Mao Zedong and Zhu De learn warfare through warfare as they face continuing onslaughts from Guomindang forces.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
China: A Century of Revolution documentary
Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), “Experiences of the People’s War
and Some Important Questions”
Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), “Advance in the Great Direction of Creating Base Areas!”
Mao Zedong, “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War”
Name from this episode:
Sunzi [Sun Tzu], Ancient Chinese general
Welcome to episode 87 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed how Mao Zedong and Zhu De united their forces in the spring of 1928 at the Jinggangshan Junction of Forces, and we talked about some of the ways in which Mao and Zhu’s different personalities and life experiences were both complementary and created some tensions. This episode, we’re going to see the newly united and renamed 4th Red Army in action. There was only a short period of time available for rest and recuperation following the May 4th celebration of the unification of forces. On the one side, the Communists wanted to get back to retaking everything that they had lost while Mao had been diverted off to support the South Hunan Uprising. And on the other side, the Guomindang was about to launch a new suppression campaign aimed at eradicating the Communists from the base area.
Already in mid-May, the governor of Jiangxi sent an army division upriver from Ji’an, where it had been garrisoning that major city, to attempt to crush the Communist base area. This and the campaigns that followed all involved much larger forces than what the Communists had. So, in the fighting that followed, both in mid-May and in the subsequent campaigns that we are going to discuss here in the Jinggangshan, this was when Mao Zedong and Zhu De first worked out and systematized their thinking on guerrilla warfare. In particular, their famous basic guidelines on how to defeat a larger and more powerful force were worked out at this time. This was the maxim that: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
So, the first phase of this campaign involved this very large army marching up the valley that goes from Ji’an to Yongxin. Now, Ji’an was this city that was relatively quite large compared to Yongxin, which was a comparatively large market town for this really poor region of China, while Ji’an was what you might call a regionally or provincially significant city. There was about 100 kilometers between the two places, so they weren’t super far apart, but the distance was significant enough that the Communists had real hopes of consolidating some power in Yongxin and using it as a kind of economic center for the base area. The thing was, the way in which a reactionary army would try to attack the Jinggangshan base area from the Jiangxi side, from the east, would involve this sort of approach where it would march up this valley and Yongxin was kind of the entry point into the Communist base region. And so, if a large army just marched up this valley, there was no way the Communists could win in a direct fight to try and defend their control of Yongxin.
That’s where the first phase of Mao and Zhu’s maxim on guerrilla strategy comes in. “The enemy advances, we retreat.” This was a principle based on the need for self-preservation. It recognized that a head-on battle to keep territory was a losing proposition. But it was kind of a rough principle to implement. It meant that what you had done in an area that you controlled would then be undone. Land that had confiscated from landlords would be restored. People who supported the Communists and their policies and who couldn’t retreat with them would be vulnerable to reprisals. The documentary that I recommended in episode 83, China: A Century of Revolution, has some powerful testimony from peasants who lived in Communist base areas that the Communists had to retreat from and the reprisals that they were subjected to, and I really recommend checking that out and hearing people’s testimony from their own mouths. It’s some pretty brutal stuff, some of it can be hard to listen to, but it will give you an idea of what was involved in this principle of guerrilla warfare of “the enemy advances, we retreat.”
So, as we saw last episode, when Mao wrote his letter to the Central Committee on May 2 from Yongxin, he had high hopes of, as he put it “keeping Yongxin as the center” of the base area’s economy and administration. But already in mid-May, the Communists had to retreat from Yongxin. Now, before we move on to discuss some of the military maneuvers that followed, I can imagine some listeners wondering how to reconcile Mao’s desire to hold on to Yongxin with the well-known idea that Maoist military strategy involves “surrounding the cities from the countryside.” Why was Yongxin important to Mao, if it was a major market town? It’s a good question and speaks to a way in which the Maoist strategy of “surrounding the cities from the countryside” expresses an overall strategy, but isn’t absolutely the case. The countryside, of course, has an economy and has relatively more and less densely populated areas, it’s not uniform. And so, if you want to support a guerrilla force, you have to rely on an actually existing peasant economy. And even if, over time, if Communists control a base area long enough, they are going to reshape that economy in important ways, it is still going to have centralized nexuses where goods are traded, where handicraft and manufactory production is centered, and where various services and administrative functions are centered which cannot be distributed out into every little hamlet and village.
As we discussed last episode, once the Communist forces in the area grew in size with the arrival of Zhu De’s troops, there was a need for the Communists to control a larger and more prosperous lowland area in addition to the Jinggang massif itself. And this meant controlling the market towns that served such an important function in the local economy as well. So, in a sense, there are aspects of the city within the countryside, and once the Communist forces developed far enough, it was necessary for them to control some of these market towns. Yet, as we are seeing with the quick retreat of the Communists from Yongxin in the face of a new offensive from the Guomindang, these places are very difficult to hold on to. This speaks to the inherently unstable nature of Communist base areas. This is a point that Mao would speak to again and again over the years. Even when the Communists had held their capital of Yan’an for more than 11 years, from late 1935 to early 1947, it would have been easy for them during the Civil War with the Guomindang that followed World War II to have felt a need to defend their capital. But even then, when the Communists were much much stronger than they had been in 1928, such positional warfare might have actually led to their defeat in the civil war, so this willingness to cede territory and to recognize the inherent instability of any base area, even one that had been relatively stable, was a central element in the strategic thinking of the Communists.
And it is an easy lesson to forget, especially when one looks at a world in which some seemingly perpetual guerrilla struggles have at times held certain territories at times for even longer than the Chinese Communists held Yan’an. One of the interesting things about the way in which Maoism was turned into a set of ideas that people tried to learn from in order to make revolution in their own countries outside of China, is that many processes that occurred in China were codified in a certain way, so that the ideas and experiences from China were kind of packaged so that they could be widely understood and reproduced. This is a totally understandable thing, it’s what always happens when attempts are made to generalize from a particular experience and make its lessons transmissible to other people in other contexts. But it also means that something is necessarily lost in the process of codifying the lessons from China, in the process of turning the particular into the general, and that creates major opportunities for misunderstanding what happened in China.
There is this very interesting document that the Nepalese Maoists wrote during the first few years of the civil war there, part of a resolution adopted at the Fourth Expanded Meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in August 1998, that speaks to this process of codification of the lessons of the relationship between guerrilla warfare and the establishing of base areas and Communist political power in the countryside during a revolutionary civil war. Anyways, I bring this document up because in it they speak to how they had, for a time, conceptualized guerrilla zones and base areas as potentially achieving a stable and permanent character, contrary to the strategy developed by Mao Zedong and Zhu De at the time that we are considering here in this podcast, and they described this error not just as some mistake that they made in their own thinking, but as representing an ongoing error made by many Communists trying to follow in Mao’s footsteps. As they put it in this resolution: “In the International Communist Movement there has been a wrong tendency of assuming guerrilla zone as a strategic and theoretical concept instead of taking it as a tactical and transitional concept.” Anyways, I bring this up mainly to say that this whole experience that we are talking about now, and very much this issue of how Communist guerrillas hold on to territory or don’t, and whether and when to give up territory in the larger interests of the revolution, is a pretty difficult and complicated one, in a way that isn’t readily apparent for most of us when we first learn about this Maoist military maxim that begins with “the enemy advances, we retreat.”
But let’s keep things moving forward here in terms of our narrative of the events happening in the Jinggangshan. So, in mid-May 1928, this Guomindang army marched up from Ji’an and marched in and took Yongxin, with the Communists withdrawing from Yongxin and the densely populated agricultural basin that surrounded it. This maneuver in and of itself helped to reduce the number of Guomindang troops that were in the field fighting the Communists, because one regiment of the Guomindang army was then tasked with garrisoning Yongxin, effectively putting them out of any immediate action against the Communist armed forces.
The rest of the Guomindang forces were then divided in two, with the idea that they would come at the core base area in the mountains from two sides. One force would advance southwest, directly up into the mountains in a frontal assault against the Communists’ mountain redoubt. The other Guomindang force worked its way around the mountain so as to attempt to ascend the mountain from the south. The Red Army countered the direct attack on the mountain by occupying defensive positions along the route into the base area, parts of which were narrow trails where only three people could walk abreast. Meanwhile, two regiments of the 4th Red Army quickly moved against the flanking force, fighting a series of sharp engagements which defeated it and sent the remnants running back to Yongxin.
In these engagements, the strongest part of the 4th Red Army was brought to bear against what was only about a third of the force that had been sent against the base area. This was an early application of Zhu and Mao’s principle of using mobility and knowledge of the terrain to facilitate bringing superior numbers against the Guomindang in any given battle, even if overall, in the whole theater of operations, the Guomindang enjoyed numerical superiority. Then, as this flanking force retreated to Yongxin, the Guomindang regiment garrisoning Yongxin sallied out to try to defend their retreating comrades and was badly beaten before it could retreat back into the city. This situation then left the Guomindang forces that had advanced directly from Yongxin up into the mountains of Ninggang county cut off from its rear. Rather than get hammered from each side, these guys cut off their attack and joined the rest of their army in retreating back to Ji’an. The Communists then reoccupied Yongxin in the wake of the retreating Guomindang forces.
And with the enemy fleeing in disarray, the Communists got some nice upgrades in military equipment when they captured the arms left behind by the Guomindang. This included artillery in the form of seven trench-mortars and two mountain guns. As Mao would later note in his 1936 work, “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War:” “In establishing our own war industry we must not allow ourselves to become dependent on it. Our basic policy is to rely on the war industries of the imperialist countries and of our domestic enemy. We have a claim on the output of the arsenals of London as well as of Hanyang, and, what is more, it is delivered to us by the enemy’s transport corps.” So here we see the beginning of what will remain the main Communist strategy for supplying itself with arms: to take them from the enemy. As the great Chinese general Sunzi wrote in the 6th century BC, “the wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the enemy.”
The Guomindang army wasn’t done, however. Back in Ji’an it regrouped, brought in reinforcements, and then marched back up the valley and reoccupied Yongxin. This time, the force from Ji’an was much more wary than during the previous offensive. At first, the Guomindang troops remained hunkered down in Yongxin, stockpiling supplies and seemingly content to sit there and occupy the city. In response, the Communists staged harassing guerrilla attacks on the city and on the army’s supply lines. Unable to ignore these attacks, the Guomindang sent two regiments south out of Yongxin to set up a base just to the north of the mountain passes leading into Ninggang. This was a large and well-armed force, and the Guomindang remained cautious, leaving these two regiments in a relatively compact formation which was hard for the Communists to break up and assault. Now, three of the Red Army’s four regiments had remained around the Ninggang area, in readiness to respond to advances by the forces surrounding them. But Mao had taken his 31st regiment out into the countryside in the western part of Yongxin County, where his regiment of Autumn Harvest Uprising veterans were engaged in political work among the peasants and in guerrilla activity.
Now, one of the things about Mao was that it was very important to him to keep up with the news. Of course, on one level, in his capacity as a high-level political leader, he needed to keep up with events. But, just on a personal level, he was a voracious reader and a news junkie. So, in the midst of this stand-off with the Guomindang forces surrounding the core region of the base area, and in the midst of Mao being deep in the countryside doing the combination of guerrilla warfare and political mobilization work that his 31st Regiment specialized in doing, Mao sent a battalion into Hunan to raid a town, with the main purpose of the raid being to get newspapers so that Mao could get back up-to-date on what was going on in the world.
Well, as it turned out, this town in Hunan was really well defended, and what was supposed to be a quick and easy raid to get some newspapers turned into a potentially massive military disaster. In order to save the battalion, it was necessary for Zhu De’s 28th regiment to descend from the Jinggangshan. Hearing about these movements on the part of the Red Army, the Guomindang commander in Yongxin decided to take advantage of Zhu De’s departure to order his troops to advance up the mountain and take the core of the base area, while keeping Yongxin strongly garrisoned with a bit less than half of his force. The Guomindang troops from Jiangxi were made up of five regiments. There were two garrisoning Yongxin, two trying to force their way up into the Jinggang massif, and another regiment garrisoned in a large market town about ten miles west of the Yongxin county seat.
And this was where the speed with which the Red Army operated turned things to its advantage. As the cumbersome Guomindang forces began attempting to move up the mountain, their advance was slowed by the remaining Communist troops who were able to guard the mountain passes. Meanwhile, Mao and Zhu’s regiments advanced on a forced march east from the Hunan border toward the developing battle. As the Communist forces approached the town ten miles west of Yongxin which had a Guomindang regiment in it, the Guomindang forces got word of Communist activity nearby. Naturally assuming that it was only a small guerrilla band, because the Communist main force was known to have just recently been much too far away to have reached them, the Guomindang regiment sallied forth carelessly, thinking that it was in for an easy victory. Instead, it ran right into the oncoming might of the Communists’ two strongest regiments and was destroyed.
Taking advantage of this victory and not wanting to lose the element of surprise, the Communists moved immediately on to the Yongxin county seat. When they got there, the shock of their sudden appearance sent the Guomindang garrison force there fleeing back to Ji’an and the Communists reoccupied the city. Now, having suddenly lost their rear, the Guomindang troops attacking the Jinggangshan broke off their attack and retreated, bypassing Yongxin, where Communist troops defended the city behind strong walls, and going directly back to Ji’an.
This victory brought the Communists a few weeks’ reprieve, but already again in June, the Guomindang launched another assault on the base. This time, the remnants of the defeated Guomindang force in Ji’an were joined by a fresh army division. Because both the commander of this new division and the commander of the remaining forces that had already been defeated once were named Yang, and because Yang means sheep in addition to being a surname, the Communists started referring to these two guys as the two sheep. But in addition to the forces under the two Yangs coming up from Ji’an, now there were also three Guomindang regiments which approached from the western, Hunan-facing side of the base area.
Now, one of the real weaknesses of the Guomindang regime was the way in which administrative divisions between provinces tended to express themselves in a lack of coordination between the different provincial governments in doing things like fighting the Communists. This was a carryover from imperial China, when the centralization of administration in provincial capitals meant that state authority could be quite weak in the border regions between provinces, as if the strength of the state wasn’t quite strong enough to radiate outward all the way to boundary which it was supposed to reach. Then, in the warlord years, these administrative divisions between provinces were expressed in warlords considering entire provinces to be their personal fiefs, which meant that they viewed neighboring provinces as warlord rivals, rather than as neighboring provincial governments to cooperate with. Then, with the appointment of military strongmen as governors in the new state structure established by the Guomindang, this warlord practice was carried over somewhat into the internal administration of the new government. So, it was a little unusual that these Hunanese forces were mobilized against the Communists in coordination with the Jiangxi forces which marched up from Ji’an. But this rivalry between provincial strongmen who served as governors within the Guomindang regime also meant that the coordination would be quite limited.
The Hunanese forces were quite a bit stronger than the Jiangxi forces, even if numerically inferior in this case. Because of this, Mao formulated the policy that the Communists should “Be on the defensive against Hunan where the enemy rule is stronger, and take the offensive against Jiangxi where his rule is weaker.”
Stephen Averill gives a nice, concise rendering of how this June 1928 suppression campaign was defeated by the Communists:
In the wake of this victory, the base area expanded to the greatest extent that it would reach, covering the entirety of Ninggang, Yongxin, and Lianhua counties, and portions of neighboring counties. It occupied an area over 7200 square kilometers and had a population of over 500,000 people. This period is known as the ‘High Tide’ of the Jinggangshan base area, and next episode we’ll look at some of what happened during this ‘High Tide.’
Thanks for listening, and especially thanks to all the listeners who have been supporting the show. See you next time.