The Mao-Zhu Army raises funds in Ningdu and moves on to the Donggu base area for rest and recovery. Background on Donggu.
Link to map of Jiangxi province: https://www.chinamaps.org/china/provincemaps/jiangxi-province-map.html
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]
Joseph Fewsmith, Forging Leninism in China: Mao and the Remaking of the Chinese Communist Party, 1927–1934
Some names from this episode:
Wang Chuxi, big landlord in Donggu area who lived in Futian
Ye Jianying, Communist who led division of the National Revolutionary Army which took Ji’an during the Northern Expedition
Duan Qifeng, Donggu bandit chief who joined with Communists
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Lai Jingbang, first leader of the Donggu communists
Wang Liangzhao, younger brother to Wang Chuxi
Welcome to episode 109 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we followed Mao and Zhu’s Fourth Red Army as it broke through the encirclement of the Jinggangshan base area and spiraled across southern Jiangxi for a month until it succeeded in ambushing and defeating the army that had been pursuing it. This episode, we are picking up their story.
In the wake of their victory in the battle of Dabodi, the Fourth Red Army was badly in need of resupply, as well as rest, recuperation, and a way of mending all the sick and wounded after a month of marching and fighting. Immediate resupply of the army had to take place at Dabodi, but this presented the Fourth Red Army with a conundrum. Because it was not an area where there had been the development of mass work with the common people, most of the residents of Dabodi had fled to the hills to escape the approach of the Red Army, scared of the depredations that an army entering their town might bring.
The Red Army was badly in need of supplies, but there was no one to trade with or ask for support from because the people had fled. And you might remember from episode 67, that one of Mao’s original ‘Three Main Rules of Discipline’ was that “not even a single sweet potato may be taken from the populace” (and this was later changed to “Don’t take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses” in the version published in Mao’s Selected Works). Yet, an emergency resupply of some basic necessities was a matter of survival for the communists. What were they to do?
The solution that Mao and Zhu came up with was to take the local people’s grain, oil, and vegetables, and to leave behind IOUs. Naturally, most local people, when they came down from the mountains after the Red Army had departed, viewed these IOUs with some skepticism, but when the Red Army came back through 50 days later they went around with silver dollars loaded onto shoulder poles and paying back these IOUs. When the coins didn’t match the exact amount owed, overpayment was given and short-changing the people was forbidden. This action went a long way in convincing the people here of the basic difference between the communists and the warlord and Guomindang forces that they had earlier had experience with.
The battle at Dabodi had taken place on February 10 and 11. On February 13, the Fourth Red Army marched north into the county seat of Ningdu county. Here, as the communists approached, the local landlords and the Guomindang garrison forces fled, but the local Chamber of Commerce took down the Guomindang flag and raised up the red flag, essentially treating the Red Army as just another in the long line of warlord armed forces to march through the area since 1911. They set up a reception center to welcome the communists and even invited the Red Army leadership to a banquet. I’m curious as to whether they already had a red flag ready somewhere to run up the flagpole, or if they got one from an advance party of the Red Army, or if they just ran a red cloth up the pole. But I couldn’t find an answer in the sources that I have here.
After occupying the city, Mao declined the offer to join the Chamber of Commerce in a banquet, instead submitting the following fund-raising letter in reply:
I have to imagine that anyone who has struggled with movement fundraising tasks must find this letter to be very gratifying.
The Chamber of Commerce delivered all the funds and laborers requested to the military supply section of the Fourth Red Army Headquarters by 8 pm that night.
Before marching on from Ningdu, the Red Army opened up the prison and released everyone. Zhu De declared that “crime is a class question,” and the prisoners were a combination of political prisoners and poor people who had been locked up for stealing food or clothing.
But the Red Army did not stay long in Ningdu. Their destination was Donggu, a place where they could count on local support and get aid for the sick and wounded while they took a little time to make some new plans.
Donggu is to the northwest of Ningdu, about halfway between Ningdu and Ji’an, if you want to look for it on the map of Jiangxi Province that I have linked to in the show notes. I’ve also included another map as the episode artwork that should be helpful.
Donggu had its own history of development into a communist base area, with significant parallels with the Jinggangshan experience, but also important differences, and so I want to give a little background on this place.
Donggu was a village of about 15,000 people located in a fertile highland valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains. It’s near the intersection of five different counties, and roughly 70 miles from each of the seats of those different counties. This distance meant that it was remote enough from the various local county-level seats of power that, in case of any local-level expression of autonomy, it would take some effort on the part of the central power to bring the area back into line. Most people were Hakka, like in the Jinggangshan, but about 10% were from the She nationality, who mainly lived as hunters up in the mountains. The biggest landlords though were ‘early settler’ Han people from the Wang clan, who were based in a wealthy village downriver from Donggu called Futian. They owned about 80% of the land. (If you want a refresher on the terms ‘early settler,’ ‘native registrant,’ and ‘guest registrant’ for the different Chinese ethnicities in the area, I talked about all that back in the episodes where I gave some background on the Jinggangshan back in episodes 63-66.)
In February 1927, some young people who had left the immediate environs of Donngu to pursue an education returned to the area and started the first Communist Party cell there while also helping to form a peasant association. Keep in mind, this was during the time of the United Front government (the Northern Expedition had reached this part of China in September 1926) and peasant associations and the Communist Party were totally legal at that time. In fact, the County Magistrate of Ji’an County was even a Communist (Donngu, though roughly equidistant from several county seats, was in the easternmost part of Ji’an County).
In Donggu, the Communists showed a remarkable amount of foresight, and decided to keep their party organization secret, and conducted their open work through the peasant association. This decision would serve them well after the United Front fell apart and the Communist Party became illegal.
The slogan that the Donggu communists adopted was “all power to the peasant associations,” and under that banner they proceeded to reorganize village life. The peasant association organized elementary schools, which were called Lenin schools. It also built and organized a number of local institutions, including a hospital, a pharmacy, factories for repairing farm equipment and making stencil paper, and a post office. Women’s choirs were organized to sing revolutionary nationalist songs as a way of incorporating women into the heavily male dominated peasant movement. Essentially, the peasant association gave everybody something to do in reorganizing and improving village life.
But aside from reorganizing village life to improve everyone’s well-being through cooperative institutions, the peasant association was also focused on class struggle. The main target was an obvious one, the Wang landlords from Futian who owned so much of the land that the Donggu peasants rented. Because this was still under the United Front government, what the peasant association initially did was to draw up a list of the crimes of the landlord Wang Chuxi and bring them to the Communist county magistrate in Ji’an. The magistrate had Wang seized and thrown in prison. However, he wasn’t in prison long. When the division of the National Revolutionary Army that was occupying Ji’an, which was led by the communist Ye Jianying, was moved to Wuhan, a more conservative division of the National Revolutionary Army was moved into the area and the commander of that division had Wang Chuxi released. By the way, since I mentioned him, this guy Ye Jianying would go on in 1976 to be the top military leader during the coup when the Gang of Four were arrested not long after Mao’s death. Anyways, we can see that even before the fall of the United Front government, the Communist county magistrate’s powers were limited by the politics of the local military commander.
After the United Front between the Communists and the left Guomindang collapsed, Wang Chuxi worked with this new conservative Guomindang commander to try to crush the peasant associations, while the Communists took to heart the call to prepare for and launch armed struggle that came out of the August 7, 1927 emergency meeting. (We discussed the collapse of the united front and the August 7 meeting in episodes 53 to 57.)
In September 1927, the Donggu communists reorganized themselves in order to fit the new circumstances, and this party meeting is usually understood as the beginning of the Donggu Revolutionary Base Area. And, in a move parallel to what was happening at approximately the same time in the Jinggangshan, the Communists decided to reach out to a local bandit chief, Duan Qifeng. Duan came from an extremely poor family and had worked as a kid tending to water buffalo before being apprenticed as a tailor, just like our old friend Wang Zuo in the Jinggangshan. Duan became known as just an extremely strong guy and became an accomplished martial artist. Eventually he became a leader in the main local sworn brotherhood, sometimes called a secret society, the Three Dot Society, and made his living as a bandit.
In October 1927, after leveraging family connections between a couple of the Communist leaders and Duan Qifeng, the Communists were able to found what was called the Donggu Workers and Peasant Army, with about 30 people and ten guns, most of whom came from the ranks of Duan’s bandit gang.
When the Guomindang military force that had been garrisoning Ji’an was moved somewhere else in November 1927, the Donggu Communists felt that the opportunity had arrived to launch their own armed struggle, and on November 12 they launched what was called the Donggu Insurrection.
Here’s how Joseph Fewsmith describes the action of the insurrection in his book Forging Leninism in China:
“On November 12, Lai (Lai Jingbang was the leader of the Communists) and Duan led sixty people to Futian, where they planned to seize Lai’s old nemesis, Wang Chuxi. Wang, however, got wind of their approach and fled. Lai and his comrades were nevertheless able to seize Wang’s younger brother, Wang Liangzhao, and search his house. They took six rifles and some cash, and distributed food and clothing to the peasants. The following day they went to nearby Yonghewei and beat eight ‘local bullies’ while seizing over 10,000 yuan. A few days later, they seized more rifles from the self-defense force (the landlord militia) of a town in Jishui county. Collectively, these actions became known as the ‘Donggu insurrection.’”
Over the next few months, the guerrilla forces continued fighting and growing, incorporating more communist activists and more former bandits into their ranks. By February 1928 the force had about 150 troops with 80 rifles. And in April 1928 they established contact with the Communists in the Jinggangshan.
Lai Jingbang, the first leader of the Donggu communists, was killed after being captured during fighting with a landlord militia force to the south of Donggu in May 1928. He was replaced by a communist cadre named Li Wenlin. Li was a native of a nearby part of Jiangxi Province and was a graduate of the Whampoa Academy. He was serving as an instructor with Zhu De’s army at the time of the Nanchang Uprising and participated in that uprising and the ill-fated march south that followed. After the dispersal of the Nanchang Uprising forces following the Southern Expedition (all stuff we discussed in episodes 55 and 71), Li returned to his hometown and involved himself in Communist revolutionary activity there. In July 1928 he was appointed secretary of the West Jiangxi Special Committee and in that capacity went to Donggu and took over the armed forces there. In Li, the Donggu communists had a well-trained and battle-tested leader, who although an outsider to the specific Donggu area, was from not far away and was also Hakka, and was soon accepted by the local people. By February 1929, when Mao and Zhu’s forces arrived in the region, the Donggu forces had grown to about 1500 soldiers and 800 rifles, and had been reorganized into two regiments, which were called the 2nd and 4th Independent Regiments of the Red Army.
Now, although I’ve been using the term base are for Donggu (and here I am following the standard convention among historians both inside and outside China), it functioned very differently than the Jinggang Mountain base area. As I mentioned earlier, the Party organization was kept entirely clandestine, and one effect of this was that there was no formal establishment of a Soviet government (even though in Donggu and some other villages in the area the peasant association ran all the affairs and functioned under the leadership of the Communist Party). There were two times during 1928 that powerful landlord militia forces invaded and occupied Donggu with the intention of wiping out the Communists. In both these cases, the guerrillas withdrew to the mountains and the absence of formal soviet government institutions and open party activities minimized the amount of targets for the reactionary armed forces.
In the middle of 1929 the Communist Party’s Hunan-Jiangxi Border Region special committee sent a delegation to learn more about how the Donggu base area functioned and observed the following:
So, under these circumstances, while the Communists lacked the advantages of formally exercising political power openly, it meant that when the Communist armed forces more-or-less inevitably had to withdraw in the face of superior reactionary armed forces from time to time, that unless the reactionaries were willing to label all of the people in the region as enemies and kill them indiscriminately, that targets could be minimized during periods of enemy occupation. (Unlike what we saw in the Jinggangshan, where civilian supporters of the Communists suffered greatly under enemy occupation.)
Of course, there are many cases during the course of the Chinese revolution where we will end up seeing entire populations labeled as enemies and targeted by the counter-revolutionaries as a way of fighting the Communists. But at least at this time and in this place, as brutal as the Chinese civil war was, with heads on pikes and everything, the Communists could actually count on the landlord militias in Jiangxi to be more humane than the collective punishment practiced by the militaries of some of today’s liberal democracies.
So, this has just been a little background on this place, the Donggu Revolutionary Base Area, that Mao Zedong and Zhu De decided was where they should retreat to in order to recuperate and form some new plans after the beating they had taken while retreating from the Jinggangshan.
There were only five footpaths leading up through the mountains to Donggu, and Li Wenlin came down as Mao approached in order to lead the Fourth Red Army through the mountains and up in the base area.
Zhu De described the area to Agnes Smedley like this:
Alright, next episode we’ll pick up the story here, and talk about the Fourth Army’s time in Donggu and watch them move on from there. Until then, be well.