The early progress of the Red Army in expanding Soviet power in the Jinggangshan region.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
Some names from this episode:
Yuan Wencai, bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Wang Jingwei, leader of Guomindang Left
Tang Shengzhi, leader of Guomindang Left military forces
Chen Hao, led Communist takeover of Chaling
Wan Xixian, political commissar in Revolutionary Army
Xiao Jiabi, militia leader in Suichuan
Welcome to episode 68 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we left off at the end of October 1927. Mao Zedong had secured his relationship with the local revolutionaries of the Jinggang Mountains, and Mao and the rest of the leadership of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army had decided to base themselves in the Jinggangshan while they rebuilt their forces.
So, picking up the story where we left off, there was one immediate problem that had to be resolved in order to make this decision to base themselves in the Jinggangshan work. And it’s one you may already have intuited from the story we told last episode. Remember, when Mao was sitting down with Yuan Wencai for the first time and saying “hey, we want to set up a base here,” Yuan said “that’s fine, but, look, this area doesn’t have the resources to support a big force like yours in addition to those of us who are already here, so you’re going to have to go and make some raids outside the immediate region to get resources.” Right, armies require resources to support them. So that was why, last episode, Mao conducted that raid into a neighboring county across the border in Hunan province. So, the construction of a viable base was going to require getting access to more resources, which was going to mean getting control of an area beyond just the mountains themselves.
One lucky break that the revolutionaries got at this time, when they were at their weakest and were just beginning the process of rebuilding their forces, was that their enemies considered them to have been basically defeated, and were preoccupied with more immediate concerns. The breakup of the Wuhan regime, combined with some temporary reverses in the military campaign that continued the Northern Expedition against the warlords that ruled northern China, had led to just an incredibly complicated situation of factional jockeying for position within the Guomindang. Ultimately, the Nanjing government is going to be led by Chiang Kai-shek, but at this time, even Chiang had temporarily resigned as leader of the Guomindang, having been sidelined by all this factional activity. Wang Jingwei had gone south to Guangzhou to set up a new alternative Guomindang center opposed to Nanjing, and Wuhan was in the hand of the old military commander of the Guomindang Left, Tang Shengzhi, who went to war with the Nanjing-based majority faction of the Guomindang.
To really do justice to the story behind all this factional activity, would really take some time, but it’s a sideshow to the story that we are covering in this podcast, so suffice to say that, as long as the Communist forces led by Mao stayed in the remote mountainous area that they had settled into, they were not perceived as much of a threat by the Guomindang, who were much more involved in fighting among themselves, especially this military conflict that was going on between Tang Shengzhi and the Nanjing-based Guomindang government that would ultimately come to be led again by Chiang Kai-shek, but that for the moment Chiang had stepped aside from leading while he went to Japan, married Sun Yatsen’s youngest daughter in order to cement his status as the inheritor of Sun Yatsen’s mantle, and also consulted with the Japanese prime minister about, as they put it in their conversation, consolidating the Chinese Revolution. Which is an odd thing, when you think about it, since Chiang had been claiming that the Chinese Revolution was being waged in part against Japanese imperialism in China up until pretty recently. Chiang would come back to China in November and soon resumed a leading role in the Guomindang again, although not without just a ton of factional intrigue. And interesting as that story is, it is important for us here only in that, because of this fighting that was going on within the Guomindang, that just gave a bunch of breathing room to the Communists in the Jinggangshan.
So this gave Mao some breathing room, which he needed in order to figure out how to expand the territory under the control of the revolutionary army, which was a question of securing enough resources to maintain the forces that he had, much less to be able to expand the revolution. Based on the initial ease of their recent incursion in Hunan, which we discussed last episode, Mao and his comrades decided to push west again into Chaling County in Hunan and see if they could take control there. So, on November 18, a red army battalion led by a graduate of the Whampoa military academy named Chen Hao marched into Chaling, defeated the local militia and took over the county seat, setting up a new county government called the People’s Committee.
Oddly, this new people’s county government didn’t actually change very much. They left most of the old government staff in place, and landlords went on collecting rents like they had before, and the county government offices remained just as forbidding to the local peasantry as they had been before the red army came into town. Chen Hao’s People’s Committee did levy a huge tax on local businesses, but just used this money for the wining and dining of Chen and some of his fellow officers. The political commissar that had been assigned to the battalion wrote to Mao back in the mountains, as did some other Communist cadres who accompanied the battalion, complaining about this corrupt behavior and the failure to institute reforms, and Mao sent orders back that land reform should be carried out and that political work should be conducted with the local population.
These orders led to some changes. A few landlords were paraded through the streets, for example, and a worker was named to head the local government. But mainly, things continued on as before, until a bit over a month had gone by. Now, in late December, there was a truce between the warring factions within the Guomindang, and this permitted some of the Guomindang forces in Hunan to launch an offensive against the Revolutionary Army in Chaling. When he heard about the offensive against Chaling, Mao brought an additional force down from the mountains to reinforce Chen Hao. But, when they got near Chaling, they discovered that the Revolutionary Army had already been defeated there. But where was Chen Hao? He should have been retreating back east, toward the mountains along the route that Mao had taken down. However, Mao soon discovered that Chen Hao had retreated to the South, not to the east to the safety of the base area. What was going on?
Mao and his small force went off to the south in pursuit of Chen Hao and soon caught up with his battalion, arriving in the midst of an argument between Chen Hao and the political commissar of the battalion, Wan Xixian. Wan and other cadres had repeatedly argued against the retreat south, but Chen had appealed to military discipline and insisted that his orders to take the troops south be followed. Mao called for a mass meeting of the army, and, as it turns out, what had happened was that Chen had decided that the revolution was doomed to defeat, and was leading his forces to surrender to a Guomindang army in southern Hunan that was commanded by someone that Chen had become friends with while they were at the Whampoa military academy. The meeting decided to arrest Chen and the officers who were in on the plan with Chen, and to return back to the Jinggangshan.
When they returned to the mountains, Mao gathered the army for a big meeting on a river bank in Ninggang County and announced the decision of the Army Front Committee to execute Chen Hao and his associates for betraying the revolution. Mao made clear that the political inactivity and corruption of Chen Hao during the period of over a month while the Revolutionary Army was occupying Chaling should have already been enough proof that Chen Hao had turned against the revolution, but that confusion over the army’s tasks had contributed to the ability of someone like Chen to fly under the radar and not be found out until it was almost too late and he was already leading his forces toward surrender or annihilation by the enemy.
Previously, the only task of the Army had been to fight, and most soldiers still had an imperfect understanding that more was expected of them now. So, on some level, when the Revolutionary Army occupied Chaling and didn’t do much to carry out a land reform or do political work among the people, a lot of the soldiers perceived it as not a particularly abnormal situation. And, as a parallel, we see this with the Southern Expedition that the Communist armed forces that carried out the Nanchang Uprising did on their march south from Nanchang to Guangdong province. They really treated their march as basically a military affair (and were criticized for this afterwards), and didn’t really do political work along the march.
Now, on the occasion of this mass meeting of the Revolutionary Army where Mao announced that the Front Committee had decided to execute Chen Hao and his accomplices, Mao clarified that the Army had three main tasks:
First) Fighting and eliminating the enemy. Basically, what everyone had always understood the role of the Army to be.
Second) Dispossessing the local tyrants and collecting supplies for the army.
and Third) Mobilizing the masses.
So in the future, all revolutionary soldiers were to understand that they should be carrying out these three tasks. And if a situation came up again where a commander marched a group of Revolutionary Army soldiers into a town and they all just sat on their butts and didn’t carry out the tasks of dispossessing the tyrants and mobilizing the masses, the basic soldiers were supposed to understand that something wrong was happening and to take some initiative to figure out what was going on. So this betrayal by Chen Hao became an important moment in clarifying what tasks the Revolutionary Army should always be carrying out.
So, despite the loss of Chaling and the betrayal of Chen Hao, the same basic problem remained. The Revolutionary Army was going to have to take over more and wealthier territory, or at least as a stopgap, conduct raids into wealthier territory, in order to get resources to sustain itself. So, it was necessary for the Communists to return to action quickly after the events of Chaling.
In early January 1928, the red army marched south from the Jinggang massif and took over a large part of Suichuan County, including the county seat and the several market towns that served as centers of commerce in the region. It was here that Xiao Jiabi’s militia had scattered Mao’s forces back in October, as we discussed last episode, but now that the Revolutionary Army was well-rested and prepared, it made short work of Xiao’s militia, which had to flee from the area.
The takeover of Suichuan by the Revolutionary Army followed a pattern that would be repeated in other areas:
First, the revolutionary forces would strike quickly and with the advantage of surprise, striking key enemy military outposts, such as army garrisons or militia barracks, along with the county government. Jails would be opened up and some official buildings destroyed.
Then, there would be the appropriation of cash, foodstuffs and anything else useful from the local government and elites, which would be divided between the army and the local population.
Third, a few members of the local elite would be selected for punishment, often execution, at rallies.
Then, the army would fan out across the countryside, conducting propaganda work and also carrying out social investigations, so that the Communist Party could better understand the local population and their particular situation.
Finally, the dispersed political work across the countryside would culminate in larger rallies in the bigger towns, where new local governments called Worker-Peasant-Soldier Soviets were announced. So, on January 24, the formation of the Suichuan Worker-Peasant-Soldiers’ Government was announced at a rally that was marked by the public execution of a well-known local reactionary.
Now, during this process of fanning out across the county in Suichuan to do propaganda work and investigation, and to carry the revolution across to all the different towns and villages in the county, there was a particular problem that came up in one of the major market towns, which is worth talking about some, because it illustrates how Mao tried to balance expropriating the wealthy on the one hand, but also keeping the economy going and trying to win over prosperous non-elite people, like small and middle merchants in market towns, on the other hand.
First, just to be sure that we’re all on the same page, let’s make sure that everyone knows what I mean when I talk about ‘market towns.’ These were places where people from the surrounding countryside would come to sell what they had produced, both from the land and from their own small handicraft labor, and buy things that weren’t available in the villages that they lived in, which would typically be things that had to be brought into the region from other parts of China. In the Jinggangshan region, salt and machine-made cloth were two of the big products that peasants traded for in market towns. Also, more specialized handicraft production was concentrated in market towns, as were financial services. If you were a peasant who was doing well and you wanted to take out a loan to expand your agricultural operations, maybe in order to buy some livestock, you might have to come to a market town to get the loan.
But market towns didn’t function just as places where straightforward commercial transactions took place, they were also places where the larger social relations of society were made concrete by the sorts of interactions that took place between people. So, the commercial exploitation of the mountainous areas of the Jinggang region didn’t just express themselves in the low prices that got paid by merchants in the market towns for the products that the mountain people produced, but also in the ways in which people from the mountains were treated when they came to the market towns. Likewise, the dominance of the ethnic Han Chinese over the Hakka people was reproduced in the human interactions that took place in the market towns. Remember, in episode 64, we talked about how one expression of the escalating oppression of the Hakka in the region in the early 20th century was when the local Han elite began requiring Hakka to pay extra to use the markets and restricting their use of the markets. So, there was a concrete experience of both class and ethnic oppression and exploitation that people were subjected to in market towns when they came down from the mountains. Market towns were places where the elite concentrated their resources and power. But on the other hand, the majority of people in market towns were not part of the elite. Indeed, to the extent that there was something resembling a non-agricultural proletariat in the region, it could be found in the market towns.
So, during this takeover of Suichuan County in January 1928, a particularly thorny situation arose in the market town of Caolin, which required Mao’s personal attention. Caolin was one of what were called the “Four Great Markets” of Suichuan. It had about 3000 permanent residents, but drew peasants and merchants there from a pretty large area to conduct their business. There were two large, wealthy families that dominated the local economy, but there were also lots of small stores. While the owners of the small businesses in town were not part of the elite, they were tied to the two dominant families in the town through business ties and many of them were in debt to the large families. In addition, the two large families controlled a local militia, so these powerful families exerted a big influence on the various small businesses in the town.
The investigation that the Communists carried out in the town revealed that there were 111 stores in the town, 16 of which were owned by what were termed ‘large capitalists’ and 11 by ‘medium capitalists.’ That left 84 stores run by ‘small capitalists,’ and it was the goal of Mao to win the support of these ‘small capitalists’ if that was possible. But they would have to be broken from the influence that the local elite had over them.
The big elite families had fled town when they got word that the Red Army was coming, but when they left, they warned all the other business owners to shut down and not do anything that would support the revolutionaries, including things like just keeping the economy functioning under Communist rule. The militia leader, Xiao Jiabi, was related by marriage to one of the big elite families of Caolin, and there was a warning that, when the Communists left and the militia came back and retook the town, there would be reprisals.
So, when Mao arrived in Caolin on January 14, he had the challenge of overcoming the fear that these small capitalists had of the Communists, who they thought might just take all their stuff, and also the fear that these small capitalists had of what would happen to them when the Communists lost control of the area if they cooperated with the Communists. Certainly, Mao could have just used coercion and forced the markets to open up. But Mao was interested in gaining the widest possible political support, and he felt that there was a basis for these small capitalists, who suffered under the dominance of the larger capitalists, to support the revolution. There was a point, at any rate, to not overly antagonizing them and turning them into active enemies of the revolution if they could be treated well and won at least to some sort of neutrality.
Now, some listeners may be wondering, “well, why wouldn’t the Communists just end all capitalist activities? Isn’t that the ultimate goal of the Communist revolution?” And while that is true, the perspective that Mao had was that even once a relatively stable socialist state power took hold, the economic system could only be changed gradually, and not overnight. And under the inherently unstable system where precarious, new Soviet governments were being set up in the region surrounding the Jinggangshan, there was, as Mao put it, a need to balance “protecting labor and commerce” on the one hand, with ending the worst excesses of capitalist and feudal social relations, and ending the dominance of the local tyrants, big capitalists and large landlords. After all, the Revolutionary Army was in no position to begin setting up a planned economy in the small area that they held so precariously, so there was a great need to allow the economy to function so that people’s needs could be met. And while the Revolutionary Army would confiscate the holdings of the larger capitalists, their policy was to buy supplies, such as salt, from the smaller merchants. And if they wanted these supplies to continue to flow into the region, they had to allow the economy to continue functioning.
So, when Mao arrived in Caolin, he took pains to publicize a policy which made clear that small and medium-sized merchants would not be fined or have their goods confiscated. Those confiscations that did take place needed to be tied specifically and publicly to the exploitative activities of particular individuals, and the goods confiscated were given out to the public. After a few days, as most merchants saw that the Communists were keeping their word and were treating them well, the markets began to reopen. It was here that Mao articulated the Six Points for Attention, which would become famous later on when they had two more points added and became the Eight Points for Attention, along with the Three Main Rules of Discipline that we discussed last episode:
1) restore to their doorjambs, the door planks borrowed and used as beds (this was because the Revolutionary Army would remove people’s doors and use them for their beds, so basically, this was an order to put people’s doors back after you borrowed them and used them for a bed).
2) tie up and restore hay used as bedding (so, as you can see, this and the first point revolved around minimizing the hassle to local populations of having the Red Army in town and using their doors and hay to make beds for themselves).
3) Speak politely
4) Be fair in buying and selling
5) Return everything you borrow
and 6) Pay for anything you damage.
So, the application of these Six Points for Attentions went a long way for winning over the local population, including small property owners in Caolin and other places. It meant that allies were won for the revolutionaries who otherwise would have been antagonistic to them, had the revolutionaries treated all property owners as enemies, and ultimately, strictly applying these policies did a lot to win popular support for the revolutionaries.
This was very different than what had tended to happen when bandits descended from the Jinggangshan to raid lowland towns, and also from how warlord armies acted. But, at least initially, this line had to contend with more of what was called a ‘Red terror’ line in the Communist Party, which held that when the Red Army entered an area, any property owner should just have all their stuff taken. That policy stemmed from an understandable anger and bitterness that many people from the mountains had toward all people in the lowlands, and it was the sort of thing that couldn’t always be controlled, especially before the Revolutionary Army was repeatedly trained in the Six (and later Eight) Points for Attention. But despite the understandable desire for revenge that many poor, highland people had toward all property owners in the lowlands, the moderate policy toward property owners was much more advantageous strategically for the revolution and helped to win over many people who would have become enemies had the ‘Red terror’ line been applied against them.
So, to wrap up this episode, what we saw in this episode were two successful incursions by the Red Army, which was clearly expanding its capacity to grow and operate. But, the Revolutionary Army also had to contend with betrayal from within, and, as we can see, Mao was still developing the basic policies for the army, including clarifying that the tasks of the Revolutionary Army involved mobilizing the local population, as well as putting in place the Points for Attention that, along with the Three Main Rules of Discipline, would be so important in winning the support of local populations throughout China over the course of the Chinese Revolution.
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