How the Fourth Red Army spent their time in Donggu, and how they took the first city in the new base area in the Jiangxi-Fujian border region.
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
Gao Hua, How the Red Sun Rose: The Origins and Development of the Yan’an Rectification Movement, 1930-1945
Stephen Averill, “The Origins of the Futian Incident”
Some names from this episode:
Xiao Ke, an officer in the Fourth Red Army
Peng Pai, Communist peasant organizer
Long Chaoqing, important early Communist in Jinggangshan area
Peng Dehuai, Leader of the 5th Red Army
Guo Fengming, Bandit turned Guomindang local despot in Changting
Welcome to episode 110 of the People’s History of Ideas podcast.
Last episode, we saw Mao Zedong’s Fourth Red Army arrive at the Donggu base area, badly in need of a respite after a month on the run following the army’s retreat from the Jinggangshan base area.
They stayed in Donggu for just eight nights, they arrived on February 17 and left on February 25, but it was a crucial moment of rest. Later, when recalling this period Mao would write “If in that year we had not had that week of rest at Donggu, the Red Fourth Army would have collapsed, even less could it have opened up the southern Jiangxi base area.”
The army’s 300 sick and wounded overflowed the local hospital and some were taken into local peasant homes to be nursed. One of the top priorities was mending clothes, which also had to be boiled in order to get rid of the lice that had been tormenting the soldiers. The soldiers also made new sandals for themselves with soles made of strong rope, and took time to mend and heal their feet which had been torn up from the month of marching. There was time also for the army to resume educating the soldiers, with literacy classes and political lectures and discussions filling the time during this week of rest.
When thinking of these classes and how they were conducted, don’t think of classrooms with chairs and desks. These activities were taking place outside, and everyone was sitting on the ground, except for whoever was teaching was probably standing. There was a general lack of pencils and paper, so the literacy classes involved learning to draw Chinese characters in the dirt. This might seem like a primitive phenomenon that belongs to the past, but I can tell you that I have been in very poor villages in the Latin American countryside in the much more recent past where the situation is quite similar, and where just about the only paper and pencils to be found were just what I brought with me.
In principle, the political discussion meetings held in the army would have been along the lines described by Zhu De to Agnes Smedley, which was like this:
This was in accord with the measures that Mao had taken to democratize the army, that began with the Sanwan reorganization of the army that we discussed back in episode 62.
As I said, in principle this was how the discussions would take place. However, as we will see, not so much this episode but in the not-too-distant future, there were definitely some political third rails that are going to clearly be off limits as the inner party political struggle heats up. But we’ll get to that when we get to that. At least ideally, the sorts of discussions that the fourth red army was having during this downtime in Donggu would have taken place along these lines.
Mao was very impressed at the time with the way in which the Donggu base area was governed by a secret, rather than by an openly functioning, revolutionary government (as we discussed last episode). In a letter that he wrote in April, Mao remarked that “It is necessary to change the form of mass political power from an open independent regime to a secret one when a general insurrection is approaching… when a strong enemy force comes, the tactics of going around in circles may be adopted to deal with him.”
One of the main drawbacks of mobile guerrilla warfare, that of having to retreat in the face of a stronger enemy in order lure the enemy in and fight them later under more favorable conditions, was that less mobile populations of civilian supporters of the revolution (and immobile institutions of revolutionary government) would be at the mercy of advancing reactionary troops. For a time after visiting Donggu, Mao seems to have felt that the form of secret regime that the Donggu base area had adopted would mitigate some of the harm that came from guerrilla retreats from base area territory.
One aspect of the Donggu base area that Mao found less impressive was that the land reform had been minimal (according to Mao and Zhu De’s judgment) While this may have been partially linked to the secret way in which the base functioned (which would have mitigated against forming a new and open government bureaucracy to register a redistribution of land), Mao and Zhu seem to have attributed this to the class origins of many of the leaders of the Donggu base.
As we discussed last episode, the leading Communists in the area were mainly local educated youth who had returned to their home area to carry out revolution. They were for the most part from better off families (almost by definition this was the case for educated youth). In Donggu, they did lean on their local status in mobilizing peasants, in some ways reproducing the sorts of patron-client relations between landlords and peasants even as they mobilized peasants to reform local social relations and fight against the most exploitative of the local landlords. On February 22, when the Donggu army and Mao’s Fourth Red Army had a formal meeting with speeches and gifts, the Donggu leaders dressed in long cotton robes, “like gentry, not like soldiers,” according to the observation of one of the commanders in Mao’s army, Xiao Ke.
Although we’ve discussed it before, it bears repeating that it was common for Communists to have been radicalized during their student years, and students tended to have better off class backgrounds. Mao himself, after all, was a rich peasant. And the pioneer of Communist peasant organizing, Peng Pai, as we discussed back in episode 37, was the son of a landlord who was radicalized while studying in Japan and then, when he returned to China, did in fact leverage his local influence to organize the peasants in his home territory. Similarly, Long Chaoqing, who we met when we discussed the early, pre-Mao, revolutionary movement in the Jinggangshan in episode 66, and who was an important early communist in the region, was from a powerful family from the area.
So, on the one hand, there was nothing particularly unusual or new about the Donggu leadership being largely drawn from among the more privileged strata of local society. But unlike Mao and other communists from relatively better-off sections of the peasantry, they had organized a base area in the place that they were from. While Mao’s authority relied both on his status as a leading Communist and, most immediately for most peasants in the Jinggangshan and later in the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet, as the leader of a large armed force, the authority of much of the local Donggu leadership still rested in large part on their status as educated members of the local leading families. This meant that carrying out a land reform which included better off local peasants in addition to the most exploitative landlords (who were based in Futian, not Donggu, as we discussed last episode) would undermine their own base of support in the community. Anyways, in the not very distant future an issue is going to be made about the class origins of these leaders in Donggu, and their attitude toward land reform, in the context of an inner party struggle that is really going to get out of hand, and during which contending political lines are going to be attributed to class origin. So, we will revisit this question again when we get to it.
At the time, though, things were very friendly between the New Fourth Army and the Donngu communists. During the formal meeting convened along a riverbank on the afternoon of February 22, leaders of both armies gave speeches expressing fraternal sentiments toward each other. Mao gifted the Donggu base area two machine guns and a mortar, while the Donggu base gave 4,000 silver dollars and five cases of bullets to the Fourth Red Army. (And as I mentioned last episode, some of those silver dollars are soon going to be distributed among the people in Dabodi who the Communists took supplies from and left IOUs with.)
While in Donggu, Mao and Zhu learned that the Jinggangshan base area had fallen not long after their departure (I’ll say something about the details of that, and Peng Dehuai and the 5th Red Army’s flight from the Jinggangshan in another episode). Before arriving in Donggu, they had been considering a potential return to the Jinggangshan, but that was now definitively off the table. And it also became clear that they couldn’t sink roots in Donggu. Already during the Fourth Red Army’s short stay in Donggu, the pursuing Guomindang armies had regrouped and began to encircle the region. The Fourth Red Army’s Front Committee decided that luring the enemy in deep in the midst of the Donggu base area would be a disaster for the area, and decided to march to western Fujian.
The Fujian Provincial Party Committee wrote a report to the Central Committee suggesting temporarily relocating the Fourth Red Army to western Fujian. This letter was dated February 24, which is just a day before the army departed Donggu. It seems nearly certain then that the Fujian party leadership had already been in touch with Mao and Zhu about moving the Fourth Red Army into western Fujian before they wrote their letter asking for the Central Committee to sign off on the move.
The situation in western Fujian was the most favorable option available. Already there were small base areas for guerrilla warfare where the Communists had developed good relations with the local population. And the only Guomindang forces in the region were ones that had been composed of former bandits, and were not particularly effective fighting forces. Meanwhile, the more dangerous regular Guomindang armed forces were needed for the upcoming fight that Chiang Kaishek was getting ready for with the Guangxi warlord clique, and so those forces would be unlikely to pursue Mao all the way to Fujian since they were needed much further to the west.
So, with the moon high in the sky, on February 25, Mao led his troops down the eastern slopes of the Donggu plateau. Upon reaching the base of the escarpment, small groups of very fast marchers were sent off in the direction opposite to that taken by the main force, making feints at towns not on the march route in order to draw the enemy away. This served both to draw the Guomindang army away from the encirclement of Donggu that had been in formation, and to potentially provide opportunities for portions of the Guomindang army to be drawn away from the main Guomindang force. Mao and Zhu once again intended to make use of their tactic of ‘circling around’ to surprise and annihilate whatever Guomindang troops they could face under advantageous conditions. While the Guomindang troops far outnumbered the Communists overall, in this way the Fourth Red Army could still fight in engagements where it used its greater mobility to fight only a portion of the Guomindang army, in that way have numerical superiority in individual battles, even while it was far smaller than the Guomindang forces overall.
To get a visual sense of what this circling around looked like over the course of a couple of weeks, I’ve included the same map as last episode as this episode’s artwork, and it shows the circuitous route that the Fourth Red Army took while marching from Donggu, leaving on February 25, to its destination in western Fujian province, Changting County, where it arrived on March 11.
The Guomindang forces in Changting were former bandits, led by Guo Fengming, who had parleyed his successful banditry into having his bandit gang made the legitimate Guomindang army in the region, in the process becoming a major local landlord himself. Many of Guo’s troops were opium smokers, and they lacked the combat effectiveness of better trained regular Guomindang armies, so the Communists felt confident when they arrived in Changting that they could displace Guo in Changting.
Upon arrival in Changting County on March 11, the Communists routed the garrison that Guo Fengming had posted in Sidu town, and then held a meeting there with the leader of the small local Communist guerrilla force about how to take the walled city where Guo Fengming was holed up with the majority of his troops.
The key to defeating Guo would be to draw him out of Tingzhou city (which these days is mainly just called Changting). The walled fortifications of the city were very effective, and Guo could have held out inside the city indefinitely. The only way for the Communists to approach the city was on a footpath through a narrow valley that a swift and deep river runs through.
The ruse that the Communists settled on was to send peasants who supported the revolution into the city and to spread the word that the “Red bandits,” as they called them, were camped just a little ways north of the city and that they had few weapons and no ammunition. That they were lying there using their guns as pillows and just waiting for morning to come.
The next morning, March 14, two regiments of Guomindang bandits came marching single file out of the walled city and into the narrow valley in order to attack the supposedly easy Communist prey, with Guo Fengming leading them from a sedan chair carried by four of his men. And, in his memoir as told to Agnes Smedley, you really get a sense of Zhu De as a former PE teacher, with the jokes that he makes about how fat Guo was.
Anyways, when the Guomindang bandits were where the Communists wanted them, the decoys who they had placed in the valley fired a few shots and then ran up the steep mountainsides, as if fleeing in a panic. The bandits followed in hot pursuit up the mountain, becoming bolder as they met no resistance and tiring themselves out. Meanwhile, the Fourth Red Army had been bivouacked on the mountain heights, and suddenly toward the top of the mountain slopes they sprang into action, surprising and completely routing the force of 2,000 Guomindang bandits. Guo Fengming himself was shot while trying to escape on a boat on the river. Apparently, the poor Communists who shot him marveled at the huge gold watch and chain that he had and all the rings on his fingers.
Guo’s defeat paved the way for the entrance of the Red Army into the city of Tingzhou, a local commercial hub with a population in the tens of thousands. It was an auspicious start for opening up new base areas in western Fujian.
Next episode, we’ll get some more into what it was like for the Communists to take a city like Tingzhou, which was so much larger than anywhere else that they had occupied, including Yongxin.
But I wanted to end by saying a few words to update people on why we’ve had such a long break between episodes again. Aside from a bout of illness that didn’t help anything, the real issue here is that we’re moving into an incredibly complicated series of events in the near future of what is going to be covered in this podcast. It’s a particularly tricky time, where we’re going to see some fantastic growth with the formation of a new Communist base area on a scale really much greater than we saw with the Jinggangshan. But also we’re going to see some factional activity and really substantial internal party violence.
The full historical record on all these events is only available to historians who are members of the Chinese Communist Party group dealing with these questions. However, a fair amount of material has made its way into the public domain, and has been written about by reputable historians who I trust are trying to do their best to understand the events and communicate fairly about those events. That said, there is nothing quite like internal party purges and coercive forms of land reform to bring out all the unconscious assumptions and prejudices that liberal historians have about the motivations of communist leaders and the way in which communist organizations work. Admittedly, many of these events are difficult to make sense of, and so its only natural that people fall back on their own sense of how the world works. What this means for me, in sifting through all this material, is that I have to do a lot of work both reading through the relevant material and trying to work out what is basically documented fact at this point about these events, and what is interpretation by the various historians working with the material, and then work out how valid the various interpretations are. Anyways, working with this material has been very time consuming, and I’ve been reluctant to ‘go to press early’ with podcasts dealing with major figures in these events, such as the leadership of the Donggu base area, without having a very good sense of what I think happened.
I know that for a lot of people history podcasts are a kind of light edutainment. And that’s totally fine. And I’m happy if this podcast can serve that function for you if that’s what you’re looking for. But, as a relatively new medium with no gatekeeper other than listener numbers, the standards for accuracy vary appreciably from one podcast to the next. As both a professional historian and as someone who is relatively vulnerable to attack because of my overt sympathy for liberation movements, it’s very important to me that, even if my technical proficiency with the microphone and editing software and my manner of delivery leave a lot of room for improvement, it’s very important to me that the material that I put out is a form of historical interpretation that can stand up to any fair amount of review by my peers in the historical profession, even if they may disagree with my interpretation. What this means for you, the listener, is that I am going to take the time needed to meet that standard.
I know that podcasts flow best, and meet listener expectations best, when they can come out weekly. And that’s something I’m trying to do. Inevitably, that does come at some cost in terms of quality of research and presentation. When I feel that the cost is too high, I’m just going to wait. This is a very long-term project, although already I’m amazed both at the length of all the podcast episodes when taken together, and at the growing number of people who have listened and apparently gotten something out of it.
Anyways, since I know that some people are wondering, that’s why things have taken so long this time. See you next time!