The mutiny that founded the Chinese Red Army.
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Chang Kuo-t’ao [Zhang Guotao], The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party (2 volumes)
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
C. Martin Wilbur, “The Ashes of Defeat”
Some names from this episode:
Henk Sneevliet, alias Maring, Dutch Communist and early Comintern agent in China
Zhang Fakui, Guomindang general close to Wang Jingwei
Ye Ting, Communist officer
He Long, Communist officer
Zhou Enlai, Commanded Front Committee which coordinated Nanchang Uprising
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and political head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Besso Lominadze, New Comintern head in China in July 1927
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Wang Jingwei, Leader of Guomindang “Left”
Zhu De, Nanchang chief of public security
Agnes Smedley, Communist journalist
Zhu Beide, Governor of Jiangxi province
Nie Rongzhen, Communist military leader
Song Qingling, Guomindang Left leader and widow of Sun Yatsen
Deng Yanda, Head of the Guomindang peasant bureau
Eugene Chen, Guomindang Left foreign minister
Welcome to episode 55 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, we move from the period of the united front between the Communist Party and the Guomindang into the period of civil war between those two parties. It has been a long time coming. We began talking about the United Front back in episodes 18 and 19, when the Dutch Communist agent Maring began pressuring the new Communist organization in that direction (those episodes dealt with events from 1921 and 1922). However, it was only after the Communist Party realized its own inability to fight back against the warlord repression of its union organizing activities, with the massacre of railroad workers in February 1923, that the party leadership was won over to the united front strategy which it pursued until the final break with the Wuhan government of the Guomindang Left in July 1927.
A lot had changed in the intervening years. While the united front had ended with a series of devastating massacres of workers, peasants and communist activists stretching over the spring and summer of 1927, the Communist Party had also matured in important ways during these years. If we look at the development of the Communist Party through the whole process of 1923 to 1927, then we can see its growth into an organization of trained cadre with a mass following. Now, in the summer of 1927, the Communist Party found itself facing the same problem it had faced back in 1923, but on a much larger scale. The inability of the Communists to effectively respond to the repression of itself and its mass base had led to the alliance with the Guomindang in 1923. Now that the Guomindang itself was the oppressor, could the Communists rally to defend themselves and the masses? Or would they collapse under the pressure of repression?
The New Peasant Policy
The first step in responding to the repression involved a basic change in orientation toward the peasant masses and their role in the revolution. On July 20, the Central Committee issued a document titled “The General Strategy for the Peasant Movement at the Present Time” which dramatically reconceived how the Party would now relate to the peasantry. I’m going to read off the first paragraph of that document, so you can see for yourself what they were now saying:
“In recent years, the progress of the peasant movement in China has demonstrated that the Chinese revolution has entered a new phase—the phase of the land revolution. The land revolution is merely a process. The evolution of this process requires a democratic regime of workers, peasants, and the petty bourgeoisie led by the proletariat and the armed forces of the workers and peasants. At present this revolution has suffered a setback in China. The causes are: a) the leadership of the proletariat is not yet strong; in other words, the subjective organizational capacity of the proletariat is insufficient at the moment, to lead the revolutionary alliance of workers, peasants, and the petty bourgeoisie. b) The armed forces of the workers and peasants were not built up. c) Our party committed the mistake of carrying out irresolute and vacillating policies. d) The Guomindang Central Committee in Wuhan, the nationalist government, and the so-called Revolutionary Army are, in their class nature, representatives of the landlord class and incapable of fulfilling the new historic mission—the land revolution. They have shifted from limiting the workers and peasants’ movement to launching a full-scale counterrevolution to oppose and massacre the workers and peasants. This betrayal was a historical certainty and proves that the deepening of the revolution was to be expected. Our party’s only responsibility is to fight resolutely these new counterrevolutionaries, gather together all the revolutionary forces, and open up this new revolutionary phase—the land revolution. This is the objective situation of the revolution at the present time, and it demands a new tactical response from us.”
So, for clarity’s sake, let me just rephrase these four reasons that were just given in this document for the setback that the Chinese revolution had just suffered. Basically, what the Central Committee of the Communist Party said was that:
1) The party had lacked the ability to exercise leadership;
2) It had failed to build up its own independent armed forces;
3) Then, it compounded its lack of ability and failure to build its own independent army by making a bunch of political mistakes, which, as we know from previous episodes, boiled down to having reacted to the repression of the peasants by the conservative generals in the Guomindang’s army by prioritizing trying to maintain an alliance with the Guomindang instead of trying to rally and build up the movements of workers and peasants.
And, 4) the final reason for the setback faced by the revolution was that the Guomindang had decisively turned to become political representatives of the landlord class, as demonstrated by their repression of the peasantry.
And what followed from this summation of why the revolution had suffered a setback was that the strategy of uniting with the Guomindang to forge a national-democratic state which might carry out a revolution from above, should instead be replaced by a revolution from below in which the Communists would encourage a peasant revolution, build up their own independent armed forces, and in which the Guomindang would be regarded as the enemy, not as an ally. Of course, this sort of thing is easier said than done. How to make this sort of transition concretely, while constantly being targeted by the enemy for extermination, was the immediate problem faced by the Communist Party.
The Nanchang Uprising
The first step toward organized Communist revolt was as much a result of improvisation in the face of the rapidly accelerating crisis, as it was the result of any sort of really developed plan. As I mentioned at the end of our last episode, as the repression mounted in Wuhan in the second half of July, many Communists went underground, and some gravitated toward what was perceived as a stronghold, which was the army led by Zhang Fakui in northern Jiangxi Province, around the cities of Nanchang and Jiujiang. Zhang Fakui’s forces contained a lot of Communist officers, and had the added bonus of having been stationed to hold the line against a potential push by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces west into Jiangxi. Zhang himself had a reputation as a leftist, so there was some hope that Zhang might be won over to protect the Communists.
Because Zhang Fakui and most of his soldiers hailed from Guangdong Province, there was an initial hope that he might be persuaded to wash his hands of the disintegrating Wuhan regime and bring his forces back to Guangdong. If that happened, it was hoped that the Communists could advance with him to Guangdong, and then regroup there, with the idea of renewing Guangdong’s role as a base area from which the Chinese Revolution could spread out again, just as it had played that role before the Northern Expedition. This was more of a vague hope than a well-reasoned plan, and as it soon turned out, by the last week of July it became clear that Zhang Fakui was going to remain loyal to Wang Jingwei.
The way in which this became clear was that Zhang Fakui began planning with Wang Jingwei about how to go about disarming and purging all these Communists from his armed forces. The first major move that Zhang took to purge the Communists was to order two high-ranking Communist officers, Ye Ting and He Long, to a meeting where they were certain that they would be relieved of their commands, and quite likely be arrested as well. Also, most of the troops commanded by Ye and He were either Communists or strongly supportive of Communism, and suspiciously, Ye and He had been ordered to position their troops in a way that would have made it very easy to surround and disarm their troops. So, seeing the writing on the wall, Ye and He decided to disobey orders.
A decision was then made to start a larger mutiny within the National Revolutionary Army in northern Jiangxi, and a Front Committee was put together under the command of Zhou Enlai to coordinate what would be called the Nanchang Uprising. Now, as the planning began with just a few days lead for the uprising, it was hoped that the Soviet military aid which had so far been given to the Chinese Revolution would now flow in to back the mutiny, and that the participation of Soviet military advisers and money (which might be used to buy off wavering Nationalist officers) would support the mutiny. But, with Borodin on his way out of China, there was a new Comintern representative that the Chinese Communists had to deal with in order to communicate with the Soviet Union.
The new Comintern rep was a fresh-faced kid named Besso Lominadze, a 28-year-old who knew nothing about China and immediately struck his Chinese comrades as being both inexperienced and indecisive. Apparently his main recommendation for the job was that he was fiercely loyal to Stalin and so the powers that be in Moscow thought that he would be a reliable conduit for them to work through in China. Lominadze arrived in Wuhan on July 23, and had to check in right away with Moscow on whether the Soviets would back the Nanchang Uprising or not. Word came back on July 26 that, for diplomatic reasons, the Soviets should refrain from openly participating in any uprising, and couldn’t give any money for it either. In fact, the military advisors were being withdrawn, as we discussed last episode.
The Comintern guidance was that the uprising was not a good idea, and that a better idea would be to disperse the Communists who were in Zhang Fakui’s forces to the countryside to organize the peasantry. Most of the Chinese leaders present at the meeting in Wuhan disagreed with calling off the uprising, but Lominadze said something along the lines of: “what are you going to do, disobey orders from Moscow?,” and a decision was made to send one of them, Zhang Guotao, to Jiangxi to call off the uprising. This was not a great start for the relationship between Lominadze and the Chinese Communists. Whereas Borodin would often finesse orders from Moscow to better suit the situation in China, or at least would try to, and was basically respected by Chinese Communists, Lominadze right out of the gate started things off by relying on Moscow’s authority to discipline the much more experienced people who he had been given authority over.
So, Zhang Guotao went to Jiangxi right away, he went and got on a river steamer straight from the meeting. But when he got to Jiujiang the next morning, the morning of July 27, all he did was to infuriate the Communists who had been putting together the uprising. They unanimously said that the organization of the mutiny had gone too far already and that it couldn’t be stopped now. And even if it was, too many people knew about it, so word would get out that they had been trying to plan a mutiny, and heads would roll. One member of the Front Committee at Jiujiang accused the Comintern and the Wuhan Communist leaders of “thwarting the Chinese Revolution.” On July 30, Zhang Guotao proceeded from Jiujiang to Nanchang, where Zhou Enlai was putting the finishing touches on plans for the uprising.
Zhang Guotao tried to convince Zhou to put off the uprising until they could see if Zhang Fakui could be won over, but Zhou argued that Zhang Fakui was politically too closely allied with Wang Jingwei. And Zhou was clearly correct, because after all, it was Zhang Fakui and Wang Jingwei’s moves already to purge the army of the Communists which had set them down the road toward the mutiny that they were planning. Finally, one member of the Front Committee told Zhang Guotao that “if he continued to vacillate and undermine their resolve, they would expel him.”
Depending on what source you are looking at, the uprising was scheduled to begin at any time between midnight and 4 am on August 1. But, as is almost always the case with conspiracies that involve large numbers of people, word began to trickle out to the enemy ahead of time. Zhu De was the chief of public security in Nanchang and a Communist, and he was also in charge of a training regiment of the National Revolutionary Army. He’s an incredibly important figure who would go on to become commander-in-chief of the Red Army later on. Zhu De recounted the night of July 31, immediately prior to the launch of the uprising, to the Communist journalist Agnes Smedley:
In fact, Zhang Fakui had had word that something was up, and tried to make it from Jiujiang to Nanchang to prevent the uprising. This is what Zhang Guotao says about this in his memoirs:
[Zhang, vol. 2, 11-12]
As we can see from Zhang’s account, the initial taking of Nanchang was a pretty straightforward and easy affair. Word of the conspiracy did not leak out in enough time for Zhang Fakui and those troops who remained loyal to the Nationalist government to act, and those who were in Nanchang and the immediate vicinity were taken by surprise and disarmed. In fact, so little disruption occurred to the normal life in the city that businesses opened up on the morning of August 1 as if nothing had happened. As Zhang said, though, at the end of the quote from his memoirs that I just read, there was now a major question about “what do we do now?”
By the way, the guy that Zhang mentioned who had the machine gun set up to make Zhang Fakui retreat, Nie Rongzhen, would later head up the nuclear weapons program of the People’s Republic of China. It is really just impossible to overstate the number of people who participated in this Nanchang Uprising who will continue to play key roles in the Chinese Revolution and then in the People’s Republic after liberation in 1949.
The first impulse of the Front Committee leadership was to declare the formation of a new revolutionary government which would be based in Nanchang and which would rally its forces against the reactionary centers in Nanjing and Wuhan. Even though the Communists and Nationalists had now broken with each other, old policies die hard, and the new provisional government was labeled the Revolutionary Committee of the Nationalist Party. The furthest left members of the Guomindang, who were not present and were not consulted with in advance, were named as members of this government. This included the three people I mentioned at the end of our last episode: Sun Yatsen’s widow, Song Qingling; Eugene Chen, the foreign minister of the Wuhan government; and Deng Yanda, head of the Guomindang peasant bureau. All three of these people would soon be in the Soviet Union and probably had no advance knowledge of the Nanchang Uprising. Even Zhang Fakui was named to the government, despite the fact that at that very moment he was rallying his troops to prepare an attack on Nanchang. Apparently, the Communist leadership of the uprising still hoped that Zhang could be won to their side.
Despite having formed this new provisional revolutionary government in Nanchang, it was quickly determined that the military situation was untenable. The original thinking behind the Nanchang Uprising had been premised on the idea that Zhang Fakui could be won over, and that would have given the revolutionary forces about 30,000 troops. As it was, with Zhang opposing the revolt and not all of his forces having been won over to mutiny, the Communists had 21,000 troops under their command initially. Even so, other forces we being added to Zhang Fakui’s remaining forces, and it was clear that Nanchang could not hold out. Because Nanchang couldn’t hold, the leadership decided to conduct what they called a Southern Expedition, which would march back down to Guangdong province and rebuild a revolutionary base there for a new Northern Expedition. The thing was, they couldn’t decide exactly where to go in Guangdong. The city of Guangzhou was in the hands of a supporter of the Guomindang Right, so it would have to be reconquered. The question was, should they march directly there, or should they take a route to eastern Guangdong province and rebuild there before moving to retake Guangzhou?
Ultimately, the decision was made to march toward eastern Guangdong to unite with the peasant movement there. This route was favored because it would be more difficult for the enemy to attack them along the way, as it would go along the mountains in eastern Jiangxi province. The disadvantage, which would turn out to be considerable, was that there was no real peasant movement going on in this region. This meant that little preexisting support could be drawn on in the areas that the march would pass through.
Here’s an account of the beginning of the Southern Expedition from a report written shortly after its conclusion by a participant:
“On the 3rd we alerted the troops to begin the move. Ye left on the 4th and He on the 5th. When we left Nanchang it was extraordinarily difficult to recruit porters because the Jiangxi mass movement had not the slightest foundation. Yet we had got a tremendous amount of enemy ammunition and rifles, and had no way to transport them. Therefore in order to carry off a lot of ammunition we had no way but to issue 250 or 300 rounds to each soldier. But because it was so hot no soldier wanted to carry a lot of bullets on his back, and some secretly threw away their ammunition. According to Mr. He, the special battalion of his Army Headquarters fought no battle between Nanchang and Ruijin but lost over 30,000 rounds of ammunition, so it can be deduced what the other regiments [lost]…
“A great many soldiers and porters fell and died along the road because their loads were so heavy. Furthermore, the medical corps had no one to carry its supplies so there was no medicine for the sick and no one to give a peaceful burial to the dead—a condition too pitiful for pen to describe. Because of this the morale of the officers and troops became utterly ashen-hearted, to the extent that some doubted the revolution. It was extremely difficult to maintain military discipline, to the extent that along the way the sound of rifle fire while impressing porters occurred from time to time.”
At the beginning of the march, 5,000 troops were lost when a division which had only reluctantly jointed the mutiny rebelled and fled back to join Zhang Fakui. Then, due to the difficult conditions of the march, by the time the army reached Ruijin on August 18 and fought its first battle, it had lost another 7,000 troops to death and desertion en route, without having yet fought a battle in the two weeks’ march. Another 1,000 troops were lost in the fighting around Ruijin, so that in two weeks the initial force of 21,000 had dwindled to 8,000. Amazingly, some of these 8,000 men would remain in the field all the way up until 1949 and even beyond, into the Korean War. The continuity between these Nanchang rebels and the later People’s Liberation Army of China is such that August 1 is considered the day that the Chinese Red Army was founded, and is celebrated as such by the Chinese Communist Party. But, by late August, things were looking quite dire for the this first regular armed force (as opposed to a peasant or worker militia) that was fully owned and operated by the Chinese Communist Party.
I don’t want to wrap up the story of the Southern Expedition just yet, rather, we’ll come back to it soon in the context of other events which began to take place as the Chinese Communist Party underwent its post-united front transformation during the second half of 1927 and 1928. But we’ll leave things here for now. But before I go, I want to thank everyone for their reviews and ratings. Ratings and reviews do help people to find the podcast, so if you enjoyed the episode or learned something, please do consider leaving a rating or review.