We look at the successful conquest of three cities (and one heart) by Zhu De during the course of the uprising he led in south Hunan at the beginning of 1928.
The link for my new course on academia.edu mentioned at the end of the episode:
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography,vol. 1: 1893-1949
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Christina Gilmartin, Engendering the Chinese Revolution: Radical Women, Communist Politics, and Mass Movements in the 1920s
Some names from this episode:
Zhu De, Communist military commander
Hu Shaohai, Communist from Yizhang
Fan Shisheng, Guomindang general and old friend of Zhu De
Xu Kexiang, Notorious Guomindang general known as the Peasant Butcherer
Tang Shengzhi, leader of Guomindang Left military forces
Chen Yi, Communist from a scholarly family and staff officer of Zhu De
Wu Ruolan, Married Zhu De in Leiyang
He Zizhen, Communist cadre known as the “Two-Gunned Girl General”
He Zhihua, Mother of Zhu De’s daughter
Luo Yinong, Communist leader killed after He Zhihua informed on him
Welcome to episode 81 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, we’re going to talk about the uprising in southern Hunan province that occurred at the beginning of 1928. This uprising ended up temporarily forming a Soviet government in a small portion of southern Hunan and is one of the more significant of the hundreds of small revolts led by the Communists at the end of the 1920s, although it is usually forgotten about in discussions that tend to highlight the Autumn Harvest Uprisings and the Guangzhou Commune, even though the southern Hunan rising was more successful than those uprisings, or at least lasted longer and conquered more territory before it was defeated. However, the real historical significance of the southern Hunan uprising is that, when it is defeated, Zhu De is going to lead his forces to join those of Mao Zedong in the Jinggangshan base area.
Now, the southern Hunan uprising began with a pretty neat episode in which Zhu De displayed some of the craftiness that he would become well known for as a general. In the biography that Agnes Smedley did of Zhu De, based largely on a series of interviews that she did with him in the Yan’an base area in 1937, he gave her the date when all this took place as December 29, 1927. Now, I need to say that there are a number of different recollections of this uprising, and there are some significant discrepancies on dates, so let’s just say we’re starting our narrative here either toward the end of December 1927 or in January 1928, which is a beginning date given in a number of sources for the uprising.
Anyways, Zhu De’s forces had just recently arrived in the area, and they were looking at trying to take the county seat of Yizhang. Now, the Communist Party had been preparing an uprising for some time in the area, and the peasants in the region were kind of restless, and so as this county seat of Yizhang was only defended by the local landlord militia of about 300 troops, the local elite felt that they needed some reinforcements. The town was run by a clique of landlords who were simultaneously merchants and Guomindang officials, and they sent one of their own on a mission to go down into northern Guangdong province and get some reinforcements to use against the peasants. Now, there were a couple of Communist Party members from landlord families in the town, and it was one of these guys who was sent out to get the reinforcements.
Naturally, rather than getting these Guomindang reinforcements, this guy, Hu Shaohai, went and found the Zhu De’s army which had made its way to northern Guangdong, just across the border from Yizhang, which is in southern Hunan province. Hu informed Zhu of an idea he had for taking the town without having to fire a shot. What happened was that, in Zhu’s words, he assigned two companies of his veterans and told them to spruce themselves up so that they seemed like Guomindang soldiers. Then, according to Zhu De, on the morning of December 29 (remember, take this date with a grain of salt), Hu Shaohai entered Yizhang with these two companies of Communist troops posing as Guomindang troops, and of course the landlord rulers of the town were overjoyed, and they invited the commanders of the companies to a banquet that evening.
During the banquet, the Communist troops surrounded and disarmed the landlord militia, and then surrounded the banquet hall. After having exchanged toasts, the Communist company commanders stood up and announced to their hosts that they were under arrest. Soon the rest of the Communist force led by Zhu De entered the city, and the banner that had been raised in Guangzhou during the Commune there was raised above the city. And soon a Soviet government was proclaimed in the area.
In the words of Zhu De: “The Soviet established departments to deal with the armed forces, with finance, education, justice, and with labor, peasant, and women’s affairs. The eight-hour day was proclaimed, wages were raised, and plans made for relief of the unemployed. The property of landlords, militarists and officials was confiscated and the landed estates proclaimed confiscated without compensation. Debts were annulled and usury declared a criminal offense. The Justice Department brought the arrested reactionaries to a mass trial and those found guilty of serious crimes against the people were shot. Lesser offenders were fined and released.”
In truth, it may have been somewhat easier for Zhu De’s troops to pose as Guomindang soldiers than you might at first imagine. I’ll explain.
You might recall from back in episode 71 that the whole Southern Expedition proceeded is a very spread-out fashion, with the rearguard about 300 kilometers behind the vanguard when it arrived at its destination around Chaozhou and Shantou in eastern Guangdong province. Even a week later, on October 1, when the decisive battle at Tangkeng began which shattered the force that had participated in the Nanchang Uprising and then marched south, the rearguard, which was led by Zhu De, was some distance from the fighting.
After the main Communist armed force had been smashed, the Guomindang forces came after Zhu De’s rearguard. Zhu had been waiting for news from the battle and was surprised when the first news that he got about how the battle had gone came in the form of a mass of enemy troops coming after him. He deployed his troops across mountain slopes and fought tenaciously for a week against the Guomindang forces, losing about half his troops as casualties. Eventually, he had to decide to retreat and regroup, with an initial goal of escaping the pursuit by the enemy by going into Fujian province, and then deciding to push west across southern Jiangxi in order to get to the northern Guangdong and southern Hunan region, where he knew that the peasant movement was active and there was a communist organization to hook up with. It was a harrowing escape, and Zhu De moved his forces at night and hid by day in order to escape annihilation. He was also plagued by desertion, both by regular troops and officers, even Zhu’s chief of staff. Many of Zhu De’s troops had been totally demoralized by the defeat.
However, between his initial escape from eastern Guangdong and his arrival in northern Guangdong, where he met up with the local Communist organization and was soon embroiled in the south Hunan uprising and the events that we just recounted, Zhu De stumbled upon a stroke of luck that allowed him to save his forces and recuperate and resupply his army. There was a Guomindang force in the region, in Dayu in southwestern Jiangxi province, right on the border with Guangdong, led by Fan Shisheng, an old comrade of Zhu De’s from his time with the Yunnan army. Fan Shisheng considered Zhu De an old friend and didn’t want to fight the Communists. What Fan did was he allowed Zhu De hide his troops among Fan’s Guomindang force. He fed them, resupplied them with food, clothing, arms and ammunition, and even some back pay and some bombs that got used in the south Hunan uprising.
Zhu De got pretty comfortable, and his troops were able to recuperate during the weeks they spent with Fan Shisheng. Eventually, Zhu De had to move on. I’ve seen sources that say conflicting things about exactly how long Zhu De and his men stayed with Fan Shisheng’s force, but what appears most likely (from a variety of partially conflicting sources) is that Zhu De made contact with the Communist organization in northern Guangdong and was ordered to be in the area around Guangzhou by December 15 to support the uprising that had been planned. You might remember from episode 75 that the party center knew that an uprising was planned, but didn’t know the exact dates. And, as we know, the uprising ended up taking place from December 11 to 13, which meant that Zhu De got the news that it was over while he was still on the road to help out. So, he ended up turning around and was in northern Guangdong in time to help out in launching the south Hunan uprising. Which brings us back to his troops posing as Guomindang troops to take over Yizhang. Well, like I said, posing as Guomindang troops may not have been very hard for Zhu De’s soldiers, because they were wearing uniforms issued by the Guomindang, wearing arms provided by the Guomindang, and had just spent a few weeks hiding inside a Guomindang army. They were pretty well practiced at posing as Guomindang members. Which, let’s remember, they had legitimately been in any case until the August 1 Nanchang Uprising.
After the taking of Yizhang, peasant uprisings spread across the nearby countryside, but Guomindang forces who had been feuding with each other also took notice. Within three weeks of the taking of Yizhang, Chiang Kai-shek sent one of his most notorious followers to attack Yizhang, Xu Kexiang, known as the Peasant Butcherer because he was the guy who carried out the Changsha Horse Day Massacre that we discussed back in episode 53. As Xu Kexiang approached Yizhang, much of the city population fled to rural villages in anticipation of a massacre. And in a classic example of the strategy that Zhu De and Mao Zedong would refine into an art over the next few years, Zhu De moved his troops, along with the Soviet government and leaders of mass organizations (like labor unions and women’s liberation organizations), to the mountains along the Hunan-Guangdong border, south of the city of Yizhang. Zhu De intentionally ceded territory, in this case the city of Yizhang, to draw Xu Kexiang in, and so that he could fight Xu Kexiang on more favorable terrain. Here is how Zhu De recalled the battle:
After defeating Xu Kexiang and reoccupying Yizhang, Zhu De’s forces next moved to the north, to deal with the forces brought against them by Tang Shengzhi. You might recall Tang from earlier episodes, as we’ve been following his career ever since he joined the Guomindang at the start of the Northern Expedition and later became the main military commander of the Guomindang Left. At this time, in early 1928, he was still hoping to become the top Guomindang leader and was feuding with other Guomindang military forces allied with Chiang Kai-shek. So, these forces that Tang Shengzhi sent against the south Hunan uprising were totally independent forces from those led by Xu Kexiang and that had just been defeated.
The force that Tang Shengzhi had sent against the uprising was based out of Chenzhou, and while Zhu De was marching toward Chenzhou he got intelligence from local peasants who had been in the city that a little over half of Tang’s force was marching on Yizhang. Tang had committed 11 companies against the uprising, five of which were made up of hardened mercenary soldiers and the other six of which were made up of students who had been conscripted into the military. A company, in this context, was formed of about 100 soldiers. Knowing the movements of the enemy soldiers and being more experienced and having the support of the local population, it was not a hard thing for Zhu De to set an ambush for the student conscripts.
His approach to them was to see them as potential recruits. When he heard about these students, the first thing he thought was what great need the revolution had for educated people who already had some military training. So he ordered that the youth be ambushed, disarmed and captured without anyone being harmed, and that the prisoners be treated more like misguided brothers than as enemies. The ambush was begun with shouts of “Brothers! Welcome to the revolution!,” which added to the surprise and disorientation caused by the ambush. The captured student-soldiers were then taken to be addressed by Zhu De and especially by Chen Yi, a 26-year-old staff officer who came from a family of scholars and was able to appeal to the students as someone from a similar class background who had joined the revolution.
After this experience, the students were taken to Yizhang for retraining and given a choice between going home and joining the revolution. According to Zhu De, most stayed with the Communists, and he pointed some out to Agnes Smedley in 1937 in Yan’an when she was interviewing him for the biography that she wrote about him.
After dealing with the students, the rest of Tang Shengzhi’s troops abandoned Chenzhou in retreat when they saw Zhu De’s army marching on the city. So the Communists entered Chenzhou without firing a shot and set up another Soviet government in the city.
The next major target was the city of Leiyang, another hundred kilometers or so to the north of Chenzhou. The taking of Leiyang was also accomplished with the aid of intelligence from the local peasants. As Zhu De’s force approached Leiyang, local peasants informed him that the landlords had powerful force of 1000 well-armed militia and had built defense works at the southern approach to the city, the direction that the Communists were coming from. However, the northern gate to the city was lightly guarded. So, during the night, Zhu De marched his army around Leiyang, through the hills to the east so that they wouldn’t bee seen, and the next morning came into the city through the northern gate, surprising the landlords and their militia while they were changing the guard at the southern gate.
The taking of Leiyang and the formation of a Soviet government there caused a kind of two week long celebration for the local peasants, who would come to the city from their villages, attend the daily mass meetings, and see the sights of the city, before returning home. This was a particularly eventful time for Zhu De because, in the midst of everything else that was going on with setting up the Soviet and having mass meetings and attending to military affairs, Zhu De fell in love and got married again. In Leiyang Zhu De met Wu Ruolan, a 25-year-old peasant activist who worked in the area. She had gone to teacher’s college with one of Mao Zedong’s cousins and, along with a number of young women at this teacher’s college, joined the Communist Party during the May 30th Movement back in 1925.
She had been very active organizing with peasant women, giving literacy classes in peasant villages and working with peasant women to divorce husbands who beat them. (This, by the way, and I think I’ve spoken to this in a past episode, was a very contentious issue among the Communist peasant organizers, because it was usually the case that women’s issues got downplayed in favor of unifying and mobilizing peasant men, even if this meant ignoring some awful patriarchal practices. But this apparently was not as much the case among the peasant organizing party unit that Wu Ruolan belonged to.) She carried two revolvers, and after an incident where she shot landlord militia members who were coming to break up a peasant meeting, she got the nickname of “Swordswoman with Two Guns,” which we can compare with He Zizhen’s, Mao Zedong’s second wife’s, nickname, the “Two-Gunned Girl General.” The two of them would be meeting soon, and I like to imagine them admiring each other’s guns.
Anyways, apparently, she and Zhu De fell in love pretty quickly and, war being the fast paced endeavor that it is, got married. The story goes that he proposed to her by saying: “You are a Hunanese who is not afraid of spicy food. I am a Sichuanese who is not afraid of spicy food. We are both spicy. You have pockmarks and I have a beard. Let’s marry!”
Now, this marriage further complicates the issue of what number wife she was for Zhu De. We already talked in episode 79 about how Zhu De had an arranged marriage while he was a child that he never recognized, and so it usually isn’t counted. However, there is this other woman who we haven’t talked about yet who Zhu De was with in Germany who is also sometimes labeled as his third wife, although it doesn’t seem that they ever formally tied the knot. She was the mother of his daughter, so let’s just say a couple words about her.
She was named He Zhihua, and Zhu De hooked up with her in Shanghai before going to Germany, and then she followed him there. She got pregnant and got expelled from Germany before Zhu De did, and she ended up having a daughter in Moscow. This daughter, actually, studied in the Soviet Union and survived a Nazi concentration camp after being captured by invading Germans during World War II. Later she became a professor of Russian at Beijing Foreign Languages University. Anyways, He Zhihua and Zhu De had kind of a bad falling out, and He Zhihua more or less abandoned their daughter and went to live in Shanghai with another man. In order to make some money, she sold some information she had to the Guomindang, and they used that information to capture and kill an important Communist leader, Luo Yinong, in 1928. Actually, Deng Xiaoping was with Luo Yinong at the time he was arrested, and only escaped by being faster than the cops who came after him.
So, was He Zhihua Zhu De’s third wife or not? Maybe. She is often counted as having been his wife, but not always. This means, depending on which marriages count or don’t count, that Wu Ruolan was either Zhu De’s third wife or his fifth wife (or his fourth, if you, say, don’t count the childhood arranged marriage that Zhu De never recognized, but do count the relationship with He Zhihua that resulted in the birth of Zhu De’s daughter, even though it appears (and I’m not absolutely certain about this) that Zhu De and He Zhihua were never formally married).
Anyways, as it would turn out, Leiyang was the last big victory before an overwhelming force was brought against the south Hunan rebels. Next episode, I’ll talk about the end of the uprising, and we’ll finally see Mao Zedong and Zhu De joining forces.
Before I wrap up here, I want to let you know about something I just released on another platform. A couple months back I was asked by academia.edu if I would be willing to put together a short course on Understanding Global Maoism for them, and I agreed. So, this course, about an hour and forty minutes long, is now available on that platform. Basically, the course provides an introduction to Maoism as a global political ideology. The course is meant for listeners who are curious about radical ideologies and political movements, but who don’t know much already about global Maoism. The course would give you some basic insight into the origins and development of Maoism as an ideology in China; the process through which Maoist ideas were globalized; and what some of the key ideas are that go into making up the belief system of Maoism. I expect that some people listening to this podcast would enjoy the course, and others might find it covers ground that they are already familiar with.
Anyways, the catch is that they paid me to do it, so it’s behind a paywall. I’ve put a link in the show notes that will take you to the course, and that should give you a discount on the subscription service that academia.edu offers that would allow you to access the course. Honestly, it felt pretty weird videotaping myself, but I think it all came out ok in the end.
Alright, that’s it for now. Thanks for listening, and thanks especially to all of you who have been supporting the show.