We follow the Southern Expeditionary force from Ruijin in Jiangxi province to Shantou in Guangdong.
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Chang Kuo-t’ao [Zhang Guotao], The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party (2 volumes)
C. Martin Wilbur, “The Ashes of Defeat”
Some names from this episode:
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Yun Daiying, Communist Central Committee member
Li Lisan, Leading Communist
Peng Pai, Communist peasant organizer
Zhang Tailei, Member of Communist Politburo
Qu Qiubai, Top leader of Communist Party
Tan Pingshan, One of the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising
Zhou Enlai, Leading Communist
Zhu De, Communist military commander
Lin Biao, Company commander in Communist military
Welcome to episode 71 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
For a little while now, we’ve been focusing in this podcast on the development of the Chinese Revolution in the Jinggang mountains, which was Mao Zedong’s first experience with creating a rural base area, and as such was a formative experience for both the Chinese Revolution, and the globalized Maoist movements that later based themselves on the experience of the Chinese Revolution. We’ve now brought our narrative of events in the Jinggangshan up into early 1928. We’ve about reached the point where Mao and his people are going to succeed in getting back in touch with the rest of China’s Communist movement, so, before that happens, I want to catch up with what has been going on with the rest of the Communist Party.
Back in episode 55, we left off talking about the Nanchang Uprising while the Nanchang rebels were right in the middle of their Southern Expedition, when they marched from Nanchang to eastern Guangdong Province. I promised at the end of that episode to get back to what happened with those guys ‘soon.’ Well, I guess ‘soon’ is a relative term, because it has been a few months. But, as we pick up the story of what was going on with the Communists who weren’t with Mao, let’s go back to where we left the Nanchang rebels in August 1927.
We last left the Nanchang rebels in the town of Ruijin. In a few years, in 1931, Ruijin became the capital of the Chinese Soviet Republic, after a new base area was set up in this region. But at this time, in 1927, the Communist armed forces just stayed in the town for about a week, during which they rested up and also held some meetings in which they enacted some policies that they hoped would correct some of the militaristic mistakes that they had made during the first leg of the march southward.
Here is how one of the participants in the march, Zhang Guotao, described how the march had been conducted up to that point in a report written in early October 1927, just after the end of the Southern Expedition:
“The entire way… was simply a condition of military march… Nothing was done constructively, and on the negative side, one cannot say the troops had much discipline because the army in march could not easily get porters and food. There was impressment of porters, stealing people’s chickens and worse…”
After our episodes where we discussed the repeated efforts of Mao Zedong to establish reforms to establish discipline in the Red Army forces under his command in the Jinggangshan, it probably shouldn’t be a big surprise that this other Communist armed force had some similar issues. At Ruijin, the Front Committee that was leading the Southern Expedition held some meetings and decided both to try to carry out some sort of revolution in land reform as it marched south, confiscating land from the landlords and distributing it to the peasants, and also to try and be better about military discipline and not abusing the people along the route south. But the conditions along the march into Guangdong made these decisions harder to carry out in practice.
One problem was that the members of the Front Committee couldn’t decide among themselves what the threshold for land ownership should be for confiscation. Some wanted the threshold to be quite high, in order to protect the smaller landlords and maintain the orientation of winning over as many people as possible for the revolution from a broad united front of classes. Others argued that there was no possibility of winning over peasant support for the revolution if too little land was expropriated. But as it turned out, these arguments were more theoretical than practical. The expectation of all the members of the Front Committee had been as they marched south, into the mountains along the border between Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces, they would encounter more politicized peasant organizations with some recent experience of mobilization. The idea was that then these organized peasants could be relied on to identify local landlords and bullies, and that these peasants would provide support for the revolution.
They were surprised that instead they found very little in the way of organized peasant forces. This meant that without local peasant support, the Communists couldn’t get enough of a handle on local conditions to carry out meaningful land confiscations or other reforms. This also meant that a mass movement could not be relied upon for resupplying the army or for getting people to carry the army’s equipment. But, the army did need to resupply, which meant that rather than expropriate the landlords, the Communists actually ended up needing to rely upon the local establishment to arrange access to supplies as it passed through these areas along the way between Ruijin and the cities of Chaozhou and Shantou in eastern Guangdong that were the end point of the march. Well, where did the local gentry turn to when it suddenly needed to provide supplies to an army marching through its lands? It confiscated it from the local peasants. So, rather than mobilizing peasant support as it marched south, the Southern Expeditionary force actually ended up alienating peasants when it reached agreements with the local gentry in order to resupply itself.
Which isn’t to say that the Communists did not aspire to conduct some political work along the route south from Ruijin, as they had decided that they should. Zhang Guotao describes the experience of the group tasked with carrying out propaganda and organizing work along the route:
“Although it was not a rapid march, it exhausted the troops, especially the gentlemanlike intellectuals, and made them look depressed. Under such conditions, we could not conduct political and propaganda work to boost our morale. [Yun Daiying], who was in charge of this work, often complained and said, ‘The march has made the officers very exhausted. How can they spare any energy to ‘peddle the medical plaster’ [which is a direct translation of a slang term for conducting propaganda work]. As we are occupying civilian houses, impressing civilian labor, and commandeering food during this march, we have frightened all of the civilians away. In this situation, what effect can our propaganda produce? Our political personnel themselves are depressed. How can they boost the morale of the troops?…’
“The Workers’ and Peasants’ Committee led by me was composed of about forty men. During the march we were busy billeting ourselves, posting security sentries, and trying to find out about local conditions; we had no time to hold meetings, make plans, organize local workers and peasants, or set up local governments.”
So, despite having comrades assigned to the task of carrying out political work along the route, we get a sense from this account by Zhang Guotao that really, it just didn’t happen.
Now, you might remember that in episode 55, when the Nanchang Uprising took place, I mentioned that a new government had been named in the wake of the uprising. This government was called the Revolutionary Committee, and it was actually maintained as an entity during this march south, as a sort of notional revolutionary government in embryo. Some of the biggest names in this government were named in absentia and didn’t even know that they had been named to it, you might recall from episode 55, but there were plenty of members of this government who were present and who accompanied the Southern Expeditionary march. This government is going to be dissolved once the march reaches its destination and contact is reestablished with the central Communist Party leadership. But, during the march, the Revolutionary Committee was maintained intact, and this contributed to a major logistical nightmare.
The issue was that some of the members of the Revolutionary Committee were either incapable of marching themselves, due to their physical condition, or refused to march, insisting on the traditional prerogatives of the elite not to engage in strenuous physical activity. These members of the Revolutionary Committee who refused to march had to be carried in sedan chairs. One of these guys was so large, that eight men were required to carry him. As you can imagine, carrying people in sedan chairs is pretty rough work, and so just vast numbers of men had to be assigned to this duty, with tired out porters having to be relieved on a regular basis by rested replacements. According to Zhang Guotao’s account, the military units that were assigned to accompany the Revolutionary Committee were very disorderly, and I can only imagine that the dissonance involved in hauling around leaders in sedan chairs in the name of a revolutionary cause had a terrible effect on morale.
But aside from effects on morale, it also created a major logistical problem. The Communist military commanders complained that the Revolutionary Committee was a burden that was slowing down the march. They wanted to move as fast as possible to reach Chaozhou and Shantou before effective defenses could be set up. So what ended up happening was that as much of the military as possible was sent ahead to strike as quickly as possible at Chaozhou and Shantou in eastern Guangdong, while the Revolutionary Committee followed behind, and finally a rearguard with the wounded followed even more slowly behind the Revolutionary Committee. What this meant in practice was that the entire force formed a very long procession line. When the advanced unit reached Chaozhou and Shantou, the rearguard was still over 300 kilometers to the north, and there were sections of the army spread out all along the route in between.
When they arrived in Chaozhou and Shantou, the Communists had hoped that their arrival would be accompanied by an uprising of workers and peasants in the area. Here’s how Li Lisan described the situation in a report that he gave soon after the events:
“We imagined that in Shantou the labor movement certainly was very strong and that the labor struggle would indeed be very fierce because at the time of the Guangdong-Hong Kong Strike it went through a protracted struggle. But when we got to Shantou it appeared extraordinarily weak. We planned to dissolve the former police completely, since they were entirely an instrument of the oppressing class, and to organize 500 worker braves to replace them. After three days of recruiting we got only 70 or so men and furthermore none was very willing because the pay, quarters, and food didn’t suit them. One can see that the class feelings of the masses were extraordinarily weak.
“In Shantou there had already been several months’ preparation for revolt, but because they only paid attention to the preparation of military skills and didn’t know how to fan up the masses politically, the result was that the masses were unable to rise.
“The peasant movement in the region west of Chaozhou and Shantou was better, the peasant masses having gone through protracted struggle, and preparations for the military side of a revolt also being comparatively complete and good (although they still had failed to carry on political agitation and organization among the masses). The masses aroused themselves to join, so that before our troops arrived the peasant army had captured the two cities of Haifeng and Lufeng.” Haifeng and Lufeng, you might remember from episode 37, were where Peng Pai had developed the Communist Party’s first successes in the peasant movement. Those cities are over a hundred kilometers west of Shantou, but peasants also rose up closer to the city, with quite a bit of initial success.
Li Lisan gives an interesting contrast in his report between two different areas near Shantou where the peasants rose up, and where the Communists managed to exercise leadership over the peasant insurgents. I’m going to read out this section of his report, because it illustrates the way in which the Communists were debating and developing their thinking on the question of the relationship between the desire of the peasant masses for vengeance, and how much this should either be tempered and restrained, or unleashed with a view to retaining the allegiance of the peasant masses:
“The peasants around Puning all rose in revolt and went to surround the xian city [a xian city would be the seat of county government], but the counter-revolutionaries guarded the city to the death and they had over 800 rifles as well as machine guns and cannon. The besieging peasants could not capture it by attack and sent people to ask for help from our troops. We sent a battalion of men… to help in the attack and reduced the city in only a few hours. It would have been possible to eradicate completely all the local bullies of Puning, but the commander of this battalion (a comrade) would not let the peasant army enter the city when it was captured (because he feared the peasant army would slay excessively). At the same time he proclaimed, ‘The troops of the Revolutionary Army do not disturb the people and they absolutely may not butcher at will.’ When the troops withdrew the peasant army didn’t dare kill [the local bullies]…
“Only the peasant army led by Comrade Fang of Chaoyang extensively slew counter-revolutionaries after the capture of the city, and the peasants welcomed him in an extraordinary way.”
In this report, we can see that Li Lisan is considering this political question of ‘to what degree can peasant support be won or maintained if the peasants are unleashed to kill whoever they feel deserves killing.’ If the peasants are restrained, can their loyalty be won? If the peasants are allowed to ‘extensively slay counter-revolutionaries,’ is this a better policy if it binds the peasants to the revolutionary cause and the leadership of the Communist Party? Implicit here is the understanding that some, maybe many, people whose deaths would later be considered unfortunate excesses would also be killed if the peasants were allowed to ‘extensively slay counter-revolutionaries.’ Clearly, the Communist commander at Puning felt that the peasants should be restrained. But it seems in this report that Li Lisan is leaning the other direction.
Now, in addition to a mass uprising, one of the other things that the Communists were hoping would materialize in Shantou was Soviet aid. In fact, one of the reasons that Shantou was chosen as the end point of the Southern Expedition was because it is a coastal city with a good harbor and was a place where Soviet aid could be received if it were forthcoming. Remember, that the Nanchang Uprising was actually planned with the aid of Soviet military advisors. This was one of the final things that the Soviet advisors had done before leaving the country after the united front between the Communists and Nationalists fell apart. And the military men who led the Nanchang Uprising had been operating for years now as part of the National Revolutionary Army, working closely with Soviet advisors and receiving copious amounts of Soviet aid during the consolidation of Guomindang rule in Guangdong province and then during the Northern Expedition. So, the idea that Soviet aid would continue flowing was not an entirely unreasonable hope on the part of these guys. But, as it happened, the Soviet Union had decided against sending the Communists the sort of military aid that they had previously sent to the Nationalists during the united front. Moscow had decided that the risk involved in provoking a larger war and imperialist intervention was too great, and that the Chinese Communists, now that they were isolated from the Nationalists, were too unsure of a bet to send large amounts of material aid to.
The revolutionary army occupied Shantou on September 24, and already on September 26 a member of the Politburo, Zhang Tailei, arrived in Shantou from Hong Kong. While the Nanchang rebels had been out of touch with the Party Center for almost two months as they moved from Nanchang to Shantou, the Party leadership had been able to follow the insurgents’ progress from a distance, and they were not impressed.
Even as the newly arrived Communists tried to set up Shantou as a new insurgent capital, get the workers’ organized, aid the peasant rebels around the city, and prepare to fight the massing reactionary armies to the northwest of the city, Zhang Tailei relayed the news that they had all been ordered to abandon Shantou for the recently seized cities of Haifeng and Lufeng. He also reported the demotion that the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising had received at the August 7 Emergency Meeting, and ordered two of them to go immediately to Shanghai to report to the Party Center.
Here’s how Zhang Guotao remembered how that meeting went with Zhang Tailei:
“Zhang Tailei mentioned something about the Communist Party’s August 7th meeting and the situation thereafter. He told us that the Communist Party’s central headquarters, led by Qu Qiubai, had already moved back to Shanghai; that he [that is, Zhang Tailei] had been made a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee and concurrently secretary of the Guangdong Regional Committee and had been given full power by the central authorities to direct our work; that all such leaders of the Nanchang Uprising as us had lost their former positions as leaders. Tan Pingshan and Li Lisan were no longer members of the Politburo, and Zhou Enlai and I were demoted to alternate members of the Politburo. Zhang did not say that we had been accused of being opportunists; but from the punishment imposed on us, it was not hard to infer the attitude of Central Headquarters, led by Qu Qiubai, towards us.
“Therefore, we unanimously requested Zhang Tailei to be our leader there, but he declined. He would not accept the position of secretary of the Front Committee, nor would he agree to lead us even without a specific title, because he had to leave for Guangzhou in a hurry to assume the office of secretary of the Guangdong Regional Committee. He told those who were in charge of the local Communist Party organizations in Chaozhou and Shantou to stay underground in order not to suffer losses after the departure of our forces. Passing on an order of Central Headquarters, he also said, ‘Zhang Guotao and Li Lisan should leave for Shanghai immediately to discuss with the central authorities our future policies, Zhou Enlai should assume responsibility for taking care of all matters here, and Tan Pingshan should also leave here…’ I asked him, ‘Aren’t you demanding that we leave the troops and disband?’ He answered, ‘The order of Central Headquarters after the August Seventh Meeting must be enforced.’ This made us feel that the leaders of the Communist Party were no longer expecting any success from the Nanchang Uprising, and that the so-called Russian aid was impossible.
“Knowing that it would be difficult to solve this problem, Zhou Enlai soon left for the front to direct operations there on the pretext that the situation there had become tense. Prior to his departure Zhou said to Zhang Tailei that these things must be done step by step, that we must first of all defeat the enemy force at Tangkeng [the area northwest of Shantou where the reactionary troops were massing] before we would move our forces to Haifeng and Lufeng, and that the proposed changes should not be made until after the battle. In view of the situation, Zhang Tailei was obliged to agree.”
As it happened, on October 1 the Nanchang rebels were only able to muster 5,000 men to fight in a battle at Tangkeng. As we discussed in episode 55, the 21,000 troops that the Nanchang mutiny had started with on August first had diminished to 8,000 troops when they reached Ruijin on August 18. Now, on October 1, between further losses and troops otherwise disposed, only 5,000 could be brought to bear against 15,000 troops fielded by the warlords. The Communist force was completely shattered, and experienced overwhelming casualties. Zhou Enlai had to be taken on a stretcher along with some other leaders onto a small boat that escaped to Hong Kong. Some survivors made their way with Peng Pai to Haifeng and Lufeng, which as mentioned already were in Communist hands, there to set up the Hailufeng base area. The Communist military leader Zhu De, along with a 19-year-old company commander named Lin Biao and some other people who would become major figures of the Chinese Revolution, retreated northwest to southern Hunan, where they would regroup and try to launch another revolt. You might remember that last episode there was something up in southern Hunan that drew Mao away from the Jinggangshan, well, we’ll talk about what happened there in an episode soon I’m pretty sure.
As we can see, the Nanchang Uprising and the Southern Expedition that followed it ended in basically a complete disaster. Today, with the Nanchang Uprising celebrated in China as the birth of the People’s Liberation Army, it can be easy to forget what a disaster the whole experience was. But at the time, the Party Center was very clear that things had really gone off the rails, and there was going to be a reckoning.
But the reckoning that was carried out had more to do with placing blame than attempting a summation of how and why things went as they did. Reports were produced by leading participants, some of which had the clear aim of shifting blame around and pointing fingers. This all culminated in a November 1927 enlarged Politburo meeting in Shanghai, where Zhang Guotao was censured, and Tan Pingshan was made something of a scapegoat for the errors overall and expelled from the party. But we’ll talk about that November Politburo meeting next episode.
In the meantime, thank you for listening, and thank you for supporting the podcast with your ratings, reviews and contributions. Ratings and reviews do help people to find the podcast, so if you enjoyed the episode or learned something, please do consider leaving a rating or review. And your contributions definitely help with the costs of putting out this podcast, especially the cost of books. So, thank you again, it’s all very appreciated.