The national Guomindang center takes note of the Communists’ resilience, and takes charge of organizing a new suppression campaign, which is preceded by a tight economic blockade. Peng Dehuai makes his way to the Jinggangshan.
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
Mao Zedong, “The Struggle in the Chingkang Mountains”
Edward Dreyer, China at War: 1901-1949
James Sheridan, China in Disintegration: The Republican Era in Chinese History, 1912-1949
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Peng Dehuai, Memoirs of a Chinese Marshall
Some names from this episode:
Chen Yi, Political commissar for the 28th regiment of the Fourth Red Army
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
He Zizhen, Communist cadre known as the “Two-Gunned Girl General”
Peng Dehuai, Guomindang colonel who was secretly a Communist and who launched an uprising in July 1928
Teng Daiyuan, Fifth Red Army leading cadre
He Changgong, important Fourth Red Army cadre
Welcome to episode 99 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
We’ve spent the past few episodes looking at how Mao discussed some of the major things that he had learned about making revolution during the time between the Autumn Harvest Uprising of 1927 and the reconquest of the Jinggangshan by the Communists in the autumn of 1928. Now, I want to move on and consider how things played out as the Communists tried to consolidate their rule in the Jinggangshan once again, while the Nationalists geared up once again to try to drive the Communists from the area.
When the Communists succeeded in recapturing most of their former base area during the couple months following the August Defeat of 1928, the national center of the Guomindang began to take notice and decided that it needed to take action against the Communists because the efforts of the Hunan and Jiangxi Guomindang were clearly not cutting it. On November 7, 1928, Chiang Kai-shek created a military command which was to begin preparations to lead 30,000 Nationalist troops in a coordinated assault on the base area from five different directions.
Looking back on this period in September 1929, Chen Yi described the situation like this in a report that he wrote to the Communist Central Committee:
As you might have already inferred from this passage from Chen Yi’s report, Chiang Kai-shek was mainly concerned about this rival warlord coalition, the Guangxi clique, which at the time controlled an army of about 230,000 troops. These Guangxi warlords had been working as part of the Guomindang. But after a falling out with Chiang Kai-shek, they attempted to work with other warlords to oust Chiang. So, in early 1929, they tried to move their forces up into Hunan province from their southern stronghold but were defeated by Chiang Kai-shek. So, it was this upcoming conflict that Chiang was concerned that the Communists would interfere with, and which initially prompted him to take notice of the Communists in the Jinggangshan and to make the first effort coordinated from the national Guomindang center to wipe them out.
The Guomindang offensive against the Communists was launched on January 1, 1929. However, it was preceded by a two-month long period of preparation, which featured a punishing economic blockade as its main feature.
An economic blockade had existed in some form or another ever since the Communists had taken control of a substantial piece of territory more than a year earlier. But there are blockades and there are blockades. In a situation where there are family connections and long-standing ties among the people living on both sides of a border, and when there are many ways to cross from territory controlled by one side in a conflict to territory controlled by the other side, it takes can take considerable effort to impose a truly punishing blockade, rather than just setting up checkpoints along the most traveled routes.
Blockading the Communist base was a form of waging war that actually favored the Guomindang forces. In warfare that required mobility and initiative, the Communists always had the advantage, so long as the numbers were nearly comparable (and there were many instances where outnumbered Communists badly defeated their Guomindang adversaries). But with economic blockades, all that was involved was setting down a body of troops in a relatively passive position along roadways, and these checkpoints could often be positioned near urban centers, and so not far from supplies or reinforcements. And there were enough local merchants and landlord militia members who sided with the Guomindang that there was no lack of local knowledge regarding mountain trails and the various routes of communication possible between the red and white areas. It was simply a matter of having enough troops at hand to cover all of these various possible routes. So, given enough troops, this was a form of warfare that the Guomindang could excel at. And as it turns out they did. The economic screws were really tightened on the Communists in the fall of 1928.
Several regiments of Guomindang troops along with several thousand militia members were deployed along roads, trails, and navigable waterways to keep trade from reaching the Communist base area. On the one side, the peasants of the Jinggangshan were prevented from trading the timber, tea, tea oil, and opium that they produced. This not only affected the peasant producers who relied on these products for cash, but also the good number of people who relied on work transporting these products. But more importantly, the indispensable products that people in the Jinggangshan relied on from outside the mountain redoubt were kept from arriving. This was mainly salt, cloth, and medicine.
There were two main ways in which the Communists responded to the economic blockade. Firstly, they did what they could to develop their own production of necessary items in the base area itself. Second, they tried to smuggle goods across the blockade themselves, and also they encouraged smugglers to attempt to circumvent the blockade.
In attempting to make the base area self-sufficient, the Communists were able to draw on measures that Wang Zuo, one of the leaders of the 32nd Regiment, had begun taking back when he was a bandit leader, before the Communists had even come to the area. When he had been a bandit, Wang’s gang had seized a small metal-working shop that had been used to make counterfeit coins. Now, the Communists used this operation to mint their own coinage (with revolutionary symbols printed on the coins) to make up for the shortage of cash coming into the base area from outside.
Likewise, former bandit gunsmiths expanded a shop originally set up during Wang Zuo’s bandit days to produce, upgrade, and repair the Communists’ weapons. This was where the cannons made from hollowed out tree trunks were produced that we discussed back in episode 94. And you might remember from back in episode 65 that Wang Zuo had begun his adult life as an itinerant tailor. He actually made use of his tailoring expertise to set up a small clothing factory with sewing machines and cloth that had been captured in a raid. This factory produced uniforms, bandoliers, and food bags for the Red Army.
Other efforts at ‘import-substitution’ within the base area had varying levels of success. Attempts were made to substitute local herbs for medicines that were no longer available. Desperation for salt was so great that efforts were made to recover salt from the earthen walls of old buildings and even from the residue left on the inside of wooden urine buckets.
In order to encourage smugglers to attempt to cross the blockade, the Communists were prepared to pay exorbitant prices for smuggled goods, especially salt. He Zizhen, Mao’s wife, had been tasked with acquiring newspapers from outside the base area to keep the leadership informed about national events and this became particularly difficult, so the smugglers began wrapping their goods in newspapers which the Communists would then also buy at a very high price. The Communists also conducted propaganda publicizing their policy of non-interference with the activities of small and mid-level merchants, just in case there was any suspicion on the part of potential smugglers that the Communists would confiscate their goods. Inevitably, some smugglers made it through, and a small trickle of salt and other goods made it past the blockade.
But it was not enough.
Mao addressed the declining living conditions of the Red Army in his November 25, 1928, report to the Central Committee that we talked about last episode. Here’s what he said about this in two short sections of the report, titled ‘Problems of Supply’ and ‘Problems of the Sick and Wounded:’
Ok, this thing that Mao ends with here, asking for some western doctors and iodine tablets, begs some clarification. So, I think that Mao’s main expectation here is that he would get some Chinese doctors who are trained in Western medicine. However, we have to keep in mind that only about a year and a half had passed since the legions of Soviet advisors and aid workers, which included doctors, had left China. As we have discussed as some length in this podcast, they had been key in the creation of the National Revolutionary Army and played an important role in aiding and advising that army during the first half of the Northern Expedition. It doesn’t seem unreasonable at all for Mao to have hoped for more direct Soviet aid, which after all had not entirely disappeared with the retreat of the Soviet forces from China in the middle of 1927, as we discussed in episode 85 and elsewhere. In the 1930s the Chinese Communist military will get a couple volunteer North American doctors, Norman Bethune and George Hatem (and Hatem will end up joining the Chinese Communist Party). But at least for the time being, Mao is going to have to wait on the aid that he requested from the Communist center.
So, returning to our discussion of living conditions for Red Army soldiers during this period of extreme economic blockade, we have memoirs from soldiers in the Red Army which flesh out what it was like for individual people to live through what Mao described in the report to the Central Committee.
One soldier who was healing up from a wound during this period described a diet that consisted almost entirely of red rice and pumpkin soup, and having no meat to eat for three months. For warmth, he only had one unlined set of clothes and a single blanket.
Both in this quote and in our earlier quote from Mao, this issue of eating just pumpkin and rice comes up. I think for those of us in the US, where pumpkin is mainly a special occasion food eaten in the Autumn as a pie, and when we do make soup out of it, it’s a kind of gourmet soup and not eaten very frequently, it can be hard to conceptualize eating pumpkin as a kind of hardship food. I know I had to take a step back and think about it for a minute what it would mean to use pumpkin not as a tasty adjunct to an otherwise sufficient diet, but as, along with rice, my main source of nutrition for months and months at a time. Anyways, that might be a helpful mental exercise for anyone listening to this who, like me, had some initial trouble visualizing what a diet exclusively composed of pumpkin and rice might be like.
Zhu De, in his memoir as recorded by Agnes Smedley, captures the way in which an initially optimistic spirit at the beginning of the Autumn declined as the Guomindang brought in more and more troops and tightened the blockade:
The effect of these difficult conditions inevitably led to an increase in desertions from the Red Army. Memoirs from this period understandably emphasize the staunchness of the Red Army and their peasant supporters in holding out amidst difficult conditions. The dominant theme is, as we just quoted Mao as writing in his report to the Central Committee, that “Everybody realizes that he is ‘suffering on behalf of the proletariat.’” And the accomplishment of Mao, Zhu De and the other leaders of the Red Army in holding the force together through these conditions is remarkable. However, when we consider these difficult conditions, especially in light of Mao’s comments in his report to the Central Committee about the background of many Red Army fighters as bandits or vagrants, as we discussed last episode, it should really be no surprise that while a surprisingly large number of Red Army soldiers stuck it out through these incredibly difficult conditions, there was a notable loss of troops through desertions.
The combination of poor diet and desertion had the effect of diminishing the fighting capacity of the Red Army. And this took place in the presence of the daily mounting threat of more and more Guomindang troops assembling outside the base area and making preparations for launching a massive suppression campaign against the Communists. Some sort of drastic action was going to have to be taken, and it became clear to Mao and Zhu De that waiting out the siege on top of the Jinggang mountains was not going to be a viable option.
While Mao and Zhu were trying to figure out what to do, a major development took place in early December, which in the long run turned out to be highly significant and positive for the Communists, but in the short run created some new difficulties.
As we discussed back in episode 93, a 23-year-old Guomindang colonel who had secretly joined the Communist Party at the beginning of 1928 named Peng Dehuai had led his troops in revolt back in July and had carved out a small Communist base area in the Jiangxi-Hunan-Hubei border region, a couple hundred kilometers to the north of the Jinggang Mountain base area. Upon recognizing the danger that the Jinggangshan base area was in due to the blockade and preparations that were being made by the Guomindang to muster a massive force to overrun the base, Peng decided to send about half his force, 800 men approximately, to aid Mao and Zhu’s forces.
Peng gives a description of how he led his men to meet up with the Fourth Red Army in his autobiography, which I’ll read to you here with a little clarifying commentary of my own:
This question of the relationship between the democratic and socialist revolutions, and what leading Chinese communists thought about these different revolutionary concepts and how the way they thought about these concepts impacted how they carried out the revolution and formulated revolutionary policies, is actually going to be an ongoing issue in the Chinese Revolution and is not going to turn out to be a very simple thing, and doesn’t, in my opinion, lend itself to anything so simple as giving a concise definition for what is involved in a democratic vs. a socialist revolution, especially since we will see the ideas put forward for differentiating these concepts vary widely over time and we will see some major disagreements among Chinese Communist leaders on this topic, so I don’t want to take the time to elaborate on it right now, but we will have quite a bit more to say on this question in the future.
Now, on the surface, it might seem like the appearance of 800 new troops in the Jinggangshan would be a straight win for the Communists there, since it increased their fighting force. However, in the immediate context of being in a state of siege and not carrying on active fighting, the addition of new mouths to feed actually turned out to be a major logistical burden on an already taxed supply system. This was a 15-20% increase in the number of troops on the Jinggang massif, and food stores would now run out that much faster.
In addition, the Fifth Red Army forces had not been put through the sort of political training that Mao had been emphasizing in his training of the Fourth Red Army. In particular, the Fifth Red Army had a tendency to mistreat civilian populations and engage in what the Communists termed ‘roving bandit gang’ type behavior. Peng gives some examples where the Fifth Red Army had mistreated and consequently alienated civilian populations in his autobiography.
Here’s one incident that Peng relates:
So while the arrival of the Fifth Red Army in the Jinggangshan base area was, from a long term historical perspective, a major event in the revolutionary process, where a major figure, Peng Dehuai, united his forces with those of Mao and Zhu, in the short term it created a major problem in terms of both supply and discipline.
OK, next episode, we will see how the Communists end up dealing with the blockade that was strangling the Jinggangshan.
And, before we go, one little bit of housekeeping. Some time ago I uploaded a Chinese movie, Breaking with Old Ideas, to YouTube, because of how it spoke to some issues raised in episode 13. Apparently a media company in China has now acquired the rights to the film, or at least convinced YouTube that it owns the rights to the film, and I’ve been ordered to take the film down for copyright infringement. Now, while I think that a very strong case can be made that the film is actually in the public domain, that would require a legal battle which I’m not prepared to fund. However, even though I’ve been forced to take the movie down, if you just search for it on YouTube, you will be able to see that a number of other people have uploaded it there, so it remains accessible. It will be interesting to see if this Chinese media company has plans to monetize the film in some way, which I think would be totally contrary to the filmmakers’ intentions, but quite the commentary on the state of socialism in China today.