Mao and the Fourth Red Army break the encirclement of the Jinggangshan and retreat across southern Jiangxi with the Guomindang in hot pursuit.
Link to map of Jiangxi province: https://www.chinamaps.org/china/provincemaps/jiangxi-province-map.html
Further reading/watching on the difficulties of finding good maps of China:
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 4: The Rise and Fall of the Chinese Soviet Republic, 1931-1934
Some names from this episode:
Chen Yi, Political commissar for the 28th regiment of the Fourth Red Army
Lin Biao, Battalion commander in the 28th regiment
Wu Ruolan, Communist cadre and Zhu De’s wife
Welcome to episode 108 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
After a lengthy digression, I want to return this episode to our narrative arc that is following Mao and the red army. Where we last left Mao in episode 100, it was January 14, 1929, and he was leading his forces out of the Jinggangshan base area in what was a combination retreat and surprise attack. The Communist armed forces in the Jinggang mountain base area had been reduced to a pretty dismal state by an economic blockade, and Guomindang forces had surrounded the base in preparation for an assault. So, when Mao left the Jinggangshan on January 14 with his force of around 3600 people, he was both hoping to get the jump on the Guomindang by surprising them in advance of the Guomindang’s own planned offensive, but also, he was planning on leading his troops off to find another base of operations which would not be as easy for the enemy to subject to economic strangulation.
Now, before we get started, this episode we’re going to see Mao and the 4th Red Army marching across a large part of southern Jiangxi province. I’m going to be using place names to trace the movements of the army and talk about what happened in different places as we follow the progress of the army. I’ve heard from some listeners that it can be hard to find good maps of China to follow along with the narrative when we are following the army’s movements from place to place. Definitely, Google maps can be pretty hard to use for that purpose. I’ve gone ahead and linked to a pretty good map of Jiangxi province in the show notes, and also included it as the episode artwork, for people who want to follow along. That might not be a great solution if you are driving, or performing chores or working while you are listening, but anyways, it’s there if you want to look.
And as long as we’re on the subject of the difficulty of finding good maps of China (and why you can’t just plug place names into Google or Apple maps and get good results), I may as well explain why that is. Now, you might assume that the difficulty in finding good maps has to do with the language differences between English and Chinese, including inconsistencies in the transliteration of Chinese place names, as well as differences in naming conventions between the two cultures and also over time in China. That is one major factor, to be sure. And on top of that, there is the issue that many places that were important historically have been dwarfed by new cities and other geographical units that were insignificant during the time discussed in the podcast. For example, I taught for a semester at an American university with a branch campus in the Chinese city of Zhuhai, right on the border with Macau. Back in 1950 it was a village of 3,000 people, but now it has a population nearing 2 million. And there are a lot of places like that in China, and the growth of these new cities can then overrun or swallow up old villages that might have been significant in the 1920s and 1930s, but which now can be hard to find on maps.
But actually, probably the biggest reason why it is hard to easily find good maps of China online, is because it is illegal for anyone to make maps of China unless they have special authorization from the government to do so. And in fact, the Chinese government considers accurate maps of China’s geography to be a state secret. As a result, maps of China intentionally include inaccuracies, including forcing online map services to include algorithms that introduce random offsets. The result of all of this is that, not only is a service like Google maps way less useful for looking up locations in China. But also, when you have a situation where, for example, British geology students got arrested for mapping fault lines, there are just going to be a lot less people making maps.
Anyways, if you want to learn more about China’s security laws regarding mapmaking, I included some links in the show notes. Now, back to the Fourth Red Army.
Here’s how Zhu De remembered the departure of the army from the Jinggangshan on January 14:
That night they surprised and wiped out a battalion of Guomindang troops in Dafen, in Suichuan County. With this victory the Communists broke through the blockade and began what would be only the first of many forced marches that they would make over the following months, covering about 45 kilometers daily.
They marched south, engaging landlord militias which were easily dispatched along the route and looting food, clothing and other necessities from landlord homes along the way. Around January 17, they occupied the county seat of Dayu County. Here the Communists stopped to regroup and to try to mobilize the masses in the area.
At some point during the second half of January, Mao wrote an interesting short piece titled “Notice Issued by the Fourth Army Headquarters of the Red Army” which was intended to quickly convey a sense of the politics of the Communists, the political situation in China, and the need for revolution in a popular form. Because the only respite from marching and fighting that lasted for more than a day was during the Communists’ three days occupying the Dayu County seat, I think it’s most likely that he composed this piece during that time. It was written in the form of a poem, with each line composed of four Chinese characters, in order to make it easy to remember. I’m going to read it out here, to give you a sense of how Mao was trying to appeal to the basic masses in southern Jiangxi at this time.
Anyways, the Communists could only hang on for three days in Dayu. The Guomindang was in hot pursuit, and the Communists were at a disadvantage. The Guomindang approached stealthily, aided by local landlord militias, while the Communists were without the networks that they had been able to rely upon in the areas surrounding the Jinggangshan. On January 20 the Guomindang attacked with little warning, and Mao and Zhu were forced to give battle in unfavorable conditions. The Guomindang inflicted heavy casualties on the Communists, killing hundreds according to Zhu De’s account.
The Communists retreated, first southwest into Guangdong province and then angling east to cross southern Jiangxi. This forced march retreat did not move in a straight line. Mao and Zhu adopted the tactic of what they called ‘circling around’ or ‘spiraling.’ The length of the distance covered in these spirals is actually so large that you can follow it on the province level map of Jiangxi. For the next ten days, the Communists made a forced march first south into and around Nanxiong in Guangdong, then angled back northeast up to Xinfeng back in Jiangxi, and then southeast from there past Anyuan and Xunwu (this is a different Anyuan than the famous mining center in northern Jiangxi). The purpose of the spiraling tactic was not just to shake off the enemy. Rather, the idea was to use the tactic to string out or spread out the enemy’s forces, dispersing them so that they could be outmaneuvered, and so that the communists could then rely on their own speed and maneuverability to concentrate their own forces and wipe out isolated portions of the enemy army and regain the initiative when the opportunity arrived, although it would take some time for that to happen.
Initially though, the Communists were finding this very difficult, especially since they could not rely on getting intelligence and aid from the local population the way they had back near the Jinggangshan base area. As Mao later reported in his March 20, 1929, report to the Central Committee: “All along the way were places without Party organizations and without mass support, and the pursuing troops followed us closely with the help of the reactionary militia. It was truly a most difficult time for our army.” And the physical conditions of the march were very harsh as well. Although they were in southern China, which tends to be mild in the winter, they were up in the mountains, so there was a lot of ice and snow, and it was really cold. The Communists debated whether or not it made sense to split up and disperse their forces in order to better deal with the harsh conditions, but decided against it, as they felt that small groups could more easily be isolated and destroyed by the enemy (which, after all, was how they hoped to be able to eventually turn the tables on the Guomindang forces pursuing them).
Despite the Communists’ spiraling tactics and long forced marches, the Guomindang remained hot on the heels of the communists, and major engagements were fought which ended in defeats for the Communists at Xinfeng, Anyuan, and Xunwu. During one of these battles, Zhu De’s wife, Wu Ruolan, was captured. We met her back in episode 81, when Zhu met her while occupying Leiyang during the South Hunan Uprising. When she met Zhu, she had been a 25-year-old peasant activist who had gone to teacher’s college with one of Mao Zedong’s cousins and, along with a number of young women at this teacher’s college, joined the Communist Party during the May 30th Movement back in 1925. After her capture she was beheaded, and her severed head was sent back to her native city of Changsha where the city fathers mounted it on a pole in one of the main streets.
At Zhenxia village in Xunwu county the Guomindang managed to sneakily encircle the communists during the night and then launch a surprise attack at dawn. Mao and Zhu, who had been up late working on strategy, were asleep in bed when the attack began. While the communists managed to break out of the encirclement, is was a chaotic scramble, and in the process, Mao was separated from Zhu and from his security guards. However, the retreating communists managed to outpace the Guomindang and reunite their forces while retreating further east, and further up into the mountains along the border with Fujian, near where the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian, and Guangdong all come together.
The communists arrived in that border area on February 1 and had one day of rest to collect themselves before they got word that the Guomindang was headed for them. On this day they had a meeting and made the decision to head back north, with the idea of eventually making it back to the town of Donggu (to the southeast of Ji’an) where there was a party organization and mass support, and which was close enough to the Jinggangshan that they could get back in touch with their comrades there. So, when they got word that the Guomindang was advancing on them, off the communists went again, this time retreating north along the border with Fujian, with the idea of later veering northwest toward Donggu.
At this point the Guomindang made a costly military mistake. Feeling that the Communists had been basically defeated after routing them in Xunwu County, the commander of the Guomindang troops sent off a cable reporting his victory which read like this: “Since the heavy losses inflicted by my brigade in the vicinity of Jitanyu of Xunwu County, the Zhu-Mao forces have been fleeing in panic.” He thought that all he had before him was the final sweeping up of an already defeated enemy.
But the communists moved north at too fast of a pace for most of the Guomindang troops, and so, after a week of marching, when they arrived in and occupied the town of Dabodi (which you can find on the road between Ruijin and Ningdu on the map of Jiangxi) on February 9, only two Guomindang regiments remained close in hot pursuit of the Communists. In the vicinity of Dabodi was a gorge several kilometers long, with dense forests and high mountains. It was an ideal site for an ambush. Mao called an enlarged meeting of the Front Committee in Dabodi and an ambush was planned for the next day.
On February 10, in a maneuver known as a ‘pocket battle formation,’ the main force of the fourth red army waited in hiding along the sides of the road while a small force lured the pursuing Guomindang regiments to the ambush site. Meanwhile, a force led by Lin Biao had marched about 15 kilometers during the night so as to be in the rear of the Guomindang troops. In the exceptionally brutal battle that followed, which lasted until the afternoon of the following day, the Guomindang regiments were entirely wiped out.
While the Red Army had the advantage of surprise and position when they attacked the Guomindang, they were tired, poorly fed and clothed, and lacked ammunition. Zhu De led the charge, and Mao, who normally did not fight and did not typically carry a gun, picked up a gun and led a guard platoon in charging an enemy position. As Chen Yi wrote in his September 1, 1929, report to the Central Committee: “In this battle, our Army, after repeated defeats, staked everything on this last resort to destroy the strong enemy. After running out of ammunition and supplies, officers and men used tree branches, stones, and empty rifles in a bloody struggle and won final victory. This is the most glorious battle since the founding of the Red Army.”
According to Zhu De’s account, the Communist troops began the battle with only 20 rounds of ammunition each, so it soon devolved into hand-to-hand combat using the weapons mentioned by Chen Yi.
This battle was a turning point for the Red Army, after which its morale was raised, and it regained the initiative. According to Mao’s March 20 Central Committee report the Communists captured over 200 rifles, six amphibious machine guns, and a large number of enemy troops. Zhu De reported that he selected 100 poor peasants from among the enemy troops who had been captured and asked them to join the Red Army. The rest of the prisoners of war, more than 700 soldiers, were released because “they were old mercenaries and opium smokers… we didn’t want such men.”