theme: chinese civil war

Origins and Course of the Chinese Civil War
  • The Chinese Civil War was fought between two forces: the GMD and the CCP. The GMD was led by Jiang Jieshi, and the CCP by Mao Zedong (spellings may vary because they are translated).
  • The war began for a number of reasons, following the fall of the Qing dynasty (monarchy) that had long ruled China, along with previous other dynasties. The rule of the Manchu Qing dynasty was weak, they had originally taken power by force over the native Han Chinese. They forced men to adopt a hairstyle that was a representation of their submission. They were heavily resented, particularly by the largest sector of society: the peasants.
  • Foreign intervention began in the 19th Century, when China was becoming increasingly controlled by European powers, their weaknesses exploited by European powers wanting to profit from Chinese trade. 
  • Resentment of this exploitation led to something known as the ‘Boxer Rebellion’, where there was an uprising against European intervention, however they were humiliated when European troops quashed it. 
  • Growing resentment and splits among the ruling class led to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, a Republic was formed in 1912 with the first Chinese president as leader, however real power lay with the Army leader Yuan Shikai, who moved to create a military dictatorship by 1914 and made himself Emperor in 1916.
  • During this time, China had become regionalised, with these regions ruled by 'warlords’. A political party, the Guomindang (GMD) was also set up during this time, hoping for unification and a democratic constitutional monarchy. The Emperor ordered the assassination of one of the GMD’s founding members, and a revolution was launched, but this failed and the party was banned, and it’s leader exiled (Sun Yat Sen).
  • The May Fourth Movement was the next big revolution, following the peace terms that ended WWI. People were angry that the settlements had not given them back rights to the Shandong province, taken by Germany, instead it was given to Japan, whom China had lost a war to in the late 19th Century.
  • China was offered aid from Russia, who had already gone through a revolution and established Bolshevik rule. A Soviet adviser (Bodin), helped the GMD to organise itself along Soviet lines. 
  • The CCP also received aid from the Russian-dominated organisation Comintern. They attempted to organise strikes, but small numbers and inexperience of the CCP meant that they had little impact, and they then joined with the GMD under the same organisation, convinced by the Russian organisers that joining together was the best option.
  • There were some splits in ideals between the GMD and the CCP, although the CCP had many allies in the GMD. 
  • The GMD leader Sun Yat Sen died in 1925, and the GMD became divided into left and right wings, with two separate leaders, however Jiang Jieshi had the most control over the party, because he had the military force. He used this force to establish control in two provinces: Guandong and Guangxi.
  • By 1926, the GMD (nationalists) had begun to establish a rival governmnt to that of the warlords. They formed an alliance (both right and left wings) with the CCP against the warlords who has a loose coalition between each other based in Beijing. It was a success. Their strong army conquered half a million square miles and 170 million people.
  • The CCP had begun gaining greater influence since the the 'common front’ between the two parties was established, through its organisation of industrial workers and peasant unrest at the rule of warlords.
  • The GMD then began to see the CCP as a threat against their party, and started launching attacks. The GMD began to think that the peasants would not be the key to a successful revolution, and many peasants and landowners attempted to challenge the GMD. 
  • In 1927, Jiang Jieshi (leader of the GMD) turned on the Communists and began a civil war that lasted 22 years. 
  • Jieshi gained influential support by marriage, of a powerful family (the Sungs) and allied himself with leader of the Green Gang, which opposed Communist influences in trade unions. This greatly increased the strength of the GMD.
  • Communists were executed by Jieshi in Shanghai (the Shanghai Massacre) after he ordered the suppression of a communist strike that had actually been organised in his support. The Green Gang leader attacked the communists, and between 5 and 10 thousand were killed. The CCP responded with a revolt which was crushed and led to yet more deaths.
  • Other revolts, even those encouraged by Stalin, failed. By the end of 1927, 37,000 communists died.
  • The GMD were established as the central government, but the CCP had not been entirely wiped out.
  • The leftist wing of the GMD government opposed Jian Jieshi’s rule, and he retired for a year, and his control had lessened. He now faced defeating both the warlords and the CCP to retain control. They also had to deal with the invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese in 1931. 
  • From 1930 to 1934, Jiang launched the Encirclement campaigns, bringing war to the communists and essentially abandoning their own strongholds. 
  • The sheer size of China made it difficult to control, the CCP gained support and refuge in remote areas and perfected techniques through guerrilla warfare that were more successful than the GMD’s traditional tehniques. The CCP were able to avoid the GMD whilst gaining support of peasants, GMD deserters and other gangs, eventually developing a strong army.
  • The CCP won over peasants with land reforms and establishing good local economies.
  • The Encirclement campaigns launched from 1930 to 1934 attempted to defeat the CCP once and for all. The Nationalists had strong blockholds and a much larger army that consisted of the GMD and warlord troops. The CCP decided to abandon their stronghold area, after the first four campaigns has led to the loss of many lives, fearing defeat. 
  • The CCP then launched the Long March to Yan'an in 1934, they retreated to escape the GMD forces. A local warlord allowed the CCP to pass through his territory after they had found a gap in the nationalist line and passed though this.
  • The CCP were not sure where to go, and attempts to surpass nationalist-dominated cities were unsuccessful. Eventually, Mao decided to go toward Yan'an, but unexpectedly turned back. His movements confused the GMD, and movements then became easier. They advanced toward the snowy mountains where they were met by more communist forces, however these later split when Mao’s leadership was questioned. The Long March was ultimately a success when they used mountaineers, who knew the area, to surpass Nationalist blockholds and establish a base in Jiangxi. 
  • The CCP Jiangxi Soviet then began attacking GMD-held cities, and began taking over many of these areas. They were ruthless with any who opposed them, or any who Mao Zedong thought might oppose them. Their ruthlessness led to an air of fear and confirmed Zedong’s power. 
  • Mao came to see the peasants as the key to success, and gaining their support through ideology, reforms and fear was important. Although they were ruthless, it can be argued that they were not as violent as the GMD and the warlords, and perhaps treated the peasants better, at least those who cooperated. 
  • Following the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, a large-scale Japanese invasion was taking hold from 1937. This led to a Second United Front after Jieshi was kidnapped by the CCP to defeat Japan. Japan was eventually defeated when Russia and the USA intervened, with the USA dropping two atomic bombs on Japan. Despite external efforts from the USA and other powers, a coalition was not formed and the civil war continued. 
  • The Nationalists had equipped the CCP with forces and the Japanese invasion took a considerable toll on the GMD, leading to many losses. 
  • By 1945, Mao had an army of 900,000 with additional militia forces of 2 million. The CCP had 1,121,000 members and ruled over 95 million people. The two forces continued attacking one another and the communists attacked the GMD in Manchuria in 1946, signalling the final phase of the war.
  • The GMD was supported by the USA, and they had air and aid that made them more well-equipped for victory than the CCP.
  • The GMD leadership however was becoming unpopular after rising inflation. The CCP responded to GMD attacks with more effective tactics such as mobile attacks and strategic retreats that caught the GMD off guard. 
  • Poor leadership by the GMD and waning morale led to much loss of GMD territory to the CCP. Communist tactics proved more successful, and they underwent a second long march, wanting to 'keep the enemy on the run’. They took Japanese and Nationalist supplies on their way and CCP guerrillas cut rail links. 
  • Forces were poured into defending cities and they overextended their lines and weakened their forces by doing so. In 1947 the CCP launched counter-attacks that significantly weakened the GMD. 
  • The GMD forces became spread out and the communists began to consolidate their successes. There was then a conventional battle in which more land was taken by the communists after the GMD retreated following huge losses. They no longer had numerical superiority.
  • CCP attacks continued and yet more of China was taken from the GMD. 
  • There was one last huge battle - the Battle of Huaihai that saw tactics from the communists result in success. They encircled their enemies and there were huge losses. There were now 1.6 million communists to 1.5 million nationalists. 
  • The CCP took more and more Chinese cities, and many GMD forces surrendered at Beijing. After the fall of Nanjing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The communists had emerged victorious. 

A young Chiang Kai-shek stands next to Sun Yatsen, the founder of the Republic of China and the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist party shortly before Yatsen’s death in 1925. Chiang Kai-shek made a bid to inherit the mantle of the KMT leadership, and following the suppression of the warlords during the Northern Expedition, emerged in 1928 as the new leader of a united China. 

The divisions within the KMT however had begun to emerge during the campaign against the warlords, and the year prior to Chiang's elevation  conservative elements within the KMT turned on the Chinese Communist Party, which whom they had previously been allied with, expelling them from the KMT and violently suppressing them and other leftist elements within the KMT in the Shanghai Massacre, on April 12, 1927, the opening salvo of the Chinese Civil War.

The KMT continued their fight against the warlords and concluded their campaign successfully the next year with the capture of Beijing, but in the meantime the Communists weren’t going to take the slight lying down. They regrouped and made their first major counterattack on the Nationalist forces in August, 1927 with the Nanchang Uprising.


During the April 12th Shanghai Massacre of 1927, a suspected Communist is beheaded by a KMT sympathizer. During the so-called ‘White Terror’ (also applied to similar crackdowns in Taiwan following the KMT withdrawal to the island) some 300 leftists were executed without due process, and 1000 more arrested. Thousands more disappeared without explanation. When workers and students turned out to protest the crackdowns, NRA troops opened fire, killing approximately 100 of them. This incident is considered the beginning of the Chinese Civil War.

(Cody Images)