The Communists fight to regain lost territory, and ethnic tensions explode among the peasants in the base area.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
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:
Du Xiujing, Inspector sent to the Jinggangshan by the Hunan Provincial Committee in May 1928 and who returned in June
Gong Chu, Political commissar for the 29th regiment
Chen Yi, Political commissar for the 28th regiment
Kang Keqing, Peasant guerrilla fighter from Wan’an County
Yuan Wencai, Leader of the 32nd regiment
Welcome to episode 94 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we began discussing an event known as the August Defeat, which refers to the time in 1928 when, with many of the Communist armed forces from the Jinggangshan base area engaged in an ill-advised expedition in South Hunan, Guomindang forces waged a major assault on the Communist base and occupied much of it. This was a particularly inopportune time for the Communists to have had to cede territory to the Guomindang, because they had just gone through a period of land reform and institution-building in the hopes of consolidating the long-term viability of the base area. This rendered the Communist guerrilla tactics of retreating in the face of superior military forces much more costly than it had previously been.
One cadre who wrote a lengthy report on these events and who was stationed high in the mountains in the army headquarters for the duration of this suppression campaign waged by the Guomindang described the period of the August Defeat in the following terms:
By late August, Guomindang forces from both the Hunan and Jiangxi sides of the base area had advanced to the foot of the mountain massif atop which sat the Communist army headquarters. This was the most secure part of the base area and was the core territory around which the base area had expanded since Mao’s arrival there in October 1927. The mountains were very steep, and so there were only a few places where an ascent could be made. The most favorable of these routes led up the northern side of the massif, at a place called Huangyangjie.
This was a very defensible position, but the numbers were very much against the Communists. As we discussed last episode, of the four regiments that made up the Communist Fourth Red Army, two had gone off to Hunan against Mao’s orders, where one of them had disintegrated. Then, at the end of last episode, Mao took half of his 31st regiment off to go rescue Zhu De’s 28th regiment from whatever trouble they were in in Hunan. That meant that only half of Mao’s 31st regiment and the 32nd regiment were left to defend the base. The 32nd regiment was, however, the regiment most familiar with the terrain of the Jinggang massif, since they were the former bandits who had made the area their base since well before Mao got there. But that strength of theirs was also somewhat offset by the continuing problems in instilling discipline in them. Great improvements had been made since the regiment was incorporated into the Red Army, but it still had problems with gambling, opium addiction and womanizing that were indicative of its less reliable nature as a fighting force than either Mao’s 31st regiment or Zhu De’s 28th regiment.
Given the large numbers of Guomindang troops which were about to try to storm the mountain, and the relative weakness of the Communist forces left to defend the mountain, there was some discussion among the leading cadres about whether or not the mountain could even be defended. Some felt that with such a small force, they couldn’t hold the mountain and so the best thing to do would be to flee. But in the end the majority of the remaining leadership decided to stay and fight to defend the mountain.
Fortunately for the defenders, it wasn’t as if no preparations had ever been made for this contingency. The possibility that a huge, better armed, and much larger reactionary armed force might be brought to bear against the mountain at the core of the base area had always been a real possibility. In preparation for that day, trenches had been dug and pillboxes prepared. For those unfamiliar with the term, pillboxes are a kind of bunker or blockhouse, built into the side of the mountain, with holes that guns could be fired out of, but which provided a fair amount of protection for the defenders inside the pillbox. The defenders had even improvised some canons made out of hollowed out tree trunks.
(The canons made of tree trunks in particular remind me of the statement that Abimael Guzmán, the leader of Peru’s Shining Path, made about one of the most important military lessons that a veteran Chinese revolutionary (quite plausibly a veteran of these battles) taught him and others who received training in China during the 1960s. The lesson was, and I’m paraphrasing here, basically that the masses have an inexhaustible ingenuity and will find ways to make do and find resources where you might not think to look. And that this is a key strength of a people’s army in fighting a conventionally better armed force.)
Anyhow, the battle for Huangyangjie began on August 30. The Hunanese Guomindang forces struck by themselves, failing to coordinate with the Jiangxi Guomindang troops, apparently in an effort to gain all the glory for themselves. They still badly outnumbered the Communists. However, the Communists had prepared well, and had the advantage of the high-ground, well-prepared defenses, greater mobility, and familiarity with the terrain. The Guomindang troops found themselves pushing up the mountain in humid, hot weather, confronted at times with dense foliage, and with the advantage of their numbers and superior firepower mitigated by being strung out along narrow mountain trails. The Hunanese Guomindang army made several massive assaults on the mountain, but each one was beaten back in fierce fighting.
After this defeat, the humiliated Hunanese army retreated back home in the middle of the night, so that the Jiangxi Guomindang forces awoke one day to find that their allies had retreated from the field. With their allies from Hunan gone, and having shown them the futility of assaulting Jinggang Mountain, the Jiangxi Guomindang troops decided not to attempt an assault themselves, but rather pulled back and contented themselves with restoring the traditional semi-feudal order in most of the territory that the Communists had recently controlled. Some of the larger landlords who had retreated when the Communists took over the area now came back, along with revitalized landlord militias, to undo the land reform.
The timing was particularly bad for the peasants who had received land in the late spring or early summer. They had worked the land and now, at the end of August, the first crops were coming in, and the landlords now came back and took the land and the harvest away from the peasants. This gave rise to a saying that expressed the bitterness of the peasantry at the August Defeat, which was “the peasants divide the fields, the landlords cut the grain.”
The weakness of the rapid expansion in party ranks that took place during the high tide period that we discussed in episode 88 was now exposed. Many people, particularly among the small landlords and richer peasants, who had joined the Communist Party or its mass organizations because the Communists were riding high now defected to the other side. As Mao Zedong put it in a report that he wrote to the Central Committee in November:
The wave of reactionary violence that swept over the area also had a strong ethnic component. Since we began talking about the Jinggangshan region back in episode 63, we’ve noted how all social conflict there was colored by the tension between the “native registrant” or “early settler” people and the “guest registrant” Hakka people. Here’s what Mao wrote about what happened in the same report that we just quoted:
We’ll return to this report and look at how Mao summed up and learned from what happened during the loss of much of the base area during the August Defeat in another episode. For now, let’s keep focusing on the events as they happened.
Back in Hunan, on August 23 Mao located the survivors of the assault on South Hunan recuperating in the Guidong county seat. More or less right away, a meeting was convened to assess what had happened and what should be done. The main personalities in the meeting were, on the one hand, Mao, Zhu De, and the political commissar of the 28th regiment, Chen Yi, all of whom had opposed the attack on South Hunan. On the other side were Du Xiujing, the Hunan Provincial Committee representative, and Gong Chu, the political commissar for the 29th regiment. Both Du and Gong had promoted the push into South Hunan, as we discussed last episode.
Now, this guy, Chen Yi, is going to play an enormously important role in Chinese history until his death in 1972. I haven’t been talking about him because in this context his importance is overshadowed by Mao Zedong and Zhu De. But this is a good opportunity to recall that in all these events that we have been discussing, there is just an incredible concentration of people who will be important in China for the next several decades. For example, this guy named Lin Biao was a battalion commander in the 28th regiment, and we’ll talk more about him later, but I expect that those of you who have studied some modern Chinese history before listening to this might recognize his name. If not, no worries, we’ll talk about him later. Just bear in mind, when we’re talking about these events, this is formative stuff not just for Mao, but for a whole cohort of people who will be leading the Chinese Revolution and the People’s Republic of China for many years to come.
So anyways, this meeting was convened to figure out what went wrong, and as you can imagine, Mao and Zhu were pretty upset with Du and Gong. The meeting was actually interrupted while it was in progress by an attack by the Guomindang, but the Red Army just retreated to a safe distance and then the leaders reconvened this meeting. They basically weren’t going to move forward without straightening things out. Basically, as things turned out, the meeting removed Du and Gong from any position where they could have a further influence on the army or the base area. In fact, the decision was made to keep them out of the base area entirely. They were given the task of reconstituting the South Hunan Special Committee of the Communist Party, which had been dissolved with the defeat of the South Hunan uprising earlier in the year.
Now, they didn’t just leave Du and Gong behind to fend for themselves. Rather, as the Red Army began its slow march back to the base area, they paused for a few days to help Du and Gong make contact with party cadres in surrounding counties in order to reform the South Hunan Special Committee. But after that, Du and Gong were on their own, and Mao and Zhu took their troops back toward the base area.
In early September, they reached Suichuan county, an area that had recently been under Communist control that was just south of the Jinggang mountains, but which had now fallen when the base area was overrun. As they arrived in the area, they were warned by local people that an enemy division was lying in wait for them. With this advance knowledge, the Red Army was able to launch a surprise attack of its own on the positions held by the enemy, and badly routed them on September 12. This greatly improved troop morale, and they spent the next two weeks fanning out across the county, doing political work and rebuilding party organizations, government bodies, and land reform efforts that had been undone by the enemy occupation.
This was a particularly fortuitous time for Zhu De because arrangements were made for about 80 peasants from Wan’an county (which is next to Suichuan) to join the Red Army. One of these peasants was a young woman guerrilla fighter named Kang Keqing, who would later marry Zhu De in 1929. Depending on how you count them, she was either Zhu De’s 4th, 5th, or 6th wife. (Go back to episode 81 if you want to hear about the various issues around numbering Zhu De’s wives.) But she would be with him until the end, and she was a very fierce guerrilla fighter by all accounts. And, here again, we’re talking about someone who will play an important and sometimes leading role in the Communist Party all the way up until the late 1980s.
Anyways, after a couple of weeks in Suichuan county, Mao received a message from Yuan Wencai that Guomindang and landlord militia forces were starting out on a campaign through Ninggang where they were basically advancing through Hakka villages and pillaging, killing, and generally marauding village by village. Wouldn’t it be good if Mao could come back up north to the mountains and they could ambush those guys? Mao agreed, and on October 1 the reunited Fourth Red Army forces ambushed and annihilated this large battalion of Guomindang troops along with a bunch of landlord militia soldiers.
This victory at once changed the balance of forces in Ninggang County and once again the Red Army divided its forces to spread out through the countryside to reestablish the revolutionary order of Soviet government, party organization and land redistribution that had been undone by the Guomindang occupation. By mid-October, the bulk of Ninggang and Suichuan counties were once again in Communist hands.
One of the most urgent issues to deal with now was the ethnic tensions that had been inflamed when landlords mobilized ethnic sentiment as part of the counter-revolution. Earlier Communist efforts to build trust and unity between the Hakka and the ‘early settler’ communities had been badly undermined. With the Guomindang gone, Hakka peasants began to organize raiding parties both to recover property that had been looted from them during the occupation, and also to get revenge for the crimes committed against them. As Mao put it in the November report that I quoted earlier:
Many local Hakka people felt that the Red Army should be a vehicle for their vengeance, and this belief found expression in some of the actions of the 32nd Regiment, which was the regiment composed mainly of Hakka people from the area.
In one incident, the 32nd Regiment descended on the home village of a notorious landlord militia leader. When their target escaped, they arrested almost a dozen of his family members and brought them back to Maoping village, where they prepared to execute them. Only the intervention of a high-ranking party cadre who happened to be recuperating from illness in Maoping managed to convince them that these executions were unjustified, and would only inflame tensions.
Large numbers of early settler people fled Ninggang and became refugees in neighboring counties. The Communists tried to stem the tide of refugees. Mao held a rally in the Ninggang county seat urging people to remain calm and trust the Red Army to maintain order. The Communists also set up checkpoints on the road, where they attempted to convince refugees to turn around and return home. They even sent representatives to the enemy occupied Yongxin county seat to encourage refugees to return home.
The Communist policy was to try to educate people about how the landlords had manipulated the peasants by using ethnic tensions to pit the peasants against each other. They waged an active ideological campaign to try to get the peasants who were mad about all the violence that had happened during the Guomindang occupation to blame the landlords and Guomindang, but not their fellow peasants. As part of this, they put up posters around the county with slogans like “do not kill any of the turncoat peasants at all,” “welcome the turncoat peasants back to distribute land,” and “turncoat peasants return and be treated equally and without discrimination.”
As can be seen by the label given to these peasants (‘turncoat peasants’), there was no ambiguity over the fact that these peasants had, at least for a time, turned against the revolution. Yet, the Communists were basing themselves on the local peasantry for their revolution, and an ethnic civil war among the poor and middle peasants would totally undermine the possibility of a class-based peasant revolution. Whatever hard feelings many Communists undoubtedly harbored over the counter-revolutionary actions of many early settler peasants; they had no choice but to try to effect a reconciliation with them. Here’s how Mao put it in the November report that I have been quoting:
Actually, the Communists mounted an extensive campaign to try and get people who had looted from each other, on both sides, to come together and exchange what they had taken.
All of these ethnic tensions and the Communist efforts to reconcile the Hakka and early settler peasants with each other took place in the midst of continuing fighting. Here’s how Stephen Averill sums up the military situation that played out between late October and mid-November:
And, as long as I’m mentioning Averill and his book Revolution in the Highlands, I just want to repeat just how tremendously indebted my account in this podcast is to his book, and to encourage people who want to dig deeper into the Jinggangshan experience to get that book.
So, as we can see, by mid-November, the Communists had recovered a good portion of the territory that they had lost during the August Defeat. But things did not stand quite as they had before. The prestige of the Red Army had been badly tarnished because of what the people had suffered when the Communists lost control of the area. And the peasantry remained divided along ethnic lines, with heightened ethnic tension that is going to explode again in the not-too-distant future.