China in the 1920s was a new republic confronting great challenges—economic, political, and social. One of the most devastating was the early 1920s North China famine. Because this region of China was densely populated, the effects of this crisis affected millions. Triggered by a severe drought, the famine killed crops and devastated the livelihood of farmers in the northern plains of China. But dying crops was only one consequence. Thousands fled the area; others sold children into slavery, and upward of half a million people died. The areas decimated were largely governed by warlords, which further aggravated the situation since they used the crisis for their own political and economic gain.
Famine, warlord power, and a largely ineffective government were the backdrop for revolutionary activity in China to foment. By 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formally established. The emergence of the CCP not only challenged the current hold of power by the Nationalists but also reflected the worldwide emergence of political ideologies and movements with direct anti-imperialist platforms. Several years earlier, in 1917, the Russian Revolution had occurred. Communist revolutionaries in Russia and China argued that imperialism was the root cause of the economic exploitation and political domination of their country by another people. As political discontent in China continued, Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin looked to China, its direct southern neighbor, as a country ripe for the spread of communism.
On July 21, 1921, the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party was held in Shanghai. Chen Duxiu, a leader in China’s 1911 revolution, founder of New Youth, and a leader in the May Fourth Movement, was cofounder of the CCP along with Li Dazhao. Chen became the first general secretary and argued that a complete overhaul of the “feudal” system was necessary for China’s survival. In order to remove the powerful northern warlords and further solidify their power base, the Chinese Communist Party formed an alliance with sun Yat-sen and the nationalist party, the First United Front. The Soviets lent financial and political support to this alliance to ensure their future involvement in Chinese affairs. Some of this money was used to establish the Whampoa (Huangpu) Military Academy in the spring of 1924. In exchange for their financial support, the Soviets expected graduates of Whampoa to provide China with a cadre of highly trained and motivated young officers who would promote their revolutionary cause while establish- ing a pipeline for future military leaders. Chiang Kai-shek, a favored leader of Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, was named the first commandant of the academy. In this role, Chiang was able to cultivate soldiers loyal to the Nationalists and also to himself. These goals were articulated by Sun Yat-sen in the opening ceremonies of the academy:
Honored guests, faculty and students, today marks the opening of our academy. Why do we need this school? Why must we definitely open such a school? You all know that the Chinese Revolution has gone on for thirteen years; although these years have been counted as years of the Republic there has been in reality, no Republic. After thirteen years of revolution, the Republic is just an empty name and, even today, the revolution is a complete failure...
What is our hope in starting this school today? Our hope is that from today on we will be able to remake our revolutionary enterprise and use the students of this school as the foundation of a revolutionary army. You students will be the basic cadres of the revolutionary army of the future. . . . Without a good revolutionary army, the Chinese revolution is doomed to failure. Therefore, in opening this military academy here today, our sole hope is to create a revolutionary army to save China from extinction! 1
When Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen died of cancer in 1925, a period of political instability followed as to who was to lead. One year later, Chiang Kai-shek emerged as party leader and despite differing politically, both the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalists advocated for the reunification of China at this time. As a result, the First United Front Alliance was formed as a means to end warlordism, a consistent obstacle in forging a unified country, and as a means to forge a central government and ultimately put an end to foreign domination.
Despite this attempt of solidarity, China’s future continued to be uncertain. By April 1927, the Chinese Communist Party had more than 60,000 members and continued to grow. When Chiang Kai-shek was named director of the state council, equivalent to president of the nation in October 1928, he used his authority to enlist civilian and military troops, police, and mafia groups to “purge” (kill) thousands of Communist party members, leftists, workers, and labor union leaders in Shanghai, China’s most populous city and its economic engine. A year later, still more Communist organizers were hunted down by Nationalists and killed across China in a campaign of anti-communist suppression.
In response, the weakened Chinese Communist Party attempted two subsequent but unsuccessful coups against the Nationalists. Within a year of the purges, fewer than 10,000 remained. The core of China’s Communist power was decimated. Communists fled to the rural countryside and the Nationalists emerged as the power stronghold in the country initiating the first phase of the Chinese Civil War. With the Communist threat temporarily diminished, Chiang Kai-shek led his troops toward Beijing riding upon a high tide of nationalism and public support. By the beginning of 1929, the Nationalists had unified many of the urban areas, approved a provisional constitution, garnered the support of three key warlords, and set up its government in its new capital, Nanjing.
But in the rural areas, many peasants remained under the control of a weakened warlord system or were aligned with the Communist Party. Mao Zedong, one of the CCP’s early regional leaders, had relocated his base to the Jiangxi borderland establishing the Chinese Soviet Republic.2 After enduring five campaigns lead by Chiang meant to wipe out the Communist rivals, Mao and his Communist followers fled and sought out a new base for their political organizing. This retreat, referred to by Communist leaders as the Long March, lasted from October 1934 to October 1935, led to misery, starvation, and death. By the time their new base was set up in Shaanxi, Chinese Communist members had marched over 6,200 miles. And of the 80,000 troops that began with Mao, roughly 8,000 to 9,000 survived. Because of his organizing efforts during the Long March, Mao ascended to the top ranks of the CCP leadership. In December 1935, Mao wrote the following:
The Long March is the first of its kind in the annals of history. It is a manifesto, a propaganda force, a seeding-machine. . . . It has proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes, while the imperialists and their running dogs, Chiang Kai-shek and his like, are impotent.3
The ongoing political discord between China’s two main political parties throughout the early 1930s undermined the stability of the country. These vulnerabilities appeared increasingly attractive to ultranationalists, particularly in Japan, who desired parts of China to fall under their spheres of influence.
- 1 : Pei-kai Cheng, Michael Lestz, and Jonathan D. Spence, eds., The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 253.
- 2 : Mao Zedong was born in 1893 in Hunan Province in central China. His father was a reasonably rich peasant farmer and he and the young Mao Zedong did not get on well at all. Mao left home at an early age and ended up first in the provincial capital, Changsha, where he started to study and also to write. He wrote about a variety of issues from women’s rights to the need for China to develop a stronger and more vibrant culture.
- 3 : Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), 409.