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The Chinese Civil War: a guide to the conflict and the rise of Mao Zedong

Who were the two sides of the civil war? Why was it fought in two phases? And who eventually came out on top? Emma Slattery Williams shares a quick guide on the 20th-century conflict that ripped a nation apart and led to the formation of the People's Republic of China...

Soldiers from Mao Zedong’s Red Army assemble in Yan’an, Shaanxi province, 1936 (Photo by Getty)
Published: January 26, 2022 at 8:49 am
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What was the Chinese Civil War?

The Chinese Civil War was a series of conflicts between the Communist Party of China and the country’s Nationalist government. The war is regarded as having been fought in two distinct stages: between 1927 and 1937, and then again between 1946 and 1949 (the latter a phase often referred to as the Chinese Communist Revolution).

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Hostilities were largely halted between 1937 and 1945 as the two sides formed a begrudging alliance against Japan, which invaded China and then attempted to create a Pacific empire during WW2.

What was the political situation in China before the outbreak of the war?

After more than 2,000 years of imperial rule, China’s last dynasty – the Qing – was overthrown in 1912 and the country became a republic. The new president, Yuan Shikai, imposed a dictatorship and declared himself emperor, but his death in 1916 created a power vacuum that enabled local warlords to seize control of different regions.

In 1924, the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), which had aided the overthrow of the monarchy 12 years earlier, joined forces with the fledgling Communist Party of China (CPC). Together, they formed the First United Front in opposition to the warlords who were trying to take control of northern China. This would lead to the launch of an allied campaign in July 1926 known as the Northern Expedition, led by Chiang Kai-shek of the KMT and the newly formed National Revolutionary Army.

What was the Shanghai Massacre?

On 12 April 1927, during the Northern Expedition, Chiang Kai-shek ordered a violent purge of communists and other leftist groups within Shanghai. Thousands of CPC members were killed during the massacre, marking an end to the First United Front and widening the gulf between the ideological factions that had already emerged within the KMT.

Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek on horseback. In 1928, he became China’s de facto president (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek on horseback. In 1928, he became China’s de facto president (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Soon, the party split altogether, with Chiang forming a right-wing KMT government in Nanking and Wang Jingwei (who opposed the Shanghai killings) retaining control of the KMT’s left-wing administration in Wuhan.

How did the civil war start?

In retaliation for the massacre and other communist murders, the CPC led an uprising in Nanchang on 1 August 1927, before going on to occupy the city. Although a counterattack saw the communists defeated, further uprisings and acts of guerrilla warfare continued to break out in opposition to the KMT, soon escalating into full-blown civil war.

One notable incident occurred on 7 September, when Mao Zedong – a founding member of the CPC – led a peasant revolt in his home province of Hunan. Although this, too, was crushed and Mao was forced to flee, the experience led him to believe that garnering communist support in China’s rural areas was key to defeating the KMT, where it had minimal influence.


Listen | Graham Hutchings discusses his book China 1949, which explores the events of a tumultuous year that saw communist victory in the Chinese civil war and the birth of the People’s Republic of China on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


How did Chiang Kai-shek gain control of China?

Following the breakdown of the First United Front in 1927, China was in the unusual predicament of having three capitals: Beijing, which still was recognised by nations around the world as being the republic’s ‘true’ capital; Wuhan, which was the base of the CPC and Wang Jingwei’s KMT; and Nanking, the base of Chiang’s KMT.

However, after the right-wing KMT’s capture of Wuhan (July 1927) and Beijing (June 1928), Chiang – supported by landowners and businessmen – claimed to have united all of China. The Nationalist administration in Nanking was recognised as the country’s legitimate government, and in October, Chiang became the de facto president of the Republic of China.

Despite his victory, Chinese unity would not last. In 1930, a period of violent unrest broke out between the leader and some of his former allies, who challenged the legitimacy of his government and formed a coalition against him. Although Chiang again emerged triumphant, the incident left the Nationalist government on the brink of bankruptcy and drew attention to the party’s internal disputes.

To make matters worse for the KMT, China’s neighbour – Japan – was embarking on a period of expansion, and on 18 September 1931, some 40,000 Japanese troops marched into the Chinese region of Manchuria. Despite condemnation from the League of Nations, the Japanese installed a puppet government and placed China’s deposed emperor, Pu Yi, in charge.

Meanwhile, Mao established a state known as the Chinese Soviet Republic in the eastern province of Jiangxi. In a bid to crush it, the KMT undertook a series of five ‘encirclement’ campaigns that left their target surrounded and unable to escape. In order do this, Chiang was forced to assemble the largest army in the KMT’s history.

What was the Long March?

On 16 October 1934, Mao’s Red Army broke through Nationalist lines and undertook a year-long retreat known as the Long March. The 100,000-strong group – which included soldiers as well as administrative personnel and civilians – trekked for some 6,000 miles, navigating snowy mountains and fighting opposing armies along the way.

Although only 10 per cent of the marchers survived the journey, they arrived at Yan’an, Shaanxi province, in October 1935, where Mao set about creating another communist state.

Around 100,000 people embarked on Mao Zedong’s ‘Long March’ in 1934, but only a fraction survived (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Around 100,000 people embarked on Mao Zedong’s ‘Long March’ in 1934, but only a fraction survived (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The feat cemented Mao as leader of the CPC, and the heroic efforts of the marchers led many people in China to rally behind the communist cause. Mao himself went on to declare that the Long March had been “a manifesto, a propaganda force... proclaiming to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes”.

Why did the CPC and KMT unite again in 1937?

Taking advantage of the country’s internal struggles, Japan attempted to push further into Chinese territory. In a bid to beat back the Japanese advance, a Second United Front was formed between the KMT and the CPC, but only after Chiang was held hostage by two of his generals in December 1936 and forced into making peace with the communists.

By July 1937, Japan had invaded Beijing, but Mao sensed a new opportunity: by allowing the KMT to bear the brunt of the fighting, he hoped to recruit more people to the communist cause. Although the Nationalist forces put up a much stronger resistance than had been expected, events such as the Japanese attack on Shanghai in August 1937 took a heavy toll, forcing the KMT to abandon the city.

In December, the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanking fell to Japan and the population suffered massacres and brutal attacks. In what would become known as the Rape of Nanking, thousands of surrendering soldiers and civilians were killed, with countless women raped.

The six-week atrocity shocked foreign observers and Christian missionaries in China, and hardened hostility towards Japan. Public opinion – especially in the United States – fell firmly on the side of China, which would have implications during the Second World War.

How did the Second World War affect the conflict?

Having already signed a military pact with Germany and Italy, Japan formally entered the Second World War in December 1941 when it launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the US naval base in Hawaii. In the wake of this destruction, it then set about expanding its empire across Asia and the Pacific.

Keen to halt Japan’s expansionist ambitions, the KMT and CPC continued to work together. However, the Red Army and the Nationalist forces fought much of the war separately, and still clashed with each other on occasion in a bid to assert their dominance.

After Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945, China reclaimed all the territories it had previously lost (including Manchuria), but it wouldn’t be long until domestic unrest reared its ugly head once again.

What happened once the Second World War was over?

The Chinese Civil War resumed almost as soon as the Second World War had ended. Negotiations between the CPC and the Nationalists quickly broke down, and in July 1946, Chiang launched an attack on communist territory.

This time, victory was firmly on the side of the communists, who were greatly aided by China’s peasantry. Whereas Chiang was viewed as being a corrupt leader who did little to help the lives of the country’s poor, Mao had already won their support by paying off their debts and giving them land seized from their landlords.

Mao Zedong declares the birth of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)
Mao Zedong declares the birth of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

Furthermore, whereas the communists had suffered around 440,000 casualties during the war with Japan, the KMT had lost a staggering 3.2 million men. Cities thus fell with little resistance, and by June 1949, Beijing, Shanghai, Nanking and Tianjin had all been taken from Nationalist hands.

Following his historic triumph, Mao Zedong became president of the newly created People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 and remained in power until his death almost 27 years later. His rule – overshadowed by famines, massacres and the purging of China’s cultural heritage – remains highly controversial.

How were ordinary citizens affected?

Atrocities against civilians were carried out by both sides, and some historians estimate that the total number of fatalities could be as high as 7.5 million. The land was ravaged by the conflict, so starvation and diseases were rife.

When was peace declared?

No peace treaty or armistice has ever been signed between the two sides of the Chinese Civil War. In December 1949, Chiang fled to the island of Taiwan and established a rival government, declaring Taipei to be the capital of the Republic of China.

More than 70 years later, the issue remains complicated; although the People’s Republic of China views Taiwan as a breakaway province that must be retaken, many people on the island now regard it to be a separate nation altogether – even though independence has never been formally declared.

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This article first appeared in the October 2021 edition of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Emma Slattery WilliamsStaff Writer, BBC History Revealed

Emma is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirates queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiles HistoryExtra’s Victorians newsletter and can be heard interviewing historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.

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