Mao forges an alliance with Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo, and the Revolutionary Army builds its capacity as a political force.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Some names from this episode:
Long Chaoqing, secretary of the Ninggang County Committee of the Communist Party
Yuan Wencai, bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Wang Zuo, bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Peng Pai, Communist peasant organizer
Xiao Jiabi, powerful reactionary militia leader in Suichuan
Yin Daoyi, militia leader
Welcome to episode 67 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Five episodes ago, when we last left Mao Zedong, he had just given a rousing speech to his troops as they were about to leave the village of Sanwan on October 3, 1927. Then, we spent the past four episodes getting caught up with some background on the society and politics in the Jinggang Mountains, the area that Mao was just entering into, and which was to become the first base area that he established and where he would begin refining the strategy and tactics that would ultimately lead to victory in 1949. So now that we have a better sense of what the Jinggangshan was like, let’s return to Mao now, as he made contact with Yuan Wencai, one of the bandits-turned-Communists who we talked a bit about in the last few episodes.
So, on October 3, Mao’s forces marched on from Sanwan to the small market town of Gucheng, where an important two day conference was held, which is known as the Gucheng Conference. The conference dealt with several issues, including making plans to reestablish contact with the higher levels of the Communist Party, which they had been out of touch from for over a month, and summing up the failures of the Autumn Harvest Uprising. But the Gucheng Conference’s historical significance comes from the fact that some firm decisions were made there about establishing a base area in the Jinggangshan, including discussion with representatives of Yuan Wencai, and a decision was reached on how to establish relations with Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo.
Accounts of the Gucheng Conference are a little confusing, because on the one hand, there were local Communists in attendance, such as Long Chaoqing, who we met last episode and who was the secretary of the Ninggang County Committee of the Communist Party. But on the other hand, there was some very frank discussion among Mao’s forces about how to deal with Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo, and it seems clear that some of Mao’s people were much more inclined to see Yuan Wencai as more of a bandit than a Communist, and these people advocated that, with their superior armed force, that Mao’s Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army should just disarm the bandits and take over their territory. And when we remember the treachery that the Communist forces experienced from the semi-bandit/semi-peasant forces that the Communists allied with during the Autumn Harvest Uprising, this position becomes somewhat understandable. And there was also some real trepidation among the locals about this new force that had come into the area. In fact, initially, one of Yuan Wencai’s representatives at the Gucheng Conference said that the locals could offer some aid to Mao, but that then Mao should move on and ‘find another mountain.’
Here’s how one participant in the meeting later recalled the discussion among Mao’s forces at the conference regarding how to deal with Yuan Wencai’s armed forces:
“some people in the Revolutionary Army proposed to disarm them, asserting that it was only a matter of a few dozen rifles; just encircle and disarm them, and the problem would be resolved. Comrade Mao said that it’s not so simple, and you’re narrow-minded and too intolerant. We should not adopt a policy of big fish swallowing small fish. There are so many friends in the mountains! Who in all of history has been able to wipe out the mountain bandits? If they were banded together, they would make a big force. We were thus convinced by Comrade Mao that it was not a matter of a few dozen men and rifles, but rather a matter of policy. Only peaceful means, rather than coercive means, should be used to win them over and to transform them into a revolutionary force just like ourselves.”
It’s hard to imagine these sorts of conversations about whether to disarm and basically conquer the local Communist forces, which some of Mao’s people clearly regarded more as bandits than as comrades, taking place during sessions of the conference which local Communists participated in. So there must have been some intense breaks in the conference where these sorts of debates took place, or maybe the local Jinggangshan Communists only participated in some parts of the Gucheng conference and not in other sessions.
But despite the initial resistance of at least some of the locals to allowing the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army to remain in the area on a long-term basis, there was a pressing need that Mao and his people were confronted with and which played a key role in their decision to push to find an accommodation with the locals that would allow them to set up a base in the area. You might remember from episode 62 that one of the things that Mao said in Sanwan during the reorganization of the revolutionary army was that an important part of developing a mass support base for the army was the need to be able to turn over sick and wounded to a local population to be cared for. This was definitely not an abstract problem. There was an urgent need to find someplace to care for the growing number of injured soldiers and also those suffering from malaria.
The sick and injured were a major drag on the army, but finding some place where they could recover was a real challenge. It had to be somewhere big enough to have the resources in terms of food and services to care for the sick and injured, but remote enough to not be immediately vulnerable to enemy assault. Yuan Wencai’s base at Maoping fit the bill perfectly, and so Mao was convinced of the need to win over Yuan, or at the very least to reach some agreement whereby a hospital could be set up in Maoping.
By the end of the Gucheng Conference, the locals had accepted the idea of setting up a hospital in Maoping, as long as Mao could get Yuan Wencai to agree. So, on October 6, with the conference having ended the previous day, Mao went to meet up with Yuan Wencai at a village near Gucheng. Yuan Wencai was used to the world of bandit politics in the Jinggang Mountains, and was very cautious about this meeting. On the one hand, he had a feast prepared to welcome Mao, but he also stationed several dozen of his troops in a nearby building in case of some sort of ambush or treachery. But on the morning of the 6th, Yuan stationed himself at a high stone bridge from which he could observe Mao and his small escort ascending the path to the village and he was relieved that this was clearly not a force meant to attack him. As it was, Mao and Yuan had a long meal and a conversation that lasted several hours. In the end, Yuan agreed to the proposal for the hospital and also said that he would intercede with Wang Zuo on Mao’s behalf. Also, in an exchange of gifts that seems awfully similar to a straightforward commercial transaction, Mao gave Yuan 100 rifles in exchange for a large amount of cash.
Then, on October 7, the revolutionary army ascended to Maoping. And for the next few days, they began putting into action one of the most important policies that had been adopted during the Sanwan Reorganization, which involved doing political work with the local population in order to cultivate a mass base for the revolution. Soldiers from the army fanned out across the countryside, going to all the little hamlets and doing propaganda work and having discussions with the peasants about the political goals of the Communists. Several days of political work like this culminated in a mass rally, when villagers from surrounding areas were in Maoping for a market day.
Once the hospital had been set up, though, there was some question about what Mao and the rest of the revolutionary army should do. According to Yuan Wencai, Mao at this point hoped to keep on moving toward Shaoguan, in northern Guangdong province along the border with Hunan, about 300 kilometers to the south. Apparently, Mao knew that the forces that had staged the Nanchang Uprising were headed south toward Guangdong, and Mao thought that he might meet up with these forces down there. If this is accurate, it indicates that Mao originally intended to range across a pretty wide area.
Yuan Wencai encouraged Mao in this. The Jinggang Mountains were a poor region that had been wracked by violence for years, and so they were already strained to support Yuan and Wang’s forces. In any case, he indicated to Mao that Mao would need to raid outside the immediate vicinity of Maoping for money and materiel to supply his forces. So, in mid-October, Mao took the red army out into the neighboring county across the border from Jiangxi to southern Hunan province, attacking local militias, proselytizing in the countryside, and opening jails in the towns along the way. When they took over the county seat, they learned that the remnant forces of the Nanchang Uprising had failed to capture the Guangdong port city of Shantou, leading Mao to abandon his earlier hope of setting up a base in northern Guangdong and uniting with the Nanchang insurgents.
Now, if you know Chinese geography, and I am assuming that almost none of my listeners do know Chinese geography, you’ll know that Shantou is about 450 kilometers to the southeast of where Mao had been thinking of going to, Shaoguan. Shantou is in eastern Guangdong, and Shaoguan is in the northern part of the center of the province, about 200 kilometers directly north of Guangzhou. So, even if the Nanchang insurgents had been successful in taking Shantou, they still would have been a considerable distance from where Mao had been heading to. However, it seems likely that Mao thought that a probable destination for the Southern Expedition was the Haifeng area where Peng Pai had done so much peasant organizing in the past. Although Haifeng also is not really close to Shaoguan. So, what I’m saying here, I guess, is that Mao might have had some fairly optimistic ideas in mind when he set out on this raid into Hunan province in mid-October, and may well have been hoping that the Communists could take over a fair chunk of territory in Guangdong, Jiangxi and Hunan provinces.
In fact, in late October there will be a base area set up in Peng Pai’s old stomping ground in Haifeng county and neighboring Lufeng county. And we will, in another episode soon, talk about what happened at the end of the Southern Expedition. But in the meantime, with the bad news that the Southern Expedition had ended in defeat, and then news that enemy military units were approaching. Mao made a decision to retreat back into the Jinggangshan. Mao split up his army, sending a diversionary force to a different place in Hunan to divert the enemy military units, and the rest of Mao’s forces retreated back into the Suichuan county area of the Jinggangshan region, spreading political propaganda and holding meetings as they went.
Now, here’s where Mao’s lack of familiarity with the region landed him in some trouble. On October 22, Mao arrived in a large town in western Suichuan county. When he got there, a powerful local militia leader, name Xiao Jiabi, who was one of two major archnemeses of Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai, sent Mao a warning that this was Xiao’s territory and that if Mao didn’t leave immediately, there would be some trouble. Mao decided to ignore the warning, and the next day Xiao sent a militia force of several hundred troops to attack Mao’s forces. Xiao’s troops were much more familiar with the terrain and had the advantage, and Mao’s forces took heavy losses and were divided from each other and scattered off in different directions.
One battalion was driven off to the south and engaged in guerrilla activity for some few months before eventually being able to reunite with the main force of Mao’s red army. The remainder, about 300 men, made their way in small groups up the mountain, regrouping and then proceeding along mountain paths up toward the highest area of the Jinggang Mountains, where Wang Zuo had his base.
While ascending the mountain, Wang sent down his chief scout to meet with Mao and find out what was going on with Mao’s troops coming up the mountain into his area. Just as had happened with Yuan Wencai, Mao won over this scout during a long conversation, and the scout went back up the mountain and gave a favorable report of Mao’s intentions. The next morning, October 24, Wang sent word back down the mountain paths for Mao to come on up, and that Wang was going to welcome him and his men with a feast.
Then, before setting off to go to the village where Wang Zuo was based, Mao gave a lecture on military discipline to his troops. Even though the Sanwan reorganization that had just taken place a few weeks earlier had emphasized the need to win over local populations, and Mao’s troops had been participating in a lot of political work among the peasants during their foray into Hunan and back again into the Jinggangshan, after the defeat in Suichuan had scattered them, many of the troops had lost their discipline and were stealing food like chickens and sweet potatoes from peasants along their escape route because they were hungry. This was the population that they were trying to win over politically, after all, and Mao especially didn’t want his troops mistreating any of the people in the village that Wang Zuo was based in, so before heading up the mountain, Mao delivered this serious lecture to his troops.
It was in this lecture to his troops that Mao laid out what would come to be known as the ‘Three Main Rules of Discipline’ in the red army. At the time, this is how Mao articulated them:
1) actions must be in response to orders
2) funds raised must be used for public purposes
3) not even a single sweet potato may be taken from the populace
Later, they got changed, and eventually they were turned into the form that they are found in Mao’s Selected Works, which reads:
1) Obey orders in all your actions.
2) Don’t take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses.
and 3) Turn in everything captured.
Strict discipline along these lines, of not stealing from people or taking arbitrary actions in relation to the basic masses was not necessarily easy when troops were defeated and hungry, but over time, the efforts to strictly apply these principles made a big difference in differentiating the revolutionary army from the other armed forces that had been plaguing the Chinese countryside. And we can see here, with this experience where the revolutionary army, under difficult conditions, took a step backward, Mao stepped in here and reasserted the importance of this sort of discipline in the army. But it’s important to understand that this was a process, something that took continual reassertion and explanation in the face of the pressure of events. After all, it’s so easy, if you’ve got the guns and you’re hungry, to just take food from the peasants, especially when that is exactly how armies were expected to act in China, so, while I think from the vantage point of today and especially if you’re not currently engaged in some sort of armed struggle in a remote part of the countryside in the third world, which I assume is the case for most of our listeners, it can be easy to not grasp the way in which it took continual effort to go impose this sort of discipline, even on relatively politically conscious soldiers.
Now, during this foray into Hunan, Mao did one other thing that bears mentioning, that contributed to the conversion of the armed forces that he started with that had participated in the Autumn Harvest Uprising into something both more disciplined and more politically conscious, and more politically capable of serving not just as a fighting force, but as a force that could politically organize and raise the understanding of the people more broadly. An important part of the Sanwan Reorganization was that branches of the Communist Party were supposed to be set up at all levels within the revolutionary army. But this couldn’t be done overnight. It involved identifying soldiers who had the consciousness and enthusiasm to not just fight but to join the Party and play a politically leading role within their squads. So, during the foray into Hunan, and again while they were in Suichuan but before they were attacked there, soldiers who were identified as being good material for joining the Communist Party were identified and formal ceremonies were held during which these soldiers were inducted into the Communist Party.
Mao wrote an oath that these soldiers took during the ceremonies that went like this:
“I swear to sacrifice my individual needs; exert myself for the revolution; carry out class struggle; obey the Party organization; guard Party secrets closely; and never betray the Party.”
So, this process of setting up party branches within the army was begun and advanced and carried on in the midst of the fighting and propaganda work that the army was engaged in. Party branches within the army had three main tasks:
1) to examine the current situation
2) to understand the attitudes and lives of the general populace and help them to allay their doubts about the revolution
and 3) to train and recruit new Party members.
So, going back to Mao’s initial meeting with Wang Zuo, after giving his speech on the importance of military discipline and laying out for the first time what would become the famous ‘Three Main Rules of Discipline,’ which were not only used in China but found expression among guerrilla armies internationally which based themselves on the Chinese model, after giving this speech, Mao and the revolutionary army made their way up the mountain on October 24, arriving in Wang Zuo’s base around noon. When they arrived, Wang had lined up about 80 of his troops along both sides of the road as an honor guard. Wang had a bunch of pigs slaughtered for a huge feast for Mao’s forces, and he did a theatrical thing where, as Mao’s troops were marching along the road with Wang’s forces on either side of them, all of a sudden the pigs began to be slaughtered for the feast, and let out a bunch of squeals, and at the sound of the pigs squealing, Wang’s troops hoisted their weapons and presented arms in a salute to the Mao’s troops.
So, after just having been lectured on the need for self-discipline and that troops in the revolutionary army had to be ready for self-sacrifice, Mao’s troops, who had been going hungry and were on the run, were treated to a massive feast of roast pig, and some villagers even vacated their homes so that the revolutionary soldiers would have comfortable places to sleep and recover from their defeat and flight up the mountain. Mao and Wang had an extended conversation over the course of the feast, and just like he had with Yuan Wencai, Mao won Wang Zuo over in this manner.
During their talk, Wang spoke to Mao about his problems both with Xiao Jiabi, who had attacked Mao in Suichuan, and a smaller militia leader on the east side of the mountain, Yin Daoyi. So, the next day, to cement the alliance between their forces, Mao took his now well-fed and rested forces along with Wang’s troops down the east side of the mountain and attacked Yin Daoyi’s headquarters. As it happened, Yin and his relatives were in the middle of ceremonies honoring their ancestors and were taken totally by surprise. Yin and many of the leaders of his militia escaped, but several dozen militiamen were killed and the Red Army forces sat down and ate all the food that had been laid out for the ceremonies, getting their second feast in two days, before burning down the militia headquarters and doing some propaganda work among the villagers.
So, just to sum up this episode before we finish here, what we have seen is that, during the month of October 1927, despite some uncertainty about how they would be received and whether they would be moving on to meet up with other Communist forces in Guangdong, the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army led by Mao managed to forge an alliance with both Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo, the two social bandit leaders that we talked about quite a bit over the past few episodes. And, in addition to cementing this alliance, which was really necessary if the revolutionary army was going to stay in the area, we also saw the implementation of the reforms laid out during the Sanwan Reorganization. This meant the conversion of the revolutionary army into a force that would be much more politically conscious and capable of carrying out political work among the rural masses, making it a much more potent force than if it had solely focused on its military role.
OK, that’s it for now, see you next time.