How the Chinese revolution came to the Jinggangshan, and how the revolution and counter-revolution developed up until Mao’s arrival in October 1927.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Some names from this episode:
Long Chaoqing, important early Communist in Jinggangshan area
Xiao Guohua, Communist women’s activist in Nanchang
Yuan Wencai, bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Wang Zuo, bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Zhu De, leading Communist military figure
Yin Daoyi, conservative elite in Guanbei
Ouyang Luo, Yongxin Communist cadre
He Yi, Yongxin Communist cadre
He Zizhen, the “Two-gunned Girl General”
Wang Xinya, Communist military officer
Liu Zuoshu, Yongxin Communist cadre
He Minxue, Yongxin Communist cadre
Welcome to episode 66 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, we’re going to look at the early revolutionary movement in the Jinggangshan. This is the fourth episode bringing us up to date with background information on the Jinggang Mountain region, the area where Mao set up his first base area, which ended up being a key moment in the development of the Chinese Revolution, both because of the importance of the area for regrouping the Communist movement after the end of the United Front with the Guomindang, and because it was here that many of the policies began taking shape that would ultimately lead to victory in 1949, and which other revolutionaries would attempt to apply in their own contexts in other parts of the world. So this episode, we’ll look at how the revolutionary movement came to the Jinggang Mountain region before Mao got there, and see how the movement stood at the point when Mao arrived in October 1927.
So, looking at how revolutionary nationalist and Communist ideas about how to modernize China and to save China from foreign oppression came to the remote Jinggangshan area is actually really helpful for us as an example of how these ideas spread all across the country in the period from about 1919 to 1926. In this podcast, when we discussed the genesis of these movements in China, we mainly spoke about the central locations and central figures. But of course, for these ideas to become a truly national force, they had to somehow percolate out of the major urban areas and into the small cities, towns and even eventually to the villages. It makes me think of how, if you go to New York City or San Francisco, you can see so many different ideas and political trends with what seem like significant numbers of activists or advocates, at least they seem like significant numbers to someone who doesn’t live in one of those cities. But then you go to a small city in the interior of the United States, and there just isn’t any representation at all politically or culturally for many of the radical ideas that you can find in the larger and more progressive cities. I’m sure that many listeners might have assumed that China in the early 1920s was similar, that sure, there were some radical ideas floating around in Shanghai and Beijing and Guangzhou, but did these ideas really travel to the interior of the country? Well, the answer is actually yes, and in the case of the Jinggangshan, we can see what the dynamics were behind the arrival of these ideas in a backwater area of rural China.
The key vector by which radical ideas came into the region during the several years between the May 4th Movement of 1919 and the arrival of the National Revolutionary Army in the area in September 1926 was educated youth, returning home to the area from educational institutions in other places. If we look back to episode 13 of this podcast, and the episodes that followed that one which dealt with the founding of the Communist Party, we’ll remember that it was students and intellectuals who were the early adopters of radical politics in China, and that one of the main forms that this interest took was the creation of study circles where young people would get together and discuss various ideas for how to modernize China, and how to break China free from foreign domination (which was mainly British and Japanese, although the Americans and French had big roles as well).
In general, the larger the city, the more of these study circles there would be, and the greater the possibility of radicalization of significant numbers of students. Now, here is where one of the interesting paradoxes of the spread of radical politics to the Jinggangshan comes into play. Who were the people who were sending their kids to large cities to attend Middle Schools (which, in the context of 1920s China, was a major educational attainment and at which the students were young adults, so despite the name being the same, these shouldn’t be confused with middle schools in the United States, which are attended by 11 to 13 year-olds mainly)? Well, to go to a middle school, and in particular to travel to a larger city for Middle School, you were likely part of the local elite, although promising sons of rich peasants could also get an education with some struggle (remember last episode, where Yuan Wencai managed to attend a middle school for a short time before his father died and he had to come back home because his family couldn’t afford for him to keep attending school). But, it was unusual even for rich peasants to be able to get this sort of education for their kids, remember after all how last episode I mentioned how Yuan Wencai’s classmates would mock him as the “cowherd scholar.”
Take the example of an important early Communist in the region, Long Chaoqing. Long was from a powerful ‘native registrant’ family in the area around the county seat of Ninggang county, one of the core three or four counties encompassing the Jinggang massif and its immediate surroundings. (With another couple counties in the region as well, but less central to it.) Long Chaoqing’s father had been a student in Japan and served at different times in the Jiangxi provincial government as head of the education department and head of the provincial assembly. In some of our earlier episodes, we spoke about the importance of many of these Chinese students who went to Japan and got a modern education and then came back to China to try to use that education to modernize China. So, Long Chaoqing’s father was part of this group of what I would call a ‘modernizing elite.’
And, as we talked about so much back in our episodes dealing with the period of time around the founding of the Communist Party (the 100th anniversary of which is coming up soon, by the way), the Soviet model of modernization exercised a serious influence on some of these ‘modernizing elites.’ Long Chaoqing’s dad falls into this category. So, one of the early projects of the Communist Party in Nanchang was founding a middle school, the Liming Middle School, which was intended by the Communists who started it as something of a radical training and recruitment center. Long Chaoqing’s father supported the Liming school, and Long himself was sent there to study after he completed his primary schooling back in Ninggang.
There were some other students from Ninggang as well attending Liming Middle School, and they all tended to socialize together and got radicalized together at the school. Long Chaoqing was actually one of the last of these to get radicalized. Apparently, one Sunday he couldn’t find any of his friends to hang out with because they were all at a Communist Youth League meeting, so he began pressuring his elder brother’s wife, Xiao Guohua, to help him join. So, initially, he mainly got into the Communist stuff because his friends were into it, but once he got involved he became very active and committed. Two of these friends were from the Liu family, which wasn’t as powerful as the Long family but were well-off and had a prestigious pedigree, ended up marrying Long’s sisters. So you had this situation where these elite youth were being radicalized in the provincial capital, and then they married into each other’s families, which reproduced traditional elite ways of forming alliances. So, when you take a step back, it’s interesting to see the influence of tradition here, where you had this new, modernizing politics of Communism (and revolutionary nationalism), but the form that these local elite families adopted reflected traditional forms of family advancement and inter-elite competition, where political alliances were cemented by personal ties of marriage and family.
During 1924 and 1925, Long and some of the other Ninggang natives who had been studying at Liming, all of whom were from local elite families, began going back home during their school vacations and began laying the foundations of the revolutionary movement in the towns of the region. One of the main vehicles for the movement was an organization that they founded which was called the Culture Society, which attracted local students, that is, for the most part, other youth who didn’t have the privileges of Long and his friends who studied outside the region, but who still had the family resources to pursue education, either locally or in the nearby city of Ji’an, close to but outside the Jinggangshan area. The model of the Culture Society was the study circles that existed all over China and which brought together students to discuss modern ideas. The intention of Long and his friends was that the Culture Society would also serve as a recruiting ground for creating local chapters of the Communist Youth League and the Guomindang.
One other interesting purpose that the Culture Society served was that it was a kind of organizational locus for the modernizing local elites in their competition with more conservative local elites who grouped themselves in something called the New People’s Society. So, it was kind of like a local party in a sense, where young modernizers joined the Culture Society and more traditional elites joined the New People’s Society. This sort of competition among the local elite was not really a new thing, and in a way, this competition between two different societies dominated by different sections of the elite, with different ideologies, but also with different family ties and patronage networks, didn’t represent a major break with the way traditional elite politics had been conducted, although of course the radical content of the ideas advocated by the Communist youth at the core of the Culture Society was new.
Now, in the last two episodes, one of the things that I think has stood out about the nature of life in the Jinggangshan region was the pervasive violence. So it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that one of the focuses of the conservative New People’s Society was on promoting and organizing military counter-measures, both sponsored by themselves and by the government, against the local bandits. But, because the problem of banditry was so interwoven with the ethnic tensions between the Han and Hakka people in the area, the ‘native registrants’ and ‘guest registrants,’ the New People’s Society’s efforts at promoting military resistance to banditry also involved armed enforcement of more generalized wealthy, lowlander Han dominance in the region, and along with that, the armed forces that they controlled represented a sort of military guarantee against any sort of radical change along the lines that the Culture Society people favored.
This meant, that if the Culture Society, serving as a front for Communists and Nationalists, was going to compete with the conservative local elite, that it had to establish its own armed force. Naturally, this meant finding a way to break out from just organizing among students and intellectuals in the towns. But, where to turn? How to do it? On a local level, they faced a problem that the Communists elsewhere had confronted, and which had been resolved by delving into union organizing and peasant organizing. In this specific case, this remote outpost of the Chinese Revolution, the specific solution to this problem looked a little different than it did in, say with the start of union organizing in Shanghai (as we covered back in episode 24) or the peasant organizing in Guangdong province (as we talked about back in episode 37).
The inspiration came to a group of Communist Youth League activists one day when they were at a gathering of local elite powerholders who were sitting around complaining about the depredations of Yuan Wencai’s Saber Detachment. After the gathering, Long Chaoqing and his friends decided that, given the ‘social bandit’ character of a lot of Yuan Wencai’s activities, that arranging for the Saber Detachment to be reorganized as a militia might allow the Communists to ally with Yuan, and get some armed support for their side to counter the conservative armed forces of the New People’s Society. Long went to the local magistrate and convinced him to begin the process of negotiating the conversion of Yuan Wencai from bandit leader to militia leader. This process took some time, but by July 1925 it was done, as we discussed last episode.
The Culture Society may have been a group formed by local elite youth, but it was ethnically mixed between Han and Hakka, and stood for progressive ideals. No doubt Yuan had been exposed to and attracted by those ideals during his own schooling, which was so much more extensive than most peasants in the area had received. It is likely that Yuan knew some members of the Culture Society from his own time in school. And, in any case, and perhaps the greatest argument in favor of Yuan’s initial alliance with the Culture Society, was that they stood against the New People’s Society, which was definitely his enemy. And, during the months following the reorganization of the Saber Detachment from bandit gang to militia, Yuan became closer and closer with the Communists at the core of the Culture Society, ultimately joining the Communist Party himself.
As the National Revolutionary Army advanced, finally taking control of Jiangxi from the warlords in September and October 1926, the strength of the revolutionaries in the Jinggangshan grew. Peasant associations were organized and labor unions founded. And in September or October of 1926, Yuan Wencai, Long Chaoqing, and the other Communists in Ninggang staged a coup in which they disarmed the militia that served the New People’s Society and expelled the county magistrate. They established what they called the County People’s Government Committee and took over running the county. The provincial level government of Jiangxi sent several successive magistrates to the area to try to take back over local government, but they had no real power behind them and they all quickly left, having made no impact. Yuan Wencai now renamed the force that he commanded the Ninggang County Peasant Self-Defense Army.
With the Guomindang now in charge at the provincial level, all the same sorts of contradictions that we described in Hunan now began to play out in the Jinggangshan. On the one hand, there was a ballooning of peasant associations forming and the peasant movement in some areas had the strength and freedom to attack tyrannical landlords and impose a new order in the countryside. But, aside from those members of the local elite who were closely tied with the warlords who had been driven off, the landlords maintained what power they could muster on their own behalf, which was considerable in some cases. Ninggang was the most remote of the Jinggang Mountain counties, and was where the radicals most completely took charge. There, many members of the New People’s Society had to flee for their lives, with one prominent member being caught and executed.
Throughout the area, peasant associations were able to wage successful campaigns for rent and debt reduction, and carried out other attacks aimed at redistributing wealth. One form that these attacks took was something called “eating off the big families,” in which a mob would occupy the homes of wealthy families and force them to provide feasts and give gifts to the home invaders. This had been an occasional practice of bandit gangs, but was adapted into a form of economic protest by peasant associations, and given a more overt political meaning as part of how the peasant associations adapted the practice. You would also see some practices that came to be commonly associated with the Chinese Revolution later on, such as seizing reactionary power-holders, marching them through the streets in dunce caps, and having meetings to denounce them. Mostly these elite targets just suffered the humiliation involved in being dragged through this sort of people’s tribunal, and an additional fine. But imprisonment and executions could happen too.
So, from the perspective of the local elite, the first months after the National Revolutionary Army chased out the warlords were a bit of a rough time. But the elite had resources to weather the storm, and met the revolutionary challenge with a combination of accommodation and resistance. Already, many of the most prominent members of the local elites in the region had been employing their own personal armed forces because of the threat of kidnappings. And so one of the natural responses of conservative local elites in the face of the growth of peasant associations and the taking over of government offices by Communists and left-wing Nationalists was to increase the amount of hirelings under arms. This had a limited effectiveness, though, because the tendency was for peasant associations to target individuals, and so when they came for someone, the peasant forces could overwhelm whatever personal armed force any given landlord relied on for their personal defense.
But there were more insidious methods that the landed elite could use to defend themselves. Of course, just as Yuan Wencai and later Wang Zuo came over to join the revolutionary forces in the region, the conservative elites appealed to other bandits and militia units to support them and counter-balance the bandits who had transformed into peasant self-defense armies. One other tricky thing that they could do was to set up peasant associations of their own. Many of the prominent members of the conservative elite were the patriarchs of large, extended families, and counted on vast patronage networks. These families and networks included many people who were poor and middle peasants, and it was quite possible for these conservative elites to move behind the scenes to create peasant associations that they controlled, thereby using mass organizations as protective buffers and deflecting attacks.
Of course, the conservative elites also appealed to the provincial level government for help. But before the split between the Guomindang and the Communists developed, this was unreliable and could even backfire. One Suichuan landlord went to Nanchang to complain about the peasant mobilizations, only to wind up in the office of Zhu De, the future Communist military commander. The landlord didn’t know that Zhu was a Communist, and after he complained to Zhu, Zhu sent word about the landlord’s complaint to the Communists back in Suichuan, who organized an attack on the landlord’s house in retaliation. So, during the months between the arrival of the National Revolutionary Army and the split between the Guomindang and the Communists, the conservatives elite in the Jinggangshan was really on the defensive.
Following Chiang Kai-shek’s April 12, 1927 massacre of Communists and union members in Shanghai (an event that we discussed in episode 49), and then with the deterioration of relations between the Guomindang Left and the Communists in Wuhan over the late spring and summer, the conservatives took the signal that the time had come to mobilize to retake what they had lost in the Jinggangshan, and were increasingly able to count on outside aid from Rightists in the Guomindang to do so. Because of the participation of well-armed and experienced armed forces, like those led by Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo, in some areas the counter-revolution took on the character of a full-scale localized civil war.
To give you a sense of what this looked like, I’m going to read out a passage from Stephen Averill’s Revolution in the Highlands, a book which, once again, I cannot recommend enough if you want to get deeper into what we’re talking about this episode. Here’s how he describes the events in Yongxin, another core Jinggangshan County, during the Spring and Summer of 1927:
And, this is where we will find them when Mao arrives in the region. As we can see, when Mao got there at the beginning of October 1927, the revolution had already gone through a major episode of revolution and counter-revolution. But with Mao’s arrival, things were only getting started. And don’t worry, if the nickname of the “Two-gunned Girl General” got you curious about He Zizhen, we’ll be seeing more of her soon. Ok, we’ll get on with that next episode.
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See you next time.