China before World War II



Before 1900, China – which had once been the world’s greatest civilisation – seemed in terminal decline … the biggest humiliation having been the Opium Wars, when Britain forced the Chinese government to allow the import of the drug opium. In 1911, a revolution overthrew the emperor, but did not reform the country, which just dissolved into anarchy, when China was controlled by many, quarrelling, local warlords.

Two groups fought to control the warlords and restore a strong centralised government – the Guomindang (GMD or KMT), and the communists (CCP). At first, they co-operated … but when the warlords were defeated, the GMD turned on the Communists and tried to destroy them too. They failed – 18pt ly as a result of the Communists’ heroic, year-long, 6,000-mile ‘Long March’ from Jianxi in the south to Yenan in the north. The Communists were reduced from 100,000 to 20,000 … but they survived, and began to rebuild their forces.

The GMD and the Communists co-operated again, when the Japanese invaded … but it was inevitable that, when the Second World War ended, they would clash again.


The following websites will help you complete the task:


The Long March:
The History Learning Site

History Today


A 10-part US docu-drama (scroll down to the Long March)


Key dates, 1900-1939

a.  Xinhai revolution, 1911

After a long period of decline in the 19th century, the Xinhai revolution of 1911 destroyed the government and deposed the 6 year-old emperor, Henry Pu Yi

b.  Shanghai Massacre, 1927

GMD leader Chiang Kai-shek began his Extermination and Annihilation Campaigns against the Communists

c.  Organic Law, 1928

After the defeat of the warlords, 1921-28, GMD leader Chiang Kai-shek passed the Organic Law, which gave him dictatorial power as Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China

d.  The Long March, 1934-35

Facing defeat, and trapped in the Jiangxi Soviet, the Communists broke out and (with massive losses) transferred to Yenan

e.  Sino-Japanese War, 1937

Having successfully annexed Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese invaded China in 1937 (with many atrocities – e.g. the ‘Rape of Nanjing’, Dec 1937); once again, the GMD and the Communists co-operated to face China’s common enemy


The GMD government: key facts

a.  Founded by Sun Yat-Sen, 1912

The GMD (Guomindang – sometimes KMT: Kuomintang) was formed as a nationalist movement to end the anarchy after 1911

b.  Led by Chiang Kai-shek, 1925-75

After the death of Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-shek took over leadership of the GMD

c.  War against the warlords, 1921-28

At first, the GMD allied with the CCP to destroy the power of the local warlords who had seized power in the anarchy after 1911

d.  Nationalist and Republican

The GMD wanted the unity of China under a centralised government, without an emperor

e.  Gentry and merchants

The GMD was supported mainly by the middle class


The Communist Party before 1945: key facts

a.  Jiangxi Soviet, 1931

Rejecting Soviet Communism, which said that the Revolution would be made by the proletariat in the towns, the CCP set up the Jiangxi Soviet in the countryside in 1931

b.  The Long March, 1934-35

Trapped by GMD forces, the CCP accepted the advice of German military adviser Otto Braun, and broke out and (with massive losses) transferred to Yenan

c.  Zunyi Conference, 1935

At the Zunyi Conference, 1935, the CCP rejected the Soviet advisers, who returned home. At this conference, Mao Zedong established himself as leader of the CCP

d.  Communist and anti-imperialist

The CCP wanted a communist government that would drive out China’s invaders

e.  Supported by the peasants

Unlike Soviet communism, which said that the Revolution would be made by the proletariat in the towns, the CCP looked to the peasants in the countryside


The Long March, 1934-35: causes

a.  GMD Encirclement campaign, 1933-34

After his first four annihilation campaigns failed, Chiang Kai-shek – on the advice of GMD General Leu Wei-yuan – instead encircled the Communists in Jiangxi, seeking to starve them rather than defeat them in battle

b.  Hans von Seeckt

A German general advising Chiang Kai-shek, Seeckt advanced slowly, building trenches and blockhouses as he went; by contrast, the Communists preferred frontal assault - in a year, they lost 50% of their territory and 60,000 soldiers dead

c.  Otto Braun

Facing defeat, Otto Braun, the German-born Russian agent advising the Communists, advised a breakout to go and join the Communist Second army in Hunan

d.  Mo Xiong

In August 1934, Mo Xiong, a Communist spy in Chiang Kai-shek’s HQ, sent word that the GMD were planning a major attack on Ruijin, the Communist’s HQ in Jiangxi, making a breakout essential

e.  General Chen Jitang

Chen was a warlord, an ally of the GMD, who was guarding the south-west border of the GMD cordon. However, he did not want to lose his army in a battle, and the Communists negotiated safe passage and broke out


The Long March, 1934-35: key facts

a.  Xiang River, 30 Nov 1934

The CCP successfully broke out in October 1934, with 86,000 troops and 11,000 officials, but were attacked by the GMD; 40-50,000 Communists were killed or deserted (leading to the fall of Braun at the Zunyi Conference)

b.  Luding Bridge, 29 May 1935

The heroic crossing, led by a suicide mission of 22 soldiers, of a burning suspension bridge across the Dadu river; many historians believe this incident was exaggerated (or even completely made up) for propaganda purposes

c.  Zhang and the Fourth Army, Jun 1935

Mao’s 1st army joined up with Zhang’s 4th Army, which had advanced from Sichuan; the 4th Army was 18pt r, and Zhang tried to take control. However, he quarrelled with Mao, left and went south, where his army was destroyed

d.  Jade Dragon Snow Mountains, Jul 1935

Mao marched north over the mountains; the army was caught in ‘a terrible hailstorm’ and many solders died of the ‘dreadful cold’

e.  Zoige Marshlands, Aug 1935

A vast grasslands area; the Communists were led by a local guide, many still sank and died in the ‘bottomless pools of mud’


The Long March: Results

a.  Recuperation at Yenan

Although the army had been reduced from 100,000 to 20,000, the communists survived and, safe in the north, were able to rebuild and strengthen their forces

b.  Mao became leader and legend

At the Zunyi Conference, 1935, the CCP rejected the Soviet advisers, who returned home. During the March, Mao Zedong established himself as unquestioned leader of the CCP – he became ‘a living legend’

c.  Manifesto, Propaganda and Seeding-machine

In Dec 1935 Mao declared that the Long March was a ‘manifesto’ (proving the heroism of the Red Army), a ‘propaganda force’ (showing the communism was the road to freedom) and a ‘seeding-machine’ (spreading the idea of communism)

d.  Eight Points of Attention

Mao won the support of the peasants by issuing rules that the army had to treat civilians with respect; although this was 18pt ly propaganda, and there is evidence that the communists blackmailed, stole from and the people

e.  Guerrilla tactics

The experience battle-hardened the Red Army, increased its morale, and helped Mao to develop the guerrilla tactics which would eventually defeat the Japanese and the GMD (and the American in Vietnam)



Read the following passage written by Mao soon after the Long March, and write answers to the questions which follow:

Mao Zeding, The Present Political Situation, Dec 1935
The Long March is a manifesto. 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 powerless. It has proclaimed their utter failure to encircle, pursue, obstruct and intercept us. The Long March is also a propaganda force. It has announced to some 200 million people in eleven provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to freedom.

What can an historian learn about the Long March from this source?

Describe the Long March.

Explain why the Communists undertook the Long March.