The 29th Regiment goes against Mao’s orders and decides to stay in Hunan, with disastrous results for the Communists.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Jurgen Domes, Peng Te-huai: The Man and the Image
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Some names from this episode:
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Yuan Wencai, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Hu Shaohai, Commander of the 29th regiment of the 4th Red Army
Du Xiujing, Inspector sent to the Jinggangshan by the Hunan Provincial Committee in May 1928 and who returned in June
Fan Shisheng, Guomindang general and old friend of Zhu De
Yuan Chongquan, 28th Regiment battalion commander who mutinied
Yuan Desheng, Representative of the Hunan Provincial Committee
Peng Dehuai, Guomindang colonel who was secretly a Communist and who launched an uprising in July 1928
Welcome to episode 93 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed Mao’s letter to the Hunan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of July 4, 1928. In that letter, Mao made the case for disobeying the Communist leadership’s directive that he march off to war in South Hunan. Mao had been focused on the need for a period of consolidation of the recent gains that the Communists had made, particularly in the comparatively rich area of Yongxin county. However, as we will discuss in this episode, a new suppression campaign launched by the Guomindang complicated Mao’s plans for consolidating the base area.
Even as Mao was drafting his July 4 letter, the Guomindang forces were regrouping from their defeat in June and soon launched a new offensive, with the Hunanese 8th Army marching into Ninggang County and 11 regiments of the Jiangxi Guomindang forces marching on Yongxin from the Jiangxi side. The bulk of the Fourth Red Army had been dispersed around Yongxin county, engaged in the work of consolidating the Communist hold on the region through doing propaganda work among the peasants, creating local mass organizations, and carrying out the land reform. Now, as the Guomindang moved on the base area again, the Communist armed forces were reconcentrated and moved to defend the base area.
An initial decision was made to focus on defending Ninggang against the Hunanese forces. Yuan Wencai had stayed behind with a portion of the 32nd Regiment of the Red Army, and along with local militia units Yuan had harassed the Hunanese Guomindang forces with guerrilla attacks while the local population hid their provisions in order to deny resources to the invading army. This had the result that, rather than pillage the heartland of the base area, the Hunanese forces hurried their way through Ninggang in an effort to meet up with the Jiangxi Guomindang forces in Yongxin. This meant that, once the hastily regrouped Communist armed forces arrived in Ninggang on July 11, the Hunanese Guomindang forces had already passed through the area and gone into Yongxin themselves.
At this point, the Communists decided on a strategy that was aimed at removing the Hunanese Guomindang forces from the field. The 28th and 29th regiments of the Red Army, that is, the regiments made up respectively of Zhu De’s veterans of the Nanchang Uprising in the 28th regiment and the peasant army soldiers from the South Hunan uprising in the 29th regiment, moved into the enemy’s rear in Hunan, while the two other Red Army regiments, Mao’s veterans of the Autumn Harvest Uprising in the 31st regiment and the former bandits from the Jinggangshan, under the leadership of Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo, in the 32nd regiment, remained to guard the Jinggangshan massif and harass the enemy’s lines of communication.
This raiding in the rear and harassment of the lines of communication of the Hunanese Guomindang army had the desired effect, and just hours before the Hunanese army would have linked up with the slowly advancing troops from Jiangxi on July 14, the Hunanese commanders decided that the threat to their rear was too great and called a retreat, going back to Chaling County in Hunan through a much safer lowland route rather than through the dangerous Ninggang highlands.
With the Hunanese out of the way, Mao’s 31st regiment now moved into Yongxin County to deal with the Jiangxi forces. This counter-offensive by Mao witnessed the first deployment of a new organizational innovation in combining mass mobilization of the population with the action of the Red Army. Mao divided his 31st regiment into three different parts, called ‘routes,’ each of which was led by what were called ‘action committees.’ The role of these action committees was to coordinate the work of newly organized mass organizations and local guerrillas with the work of the Red Army. Mao held mass rallies as the Red Army advanced, and over 30,000 local residents of Yongxin were organized into what were called Red Insurrectionary Regiments and which were deployed by the three action committees.
These Red Insurrectionary Regiments were mainly deployed in making life difficult for the invading Guomindang. They helped to evacuate villages in advance of the arrival of the enemy forces, emptying them of both people and provisions, while spoiling the wells and obstructing the roads and paths. Meanwhile, the regular forces of the Red Army were used to harass the Guomindang, setting up ambushes and stifling their progress further into the Yongxin countryside. In this way, all eleven regiments were contained within a ten-mile radius of the Yongxin County seat for almost a month. But while Mao and the 31st regiment, along with the guerrilla forces and mass organizations of the local population of Yongxin were very effective in thwarting the advance of the Guomindang in Yongxin, developments took place within the Communist armed forces that had gone into Hunan to harass the enemy’s rear there which would soon lead to a major crisis.
What happened was that, once the 28th and 29th regiments had entered Hunan, a lot of the troops in the 29th regiment began to not want to go back up to the mountains and return to the base area. The 29th regiment was mostly made up of peasants who had rebelled in the South Hunan Uprising, from back in episodes 81 and 82, and we’ve touched a few times in episodes since then on how a lot of the peasant troops who came from south Hunan to the Jinggangshan found the conditions there intolerable and missed their homes. A large portion of those peasant soldiers who initially went up to the Jinggangshan in retreat after the collapse of the South Hunan Uprising had already trickled back home by July, and now the 29th regiment soldiers en masse came to a decision that it was time for them too to go home.
What happened was that on July 12, the soldiers of the 29th regiment held a meeting that party cadres were excluded from, and decided that some plan for returning home needed to be made, and set a deadline of July 13, the next day, for their demand to be met, or else they would just go on their own. An urgent message was sent to Mao, who got a response back in time urging the 29th regiment to return to the base area. They reluctantly agreed, but then, on the march back, once they reached the border with Ninggang and were concretely faced with marching back up the mountain, they refused to go on, and now their discontent had spread to many soldiers in the 28th regiment as well (these were Zhu De’s veteran troops).
At this juncture, a decision was made to stop the march and have some serious consultations about what to do. On the one hand, this reflected the development of democratic and egalitarian practices in the army, included the establishment of elected soldiers’ committees at the company level in order to deal with problems between officers and enlisted men, which had been one of the reforms that Mao had instituted in the practice of the revolutionary armed forces, as we have touched on in prior episodes. But on the other hand, even had these democratic and egalitarian reforms not been instituted in the Red Army, they probably would have had to stop and deliberate anyways in order to head off a mutiny.
During these deliberations, Zhu De strongly urged that the army should return to the base area and help with the defeat of the Jiangxi Guomindang troops that were being contained in Yongxin by Mao’s 31st regiment. Opposing Zhu De was the commander of the 29th regiment, Hu Shaohai, and the representative of the Hunan Provincial Committee, Du Xiujing. Du reminded the Red Army leadership of the earlier directives by the Provincial Committee to march into Hunan (one of the instructions, as you might recall from episode 89, called on the Fourth Red Army to “kill their way along a bloody route” back into South Hunan), and so why not just do that now, since they had started on their way now anyways. (Never mind that the current military plans had only been for them to advance into Hunan so as to divert the Hunanese Guomindang forces from their assault on the base area.) Du appears to have even fanned the flames of dissent among the rank-and-file soldiers by letting it be known that the Hunan Provincial Committee had ordered the army to march into Hunan. The dispute over military strategy between Mao on the one hand and the provincial leadership on the other hand had been a matter only known to the leadership previously.
With the deliberations deadlocked among the army leaders, the idea was put forward that the 29th regiment could march into Hunan and the 28th could return to the base area, but it was agreed that on its own the 29th regiment couldn’t survive. So, then it was decided to send Du Xiujing up to the party offices in Ninggang to discuss the matter with Mao in person. Mao, however, had returned to lead the guerrilla warfare in Yongxin, and so a representative recently sent by the Hunan Provincial Committee was the highest-level party member at the offices in Ninggang when Du Xiujing arrived. This provincial committee representative told Du Xiujing that it was OK to march on into South Hunan, and so that is the message that Du brought back to the 28th and 29th regiments. The army then marched off. However, after not too long a messenger arrived with a long letter from Mao. Mao had gotten wind of what was happening and urged the 28th and 29th regiments to return to the base area. However, at this point, on July 17, the leaders of the 28th and 29th regiments decided that they had already committed themselves to their course of action and decided to keep going.
The 28th and 29th regiments now moved quickly on Chenzhou, a city that they had held during the South Hunan Uprising. They marched at a speed so quick that news of their approach would not arrive before they did, and they took the enemy entirely by surprise on July 24, quickly sending them fleeing. This is how Zhu De described the taking of Chenzhou to Agnes Smedley for her biography of him:
The Guomindang forces that had held Chenzhou were those led by Fan Shisheng. If you don’t remember Fan Shisheng, he was the Guomindang general and old friend of Zhu De’s from his days with the Yunnan Army who we met in episode 81. He was the guy who let Zhu De and his retreating forces hide and recuperate among his own troops before Zhu De eventually left and participated in the South Hunan Uprising. Now, though, Fan Shisheng was holding Chenzhou, and there was no question of renewing the alliance.
The breakdown of Red Army discipline that had already begun with the refusal to return to the base area now took on new dimensions. Instead of pursuing the enemy, many troops wandered the city. They looked for food, got haircuts, and generally availed themselves of urban amenities that were lacking in the Jinggangshan. There was even some looting, which was very unusual for the Red Army. Soldiers from the 29th regiment began immediately petitioning for leave to go and visit their families in Yizhang county to the south in order to help them with the fall harvest. One battalion commander encouraged his troops to surround Zhu De and demand leave, clearly implying a threat of mutiny if leave were not granted. At one point the leadership of the 28th regiment considered disarming the 29th regiment, but because this would clearly have led to serious violence between the two regiments it was dismissed.
In the midst of dealing with this tense situation, the Fourth Red Army was taken by surprise. The enemy which they had driven out of the city in the morning had regrouped and counterattacked, and in the midst of the breakdown of discipline in its ranks the Communists were caught completely unprepared. The 28th Regiment managed to pull itself together and retreat from Chenzhou with relatively few losses, but as you might imagine, the 29th Regiment’s organization had more or less completely broken down, and most of that regiment was trapped when the Guomindang forces captured a bridge leading out of the city. Only a handful of the 29th Regiment’s soldiers and its commanders managed to regroup with the 28th Regiment. The bulk of the soldiers were either killed or managed to flee in small groups or as individuals back to Yizhang County to rejoin their families, and almost all of these never participated in the revolution again.
The 28th Regiment made its way slowly east into Guidong County, licking its wounds and taking reprisals against local elites as moved. It was further slowed by several more mutinies which occurred in the wake of the loss in Chenzhou. One battalion commander, Yuan Chongquan, a Whampoa military academy graduate whose battalion had been sent ahead as an advance guard decided to defect to the Guomindang and wrote a letter back to the Red Army urging the soldiers to rise up and kill their leaders. And three other battalion level officers were executed for mutiny while the 28th Regiment spent a few weeks recuperating in Guidong County, although it’s unclear whether these mutinies were separate from or linked to Yuan Chongquan’s mutiny.
Meanwhile, in Yongxin, by mid-August the Guomindang forces that had been contained in the immediate environs of the county seat had come to learn of events in Hunan. In particular, now that they understood that the main force of the Fourth Red Army was nowhere nearby, they were emboldened to press a new offensive, confident that the Communist forces around Yongxin would not be able to withstand a sustained assault. In the face of this new offensive, Mao and the 31st Regiment had to retreat up into the mountains in western Yongxin county. The Jiangxi Guomindang forces that had been contained pushed on toward Ninggang County, and now it was no longer possible to evacuate villages in advance of the arrival of these Guomindang forces, and there were big massacres of peasants and destruction of village property along the Guomindang’s march route.
While Mao and the 31st Regiment were holed up in the mountains of western Yongxin county trying to figure out what to do now, Yuan Desheng, one of the representatives of the Hunan Provincial Committee who we met last episode, arrived with the Hunan Provincial Committee’s response to Mao’s July 4 letter. The response was dated July 20, but Yuan was only catching up with Mao to give him the letter in mid-August. The Hunan Provincial Committee was very upbeat about the current situation.
On July 18, a 23-year-old Guomindang colonel who had secretly joined the Communist Party at the beginning of 1928, decided (along with the other party members in his regiment) to launch an uprising. This colonel, Peng Dehuai, had been assigned in April to the northeastern Hunan county of Pingjiang in order to suppress a small Communist guerrilla band there. Instead of fighting the Communists, Peng kept his troops idle and spent his time reading Nikolai Bukharin’s ABC of Communism and a book titled The Gist of Das Kapital. On July 22 Peng used his 2000 troops to launch the Pingjiang Uprising, when they arrested and executed the county magistrate and over 100 landlords and local militia commanders. The next day he announced the formation of the Hunan Provincial Soviet government and proclaimed the forces under his command to be the Fifth Red Army (Mao and Zhu De’s force being named the Fourth Red Army, but remember, there was no first, second or third red army, because, as we discussed in episode 86, the 4th Red Army was meant to invoke and express continuity with the famous 4th Army of the Northern Expedition, also known as the Ironsides, in which Zhu De had served as an officer).
Now, keep in mind, this letter from the Hunan Provincial Committee to Mao Zedong was written on July 20, so they knew that Peng Dehuai was about to launch his revolt, but they had no idea whether he would be successful or not. Which speaks to another aspect of this letter that Mao clearly found exasperating. Because the Hunan Provincial Committee expected Peng Dehuai’s uprising to be successful, they now had the idea that, rather than strike toward south Hunan as they had earlier urged, now they wanted Mao to take his forces up toward Anyuan, where the Hunan Provincial Committee was based, in order to aid what they said was an imminent general uprising in the region which would link the area from northeast Hunan all the way down to the Jinggangshan, and eventually down all the way through southern Hunan, into one long Communist-controlled area along the Jiangxi border. It also just so happened that the provincial committee in Anyuan had suffered serious losses due to exposure of its operations by government agents and so it would be awfully helpful to have the Fourth Red Army march into the area and put an end to the persecution of the Communists in the provincial committee’s home base.
Mao, having just had to retreat from the rich lowland regions of Yongxin county which he had hoped would provide an economic foundation for an expanded base area, was not exactly stoked at this new order from the provincial committee ordering him to march his forces to Anyuan to pull their fat from the fryer. At the emergency conference that Mao called where the leading cadres who could be quickly convened met to discuss the orders from the provincial committee, he directed a series of mocking and ironic questions at Yuan Desheng, asking him how many strikes, or student protests, or peasant uprisings, or guerrilla units there were in the areas he was being ordered to march into “without the least hesitation.” As legend has it, a local peasant who had been with Zhu De’s troops in Hunan returned home during this meeting, and delivered the news of the defeat at Chenzhou. This provided the final excuse that Mao needed to once again refuse the provincial committee’s orders. Instead, Mao decided to take one of the 31st regiment’s two battalions and go south to look for Zhu De, while the other battalion and the 32nd regiment remained behind to defend the base area.
Next episode, we’ll see what happens as Guomindang forces overrun most of the base area, and Mao and Zhu regroup their forces and fight to win back the base.
Alright, see you next time.