The planning and execution of the Autumn Harvest Uprising in southern Hubei province.
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Roy Hofheinz, “The Autumn Harvest Insurrection”
Timothy Cheek’s Introduction to Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, eds., Mao Zedong : A Biography, vol. 1
Some names from this episode:
Feng Yuxiang, Christian warlord
“Scarlet Rays” Huang, Member of South Hubei special committee
Liu Pu-I, Leader of “People’s Self-Defense Army”
Hsieh I-huan, Member of South Hubei special committee
Fu Hsiang-i, Member of South Hubei special committee
Welcome to Episode 59 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, we’re going to begin our look at how the Autumn Harvest Uprisings played out in the late summer of 1927. During our two episodes on the August 7 Emergency Conference, we got a look at the plan that the Communist leadership had drafted for the Autumn Harvest Uprisings to unfold across Hunan, Hubei, Guangdong and Jiangxi Provinces, and also the initial disagreements that surfaced between Mao and the top Communist leadership, which centered on the question of what sort of armed force would be necessary in order to carry out the Uprisings, with Mao arguing that a disciplined army needed to spearhead Communist military efforts, and the Communist leadership arguing that militia forces of peasants and workers were the way to go.
So, the original plan for the Autumn Harvest Uprisings was very ambitious, and clearly the original goal was that the territory that had been loosely controlled by the Wuhan government of the Guomindang Left could be taken over by the Communists through a series of revolts across that territory. Almost immediately, however, the plans had to be scaled back. The weakness of both the Communist Party and the peasant movement in Jiangxi Province was demonstrated by the lack of support that the Southern Expedition encountered in the wake of the Nanchang Uprising, discussed in episode 55, and so the idea of uprisings in Jiangxi were struck from the Autumn Harvest Uprising plans.
In Guangdong Province, there remained a substantial peasant movement with strong Communist influence, despite the challenges of repeated assaults from Guomindang forces. But, battered as they were by these Guomindang assaults, a decision was made by the Communists’ Guangdong Provincial Committee to delay their uprising until the forces from Nanchang reached them at the end of their expedition. We’ll talk about what happened with the end of the Southern Expedition from Nanchang in another episode, but, long-story-short, those forces did not end up arriving in Guangdong in the sort of shape that they could be a great help in aiding in a new uprising, and so the plans of the Guangdong Provincial Committee had to be adjusted to that reality.
This left the original plan for uprisings in four provinces narrowed down to just Hunan and Hubei. And, even in these two provinces, the plans were narrowed down to be less ambitious than they originally were. I want to get into some of the details of the uprising in each of these provinces, and it makes sense to consider them separately, because the planning and unfolding of the uprising was fairly different in Hunan and Hubei.
Hubei was where Wuhan, the seat of the now disintegrating Guomindang Left government was, and also where the Communist Party central leadership remained, albeit now underground. Despite this, the mass movement was considerably weaker in Hubei than in Hunan, which had really emerged as just a revolutionary hotbed in the wake of the Northern Expedition’s advance. Also, because the Party Center was in Hubei, it meant that there was much more coordination between the Center and the committees that were set up to carry out the insurrection in Hubei. It’s similar to what we saw with the three armed uprisings in Shanghai, where the central leadership located in Shanghai played a major role in those uprisings. In contrast, in Hunan Mao Zedong and the Hunan Provincial Committee had much more autonomy in organizing the effort there, although as we will see, the Center in Wuhan tried to exert what control it could.
This episode, we’ll look at the Uprising in Hubei, and then I think next episode we’ll move on to Hunan. I know that probably more people want to hear about Hunan than Hubei, so, why am I starting with Hubei? Ok, two reasons. First, delay of gratification is supposed to build character. OK, that’s not the real reason. The actual reason is because I have a book coming in the mail in the next couple days which may have some details that I will want to include. The book is a Chinese biography of Mao that is based on Chinese Communist Party archives that only a very few Chinese Communist Party historians are allowed to use. While the book has been available in Chinese for some time, Cambridge University Press recently published an English translation. In the Introduction to the English language edition of the biography, Timothy Cheek, one of the top academic experts on Mao Zedong, says that the book includes a ton of detail not available anywhere else, all of it citing sources in these closed party archives. I’ll include a link to the online pdf of the book’s front matter, which includes Cheek’s Introduction, for listeners who are curious about the biography.
Anyways, it didn’t seem correct to move forward with a narrative of Mao’s life and deeds in this podcast without being able to make reference to these materials, and so that’s why we’re doing Hunan second. And, before we start in on what happened in Hubei, I do want to mention that this book was ridiculously expensive, and to thank everyone who has been donating to the podcast for making it possible for me to order a tome like this without having to think too hard about it. Not a single academic library in the Chicago area even has a copy of this book yet, but your contributions do make it possible for me to not have to worry about compromising standards when it becomes clear that I need a book like this in order to move forward with the podcast narrative.
OK, done with my fundraising pitch. Now, let’s move on to talk about Hubei.
Initial plans for the uprising in Hubei had divided the province into seven distinct regions where the uprising would be organized. But plans were quickly narrowed down to just one of those regions. Originally, the area east of Wuhan had seemed particularly promising, because it was where Communist organization was strongest. But it had been a particular focus of Guomindang repression, and much of the Communist leadership from the area had joined in with the Nanchang Uprising and were therefore no longer in the area to stage the Autumn Harvest Uprising.
North Hubei was also thought to theoretically be a very ripe area for rebellion. In the northern part of the province, the Red Spear Society was very active. We discussed the Red Spears back in Episode 38. It was a peasant self-defense organization which sprang up to defend against bandits and warlords, and the Red Spears were not particularly happy about the presence of Feng Yuxiang’s Guomindang-allied troops in their territory. (You might remember the Christian warlord Feng Yuxiang from episode 54.) The Red Spears posed a conundrum to the Communist leadership, who felt that the Red Spears should be amenable to Communist revolution, but in fact the Communists were confounded by them. Let me just recap some material we covered back in Episode 38:
Communist peasant organizers had begun trying to work with the Red Spears in Henan Province, north of Hubei, in August 1925 and by April 1926 they reported a spectacular success in organizing peasant associations in more than 200 villages, with a total membership of 270,000 peasants. What appears to have actually happened is that the Communist organizers did have some success in one region, and then, because of the networks among Red Spears which tied different villages together in a large self-defense network, these Communist organizers optimistically assumed that they had achieved some sort of nominal allegiance of other Red Spears groups more broadly. In reality, the one locale of about 3,000 peasants was organized by the Communists in Henan. And when an inspection tour came through the area during 1927, it was exposed that the number of 270,000 was more or less entirely false. The Communists really had no influence on this larger number of peasants, even though both the Communist peasant association and the Red Spear Society shared an orientation to peasant self-defense.
But, one might say, if these were peasants who were organized to defend their land, what difference did it really make whether they were directly organized by the Communist peasant activists or not? This may well be what went through the minds of the Communist organizers who reported the figure of 270,000 peasants organized in peasant associations. After all, even in Guangdong and Hunan, where there was much more Communist peasant organizing success, the peasant associations were fairly loose and involved peasants banding together to protect their land and defend their rights, and, to some degree, support a vague revolutionary project. They didn’t require any great ideological litmus test. The peasants weren’t communists, for the most part, in those associations. So, why not just count the Red Spears among the numbers of the peasant associations that had been organized?
While there might be something to that argument, the facts on the ground spoke for themselves. The Red Spears had been founded to defend the peasants’ land and property. But they had no anti-landlord or rent reduction agenda. They wanted to keep outsiders out of their business, and this usually included the Communist organizers, some of whom were killed when they tried to agitate in Red Spear villages that were hostile to the Communist message. So, long story short, when it came time for the Autumn Harvest Uprisings in Hubei, the Communist leadership felt that the Red Spears should have been natural allies, or a natural constituency for the Communist peasant organizing message. But, in fact, the Red Spears were non-responsive to the Communist message, and so, frustratingly for the Communists, no Autumn Harvest uprising could be put together in North Hubei.
In the end, the only area in Hubei where an attempt at an uprising could be made was in South Hubei, in the six counties immediately south of Wuhan, an area that originally had been described as “the most hopeless of all” because of the Communists’ organizational weakness in the region. The one advantage that the area did have was that is sat astride the key railway from Wuhan to Changsha. This way, the uprising could do double duty by threatening Wuhan and assisting the insurrection planned for Changsha by keeping reinforcements from being sent south into Hunan.
The uprising was set to begin on September 8, and the basic plan was fairly straightforward. The idea was to begin by attacking or assassinating gentry in areas remote from walled towns and therefore relatively immune from quick retaliation by local garrisons. The revolutionaries were then to hold mass meetings of the peasant associations in each district in which the peasants were to be told of the aims of the insurrection in order hopefully to generate “an intense revolutionary fanaticism” among them. The plan concluded with the statement that: “After this is done, a true peasant mass insurrection will be able to erupt and the victory of our uprising will be guaranteed.”
But the organizers sent out to prepare the ground for the insurrection found the terrain to be not so ripe for revolution. The first reports back from the field described a peasantry that was definitely dissatisfied with government policies and the behavior of Nationalist troops, and also that the Communists had a fairly good reputation among the peasants. But the organizers also found that there was a strong desire for political stability among the peasants in South Hubei, because of all of the upheavals of the recent past. The reports summed up that the masses understood the need to act in their own defense, but would prefer to remain passive rather than act proactively to overthrow the government.
In addition, the plan as prepared saw the already existing peasant associations, along with their self-defense forces, as sufficient for the coming uprising, just as we discussed in episode 57 when we discussed how Mao disagreed with the Party Center on this point. What the organizers who were sent to prepare the uprising found was that the military capacity of the peasant associations in South Hubei left a lot to be desired. There were few weapons, organization was very loose, and the numbers of peasant militia forces were not very large. The total armament of all the associations in South Hubei was calculated at 300 arms, scatted unevenly across the six counties.
By late August, Communist field organizers began pleading with the Hubei leadership to bring forward some of the few remaining armed forces that were loyal to the Communists from the National Revolutionary Army to support the uprising, or to make deals with bandit forces. The Provincial Committee responded by writing that: “The peasant revolution must treat the peasantry as the main force army. Regular military units and bandits are mere auxiliaries which are not 100 per cent reliable. The failure to have faith in the masses will amount to either opportunism or to a gamble on bandits or on the military.”
As these pessimistic reports trickled in, and the date for the insurrection grew nearer, the Hubei Provincial Committee came up with a bizarre plan. In early September the secretary of the Provincial Committee arrived in the field with a plan for a purge of the insurrectionary apparatus. With mere days left to go before the uprising, he ordered this purge, but then returned to Wuhan without executing the plan. Had it been carried out, the roughly 200 member Communist insurrectionary organization that had been tasked with carrying out a peasant uprising in an area of several million peasants would have been cut in half. The planned purge envisioned a new leadership which would, in a few days’ time, revamp the peasant associations from the bottom up, quickly muster the peasants into an effective armed force, and even make up the lack of weaponry by inducing the peasants to manufacture their own weapons. After the secretary returned to Wuhan, the order to carry out the purge was set aside by those who had been tasked to carry it out.
The Autumn Harvest Uprising Begins
The Autumn Harvest Uprising began when a target of opportunity that was too good to pass up presented itself. On September 8 the South Hubei special committee that was organizing the uprising learned that the evening train from Wuhan to Changsha would be carrying tens of thousands of Mexican silver dollars. A member of the special committee who went by the name of ‘Scarlet Rays’ Huang put together a force of two to three hundred local peasants, had them tie red flags around their necks, and went out and stopped the train. They looted the train for a sizeable amount of money and guns, but this was a mixed blessing, because in handling the guns the inexperienced peasants managed to kill one of the Communist Party members with accidental friendly fire.
Now, the question arose, what to do with this train that they had stopped? The plan had been to engage in the “systematic destruction of communications,” so the idea had originally been that the railroad line should be torn up and the train stranded on the tracks in the middle of the remote countryside. However, because this operation was a last minute target of opportunity, the Communist leaders of the train robbery began to worry that, because no one in party leadership knew that they were going to conduct this raid, that there were possibly comrades on board who were on important Communist Party business, perhaps carrying messages or something between the Party Center in Wuhan and Hunan. Therefore, they decided to let the train pass on to Changsha, and so within hours the authorities knew about their action, and a considerable part of the element of surprise at the beginning of the Autumn Harvest Uprising was lost.
Next on the agenda for the uprising was supposed to be the conquest of two county administrative centers: Puqi and Xianning. Puqi was a well-garrisoned town, with a walled fort, machine guns at the town gates, artillery set up at a town high point, and sentries posted around the town perimeter which were on alert for Communist activity. Peasants were not being admitted into the town, because of fear of Communist infiltration. The small peasant force that the Communists had gathered to take Puqi were largely untrained, and in total the force had 10 weapons with 600 rounds of ammunition between them all. Clearly, an attack would be suicide. Realizing that they would face Party discipline for abandoning the planned uprising, they drafted a letter in their own defense criticizing the Provincial Committee, and then moved on to join the attack on Xianning, where prospects seemed brighter.
In Xianning, the special committee had managed to gather together about 800 local peasants. But although the situation was more favorable than in Puqi, things didn’t look good. The Communist Party secretary for Xianning County advised calling off the action, but in the debate among the insurrection’s organizers, the proposition carried the day that it would be better to prove that the plan they had been forced to work with by the Provincial Party leadership was bad rather than to face chastisement themselves for abandoning the plan. Essentially, if they attacked and were beaten, the Party leadership would be responsible for the failure, but if they retreated, they would be held responsible. Clearly, this was a very unhealthy way to decide whether or not to go ahead with an insurrection, but this is apparently how the thinking went.
On the afternoon of September 9, the Communist-led peasant forces began systematically destroying the lines of communication between Xianning and the outside world, in order to isolate the town before attacking. However, while conducting these preparations for attacking the town, a messenger arrived and informed them that the small garrison in Xianning had suddenly acquired 300 rifles and two machine guns. This news apparently tipped the scales against the insurrection, sapping the already very low morale of the Communist forces, and a decision was taken to abandon the assault and retreat up into the nearby Tongshan mountains. On September 12, this ragtag force entered the small mountain town of Xikeng and announced the formation of the Xikeng Revolutionary Government.
This was not quite the end of the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hubei, however. During the September 8 train robbery, the Communists had joined forced with a group called the People’s Self-Defense Army, which was a kind of hybrid between a regular peasant self-defense force and a bandit group. The leader of this group had been unhappy with the cut that he got from the train robbery, and nursed a grudge against the Communists he had worked with on the robbery. He enticed the Communists to join up with him, with the idea that if they took the market town near his base of operations, they could then grow their forces and make another attempt at taking Xianning.
Here’s how the historian Roy Hofheinz described what happened next:
And this is basically how the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hubei petered out. There will be more to say about the aftermath of all this, but we’ll get to that in due course. Next episode, we’ll look at the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan.
And, before I go, do want to thank you for your ratings and reviews. There were a couple very nice new reviews this week. I really appreciate them. Ratings and reviews do help people to discover this podcast, so if you enjoyed this episode or learned something, please consider taking the time to leave a rating or write a review.