as emperor.


Foreign powers observed changing events in China closely. Their main priority was to protect their Chinese investments. These totaled almost $788 million in 1912 and reached $1.61 billion by 1914. They also wished to safeguard their nationals in the event of any recurrence of a Boxer-like, anti-foreign outbreak.

To obtain foreign support for his imperial ambitions, Yuan signed agreements with Russia and Britain giving them special privileges in Outer Mongolia and Tibet respectively. Yuan also agreed to the bulk of Japan’s infamous Twenty-One Demands presented to China by the Japanese ambassador in January 1915. The Twenty-One Demands effectively allowed Japan to take significant jurisdiction over Shandong, South Manchuria, Eastern Mongolia and China’s coastline. It also gave Japan the right to extract revenue from railway and mining concessions and placed in joint Sino-Japanese administration the huge Han-Ye-Ping Iron and Coal works in central China. Yuan’s American advisor, Frank Goodwin, contended that China might be better suited to a constitutional monarchy than it was to a republic, and thus also did not object to Yuan’s move to assume imperial power.

Zhang Xun, Qing-loyalist who attempted to restore Emperor Puyi

With foreign support in place, Yuan’s monarchical movement went public. In December 1915, Yuan accepted “petitions” by provisional representatives which asked that he become emperor. His reign, to be called Hong Xian, or the Glorious Constitution, was to start on 1st January 1916. Yet he badly misread the Chinese public. The Chinese were particularly angry about Yuan’s signing of the humiliating Twenty-One Demands. On 23 December 1915, an ultimatum was delivered to Yuan to stand down or face civil war. Thwarted, Yuan Shikai died in June 1916 of kidney failure, leaving a power vacuum and no national consensus about how China should move forward politically.

Warlord General Zhang Xun, a zealous supporter of the Qing imperial family, led his army into Beijing in mid-June 1917 to restore the abdicated Qing Emperor Puyi, now a boy of 11. His efforts were foiled by rival generals, and once-again the emperor was deposed. Instead of being punished, it was decided that Puyi was to be given a modern Western education under European tutors. General Zhang’s failed insurrection destroyed the pretense that China’s central government had any significant power. Instead, power devolved to the provinces into the hands of warlords.


Warlordism 1916-1927

Chinese Warlord-era General Wu Peifu on Time Cover


During the Warlord Era, a nominal government continued to claim authority in Beijing, but its power was almost entirely restricted to the capital and to relations with foreigners. In actuality, the political structure of China was completely fragmented.  Generals and regional landlords vied with each other for power and formed constantly shifting alliances in a manner reminiscent of the Warring States Period.

The nature of the warlords was as varied as the provinces over which they ruled. Some were ruthless despots and thugs while others were educated and worked to instill in their men their own ideas of morality. Some subjugated whole provinces, financing their armies through local taxes gathered by their own officials. Others ruled only a few towns, raising money from theft. Some warlords supported the Republic, preferring that their territory be reintegrated into a valid constitutional state. A number choose to work with foreign powers, whether they were the British in Shanghai, the Japanese in Manchuria or the French in the southwest. Some grew opium in order to generate revenues.

 World War I and the May 4th Movement

Japanese Troops in Manchuria

When World War I broke out, to strengthen its claims on Chinese territories, Japan entered into a series of secret treaties with Britain, Russia, the United States and the acting Chinese government. The February 1917 Anglo-Japanese agreement required Britain to support Japanese claims in Shandong and agreed that Germany’s Pacific possessions north of the equator were to go to Japan while those in the south could be claimed by Britain. The February 1917 Russo-Japanese agreement acknowledged Japan’s Twenty-One Demands and Russia’s territorial gains in Outer Mongolia. The November 1917 American-Japanese Lansing-Ishii Agreement concluded that: “geographical propinquity created special relations between nations”. In other words, the US recognized that Japan, by virtue of its geography, had a special position in China. Finally, in a September 1918 secret pact,  the Japanese were granted the right to build two railways in Shandong and to station Japanese troops there for a ¥20 million payment to Beijing.

Although there was no historical precedent of China engaging in global events far from its shores, China entered World War I on the side of the Allies in 1917. China believed that if it fought to defeat Germany, then it would be able to reclaim Germany’s Chinese concessions. While China could not offer the Allies combat troops, it could provide manpower which would free up French and British males to go to the front. By 1918, an estimated 140,000 Chinese were laboring in France. Ultimately, 2000 Chinese workers died in France and a further 543 lost their lives at sea.

Chinese Labor Corps load sacks of oats at Boulogne during World War I

After World War I ended, the Chinese delegation went to the Versailles peace negotiations believing they would benefit from the principles of democracy and self-determination which Woodrow Wilson espoused. Specifically, they hoped to recover Shandong and to abolish the so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’, under which foreign powers maintained privileged statuses in China. Instead, they were informed that the peace conference would deal only with those problems arising from the conclusion of the war. Only Shandong, therefore, qualified to be discussed. Moreover, the secret treaties that Japan had concluded, including the secret pact with the acting Beijing’s government, meant that China’s claims to Shandong had been effectively forfeited.


Beijing students protesting the Treaty of Versailles on May 4, 1919

The inability of China to achieve any of their objectives, despite having fought with the Allies, humiliated and angered China. Its sting felt all the sharper as it came on top of the disgrace of Japan’s Twenty-One Demands. In protest, on May 4th, 1919, 3000 students from 13 universities began to peacefully march through Beijing. They handed out leaflets written in Chinese vernacular which explained how the loss of Shandong was equivalent to the end of China’s territorial integrity. They called on all Chinese to protest. The march turned violent at the house of Cao Rulin, the Minister of Communications. Cao had backed the pro-Japanese Anfu group and was considered by many of the protestors to be one of China’s worst traitors. Inside, although Cao was absent, the students found Zhang Zongxiang the Chinese ambassador to Japan. They severely beat Zhang and set Cao’s house on fire. Thirty-two students were arrested, but they were set free three days later.

Further protests erupted throughout China. The student protests generated nation-wide sympathy. In Shanghai alone, as many as 60,000 workers staged some form of work stoppage in solidarity. These strikes marked a new development in Chinese history. Thereafter, protesters frequently made good use of strikes to fight injustice, despite the risks of unemployment, beatings and even death. The demonstrations, strikes and boycotts that followed became known as the May 4th Movement. The May 4th Movement is seen by many to mark the beginning of modern Chinese nationalism. Today, May 4th continues to be marked as an important commemoration with the date carrying huge political significance. The immediate result of the students’ actions was that the Chinese delegation left France without signing the Versailles Treaty.

Intellectual Awakening

Yan Fu translated Darwin’s works into Chinese

The failure of the Republic, the rise of the warlords, the betrayal of Versailles and the increasing encroachment of imperial powers into Chinese territory heightened a Chinese fear present since the time of the Opium Wars:  that China was at risk of being dismembered. This fear caused Chinese intellectuals and leaders to search for tools and philosophies that would allow China to become a modern, unified nation free from imperialism. Many continued to try to adapt western philosophies and science to the Chinese situation.

In 1896, for instance, Yan Fu  translated into Chinese the writings of Huxley and Spencer which applied Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theories to human society: just as animals struggle for survival, Huxley and Spencer argued that people – and eventually their societies – also struggle, with the weak becoming prey to the strong. To prevent extinction, Yan argued that China and the Han Chinese people must evolve new strength. Early twentieth century Chinese thinkers applied the idea of strength broadly. Indeed, in his 1917 essay, A Study of Physical Education, Mao Zedong criticized the Chinese’s traditional aversion to physical exercise, arguing that physical prowess strengthened a people’s determination as well as making them more effective combatants.

Confucianism and traditionalism were also attacked. Except for friend-friend, the remaining four relationships of Confucianism – ruler-ruled, father-son, elder brother-younger brother, and husband-wife – were hierarchical in nature. Many intellectuals argued that this rigid social structure prevented China from modernizing, as it encouraged subservience and discouraged independent thinking. It also completely subjugated women. In a series of 1919 articles, Mao advocated the importance of granting women greater rights, arguing that empowered women would allow China to face the world with the full strength of its 400 million people.

Young Mao Zedong in 1919 advocated women’s rights and physical exercise

Increasingly, these views were expressed in magazines and publications such as the New TideThe Weekly Critic and The New Youth. These magazines helped expand the intellectual debate both geographically and throughout society.  Often their articles were written in a simple vernacular style that could be understood by those with little education.

Debate about China’s national language began soon after the Republic was founded. By 1913 it was agreed that Mandarin would be the national language. Pronunciation was standardized and phonetic symbols were introduced to represent this pronunciation. By 1917 intellectuals began to argue that this standardized Mandarin should be written in a vernacular which was closely aligned to spoken language as opposed to the difficult classical language of Confucian scholars.

Other Chinese intellectuals lost faith in the West after Versailles and found it difficult to accept the West as both teacher and oppressor. Intellectuals such as Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu began studying Marxist socialism and the Bolshevik Revolution. Socialism was appealing because it offered a way to reject both the constraints of Chinese tradition and Western domination. It also represented a goal yet unrealized in Western Europe and America. Its success in China would put China ideologically ahead of the capitalist states.

The Russian Revolution also brought home to many educated Chinese that the outside world was changing in radical ways. Seeing these changes caused many Chinese intellectuals to believe in China’s own ability for radical change. The intellectual and psychological appeal of Marxism was further strengthened in 1919 by the Soviet readiness to renounce the old Tsarist special rights and privileges in China. Even though the Soviets later backtracked from some aspects of their offer – specifically regarding returning Chinese railways without compensation – the Chinese remained appreciative of their gesture, particularly in contrast to Western and Japanese imperialist policies.

Pictured in Red Square in 1919, Soviet revolutionary leaders inspired Chinese thinkers

Increasingly debates within China centered on the relative advantages of gradual social reforms versus rapid radical change. In contrast to radical thinkers advocating a complete overthrow of Chinese societal norms, pragmatists such as Hu Shu argued for steady change in Chinese society that would be driven by scientific and methodical solutions to specific practical problems. This pragmatic, evolutionary method was partially adapted by the KMT. Communists, on the other hand, agreed with thinkers such as John Dewey who visited China from 1919 to 1921. Dewey argued that China’s 1911 Revolution was failing because it was externally imposed and did not alter the norms of Chinese life which were still largely governed by Confucianism. Chinese communists interpreted this to mean that China required a complete overhaul of Chinese society and industry.

Yet, regardless of their approach, most Chinese thinkers of the era recognized the need to adapt foreign ideas creatively to the Chinese experience. This was especially true for the Marxists. Li Dazhao argued, for instance, that China was being subjugated by foreign imperialists that exploited the Chinese people just as capitalists exploited workers in more developed countries. In China, it was often the imperialists who owned the means of production and took the workers’ surplus value. Perhaps most critically, if Marxism was to be applied to China, somehow the central role Marxist theory gave to the urban proletariat in revolution would have to evolve. China was a country of peasants despite its growing number of urban workers.

As Li, and his colleagues grappled with how to adapt Marxism to China, he encouraged his students to work in the Chinese countryside around Peking. By the early 1920s, under Li’s guidance, Peking University students had founded the Mass Education Speech Corps and were traveling to villages. Those students learned firsthand about the desperation and the poverty of the Chinese countryside. This poverty was often further aggravated by droughts and floods bringing famine and plague.

The Birth of  the Chinese Communist Party 1921 – Li Dazhao and Mao Zedong

Li Dazhao, one of China’s first Marxists

Increasingly, the National University in Beijing became a hotbed of radicalism. As early as 1918 Li Dazhao, then a librarian, had declared himself a Marxist. He founded the New Tide Society followed by the Marxist Research Society which eventually became the Society for the Study of Socialism. By March 1920 the various Marxist groups in Beijing united to form the Beijing Society for the study of Marxism. Li’s library assistant was Mao Zedong. Born to a wealthy farmer in Shaoshan, Hunan, Mao took up a Chinese nationalist and anti-imperialist outlook early in life after having been profoundly influenced by events such as the May 4th Movement. He too was an early adopter of Marxism-Leninism.

In April 1920, Russian Gregory Voitinsky met with Li and other radical academics and students. In Shanghai he held meetings with Chen Duxiu, an extremist from the May 4th generation. It was during these meetings that it was decided to create the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The first secret Congress of the CCP took place on July 23, 1921 on the premises of a girls’ school in Shanghai, but was eventually relocated to a boat on the South Lake near Jiaxing in Zhejiang province for greater secrecy. 13 delegates attended representing the 53 members of the local Chinese communist groups in existence. Mao Zedong was said to be among these delegates, though this has been questioned by some academics. Early CCP objectives included the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, the rule of the proletariat and an alliance with the Third International, the Comintern. Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, the Comintern’s goal was to foster world communist revolution. Additionally, the CCP planned to establish more labor unions, publish magazines and exploit other avenues to organize and educate the working class. During the Second Congress in July 1922, it was decided that the CCP would create a temporary alliance with the KMT led by Sun Yat-sen in order to advance its revolutionary objectives.

Li Dazhao meeting with Russian Voitinsky

However, while the early Congresses were able to agree overall objectives for the fledgling Communist Party, the means to achieve these objectives continued to be debated. In Shanghai, Chen subscribed to the general European Marxist view that industrial workers were the key to revolution. In Beijing, Li continued to argue that as the peasantry constituted more than 90% of the population and as agriculture was still the basis of the national economy, the peasants must lead the Chinese Communist revolution. This argument strongly influenced the thinking of Mao Zedong. After Li was executed on the orders of a Beijing-based warlord in 1927, it was Mao who carried on the push to make the peasant central to the Chinese Communist Revolution, putting his mentor’s ideas eventually into practice.


The Rise of the Chinese Workers Movement

Early railway car factory in northern China

At the same time that Marxist ideas were beginning to be seriously explored in China, China was seeing the emergence of a politically conscious merchant class and urban labor force numbering between two and three million by 1919. Western and Japanese imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had spurred urbanization and industrialization in northeast China and the Treaty Ports. This industrialization was driven by the coupling of foreign capital with abundant, cheap labor. When the World War I erupted, Europeans powers recalled all nationals from China, allowing a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs and managers to fill their void. This gave the new Chinese entrepreneurs invaluable business experience and allowed them to make large fortunes. Japan, too, competed to take advantage of the European absence.

Working conditions in these factories were often horrific. Conflict between workers and managers grew progressively more frequent.  Indeed, by the 1920s, there was already a history of trade labor unions and strikes as was seen during the May 4th protests. As CCP power grew, it would increasingly exploit this labor movement to its advantage.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai in the 1920s

A pinnacle of this labor protest occurred on May 30th, 1925. The crisis started when Chinese workers, angry at being locked out of a Japanese-owned Shanghai textile mill during a strike, broke into the factory and damaged machinery. Japanese guards reacted by firing into the crowd, killing one worker. His death ignited public anger, student demonstrations, further strikes and arrests. On the May 30th thousands of workers and students gathered at the Nanjing Road Police Station, insisting on the release of six arrested Chinese students and protesting foreign imperialism.  As the numbers of protesters increased and as they began to chant “kill the foreigners”, the commanding British inspector ordered the group to disband and then fired before the protesters could obey, killing 11 and wounding 20.

Chinese anger over the slaughter spread nationally. At least 28 other cities held rallies in solidarity with the May 30th victims and a general strike was called in Shanghai. Foreign powers brought in troops to protect their international settlements. The tension from the May 30th incident was escalated in June when a major strike was launched in Hong Kong targeting the British. During a strike rally, British troops shot at protesters, killing 52 Chinese and wounding 100. Chinese fury boiled over and the strike in Hong Kong – which eventually lasted 16 months – was coupled by a boycott of British goods. Not until December, when the British police inspector and his lieutenants were fired and when an indemnity of 75,000 Chinese dollars was paid to the deceased families did public outrage quiet.

Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang

Map of the People’s Republic of Mongolia

Although Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang were explicitly stated in the provisional constitution of March 1912 to be included in the territory of the Republic of China, this was never realized in actuality. The Qing’s collapse allowed local political forces to make a bid for independence from China. This aspect of Chinese history is keenly contested as are the border regions themselves. The CCP argues that these territories have always remained under Chinese control, apart from Outer Mongolia which has been recognized as an independent country since 1945 (Inner Mongolia has remained as part of China). In contrast, many Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs believed that the degree of independence experienced in the years following the Qing’s fall set a precedent which should allow them to negotiate more independence now.

After the 1911 Revolution Inner Mongolia slipped into the hands of local warlords while Outer Mongolia sought help from Czarist Russia in their bid to create an independent state. Chinese control over Outer Mongolia had always been less direct than it had been in Inner Mongolia. After having defended their independence against the Chinese, Mongolia became part of the People’s Republic in 1924, closely tied economically and militarily to the USSR. Of all the frontier regions, Outer Mongolia was the only one to achieve independence from Chinese control, and this was because of its alliance with the Soviet Union.

Palace of the Old King of Tibet taken in 1905

By the mid-19th century Manchu and Chinese influence in Tibet was more symbolic than real. The Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906 effectively repudiated Tibet’s efforts to remain independent by reaffirming China’s suzerainty over Tibet. When news of the 1911 Revolution reached Tibet, Tibetans rose against the Chinese, forcing the remaining Chinese out of the country. By January 1913, the exiled Dali Llama returned to Tibet and insisted that he was now Tibet’s sole spiritual and temporal authority. This separation lasted until 1951 when Chinese troops again invaded the region. This period of separation has been one factor fueling current aspirations for Tibetan independence.

Yang Zengxin, Chinese governor of Xinjiang 1911-1928

Xinjiang was formally annexed into the Chinese Empire as a province in 1884. Yang Zengxin became the governor of Xinjiang from 1911 until he was assassinated in 1928. Yang largely retained the framework of civil administration that had been used by the Qing Imperial Court to rule its most distant subjects. He succeeded in keeping the region reasonably free from civil strife by isolating it from the turmoil of China proper. Yang’s replacement lacked his authority. Under his control, tensions between the Chinese and the native Uyghur rose. In 1931 a local uprising against the Chinese authorities shifted power into the hands of the local warlords. Thereafter, Xinjiang was to remain separate from China and politically unstable throughout Chinese Republican era.

 What happened next

Young Chiang Kai-shek

Despite having only 53 members in 1921, CCP membership consistently expanded through 1928 by giving voice to the plight of the working class and peasants. That said, during this time the KMT continued to enjoy greater prestige and numbers. Yet, despite their widely differing objectives, both the communists and the KMT agreed that China should be reunited under one government and that the foreign imperialism must end. With these objectives in mind, the two parties joined forces to retake the provinces from the warlords during the 1924 Northern Expedition.

Yet as communist power and membership grew during the Northern Campaign, KMT’s new leader, Chiang Kai-shek, felt increasingly threatened. In 1927 Chiang launched a coup against the communists in Shanghai. Driven out of the cities, the communists reorganized in rural areas. It was during this time that Mao Zedong, among others, began arguing that the Chinese peasants were to be the key to social change in China. Meanwhile, Chang Kai-shek’s KMT advanced northward. Under his leadership, China was finally re-taken from the warlords in 1928.


Whampao Military Academy inspection (wma)

Modern Chinese History II: Kuomintang and Communists – An Uneasy Alliance 1921-28



Troops fighting during the Northern Expedition

Despite having only 53 members in 1921,  the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) membership consistently expanded through 1928 by giving voice to workers and peasants. That said, during this time Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang Party (KMT), also referred to as the Guomindang or Nationalist Party, continued to enjoy greater prestige and numbers. Despite their widely differing objectives and conflicting aims, both the fledgling communists and the stronger KMT agreed that China must be reunited under one government and that foreign imperialism must end. With these common objectives in mind, the two parties joined forces to retake the fragmented provinces from the warlords during the 1924 Northern Expedition.

Yet as communist membership grew during the Northern Campaign, KMT’s new leader, Chiang Kai-shek, felt increasingly threatened by the CCP’s growing power. In 1927 Chiang launched a coup against the communists in Shanghai. From then forward, he became consumed with wiping out the communists often at the expense of defending China itself.

Driven out of the cities after the coup, the communists reorganized in rural areas. A series of devastating floods and droughts throughout the 1920s made the countryside ripe for communist influence, as did the harsh rural working conditions that most peasants experienced. It was during this time that Mao Zedong, among others, began arguing that the Chinese peasants were to be the key to social change in China. Meanwhile, Chang Kai-shek’s KMT advanced northward. Under his leadership, China was finally re-taken from the warlords in 1928.

Sun Yat-sen and the Rebirth of the KMT

Article in which Sun Yat-sen first put forward his Three People’s Principles

Sun Yat-sen had escaped to Japan after the failed 1913 Second Revolution. By 1918, Sun returned to Shanghai where he began to reorganize his revolutionary political movement on a national basis. Sun laid out a three-stage revolutionary plan for China: first, China would be conquered militarily; second, a period of political tutelage would ensue, overseen by a benign dictatorship whose job would be to prepare China for democracy; third, China would establish a constitutional government. In 1921, Sun Yat-sen launched a military expedition which was the forerunner to the 1924 Northern Expedition against the warlords. The military expedition failed during conflict with the warlords of the southern provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong. In 1923 Sun struck again and this time was able to re-establish his power in Guangzhou under a nationalist military government.

By 1922, Sun restructured his party in order to improve both unity and discipline. The new KMT Party – now called the Chinese Revolutionary Party – was structured on a political platform based on Sun’s “Three People’s Principles”- national self-determination, people’s rights and people’s livelihood. The revised organization also gave Sun control of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA).

The KMT, Soviet support and Chinese Communist Party Alliance

Early Chinese Communist Party leaders Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, Bo Gu

While Sun had been restructuring the KMT, he had also been watching the rise of the CCP which was rapidly developing close ties to labor and agrarian organizations. In the spring of 1921, the Dutch Comintern agent H. Maring met with Sun. Maring left impressed with Sun’s ideas of revolution and nationalism. Maring was soon arguing to the Soviet Comintern that the CCP should expand their influence initially through the KMT instead of trying to make a go of it completely independently. As reunifying China was a goal shared by both the CCP and the KMT, Maring argued that  the CCP should first join with the KMT to achieve reunification. The CCP could then proceed with its next objectives: the eradication of foreign imperialism, the organization of the urban proletariat for socialist revolution and the elimination of worker and peasant exploitation.

For his part, Sun was willing to accept the Communists for several reasons. Idealistically, he believed all Chinese, including Communists, should be given a chance to participate in his national revolution. Practically, he saw advantage in exploiting CCP labor and agrarian ties. He also thought accepting CCP members might give him access to Soviet aid; such assistance had not been forthcoming from the West. Furthermore, he realistically feared that independent growth of the CCP under Soviet aegis might undermine KMT authority. It might therefore be better to assimilate them within the KMT before they grew too strong.

Sun Yat-sen

Early CCP leadership only reluctantly agreed to the Soviet’s proposal. They feared KMT influence would corrupt their worker and peasant members. Eventually it was agreed that members of the CCP would join the KMT as individuals rather than as a group. This way they could also would retain their CCP membership. The CCP’s hidden plan was to eventually assume control of the KMT and then “squeeze out the rightists like lemons”.

In 1923 Sun sent his protégé, Chang Kai-shek, to Moscow to meet further with Soviet leaders. Chang Kai-shek was impressed both by the organization of the Soviet military and by the discipline of the Soviet Communist Party. Chiang encouraged Sun to employ some Soviet organizational methods to strengthen the effectiveness of the KMT. To this effect the Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, was set to Guangzhou to advise the new KMT Central Executive Committee. While there, Borodin encouraged Sun to adopt a more radical agenda. He argued that workers and peasants would flock to the KMT if it promoted an eight hour workday, a fair minimum wage and the redistribution of landholders’ holdings to the impoverished peasantry. Sun demurred as he felt that he could not risk alienating key industrial and financial allies by supporting such bold social initiatives.

Chiang Kai-shek

During January 1924, the first Congress of the reconstructed KMT was held. Sun’s stature and prestige were decisive factors in holding the CCP and KMT parties together, despite their often conflicting ambitions. Even today Sun remains revered in both parties.

USSR support for the new KMT was evidenced by a congratulatory telegram sent by the Soviet ambassador, Karakhan. Motivation underlying Soviet support was two-pronged. Not only did the USSR believe that the KMT would be useful to their goal of spreading revolution worldwide, but they also believed that building Chinese strength, regardless of the means, would help safeguard its borders.

In Asia, Russia’s most significant threat was Japan, a staunchly anti-communist country. Japan had already routed Russia during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Japan was now becoming a dominant force in Manchuria, on Russia’s southern frontier. It was thus in Russia’s interest for China to be strong enough to balance against Japan’s rise. As the CCP had only 300 members in 1923, CCP’s alliance with the KMT would help Russia to more quickly expand its influence in China.

The Washington Conference

John Hay oversaw adoption of the 1905 Open Door Policy in China

These domestic political developments took place against the backdrop of two international conferences. The Washington Conference, held between November 1921 and February 1922, was attended by the nine powers which had interest in the Far East and the Pacific: the US, Italy, Great Britain, France, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and China. A key American objective was to undercut the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Americans viewed the Alliance as contrary to their Open Door Policy which allowed all nations to have equal access to commercial and diplomatic relations, particularly with China. The Americans succeeded in getting the 1921 Four Power Treaty – signed by the United States, Britain, France and Japan – to replaced the Alliance. The new treaty stated that the four powers would resolve conflicts within their Pacific areas of influence by mutual agreement and not by force.

Sir Robert Hart, Inspector General, Chinese Maritime Customs 1863-1908

For their part, the Chinese delegation entered the Conference requesting participants to honor Chinese territorial integrity and political independence, to stop signing treaties between themselves which impacted on China, to respect China’s neutrality in future wars, to eliminate any foreign limitations imposed on its political, jurisdictional and administrative freedoms and to review foreign special rights and concessions in China. The proposal was sympathetically supported by the American and Europeans. In response the Nine Power Treaty was signed, which was to theoretically secure China’s territorial integrity and to restore Chinese sovereignty over parts of the eastern province of Shangdong.

Yet the Treaty lacked any enforcement provision, nor did it invalidate existing foreign privileges. To the ceaseless humiliation of the Chinese, foreigners continued to have significant control over Chinese Maritime Customs, the Salt Revenue and the Postal Service. The Chinese were also taxed without representation in the Shanghai International Settlement. Japan still controlled the Southern Manchurian Railway and used it to advance their objectives within Manchuria while the British dominated South China trade with Hong Kong.

That said, China concluded a 1922 treaty in which Japan agreed to return Jiaozhou and its surrounding region to China within six months, withdraw troops from the area and transfer the Qingdao-Jinan railway to China in exchange for 53 million gold marks. Great Britain also agreed to give up its British Weihai (also known as Weihaiwei) concession on the northern Shandong coast.

Congress of the Toilers of the Far East

The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East was held in Moscow in early 1922 as the USSR alternative to the Washington Conference from which it had been excluded. The Congress argued that the Four Power Treaty was just another means by which Western and Japanese imperialists planned to expand their power outside their own countries. It called for an indissoluble union of the workers of the Far East under the flag of the Communist International (Comintern). It was attended by representatives from China, Korea, Japan and Mongolia who all gave accounts of the conditions in their respective countries.

The First United Front 1923-1927 and the Huangpu (Whampo) Military Academy

Cadet dormitory, Whampoa Military Academy

The 1923-1927 First United Front marked the first period of cooperation between the CCP and the KMT. This included an interlude of preparation and training needed by both CCP and KMT members in order to ready them to launch what would be called the Northern Expedition. During the Northern Expedition, the CCP and KMT would fight together to retake China from the Chinese warlords.

Founded in 1924, the Whampo Military Academy was created to train the leadership of the United Revolutionary Army. Fresh from Moscow where he had been studying Soviet military methods and trying to obtain Soviet arms, Chiang Kai-shek was placed at the head of the new Academy. The Academy initially received 3000 applications and accepted 500, with a further 400 soon after.

Zhou Enlai in National Revolutionary Army uniform 1924

  • Selection criteria for admission were both physical and ideological. The cadets were to be given a thorough indoctrination in the goals of Chinese nationalism, KMT political philosophy and the Sun’s Three People’s Principles. The graduated officers were to form the nucleus of the National Revolutionary Army. Many of the KMT officers who trained at the Academy during this time became fiercely loyal to Chiang Kai-shek.

CCP members who were also KMT members were also eligible to apply. About 80 of the first 500 cohort were communists including Zhou Enlai who would eventually become the Premier of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong. Indeed, just as it was for the KMT, the Academy proved to be an ideal platform to recruit and train future CCP elite.

Northern Expedition

Funeral of Sun Yat-sen

On March 12, 1925 Sun Yat-sen died from liver cancer. Chiang Kai-shek rushed into the vacuum, quickly working to take control of both the KMT and the NRA. In what has been called the Zhongshan Incident, Chiang seized the Zhongshan gunboat as it sailed into Guangzhou  on March 20th and arrested its CCP Captain. Chiang also arrested many CCP political leaders and their Russian communist advisors. He also disarmed the CCP-controlled Workers Guard Militia. He then took full control of the Whampo Military Academy and consolidated his own power in the KMT.

Going forward,Chiang issued a series of decrees designed to strengthen KMT leadership under his rule: no CCP members could head KMT or government bureaus; no CCP criticism of Sun’s Three People’s Principles would be tolerated; no KMT members could become members of the CCP; the Soviet Comintern was to communicate its orders to the KMT as well as the CCP; and names of CCP members were to be relayed to the KMT Executive Committee. He also made the KMT leadership swear an oath of loyalty to Sun’s Three People’s Principles, in effect cementing the Northern Expedition as a continuation of the vision of Sun Yat-sen.

Borodin and Chiang Kai-shek at the Whampoa Military Academy 1924

Russian representative Borodin encouraged the CCP to accept these terms because Lenin’s death in 1924 had initiated a power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky. Stalin could not afford to look bad because the CCP and his Soviet advisers had been evicted from the KMT. The strategic policies the two Russian rivals were advocating for the burgeoning Chinese revolution were central to each man’s jockeying as he fought for power within the Russian Soviet bureaucratic arena.

Having consolidated his power over the KMT, in 1924 Chiang Kai-shek pushed ahead with Sun’s Northern Expedition. The Northern Expedition’s aim was to retake China from the warlords and to unify the country under KMT leadership. The Northern Expedition was initially fought along three lines: a western route to the city of Changsha in Hunan; a middle route along the Gan River into Jiangxi; and an eastern route into Fujian. The NRA formed alliances with amenable warlords as they fought north, absorbing their militias when possible. Smaller groups of primarily CCP members worked ahead of the army, organizing peasant and urban worker strikes to create disruption and chaos in areas into which the NRA advanced. Thousands of laborers were also organized to move military supplies over the large areas where rail, road and river made mechanized shipment impossible.

Warlord coalitions 1925

The NRA met light resistance as it moved north. This was partially because northern warlords, despite their superior forces, were too preoccupied fighting themselves to coordinate an attack against the NRA. Growing peasant and workers movements also significantly aided the NRA’s advance, as too did the defection to their side of naval units which blocked enemy retreat along the eastern prong of the NRA’s attack. By mid-December 1926, the nationalists had conquered Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Fujian, and had negotiated control over Guangxi and Guizhou. This gave them effective control over territory inhabited by over 170 million people.

On January 11, 1927 Chiang Kai-shek traveled from his Nanchang base to Wuhan to meet the Western NRA arm. Disagreement had broken out between different NRA factions about the best way to continue the northern advance. The troops most closely associated with Chiang Kai-shek had fought along the eastern seaboard of the country while the branch of the army making its base in Wuhan was more heavily influenced by the more leftward leaning commissars and politicians. Chiang wanted to drive to Nanjing – which symbolized the short-lived republican government under Sun Yat-sen – and Shanghai – the industrial and economic heartland of China. In contrast, the more left-leaning Wuhan-based KMT leaders agreed with Soviet agent Borodin that the NRA should march northward toward Manchuria to take Beijing. Ultimately, Chiang won the debate. Chiang not only controlled more troops than the Wuhan NRA arm, but Stalin also insisted that CCP leaders in China must continue to cooperate with Chiang and the KMT.

National Revolutionary Army troops, Northern Expedition

As the NRA progressed northward during the first phase of the Northern Expedition, the relationship between the Communist and non-Communist members of the KMT remained fraught. Conflicting KMT and CCP orders often led to friction between the two groups. Also, although the CCP and the KMT shared the short term goal of uniting the country, it was clear from the beginning that each group had its own agenda while pursuing this goal. Chiang continued to exploit communist organizational skills and local knowledge to foment unrest in advance of the NRA while remaining deeply suspicious of growing communist influence. Similarly, many members of the CCP were still discontented about allying with the KMT despite Comintern directives. That said, their alliance and the Northern Expedition provided the communists with an unparalleled opportunity to organize and recruit new members for both the party and its affiliated trade unions.

Indeed during this time, due in large part to communist efforts, an All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU or Zhonghua Quanguo Zonggonghui) was formed which was to coordinate worker actions throughout China. ACFTU remains China’s sole legal trade union today and is the world’s largest with more than 130 million members. By late 1926 73 unions were listed under its umbrella. The ACFTU not only helped the NRA advance, but within NRA-controlled areas, new trade unions were often quickly formed under its umbrella and urban residents were radicalized. For instance, in advance of Chiang’s February 1927 march toward Shanghai, Shanghai labor leaders and ACFTU organizers called a general strike which brought Shanghai to a halt for two days. The strike was eventually disrupted by warlord forces that ultimately killed 20 strikers and arrested 300 strike leaders. Yet Shanghai worker morale remained high and a second major strike was planned for when Chiang Kai-shek marched into the city.

Shanghai at the time of the Northern Expedition

Shanghai factory owners and financiers, however, risked heavy losses if the waves of strikes continued. Some of these leaders had links to underground organizations such as the Green and Red Gangs. At the end of 1926 the head of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce met with Chiang Kai-shek in Nanchang to offer the NRA the Chamber’s financial support. Chiang also met with Huang, the patriarch of the Qing Bang, (the Green Gang, a notorious criminal group) who reportedly offered his services to break up labor unions and attack insubordinate workers in return for freedom to expand his opium, prostitution, gambling and labor racketeering businesses. There is no record of Chiang Kai-shek’s response, but subsequent events suggest that Chiang had struck some sort of bargain.

Song Meiling

While in Nanjing, Chiang also met with Song Ailing, the oldest daughter of the late Shanghai tycoon Charlie Song, sister of Sun Yat-sen’s widow Song Qingling and wife of H.H. Hong. Both the Songs and the Hongs were Christian and thoroughly Westernized. Song Ailing told Chiang Kai-shek that he was at risk of being ousted by the left unless he secured the support of the Shanghai business world which her family could deliver. In return, she asked Chiang to appoint T.V. Soong and H.H. Hong as finance and prime ministers and to marry her youngest sister Song Meiling. Song Ailing was maneuvering her family into a position of significant influence over the KMT army and government. Chiang Kai-shek was keen as he found the idea of entering the Soong-Song-Sun circle alluring. One stumbling block to the plan, however, was that he was already married. Discarding his first wife, Chiang eventually married Song Meiling on December 31, 1927.

Foreigners in Shanghai, who had links with Chinese industrialists and financiers, were also getting nervous about worker agitation and the NRA advance. They feared both financial loss and for their own physical safety if fighting were to break out in the city. Increasingly, they amassed troops and police in Shanghai, and by the time Chiang Kai-shek entered the city, 42 foreign warships were at anchor in Shanghai’s port, backed by an additional 129 warships in other Chinese waters.

The Shanghai Coup also called the White Terror or the Shanghai Massacre

The NRA marched into Shanghai on the 22 March 22, 1927 without having to fire a shot. This lack of resistance was in large part due to another massive general strike and series of demonstrations that were called in support of the NRA and in support of the Workers’ Government that Shanghai workers believed would soon be established. Stalin told the CCP to cooperate with Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai. Chiang Kai-shek issued strict orders to the labor unions, the communists and the NRA to leave foreigners and their property untouched. Once inside the city, Chiang Kai-shek issued reassuring statements to the foreign community. He also praised the unions for their contribution to the NRA’s success in taking Shanghai.

Roundup of Communists during the Shanghai Coup

Yet, at the same time as celebrating Northern Expedition victories, Chiang Kai-shek was making plans to purge the Communists from the KMT. Having taken Shanghai, he now felt that he was strong enough to decimate their movement and to abandon the United Front. Indeed, Chiang Kai-shek felt that if he failed to act at this juncture, he risked losing control over both the Northern Expedition and over the type of country China would become once it was fully unified.

On April 12, 1927 a bugle call from Chiang Kai-shek’s headquarters was sounded, followed by a loud siren emitted from a gunboat anchored in the river. This signaled the start of the Communist purge. Wearing blue clothes and white armbands, armed members of the Shanghai’s Green Gang attacked the offices of trade unions affiliated with the communists. Li Dazhao, China’s leading Marxist theorist, was executed during the purge along with hundreds of pro-labor and communist supporters. Zhou Enlai narrowly escaped. The ACFTU was paralyzed by unclear orders – including inadequate directions sent by Stalin – and thus put up a weak defense. When Shanghai workers and students held a rally protesting against Green Gang and the KMT’s action the following day, they were fired on by KMT forces.

Pro-Communist citizen executed during the Shanghai Coup

Although the ACFTU and the CCP organizations remained in existence after the purge, their links with the local community had been severed and their influence had been all but eliminated. The CCP alliance with the KMT nominally continued until 15 July when the CCP members of the KMT were ordered to renounce their Communist Party membership. At that point the Communist Party withdrew from the alliance.

In the wake of Chiang Kai-shek’s success, Trotsky faulted Stalin’s flawed leadership in China, arguing that he had contravened the fundamental Leninist principle that any alliance with bourgeois elements, no matter how temporary, was permitted only if the communists maintained organizational independence and freedom of action. To vindicate his China policy, Stalin issued an order encouraging the communists to raise a separate army and to transform Wuhan into a communist regime. The order was unrealistic. Instead, under widespread attack, the communists retreated from Wuhan. Borodin fled China for Russia via Mongolia in July 1927.

After the Shanghai Coup, Chiang Kai-shek resumed the Northern Expedition

Yet in an ironic twist that Stalin could well appreciate, in the months after the Shanghai coup, Chiang Kai-shek launched a reign of extortion against the financiers, industrialists and the wealthy of the city. The purpose of Chiang Kai-shek shake down was to raise the millions of yuan he needed to finance the rest of the Northern Expedition. Chiang Kai-shek demanded, for example, that the chairman of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce provide him with a multi-million yuan loan. When he refused, Chiang Kai-shek confiscated his property and drove him into exile. Wealthy businessman were browbeaten into purchasing a combined total of 30 million yuan of short-term government bonds, with larger businesses being required to buy as many as 500,000 yuan or more.

Kidnapping was rife. Children of rich residents were arrested as counterrevolutionaries and released only upon receipt of donations to the KMT. Green Gang agents facilitated KMT extortion. Through KMT’s newly created Opium Suppression Bureau, for instance, the KMT and the Green Gang divided profits from the sale of the drug and from the registration of known addicts. The appointment in January 1928 of his new brother-in-law T.V. Soong to run the government finances finally freed Chiang Kai-shek to continue the Northern Expedition as T.V. Soong took responsibility for guaranteeing that Chiang Kai-shek would receive the approximately 1.6 million yuan he needed every five days in order to finance his expedition. Chiang resumed the Northern Expedition in February 1928. By January 1929, the greater part of China was united under KMT leadership.

Rural China in the 1920s

Women in rice fields 1920

For centuries, peasant uprisings had overthrown Chinese dynasties. Once again in the 20th century, it was eventually the peasants who would decide play an important role in determining who would rule China. Despite the expanding industrialization that China had been experiencing since the late 19th century and the growing urban movement, in 1928 approximately 75% of the roughly 450 million Chinese citizens tilled the soil. Life for the average Chinese peasant varied greatly, depending on the quality of soil that he worked and whether or not he owned the land. Land was more fertile and therefore life was better in the southern rice paddies than it was in the poorer soils of the west and north. Yet for all farmers, life was incredibly difficult. Almost all farming was done by hand and by beast. Produce that wasn’t consumed by the farmer was sold in village and regional markets along with handmade handicrafts, tools and processed foods.

Social and ritual life was hugely conservative and was based on both Confucian traditions and those of the local Buddhist or Daoist temples. Other societies or social organizations were organized between women, within villages or within regional areas. During the Warlord Era, some villages formed self-defense organizations such as the Red, White and Yellow Spears which were active mainly in the northern Chinese plains. Eventually, the CCP would try to recruit the Red Spears and other such secret societies as allies in their fight against the KMT.

Rural China also frequently suffered drought and flood. This was particularly true throughout the 1920s. In 1920 and 1921, for instance, a severe drought in northern China brought famine. The famine not only killed approximately half a half million people but it also destroyed the regional economy. Like many of the droughts that have plagued China even up to the present day, the effects of little rain were exacerbated by overpopulation and by soil erosion due to extensive logging and overgrazing of livestock. In 1923 further drought and flooding caused the deaths of an additional 100,000 people. In 1925 another devastating drought killed almost 3 million people in the Sichuan area. In 1926 the Yangtze and Gan rivers flooded. From 1928 to 1930, drought and famine devastated the whole of northern China affecting more than 20 million people. This ruinous plague of drought and famine throughout the 1920s left much of rural China in crisis. Eventually, the communists were able to exploit this crisis by promising the Chinese peasant a better, more prosperous and fairer way of life.

Flooding in China was frequent during the 1920s

Early on, key Chinese Marxists theorists such as Li Dazhao and Peng Pai recognized the need to adapt Russian Marxism to Chinese reality. In other words, there could be no communist revolution without engaging the peasants as they represented the majority of the Chinese population. In the early 1920s, Peng Pai created a system of peasant associations in Guangdong province which campaigned against high rents, rural social injustice and landlord abuse, demonstrating to early CCP activists that an alliance between peasants and communists was possible. Mao Zedong, who had studied under Li Dazhao, traveled through his native Hunan in 1927 and his experiences there helped shape his belief that, for China, the peasants would be the key to the Communist communist revolution. From then on, he became a strong advocate of shifting Chinese Communist  strategy from a focus on organizing the urban worker to mobilizing the poor and discontent farmers.

What Happened Next

The period between 1927 and 1937 is often referred to as the Nanjing Decade. The new KMT Nanjing-based government was recognized by the international community, most of southern China, and a large part of northern China, although it did not control Manchuria nor did it have perfect control over many former warlords. Chiang Kai-shek tried to consolidate his power by eliminating warlord rivals. As a result, by 1929, civil strife once again broke out as warlords maneuvered to retain influence. Dealing with this power struggle meant that the much needed and long promised social reforms were slow in coming. For most Chinese life improved little. This created discontent that the Communists would eventually exploit.

Japanese invading Manchuria

The CCP in the meantime regrouped in rural southern Jiangxi. There they experimented with social policies that were to prove the forerunners of their ultimate governing practices. Repeated KMT attacks eventually forced the CCP on the epic retreat now known as the Long March.

As a backdrop to the KMT-CCP struggle was Japan’s increasing expansion into Manchuria and northern China. It was Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy to placate the Japanese while focusing on Communist eradication. However, rival KMT leaders finally forced Chiang to abandon war against the Communists and to fight growing Japanese aggression which culminated in Japan’s full-scale invasion of the China in 1937.


Woman with bound feet c1902 (boundfeet1902) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-ru01-057

Modern Chinese History III: The Nanjing Decade 1927-1937


Chiang Kai-shek’s Presidential Palace in Nanjing

The period between 1927 and 1937 is often referred to as the Nanjing decade. The Kuomintang (KMT) established its new government in Nanjing after it had dispelled the Communists from the United Front and it had defeated the warlords to unite the country during the Northern Expedition. The new KMT government was recognized by the international community, most of southern China, and a large part of northern China, although it did not control Manchuria nor did it have perfect control over many of its former warlords.

Instead, Chiang Kai-shek had achieved national unification often by negotiating with these warlords– in effect allowing them semi-independent regional status – in return for their recognition of the new KMT government. Once in government, Chiang Kai-shek tried to consolidate his power by eliminating these warlord rivals where possible. As a result, by 1929, civil strife once again broke out as warlords maneuvered to retain their influence. Dealing with this power struggle meant that the much needed and long promised social reforms were slow in coming. For most Chinese life improved little. This created discontent that the communists would eventually exploit.

The establishment of the Chinese Soviet in Ruijin, November 7, 1931 with Mao Zedong, Zhu De

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), forced out of the cities after the Shanghai Coup, retreated into the countryside. It was in these rural areas that the CCP began to develop their ideas for peasant mobilization, championed in large part by Mao Zedong. The communists most important rural base became the Jiangxi Soviet, headquartered in Ruijin in the south of Jiangxi province. There they experimented with governing and with the implementation of new social policies that were to prove the forerunners of practices they assumed once they won control of the country in 1949. However, repeated KMT attacks finally forced the CCP from Jiangxi. In order to evade being encircled and annihilated, the communists began the Long March, retreating through some of the most difficult terrain in western China by traveling west and then north to Yan’an in Shaanxi Province.

As a  backdrop to the KMT-CCP struggle was Japan’s increasing expansion into Manchuria and northern China. It was Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy to placate the Japanese while focusing on communist eradication. However, rival KMT leaders finally went to the extreme measure of kidnapping Chiang until he agreed to abandon war against the communists. Instead, the kidnappers forced Chiang to join forces with the CCP in a Second United Front formed to fight growing Japanese aggression. This aggression  culminated in Japan’s full-scale invasion of China in 1937.

Division within the New KMT Leadership and Warlord Challenges

National Revolutionary Army Generals at a ceremony held to Sun Yat-sen to report completion of the Northern Expedition to Dr. Sun’s soul

The new Nanjing government of the KMT was to be based on the ideas of Sun Yat-sen and his Three People’s Principles: national self-determination, people’s rights, and people’s livelihood. Confronted with a need to integrate China into an international system based on nation-states, Sun’s principle of national self-determination was an effort to get the Chinese see themselves not just as a culture but as a state. During the dynastic era, what it meant to be Chinese had been defined not so much by race or by geographic area, but by an overall cultural cohesiveness. This Chinese culturalism was  based primarily on Confucianism, but also on Buddhist and Daoist teachings. This cultural heritage was imparted to the Chinese through the teachings of their families and through their rich recorded history and literature. It was also passed on through the arduous government examinations which meant that all the ruling elite all largely learned the same values. This cultural tradition underpinned the Chinese people’s self- understanding and also shaped its foreign policy until its increasingly difficult encounters with the western world beginning in the 1800’s.

Confucian values pervaded the Republic of China

Yet despite Sun’s, and later Chiang’s, efforts, during the first half of the twentieth century the majority of Chinese still considered their loyalties to be to their family, to their clan and to their patron-client relationships rather than to their nation. They were slow to look to the government for support and to feel obliged to defend it. Sun’s principle of People’s Rights – democracy – was linked to this idea of nationalism. If the first step of the 1911 Republican Revolution had been to overthrow the imperial governmental system, the next step would be to establish a government which would be seen by the Chinese as one of their own making to which they would then feel committed. Sun anticipated the establishment of this government as a multi-phased process. While the final government of the Republic of China would be based on a form of western constitutional democracy, Sun believed that the transition to constitutional rule would be preceded by a six-year tutelage period during which the gradual creation of local self-government would teach the Chinese people democratic values, habits and practices.

As a first step toward realizing this government, the KMT enacted the Organic Law of the National Government of the Republic of China on October 10, 1928. This law broke the government into five branches, known as Yuan: the Executive Yuan was to be the highest executive branch of the country. It would be led by a chairman and cabinet whose functions would include the direction of the central ministries, economic planning, general supervision of the military, relations with the provinces, and appointment of local government officials. The Legislative Yuan was to debate and vote on new legislation, budgets, and treaties. The Judicial Yuan was to run the court and supervise the legal system. The Examination Yuan – based on China’s Imperial examination system – was to supervise public service examinations which would qualify Chinese as civil servants. Finally the Control Yuan – based on China’s imperial censorate – would supervise the conduct of officials.  This five Yuan government system is still in use by Republic of China in Taiwan today.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Office in the Nanjing Presidential Palace

After passage of the law, Chiang Kai-shek was formally installed as Chairman of the new Nationalist Government as well as the chief of China’s armed forces. One of Chiang Kai-shek’s first acts as chairman was to establish the KMT Central Political Institute and cadre training schools, a main purpose of which was to create a new generation of cadets as fiercely loyal to Chiang Kai-shek as those that had graduated from the Whampoa Academy. The training philosophy was based on anti-communist, anti-imperialist nationalism combined with an emphasis on the Confucian virtues of order, harmony, discipline and hierarchy.

The Chinese people initially greeted their new Nanjing government with goodwill, but these favorable feelings were not to last. Sun’s prescribed period of “tutelage” largely freed Chiang from the need to demonstrate any effort toward creating a true democracy. Instead, Chiang quickly began excluding rivals from positions of authority within the new government. Chiang also soon ran into conflict with many former warlords. Chiang had achieved national unification during the Northern Expedition in part by negotiating with regional chieftains – in effect allowing them semi-independent regional status in return for recognition of the Nanjing government. In 1930, for instance, Chiang Kai-shek’s government directly controlled only 8% of the geographical area of China and 25% of its population. By as late as 1936, the KMT still governed primarily by alliance with provincial military governors whose cooperation was constantly subject to renegotiation. Many of these warlords still controlled large armies. In March 1929, the KMT called for the incorporation of these local militias into one national command under the control of Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang Kai-shek wanted to consolidate all independent militia into the National Revolutionary Army

The KMT also made efforts to prevent the provinces from siphoning off tax and other financial receipts that it felt rightfully belonged to the central government. The warlords resisted these efforts to reduce their power and argued that Nanjing should reduce the size of its army before they demilitarized; Chiang Kai-shek countered that his army was to be the backbone of the new national army. Yet many of these warlords did not see Chiang’s claim to power to be any better than their own. Moreover, rival civilian and political groups were also concerned about his growing monopoly of military and political power.

By 1929, civil strife had again broken out in Guangxi, Hunan, Beijing, Manchuria and Guangdong. Chiang Kai-shek did not deal with the strife by creating a more inclusive government in which these factional warlords would be brought in and given a voice. Instead, where he could, Chiang had rivals arrested. Many also objected to his policy of appeasing foreigners and his failure to counter increased Japanese aggression in Manchuria in order to direct scarce resources toward wiping out the regrouped Communists. Opposition parties and organizations such as the Nationalist Socialist Party, the People’s Front, The Workers’ and Peasants Party, The Chinese League for the Protection of Civil Rights, the National Salvation Association began forming. Although fundamentally powerless, they did undercut loyalty to Chiang’s government and impacted public opinion with their calls for a multi-party government, protection of civil rights, and the need for China to defend itself against Japanese and foreign expansion.

Warlord Long Yun and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek- managing warlord ambitions was a constant struggle for Chiang

Dealing with this internal strife meant that the much needed and long promised social reforms were slow in coming. For most, life in the countryside had remained unchanged since the time of the Qing Dynasty. Regional administrators were often corrupt and more concerned with protecting landlords than the peasants who mostly lived in poverty underneath them. Local officials collected taxes and rent even in times of flood, drought and famine. Infant mortality was high and life expectancy low. Many girls still had their feet bound and marriages were frequently arranged. Education was minimal where it existed at all.

The KMT recognized the need to address these problems by measures such as better crop diversification, fair land distribution, agricultural price support, greater availability of agricultural credit, and improved access to education. That said, funds were always short and the KMT was always distracted by foreign pressures and internal dissension. The harsh rural living conditions seemed all the more stark when compared with the growing opulence of the cities where modern medical care, new schools, electricity, better boat, road and air transport, cinemas and western clothes were growing increasingly prevalent.

Chiang Kai-shek oversaw the expansion of the rail network

Finances were also a problem. The new governmentn suffered from consistent annual budget deficits. On the one hand, in 1928 China succeeded in negotiating with foreign powers to obtain full tariff autonomy, increasing its custom revenues from 120 million yuan in 1928 to 244 million yuan in 1929 and 385 million yuan in 1931. On the other hand, there was no income tax until 1936. Furthermore, land taxes went straight to the provincial governments. Additionally, the amount that foreign corporations could be taxed was limited. In contrast, heavy taxes on Chinese entrepreneurs drove most near to bankruptcy, defeating their purpose. Foreign debt service was also heavy. Debt servicing represented 35% of the 1930-31 budget, for instance, forcing the KMT to borrow even more in order to meet its existing financial obligations.

These financial challenges were compounded by the severe 1931-1935 deflation triggered by the 1929 Depression which drove down the value of silver. The US government tried to shore up the silver market by purchasing silver in large quantities. In response, silver poured out of China and the country was depleted of currency. As a result, prices plunged, imports poured in, banks were drained of reserves and industrial firms faced bankruptcy due to lack of working capital.

That said, despite growing Japanese aggression, worldwide depression, internal strife and the Communist challenge, the KMT did achieve some real successes before full-scale war broke out with Japan in 1937. By 1937, China had in place most branches of basic industry including the ability to design, construct and operate its own railways. By 1937, improvements in agriculture virtually eliminated the need to import rice, wheat and cotton. Many modern banking methods were instituted.  The foreign power monopoly of foreign-exchange dealings was stopped. Due in large part to foreign philanthropy, western medical practices were introduced.

Japanese Expansion in China

Japanese experts inspect ‘railway sabotage’ on South Manchurian Railway, leading to the Mukden Incident

Japan’s conciliatory position toward China during the Washington Conference hardened in 1928. This was due in part to a fear that the unification of China might cause Manchuria to be re-integrated into the country, limiting Japanese military and economic presence in the region. In 1928, Japan’s interests in Manchuria were protected by the Kwantung Army which operated on a semi-autonomous basis from the main Japanese military. It was the Kwantung Army’s objective to take Manchuria for Japan. Manchuria was considered by many Japanese and by many Japanese soldiers to be theirs by right, given the tens of thousands of Japanese troops which had died in the area during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. Japanese military leadership also viewed Manchuria as a useful buffer zone between it and Russia.

Many Japanese also believed that Manchuria’s vast territory, fertile agricultural land and abundant natural resources could provide Japan with much needed mineral resources, create new business opportunities for Japanese industrialists, and help solve the high unemployment levels caused by the ill effects of overproduction and worldwide Depression. By 1931, Kwantung military leaders decided to take independent action. It believed that growing economic pressures at home would help sway domestic opinion in its favor. As approximately 75% of foreign investment in Manchuria was of Japanese origin, Japanese industrialists specifically favored Manchurian expansion, although they preferred peaceful annexation if possible. It also saw that the new KMT government was bogged down with internal strife while the international community was enmeshed in the Great Depression. Moreover, key Kwantung military leaders were due for routine transfer and they wanted to seize Manchuria before being shipped elsewhere.

Japanese Forces in Manchuria

A September 1931 bomb explosion on the Southern Manchurian Railway in Shenyang (often referred to by its Manchu name of Mukden) was staged by the Japanese military as a pretext for invasion. Meeting little Chinese resistance, the Kwantung Army overran Manchuria – an area larger than modern-day Turkey – in just five months. Chang Kai-shek sought help from the League of Nations (a forerunner of the UN) and other western powers, including the United States, but received no meaningful assistance. The League of Nations agreed only to dispatch a mission to investigate Japanese actions in Manchuria, which it did on December 10, 1931. Chiang also marshaled popular outrage and trade boycotts to undercut the Japanese position. In January 1932, the Japanese invaded Shanghai in order to avert attention from their Manchurian conquest. In this instance, the KMT did fight, but Shanghai eventually fell to Japanese forces after a month of intense battle, and the KMT was forced to retreat to Luoyang in central China. International mediation eventually forced the Japanese to evacuate Shanghai in May 1932.

Emperor Puyi

In order to legitimize their Manchurian annexation, on March 9th 1932 the Japanese installed the last Qing Emperor, Puyi, on the throne of its puppet Manchurian regime, which it called Manchukuo. The League of Nations mission spent six weeks in this new “Manchurian State”. Its eventual report sided with China. It determined that Japan had been an unprovoked aggressor, rejected Japan’s claim that Manchukuo was the result of the spontaneous uprising of the Manchu people and repudiated its argument that its military operations in Manchuria were in self- defense in response to the September 1931 bombing. Japan reacted to the report by withdrawing from the League of Nations while consolidating control of Manchuria through its puppet government.

Communist Insurrection – Disease of the Heart; Disease of the Skin

Russian agent Borodin in Nanchang at Stalin’s behest

While the Japanese army was busy invading Manchuria, Chiang Kai-shek remained preoccupied with eliminating the communists. He believed that ‘the Japanese were a disease of the skin,  while the communists were a disease of the heart’ meaning that skin disease – the Japanese – was not deadly, whereas heart disease – the communists – could prove fatal. In other words, Chiang was more concerned with the enemy within than the enemy without.

The Shanghai Coup and subsequent attacks had badly weakened the CCP, with party membership dropping from an estimated 58,000 to less than 10,000. CCP influence within cities and within the urban labor movement had also been significantly diminished.  Spurred on by Stalin, who was trying to save face after the Shanghai Coup, the remaining communists tried to achieve victory by launching a series of uprisings, all of which were failures. For instance, on August 1, 1927 in Nanchang, Jiangxi, the communists succeeded in taking the city in the name of the newly created Workers and Peasants Red Army for four days. Although the uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, it has since been mythologized by CCP historians as the Nanchang Uprising. It is also marked by  the CCP as the birth of the People’s Liberation Army, and August 1st is still celebrated as Military Day in China today.

1927 Autumn Harvest Riot participants

Mao Zedong also led an Autumn Harvest Uprising, briefly holding the town of Liling before being forced to retreat to Jinggangshan, a remote mountain area of the borders of Hunan and Jiangxi in October 1927. Just as it was during the Qing Dynasty, the safest places for fugitives in China in the 1920s and the 1930s were the border regions between provinces where different administrative zones met, making it more difficult for the KMT and its warlord allies to coordinate counterattacks. Mao learned from this failed insurgency that no uprising could be successful without the support of the peasant masses.

A third insurrection was launched in Guangzhou in December 1927. Worried about their waning influence in Guangzhou’s trade unions, CCP leaders fighting under Communist International representative Heinz Neumann seized control of the city. They immediately announced a revolutionary government intent on the nationalization of land, factories and bourgeois property. They lost the city in two days, with some union members actually fighting against the communists.

Retreat to Ruijin

Mao Zedong and Zhu De inspecting the Red Army 1931

In January 1929 the CCP faction led by Mao retreated from their Jinggangshan base to Ruijin, southern Jiangxi. From Ruijin, the CCP began to govern the surrounding region. While the Jiangxi Soviet was the CCP’s main base, as many as 15 smaller soviets or administrative committees were established in the area. These soviets operated hierarchically although communication between the different soviets was often difficult. The Jiangxi Soviet period enabled the CCP to experiment with governing. The policies developed at this time were to significantly impact CCP governing theories going forward.

The move to Ruijin also provided the communists with a greater flow of supplies, revenues and recruits. Indeed, between 1929 and 1930, the Red Army expanded from 2,000 to almost 70,000 soldiers. As the Communists regrouped in the countryside, influence over their policies by Russian Communist International waned. Partly this was due to the difficulty of communication caused by their remote location. Additionally, Soviet interest in the Chinese Communist movement also diminished generally once the CCP left the cities.

Group photo taken after the 1931 founding Chinese soviet with Mao Zedong, Zhu De

During the spring 1930, Mao Zedong undertook a detailed survey of the Jiangxi county of Xunwu. He researched the variety of businesses prevalent in the county’s small towns and the income they generated. He tried to determine levels of exploitation in order to quantify class tensions more accurately. For instance, he spoke with peasants who had been forced to sell their children to pay their debts. He studied the plight of women. This research allowed the CCP to hone criteria that could be used as a basis for land redistribution. It also allowed the CCP to more effectively respond to the causes of peasant frustration including high and often arbitrary taxes, conscription without sufficient compensation and lost land due to public work projects. Ultimately, the CCP was able to turn the peasant’s economic discontent into class warfare.

This research also confirmed for Mao that agrarian revolution was the way forward for China. That said, at the November 1931 founding conference of the Jiangxi Soviet, this continued to be a minority opinion. At the conference, Mao Zedong was elected chairman of the Central Executive Council. Continuing differences of opinion between CCP leaders led to much infighting at this time. In the coming years, Mao was to prove effective at exploiting these disagreements to facilitate his ultimate rise to power.

Mao Zedong in Jiangxi

At the conference it was confirmed that two of the most significant social issues that the CCP confronted were the subjugation of women and the inequality of land ownership. The CCP encouraged greater freedom of marriage and divorce and began to give voice to the rights of women. This earned the party much popular support despite the conservative undertones of rural society. Its land policies were to prove even more well-liked. During the 1931-1932 Land Investigation Movement Mao oversaw the redistribution of rich peasants land to the poor, leaving the rich peasant as much land as he could farm himself.

Land held by the more numerous middle income farmers was left untouched. This allowed the CCP to maintain middle income farmer support and to prevent disruptions in food production. This land redistribution became the basis for the CCP’s broader rural class struggles, and was a key to the CCP’s rise to power in the 1940s. The CCP also declared war on Japan at this time. While this amounted to nothing more than a symbolic gesture, it boosted their popularity among the many Chinese who believed that the Japanese threat should be China’s first priority.

KMT Encirclement and Suppression of Communist Campaigns

While the CCP was experimenting with government and social policy, the KMT was stepping up pressure on the Jiangxi Soviet combining economic blockade with military attack. On November 1930, the KMT began a campaign of Encirclement and Suppression designed to surround and eliminate the communist bases. During one KMT attack, in what came to be known as the battle of Dongshao, the CCP captured KMT radio equipment which allowed them to listen into KMT’s news military transmissions, improving significantly their intelligence on KMT military plans and troops. This radio information was a key to enabling the Red Army to fend off the first KMT attack.

Chinese Red Army during the First Encirclement and Suppression Campaign

Chiang Kai-shek launched the second Encirclement and Suppression Campaign against the Communists at the end of February 1931. This time the Jiangxi Soviet defeated a 200,000 strong KMT force during major battles in May, expanding the territory under their control. Expanded radio capability became fundamental to Red Army success, allowing them not only to gather intelligence on KMT forces, but also to more effectively communicate between different Red Army factions. Growing communist sophistication in code-breaking enabled the CCP to continue to collect information even after the KMT finally realized that the communists were listening to their communications.  The success of the communists against the KMT was also the result of Mao’s guerilla campaign of “luring the enemy in deep”. In most battles against the KMT, the Red Army was significantly outnumbered and possessed no air cover and little artillery. Instead, the Red Army retreated, forcing the KMT into unfamiliar and hostile territory where the communists could launch ambushes on one division at a time.

The Third Encirclement and Suppression Campaign was scheduled to be launched in July 1931, but Japanese expansion into Manchuria forced Chiang Kai-shek to abort the military mission. The Fourth was launched in June 1932, but was again repulsed by November 1932. The Fifth Campaign, in October 1933, was led by Chiang Kai-shek himself. Not only did he commit significant troops to the battle, but at each point of advance he created blockhouses and roads which allowed him to reinforce taken ground. By April 1934, the central Jiangxi Soviet was completely surrounded. It was decided that the communists had no choice but to break through the encirclement at the weakest point in the southwest corner. This strategic withdrawal was to be the beginning of what has been mythologized in CCP history as the Long March.

The Long March and the Yan’an Communist Base

Map, the Long March

Between October 16th  1934  and October 20th  1935, the Chinese Workers and Peasants’ Red Army retreated 6000 miles through some of the toughest terrain in western China- including mountains, barren plateaus and lethal swamps. Throughout this time they were constantly harassed and attacked by KMT forces. Approximately 85,000 communists men and soldiers began the trek westward while most women, children and approximately 20,000 wounded communists were left behind. At the end, only about 8,000 of the original 85,000 remained living. Most perished at the hands of KMT forces. Others died from illness and from the harsh conditions which prevailed throughout the retreat.

The march was not one single maneuver, but rather the withdrawal from Jiangxi of different Red Army units which often independently fought their way west and north. The CCP was quite divided at this time, with different factions not only arguing about different military strategies, but also disagreeing as to where new revolutionary base should be ultimately reestablished.

Mao Zedong on the Long March

In December 1936 the CCP finally established its headquarters in the province of Shaanxi, in Yan’an. This base had the advantage of both safeguarding the communists from the 1937 Japanese invasion of China and helping isolate it from further KMT attack. By this time Mao was firmly established as the leader of the CCP, although division remained within the party. From separate marches and from recruitment efforts as the communists passed through territory, eventually around 30,000 eventually joined Mao at his new base. The CCP’s courage in the face of unimaginable hardship and the communists ultimate victory despite their decimated ranks played an important role in the process of legitimizing the CCP rule.

Mao Zedong 1935

The Long March was also important in helping to create the CCP’s founding mythology. The period has since been portrayed romantically in fiction, drama, film and in museum exhibits. Many of the most important leaders of the People’s Republic of China founded in 1949 were survivors of the Long March. The March has become one of the most celebrated periods of the CCP’s history and is now an integral part of the national myth that underpins Chinese perceptions of themselves as a people and as a nation.

The Zunyi Conference

During the Long March, several crucial party meetings took place. One of the most important of these occurred in the town of Zunyi in northern Guizhou in January 1935. It was attended by 18 key Communist leaders, including the Comintern representative Otto Braun. They discussed the reasons for their defeat in the Jiangxi region, concluding that the CCP should have pursued a more offensive mobile, guerilla war as Mao had been arguing. The vindication of his military policies was an important step in his rise toward control of the Communist Party. At the conference, he was appointed as a full member of the ruling Standing Committee of the Politburo. He was also appointed chief assistant to Zhou Enlai for military planning, from whom he would gradually assume full military leadership.

KMT Struggles and Responses

Cavalry parade of the Manchukuo Imperial Army

Despite growing Japanese aggression in Manchuria in northern China, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government continued to prioritize eradication of the communists over fighting the Japanese. This policy created great internal conflict within the KMT and within its warlord allies ranks. Tensions were most acute with warlords in areas  most vulnerable to Japanese expansion. It also motivated Chinese student nationalism. Chiang tried to quell student discontent by increasing the number of compulsory subjects and examinations at university, hoping to keep the students so busy they would be unable to protest. Those students that did protest were dealt with harshly.

Additionally, by early 1934, Chiang Kai-shek also began developing a new unifying ideology, based on Sun Yat-sen doctrines as well as on some central tenets of Confucianism, particularly those relating to the formation of a loyal and moral human character. A key objective of this ‘New Life Movement’ was to create within the Chinese citizens an instinct for unified behavior which would make them willing to sacrifice for the nation at all times. The movement succeeded mostly in attacking antisocial behavior such as spitting, urinating in public and casual sex. Women in particular were harassed if they behaved or dressed in an immodest manner. They were urged to cultivate traditional virtues such as chastity and to focus on life inside the home and family.

Nanjing’s University, scene of student protests

At this time, Chiang Kai-shek also encouraged the formation of the Blueshirts – an organization run by Whampoa cadets, so named because they wore shirts of course blue cotton – designed to bring patriotic resolve to the military and civil leadership of China. Fiercely loyal to Chiang Kai-shek, the Blueshirts committed themselves to moral rectitude, eschewing gambling, whoring and gluttony of food and drink. The Blueshirts admired  Europe’s rising Fascism,  particularly Italy’s Mussolini. They ultimately were transformed into an elite Secret Service arm employed to investigate subversive forces within society, assassinate political rivals and dissidents, infiltrate labor organizations and gather general intelligence.

The Xi’an Kidnapping and the Second United Front

Zhang Xueliang

In December 1936, Chiang Kai-shek traveled to the Shaanxi provincial capital of Xi’an to discuss plans to launch a Sixth Encirclement and Suppression Campaign, which he hoped would finally bring an end to CCP resistance. At this meeting Zhang Xueliang, a northern warlord serving the KMT, took the lead in trying to convince Chiang to fight the Japanese instead of the communists. However, Chiang could not be diverted from his determination to wipe out the communists once and for all. On December 9th 1936 – the one-year anniversary of a student protest that had been crushed by Chiang – 10,000 students marched in Xi’an. They called for an end to China’s civil war and for a unified resistance to Japan who had now launched a full-scale invasion of the northern province of Suiyuan (now a part of Inner Mongolia) in late October and November 1936.

Chiang Kai-shek ordered Zhang Xueliang to put an end to the student demonstrations or he would command his troops to fire. However, instead of forcing the students to disperse, Zhang agreed to argue their case with Chiang. Furious, Chiang told Zhang to choose between that KMT and the students while at the same time issuing orders to launch the Sixth Encirclement Campaign. At 4:30am on the morning of the 12th December – the day that the mobilization orders were to be issued – troops from Zhang Xueliang’s Northeastern Army Division arrived at Chiang Kai-shek’s villa. Alerted only moments before the troops’ arrival, he escaped to a nearby cave but was easily tracked and kidnapped. Zhang Xueliang and his followers held him for a week, presenting to him a list of eight demands which essentially called for the end of civil war and for a united armed resistance against the Japanese.

Photo of the .

KMT members captured during the Xi’an Incident

Song Meiling took a lead in the effort to secure her husband’s release during the intense negotiations that followed. Zhou Enlai – who had served under Chiang at the Whampoa Military Academy – also bargained for Chiang Kai-shek’s freedom. Zhou said that if Chang would fight the Japanese, the CCP would join the KMT in a Second United Front. A telegram from Stalin had urged the communists to support such an alliance. The rise of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy combined with Japan’s growing militarism caused the Comintern to urge fledging national communist parties in all countries to form partnerships with leftists and anti-fascist groups to fight against these avowed enemies of Bolshevism and Marxism.

In the case of China, a second alliance with the KMT would have the added benefit of protecting Russia’s flank from Japanese aggression. Stalin also argued in the telegram that Zhang Xueliang lacked the authority to lead the KMT effort. Having agreed to join with China and to fight the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek returned with Zhang Xueliang to Nanjing where they were met by an ecstatic crowd of 400,000 Chinese citizens. At Nanjing, Zhang Xueliang was arrested for insubordination and placed under house arrest after his sentence of 10 years imprisonment was commuted.

What Happened Next

Japanese soldiers in Nanjing

In 1937 Japan launched a full scale invasion of China. By 1938 Japan had control of China’s Eastern Seaboard while the KMT retreated to the Western city of Chongqing after fighting horrific battles such as that for Nanjing. Yet, despite China’s huge military disadvantages, the Chinese turned what the Japanese military had assumed would be a three month campaign into a war of attrition lasting until 1945. The war pinned down 1.2 million of Japan’s 2.3 million overseas troops in the process.

The CCP benefitted from the Sino-Japanese War by expanding its territory, its army and its party membership. From their Yan’an Base, the communists waged a guerilla war which not only had some success against the Japanese, but also boosted their standing in the eyes of the Chinese people. It was during this time that the CCP developed and put into practice many of the social policies that were to form the crux of the CCP’s ruling philosophy once it assumed power in 1949.

The 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese war ended abruptly in 1945 after the Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. Despite its terrible toll, the war had real benefits for China: elevating it to Great Power status, winning it a place on the UN Security Council and ending the imperialists’ hated Policy of Extraterritoriality and the Unequal Treaties that had plagued China since the 19th century.



Chinese Civil War refugees in Shanghai (refugeesshanghai) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-ro-n0374

Modern Chinese History IV: Japanese Invasion and World War II 1937-1945



Chinese Army defending Marco Polo Bridge 1937

The Second United Front – that was to fight Japanese expansion in China – worried Japanese militarists who increasingly controlled Japanese domestic and foreign policy. They argued that Japan should strike against China before it became too strong. Conquering China was a first step in their plans to extend Japanese power throughout Asia. On July 7, 1937 the Japanese used a scuffle between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge as a pretext to launch an invasion of northern China. By 1938 Japan had taken control of China’s Eastern Seaboard while the Kuomintang or Nationalist Government (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the Western city of Chongqing after fighting horrific battles such as that for Nanjing.

International assistance to China was limited. After some initial loans from the Soviet Union and the West, China stood alone against Japanese aggression until the US entered the war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. China had little heavy industry – much of which was lost by 1938 – and no capacity to build planes or even trucks. Its arsenals were hampered by lack of supplies due to a Japanese naval blockade. The only supplies coming into China were overland, first over the Burma Road, and then via an air route over the Himalayas known as the Hump. Additionally, hyperinflation and the shifting allegiances of Chiang Kai-shek’s warlord allies plagued the KMT, undermining any effort at good governance and fueling corruption. Yet, despite China’s huge military disadvantage, the Chinese turned what the Japanese military had assumed would be a three month campaign into a war of attrition lasting until 1945. The war pinned down 1.2 million of Japan’s 2.3 million overseas troops in the process.

Mao Zedong in Yan’an

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) benefitted from the Sino-Japanese War by expanding its territory and by building the strength of its army and the membership of its party. From their Yan’an Base in Shaanxi province, the communists waged a guerilla war which not only had some success against the Japanese, but also boosted their standing in the eyes of the Chinese people. It was during this time that Mao Zedong consolidated his power and developed and put into practice many of the social policies that were to form the crux of the CCP’s ruling philosophy once it assumed power in 1949. A strict policy of anti-corruption, a fair regime of taxes and an assumption that both cadre and peasants alike would share in the work won great favor with the people in their territory. So did the honesty and efficiency of its governance, particularly when contrasted with the corruption endemic in the KMT. Indeed, the CCP’s growing popularity so alarmed the KMT that, by 1941, the two parties were again fighting each other, and the KMT sent 200,000 of its best troops to blockade the main communist base around Yan’an instead of using them against the Japanese.

Atomic cloud over Hiroshima

The 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese war ended abruptly in 1945 after the Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. Despite its terrible toll, the war had real benefits for China – elevating it to Great Power status, winning it a place on the UN Security Council and ending the imperialists’ hated Policy of Extraterritoriality and the Unequal Treaties that had plagued China since the 19th century. It also allowed the CCP – which had been almost eradicated during the Long March in 1937- to expand its military and membership strength to such an extent that the CCP won the ensuing 1945-1949 Civil War.

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the Japanese Invasion of China

Japanese cross the Marco Polo bridge 1937

Between 1932 and 1937, Japanese militarists began projecting themselves into national politics at the expense of the civilian government, breaking with the tradition that the military was to stay out of civilian affairs. The most extreme called for a military dictatorship, military oversight of the national budget, nationalization of war-needed industries, enlargement of the army and navy and territorial expansion in Asia and China. Already, by 1935, the Japanese militarists had encouraged an autonomous movement in the five northern Chinese provinces of Hopeh, Chahar, Suiyan, Shansi and Shantung under the aegis of the Eastern Hopeh Autonomous Council. When Tokyo refused the Kwantung Army’s subsequent request to move further into China, the Army acted independently.  Using a July 7, 1937 scuffle at the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing as a pretext, it launched a full-scale – although undeclared- invasion, beginning with the bombing of Wanping, close to the bridge. Chiang Kai-shek, who had opposed a war of resistance against the Japanese since 1931 in order to first defeat the Chinese communists, finally felt that had no choice but to fight back.

Baby survives Shanghai bombing

The Chinese military – crippled by lack of supplies – was to prove no match for the modern mechanized forces of the Japanese which were well equipped with excellent naval and air support. The Japanese advanced swiftly, following the railways southwards. By July 28, Beijing had fallen. Tientsin was lost two days later. On August 13th, the Japanese attacked Shanghai, with the plan to destroy China’s financial center and thus its economic capacity to wage war. Chiang Kai-shek defended the city with his crack 87th and 88th divisions which succeeded in pinning down the Japanese for three months, at a cost of 250,000 Chinese soldiers – almost 60% of Chiang’s best troops – compared to 40,000 Japanese. Despite their heroic fighting, Shanghai was eventually overwhelmed and the Chinese retreated westward.

The Japanese capture of Shanghai facilitated its establishment of a naval blockade, isolating almost the entire of China’s east coast from outside contact. With the Japanese now approaching its doorstep, the KMT government withdrew to the remote western city of Chongqing. Although protected by the rugged terrain and the narrow gorges of the Yangtze River, it was a poor position from which to direct a counterattack. Yet inadequate though it was, the KMT used its new base of resistance to tie the Japanese down in a long war of attrition, ending Japanese hopes to subjugate China within three months.

The Rape of Nanjing or the Nanjing Massacre

Chinese civilians to be buried alive, Nanjing Massacre

In December 1937, the Japanese followed retreating Chinese forces into Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital city. For six weeks thereafter, the Japanese committed a spree of mass murder and war rape that ranked among the most violent in modern warfare. During this period, as many as an 300,000 Chinese civilians, armed and disarmed soldiers were killed by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. Widespread burning and looting occurred and an estimated 20,000 women and girls were raped. The killing and rape was particularly horrific as it continued even after Nanjing was securely taken.

Some have argued that the brutal actions of the Japanese were in retaliation for the large loss of life that they had suffered when fighting for Shanghai; others have said that the Japanese were taught to consider all Chinese the enemy regardless of whether they were wearing a uniform. The Japanese also underwent training to desensitize them to violence before being sent to the front which may have made it easier for them to rape and kill indiscriminately. Several Japanese leaders of the atrocities were later prosecuted, convicted and executed at the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal and at the wide-ranging International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Yet the court findings and the massacre itself have been both denied and downplayed by some in Japan, including by prominent politicians. This continues to cause discord in Sino-Japanese relations today.

Breaking the Dikes of the Yellow River

Japanese advance despite broken Yellow River dikes

From Nanjing, the Japanese moved to take the northern city of Xuzhou in March 1938. The Chinese defended it valiantly at the cost of 30,000 Japanese lives, yet the city ultimately fell in May. In June 1938, in a desperate attempt to stall further Japanese advance, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the dikes of the Yellow River to be broken at Huayuankou, near Zhengzhou. The resulting flood – for which the Chinese civilian population was wholly unprepared – was one of the largest acts of environmental warfare in history.  Waters flooded into Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu. The floods – which permanently changed the course of the Yellow River, shifting the mouth of the Yellow River hundreds of miles to the south- covered and destroyed approximately 21,000 square miles of farmland and swamped an estimated 4,000 Chinese villages. At least 800,000 Chinese civilians were drowned, starved or died of ensuing diseases and several million villagers were forced from their homes and made refugees.

Despite the flooding, the Japanese attack on China continued. The Japanese military captured Canton on 21 October and Wuhan on December 25, 1938 after five months of fighting in the area. Wuhan would have likely fallen sooner if not for assistance of Russian pilots sent by Stalin. By the end of 1938, Japan controlled the entire east coast of China, cutting off KMT access to major industrial centers, to large areas of natural resources, to its most fertile farmland and to the outside world.

Japanese Puppet Regimes in China and Chinese Collaborators

Wang Jingwei ran Nanjing for the Japanese

The Japanese ran its conquered territory through an interconnected network of puppet regimes headed by Chinese collaborators such as Wang Jingwei, a close follower of Sun Yat-sen’s and a high-ranking member in the KMT. Wang was lured into working with the Japanese by its promotion of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and by Japan’s specific promise to return to China all concessions and leased territories, to abolish extraterritoriality and to fight Chinese communism.

In exchange, Japan asked China for its recognition of Manchukuo, for permission to station Japanese troops in China, preferred access to China’s natural resources, and consent for the Japanese to appoint cultural and educational advisors. Chiang Kai-shek condemned these Japanese proposals as nothing more than a concealed plan to annex China and expelled Wang from the KMT as a traitor.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese who did not wish to live under Japanese occupation migrated to the KMT area around Chongqing, often transporting key machinery and factory parts with them. Chongqing doubled in size during the first three months of KMT occupation. Others joined the Communist pocket in Yan’an.  This migration swelled CCP membership from an estimated 40,000 in 1937 to 800,000 in 1940.

KMT Administrative Challenges during the War

KMT government at Chongqing

Chiang Kai-shek faced many challenges both governing and organizing the war effort from his new Chongqing stronghold. China was again fragmented. While the KMT held a large area in the southwest of China, Japan occupied Manchukuo, the Inner Mongolian Federation, east-central China and Taiwan. The Communists held their Shaanxi base in northwest China while Muslim Xinjiang and Buddhist Tibet both reasserted their independence.

While Chiang Kai-shek was nominally the Chairman of both the Supreme National Defense Counsel and the Military Affairs Commission – confirming his position as head of the Army and Air Force – in reality he presided over a loose alliance of warlords who did not always obey KMT directives. This hampered efforts to coordinate the war effort and to create cohesive policies that could be applied consistently to the local governments under his rule. Incomes and tax revenues shrank while military expenses skyrocketed.

Chongqing civilian casualties during Japanese air raid

To finance its rapidly growing deficit, the KMT printed money, creating a destructive inflationary spiral within its territory. Corruption, extortion and food shortages became endemic. As inflation rose, Chiang Kai-shek was forced to collect its taxes in kind from the farmers either in rice, wheat, beans, maize, millet or cotton. On top of these in-kind taxes, grain “surcharges” were levied. The surcharges were to be paid back at fair market rates, yet delays and abuses were commonplace. KMT farmers were also responsible for the cost of grain transport to specified depots. These exorbitant and often unfair grain collections undermined popular support for the KMT government. As a result, confidence between officers and men and between soldiers and civilians eroded. As dissatisfaction with KMT leadership grew, so did KMT suppression in response.  As suppression increased, liberal-leaning Chinese looked to the Communists for new policies. As a result, KMT repression intensified further, becoming as indiscriminate as it was corrupt.

Complicating further KMT’s efforts at government was the fact that it had no real base of support in Chongqing. Furthermore, while the city’s isolation helped to safeguard it against Japanese invasion, it also meant that Chongqing was backward. It had little modern industry and only rudimentary administrative and financial structures aggravating the difficulties the KMT already faced by being cut off from its industrial, financial and resource-rich eastern regions. Additionally, large floods of refugees put huge strain on the city.

Large military casualties also undermined morale as did the 1939- 1941 Japanese aerial bombing campaign of the city, killing thousands of civilians. The initially high civilian losses were stopped only when the KMT finished a network of underground shelters buried into the rock beneath the city and when it created an early warning system where KMT sympathizers behind Japanese lines alerted the KMT when Japanese planes left their bases.

Limited Access to Aid

Burma Road

Adding to these difficulties was the fact that the Japanese blockade of China’s coast all but isolated China from access to international aid. Between 1937-1939 the Soviets granted to the KMT three loans totaling $450 million, supplied it with 1,000 planes and sent about 50 military advisers to China. During this same time, total Western aid to China amounted to $263 million, $120 million of which came from the Americans for nonmilitary purchases. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 caused Russian aid to China to dry up. To try and avoid the fighting and buy time, Russia signed the August 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Germany and the 1941 Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in which the Soviet recognized the territorial integrity of Manchukuo.

Initially, because of Japan’s successful naval blockade, China’s only access to foreign military supplies were those shipped overland via the Burma Road – opened in 1938 – and via rail links in Vietnam. In 1940 the British government gave into Japanese diplomatic pressure to close down the 715 mile Burma Road to supplies to China for three months. In June 1941 the rail link to Hanoi was cut after the Japanese put pressure on the French colonial authorities in Vietnam. By 1942 the Japanese invasion of Burma closed the Burma Road completely. At that point, China’s only access to foreign military supplies was those flown in by the Americans from airfields in India, over “the Himalayan Hump”.  While the Hump airlift was key to China remaining in the fight, nevertheless it was only able to provide the Chinese military with a small fraction of its military needs.

Flying Tiger maintenance on an airfield in China

Its aid situation improved significantly when the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 caused the US to enter the war. In 1941, the US began by sending volunteer American pilots to fly in combat against the Japanese and to train Chinese aircraft personnel. These “Flying Tigers” inflicted real damage to Japanese bombing runs on Chongqing. The US Congress also re-opened the aid spigot – passing a $630 million lend-lease supply deal in which military supplies were made available to China without the need for compensation as long as they were employed fighting against Japan. The US government also gave the KMT government a further $500 million loan. Lend-lease aid to China eventually reached $1.54 billion. In 1943, Washington gave China an additional $300 million for currency stabilization. In 1944, the Allies recaptured northern Burma. They built a new Burma Road – the Ledo Road – which was open for transport by January 1945.

The Communists and the Second United Front

Eighth Route Army

The Communists were also facing challenges governing their territory and working with the KMT. Chiang Kai-shek’s 1937 kidnapping forced Chiang into the Second United Front, again partnering with the Communists. Yet, the alliance was troubled from the outset. The Communists- increasingly under Mao Zedong’s leadership- promised to uphold Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles, to stop acts of sabotage against the KMT, to end the confiscation of rich peasant landholdings, to make its 30,000 man Red Army a unit of the KMT military under the name of “The 8th Route Army” and to organize its 10,000 soldiers located south of the Yangtze into the New Fourth Army. For a time, these reorganized armies received a portion of military supplies and financial support.

Yet, from the beginning, Mao’s viewed the Second Front as a way to protect the CCP from further KMT attacks. It was Mao’s objective to use the war as a vehicle to expand both the Red Army and the CCP to one million members each. Similarly, Chiang Kai-shek never stopped viewing the Communists as a “disease of the heart” – a threat more fatal to China than the Japanese “disease of the skin”; Chiang believed that the Communists would eventually need to be eradicated.

Leaders of the 8th Route Army

That said, at the beginning of the alliance, there were real examples of KMT-Communist cooperation. In September 1937, for instance, the Eighth Route Army supported by the Nationalist 14th Army fought off a Japanese attack on Shanxi province. The KMT gave the CCP 50 of the 200 seats of the newly formed People’s Political Council. It allowed the CCP to set up a bureau of joint communication in Xi’an located in-between the KMT’s base in Chongqing and the Communist strong-hold in Shaanxi, and to publish for a time the Communist New China Daily. The KMT  also permitted the CCP to transform their outlawed soviets into to KMT-approved border governments – one in the Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia area and the other in the Shanxi, Charhar and Hebei region.

Mao Zedong and the Yan’an Years

Mao Zedong in Yan’an

Having fought off leadership challenges and enjoying a temporary respite from KMT attack, Mao Zedong used the Yan’an years to adapt Marxist-Lenin principles to the unique conditions of the Chinese experience. In particular, Mao continued to believe that it was the peasant farmers and not the workers who would lead China’s communist revolution, and he worked hard to engage the peasants into fully participating in the political, economic and military organizations of the base areas. The poverty of the Shaanxi province helped these efforts as it made it easier to shift the peasants toward radicalism. Similarly, the Japanese invasion helped foment feelings of revolutionary nationalism. Mao discovered that by involving the peasants directly in the fight against the endemic problems of poverty and oppression, he not only developed their class consciousness, but he also helped the peasants to lose some of their traditional subservience. As there was no capital available for development, Mao increasingly relied on the mass mobilization of labor to achieve his infrastructure and other objectives.

Mao launched many major campaigns during the Yenan period which were to remain important governing themes when Mao won national power. One important theme was ensuring popular support for the military while maximizing its effectiveness and minimizing its bureaucracy. To this effect, Mao reduced the size of the standing army and its administration and increased the relative size of the guerilla forces. The CCP worked hard to make sure that the Red Army remained courteous to local farmers and village leaders, that it compensated locals for food and other supplies, and that it kept its distance from the village women. Thus respected, the local population proved invaluable in providing the communist with intelligence and logistical support that helped Mao coordinate effective guerilla attacks against the Japanese. Mao also augmented the number of its soldiers by forming alliances with the local militia as well as with secret societies such as the Red Spears.

Lei Feng did farm work, soldier of the

Red Army soldier doing farm work

Prevented from pursuing a policy of land transfer due to the stipulations of the Second United Front, the CCP instead instituted a program of rent, interest and tax reductions which made it less profitable for the rich to keep large land holdings and made it more possible for the poor to increase their farms to a profitable size. The CCP also encouraged farmers to join mutual aid cooperatives in which they pooled labor, tools and draft animals and formed producer cooperatives to purchase grain and advance credit.  Party cadres were encouraged to participate in both manual and managerial work. Mao was careful to make sure the peasant benefited from his programs instead of just adding to their work. Mao also made efforts to make all administrative units  and members of those units – whether they be civilian or military – self-sufficient in food and cotton. While self-reliance was never reached, by 1945, most communist units were meeting as much as 40% of their own needs.

As the communist villages within their territory often had poor communication links, party cadres were encouraged to take local initiative instead of relying on orders from above to find their direction. This independence encouraged leaders to be flexible and to study local conditions. Early on Mao realized that the CCP could only increase production if gains in peasant incomes were larger than the rise in their taxes. The peasants needed to feel that it was worth it to invest their surplus labor to better their own lives. The resulting efforts caused close bonds to form between the leaders and the people. This comradely was at the heart of the Yan’an experience, as was the poverty, frugality, and egalitarianism shared by all.

Yanan Shaanxi maoist city Meeting hall (with tourists)

Yan’an Meeting Hall were many self-criticism forums occurred

Mao reinforced these bonds by educational movements designed to teach peasants and party leaders alike about ways to achieve the socialist revolution; as the party had grown, Mao increasingly felt that a common framework of ideological reference was needed. These educational efforts included mass-line campaigns to further developing class-consciousness. The “Rectification Campaigns” celebrated labor heroes and vilified abusive landlords, creditors and corrupt officials. Refugees into Yan’an were categorically reminded of the imperatives of the socialist cause: intellectuals were sent to the villages to learn from the peasants as were some of the too numerous communists bureaucrats, causing them to lose status in the process.

Reluctant converts – or those who challenged Mao’s power- were singled out in mass self-criticism forums. These forums could include intense small-group discussions, criticism, self-criticism, repeated written confessions, brainwashing and physical abuse which at times resulted in death or suicide. Those who were socially unreliable – for example, adulteresses, opium addicts, and those who failed to make party meetings -were also subjected to self-criticism.  Mao also targeted those who had strong Soviet links; Mao increasingly viewed the Soviets as unreliable friends and wished to minimize Russian influence in CCP policy. In this way, a movement that began as an educational policy at times became a purge. As the movement spread, people’s records were increasingly scrutinized.

Mao Zedong at his desk 1938

The impact of Mao’s mass line soon began to curtail intellectual and artistic expression.  In speeches in 1942 Mao argued that the role of art and literature was to serve the revolution by inspiring the masses to transform their social and economic environment. Mao believed that the constraint of intellectual thought was essential to developing a tightly disciplined force which had absolute loyalty to the party. This narrow-mindedness and intolerance to dissent was to result in decisions which were to haunt the party in later decades.

During the Yan’an years, Mao devoted much of his time to theorizing and to writing communist and military strategy. It was to be one of the most creative and productive periods of his life. In one two year period, for instance, he wrote 200 pages on strategy, 165 pages on politics and 55 pages on philosophy. Titles of his works included: On the Protracted War, Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War; Problems of Strategy in the Guerrilla War against Japan, On the New Democracy and On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.

Hundred Regiments Campaign and the Japanese Policy of Three All

Japanese soldiers escorting Chinese farmers from their fields

Having consolidated local support and lacking the artillery to engage the Japanese directly, the CCP fought the Japanese with guerrilla tactics, much as they had the KMT. An exception was what has been called the Hundred Regiments Campaign in which an estimated 400,000 Eighth Route Army soldiers – broken into 105 regiments- fought the Japanese in North China in August 1940. An initial Chinese objective was the Chinese railway network the Japanese were using to transport troops. Although the CCP succeeded in destroying 1000 miles of road, 300 miles of track, 260 railway stations and scores of bridges and tunnels, its victories came at a great cost. The CCP was forced to conclude that it should not engage the Japanese Imperial Army directly.

Its return to guerrilla tactics caused the Japanese to adopt in December 1941 a policy of “The Three All” – “Kill all, Burn all, Destroy all”.  The brutal Three All policy was designed to undermine peasant support for the Communists. Those peasants who cooperated with the Japanese were moved to safe villages where they were given food; Communist or KMT collaborators were killed or starved, their homes demolished and their livestock slaughtered. The Three All campaign succeeded in reducing Communist territory and its population from one containing 45 million people to one containing 25 million. While many peasants were deterred from aiding the CCP as a result of the Three All Policy, for others the Three All only served to stiffen their resolve to resist the Japanese at all cost. The Three All Policy was a significant factor in increasing the Red Army to one million men by the end of the war and was another good example of Japanese brutality.

The New Fourth Army Incident and Renewed KMT-CCP Fighting

New Fourth Army troops on their way to the Northeast

Despite the CCP’s real successes in engaging the Japanese in North China, the KMT remained wary of signs of growing CCP strength. The KMT as particularly concerned that The New Fourth Army allowed the Communists a strategic presence in the Yangtze Delta. KMT generals tried to maneuver the New Fourth Army northward, but the Communists were reluctant to give up their Southern foothold. The two sides began engaging in an escalating series of skirmishes. During one key battle the CCP routed the KMT. By December 1940, Chiang Kai-Shek ordered the New Fourth Army to cross the Yangtze by January 31st, 1941, but then – accusing the New Fourth Army of mutiny – attacked their rearguard before the CCP could comply. Between January 7 and January 13, 1941, a pitched battle ensued, with the KMT killing 3,000 communists in an ambush and later executing and imprisoning many more.

The communists used the New Fourth Army Incident to great propaganda effect. It was also soon able to reestablish a guerrilla base south of the river. After the incident, the KMT begin an economic blockade on the CCP’s Yan’an base. It also ended financial support for the Eighth Route Army. The CCP-controlled areas soon faced serious shortages of both civilian and military supplies. The New Fourth Army Incident did not shatter the Second United Front, but it did caused both parties to increasingly position themselves in the event of civil war.

The Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor

USS Oglala after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor thus causing the US to enter WWII. Japan considered the U.S. Navy fleet a threat to its ambition to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under Japanese dominion. Japanese military leaders felt that if the US fleet’s operational mobility was not curtailed, the US Navy could not only threaten Japan’s blockade of China’s coast, but it could also make it difficult for Japan to consolidate its control over Vietnam and Burma. The US declaration of war against Japan improved China’s prospects immensely. Not only did the US send aid, but Roosevelt also appointed Gen. Joseph Stillwell as commander-in-chief of the American forces in the China-Burma-India theatre.

The flying Tigers were reorganized as a regular part of the 14th Air Force. China was also recognized, along with the Soviet Union and Britain, as one of the four great powers in the Allied war effort. Roosevelt justified this recognition by pointing out that China was pinning down almost half of Japanese military forces. In 1943 Roosevelt also got the Unequal Treaties repudiated. The Unequal Treaties were forced on China by Western powers after military defeats that took place during the Qing Dynasty. The treaties encroached on China’s sovereign rights, diminishing it to a semi-colonial status. Roosevelt also helped end the Western practice of extraterritoriality in China; China could now prosecute foreigners according to Chinese law.

Chiangs and General Joseph Stilwell

Initial enthusiasm regarding the US’s increased involvement in China’s war effort was hampered to some extent by the fact that Gen. Joseph “Vinager” Stillwell did not often see eye to eye with Chiang Kai-shek, and expressed his disagreement in an undiplomatic manner. Despite Stillwell’s good command of Chinese and his real affection for the Chinese people, he did not respect Chiang Kai-shek as a leader nor did he have much tolerance for Chiang Kai-shek’s commanding officers whom he found both corrupt and reluctant to fight.

He also abhorred the campaigns of conscription that the KMT were forced to employ in order to raise troops for its army. These campaigns necessitated on many occasions the need to manacle half-starved and maltreated men in order to get them to the front. Indeed, it is estimated that 1 in 10 Chinese soldiers died from disease and starvation before seeing any fighting. Stillwell also severely criticized Chiang Kai-shek’s policy of using large numbers of KMT troops to blockade the communists instead of using them to fight the Japanese.

Japanese soldiers with gas masks, Battle of Changsha, 1941

To the extent that the Chinese did fight – as they did when they launched training bombing raids on Thailand from their newly expanded network of airfields east of Chongqing in June 1944 – it was often against Stillwell’s advice. In retaliation, the Japanese launched operation Ichigo during which they successfully attacked first the railway line in Henan province, then the city of Changsha, then the newly expanded airbases. Despite Stillwell having been proven correct and despite the significant damage that Ichigo inflicted on both Chiang Kai-shek’s remaining forces  and the credibility of his leadership, by October 1944, Chiang Kai-shek succeeded in getting Stillwell removed from his Chinese command. He was replaced by Gen. Albert Wedemeyer.

Western Journalists in China during the War

Mao Zedong with foreign journalists in Yan’an

America’s involvement in the war and the existence of a communist China in Yan’an with its own territory, government, social policies and army attracted the attention of both foreign journalists and American military leaders. Journalists such as Edgar Snow, T.A. Bisson and Gunther Stein all drew sharp contrast between the corrupt KMT officials and their poorly managed territory, and the honesty and frugality of the communist leaders and their evident concern for the welfare of their people. Linking communists efforts to better the lives of its people with Western ideals of democratic progress, many reporters found Chinese communism to be in many respects a new form of agrarian democracy and began to distinguish it from Russian communism. Chaing Kai-shek unsurprisingly dismissed their findings as biased. Mao himself took umbrage with some of their reports, insisting that the Chinese communists were genuine Marxists just like the Russians.

The Dixie Mission

Dixie Mission commander Colonel David D. Barrett and Mao Zedong in Yan’an, 1944

After much lobbying with both the US State Department and a very reluctant Chiang Kai-shek, it was agreed to send an American military contingents to Yan’an in July and August 1944. Led by Col. David Barrett and named the Dixie Mission, Barrett’s objective was to evaluate ways that the communists could most effectively assist in the war effort. The Mission’s reconnaissance concluded that while the communists were excellent guerrilla fighters, they had no ability to fight the Japanese head on. The Mission also recognized efficiency and honesty with which the communists ruled.

During the Mission, Mao argued that the Americans must intervene to prevent a Chinese civil war between the KMT and the communists. Mao argued that Chiang Kai-shek would be dependent on American military support in order to wage war against the communists. Mao also argued that only the Americans could liberate China from Japan.

As a result of the Dixie Mission, high-ranking Americans  including Vice President Wallace, Chinese Ambassador Clarence Gauss and special emissary Patrick Hurley began arguing that the Communists were a permanent force in China. They also argued that the US might ultimately be backing the wrong horse by unilaterally supporting Chiang Kai-shek. Despite these arguments, the US government concluded from the Dixie Mission that it would continue to sustain Chiang Kai-shek as legal head of the Chinese government.

The Yalta Conference

Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill at Yalta 1945

Chiang Kai-shek’s mismanagement of the Ichigo battles as well as the management of his regime generally caused his influence to diminish with its allies. In February 1945 Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met at Yalta where they decided that Russia would enter the war in Asia three months after Germany’s defeat. Russia would be given back all territory lost to the Japanese including the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin. It would have access to the warm water ports of Dairen and Port Arthur, and would lease again the naval base at Lushun.

The city of Dalian would be “internationalized” and thus accessible to the Russians. Russia would also be given a stake in this Sino-Russian Railways in Manchuria. Finally the allies would lend their support to the newly formed Outer Mongolia as an independent country. The Yalta concessions came as a great blow to Chiang Kai-shek. Russia argued that without such concessions, it would be hard to justify war against Japan to the Soviet people.


Hiroshima after the bomb

In May 1945, Germany surrendered. On August 8, 1945 Russian forces moved into Manchukuo to attack the Japanese. On August 6 and August 9, the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By August 14, the Japanese surrendered. In the end, Russia achieved significant rights in Manchuria with very little effort. A Sino-Soviet  30 Year Treaty of Friendship and Alliance ensued in which Stalin offered China aid against future Japanese aggression and recognition of Chinese sovereignty in Manchuria in exchange for many of the concessions he had negotiated at Yalta.

The Consequences of the War

China, Britain and Japan sign documents of surrender 1945

The Sino-Japanese War and World War II caused far-reaching changes for China. The Unequal Treaties and the Policy of Extraterritoriality had been abolished as had China’s semi-colonial status. China replaced Japan as Asia’s leading power and it was given a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. European colonialism and influence in Asia was rapidly coming to an end as India, Burma, Indochina and Indonesia all began to call for independence. America, in contrast, was to become a rising force in Asia.

The KMT was exhausted by the war effort. By 1945 China had succeeded in pinning down over 1.2 million Japanese troops and consuming 35% of Japan’s total war expenditure. It had enlisted over 14 million Chinese soldiers, over 3 million of which were wounded and 1 million were killed. Its war debt exceeded $1.4 billion. Chiang Kai-shek’s government was in tatters. Deficit spending and money printing had led to devastating inflation which encouraged corruption, theft and extortion. Inflation, poor management, harsh conscription policies and battle fatigue had seriously undermined army morale.

The KMT’s excessive money printing led to high inflation

Inflation and war had also reduced much of the middle class to poverty and had destroyed countless civilian lives, embittering many. When rumblings of civil war began to be heard, few had heart left to meet the call.

The communists by contrast came out of the war stronger than before. By 1945, the communists in Yan’an had control over 1 million square kilometers of land populated by nearly 100,000,000 people. It had almost 1 million party members and members of its armed forces. As importantly, the communists had developed a reputation for honesty, for showing real concern for the Chinese people, and for efficient governance. Also, although the KMT bore the brunt of the Japanese invasion, the communists had won the public relations war. Their bravery in the face of Japanese aggression was held in high regard by the Chinese people. Indeed Mao later said that without the Japanese Invasion of China and the ensuing Second United Front, the communists would never have been able to gain the strength necessary to win the ensuing civil war.    

What happened next

Japanese surrender to Chinese troops 1945

After WWII ended, the US tried to shore up KMT strength by air-lifting KMT troops into position to accept Japanese surrender. The idea was to prevent the communists from taking command in as many areas as possible. The US also continued to provide Chiang Kai-Shek’s government with military and financial aid. Subsequently, US envoys such as General George Marshall worked to negotiate a power-sharing truce between the KMT and communists in the form of a democratic-oriented government with an elective assembly. Yet by January 1947, US mediation efforts proved futile, and the US withdrew from involvement in China. China rapidly descended into Civil War.


General Wedemeyer portrait (Albert_C._Wedemeyer)

Modern Chinese History V: The Chinese Civil War 1945-49



Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb

On August 6 and August 9 the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By August 14 the Japanese surrendered, bringing to an abrupt end the 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese War and WWII into which the Sino-Japanese War had been subsumed.  The Kuomintang (KMT) – also called the Nationalist Party – led by Chiang Kai-Shek was exhausted by the war effort. Inflation, poor management, harsh conscription policies and battle fatigue had also seriously undermined civilian support for his regime.

In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came out of the war stronger than before. After having been almost wiped out by the Long March in 1935, the communists in Yan’an led by Mao Zedong now controlled 1 million square kilometers of land populated by nearly 100 million people. The CCP also had almost a million party members and a million Red Army soldiers. As importantly, the communists had developed a reputation for honesty, for showing real concern for the Chinese people and for efficient governance.

General Wedemeyer, commander-in-chief of the American forces in the China-Burma-India theatre, warned Washington in 1945 that if peace came swiftly to China, there would be extensive disorder as the KMT had no national reconstruction plan. Moreover, Wedemeyer also told Washington that KMT authority would continue to be seriously challenged by growing communist strength, by a disillusioned populace, by chronic economic mismanagement and by continued alliances with self-interested warlords.

The communists had significantly increased CCP membership and support by the end of the war

After WWII ended, the US tried to shore up KMT strength by air-lifting KMT troops into position to accept Japanese surrender to prevent the CCP from taking command in as many areas as possible. The US also continued to provide Chiang Kai-Shek’s government with military and financial aid. US envoys such as General George Marshall also worked to negotiate a power-sharing truce between the KMT and Communists in the form of a democratic-oriented government with an elective assembly. Yet, as Marshall mediated to create real power sharing between the various Chinese political parties, China moved closer to all-out Civil War. By January 1947, the US disbanded its mediation liaisons and withdrew from involvement in China, much to the shock of Chiang Kai-shek who believed that the US would never abandon its country to communism. Chiang Kai-shek failed to believe that the US would be willing to replace China with Japan as the keystone of its East Asian policy.

In the early stages of the Civil War, the KMT seemed to have all the advantages. Not only did it out number the communists 2 ½-1 in terms of men and equipment, but it was also receiving military and financial support from the US. An early string of KMT victories between July and December 1946 seemed to bear this belief out. Indeed, in March 1947 the KMT  captured the Communist wartime base in Yan’an. However, abuse of power, crushing inflation, and poor military strategy soon turned the KMT advantage.

By mid-1947, the KMT military machine began to founder, while the Communist army continued to expand in numbers. Chiang Kai-shek’s initial string of victories soon turned to losses. Between September 1948 and January 1949 the KMT lost 1.5 million men to death, injury, desertion and surrender.  Faced with such overwhelming troop losses, the KMT defence collapsed in mid-1949. On October 1, 1949 Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile what remained of the KMT government retreated to Taiwan, taking with them huge quantities of dynastic art and most of the nation’s supply of gold and silver.

The End of the Sino-Japanese War

Americans airlifting troops in China

After the Japanese defeat, the US supported Chiang Kai-shek by airlifting close to a half million of Chiang Kai-shek’s troops to key cities in order to accept Japanese surrender in advance of the Communists. It also placed 50,000 American marines in the key ports and communication centers to await the arrival KMT troops. The scale of the surrender was immense and took months. Over 1.25 million Japanese soldiers, 900,000 and 1.75 million Japanese civilians had to be disarmed and transported from the country.

For its part, the CCP ordered its troops to seize as many Japanese-occupied towns, cities and communication centers as possible, receiving their surrender and their military supplies. Communists efforts were not supported by the Americans and were strongly opposed by the KMT. Indeed, often the Japanese were instructed to continue to fight the CCP until the KMT could move into position. In Manchuria, Chiang Kai-shek asked Stalin to hold the province until the KMT could assume control. Yet, the CCP were well positioned geographically in the north, especially for Manchuria. Not only was Manchuria relatively close to their northern Shaanxi base, but it also had an active underground communist movement that rapidly resurfaced. Despite being ravaged by years of fighting, Manchuria remained a good prize. It was rich in resources, and had a developed industrial base, large cities, good food stores and a hilly and forested topography that would allow protection for communist guerrilla forces.

Chinese communist troops head north to Manchuria

On August 11, 1945, CCP leader Lin Biao led a 100,000 man army along the Beijing-Mukden Railway into Manchuria. They joined up with 150,000 People’s Self-Defense fighters organized by the re-surfacing Manchurian communists. Many of the People’s Self-Defense fighters were either native Manchurian or Koreans who had fled during the Japanese invasion of their country. In the weeks after the Japanese surrender, the CCP extended their territory from 116 to 175 counties. The communists fighters also successfully secured the industrial city of Harbin with a population of almost 800,000 people, giving it its first urban base since the Northern Expedition.

Their efforts were helped by the Soviets who – when not busy stripping Manchuria of food, gold and equipment – allowed the communists to take hold of large arms and ammunition stores. Yet the Soviets did not set up the CCP to takeover Manchuria. Instead, Stalin insisted that the communists negotiate with the KMT to form a coalition government. Despite Stalin’s ideological proclamations of international communist revolutions, Stalin’s real-politic objective was to keep China weak so it could be used as a platform to expand Russian influence in East Asia.

KMT troops significantly outnumbered the Red Army at the start of the war

Despite CCP success in Manchuria, overall the KMT was better positioned by the time the dust settled after the Japanese surrender. The government had retaken control of almost all important cities in communication centers in central, east and southern China. The KMT had a men and materials superiority of 2 ½ – 1, the support of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, as well as the backing of the US – the most powerful country in the world. Because of what he believed to be his overwhelming advantages and because Chiang was confident he could now destroy the communists once and for all, Chiang made the ill-fated decision to send almost a half million troops of his best troops to Manchuria despite American advice that he should first consolidate his control south of the Great Wall.

Communists in Manchuria

Minakai Dept. store of Hsinking Manchukuo

The communists put high taxes on luxury goods such as those sold in the Minakai Department store located in Hsingking, the Japanese capital of Manchukuo

The CCP’s control of industrial city of Harbin marked the first time since the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 that the Communists had a large base in an urban environment. Their experiences there were to prove important once the Civil War began to expand communist power southward. To facilitate the task of urban government, the CCP divided the city into six districts which were further divided into 58 street governments each overseeing a population of approximately 14,000 citizens. Once in control, the CCP launched registration campaigns, arrested thieves and other “destructive elements”, organized citizens into self-policing organizations, and employed urban workers to assist the PLA in transporting goods and wounded soldiers from the various fronts.

The CCP also worked conscientiously to restore order to the economy. They kept prices low for fuel, grain and cooking oil, but instituted more punitive taxes for tobacco, cosmetics and luxury goods. They also taxed businesses. Additionally, they launched a so-called Voluntary Contribution Campaign; using mass media, public meetings and coercion, the CCP succeeded in raising an additional 200 million yuan to fund its fighting. Once again, CCP economic and government policies contrasted sharply with KMT practices in Manchuria.

The KMT formed alliances with hated Japanese collaborators or had their cronies displace local officials. The new KMT leaders would then often use their new posts for self-enrichment. Rocketing military expenses and economic mismanagement again forced the KMT to print money, fueling inflation, despite the KMT’s efforts to isolate Manchuria from China’s national surging inflation by introducing its own Manchurian currency.

KMT’s failure to meet Governing Challenges After the War

KMT in-fighting over the return of property confiscated by the Japanese such as the Manchurian Coal Company hurt economic recovery

Despite American assistance at the beginning of the war, the KMT quickly started to fritter away their authority. To begin with, the KMT were militarily, financially and spiritually exhausted. This exhaustion gave them little bandwidth to tackle the corruption and economic mismanagement that had plagued the party throughout its time in power. They also undermined their popular support by forming alliances with dodgy warlords, including many known Japanese collaborators. Even when anti-Japanese collaborator regulations were implemented in September 1946, loopholes allowed many to escape punishment and receive appointments, much to the outrage of the Chinese public. Abuse of power and scandal became widespread, often relating to the return of property confiscated by the Japanese during their Chinese occupation. Disputes forced factories and business premises to remain closed longer than had been promised, throwing people out of work and further weakening local economies already ravaged by war and inflation. Unemployment rose. A reduction in defense spending and some demobilization increased unemployment figures further.

Equally corrosive was Chiang Kai-shek’s poor management of the national currency and the money supply. During the war, exchange rates and even currency varied by region. Many of the Japanese-puppet regimes had issued their own money. After the war, currency speculation became rife.

Excessive KMT printing of money led to economic chaos and high inflation

Making matters worse was the persistent budget deficit. This meant that the KMT were constantly short of money. The knee-jerk response to this shortage was to print banknotes which resulted in catastrophic inflation. Wholesale prices, for instance, increased 30% per month from 1945-1948. Anyone on the fixed salary was hit hard. Soaring inflation destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of millions of Chinese. Industrial workers, for instance, had their purchasing power sharply eroded. They began to strike in protest, encouraged by underground Communists who again began to infiltrate workers’ unions. The KMT tried hard to negotiate with workers in order to avoid more conflict, offering, for instance, wage rates based on 1936 pay scales which were then multiplied by a current cost of living index; this, in turn, displeased employers who felt that the higher wages eroded Chinese competitiveness.

When the new wage scheme proved ineffective, the KMT instituted price and wage ceilings, setting prices for rice, flour, cotton, cloth, fuel, salt, sugar and edible oil and locking wages into the January 1947 cost of living index. These controls had some effect through March 1947, but hoarding, inadequate enforcement and distribution problems eventually caused inflation to return. By May 1947, the price and wage ceilings were abandoned. Even a July 1947 American plan to distribute food and fuel at low prices through the Central Bank of China did little to halt inflation’s rise. In a last-ditch and ultimately unsuccessful attempt, the KMT issued ration cards for staple foods to urban citizens.

Facing an increasingly serious crisis which was quickly wearing away their power base, in July 1948 Chiang Kai-shek and his financial advisor T.V. Soong decided to introduce a gold yuan, abandoning its current currency. Soong and his other financial advisors warned Chiang Kai-shek that the currency would not hold unless the deficit was dramatically reduced, which in turn would mean that military spending would have to be cut. They had also hoped to support the new currency with loans from the US which they were unable to secure after Truman was re-elected in 1948.

Demoralized KMT troops had little desire to fight their own countrymen

In order to increase confidence in the gold yuan, the KMT committed to printing a maximum of 2 billion yuan worth of notes. To support the currency further, wage and price increases were banned as were strikes and demonstrations. Sales taxes were increased to raise more revenue. All gold and silver bullion held by Chinese citizens were to be turned over to the banks (although many were reluctant to comply.) Yet, despite the KMT’s efforts, the gold yuan also failed. By October 1948 inflation returned, along with shortages of food, goods and medical supplies. Barter began to flourish in the absence of functioning monetary system.

KMT soldiers too were battle-weary. Patriotism and the ever-growing prospect of victory gave the KMT troops the energy they needed to fight to the end of the Sino-Japanese war. Relieved, proud, the often-gang pressed troops now wanted to return home for a much looked-for rest. They had no desire to launch into a Civil War to fight against their own people. They especially had no desire to be sent to Manchuria where the local population and the terrain was unfriendly and unfamiliar.

Failed Marshall Mission

Ambassador Hurley encouraged a reluctant Mao to negotiate with the KMT 1945

Despite the KMT’s economic and military challenges, Chiang Kai-shek proceeded with plans to destroy the communists once and for all while the Americans worked actively to create a KMT-CCP power-sharing truce that would avoid civil war and that would install some form of a democratic-oriented government which shared power through an elective assembly. In August 1945, Ambassador Hurley accompanied a reluctant Mao Zedong from Yan’an to Chongqing to negotiate with Chiang Kai-shek. Despite the KMT’s apparent strength, Mao Zedong was confident that the CCP would eventually control a large area north of lower Yangtze and Huai Rivers, yet he also believed that securing the territory would take time.

Given that he was outnumbered both in men and arms, Mao adopted a flexible and constructive negotiating position during the talks in order to buy the communists time. These initial talks lasted until October 10 and resulted in the publication of what seemed to be a collaborative set of tenets including the need for: political democracy, freedom of religion, speech, assembly, publication and person, an integrated military, and equal legal status for all political parties. A People’s Congress or National Assembly was to be called.

Yet undermining these public agreements was the fact that Chiang Kai-shek intended to a reassert KMT control over the entire country where, at the very least, Mao and the communists intended to hold on to the territory currently under its control. Given this, much of their promises were to prove empty including the agreement to integrate their military forces. While the CCP did pull their troops out of southern China, they consolidated their hold over their territories in the north. In November 1945, the KMT attacked the CCP in the north. Zhou Enlai, who had remained in Chongqing to continue negotiations, returned to Yan’an and Ambassador Hurley unexpectedly resigned.

Mao Zedong and U.S. General George Marshall in China, 1946

Truman sent General George Marshall to negotiate a power sharing arrangement between the CCP and the KMT

Still earnest in his desire to lead China onto a peaceful and democratic course, Truman sent General George Marshall as his envoy in December 1945. Marshall achieved a cease fire in January 1946, and got Chiang Kai-shek to agree to convene the People’s Congress as had been agreed during the August-October 1945 talks. Thirty-eight delegates, representing all of Chinese various political parties, assembled in Nanjing between January 11 and January 21 where they appeared to reach accord on the framework of a constitutional government, of a unified military command and of a national assembly. Yet despite these accords, military clashes between the KMT and the CCP recommenced.

Buoyed by a string of military victories, in July 1946 Chiang Kai-shek convened his own National Assembly in open disregard to the original agreement that no such Assembly should be called until all political parties first formed a coalition government. The CCP and the Democratic League boycotted the illegal assembly in protest. In a move reminiscent of Yuan Shikai’s efforts to take control of the National Assembly in 1914, Chiang Kai-shek proceeded without multi-party support, drafting a constitution that would cement his control of power.

Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek toast each other 1946

In June 1946, General Marshall again got the KMT and the CCP to call a halt to their fighting – particularly heavy in Manchuria – and to return to the negotiating table. He pressed both sides to reopen the railways which were a key to the country’s distribution system. Yet, even as these discussions were occurring, the KMT was organizing a second assault on CCP positions in Manchuria to be launched in July. The CCP, in turn, were hardening their position. They refused joint military leadership, declined to give up any territory that they controlled and refused to have dictated to them which policies they could implement within the territory that they governed.  The CCP were also increasingly suspicious of American intentions. In their base areas, they began to voice anti-American propaganda about how the Imperial Americans were once again interfering in Chinese politics. In July 1946, the communists attacked an American supply convoy, killing four American Marines and wounding a dozen others.

In the face of renewed fighting, President Truman told General Marshall that the Americans would not support China if it dissolved into Civil War. He also re-articulated this in an August 10, 1946 letter to Chiang Kai-shek. Truman warned Chiang that if his positions did not become more flexible, American support would end. He encouraged Chiang to “outflank” the CCP through economic and social reforms instead of trying to crush them militarily. Yet, the KMT had always drawn its power from urban centers and from their business elite. It still paid little attentions to agrarian problems and remained largely unsympathetic to the peasants’ plight even though the peasants represented the overwhelming majority of the Chinese citizens. Chiang thus failed to recognize the revolutionary potential of the peasant masses. He never made any efforts to organize them for himself or to neutralize them with land and social reforms. Instead, for the most part, he continued policies that forced them into submission when the need arose, without ever considering what was making peasants revolt in the first place.

Chinese Peasants became radicalized due to KMT neglect of their conditions

Chiang Kai-shek also believed that the United States would never let China fall to the communists.  It was true that the United States wanted to establish a new balance of power in the Pacific and East Asia in which it could play a dominant role. Such a policy required a strong alliance with either China or Japan. That said, the US’s first priority was to rebuild Europe. Because of this, it wished to achieve its East Asian goals as inexpensively as possible. As China began to spiral into Civil War, the US began to look to Japan as a better and cheaper option on which to build its East Asian strategy.

By January 1947 Truman reached the conclusion that the KMT and the CCP were determined to fight it out. Truman had no intention of embroiling US troops in a Chinese civil conflict. US mediators were recalled. When Truman stole the election from Dewey in 1948, it was the nail that sealed the end of significant US engagement in China. The KMT had carefully cultivated relations with the Republican Dewey who had said that, if elected, he would extend massive aid to the Chinese. Truman showed no such inclination. After his election, he twice turned down KMT requests for aid in November and December 1948.

Land and other Reforms in Communist-held Areas

The CCP began implementing land redistribution in the territory under its control

While American-led negotiations were occurring through 1947, the communist leaders moved from a land reform policy based on rent reductions and graduated taxes to a more aggressive policy of land redistribution and the eradication of tenancy in the areas that they controlled.  The CCP were particularly active in launching this land reform policy in its original war-time base of Shaanxi, northern Jiangsu, and parts of Hebei and Shandong. The Communists efforts were most successful in areas ravaged by Japan’s Three All Policy as well as those provinces destroyed when Chiang Kai-shek broke the dikes of the Yellow River. In these areas, the Communist message of a new, fairer social order resonated with peasants mired in poverty. Also, years of fighting had weakened the peasants’ traditional social loyalties such as those to their lineage and religious associations. Often now, their villages and provinces were commanded by appointed officials whom the villagers considered nothing more than bullies and bandits.

Mass peasant engagement and violence became elemental to the land reform process. Mass meetings were used to unleash the anger of peasants against their wealthy landlords. These landlords were then subjected to public humiliation, beatings and even death while the peasants confiscated their land and often their food and wealth. Some of the land redistribution was temporarily reversed when KMT troops recaptured territory. Where landlord power was restored, the KMT and landlords retaliated harshly.

The Battle for the Nation Intensifies

Communist troops in the Battle of Siping

With land and other reforms in communist controlled areas now set in motion, Lin Biao began to transform the PLA into a conventional fighting force, moving away from the guerrilla tactics that had been the communist modus operandi up until now. On May 1, 1946 the CCP renamed the Eight Route Army and the New Fourth Army the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (“PLA”). Lin Biao employed his new methods successfully by repulsing a KMT attack on Harbin. Then, in November 1946 he crossed the frozen Sungari River and attacked KMT troops in their winter base. Lin Biao continued to strike across the river throughout their early months of 1947, and then in May 1947, he launched a massive attack on the railway junction of Siping with 400,000 troops.

Defeated by the KMT who were backed by air power, Lin reorganized his forces and then surrounded and isolated several key Nationalist-held Manchurian cities by cutting off rail access which was a major line of supply. The KMT’s fighting spirit eroded. In particular, KMT troops were demotivated by the disparity between their poor pay and that of the officers’ who often used their positions for self-enrichment. KMT troops in Manchuria were quickly adopting a siege mentality, digging in behind defensive lines instead of trying to proactively attack the CCP whose troops were buoyed by many native Manchurians who felt they were fighting for their homeland. This effectively allowed the CCP complete control of the Manchurian countryside. By May 1948, the position of Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in Manchuria was turning increasingly desperate. This was all the more important because Chiang had concentrated many of his best troops there, without having first consolidating military and civil control of the South. The KMT strongholds of Changchun and Mukden could now only be supplied by air.

KMT soldiers with straw shoes – poor equipment and corrupt KMT military leaders led to high desertion rates toward the end of the Civil War

Yet Chiang Kai-shek had too much invested in Manchuria to listen to his military advisors who proposed that he pull back behind the Great Wall in order to regroup his forces. Louyang was captured by the Communist in April 1948, cutting Xi’an off from the East. Subsequent CCP victories in Shandong isolated 100,000 KMT troops in Jinan. Under a separate assault in March 1948, the Communist led by Peng Dehuai recaptured their wartime base of Yan’an which had been taken by Chiang Kai-shek in March 1947.

At the city of Kaifeng on the Yellow River – which protected the key railway junction of Kaifeng – the communists pitted 200,000  season troops against about 300,000 KMT fighters. The CCP succeeded in holding Kaifeng for a week before being forced to retreat. Yet the victory cost the KMT lost 90,000 men. By October 1948, the city of Jinan fell to the CCP due in part to KMT troop desertion and to communist underground activity. This meant that Chiang Kai-shek now lost its last base in Shandong. Also in October 1948, Lin Biao succeeded in capturing both Mukden and Changchun, thus causing the desertion, surrender or elimination 400,000 of Chiang Kai-shek’s best troops.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Leadership Challenged

Student protests

Chiang Kai-shek had been re-elected president in the spring 1948 by the National Assembly which had been boycotted by the CCP and the Democratic League. Yet continued economic, civil and military mismanagement was eroding his popularity. His support suffered further when in July 1948 government forces killed 14 and wounded over 100 students who had fled fighting in Manchuria and who were now living as refugees in Beijing. The students were shot when marching to protest their inadequate subsistence allowance which often forced them to beg in order to eat. On January 21, 1949, Chiang Kai-shek resigned as president, although he remained head of the Kuomintang Political Party. Chiang Kai-shek was replaced with Li Zongren.

The Final Communist Push

Peasants carting supply for communists

Having lost Shangdong, the KMT tried to regroup to defend northern China, or if that failed, the center of the country. In late 1948, Zhu De, Commander-in-Chief of all CCP forces, launched a successful 600,000 troop assault on the railway junction of Xuzhou against an equal number of KMT soldiers. In the 65 day battle that followed, the communists showed new skill with conventional warfare by outwitting the KMT generals who suffered from conflicting commands from Chiang Kai-shek and from heavy troop desertions. Deng Xiaoping orchestrated the communists’ logistical support by mobilizing 2 million peasants over four different provinces. Over the same period, Lin Biao captured Tianjin in January 1949. He then moved on to Beijing, convincing the KMT general to surrender. The KMT had lost the north of China.

The capture of so many large northern cities threw the communists into urban government as never before. Mao Zedong recognized this in March 1949 when he gave a report stating that the focus of communist efforts would begin to shift from the countryside into the cities while the PLA moved southward on its conquest of the country. In practical terms, their experience in Harbin was to prove invaluable. So was their initial decision to disrupt as little as possible the property and livelihoods of the people in the cities that they captured. To this effect, Chinese businesses were protected, urban property did not change hands, and factories were guarded from looting.

People’s Liberation Army enters Beijing

The PLA continued to maintain strict discipline in all the areas into which it moved. A people’s currency- the renminbi – soon replaced the KMT yuan. To try to prevent monetary chaos, only a short window was provided in which the yuan could be exchanged for the renminbi. Thereafter, any exchange in gold, silver or foreign currency was prohibited. Additionally, labor unions were not allowed to strike. Refugees were fed and repatriated when possible. Educational institutions continued to teach. Stockpiles of food were used by the government to stabilize food prices during times of shortage.

The KMT plan for a Final Retreat

Taipei Branch of the Bureau of Monopoly, was occupied by angry crowd Tawain 1947

Taipei Bureau of Monopoly occupied by angry crowd Taiwan 1947

By early 1949 the KMT was making contingency plans in the event of the once unthinkable- that communists could win control of the country. In 1945 China had reclaimed Taiwan from the Japanese who had ruled the island as a colony since 1895. When the KMT reinstalled a Chinese government in Japan after the war, the same patterns of KMT corruption and disregard continued. The KMT quickly alienated the local population. Taiwanese discontent came to a head in 1947 when Chinese troops fired into a group of Taiwanese gathered to protest the shooting of a woman selling cigarettes in contravention to a government monopoly. Over the following weeks, the KMT continued to treat the situation heavy-handedly by arresting and executing thousands of Taiwanese intellectuals and civilian leaders. It eventually imposed Martial Law in order to control the population.

Li Zongren

By January 1949, the KMT began transporting to Taiwan thousands of crates of Qing Dynasty archives as well as a huge collection of China’s dynastic art taken from the Imperial Palace collection. Chiang Kai-shek also began to steadily build up on the island a force of over 300,000 soldiers personally loyal to him.

Li Zongren, the new KMT president, tried to prevent this final retreat by getting Mao Zedong to compromise on his conditions for KMT surrender. These conditions included provisions such as a complete reform of the land tenure system and the reorganization of KMT armies under communist command that were completely unacceptable to the KMT. By April 1949, the Communists gave President Li an ultimatum to accede to their conditions within five days or the communists would attack anew.

Nanjing fell on April 23 without resistance. Hangzhou and Wuhan were lost shortly thereafter. Shanghai was taken in May 1949. Xi’an, Lanzhou and Changsha were taken by August 1949. By September the KMT had lost Xinjiang, Suiyuan and Ningxia. By October the KMT surrendered Canton and Xiamen – the last port from which to retreat to Taiwan. By November 1949 Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime base of Chongqing was claimed as communist territory.

The People’s  Republic of China


Mao Zedong founding People’s Republic of China October 1, 1949

Anticipating victory Mao Zedong convened a Political Consultative Conference in Beijing in late September 1949. The conference was dominated by the CCP while also including representatives from 14 other political parties. At a subsequent ceremony on October 1, 1949, standing atop the main entrance of the Ming and Qing Imperial Palace, Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China.



Modern Chinese History VI: Creating a Communist Mindset 1949-1957



Mao proclaiming the founding of the PRC

Mao proclaiming the Founding of the PRC

On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stating, “China has stood up!” The PRC was recognized by the Soviet Union on October 2nd and by other Communist countries shortly thereafter. The PRC was also recognized by India, Burma, Pakistan, Ceylon, Britain and France, but not recognized by the United States until January 1979. Instead, during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the US considered that the Taiwanese government – led by Chiang Kai-shek and members of the Guomindang (KMT) which had retreated to Taiwan after it had lost the Chinese Civil War – to be China’s legitimate government.

To stand up to the world was no easy task for China in 1949. The China that Mao inherited lay largely in ruins. Industrial production was 44% below what it had been in 1937. Agricultural output hovered at subsistence level with many Chinese citizens facing starvation. Inflation was rampant. Much of the railway and transport networks had been damaged or destroyed during the fighting. Many industrial and other professionals fled with the KMT. These professionals took with them physical, financial and intellectual assets as well as a significant collection of art. Additionally, China’s military capacity was weak, outmatched by rival powers.

Much of China was in Ruins after the Civil War

Much of China was in Ruins after the Civil War

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) party was not well prepared to deal with these challenges. To begin with, the CCP had only 4.3 million members in 1949 – less than 1% of the total population- leaving it with a shortage of reliable officials that could take over the reins of government. A recruitment drive was launched to compensate, and CCP membership grew by 3 million people between 1949 and 1952, but many of these new recruits lacked experience in the responsibilities they were asked to take on. Additionally, the CCP had operated outside of urban environments during most of its existence. Now it planned to make the industrial proletariat the center of its new social order, despite the proletariat consisting of only 5% of China’s 600 million citizens. The peasants – who were at the heart of the CCP’s power base and had been central to the CCP winning the Civil War – were now given a subsidiary role in new China. It was to be the peasants’ job to feed China’s industrial workers and to create grain surpluses that could be used to pay for machinery imported from the Soviet Union.

These challenges notwithstanding, great strides were made on many fronts in the early years of the PRC. The CCP stabilized China’s economy, controlled inflation and re-ignited economic growth. Basic hygiene policies reduced the mortality rate. Land and marriage reform improved the quality of life for millions of Chinese citizens. The last vestiges of foreign imperialism were eradicated. China reasserted political control over Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang which had been enjoying greater independence during China’s decades of war. The PRC also successfully invaded and also re-absorbed Tibet. The PRC fought the US and UN troops to a standstill during the Korean War, greatly increasing China’s prestige abroad and his authority domestically.

Political Organization

Mao first focused on stabilizing China’s industry

The First People’s Congress 1954

As the CCP took political control of country in 1949, it initially worked to gain allegiance from non-communists political, religious and intellectual leaders who were not directly affiliated with the defeated KMT. To this effect, Mao organized the Chinese People’s Political Consultant Conference (CPPCC) which included CCP as well as non-Communist minority parties, members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), ethnic minorities and overseas Chinese. The CPPCC passed the Organic Law and the Common Program. The Organic Law became the temporary constitutional basis for the new government. The Common Program made clear many of the policies that the CCP intended to implement. One such policy established equal rights for women, including the freedom to divorce and to choose whom they married.

Mao Zedong was elected chairman of the provisional government and remained as Chairman of the CCP. All important leadership positions in the new regime were given to CCP members, although lesser positions were bestowed on minority party members who had been supportive of the CCP during the Civil War. The government’s political and economic framework reflected the principles that Mao Zedong championed in his New Democracy writings in which he laid out that new China would be built on a Marxist societal structure and economy. Going forward, China’s economy would be led by a state-owned industrial sector supported by collectivized agriculture and a smaller private sector.

Mao and Zho Enlai at the 1954 National People’s Congress

Mao and Zho Enlai at the 1954 National People’s Congress

By 1954, the provisional government had been formalized, and the Constitution was approved by the first National People’s Congress. The Constitution tightened the CCP’s hold on power by stating in Article I that the PRC would be led by the CCP and not by a coalition government as had been suggested during the CPPCC. The new government was to be led by the National People’s Congress (NPC) whose communist delegates would come from each of China’s provinces, autonomous regions, and independent municipalities. It was the NPC’s job to enact legislation, rule on economic plans and amend the Constitution. When the NPC was not in session, the government’s Standing Committee exercised the NPC’s functions. Underneath the NPC was the State Council to which reported China’s various ministries, including the army which was placed under the newly formed Ministry of Defense. Regional People’s Congresses were also created at the provincial and local levels. Although the 1954 Constitution made reference to elections, in fact, the CCP nominated all candidates. It was expected that those elected would strictly follow CCP policies.

Stabilizing Inflation and the Economy

Chinese Workers rebuilding rail line 1950

Chinese Workers rebuilding a rail line in 1950

At the same time as it was creating a governing political structure, the CCP was also working to stabilize the economy. A first task was to bring inflation under control. To do this, the CCP created a people’s currency – the renminbi (literally “people’s currency”)– which replaced the KMT’s yuan. Only a short time was allowed for the yuan to be exchanged for the renminbi. Thereafter, any exchange in gold, silver or foreign currency was prohibited. The CCP kept firm control of the bank notes in circulation. It also guaranteed that savings and wages were tied to a basket of goods including food staples, cloth, coal, and cooking oils, thus guaranteeing the purchasing power of wages regardless of their monetary value. These policies succeeded in reducing annual inflation to 2% or below between 1952 and 1957.

The CCP also went to a long way to balancing the budget by raising taxes on urban dwellers and by aggressively cutting government and military spending. It invested little, for instance, in public health. Health spending never increased above 2.6% of the state budget through 1956. That said, vaccination campaigns and the implementation of basic hygiene, disease and pest control measures led to a real drop in China’s mortality rate. From 1950 onward, China’s population began to expand rapidly. Mao encouraged this population growth as he felt that a large population was a competitive advantage.

Initially at least, the CCP’s first rule in solidifying industrial production was to do no harm. It allowed private urban industry to continue and the CCP worked hard to stop factory closures, to prevent production disruptions due to shortages, and to keep urban unemployment from rising. Workers were told not to strike regardless of their complaints.

Creating a Communist Mindset

Chinese Communist Propaganda Poster

Chinese Communist Propaganda Poster

Integral to creating a new political framework and righting the economy was the implementation of Communism in China. For Mao, China’s Communism was to be more than just a new political, economic and social structure. Mao also wanted to change Chinese thinking so that the masses were engaged not just with their actions but also with their hearts and thoughts. Mao’s idea was to initiate campaigns to expose those who were not fully behind the Communist movement. Those so exposed could then be won over or neutralized. The mass quality of the campaigns had the effect of making everyone complicit in the Party’s actions, especially when the actions led to execution, humiliation and torture. Mao believed that the blood of the revolution should drip from everyone’s hands.

To effectively execute these campaigns, the CCP created a complete monopoly over all communication outlets. It also began to organize China’s entire population into various mass organizations over which the government could then exercise control. Examples of mass organizations established by 1953 included the 18 million members All China Federation of Democratic Youth, the 76 million member All China Democratic Women’s Federation, and the 20 million member Young Pioneers. Eventually, urban workers were collected into danwei (working units) which provided housing, shops, schools and recreational facilities in self-contained communities, and peasants were brought together in large collectives.

Once within these organizations, Chinese citizens were encouraged to attend regular political meetings and to study communist teachings. The teaching stressed the need for loyalty to the Communist Revolution over loyalty to family and friends. Citizens were encouraged to report individuals who were not good communists. Struggle sessions were then held against them.

Mass Political Rallies were mandatory

Mass Political Rallies were mandatory

For more recalcitrant cases, reluctant communists often underwent an indoctrination process that could last up to a year. Usually, indoctrination started with individuals being removed from their friends and family and being cut off from contact with the outside world. Recalcitrant citizens were split into small groups and lodged in often ramshackle conditions. For the first few months recalcitrants were worked long hours so that fatigue could help fracture their resistance. Thus depleted, recalcitrants were then forced to criticize themselves and each other’s backgrounds. After a while, the hours of hard labor were reduced, food improved and criticism sessions were lengthened to include the study of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. The study sessions emphasized the superiority of communism while depicting China’s imperialist and republican pasts as dark, backward, unjust and corrupt. It was expected that, during this second phase, individuals would undergo an emotional breakdown during which they came to see that opposing the CCP was futile. Instead, once they began to fully accept CCP teachings they usually experienced real emotional relief. Solidifying their acceptance of CCP teachings usually lasted an additional 3 to 4 months during which time they often saw new truths in communist theory. Part of this consolidation process involved their aiding others to find the true communist light. Once returned to their political and societal organizations, their new communist thinking was continually underpinned by study sessions and political rallies.

Mass Campaigns

Reading out the Land Reform Law

Reading out the Land Reform Law

Mao’s remolding of the individual was a precursor to his remolding society. Mass campaigns were a key tool by which he sculpted new China. As it still does today, the CCP often tested its social campaigns regionally before expanding them nationwide. Often quotas were set as to the number of people that would need to be reformed or eliminated. Most of these quotas were arbitrarily established.

The CCP’s earliest social campaigns were focused on consolidating CCP control by eliminating pockets of opposition and by strengthening its rural base. For instance, between 1950 and 1951, Mao called on CCP faithful to eliminate “bandits, spies, bullies and despots as well as KMT agents and saboteurs”. His call resulted in an estimated 2.6 million real and perceived enemies being executed.

In 1950, the CCP passed the Agrarian Reform Law which ultimately resulted in an estimated 200 million acres of arable land being redistributed to an estimated 75 million families. During land reform, the holdings of landlords were reallocated while the farms of rich peasants were often left intact as they frequently grew a large percentage of an area’s food. The factors which classified peasants into different classes was multifaceted, yet the ultimate classifications were consequential. A family’s class label not only decided how much land it would gain or lose, but its class label also had an impact on its work and marriage prospects going forward. Children inherited their social class from their parents. If a divested landlord son married the daughter of a poor peasant, for instance, their children would still be considered landlords regardless of their poverty.

Land Reform was administered at the county level and was managed by work teams of 3 to 30 people. The work teams set up local peasant associations to identify those who had engaged in harsh and exploitative practices. Important goals of these early meetings were to overcome the deference with which peasants traditionally treated rural gentry and to destroy the power base of the landlord elite. “Speak bitterness” campaigns were used to empower peasants and to make all complicit. During the struggle meetings, landlords were publicly criticized, accused, humiliated, beaten and even executed. It is estimated that 1 million landlords were killed during this period.

Mao with People’s Commune Workers

Mao with People’s Commune Workers

The ‘Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries and to Resist America and Aid Korea’ was also launched during this time. By late 1950, China had entered the Korean War against the Americans and the United Nations. The Suppress Counterrevolutionaries and Aid Korea campaigns were to support China’s war effort by eliminating domestic spies and enemy agents – real or alleged. Anyone that could be shown to have previous links with the KMT were especially targeted as were those who had any connection with foreign firms, universities and churches. Foreign business assets were frozen and foreigners were compelled to sell their companies to the CCP at below market prices. Afterwards, foreigners were largely cleared from China.

As the Suppress Counter-Revolutionary Campaign progressed, it grew in violence and in the ways that humiliation tactics were employed. While some accused counterrevolutionaries were prosecuted through the Chinese judicial system, the large majority were indicted in mass meetings that ultimately engaged an estimated 80% of the Chinese population. Factories, schools, government offices and street organizations were encouraged to root out state enemies. It is believed that over 500,000 people were executed during this effort.

The 1951 Three-Antis Campaign was a mass movement against corruption, waste and bureaucracy. The CCP gave word that about 25% of all Party members would be purged as a result of the mass investigations. The denounced were not allowed to defend themselves; they could only confess their wrongdoings. This stage-managed quality of these meetings became increasingly common feature of mass investigations. The Three-Antis Movement helped the CCP to consolidate its control over labor by getting workers to side with the CCP against their bosses. Usually the more senior CCP officials were the ones indicted for corruption.

Overlapping with the Three-Antis Campaign was the CCP’s 1952 Five-Antis Campaign meant to stamp out bribery, tax evasion, fraud, the theft of government property and the sale of state secrets. This campaign largely targeted wealthy industrialists and merchants. Having stabilized China’s economy, the CCP felt that it could now take action to reduce the size and wealth of China’s private businesses. It also wanted to erode the power base of the national bourgeoisie. Worker’s organizations were encouraged to inspect the finances of their employers in order to identify tax evasion, fraud, bribery and other financial abuses. Leaders of the worker’s organizations could then be rewarded by being able to take over the positions of the managers that they denounced. At the same time, the CCP would install party officials within the larger businesses. CCP officials would then oversee operations and collect information for the state. After the Three-Antis and the Five-Antis Campaigns, worker-employer meetings became a staple part of most businesses, and workers were encouraged to report on both their employers and co-workers if they were acting in breach of communist policies.

The First Five Year Plan

Tianjin Papermaking Plant 1952

Tianjin Papermaking Plant 1952

As the CCP consolidated its control over both society and the economy, it began to think about developing its first five year plan. China’s first five year plan copied the five year plans of the Soviet Union with their focus on heavy industry, high rates of savings and investments and collectivized agriculture. It was expected that, as China’s economy became progressively centralized, the five year plans would grow to determine all aspects of economic activity including the production of capital, consumer and agricultural goods, the development of transportation and communications networks, and the creation of health, education and welfare infrastructure. China’s first five year plan covered the years from 1953 to 1957. It set as a target the construction of 694 industrial projects, 156 of which were to be built with Soviet aid. 58.2% of its capital outlay was slated for industrial construction, 19.2% for transportation, posts and telecommunications, 7.6% for agriculture, forestry and water conservation, and 7.2% percent for cultural, education and public health.

The CCP helped finance the plan by procuring agricultural surpluses cheaply and by keeping grain prices low. Establishing state agricultural quotas gave the CCP grain to export to the Soviet Union to pay for loans, technical assistance and heavy equipment. During this period, more than 10,000 Soviet engineers, technicians, and scientists assisted in developing and installing new heavy industrial facilities, including entire plants and pieces of equipment purchased from the Soviet Union. An even greater number of Chinese students and engineers traveled to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe countries for education and training.

During the First Five Year Plan, private industry in China was all but eliminated. By 1956 about 67.5% of all major private industrial firms were state owned, and 32.5% were under joint public-private ownership.

Henan Wheat Harvest 1952

Henan Wheat Harvest 1952

Agriculture also underwent extensive organizational changes despite any significant state investment in the industry. Instead, its 4% annual growth rate resulted primarily from gains in efficiency brought about by land reform and the establishment of cooperative farming. From 1953 onward, the government encouraged peasants to voluntarily pool their farms. These small cooperatives resulted in higher yields which in turn provided the peasants with extra resources which they then used to raise and sell livestock. Small farming markets began springing up across the nation. Unlike the large scale collective farming policies which were launched in 1958, these early cooperatives were successful and popular. By 1957, about 93.5% of all farm households had joined producers’ cooperatives.

Urban workers also benefited from China’s early economic progress. The urban proletariat saw improvements both in living standards and job security. That said, urban workers had little choice in the job that they performed and were given little personal mobility. Increasingly, all Chinese were registered by area. Travel became strictly controlled, especially that of peasants wishing to come to the cities.

In terms of economic growth, the first five year plan exceeded most of its targets. Iron and steel manufacturing, coal mining, cement production, electricity generation, and machine building industries all grew significantly, and were put on a more modern technological footing. Overall, industrial production rose at an average annual rate of 19% between 1952 and 1957 while national income increased 9% a year.

China’s Foreign Policy

Mao and Stalin

Mao and Stalin

As the PRC was implementing its political and economic policies, he was also crafting his foreign policy positions. Early foreign policy objectives included eradicating remaining foreign imperialism in China, ensuring that no country violated China’s borders in the future, and returning China to a position of international prominence. Mao also wished to promote communist revolution abroad.

Marxist ideology played a real role in crafting China’s foreign policy positions. Mao was impressed with the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization despite its human costs. The CCP believed that if Marxist economic principles were applied faithfully, then China too would see rapid development. Because of this and because of his distrust of the West, from the first days of the PRC, Mao made it clear that the PRC would “lean to one side”, meaning that Mao intended to reject aid from capitalists such as America and Britain and to align itself with the USSR and other communist countries. Mao believed their common ideologies would create strong bonds. He also believed that aligning with Soviet countries would underpin the momentum of the Chinese communist revolution domestically.

Having made the decision to align itself with the USSR, Mao further stated that he would “clean the house before inviting in the guests” meaning that he would not recognize diplomatic relations, treaties or agreements which the PRC had inherited from the Republic of China and that he would clean the country of any remaining colonial influences. All new diplomatic relations and treaties China entered into were to be based on equality, and were to be negotiated on a country by country basis. Additionally, The PRC would not establish diplomatic relations with any country that continued relations with the KMT.

Yet while Mao leaned toward Moscow, the USSR had proven to be an inconsistent ally. At the end of the second 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese war, for instance, the USSR agreed to cooperate with and recognize Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT government despite the growing strength of the Chinese communists. At the 1945 Yalta conference, the Soviet Union had insisted on retaining its economic, port and railroad rights in Manchuria and in the Sakhalin and Kurile Islands which China also claimed. Thus, Mao’s house cleaning also needed to include the USSR. Additionally, Stalin assumed that the Soviets would continue to lead the Communist world, a stance inconsistent with Mao’s long-term desire to return China to a leadership position in the international arena.

1952 Chinese Mission to Moscow

1952 Chinese Mission to Moscow

The challenges of the Sino-Soviet relationship were made clear when Mao traveled to Moscow to meet with “big brother Stalin” for the first time in December 1949. Initial talks between Mao and Stalin accomplished nothing, and Stalin treated Mao in a way that made him feel personally slighted. It wasn’t until February 1950 that Mao and his chief diplomat Zhou Enlai finally succeeded in getting the Soviets to sign the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance. The treaty set out that the two countries would assist each other in the case of renewed Japanese or Allied aggression. In separate treaties, the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its troops from Manchuria and to return the Manchurian Railway and other property in Dalian and Lushan, thus effectively abrogating the special privileges in Manchuria that it has secured from the KMT at the end of the war. China in turn recognized the independence of Outer Mongolia. The USSR also agreed to give the PRC a loan of $300 million and to provide it with technical and economic assistance which the loan itself financed.

Having recovered complete Chinese sovereignty in Manchuria, Mao turned his attention to Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan. Mao was intent upon restoring China’s borders to those established at its maximum historic extent during its imperialist era. In terms of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, the PRC moved quickly to re-establish a firm political and military grip on the provinces and began to encourage the migration of Han Chinese into the areas. In terms of Hong Kong, Mao decided not to demand Hong Kong’s immediate return. As a British protectorate, Mao believed that Hong Kong would be useful both as a base from which the PRC could collect international intelligence and as a port from which the PRC China could import international goods and capital.

Invasion of Tibet

PLA Marching into Lhasa 1950

PLA Marching into Lhasa 1950

Tibet was given no such clemency. Mao never considered that the pseudo-independence which Tibet enjoyed during the second Sino-Japanese War and China’s Civil War to have been legitimate, despite declaring during the war with Japan that minorities would be free to decide their own destinies once the war had been won. Instead, Mao argued that the CCP had what amounted to a moral duty to free Tibet from it semi-feudal, backward, theocratic state. Consequently, in October 1950, China invaded Tibet. Tibet tried to secure international assistance for it defense saying –  “Liberation from what and from whom? We are a happy country.” – but no significant help was forthcoming. By May 23, 1951, Tibetans had little option but to sign in Beijing the 17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. The Agreement left Tibet’s political, economic and social systems in place with the Dalai Lama at its head while Tibet in turn agreed to recognize China’s sovereignty over Tibetan territory.

Taiwan 1950

Taipei 1951

Taipei 1951

Having re-secured Tibet, Mao’s next objective was to regain control over Taiwan. In a January 1950 speech Truman stated that America would take a neutral stance towards Taiwan and stop military assistance to Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT regime. Mao interpreted that speech as giving it a clear hand to retake the island. Mao and his generals knew that retaking Taiwan would be difficult. Not only was Taiwan an island, but it was also well defended by the remnants of the KMT’s large, well-equipped army. Indeed, the PRC had already failed to capture the proximate, less well defended island of Jinmen. Mao decided to delay its campaign against Taiwan until spring 1951 in order to give the People’s Liberation Army more time to prepare. The outbreak of the Korean War, however, changed America’s position toward Taiwan thus making reunification in the short term impossible.

Korean War

Chinese troops crossing the Amnok or Yalu River

Chinese troops crossing the Amnok or Yalu River

Historically, Korea had been an independent kingdom closely linked to China’s imperial dynasties. Korea’s independence ended when Japan conquered the country in 1905. In 1945, defeated Japan surrendered Korea to the Soviet Red Army in the north and to the US army in the south with the 38th parallel being the arbitrary dividing line between the two forces. This temporary line quickly hardened into a permanent border as the USSR and the US supported the establishment of independent regimes in their respective Korean sections with governing systems which replicated their own political philosophies. The United Nations attempted to negotiate a compromise government that would allow the county’s reunification, but it was forced out in September 1948 by Kim Il-sung , the leader of the northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

It wasn’t that Kim Il-sung was averse to reuniting Korea, it was just that he wanted to reunite it under communism and his control. On June 25, 1950, having secured both Stalin’s and Mao’s support, North Korean forces invaded the south. The United Nations, encouraged by the US, swiftly condemned the north as the aggressor. On September 15, 1950, a US-led coalition under the command of General McArthur and acting under the auspices of the United Nations launched a counter attack. By October 1st, the United Nations-Southern Korean Forces crossed the 38th parallel and pushed northward under a UN mandate to unite the whole country.

Mao watched the war unfold on the Korean peninsula with growing alarm. As the UN troops neared China’s border, he began to fear that China’s Manchurian industrial heartland was at risk of invasion. He also felt ideologically compelled to aid his Korean communist comrades, many of whom had fought alongside the CCP in Manchuria during the early days of the Civil War. He also wanted to reestablish China’s prominence on the international stage by supporting revolution in other countries. Stalin, too, was urging Mao to fight.

General Peng Dehuai signs armistice ending the Korean War

General Peng Dehuai signs armistice ending the Korean War

In October 1950, the PRC entered the Korean War calling it the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea”. On October 25, General Peng Dehuai led the first 400,000 of his troops into battle. The Chinese overcame the better armed UN forces by sheer numbers, and the United Nations troops were forced back behind the 38th parallel. General McArthur wanted to counterattack back into the north, but Truman refused. By July 1951, the United Nations initiated armistice negotiations. Given the huge communists losses, both the Koreans and Chinese came to the table. Negotiations faltered, however, over the return of Communist prisoners of war, many of whom pleaded not to be sent back to China. Only after Eisenhower took office and threatened to restart the conflict if the Communists did not agree, was an armistice agreement signed on July 27, 1953.

While Mao had fought the UN and the US to a standstill, its victory came at great cost to China. An estimated 700,000-900,000 Chinese were killed or wounded during the fighting – including Mao’s son Mao Anying – compared with 160,000 Americans, 400,000 South Koreans and 600,000 North Koreans. The US imposed a trade embargo on China and used its leverage to prevent the PRC from joining the United Nations. The US also moved closer to Taiwan and began to patrol the Taiwan Strait, and accelerated the conclusion of a peace treaty with Japan.

Despite these costs, however, China’s international prestige was greatly enhanced by the conclusion of the war. In his book On China Kissinger argues China overcame its comparative military weakness by using psychological domination as a weapon. Mao countered conventional wisdom by being willing to enter a new military conflict so soon after the country had emerged from decades of war. Publicly, he showed no weakness. Instead he showed indifference to the military strength of its rivals. This indifference extended to nuclear attack. Mao made the international community believe that China would be willing to endure hundreds of millions of casualties to defend the Chinese homeland and to promote communist revolution. In Korea, Mao played this strategy out. In the face a military superiority, Mao succeeded in overwhelming the enemy by sheer numbers. Mao was also demonstrating the Chinese aversion to encirclement. For Mao, it was worth 600,000 dead or injured in order to keep the enemy from his border.

Although it had to be paid for, the war also enabled China to obtain large amounts of Soviet ammunition and military equipment. The war also strengthened the Sino-Soviet alliance and increased the economic ties between the two countries. Sino-Soviet trade increased from approximately $300 million in 1950 to over $1 billion in 1952.

Domestically, the CCP used the war as evidence of the continued imperialist ambitions of the West and the persistent animosity of the United States for the Chinese people. This hatred and the heroism of the Chinese soldier became strong themes in CCP propaganda. It also used the Korean War as an opportunity it to further consolidate its domestic power.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign

Mao Zedong announcing 100 Flowers Campaign

Mao Zedong announcing 100 Flowers Campaign

As the CCP tightened its hold over the country, many intellectuals became demoralized at their loss of intellectual, political and artistic freedom. Historically, most Chinese intellectuals came from wealthy families which had made or had inherited their money from landholding or business. In communist China such backgrounds were now considered feudal or reactionary. It became incumbent on these intellectuals to demonstrate their loyalty to the CCP by undergoing reeducation in revolutionary colleges and by writing confessions and self-criticism. Despite these challenges, the majority of Chinese intellectuals remained in China and many distinguished Chinese living overseas returned to China in late 1949 and 1950.

As China progressed through its first five year plan, many CCP members began to realize that its intellectuals were needed in order for China to continue to make social and economic progress. If these intellectuals were terrorized by the risk of punitive campaigns, their contributions to China would falter. Already, highly publicized attacks on intellectuals such as literary editor Feng Xuefeng in 1954 and writer Hu Feng in 1955 had made intellectuals wary. Many CCP members began arguing that the loyalty of intellectuals should be trusted even if they did occasionally criticize the party. Others in the party felt that unity was paramount, and that any criticism of the CCP would diminish its effectiveness and morale.

In 1956, Mao Zedong stepped into the debate by making two speeches in which he expressed the need for warm relations between party and non-party members. He said that the CCP should consider any reasonable views expressed by those outside the Communist Party. Specifically, he urged “letting a hundred flowers bloom” in the field of culture and “a hundred schools of thought contend” in the field of science. The idea was that greater intellectual freedom would help the government to fix problems and improve efficiency.

Zhou Enlai at Peking University 1957

Zhou Enlai at Peking University 1957

Mao’s call was finally given full support by the CCP in May 1957. At CCP conferences, in the state-controlled press, at rallies on the streets and in posters pasted on university walls, intellectuals, students and the common masses began to speak out. They criticized policies such as the harshness of previous mass campaigns, censorship and the lack of political plurality. They criticized the many privileges enjoyed by party cadres and the many examples of their corruption. They complained about the lack of employment choices and about the harsh living conditions of China’s peasants. Industrial workers began to strike for better pay and working conditions. Key themes of the protests were that the Communist Party should relinquish its stranglehold on the government, that other political parties should be allowed to compete on an equal footing with the CCP, and that there should be a free press.

Startled and frightened by the vehemence of the criticism and anger, by June 1957, the CCP began taking steps to stop any further criticism. Mao Zedong altered the text of a key speech so that it now stated that intellectual freedom was only to be used to support the Communist Revolution and to strengthen socialism. Mao would later claim that his “hundred flowers” campaign had been a trick to flush out enemies of the revolution. By July 1957, the CCP propaganda machine was attacking critics in full force. Overall, an estimated 400,000 educated and professional men and women were labeled “rightist” which effectively destroyed their careers. Many were sent to labor camps, jailed or exiled to the countryside. Others committed suicide after breaking under the constant pressure of public struggle sessions. Others were shot.

The CCP used the Anti-Rightest campaign in a more broad base way to silence all forms of opposition and to re-impose Maoist orthodoxy in public expression. Having thus re-consolidated its authority, Mao and the CCP was ready to lead China into the next level of socialism.


Part I – A Formative Age: Prehistory 780,000 BCE – Zhou Dynasty 1046-221 BCE

Introduction – Emerging Great Themes of Dynastic History

The China that we see today had its origins in Prehistory. The remains of one of our earliest human ancestors, Peking Man, were found near the Zhoukoudian cave system located about 50 km southwest of Beijing. As early as 780,000 BCE, cave dwellers lived in China. Beginning in approximately 8000 BCE, people in north and central China began domesticating animals and growing food, especially millet, in the Yellow River valley of the north and rice in the Yangtze River valley to the south. A warming climate aided agricultural innovation. The surplus food production allowed more populous and complex societies to evolve. By 5000 to 4000 BCE Neolithic settlements were scattered throughout China. By 2000 BCE these village settlements saw people begin to specialize in different kinds of productive occupations. Agricultural production supported a growing non-agricultural population including artisans producing non-agricultural goods, administrators who collected taxes and set rules and regulations for society, and soldiers who defended and expanded the territory under the government’s control. Dating approximately from 2200-1600 BCE the Xia Dynasty was China’s first dynasty, although its existence has yet to be corroborated by archaeological evidence. The Shang (1600-1046 BCE) and the (Zhou 1046-221 BCE) saw the great themes of Chinese civilization begin to develop with the mastering of large scale mining and bronze casting, the development of writing, and the creation of a bureaucratic infrastructure to manage the expanding state. Religious and philosophical paradigms began to be formed, around which society could be structured and the world understood.

Peking Man

Over 4000 years of history, China has shown great continuity of values and purpose. There were times when it fractured into many smaller states, yet each of these states maintained many of the core political, social and religious power systems which came to define the Chinese civilization. Many factors contributed to China’s cultural continuity despite its periods of political disunity. One key factor was China’s formidable geography. Mountains, deserts and oceans formed real barriers between China and the rest of the world. For much of China’s history, its main threat came from the nomadic people who lived in the north. China built, and rebuilt the Great Wall, a 4000 mile barrier, along its northern border to stop invasions by these horse-riding “barbarians”. China’s cultural continuity was also facilitated by a common written language that allowed people throughout the empire to communicate, despite their many different dialects that were often mutually unintelligible. The ability to correspond in written form throughout China enabled governmental edicts to be communicated territory-wide, reinforcing the effectiveness of a strong, centralized, governmental bureaucracy. It also allowed the dissemination of philosophical, religious and cultural thought. From early on, China created a considerable body of literature, much of which was concerned with how people lived and behaved. This literature helped build a commonality of values throughout China. The Chinese invention of book printing helped spread these values further, as did its emphasis on education as a way to reach the highest levels of society.

These edicts also ordered the building of unprecedented engineering works – the Great Wall and the Grand Canal to name but two – that also brought the country together. China’s basic religion of ancestor worship also proved to be a strongly unifying. This ancient religion stressed the duty of sons to care for parents before and after death. By 550 BCE, Confucius expanded this pattern of obligation to include loyalty to the Emperor and the state.

780,000-2200 BCE

Even before there was Chinese civilization, there was primitive human life in what came to be China. Early human occupation of the area began over 1.7 million years ago. In the 1920s, near the Chinese village of Zhoukoudian, Peking Man was discovered. This early human lived in the area’s caves from roughly 780,000 to 600,000 BCE. Peking Man hunted and cooked animals, used sharpened stone tools, and had an intelligence level somewhere between that of apes and modern man. By 10,000-8000 BCE, in early north and central China, the Chinese people began farming and domesticating animals. By 3000 BCE, the Chinese had developed painted pottery, made relatively sophisticated tools and created decorative objects of Jade. By 2000-1500 BCE, Chinese settlements produced enough food to support artisans, soldiers and administrators who collected taxes and governed society.

Xia Dynasty: Approximately 2200-1600 BCE

China’s earliest cultural heroes from this time were called the three Sage-Kings – Yao, Shun and Yu – who were known for their morality and commitment to the wellbeing of their subjects. This theme of Chinese rulers who are both virtuous and committed to their people’s welfare runs throughout Chinese history. The Chinese believed humans could constantly improve themselves. From early on, Chinese leaders placed great value on education, and on choosing rulers and governing bureaucrats based on their capabilities, not just based on their connections. Yao, for instance, passed his throne onto Shun, rather than his own son, because Shun was most devoted to the people’s interests. Shun in turn chose an engineer, Yu, who began developing techniques to control river flooding. Yu, however, did pass his rule to his son, creating what is believed to be the first of the Chinese dynasties, the Xia. The Xia is the first dynasty to be described in ancient records including the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals, although scholars still debate whether the dynasty actually existed.

Shang Dynasty 1600 BCE-1046 BCE – Character Writing, Engineering and An Optimistic Outlook

Tradition has it that the moral superiority of King Tang, the first Shang Dynasty ruler, enabled him to overpower the last Xia ruler Jie, known for his atrocities, neglect and incompetence. This lifecycle of the Xia Dynasty – from the estimable founder through a series of often unexceptional rulers to the corrupt and ineffectual tyrant – became a pattern of subsequent dynastic cycles.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the early Shang Dynasty was quick to develop a political hierarchy and a complex economic and social system. Shang cities, for instance, were large and protected by massive walls up to 40 m wide and 10 m high, the largest of which are estimated to have required an investment of some 13 million labor days. The Shang leadership seemed adroit at mobilizing thousands of conscripts for such mass projects which also included military campaigns, the construction of tombs for deceased kings, and the clearing of new lands. Much attention was given to the efficient maintenance of these human resources, especially improving agriculture efficiency. This ability to mobilize large labor pools to achieve state objectives became a hallmark of Chinese dynasties from the Shang onwards.

Oracle Bone

The Shang territory was ordered in system of towns and villages ruled by the king’s relatives. Land near the Shang capital (Yan, present day Qufu, also the birthplace of Confucius) was entrusted to the king’s immediate clan. More distant areas were ruled by descendants of former Kings, and by allies of the royal lineage. Maintaining these alliances required effective diplomacy. Diplomatic tools included marriage, economic and military strength – some Shang armies numbered over 10,000 soldiers – diplomatic visits, Shang respect for the deities and ancestors of the other lineages, and employment of alien dignitaries in the Shang court. Allied courts paid tribute to the Shang by sending animals and prisoners of war, which were often sacrificed to placate ancestors.

“Oracle bones” – chicken bones and turtle shells – dating from the Shang time, record the first examples of Chinese character writing. These bones were used by rulers to consult ancestral spirits. The Chinese believed that the afterlife reflected the hierarchy of life on earth, and they saw their own dead ancestors organized in a pyramid of power with more distant ancestors being more powerful than those recently deceased. At the top of the Pyramid was the “Lord on High”, whom they believed to be the mightiest spirit of all. Shang rulers believed that many natural and political phenomena, from drought to foreign invasions, were the result of divine powers. Yet the Chinese were not fatalistic; instead, optimistically believing that relations with deities were manageable and that malevolent deities could be controlled by enlisting the help of royal ancestors. To ensure ancestral support, elaborate burial tombs were constructed and, after burial, communication with the dead was made through regular sacrifices. Over time, Shang religious activity became more ritualized. For instance, communication with ancestors occurred on specific days, which was enabled by the invention of calendar keeping.

The Zhou Dynasty 1046 BCE-221 BCE – Legalism, Confucianism, Daoism and the Mandate of Heaven

Around 1045 BCE, the Zhou conquered the Shang. Exactly what caused the Shang to lose their hegemony is not clear. The diminished dependency of Oracle bone divination’s over time means that their inscriptions became less informative. What seems clear is that the Shang state decreased in size in the 11th century BCE. Allies and dependencies of the Shang whose names frequently occur in earlier inscriptions disappear from those of the last 50 years of Shang rule. Additionally, the last ruler of the Shang appeared to be a cruel tyrant who putatively engaged in such acts as dismembering one of his aides and pickling another, enjoying orgies, and generally neglecting state affairs.

The Zhou worshipped Heaven, a benevolent force that helps right triumph in human matters. The Zhou conquerors argued that the last Shang kings were corrupt and irresponsible and that Heaven therefore granted the Zhou the right to rule in their place. Thus was created the “Mandate of Heaven”, the idea that Heaven bestows on an honorable and noble leader the right to rule, an idea that was to remain prevalent throughout Chinese dynastic rule.

The Zhou consolidated rule by weakening what was left of Shang dynastic power. Shang elites were relocated close to the center of power and Zhou settlements were established in strategic places throughout its territory. The Zhou slowly discarded the Shang custom of large-scale human sacrifices. Oracle bone divination gave way to prophecy based on an ancient text called the Book of Changes, which argued that ethical behavior brought favorable outcomes while immoral behavior jeopardized dynastic rule. In 770 BCE, the Zhou lost control over regional polities and the capital was conquered by two former Zhou vassals. The surviving court retreated to establish a new capital several hundred miles to the east. Thus 1045-770 BCE is called the Western Zhou period, while 770 BCE-256 BCE is the Eastern Zhou.

Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

In the 8th century BCE, Zhou power became fragmented in the Spring and Autumn period (770 BCE-453 BCE), named after the influential Spring and Autumn annals, and the Warring States period (453 BCE – 221 BCE). In the Spring and Autumn period hundreds of states eventually arose, each submissive to Zhou kings in name only. Yet despite this political fragmentation, much cultural uniformity was preserved as nobles maintained the practice of Zhou ritual culture. Eventually, during the Warring States period, these smaller polities were gradually consolidated into seven larger powers, including the Qin in the West. These seven larger powers expanded aggressively, ultimately conquering territory that, if conglomerated, began to anticipate the eventual borders of the Chinese nation. These states centralized control over their territory, discouraging autonomous political units which were viewed to be the cause of the constant warfare. Large numbers of commoners were rallied to build walls, dams, dikes and irrigation canals, meaningfully raising the yields of millet, wheat, soybean and rice crops which allowed these states to support large standing armies. Rulers increasingly recruited commanders based on skill and organizational abilities rather than on birth. This began China’s emphasis on creating an intellectual elite to help rulers maintain their hegemony, and introduced the idea of social mobility based on meritocracy.

During the Spring and Autumn period, in what became known as the “Period of a Hundred Schools of Thought” (famously recalled by Mao Zedong during his “Hundred Flowers” campaign), China considered many aspects of how society should be governed and how people should behave as it searched for an end to constant combat. An important school of thought during this time was the Legalists who argued that hegemony was achieved through the creation of severe laws with harsh punishments under the theory that harsh punishment deterred undesirable behavior. They supported the promotion of soldiers and officials on the basis of ability not just relationships and blood, and believed that rulers should pursue the goal of a powerful universal state. The Art of War, attributed to Sunzi (frequently written as Sun Tzu), was written during this time and is still studied today both in China and across the world.



Competing with this view were the ideas developed by Confucius. Born in 551 BCE, Confucius argued that the welfare of the people was more important than the privileges of the ruling class. Confucius also believed that officials should be chosen on the basis of ability not birth. Although he was agnostic about spirits, Confucius nevertheless believed that it was important to express respect and gratitude for dead forefathers. He thought the wisdom of the ancients should be studied so their insight could be passed on to future generations. He believed in the idealistic vision of benevolent rule, and thought that all people have the capacity for kindness. Yet he thought that this goodness needed to be nurtured through education, ritual, and the imitation of righteous role models. These role models included the example of parents, teachers and the great moral leaders of the past. He believed in social hierarchy and that sons were to be obedient to fathers as fathers should be obedient to their rulers. He also believed that scholars should study poetry, music and history to broaden their minds, a tradition that was to become entrenched within the Chinese dynastic civil service. While Confucius is, arguably, the most influential Chinese philosopher that has ever lived, it was not until after his death that his ideas gained wide acceptance and became entrenched in Chinese culture. Later followers of Confucius such as Mengzi (often referred to in the West as Mencius) and Xunzi thought those that worked with thought should rule over those who toiled with their hands, yet these rulers were obliged to be moral and just. Rulers received the Mandate of Heaven when they cared for their people; those who exploited their subjects lost the Mandate and failed. Xunzi also argued that events like droughts, floods or hurricanes were part of the natural world, not divine retribution for poor rule. A ruler lost the Mandate of Heaven not because a hurricane occurred, but because the ruler failed to respond to it compassionately and effectively.

Daoism also developed during this time and spoke in more philosophical terms about the nature of life and state. Dao means “the way”, and is a metaphysical construct that considers the totality of the universe and its laws of nature, trying to understand within that whatever is unchanging and everlasting. It seeks harmony with this natural, unchanging force in order to create a harmonious and stable society.

The Past in the Present – Historical Themes in Today’s China

Ancestor worship continues in China today

Confucianism, with its teachings of respect and loyalty for one’s parents, husbands and rulers created a tight knit society where one’s own individual desires were often subjugated to those in more favorable hierarchical positions. China’s worship of its ancestors extended this respect for, and deference to, its elders into the afterlife. The emphasis on education as a means of political advancement meant that the leaders of China shared a common culture as they all studied the same body of literature in order to pass their examinations. The spread of these cultural values to all parts of China was facilitated in part by China’s early creation of character writing. It also allowed the edicts of the government to be communicated throughout China, even though China had (and still has) many diverse spoken dialects.

From early on, the Chinese government was able to mobilize large numbers of its populace to execute works for the public good including the building of irrigation and dyke systems and the construction of city walls. They also conscripted large armies to defend Imperial territory. The Chinese have generally been an optimistic people who believed that their efforts had a direct impact on the outcome of events. For example, instead of attributing a devastating river flood to the wrath of a mercurial God, they instead recognized its natural causes and then set about engineering solutions, often on a grand scale.

Yet, while the political, social and cultural systems characteristic of Chinese civilization became firmly established, who should govern this civilization was periodically put into question. Specifically, there was often tension between the rule of the dynastic court and regional power centers. These regional power centers generally did not want to change the nature of Chinese society; instead, they wanted to take the rule of this society for themselves.

Many of these themes are still prevalent in China today. China is still ruled by a centralized, bureaucratic, authoritarian government. Education is still given the highest importance; success in university entrance exams allows those from even the humblest backgrounds to have the promise of future upward mobility, though, as with other modern societies, those already with power and wealth have a structural advantage. Before China’s market opening in 1978, communist ideology absolutely subjugated individual aspiration to the good of society as a whole. While the creation of the largely-capitalist economic system has now allowed for more individual aspiration (at least in economic terms), it has also undermined the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) justification for rule. The CCP has countered this in part by promoting nationalism, which among other things, celebrates the prestige of its 4000-year-old history, including its Confucian tradition, something that had previously been played down during the Mao years. This Confucian revival can be seen, for instance, in China’s building of Confucian centers around the world to promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture.

China still has an amazing capacity to mobilize its populace for the benefit of the public good, as evidenced by the current, unprecedentedly rapid building of infrastructure including roads, railways, hydro-electrical and other power systems. The Chinese are still optimistic in their ability to solve nature’s challenges and, thus, optimistic about their ability to control their future destiny. For instance, their hugely ambitious South-North Water Diversion Project will divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year from the Yangtze River to satisfy the water needs of the North China Plain and its 440 million people, thus tackling a growing water crisis in northern China.

Tensions between Beijing and provincial powers remain today, reflecting the struggles of bygone eras between the center and the regions. As China has transitioned from a communist to a largely-capitalist economic system, some regional areas and municipalities have grown in power and importance, posing a challenge for the regime in maintaining its absolute control.

What Happened Next?

The development of cultural norms, based around Confucian ideals, and the establishment of centralized governmental systems in order to pacify the restive regions continued after the Zhou, with the successes of first the Qin and then the Han. Similarly, the tendency for grand projects also manifested itself with the first creation of a ‘Great Wall’ on China’s northern frontier and the development of the Grand Canal. The story continues in A Classic, Bureaucratic Empire.



Part II – Creation of a Classic, Bureaucratic Empire: Qin Dynasty, 221 – 206 BCE – Han Dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE



The end of the Zhou Dynasty, with its decline into the Warring States Period, was a chaotic and violent time. Seven states vied for power across the empire. This government fragmentation ended with the victory of the Qin, resulting in a brief, but hugely important, period of unity for the Chinese. The Qin empire bears much resemblance to the China that we see today and its first emperor, Qin Shihuang, is credited with instigating construction of the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. The successive dynasty, the Han, continued the fight with nomadic peoples from the northern frontiers and established crucial trade links through the famous Silk Road. It also underwent a crucial intellectual battle between Confucianists and Legalists that helped to define what we consider to be Chinese culture today.

 Qin Dynasty 221-206 BCE – Unification, Legalism, Bureaucracy, The Great Wall

The period before the establishment of the Qin Dynasty was a time of political fragmentation. By 403 BCE, seven major states were all vying for power within what would eventually become known as China (the name China originated from an early Romanization of Qin which was written ‘Chin’.) The Qin state originated on the western edge of developed China. Unlike with other powers within China, this meant that the Qin state was not boxed-in on all sides by competing fiefdoms. This allowed it to expand its territory more easily, incorporating an increasingly large population under its jurisdiction. It was also more open to social, political and cultural innovations, and readily used talented men from other states. 

Because the Qin did not enter the feudal domain of the Zhou Dynasty until the reign of Xiang (777-766 BCE), several centuries after the more established states, and because of its North Western location, the Qin was viewed by the other fiefdoms as a less civilized and more barbaric state. Xiao of the Qin (361-337 BCE) was determined to change this image and increase the Qin’s standing in the world. Influenced by the thoughts of Shang Yang, a Legalist reformer, (350-338 BCE) Xiao implemented a largely Legalist style of rule in his domain. Realized Legalist doctrines included promoting by merit as opposed to by noble birth, and the creation of a strict set of laws which applied to all people equally. Written on stone, these laws were sent to all parts of his kingdom. He allowed peasants to buy and sell land, and implemented widespread irrigation projects which resulted in increased agricultural production. This production was taxed fairly to encourage further agricultural development. The resulting wealth gave the Qin the food and economic resources necessary to launch military offensives. By 256 BCE, the Qin conquered the state of Zhou, bringing the Zhou Dynasty to an end. By 221 BCE, the Qin had conquered all seven Warring States, marking out for the first time the beginning of the geographic scope that would become of Chinese nation.

Standardized antique Chinese print characters


The Qin leader Zheng, and his chief minister Li Si, led the final Qin charge to vanquish the competing fiefdoms and unify China. Since no previous royal titles – such as King or Duke – were sufficient to describe the scope of the Qin leader’s enormous power, a new title was devised: Huangdi, meaning ‘august god’, a term that invoked the image of the Yellow Emperor, a legendary Chinese sovereign and cultural hero presented in Chinese mythology whose name had the same pronunciation in Chinese. China’s first emperor was better known by his full title of Qin Shihuang. He followed Li Si’s advice not to make his sons and relatives the kings of the various conquered territories, but to staff them with military and administrative professionals. The Qin leaders then forced 120,000 of the most wealthy and powerful aristocratic families of all the conquered states to move to the Qin capital of Xianyang, just outside modern-day Xi’an, where they were far from their power bases and could be easily watched. Qin Shihuang also had the nobles’ weapons melted down and recast into two large bells and 12 enormous statues which were then placed on his palace grounds. 

Imperial handcart

The government was centralized, and the entire Qin kingdom was divided into 36 large administrative units, each of which was further divided into several counties. Each was governed by a civil officer, a military officer and an official inspector who independently reported to the central government. All people in the Empire were graded into a system of 20 non-hereditary ranks where individuals could better their status, essentially go up in rank, with accompanying rights to land, titles, tax remissions and slaves, through military accomplishment and meeting or exceeding agricultural production quotas. The Qin also had the novel idea of organizing families in groups of five or ten. Each family group was responsible for the behavior of all its members so that, if any group member committed a crime, all were held responsible, thus engaging the entire population in policing.

Early on, the Qin administrators realized that maintaining Qin supremacy required a strict husbanding of its human, military, and natural resources. In order to achieve effective accounting, weights and measures, the axle lengths of chariots and carts, and Chinese character writing styles were standardized. Retaining local forms of currency, weights and measures, or writing scripts was made an act of treason and the Qin currency was introduced nationally. Infrastructure projects were a key facet of the dynasty and 4250 miles of roads were built throughout the empire. The Grand Canal was begun, built by thousands upon thousands of conscripted laborers. Conscripted laborers also connected many parts of earlier state walls which extended along almost 4000 miles of the northern border of the empire. This extended wall was eventually to become known as the Great Wall of China. 

The Qin bibiliocaust burnt historical Chinese Manuscripts

The Chief Minister Li Si contended that as Qin Shihuang had unified all of China, he had also formed a single source of authority. Dissenting opinions based on classical scholarship were thus a threat to his authority. To prevent this threat, Li Si recommended the infamous Qin bibliocaust, where Qin Shihuang decreed that all historical records, apart from those of the Qin, be burned, along with all copies of the Book of Odes (the earliest existing Chinese collection of poems and songs) and the Book of Documents (a compilation of documentary records of the ancient history of China.) Books concerning forestry, medicine, or divination were exempt. Anyone caught even discussing such books risked execution. Similarly, anyone who disparaged the present by citing ancient precedents also chanced execution, together with all family members. Scholars today believe that the bibliocaust was not as devastating as first thought and many imperial libraries endured intact. Scholars also tended to memorize texts such as the Book of Odes so that textual versions could be constituted from memory and, in the next dynasty, Emperor Wu initiated an empire wide recovery of the ancient texts. In addition to burning books, the emperor also encouraged the eradication of many local traditions of all varieties. Qin Shihuang’s successes resulted in large part from his efforts to manage the detail of government himself. For instance, he set quotas as to the weight of documents he would read each day, not stopping until he completed the paperwork. The disadvantage of his prodigious work effort was that the institutions he had created to concentrate power in the hands of the monarch made the government’s strength and stability dependent upon the authority and character of the occupant of the throne.

Terracotta warriors

Qin Shihuang died unexpectedly in 210 BCE. Having quarreled with his eldest son, the succession to Emperor was not clearly delineated. The eunuch Zhao Gao encouraged a younger, favorite son Hu Hai to usurp his brother for the throne. In order to prevent challenges to his rule, Hu Hai instituted a reign of terror in which he took the already legalist excesses of his father’s reign to new heights. These included a zero tolerance for criticism, severe laws and punishments, and the ruthless mobilization of laborers for construction projects. Historians have argued that the people would have accepted Hu Hai if he had made even moderate attempts to reform his father’s excesses. Instead, he implemented a harsh rule, multiplying laws and the severity of punishments, increasing taxes and executing chief ministers of state, imperial princes and palace attendants. 

The hungry, indicted and exploited became so numerous that the rebellion of one man was enough to cause the entire nation to join him. The first revolt began in 209 BCE. By 206 BCE, the Qin dynasty ended with the suicide of the Second Emperor and the break-up of the Qin Dynasty. Qin Shihuang built a lavish tomb with more than 8000 life-sized terracotta warriors and 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. The Xi’an tomb was discovered in the 1970s by peasants digging a well and it has since become a UNESCO heritage site and one of China’s premier tourist attractions. Archaeological excavations at the tomb have shown that the Qin dynasty had continued the Zhou expertise in advanced metal casting technology, especially in metallurgy. Bronze swords were made with a high tin content, resulting in blades of significant sharpness and hardness. The blast furnace technology used to make this high-quality bronze was not employed in Europe for another thousand years.

Han Dynasty 206 BCE-220 CE – Confucianism, the Mandarinate, and Northern Nomadic Barbarians

When the First Emperor of the Qin died in 211 BCE, Qin Dynastic rule rapidly disintegrated. Liu Bang, already head of the Han State in 206 BCE, declared himself the Emperor of the Han dynasty in 202 BCE. The Han is the name of the dominant ethnic Chinese group who form around 92% of the present-day population. Liu Bang was one of only two known emperors of China to come from a peasant background, defeating Xiang Yu, a brilliant aristocratic general. When Liu Bang died in 195 BCE, Empress Lu, the mother of the first heir to the throne, managed to control the court until her death in 180 BCE. Despite ruthless ambition, she proved a competent ruler. She realized that the average peasant needed time to regroup after the civil war, so she fashioned government policies that encouraged people to work on the land. Food and clothing became plentiful again. She also successfully defended the frontier from nomadic invasion. Despite these achievements, Empress Lu was cited by Confucian historians as an example of what happens when women get close to power. Confucians felt that a woman’s place was in the home, obedient and subservient to the male household members.

Northern nomads plagued China for centuries

Attack from nomadic people of Central Asia provided a constant challenge for the Han Dynasty, especially in its early years. The Xiongnu nomads led successful raids within China despite the presence of the Great Wall. Although the Wall covered large parts of China’s northern border, it was never fully connected. The nomads were superior to the Chinese on horseback, especially when shooting, thus making themselves formidable adversaries. The Han Dynasty tried to avoid war by sending the Xiongnu nomads lavish gifts such as gold, grain, and Han brides, which proved to be an expensive and relatively short-term fix. This threat of invasion from the nomad tribes of the north was a constant theme throughout much of Chinese dynastic history. The Chinese tried many strategies to solve the barbarian problem including military domination, bribery, diplomatic relations, intermarriage, and the construction of the Great Wall. None was wholly effective.

In 145 BCE Han Wudi became Emperor and ruled over China for more than 50 years. He improved the army, adopting many of the noamds’ horsemanship and archery techniques, and he increased the dynasty’s stock of horses. In 134 BCE, Han Wudi struck against the Xiongnu nomads, driving them far into central Asia. In the areas that he secured, trade flourished over a whole network of routes that collectively became known as the Silk Road. The Han Dynasty also got access to some of the central Asian grasslands which allowed it to support enough horses to maintain military advantage. Otherwise, China’s geography south of the Mongolian grasslands – dry deserts, steep mountains, cultivated river valleys – provided little open range necessary for the large scale raising of horses.

Wheelbarrows were first invented in China

With the nomadic problem temporarily resolved, Han Wudi worked to improve the administration of his dynasty. Many Chinese dynasties were debilitated by power struggles between the Empress Dowager (the title given to the Emperor’s mother) and family, Confucian bureaucratic officials, military commanders, and court eunuchs; the Han proved no exception. Han Wudi thus worked to curtail the power of his in-laws, Confucian scholar advisers, and eunuchs. He also created central government run monopolies on the production of salt, iron, copper, bronze, and alcohol, which significantly increased state revenues depleted by the nomadic wars. The greater wealth of the dynasty partly contributed to the proliferation of Chinese inventions during this time, including standardized weapons with replaceable parts, the earliest known use of the crank, calipers so precise that they could measure distance with precision to one thousandth of an inch, sophisticated bellows which delivered pressurized air in controlled quantities to heat fires used for metal working, crop experimentation to raise agricultural productivity, the wheelbarrow and rudimentary scientific medicine.


Although Legalist in many ways, Emperor Han Wudi established Confucianism as state doctrine. As a peasant, Liu Bang had received little education.  Initially, he had little tolerance for Confucian scholars who underscored the importance of ancient history, institutions, and rituals. Yet, once he became Emperor, Han Wudi began to appreciate the utility of Confucian learning. In the early days of his court, stories are told of how many of his soldier-officials became involved in brawls within the palace walls; one was even caught hacking away at a wooden palace pillar with his sword. His advisors, steeped in Confucian traditions, established simplified court rituals which created an expectation of decorum within the court, and gave dignity and honor to his role of emperor.

 Mandarinate – China’s Imperial Examinations and China’s Civil Service System

China’s invention of paper aided the spread of education in Imperial China

Emperor Han Wudi’s advisors argued that one of the reasons that the Qin dynasty had failed was because it had emphasized military conquest, strict laws, and a system of rewards and punishments – Legalist practices – at the expense of creating a moral and civil society. The Emperor’s advisors argued that foundation of the Han State’s morality should be the wisdom of the ancients, and that those schooled in ancient and historical wisdom should run the Han state’s bureaucracy. The Han Dynasty thus put into effect the Chinese public civil service known as the mandarinate, arguably one of the most enduring and successful instruments of administration mankind has ever created. 

Acceptance into the mandarinate was dependent on passing official examinations based on the Confucian classics. These classics promoted an optimistic view of humanity. They argued that man, with the right instruction and example, was capable of constant improvement and high moral righteousness. The Han Dynasty became a leading sponsor of Chinese art, scholarship and values. The court also put into effect complex Confucian rites and rituals which had initially been introduced to tame the soldier-officials. The repetition of these rituals tried to capture the idea of an ordered, harmonious universe which continued unchanged forever. The Han emphasis on promotion by education and merit created a relatively flexible society. For example, the Confucians scholars looked down on trade, deeming that it did not adequately incorporate true moral values. Nevertheless, merchants were often able to use their acquired wealth to assure that their sons received the tutoring necessary to pass the classical scholar exams of the government officials. In this way, a merchant family could rise on the achievements of its sons. This emphasis on education was facilitated by the invention of paper in 100 CE.

 Chinese Historical Records

The Historical Records of Sima Qian was written during the Han Dynasty and deeply shaped the way in which the Chinese perceived their past and thus themselves. An epic work in 130 chapters, The Historical Records explains history from many perspectives: a chronological narrative of political events; informative accounts of key institutions; and biographies of important individuals. The Historical Records set the prototype for the government-sponsored histories compiled by later dynasties. The composites style-with political narratives, treatises and biographies- became standard. By writing so well and so much, Sima Qian significantly influenced Chinese thinking on everything from government to the best conduct of individuals. For instance, in telling biographies, Sima Qian selected incidents in an individual’s life that showed consistency of a person’s character and how well the person performed a role, rather than turning points in personal development.

Patriarchal Society       

Quote from Ban Zhao’s Precept for my Daughters

Chinese dynastic society was to remain patriarchal throughout the ages. The subordinated position of women was supported by Confucian beliefs which argued that a woman’s rightful place was within the home. On occasion, however, some women rose to power and influence. The most famous female scholar in all Chinese history, Ban Zhao, lived in the Han Dynasty. Ban wrote many poems, helped her brother finish a history of the Han Dynasty, and authored Precepts for my Daughters, an instruction booklet for women that has remained well known to this day. The importance placed on filial piety also meant that emperors were often obliged to consider their mothers’ wishes, even after adulthood, giving the Empress Dowager the opportunity to exert considerable influence at Court. The Han Dynasty saw China’s population expand to approximately 60 million people, the equivalent of the Roman Empire at its height. This population lived within a wide-ranging market economy. Trade between regions was one factor which unified China into an integrated whole. Yet, much of this wealth remained concentrated in the hands of the scholar-officials, most of whom came from the old feudal families. The average Han peasant was still desperately poor.

 The Past in the Present – Themes of Early Chinese History in the Modern Age

As China moved from the Warring States period into the Qin Dynasty, many of the broad themes of Dynastic China were clearly emerging. One such pattern was the alternating fragmentation and unification of the empire, where imperial control of China was periodically disrupted by the rise of regional powers which led to China being shattered into smaller competing states. Yet these fragmented states remained remarkably cohesive culturally, organizing themselves around fundamental beliefs that formed the essence of Chinese civilization. A key belief was that the family was the basis of Chinese society, and the state was an extension of the family. Ancestor worship and the wisdom of the past were to serve as a guide to the present and to the future. Meritocracy also emerged as a strong theme. Increasingly, bureaucratic officials and military leaders were promoted based on skill rather than birth right. Education to achieve opportunity became an ethos of Chinese society, creating a certain social mobility. Religion was gradually becoming bureaucratized and ritualized.

Imperial Examination Hall, Yunnan University

Early on, great attention was paid to agricultural productivity. The Chinese bureaucracy mobilized its masses to construct irrigation and land clearing projects. This created a feedback loop, where increased agricultural productivity led to a rise in population, requiring further engineering and agricultural innovation to maintain China’s swelling numbers of people. China’s constant battle to feed its population has echoes in the struggles of the twentieth century, while the relative size of its population in comparison with global totals also has stark parallels. 

By the end of the Han Dynasty, the themes of Chinese civilization were becoming increasingly engrained, and Confucianism became firmly established as the guiding state doctrine. The Emperor’s wishes were carried out by a bureaucratic government staffed by the best-educated scholars whose places were achieved by examinations in ancient Chinese wisdom. These exams created notable social mobility and reinforced the optimistic belief of humans’ capacity for constant self-improvement through self-cultivation. Today, educational achievement remains an important avenue of social mobility. Competition for university and other academic places is brutal. In 2018, for instance, approximately 9.75 million students took the Chinese National College Entrance Examination, and about 81% were accepted.In recognition of the importance of these exams, construction sites across the country were ordered to suspend works to create a peaceful environment for the exam-taking students.

The Great Wall of China

A belief in human ingenuity and its ability to positively impact the physical world and to solve problems continued as a core Chinese tenet. This is exemplified by its extraordinary engineering feats such as the construction of large parts of the Great Wall of China and digging of the Grand Canal which required the mass mobilization of conscripted labor. The educated started to see that natural laws resulted from “scientifically-explained” physical forces, not just caused by the whims of divine power. Human ingenuity was able to solve problems such as river flooding and irrigation resulting in high agricultural productivity which in turn allowed for the expansion of the population. This ingenuity also led to much technological development. Today, China continues the tradition of using engineering to solve its developmental problems. China has been laying down infrastructure at a breakneck rate as well as undertaking monumental ventures such as the South-North Water Transfer Project.  The South-North Water Transfer Project is diverting water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River in order to solve the North’s water shortage challenges. At an estimated current cost of $79 billion, the aqueduct is one of the largest and most expensive engineering projects ever undertaken. 

Many Legalist themes continued throughout the Han Dynasty, including the promotion of soldier-officials based on merit as opposed to noble birth, the institution of a strict rule of law, a focus on agricultural production in order to maintain a large military structure, a fair taxation of production in order to maximize agricultural yield and the standardization of everything from axle sizes to weights. Each of these measures was employed in order to improve economic productivity which could then be marshalled to increase the power of the state. Today, the Chinese leadership still believes that authoritarian political control is the best way to create prosperity and stability for its 1.3 billion citizens. The Qin collectivization of families who were then responsible for self-policing, and the Qin effort to establish itself as the source of intellectual authority foreshadowed efforts of the Communist era.

Mass mobilization of its population to achieve often unparalleled engineering feats remains a Chinese competitive advantage. In the late 1990s, the Chinese government instituted a massive $1.2 trillion public works program to build new bridges, roads, dams, railways, power plants, port facilities and airports all around the country; currently no other country devotes as many resources to infrastructure, and a fifth of all construction in China depends on public works projects. The only thing comparable to China’s infrastructure creation today is the building of the US highway system in the 1950s. China still relies as much on muscle and sweat as machinery to complete its big jobs and this muscle and sweat continues to achieve often impressive results. For instance, a 30 mile stretch of road through rough mountainous terrain between Chengdu and Guanxian, was achieved in a week with the help of 200,000 laborers. Similarly, when a sandstorm buried 350 miles of train track, thousands of laborers had the track cleared in two days. In the closing weeks before the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government employed more than 10,000 people in 1000 boats to clear 600 sq km of algae bloom that threatened to disrupt the Olympic sailing events in the port city of Qingdao.


From a climatic point of view, it is also interesting to note that the Han Dynasty likely profited from what is known as the Roman climatic optimum. The Roman climatic optimum lasted from approximately 200 BCE to CE 150. During this time, the climate was relatively warm, wet and stable. In agricultural societies, these favorable weather conditions helped to increase GDP which in turn helped the dynasty to flourish.

What Happened Next?

The collapse of the Han Dynasty led to centuries of division and conflict with numerous competing centers of power. Yet this time also saw the adoption of Buddhism and continued cultural development in various art forms. This was followed by the successful, but brief, unification of China under the Sui Dynasty in the sixth century. The story continues in The Age of Division.


Part III – The Age of Division: 220 CE – end of Sui Dynasty 618 CE


Sui Dynasty sandstone Bodhisattva

The approximately 400 years between the Age of Division and the end of the Sui Dynasty, saw many familiar themes dominate. China endured fluctuating periods of fragmentation and reunification. Confucianism continued to permeate the fabric of Chinese society with its emphasis of filial piety and ancestor worship, and with a value system that allowed for the creation of a strong central government. The Northern Nomads were frequently problematic, and diplomatic and military solutions were constantly being considered. Agricultural productivity remained important not only to feed the population, but also to fill government tax coffers and to create enough surplus food to maintain the military. Sustaining a strong military was always a double-edged sword. Powerful generals in frontier regions often developed significant regional power which was then used as a springboard for a national campaign. The ability for China to stay unified ultimately became significantly effected by the creation of a national, homogeneous culture which taught universal values, such as loyalty, duty, compassion and morality.

New themes also emerged during this period: the introduction of Buddhism, land reform, the extensive colonization and population of Southern China, the beginning of the legal reform and the growing development of poetry. These challenges were often most successfully met when approaching these problems through a shared way of thinking. This shared way of thinking, or common culture, came to define what it meant to be Chinese. In other words, whether a nomad was considered Chinese was dependent not upon his racial origin or the territory into which he was born, but on how well he had assimilated into Chinese thinking, culture, language and customs. Chinese culture acted as a significant unifying force within Chinese society as it gave all regions of China the same principles around which to rally.

From a climatic point of view, tree ring data suggest that the Central Asian climate went through three periods of severe drought – in 360, 460 and 550 CE – each of which would have likely affected Chinese stability. When nomads in central Asia could no longer live off the land there, they migrated. Those migrating east and south would have increased instability in North China as they attacked weaknesses on the border and moved into northern farming lands in order to access the food and water needed to support their herds. From 400 to 570 CE, China suffered from an extended period of dry desertification, forcing farmers to migrate further south. The year 535/536 CE was particularly challenging. It is believed that a volcanic eruption or series of volcanic eruptions filled the atmosphere with ash and other debris, significantly diminishing sunlight and shepherding in a global volcanic winter. Chinese historical records suggest that temperatures were so cold that crops failed resulting in food shortages, famines, disease, population migration and unrest from which continued to affect China negatively for several decades thereafter. 

The Age of Division 220-589 CE – Southern Migration, Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism

The Han Dynasty began to disintegrate as the independence of wealthy families increased. Many refused to serve what they regarded as a corrupt imperial center. Eventually, the Han Dynasty fragmented and three rival states – the Sui, Wu, and Wei – took its place. This period is known in Chinese as Sanguo (Three Kingdoms) and their rivalry was immortalized in one of China’s greatest novels, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Yet, try as they did, none of these warlord families was able to conquer all of China. In particular, the north was shattered by continuous fighting between shifting nomadic and northern Chinese groups. Many nomads intermarried and integrated into Chinese society, while Han Chinese began to adopt certain nomadic customs and foods.

Rice paddies, Yunnan Province

Constant fighting in the north caused 2 million people to flee south, abandoning the land of the northern frontier. Many resettled in the Yangtze River valley. This migration transformed the Yangtze valley and southern China into one of the most densely populated and prosperous regions of the country. Much of the south’s prosperity was driven by silk production, the trade of which continued to thrive during the Age of Division. The Yangtze River valley’s climate proved ideal for growing the mulberry bushes on which silkworm feed, as well as for the cultivation of tea and rice. Tea brought many health benefits to the population, not least because of its boiled water which killed water-borne germs. Similarly, rice proved to be an ideal food crop. It tasted good, was highly digestible and when consumed with soy products, offered excellent nutrition. When milled, it stored well. It was easy and cheap to cook, the only cereal that can simply be boiled without becoming mush. But perhaps most significantly, rice almost always yielded more calories per unit of land than other crops, important in a country with limited arable land. In good climates, two or even three crops could be grown in the same field.

Despite the disruption of the Age of Division, scholars and artists flourished, with notable achievements in areas such as astronomy, mathematics, pottery, philosophy and literature. Incidents from history, for instance, presented themes of courage and loyalty that lent themselves to the creation of epic romance and fantasies which were then transformed into plays and operas. Poetry also emerged as an important cultural phenomenon, a role it would continue to play throughout the spread of Chinese History.

Laozi, founder of the Daoism

Daoism (sometimes referred to as Taoism) also became more popular during this time. A belief began to develop that the three spheres – Heaven, Earth and Man – were interconnected by way of a primal substance, called qi (or chi) which made up all things, and that all things within the universe had developed in accordance with the patterns of nature which were the quintessential expressions of The Dao or The Way. If human beings worked harmoniously with these natural cycles, they were most likely to maximize the potential for various forms of well-being such as health, good fortune and fertility. For example, The Dao asserted that state executions should be conducted during the killing seasons of autumn and winter when nature brings an end to the life of plants.

In the face of constant warfare, Chinese again began to extensively debate the correct behavior of man in relationship to family and state. An environment of alienation and personal extravagance pervaded elite circles where Confucian ideals lost much of their hold. Many eschewed court life with its vicious cliques. A search for unaffectedness and spontaneity led to an outpouring of self-expression, especially in poetry. Chinese, with its tones and its plentiful rhymes, is well-suited to verse. The Chinese script, especially Classical Chinese, is equally advantageous to poetry writing because it creates visual associations in ways that purely phonetic scripts do not. Poetry became China’s most important literary form. From the Han time onward there was a strong link between poetry and emotion. Similarly, especially by Tang times, calligraphy came to be recognized as a fine art. The force, balance and movement of the character strokes were believed to indicate the calligrapher’s moral and psychological makeup as well as his momentary emotions. Calligraphy came to be considered so indicative of character that, in Tang times, it was used as a criterion for assigning posts in the civil service.

Among the most gifted poets, writers and musicians of the third century was a group of poets later immortalized as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. The Seven Sages argued that previous unquestioning compliance to Confucianism was, in part, to blame for the fall of the Han Dynasty. Daoist in philosophy, the Seven Sages discussed philosophy and art under a bamboo grove to escape the corruption and oppression of the court.

WLA_vanda_The_Seven_Sages_of_the_Bamboo_Grove - wiki

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, embroidery on blue silk


Buddhism, arriving in China from India during this time, gained quick acceptance in many parts of the country. Intellectually, Buddhism felt harmonious with many Daoist ideas, which was understandable since Daoist terms were employed by early translators to express Buddhist ideas. Buddhism also provided a new focus during a time when it was difficult to have much faith in civil government. It spoke to questions of suffering and death with a frankness that did not exist in native Chinese traditions, advancing a fully expounded vision of the afterlife and of the prospect of salvation. To many, its morality, including the sanction against the taking of life seemed to follow compassion to its logical end. That Buddhist monasteries became exempt from taxation was more controversial; as was monks’ vows of celibacy, since these vows contradicted the filial obligation to provide parents with grandchildren. On the latter point, Buddhists argued that it was the ultimate expression of filial piety to free parents from suffering by performing pious acts in their name. Buddhists believed that this would help ensure that those so honored would be born into a better life in their next reincarnation.

Carved buddhas at the Yungang Caves, Shanxi

In a practical sense, particularly in the south, Buddhist monasteries provided food to poor peasants, built inns for travelers and developed rudimentary lending houses where poor people could leave items of value in exchange for loans for seeds and other needs. The coming of Buddhism also led to an increase in fiction writing as Buddhist teachers discovered that stories made effective teaching tools. In north China, the nomadic tribes competing for control of the Yellow River Valley embraced Buddhism because it gave them a civilized religion of their own. The Northern Wei emperors, from 425-494, funded the carving of thousands of Buddhist statues in cliffs and caves at a place called Yungang, which is now a UNESCO site and can still be visited today. Buddhism also brought to China new ideas about medicine and architecture. The Age of Division also saw much writing on the subject of botany as well as inventions as diverse as tofu, the wheelbarrow and the repeating crossbow.

 Sui Dynasty 581-618

Funerary sculpture of a soldier, Sui Dynasty

In 486 the Northern Wei began to institute reforms which significantly increased the effectiveness, and economic power of its state. The most important of these reforms was the creation of the “equal field system” in which the state owned the land, but gave most families lifetime-control over 40 mu (approximately 6.6 acres), ensuring that as much land as possible was occupied by taxpaying farmers. The equal field system helped diminish the power of local Chinese land holders. It increased the government’s tax revenue and raised agricultural productivity. Another important reform was the creation of a divisional militia, i.e. volunteer farmer-soldiers who served in rotation in armies at the capital or on the frontiers. Kitting out soldiers had become expensive because cavalrymen needed both armor to protect both men and horses from powerful crossbows. The cost of this army was minimized by allowing soldiers to farm when not called upon for training or for campaigns.

In 581 CE, Sui Wendi, born Yang Jian, gained control of what is now called Sichuan and the northeast of China in 577 CE. With an army of 500,000 men, and using a combination of naval and land attacks, Sui Wendi eventually conquered the South in 589 CE, reunifying China under the Sui Dynasty. Creating a unified dynasty was difficult because during the Age of Division, the north and south of China had developed in different cultural ways.

Both north and south had conserved Confucian tradition as the basis for their societies. In the north, however, the preservation of Confucian learning took the form of family ethics and rituals. Government service opportunities remained varied and strong, and such service offered standing, power, and contact to elite families from other parts of the country. Many northern elites spent large portions of their careers in the provinces, as they rose from junior posting to commanded forces. Often educated, the real-world experience of these high-ranking Chinese elites made them a real advantage for the northern rulers working to create strong states.

With government salaries guaranteed, and with no northern border which needed defending from militarily skilled, nomadic tribesmen, the South focused their Confucianism on developing the arts. Witty conversation, alcohol and poetry were commonplace in the southern court, as was analyses of the essential features of literary, artistic and philosophical works. Calligraphy and painting developed with the increased interest in individual expression. A Daoist interest in mountains as places of nature and as a mythological home for immortals led to the beginning of landscape painting. Xie He, an early sixth century painter, helped to articulate the qualities on which subsequent landscape painting would be judged. These attributes included the quality of being imbued with vital force and the strength, harmony and adeptness of the brushstroke. The articulation and the nature of these attributes imbued painting and calligraphy with an intellectual content that was not present in the decorative arts of ceramics, lacquer ware or textiles.

Northerners viewed southern artistic sensibilities as effete, while southerners viewed themselves as the true protectors of Chinese civilization and regarded many of the nomadic-influenced customs of the north to be uncouth and barbaric. This was particularly true of the more forward manner of women in their society. The north justified its claims to the status of Son of Heaven and successor to the Han Dynasty by emphasizing its geography. It controlled the region of historic imperial capitals, the land where all the places sacred and memorable in Chinese history were located. The northern court assiduously preserved the ritual tradition of the Zhou and the Han. The southern court could not claim geographical centrality. Instead, it pointed to the indisputably Chinese lineage of its rulers and elaborated a succession theory where the Han imperial seal passed to the Wei, to the Jin, and then to the Southern Song as the legitimate Sons of Heaven.

1687 Latin translation of the Life and Works of Confucius

Yet, when China re-unified in 589 CE, the two different strands of its development were able to cross-fertilize each other. Yang Jian took the title of Wendi, “the cultured Emperor”, to show to the empire that he understood the importance for China of cultural as well as territorial integration. Wendi employed capable officials who justified his efforts in Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist terms. Engaging men who held deep Confucian values of loyalty to the ruler and duty to the people helped concentrate imperial power. To identify Confucians, the Sui reintroduced written examinations, testing knowledge of Confucian classics. The examinations also helped to standardize thought and to diminish the differences between the north-western, north-eastern and southern elites.


Under the Sui dynastic reign, the equal field system was introduced throughout the empire. By establishing uniform and low taxes on grain, cloth and labor services, the Sui were able to double the number of registered households for tax purposes within a few years of taking power. The Sui dynasty also introduced The Kaihuang Code, which attempted to bring order and leniency to the legal systems of the previous ages. It supported all of China’s major religions, particularly Buddhism. Court control over provincial administration was a critical issue to the newly formed court. To consolidate its control, the Sui reduced the number of prefectures and counties, and forbade officials from serving in their home prefecture or serving more than one tour in any county. These policies were designed to curtail the power of locally entrenched families and to keep scholar-officials from allying with them.

Millions of laborers were conscripted to rebuild the Great Wall and lengthen the Grand Canal between Hangzhou and Beijing. The Grand Canal eventually reached 1200 miles in length, 40 paces in width, and of sufficient depth to accommodate boats carrying 800 tons. The Grand Canal facilitated the flow of taxes paid in grain from the south to the imperial capital in the north. This Sui northern capital was situated in  situated in Chang’an, close to modern day Xian.

Chinese Culturalism and Historical Themes in Today’s China

Shaolin Monastery

By the end of the Sui Dynasty, China had undergone periods of fragmentation and reunification, yet this instability increasingly did not threaten the overall cultural cohesiveness of the Chinese nation. The foundation of this cultural cohesiveness was Confucianism. Buddhism and Daoism also influenced Chinese thinking, as did the militaristic values of the Legalist thinkers. These values, which formed the cultural heritage of Chinese civilization, were shared through government examinations (although these were intermittently discontinued). Instituting empire-wide exams meant that the ruling elite all learned from the same body of work whose knowledge then trickled down to the general population. These cultural traditions were reinforced through the continued collection and sharing of historical writings and the literature of China’s past. They were also bolstered through the development of new art forms such as Chinese opera.

This cultural tradition underpinned the Chinese people’s self-understanding and shaped its foreign policy until its increasingly difficult encounters with the Western world during the 1800s. The Chinese distinguished themselves from non-Chinese in large part by their adoption of the norms, values and customs of their cultural tradition, as opposed to defining themselves strictly by race or by being a people originating from any specific geographical territory.

Another dynastic theme seen in China today is the resurgence of Buddhism after its decades of suppression under the Communists. The return of Buddhism is most visible in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and in the large cities. Tibetan areas of China remain overwhelmingly Buddhist, particularly among the native population. Many previously destroyed monasteries throughout China are being rebuilt, a notable example being the Shaolin monastery, although some of this reconstruction is also motivated by tourism. Although accurate numbers are still difficult to come by, it is estimated that there were approximately 244 million Buddhist in China 2012. There is also an increase in the publication of Buddhist literature of all kinds, both by the monasteries themselves and by independent presses.

Farmer working her plot, Yunnan Province

Land reform has certainly been a persistent theme in China’s modern history. The 1950s Communist redistribution of land from wealthy landholders to peasant farmers was remarkably like the Equal Field System that was first introduced during the Sui dynasty. China’s further redistribution of land after the failure of the collectivized commune system reflected the recognition that agricultural productivity was highest when peasants were farming for themselves as opposed farming for wealthy landholders or for the Communist state. Today, land distribution issues are often controversial as China’s massive infrastructure projects have forced million people from their homes, often without adequate compensation.


The migration of Chinese into the south of the country began a development that would eventually turn the southeast region of China, especially from the Tang and Song Dynasties onward, into one of China’s strongest economic regions. It remains so today. Guangdong province, for instance, in China’s southeast, is currently the most populous province in China and, since 1989, its GDP has been the highest of all provincial regions. In 2019, Guangdong GDP exceeded 9 trillion yuan or $1.3 trillion dollars which was approximately the size of Australia’s entire GDP. 

What Happened Next?

The end of the Sui allowed for the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, considered by many Chinese to be the height of their civilization. After three centuries of cultural development that included the revival of Confucianism, the Tang was replaced by the Song, a relatively weak dynasty that succumbed to foreign invasion.


Part IV – The Silk Road – Cosmopolitan and Confucian Revival: Tang Dynasty 618 – 907 CE & Song Dynasty 960 – 1279 CE


Camels were often used to move goods through the deserts of the Silk Road

As the Tang Dynasty strengthened after the fall of the Sui Dynasty in 618 CE, it confronted what was becoming a familiar set of challenges for all Chinese emperors wishing to consolidate control over a unified China. These challenges included managing the power struggles of court where eunuchs, concubines, official-scholars, and royal family members all jockeyed for power and control. In addition, they had to keep tax coffers filled through high agricultural productivity and maintain a strong military in order to defend northern borders while preventing that same military from challenging imperial authority. Added to all of this was the threat of regional power growth, the execution of large public works for the benefit of the entire Chinese society, and the maintenance of moral cultural authority in order to earn the loyalty of its subjects. As ever, it was a tall order. 

The underpinning of this moral cultural authority was increasingly challenged during the Tang and Song Dynasties as the Chinese encountered greater cultural diversity than they had in previous eras. Specifically, the Tang court was one of the most cosmopolitan courts in all of China’s history. During the Tang Dynasty, the Silk Road flourished and sea trade with Southeast Asia developed as more and more Chinese migrated south. The influence of Buddhism continued to grow, causing in turn a revival of Daoist thought and study. In 1127 CE, the Song Dynasty in the north was ultimately overrun by nomadic tribes, causing the Chinese courts to flee south. Yet, despite all of these international influences, China continually returned to the values of its ancient Confucian culture as the best way to create a homogeneous, unified, prosperous and stable society.

Tang Dynasty 618-907 – Reform

Expensive and failed military campaigns against the northern part of what is now Korea led to excessive tax increases which eventually caused revolt against the Sui Dynasty. Li Yuan, a major military Sui commander, eventually turned against the Sui and conquering the country for himself. He founded the Tang Dynasty in 618. It took until 624 for all of China to come under his rule. Once reunification had been achieved, Li Yuan demobilized his armies, preventing the rise of powerful regional generals that, much as he had done, might lay claim to the throne. Powerful southern families were forced to move north and the Sui’s “rule of avoidance” was implemented, so that no official could serve in his home district. The first Tang emperor continued the equal field system, ensuring that land was allocated equally to adult male taxpayers based on an annual census.

Buddhist monk practicing in China today

One of Li Yuan’s more controversial policies was his attempt to limit the power of the Buddhist and Daoist centers which were formerly beyond the reach of imperial tax collection. Exemption from taxation enabled the monasteries to establish huge landholdings and large numbers of tenant farmers. From Li Yuan’s point of view, these great religious estates transcended political boundaries, threatened the new regime, and represented a potentially significant tax base which could be used to restore depleted imperial coffers. By mid-626, the Emperor ordered that only one Daoist and three Buddhist monasteries were permitted in the capital and only one of each faith in each prefecture. This was a spectacular restriction given that it was estimated that within the capital and surrounding areas alone were over 120 Buddhist and 12 Taoist monasteries. Yet the order was never fully enacted. Li Yuan was deposed by his second son, Tang Taizong, who reversed his father’s order.

Building on the civil and military achievements of his father, Tang Taizong embarked on a program of civil reform tempered by Confucian principles. He also launched military campaigns which succeeded in expanding the territorial boundaries of the empire. At the heart of the civil reform was the expansion of the Sui’s legal reform. The result was the creation of a far-reaching legal code, the oldest surviving code in China today. The Tang code persisted as the foundation of Chinese legal practice until the 14th century. It also served as model legal codes for Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The Tang Dynasty – Innovation

By Lautam17 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of an ancient Chinese mechanical clock

The Tang Dynasty was also highly innovative, especially in the fields of gunpowder, mechanical clocks and the use of water power. Tang scholars devoted much time to systematizing knowledge and historical texts. The civil service examinations were reinstated. Book printing was developed; the world’s oldest existing printed book is a copy of the Buddhist text the Diamond Sutra dated 868. The scroll format for long text began to be superseded by flat books with folded pages, a format much more convenient for storage. The invention of printed books revolutionized the imperial communication of ideas and continued to facilitate the creation of a homogeneous Chinese culture, as printed books enabled Chinese norms and expectations to be even more widely dispersed throughout the population.

The Tang Dynasty – The Silk Road


The Silk Road thrived under the Tang Dynasty. As the camels and caravans traversed west and east, traders brought many foreign ideas and goods into China. This international exposure made the Tang court one of the most cosmopolitan in China’s history. Buddhism also flourished under the Tang. The Dynasty generously supported Buddhist monasteries and commissioned further Buddhist sculptures. The renowned Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, made a 17-year trip to India to bring back to China Buddhist scriptures and teaching. His work provided the Chinese with a deeper understanding of the religion and the differences of the different Buddhists schools. His journey was later recounted in the famous Chinese fiction work Journey to the West.

Due in part to the Tang’s nomadic influences, women were given a relatively high status during the Tang Dynasty. One of China’s most powerful women, Empress Wu, ascended the dynastic throne in 690 as emperor, the only female in China to formally take the title Emperor. She ruled until 705.

Tang Poetry and Art

Tang-era poet Du Fu

Poetry became increasingly important in the Tang era. It was viewed as the most authentic and revealing way to articulate feelings and thoughts. Poems were recited at banquets, used to court women, recorded people’s daily activities, and described historic events or scenes of natural beauty. The Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty contains over 48,000 poems written by 2200 Tang poets. Three Hundred Tang Poems contains samples from all the great Tang poets, including two of China’s greatest poets Li Bo and Du Fu. In fact, many Chinese consider the Tang to be the height of their civilization, particularly culturally. Tang-era costume dramas are frequently shown on Chinese TV. China towns in the West are often referred to by Chinese people as Tangren Jie meaning “Tang people’s street”.

What life was like for the subjects of the Tang who lived far from the imperial capital has been revealed, in part, by a large number of documents found in a cave temple at Dunhuang, in the northwest of China where the Silk Road starts to cross the desert. These documents showed that Tang imperial policies, such as the equal field system, were established even in the far reaches of its empire. The documents also revealed that the state exerted at least some control over local markets, as fragments of official price lists showed that authorities established prices for three qualities of a wide range of goods traded in government-supervised markets, including foodstuffs and textiles. Primary books found with the documents showed that Confucian social ethics primers were used even in schools run by Buddhist monasteries.

Northern Song Dynasty 960-1127 – Northern Rebellion, Regionalism and Reunification

PericlesofAthens at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Emperor fleeing the rebellion of An Lushan 755

After 760, weather throughout the China was turning colder and drier, ending the temperate period that brought helped contribute to the affluence to the early Tang Dynasty. For the next almost 100 years, harvests declined as did the flow into rivers from glaciers. These drier conditions also affected the steppe grasslands causing unrest along the border. Changing weather conditions along with other factors meant that, by 763, the Tang Court started losing control over its empire. Despite imperial safeguards, in 755 a Chinese general, An Lushan, was able to amass 160,000 troops along China’s northern frontier, and then march on the capital. The Tang government never fully recovered from this rebellion and, after eight years of fighting, was forced to negotiate for peace. The government abandoned the equal field system, instead giving each region tax quotas, allowing them to raise these quotas with great leeway. Government withdrawal from control of land ownership facilitated the growth of large, commanding states. Eventually, these states became so powerful that the country again fragmented. Yet the Tang’s retreat from regional markets, as they lost control over the country, had the unintended consequence of stimulating economic trade. A new economic network of markets and towns began to emerge alongside the official state hierarchy of administrative centers.

Period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

The fifty years between the Tang and Song dynasties is called the ‘Period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms’ because of the five fleeting regimes in the North and the 10 minor kingdoms competing for power in the South. Interestingly, the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms was marked by renewed militarism. Indeed, in order to gain advantage and build large, loyal armies, some generals shared his family name with his soldiers. This practice allowed military generals to build up an elite army of adopted sons whose kinship was not given by birth, but was earned through sharing the hardship in achieving a common goal.

China Reunified – Founding of the Song Dynasty

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Taizu founder of the Song Dynasty

China was finally reunified in 960 CE under General Zhao Kuangyin who founded the Song Dynasty under the title Song Taizu. One of Song Taizu’s first steps as leader was to demilitarize China and to recreate a central bureaucratic state organized along strict Confucian ideals where classical scholarship was more highly valued then military expertise. Many new Confucian thinkers, such as the Du You (732-812) and Han Yu (768-824) revitalized Confucian thought. Du You wrote a 5000 page, 200 chapter history of Chinese institutions, Tongdian. Du You argued that corrupt rulers, heavy taxes and frequent labor service drove the people to seek the protection of local strongmen and approved of Sui efforts to make tax burdens equitable and reasonable. Han Yu saw China’s problems in much more cultural terms and argued that a rejuvenation of Confucian learning would bolster the state, by revitalizing values consistent with its subjects’ obedience to the Emperor, and by reminding the ruling classes of their obligation to their citizens. Han Yu felt Buddhism was a barbarian cult and should be eradicated, as it encouraged Chinese citizens to divert from their duty to the Emperor in order to pursue Buddhist observance. Nevertheless, this renewed emphasis on classical scholarship eventually created vulnerability on the northern borders, as book learning was once again emphasized over military skills. Passing civil service examinations was difficult and required years of intense study and preparation, leaving little time for the practice of military arts. The invention of printing during the Tang Dynasty, and its profusion during the Song Dynasty, made books available to more families, increasing the competition for government appointments, but also creating a vulnerability to invasion through the prioritizing of academic abilities over military power.

One of Taizu’s biggest achievements was to disband the regional armies that had plagued the Tang. After Taizu had consolidated control, he encouraged commanders to retire on generous pensions and gradually replaced provincial military governors with civil officials. To avert the rise of new regional strongmen, the Emperor eventually put the whole army under civilian control and ensured that his officers were regularly rotated. Despite this military reorganization and because the Song deemphasize the importance of the military, the Song was constantly challenged by northern nomads. By 1004, a northern nomadic tribe, the Khitans, managed to occupy much of the Yellow River Valley, forcing the Song to sign a peace treaty with the nomads as equals. In exchange for retreating from the lands surrounding the Yellow River Valley, the nomads extorted huge annual payments from the Chinese in silk and silver, which placed enormous pressure on imperial resources.

The creation of the Song Dynasty was accompanied by more favorable climatic conditions. From 960 to 1250, China enjoyed a stronger and wetter monsoon which meant in turn greater agricultural productivity. However, while China was enjoying a return to normal rain levels, tree ring data indicates that the North Mongolian steppes lands underwent significant periods of reduced rainfall extending between 900-1064, 1115-39, and 1180-90. These periods of diminished rainfall resulted in an increase in nomadic incursions into China. 

Weaknesses of the Song Imperial Governments

Despite its efforts at military reform, and its ample supply of worthy emperors and statesmen, the Song Dynasty faced two main weaknesses. The arrival of printing allowed bureaucratic regulation to multiply, so that governing and reforming the government became increasingly cumbersome. For example, rules about the use of one imperial ritual hall filled 1200 volumes. Court struggles also hindered effective rule. Disputes among officials seeking to influence the Emperor often escalated; each party lined up allies, and focused their energies on devising ways to oust their opponents. Eunuchs, concubines, and members of the emperor’s extended family constantly vied for power and advantage, often at the expense of what was best for the country.

Song’s Flourishing Economy

By Monaneko (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Dynasty coin

Despite these challenges, the Northern Song economy flourished. In 742 China’s population was approximately 50 million; by 1100, it had reached almost 100 million people. Its food supply steadily increased and denser settlement patterns aided commercialization. The need to transport the growing quantity and range of Chinese products fueled inland waterways and coastal shipping industries, providing employment for shipbuilders and sailors. As trade increased, so did the demand for money. By 997, the Song government was minting 800 million coins a year, two and a half times the largest output during the Tang. This need for currency eventually led to the development of paper money, which originated as trading receipts from deposit shops where traders had safeguarded money or goods. By the 1120s, the Song government took control of the deposit shop system, issuing the world’s first government-backed paper money. On the whole, the Song proved capable of managing the new paper currency, avoiding over-printing which would have resulted in high inflation.

The Southern Song Dynasty 1127-1279 – Cultural Conservatism and Foot Binding

By William Henry Flower (Fashion in Deformity) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Drawing of a bound foot with broken arch and bent under toes

By 1127, the northern nomadic Jurchen established a coalition of tribes under the leader Aguda and conquered northern China. The Song imperial court was forced to flee south. The Southern court – known as the Southern Song Dynasty – in reaction to the northern nomadic invasion became less open to foreign ideas and was more sensitive to issues of Chinese cultural identity. Under the Southern Song Dynasty, women were returned to a more subordinate role compared to the freedoms that they enjoyed as a result of the nomadic influences of the Tang court. In particular, foot binding became popular. This excruciating procedure involved tightly binding the feet of very young girls to prevent them from growing normally. The resulting 3 ½ to 4 inch long feet were considered to augment a woman’s beauty and make her movements more feminine and dainty. As for binding grew in popularity and became the new norm, parents were eager to make their daughters more attractive in order to guarantee good marriages and social status. They thus subjected their daughters to years of debilitating pain and impaired mobility. Female literacy also rose during the Southern Song Dynasty as daughters were educated in order to better to educate their sons.

Expanding Southern Song Economy

By User:PericlesofAthens [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Dynasty red lacquer tray with gold engraving

The Southern Song Dynasty enjoyed significant agricultural productivity. This was partly due to increased acreage under cultivation and partly due to new strains of rice that allowed for two and sometimes three crops to be harvested per year. Additionally, cash crops such as tea and sugar expanded both interregional and international trade. The Song also ran the largest iron smelting industry in the world, its output being used for the manufacture of items such as weapons, coins, farm implements and nails. Traditional Southern Song industries such as silk, lacquer and ceramics reached high levels of technical sophistication. Growth in agriculture, cash crops, trade and industrial output led to the growth of cities and market towns. 

The invention of the printing press also helped fuel economic growth and served to tie the distant regions of China more closely together, China’s northern occupation notwithstanding. Printing also contributed to the spread and standardization of ideas and practices. Handbooks on agriculture, childbirth, pharmacy, divination and Daoist rituals all became more widely available.

The Song’s invention of the compass helped the expansion of long-distance trade between China, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The compass is considered one of China’s four greatest inventions and was symbolically acknowledged during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics along with paper, the printing press and gunpowder. Sea trade from China’s southeast coast to India introduced many spices into the Chinese diet, including pepper, cloves and saffron, and generated additional economic growth. 

Southern Song Art

Dong Yuan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Dynasty landscape painting

Landscape painting reached its height under the Southern Song Dynasty. Executed with ink and brushes and often accented with colored washes, these paintings illustrated the beauty, harmony and magnificence of the natural world, highlighting forests and mountains amid streams and valleys. Human beings were absent or were barely visible from these landscape paintings in order to emphasize how humans were but a small part of the larger harmony of nature. Often these paintings were inscribed with exquisite language and calligraphy which became a key part of the painting itself. Mountains, long seen as sacred places by the Chinese, were key landscape subjects.

The Past in the Present – Historical Themes in Today’s China

Scene from Journey to the West, Summer Palace, Beijing

The Tang Dynasty remains a source of pride among Chinese today, viewed as the high point in Chinese civilizational development and responsible for the invention of one of China’s four great inventions, block printing. Some of the most popular television series in China today are set in the Tang Dynasty era and Journey to the West is one of the most enduring stories in China’s history, with myriad adaptations on stage and screen.

Just as it was difficult for the elite of the Tang and Song dynasties, today maintaining control over China’s provinces as the Chinese economy expands remains a key challenge for Chinese leaders. As China has transformed from a communist to a largely-capitalist economy, it has ceded much control to its regional centers. This growth in regional provincial power has manifested in many ways, the most important of which may be the challenges Beijing has encountered when trying to force national legislation at the local level. An improving but still insufficient legal system and lack of press freedoms has meant that it has sometimes been tricky for Beijing to exert its authority, especially over more wealthy areas. Growing inequality as a result of its rapid economic expansion has also caused regional dissatisfaction, as poor regions see already-wealthier regions get even richer, while they struggle to feed, employ, and educate their populations.

By James Ricalton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Women with bound feet, Beijing 1900

The appropriate role of women in Chinese society has continued to be debated through modern times. As the West began to demonstrate its technological, military and economic dominance from the mid-1800s onwards, China looked at the role of women in society as symbolic of its larger problems. Indeed, the statement that “Women hold up half the sky” was proclaimed by Mao Zedong to communicate that women were a resource that should be deployed outside the homes and into the agricultural, industrial and professional fields instead of being closeted away as they were from the Song Dynasty onwards. 

What Happened Next?

After being driven south by the northern frontier nomadic peoples, the Song were eventually defeated by a Mongol army led by Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan. Kublai established the first non-Han Chinese led dynasty, the Yuan. He also expanded Chinese territory to include Tibet and what is now Xinjiang, giving the Yuan Dynasty borders very close to the China we see today. The story continues in The Mongol Empire.