How Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai’s forces were brought into the Red Army, and Mao cemented the loyalty of the locals by marrying the Two-Gunned Girl General.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Christina Gilmartin, Engendering the Chinese Revolution: Radical Women, Communist Politics, and Mass Movements in the 1920s
Some names from this episode:
Yuan Wencai, bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Wang Zuo, bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
He Changgong, cadre sent to advise Wang Zuo and win him over
Yin Daoyi, militia leader
Yin Haomin, Yin Daoyi’s son
Xu Yan’gang, chief-of-staff of the Second Regiment of the First Division of the Red Army
He Zizhen, Communist cadre known as the “Two-Gunned Girl General”
Yang Kaihui, Mao’s wife
Link to a podcast I recently appeared on:
Episode 71 of Cosmopod, discussing the early years of the Chinese Communist movement
Welcome to episode 70 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
When we last left off with our narrative about the development of the Communist base area in the Jinggang Mountains, in episode 68, we saw the capacity of the Revolutionary Army grow, as it launched incursions into enemy territory and expanded the area under its relatively stable control. This episode, I want to focus on the question of how the forces that originated outside the Jinggangshan region integrated with the locally generated revolutionary forces. That is, the ways in which the outside force that had participated in the Autumn Harvest Uprising and was led in retreat to the Jinggangshan by Mao both integrated itself into local society, and how the large outside force fit the locally generated forces, such as the former bandit groups led by Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo, into the structure of the Revolutionary Army.
I’m going to use two illustrative examples of events that were important in their own right which give some sense of how these processes worked; one each showing the absorption of the local by the larger force that had come in from the outside, and of the adaptation to local conditions, or ‘going native,’ if you will, of the Communists who came from outside the region. We’ll start with talking about how Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo’s forces came to be absorbed into the regular command hierarchy of the Revolutionary Army.
When the Red Army came to the Jinggangshan, the two former bandit leaders who allied with the Communists initially kept their own armed forces separate and distinct from the command structure of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army. Even though Yuan Wencai had joined the Communist Party before the arrival of Mao in the region, his forces and those of Wang Zuo remained under their personal commands, as they had been first when they were bandit groups, and then when they were converted to militia forces (and if you need to catch up on all this, we told the story of the background of Yuan and Wang back in episodes 63 through 67).
Now, from the perspective of Mao and the rest of the leadership of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army, there was a certain urgency to incorporating Yuan and Wang’s forces into their own military command structure. Remember, if you go back to our episodes on the Autumn Harvest Uprising, in both Hubei and Hunan, episodes 59 through 61, in both provinces there were independent peasant self-defense armies that initially sided with the Communists, or at least appeared to, and then turned on the Communists, inflicting pretty heavy damages. So, despite the warm relations that they almost instantly developed with Yuan and Wang, there was a strong desire to get some sort of control over those forces and incorporate them into the army command structure, at least as firmly as possible.
The trick was, this had to be done without alienating Yuan and Wang, and while maintaining the loyalty of troops that were more personally loyal to Yuan and Wang than to the Communist cause. But, there was a possible warning sign of trouble ahead that made Mao want to move forward as soon as possible with integrating Yuan and Wang’s forces into the army. During the first foray of the Red Army into Chaling county, in Hunan province, in October 1927, the one we talked about in episode 67 that was led by Mao, not the second incursion that we talked about in episode 68, during that first incursion into Chaling, a group of members of the elite from Ninggang County (that’s the county right most at the center of where the Communists were setting up their base area, and the whole county actually came under Communist control by the end of February 1928), anyways, this delegation from the Ninggang elite had held a meeting with Yuan Wencai while Mao and the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army were off in Hunan on that incursion.
What had happened was that the local elite had been made really nervous when Mao and all his Communist troops showed up in early October, and the local magistrate and the rest of the elite held a bunch of meetings to try and figure out if they should try and petition to get some reactionary army troops sent to Ninggang to run off the Communists. You might remember from past episodes, that having regular reactionary army troops come into the area was kind of a mixed blessing for the local elites, and was something to be avoiding if possible. Well, the solution that the local elite came up with was, hey, we managed to smooth over relations with Yuan Wencai in the past, when we made him a militia leader (which, you might remember, was actually something that had been done at the suggestion of Communists working in the local government, during the United Front, and who now were refugees being hosted by Yuan Wencai, but be that as it may…) So anyways, having managed to smooth things over with Yuan Wencai in the past, these elites sent a delegation up to meet with Yuan. Now, since the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army had in the main gone off to Hunan, Yuan said, hey, look, they’ve left, don’t worry, and that was the end of the issue. But, despite this, there was a nagging worry for Mao and other Communists that this incident signaled the possibility that, if things got rough (and they inevitably would), then maybe Yuan Wencai would strike a separate deal with the local elite and hang the Communists out to dry. So it was necessary to bind him to the revolution more tightly.
The main way in which this was accomplished was by showing Yuan what effect some military and political training would have on the effectiveness of his men. Yuan was very open to this idea, and allowed several Red Army cadres to enter his ranks and serve as officers and instructors. About a hundred of his men were organized into a more formal structure, a company, which was further divided into platoons and squads. And these men were put through daily drills. And when Mao Zedong was in the area, he delivered political lectures to these men. The overall effect was quite dramatic. While Yuan’s men had been fine at bandit style fighting, the introduction of formal military organization, regular practice during drills, and a somewhat heightened political consciousness made a serious difference in their strength as a military force. Meanwhile, the red army men who had been placed within Yuan’s force were well-placed to watch what was going on, and to influence the troops. And as new people joined the force, they were less tied to Yuan’s personal leadership, and more integrated into a regular military way of operating.
Once Wang Zuo saw the effect that training and discipline had on Yuan’s troops, Wang asked Mao if something similar could be done for him. But the thing was, Wang was much more wary than Yuan about giving over his troops to the influence or control of people from the Revolutionary Army. Wang sort of wanted to get the benefits of training, but to also keep the outsiders who were training his troops from getting too much control over his men.
Stephen Averill has put together a very vivid narrative of how Wang’s resistance was overcome in his book Revolution in the Highlands. I’ve mentioned this book in past episodes, and once again I want to recommend it to everyone who wants to get deeper into the experience of the Jinggangshan base area. Rather than lose something from Averill’s account by summarizing it, I’m going to quote a few paragraphs from the book about how Wang’s resistance was overcome:
Averill’s account here, by the way, is basically taken directly from He Changgong’s own memoirs of the experience, but since that’s in Chinese, we can’t just quote that directly.
So, this was how Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo’s forces were integrated into the Red Army, with this process accomplished in February 1928.
Now, let’s turn to an example of an important outsider Communist adapting himself to local conditions. The example I’m going to use is Mao Zedong’s marriage to He Zizhen, the “Two-Gunned Girl General” who we met already back in episode 66, which had a broader meaning than just that of a man and a woman marrying each other, because of larger context within which the marriage occurred. If the incorporation of Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo’s forces into the Red Army was seen by Mao as a way of welding the local former bandit forces tightly to the Communist revolution, then the relationship that developed between Mao Zedong and He Zizhen was seen by Yuan and Wang as a way of getting Mao to feel that he had an interest in the local point of view of things. That is, to the degree that the locally generated revolutionary movement might sometimes have its own particular, local set of concerns that might be different than the concerns of people who came from outside the area and who were mainly thinking about a lager, national or even international picture, that maybe if Mao had a personal stake in a relationship with someone who had local roots, that then local priorities might also get a hearing and not be ignored by the leadership.
So… Let’s review real quickly what we already know about He Zizhen. As we saw in episode 66, she was from a Yongxin family that had a number of family members join the Communist movement. When the Communists seized Yongxin in late July 1927, she was a part of that, and she participated valiantly in the defense of Yongxin in August 1927, earning the nickname the “Two-Gunned Girl General.” She accompanied Yuan Wencai’s forces back to Maoping, where she formed part of the refugee community of Communist cadres from the lowlands that Mao found there when he arrived in October.
Mao first met He more or less right away when he arrived in October. She was introduced to him by Yuan Wencai, as were many of the other Communist Party members who were resident in the Maoping area. Then, in November 1927, He Zizhen was the only woman present at a conference of Communist cadres, so she was hard to miss. But she was also very lively and contributed to the meeting and we know that she made a very positive impression on Mao at the time, and he asked for her to stay on after the conference and do some work temporarily for the Front Committee, which was the Party leadership body for the revolutionary army and, by extension, for the base area that it held. At this point, Mao’s assigning her to work for the Front Committee appears to have been entirely based on her aptitude, and not on any desire that Mao had for her to be nearby because he was attracted to her.
Now, it’s entirely possible that without any interference from anyone else, Mao and He might have developed feelings for each other. But, we’ll never know, because what happened was that Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo decided to play matchmaker between the two. There were two main reasons they had for this, one of which was personal and the other political. The first reason was that Yuan Wencai was often in situations where, because of the work they were doing, He Zizhen was present. So, she was around him a lot at some times because of the political work that they were doing. Now, you might remember from episode 65 that Yuan Wencai had a first wife who left him pretty quickly. Now, Yuan had a new partner, and she was super jealous of He Zizhen, because He would be around doing all this political work with her man, and apparently Yuan’s partner made loud, public scenes about this. Apparently, in December 1927, after a particularly nasty scene caused by Yuan’s partner at a meal that Yuan and Wang Zuo were at, Yuan and Wang came up with the plan to set He up with Mao so that Yuan’s partner would stop causing these embarrassing jealous scenes.
Now, there was another, more political motivation as well here, even though it does seem that the precipitating incident that got Wang and Yuan to think about setting He up with Mao stemmed from this other, more personal reason. You might recall from episode 67 that marriages had been a traditional way of sealing alliances between families that shared political commitments, and that in the counties around the Jinggangshan this even applied to families involved in the Communist movement. An added bonus to Yuan and Wang of setting Mao up with He Zizhen would be that Mao would then be bound to a local revolutionary family.
It’s not really clear if anyone ever went and asked He Zizhen what she thought of these arrangements, or how those conversations went if someone approached her. Somehow, those details haven’t made it into the available literature as far as I am aware.
In January 1928, both Wang and Yuan each separately approached Mao about making a match between him and He Zizhen. Mao is said to have initially poo-pooed the idea, but people who were there seem to think that these conversations served to focus Mao’s mind on He. Mao soon met with her again while inspecting some infrastructure-building work in Yongxin, and he asked her to come and do secretarial work for the Front Committee. This time, while they were working together, they apparently fell in love.
While Mao was off fighting in March and April (an incident that we’ll talk about in a future episode), He got reassigned to help with the Yongxin Party Committee, which badly needed literate cadres, and especially badly needed cadres who could competently work at organizing women. So, when Mao got back from the fighting in southern Hunan that he had been engaged in, he sent messages to the Yongxin Party Committee secretary asking for He to be assigned back to the Front Committee. But, because she was so badly needed, he just ignored the first two requests. Finally, Mao sent a hotly worded third order which was delivered by hand by a cadre who had orders to personally escort He back to Maoping. And a couple weeks later, in late May or early June 1928, Mao and He were married in a small ceremony attended by Yuan and Wang, some local cadres, family members and nearby residents of the area. Apparently Yuan and Wang had to give some final nudges to Mao and He to formalize their relationship with a marriage. And the marriage was taken by the local population as a welcome symbol of the outsiders’ commitment to the area, so there was considerable political value to the union.
So, I used these two examples, of military integration and of the marriage between Mao and He Zizhen, to illustrate how this process of integration between outsiders and locals in the base area proceeded in the months following Mao’s arrival there.
But before we conclude, I imagine that a number of listeners are thinking, “wait a minute, wasn’t Mao already married?” So let’s talk about that.
And the answer to that is yes. Mao was still married to the mother of his three sons, Yang Kaihui, who we last saw in episode 60. That was when Mao was planning for the Autumn Harvest Uprising, which was also the last time that Mao saw Yang. Now, there is an odd convention in how Mao’s marriages are numbered, which is worth clearing up. Sometimes you will see Yang referred to as Mao’s first wife, and sometimes as his second wife. This is because back when Mao was 14, his father arranged a marriage for him with a woman four years older than him, mainly with the goal of getting another pair of hands into the family to help out with all the work in the household. While the marriage was legally recorded, Mao rejected the marriage and never lived with her as husband and wife. She ended up dying of dysentery just two years later, when Mao was 16. So, because of this ambiguous first marriage, sometimes Yang Kaihui is referred to as Mao’s first wife, and sometimes as his second wife.
But anyways, yes, Mao was still married to Yang Kaihui. Apparently, Mao explained to He Zizhen that he hadn’t heard anything of his family since the beginning of the Autumn Harvest Uprising. I personally don’t quite understand how that could have had much weight as an explanation under the circumstances, but this is all I could find in the source material dealing with what Mao said to He about the marriage he was already involved in, so I’m just reporting it here because it seems relevant if we’re interested in understanding Mao and his life, and you can make of it what you will.
Now, there was nothing in traditional Chinese marriage practices that said that a man couldn’t take a second wife. But, the Communists were in part defined by the opposition to those traditional practices, both of arranged marriages and the practice of taking second (or third or more) wives, and the practice was outlawed after the Communists came to power with the 1950 marriage law. And within the culture of the Communist Party, opposition to traditional marriage practices was one of the defining cultural features of the Party. But on the other hand, given the circumstances of the early base area existence in the Jinggangshan, it also seems that no one was really interested in censuring Mao and He Zizhen, quite the opposite really, as we have seen that there was a significant political gain made through their marriage.
It is not uncommon, in the literature on Mao’s life, to find criticism of him by historians for this marriage (and for some other later behavior), and for these historians to kind of put on one side of the scale the fact that he led a revolution that resulted in the greatest gains for gender equality that China ever saw, and on the other hand that he may not have been the ideal husband, and sort of act as if these two things balance each other out, or, if anything, that Mao’s interpersonal relations with some of the women in his life reveal something more essential about his character than the gains that the Chinese Revolution won for literally hundreds of millions of women. Obviously, any individual is welcome to judge anyone else however they want to, but I personally don’t feel qualified to judge the emotional life and affections of people living under the conditions that Mao and He were living in while creating the base area in the Jinggangshan.
Yang Kaihui, like many of the family members of other known Communists from Hunan who were working in the Jinggangshan, was later captured and executed, in her case in 1930. When she was captured, she was tortured with the aim of getting her to denounce Mao Zedong publicly, but she instead is reported to have said that “You could kill me as you like, you would never get anything from my mouth… Chopping off the head is like the passing of wind, death could frighten cowards, rather than our Communists… Even if the seas run dry and the rocks crumble, I would never break off relations with Mao Zedong… I prefer to die for the success of Mao’s revolutionary career.” And we know from letters and from Mao’s poetry that he mourned Yang for the rest of his life, she was his first great love and remained so, despite his new marriage to He Zizhen.
Alright, before we move on, I want to let listeners know that July 23 was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. To mark the occasion, I was invited to be a guest on episode 71 of a podcast called Cosmopod. We had what I thought was a nice discussion about the early years of the Chinese Communist movement, and it was a good opportunity to reflect on some of the material that we’ve talked about on this podcast. I’ve put a link in the show notes, in case you want to go and check it out.
OK, see you next time.