The unification of Mao Zedong’s and Zhu De’s forces. Some discussion of the problems involved in unifying the Communist armed forces.
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
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
Some names from this episode:
Zhu De, Communist military commander
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Ye Ting, Commander of the 4th Army during the Northern Expedition
Chen Yi, Leading Communist who served with Zhu De
Yuan Wencai, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Hu Shaohai, Communist from South Hunan
Lin Biao, Communist military officer
Welcome to episode 86 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, I want to go back to where we left off with our narrative of events back in the Jinggangshan base area. We were last there in episode 82, when we discussed the collapse of the South Hunan uprising. We ended with Zhu De and Mao Zedong’s forces finally meeting up, after the uprising was defeated and all the forces that had remained intact retreated slowly up into the mountains, accompanied by a large civilian population of family members of peasant soldiers and refugees who had participated in or been attached one way or another to the short-lived soviet governments that had been formed in southern Hunan. The joining of Mao and Zhu is formally known as the Jinggangshan Junction of Forces and is one of the most important events in the history of the Chinese Communist Party.
By way of preface to this discussion, Agnes Smedley makes some observations about Mao and Zhu’s personalities and what they each brought to the table when they joined together, which I think is helpful for picturing their meeting. Let’s just keep in mind that this was written over 70 years ago, so there is some gender essentialism in the passage that probably wouldn’t fly today.
Anyways, that’s Smedley’s take. We’ll have a chance to elaborate on how Mao and Zhu’s personalities and experiences both complemented each other and created some tensions as we continue with the story here.
It was about April 24, 1928, when Mao and Zhu’s forces were united in the town of Longshi in Ninggang County, within the base area controlled by the Communists. Zhu De had arrived about April 22 and Mao came a couple days later, covering the retreat of the South Hunan refugees. But it was another week and a half or so before a proper rest and celebration of the unification of forces could be had. You may recall from episode 82 that Mao had resisted taking his troops out of the base area to assist the South Hunan uprising back in March. And as Mao had feared, his absence had been to the advantage of the Guomindang and local landlord forces, who had taken advantage of Mao’s departure to reoccupy large parts of the base area. The core area of the base area, the mountainous Jinggang massif, had remained in Communist hands because it could be defended by relatively small numbers of troops. There were relatively few approaches into the high mountain area, and these were narrow trails where soldiers could march in some places only two or three abreast. So small numbers of troops could easily defend these approaches against much larger numbers. Wang Zuo had held the mountain with just a few dozen troops. But the lower down areas around the base of the Jinggang massif were much harder to defend, and with most of the base area’s troops gone, the Guomindang armies and landlord militias had managed to retake much of the territory. Hundreds of peasants and soviet government cadres had been killed.
This meant that the first order of business for Mao and Zhu would be to reoccupy at least some of this lower elevation territory before they could rest. This was a matter of necessity, because at least 10,000 new people were being brought into the region, and there was simply no way that they could be supported solely on what was produced in the poor mountain villages. The good news for the Communists, though, was that at the core of these 10,000 refugees was an experienced armed force of about 2,000 soldiers under Zhu De, which was already larger than the force that Mao had been leading of about 1600. This meant that it was immediately possible to convert the retreat away from Hunan into an offensive against the most prosperous of the nearby lowland county seats, Yongxin, just to the north of the Jinggang massif. We spoke a bit about the early revolutionary movement in Yongxin back in episode 66.
Yongxin was quickly taken by Zhu De’s forces, and Mao Zedong came into the city shortly thereafter. On May 2, 1928, Mao wrote a letter to the Jiangxi Provincial Committee and to the Party Central Committee which captures some of the way in which the sudden influx of people was simultaneously a burden and a potential source of strength. Here’s some of what Mao wrote in his letter:
Early in the letter, Mao writes that it is “outrageous that the county Party Committees and county governments of Hunan brought a large number of peasant troops along with us. Now there are 18,000 troops here.”
This is part of why I said a minute ago that there were at least 10,000 new people who came into the region as part of the retreat from South Hunan. Mao says 18,000 here, but he may have been exaggerating a little, and we know that almost immediately the peasant forces started trickling back to Hunan because they were homesick and because life in the mountains was difficult, so when Mao says there were 18,000 troops who arrived in the region, this can be taken as a kind of upper limit of how many came.
Mao continues in the letter:
“We have taken the three counties of Yongxin, Ninggang, and Suichuan, and we will soon be able to expand our territories.”
So, on the one hand, we can see that all these troops arriving in the area were a burden on the local resources, and there had to be a major logistical scramble to get everyone fed and housed, but on the other hand, this force was immediately put to use in reconquering much of what had been lost, and that the prospect for further expansion of the base area was felt to be promising.
Mao then goes on to speak a little to what they hope to accomplish as they grow the base area in the near future:
“The reason we did not go directly to Ji’an is that we have adopted a strategy of deepening our work both internally and externally.”
Ji’an is a major city in Jiangxi which would have been a logical target had Mao and Zhu been looking to continue advancing onwards from taking Yongxin. The position of the Party leadership at the time was very much that peasant armed forces should be used to take and hold cities, rather than to consolidate power and grow in strength in the countryside. This was an ongoing strategic disagreement between Mao and the Party Center, and the failure of the South Hunan uprising directly reflected the weakness of the strategic vision of the Party Center. So, it was necessary for Mao to address why they didn’t just keep marching on Ji’an.
He then continued:
“By keeping Yongxin as the center, and by organizing insurrections in the nearby counties, internally we can establish a Party army, raise money, and make clothes. Externally, we can help the localities launch worker and peasant uprisings, establish the political power of the workers and peasants, and distribute the land. We have, therefore, decided that it will be much more significant to devote our efforts to this work than to launch an attack on Ji’an.”
So, we can see here that Mao was quite optimistic about expanding the base area and centering it on the prosperous lowland county seat of Yongxin, as would be both possible and necessary in order to support the now larger forces in the area. But he was also cautious about going further than that, and his vision involved consolidating power in the countryside, rather than striking at the nearest major city.
Later in the letter, Mao returned to the theme of the way in which the increased numbers in the region were a burden. He said that “A mass of ten thousand messy people with very poor discipline (except for a certain portion of them) are quite a burden. Now we are trying hard to strengthen discipline, and the situation is improving daily.”
Here the number of new people in the area has dropped from 18,000 to 10,000, and it’s not clear why. And the lack of discipline that Mao is complaining about is a criticism that, in retrospect, can be seen as being on two levels. On the one hand, aside from Zhu De’s core force of 2,000 troops, the large number of peasant soldiers had very little military discipline and so there were a lot of problems involved in keeping order with them, especially because many of them were unhappy to have had to leave their homes in Hunan. But on another level, none of the new forces brought into the region, even the very experienced troops under Zhu De, had been through the sort of political reorientation that Mao had carried out with the forces under his command in the Jinggangshan. A recurring theme in episodes 62, 67, 68, and 70 was Mao’s efforts to raise the level of political consciousness of the entire army under his command, to convert it into a Party Army, which entailed achieving new norms of discipline in the conduct of that force. In contrast, even Zhu De’s hardened revolutionary force was more like an army with some party members that belong to it, and so there were some striking differences in the norms and expectations between the two forces. And this was going to be something of a source of tension in the near future. Despite the great unity that Mao and Zhu had, they had quite different pasts and so where to draw the line between political and military authority and just how political it was necessary for the average soldier to be was a point that Mao still had to convince Zhu of. We’ll get to that in a little bit here.
On May 4th, Mao and Zhu went back up to Longshi, which was the main market town of Ninggang County, and there held a formal ceremony and celebration of the unification of their forces. The army was renamed the 4th Army of the Revolutionary Army of Workers and Peasants, although this would be changed again in June to the 4th Army of the Red Army, which most people would just abbreviate as the 4th Red Army. This wasn’t because there were three other red armies out there. In fact, Mao and Zhu’s forces, when independent of each other, had been by far the two largest Communist armed forces in existence in China at the time, and so when they came together they dwarfed any other small Communist armed bands operating elsewhere in the country. Rather, the name was meant to invoke and express continuity with the famous 4th Army of the Northern Expedition, also known as the Ironsides, which had been led by the Communist commander Ye Ting, and in which Zhu De had served as an officer.
The issue of who would be the overall leader now was a bit of a tricky one. Zhu De and another high-level Communist who was with him, Chen Yi, had revolutionary credentials and experience that were equal to Mao’s, and superior to Mao’s when it came to military experience. And on one hand Mao was the one who had led in the creation of the base area where they all were now and who had won the loyalty of the local population, including the social bandits cum Communists, Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo. On the other hand, Zhu De and Chen Yi had brought with them a force that was larger than Mao’s, very much larger when one included all the peasant militiamen who came with them.
The way in which this tension was resolved was to make Zhu De the overall military commander and to make Mao the top party leader. In an organization that puts politics in command of the military, like the Communist Party, this meant that Mao was the overall top leader. But, as we will see, there was not total agreement on where the line should be drawn between political and military authority, and this line was made all the more blurry in a situation where there was more or less constant warfare and, because of this, the Party itself operated in a highly militarized manner and where military affairs impinged on almost all aspects of social and political life in the area.
The 4th Red Army was divided into different regiments. Apparently, in order to accommodate all the peasant forces that had come up to the mountains, it was divided initially into nine regiments, but as the peasants drifted back to their homes in Hunan to either return to their farms, take up guerrilla warfare, or, in some cases, both, the number of regiments was reduced first to six and then to four. These four regiments that the 4th Red Army was divided into reflected different histories, and, to some degree, different personal loyalties on the part of the soldiers that made up each regiment.
The 28th Regiment was, at its core, made up of Zhu De’s veterans of the Nanchang Uprising, with a certain admixture of other troops that had been picked up during the long peregrination that began on August 1, 1927, with the Nanchang Uprising, proceeded through the Southern Expedition and its defeat in eastern Guangdong, the subsequent long retreat west which ended in participating in the South Hunan uprising, and finally now these guys got to the Jinggangshan in May 1928. It had been a long year for these guys, and it’s clear that they really enjoyed getting to stay put and rest up for a minute (and it wasn’t much longer than a minute) in the Jinggangshan base area.
The 29th Regiment was made up of the best organized of the peasant army soldiers from the South Hunan uprising, the ones that didn’t end up trickling back to their homes, and was led by this guy Hu Shaohai who we met back in episode 81. The 31st Regiment was made up, at its core, of Mao Zedong’s veterans of the Autumn Harvest Uprising. And the 32nd Regiment was made up of former bandits from the Jinggangshan, under the leadership of Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo.
This sort of personalistic form of army organization was how armies were typically put together in China. But, as you are no doubt noting, those are warlord armies. This is a Communist army, and one naturally expects a certain amount of political consciousness and, if nothing else, modernizing ideology to come into play and serve to effect some sort of rational organization of forces within which any given soldier might be transferred from one unit to another and issues of personal loyalty and shared personal histories and experiences wouldn’t be key to organizational cohesion. Certainly, this is something that Mao had been working toward, with his emphasis on instilling the army with political consciousness and a form of discipline that involved upholding particular principles, rather than being based on personal loyalty per se, and which emphasized democratic practices within the armed forces. But breaking with dominant structures in society is a process, not an overnight thing. You didn’t create an army of any sort in the late 1920s in China without at least starting out with what the norms were for armies in the society in general. And that fundamentally meant warlord armies, in which personal loyalty was a key organizing principle, and in which all kinds of foul practices were carried on.
That said, however close in origins many of the soldiers and officers who had accompanied Zhu De were to their counterparts in the Guomindang and warlord armies (which now blended together as warlord forces pledged fealty to the triumphant Guomindang government in Nanjing), they stood out in that they were people who had decided to abandon careers in the established military hierarchies in order to pledge their allegiance to the cause of liberating China and of Communism, however uncertain and incomplete their understanding of what Communism was might have been. It was a very dangerous choice, but it meant that those who made this choice were self-selecting and would repeatedly prove themselves far superior to their counterparts in warlord and Guomindang armies, and they stood out in particular for being more adventurous, dynamic, and imaginative than their counterparts, as we will see when we get into discussing some of the upcoming military conflicts. Ultimately, it would mean that they would be amenable to the sorts of transformations that the Red Army would undergo to become a force more overwhelmingly pledged to a set of ideas than a set of personal loyalties (although the development of the cult around Mao’s leadership later in the revolution should also be seen in the light of the social norms of personalistic loyalty, but we’ll talk about that later). But, at this time, in 1928, at the Jinggangshan Junction of Forces, we can see that the division of the 4th Red Army into these four regiments was a function of how each one was characterized by different collective histories and personalistic loyalties.
And as you might imagine, despite the relief and joy that all these harried Communist guerrillas felt at coming together, which made May 4th a real celebration for everyone involved, these differences within the army created some tensions. In particular, the differences in the armed forces that they led reflected different attitudes that Mao and Zhu held at the time. These differences revolved around issues of the relationship between party and non-party institutions and leaders (for example, the relationship between the party and the army); the relationship between individual and collective leadership (for example, to what degree an army commander could just give orders, or how much an overall political agenda arrived at by a collective party leadership should influence all decision-making); and the relationship between democracy and centralism in the wielding of authority (which found expression in Mao’s efforts to democratize the armed forces and narrow the divisions between officers and regular soldiers, as part of fulfilling an overall egalitarian vision of society that the army was fighting for, as opposed to a more traditional view of military authority). While in the long run Mao would manage to convince Zhu and the rest of the Communist Party leadership of his views, in the short run, this created some major tensions, although it would take about a year for these tensions to come to a head in a big explosion.
The historian Stephen Averill discusses the relationship between Mao and Zhu, and how their different personalities and attitudes both clashed and complimented each other, at some length. I want to quote here the end of his discussion of this from his book Revolution in the Highlands, because it really complements our earlier quote from Agnes Smedley. In this quote, he is going to compare the relationship between Mao and Zhu to the relationship between Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo that we discussed back in episode 65. If you haven’t listened to that episode, I think you can still infer the meaning here, but I do encourage you to go back and listen to our episodes on the history of the Jinggangshan before Mao got there. Anyways, here’s Averill:
So, bearing in mind that, ultimately, Mao and Zhu would prove to be very complementary personalities, it is clear that some major tensions began brewing almost right away which would erupt a year later, and only after that would things start to be resolved. We’ll talk about this conflict in a little detail when it pops up in 1929, but to give you a sense of where things are going, I’ll read you an excerpt from a letter that Mao wrote to Lin Biao in 1929, in the midst of that crisis:
Mao June 14, 1929, Letter to Lin Biao Excerpt
The letter goes on from here but begins to deal more particularly with material with haven’t gotten up to chronologically yet. So, we’ll probably return to this document again in the future, but this letter is very valuable for letting us know what some of the tensions were right from the get-go when the 4th Red Army was founded, even though, as we will see, despite these tensions Mao and Zhu are going to work very well together, even while these disagreements are simmering in the background.
OK, we’ll see the 4th Red Army in action pretty soon, but that’s it for now.