With particular emphasis on the geographical divisions between valleys and mountainsides, and ethnic divisions between Han and Hakka.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Name from this episode:
Zhu Beide, Governor of Jiangxi province
Welcome to episode 63 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we followed Mao Zedong and the rest of the First Division of the First Army of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army into the Jinggangshan region and looked at the reorganization of the army according to more democratic revolutionary principles in the village of Sanwan. We will rejoin Mao as he comes to an accord with the local revolutionary leaders and establishes his first base area soon. This episode, I want to focus in on some background information on the region, so that we can have a deeper understanding of the social and cultural context within which this first base area experience that Mao had took place in.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a base area in the Chinese Revolution is a geographical space where the Communists were able to set up a relatively stable presence and exercise political control. If the overall strategy of the Chinese Revolution involved a process whereby the ‘countryside surrounded the city,’ the base areas were the strongholds from which the Communists expanded to control the countryside before overwhelming the cities. As we will see, these base areas were hardly invulnerable to enemy attack, and were sometimes lost entirely. But they were central to the strategy that emerged and was eventually victorious. Mao’s experience in the Jinggangshan is understood to be prototypical, because it was where many of the basic lessons about how to create and sustain a base area were first learned, even though the experience would be developed much further as the revolution advanced.
But every base area was unique as well, because while there were universal aspects to the political lessons about base building that Mao and his comrades pioneered, there was a specific cultural and social context in every given location, and these specific local contexts were central to the success or failure of the base area. And China has lots of different specific local contexts which vary hugely from each other. It has become fashionable among historians working at large scale historical comparisons to compare China not with individual European countries, but with the continent of Europe as a whole. I think that given the diversity of Chinese cultures, local economies and even languages, this is correct. And I bring this up to make the point that, when we see base areas going up over the course of the Chinese Revolution in different parts of China, it’s helpful to think of the differences between some of these regions as being as really pretty massive.
So in each base area, there is always going to be a complex negotiation between an overall Communist strategy aimed at China as a whole, and the local particulars of how the Communists manage to integrate with and become a part of the local society. And inherently, this involves a negotiation between Communist outsiders and local populations. This dynamic is central to the process of the Chinese Revolution. There are no blank slates anywhere in China where the Communists show up and try to set up a base area. We’re not going to be able to go in depth for every place where there is a base area. But I think there is a point in going into some depth on the Jinggangshan, so that, in the future, even though we won’t have the time to get into all the particulars, it can serve as a reminder that, even if we are mainly focusing on the development of ideology and the experiences that ultimately went into the creation of what would become Maoism, there is always some sort of interaction with complex local conditions and traditions going on that we won’t always have the space to get into.
Maybe this is a truism, maybe most of you are already assuming that this is the case. But it’s interesting that many people who formally know this have lost sight of it in the past when writing about the Chinese and other revolutions. The importance of major figures, like Mao, and how their experiences led to ideas that were applied in a wide variety of contexts, in China and beyond, is understandably distracting. But, when we look at the concrete experience of these figures and the application of their ideas, the local context is fundamental to what actually happened. So there is this need, at least sometimes, even when we are mainly interested in the larger picture, that is the universal and the way in which concrete experience is elevated to something more abstract, there is this need to actually understand what that concrete and local experience was, or else our actual understanding of the larger ideas drawn in part from that experience will be stunted.
Even people trying to put these ideas into practice have sometimes focused overly on what they perceived to be the universal aspects of rural base building, and their neglect of local particulars had disastrous results. Certainly, in my own research on Mexico and Bolivia I saw examples of this, as I discuss in my book, Transpacific Revolutionaries: The Chinese Revolution in Latin America.
OK, you might be wondering: before we move on to the particulars of the Jinggang Mountains, what were the universal aspects of base building? Let me give a short answer to that question right now. If you asked a historian of China, they would probably characterize the areas in China where Communists were able to build base areas more or less as Stephen Averill did in Revolution in the Highlands, a book on the Jinggangshan base area which is considered a masterpiece of Chinese social history. Averill describes the Jinggang Mountains as an “archetypal Chinese ‘border area:’ a topographically rugged, administratively divided, and economically deprived region with a reputation as an unruly bandit lair.” So in China, we see base areas being established in areas where the state was very weak already and the terrain was very favorable.
Now, in 1928 Mao goes into some detail on why, as he put it, “Red political power can exist in China,” and his explanation overlaps with but is different from the academic historian’s reasons given above. It’s a very important talk, so we’ll deal with it at the time. But it is interesting that he, too, in that talk, speaks explicitly about what he sees as the particular conditions of China. Here is how Mao puts it in October 1928, just about exactly a year from where we left off in our last episode: “The long-term survival inside a country of one or more small areas under Red political power completely encircled by a White regime is a phenomenon that has never occurred anywhere else in the world. There are special reasons for this unusual phenomenon. It can exist and develop only under certain conditions.
“First, it cannot occur in any imperialist country or in any colony under direct imperialist rule, but can only occur in China which is economically backward, and which is semi-colonial and under indirect imperialist rule. For this unusual phenomenon can occur only in conjunction with another unusual phenomenon, namely, war within the White regime. [By which Mao means the fighting between different factions and strongmen within the Guomindang, and between the Guomindang and certain warlords.]”
Then, when Maoism gets turned into an ideology that leaves China and goes around the world, this argument of Mao’s gets heavily amended. And, like I said, there ends up being a tendency where this experience in the Jinggangshan and later in other parts of China, especially the experience in Yan’an, gets codified into a universal experience that some people try to more-or-less replicate in other parts of the world, and the local particularities of the actual experience in China get kind of put to one side, even though they are central to the actual experience that took place.
So let’s focus a little in this episode on the particularities of the Jinggangshan.
Like I mentioned last episode, the Jinggang Mountains are a subrange in the central part of the larger Luoxiao Mountains. The Jinggang massif consists of a number of thickly forested parallel ridges, and between the mountains you have these basins and valleys. One of the big, long-term stories of Chinese and southeast Asian history is the story of the migration and settlement of Han Chinese people in the mountainous areas of southern China, and the pushing out of some of the original ethnic groups from these mountain regions, into the countries of Southeast Asia and further south in China. Probably the best known of these ethnic groups that mostly got pushed out are the Miao and Yao people.
Anyways, this process began in the Jinggangshan about 2000 years ago, give or take a couple centuries, although it became much more intense during the centuries from about 800 to 1200. For example, the oldest surviving village in the region dates from about the year 800 or 900, but the county that it belongs to has existed as an administrative unit for about 2000 years. The families in the region that are descendants of these Han Chinese settlers are known as the “native registrants.” This term derives from the old household registration system in imperial China. These “native registrants” settled mainly in the valleys and basins of the Jinggang region. These were the areas best suited for agriculture, and had the best communications in terms of navigable waterways and roads connecting this fairly remote region with better traveled trade routes and major cities.
Later on, during the late Ming Dynasty (which lasted from 1368 to 1644) and the early Qing Dynasty (which began in 1644), there was another big wave of migration into the region. These people were mostly speakers of the Hakka language. The Hakka ethnic group is a Chinese ethnicity that is thought to have originated from a mix between the cultures of Han Chinese with the various original ethnic groups of southern China, like the Yao and Miao. So while the Hakka are a Chinese ethnic group, they had different customs and language from that of the first settlers of the Jinggangshan. This group of settlers became known as the ‘guest registrants,’ because of their comparatively late arrival to the region compared to the ‘native registrant’ Han Chinese.
It’s a testament to the incredibly long history that China has that people who arrived in a place in the 1500s would still be called ‘guest registrants’ 400 years later. One historian got a little carried away with the term and actually tried to cite the fact that the Hakka were ‘highly mobile newcomers’ as part of the reason for their participation in the Chinese Revolution. Obviously, the idea that people who arrived in the Jinggangshan before the Mayflower sailed for America were newcomers to the region in the 1920s is totally absurd. But, their later arrival was a major factor in the social divisions that characterized the Jinggangshan when Mao got there.
The Hakka came to the area for a number of reasons. Some because of economic pressures where they had previously been living, some because they were uprooted by the chaos surrounding the transition between the Ming and Qing dynasties. A whole bunch of people were forced to leave the coast of Fujian province due to an imperial decree that depopulated the coast so as to deny pirates a safe haven.
The ‘guest registrant’ Hakka for the most part had experience making the mountains and hills of southern China bloom. They had experience with crops that grew on hillsides, and knew how to sculpt slopes into terraced agricultural land. And so, with no land left in the valleys and basins of the Jinggangshan, the Hakka moved to occupy the hills and mountains higher up. Down in the valleys, the main agricultural product was rice, but in the hills only a small amount of land could be turned into terraces for growing rice. Peasants up in the mountains had to work harder to make the land produce, and often at a variety of products, such as timber, bamboo, peanuts, tea, beans, sweet potatoes, and medicinal herbs. They also often had to combine this agricultural work with some sort of handicraft work or other side hustle in order to make ends meet.
But it was possible for the Hakka to work hard and prosper on the slopes of the Jinggangshan. Here is how one local gazetteer described the settlement process:
But, despite the possibility of Hakka prosperity, there was a fundamental economic divide between the lowlands and the highlands. The land produced more easily and more abundantly down below, and so even though there were prosperous elites and poor peasants in the valleys and on the mountain slopes, there was a basic geographical division between the more wealthy valleys and the poorer mountainside. And this coincided with an ethnic division between Hakka and Han Chinese.
Here’s how Mao Zedong wrote about this division between the Hakka and the Han Chinese in the Jinggang Mountains in a report from the Jinggangshan Front Committee written to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in November 1928 (and which appears, somewhat altered, in Mao’s Selected Works under the title “The Struggle on the Jinggangshan”):
[Mao’s Road to Power, v. 3, p. 110]
So, we can see from what Mao wrote in this report that, as the Communist Party sinks roots in the area and develops the base area, the ethnic divisions in the area will find expression in how the struggle unfolds, and even within the Communist Party itself as it recruits from the local population. What Mao described in that report was how, for a moment at least, the class war of the peasants against the gentry became more an ethnic war of Hakka against Han, very much against the wishes and the policy of Mao and the Communist leadership.
Anyways, we’ll deal with these events in more detail when we get to them in an episode in the not too distant future. In the meantime, I wanted to read that out just to illustrate the great importance that this Hakka and Han, or native and guest registrant division, had on how the revolution played out during this crucial phase of the Chinese Revolution.
Next episode, we’re going to talk about bandits.
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