Why the Chinese Civil War was the Bloodiest in Modern History

During the first half 20th century, China went through a series of internal turmoil. The most violent of these was the Chinese Civil War.

Jan 18, 2023By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science

chinese civil war bloodiest in modern history


From 1927 to 1949, China went through a brutal civil war. The main belligerents, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), were divided by ideology, and each had a different view on how to govern. In addition to these ideological groups, various ethnic minorities, such as the Tibetans, the Kirghiz, and the Uighur, fought for independence. In addition, regional warlords also contributed to hostilities. Here is a list of 10 reasons why the Chinese Civil War is considered today the bloodiest internal conflict of the last hundred years.


The Lead-Up to the Chinese Civil War

Portrait of Sun Yat-Sen, via The Office of Zhongshan Municipal People’s Government


China failed to establish a functional government in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1911. Dissidence among the political elite led to various micro-conflicts that hampered all attempts at establishing national unity.


This unstable political climate led to the emergence of various warlords who vied for power in the different provinces of China. Nationalist activists gathered in the Kuomintang Party (KMT) led by Sun Yat-Sen attempted to pacify the country but ultimately failed. Moreover, the lack of support from Western powers pushed Sun to seek help from the Soviet Union, which the latter gladly provided.


From 1923 to 1927, Soviet leaders offered the Kuomintang training and supplied it with military aid while reinforcing the young Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was created in 1921. The latter was aligned with the Kuomintang as both political groups saw the national unity of China as a priority.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


However, Sun’s death in 1925 caused a progressive rift within the Kuomintang between right-leaning and left-leaning elements. Progressively, Chiang Kai-Check rose to the leadership of right-leaning elements, while some of the left joined the ranks of the CCP due to the radical positions of the KMT’s new leader. A discord appeared between the two groups, and two years later, the bloodiest civil war of the 20th century broke out.


1. The Chinese Civil War Saw All Parties Committing Massive Atrocities

A picture of the frontline of the nationalist army in 1949, via china-underground.com


Both the KMT and the CCP engaged in various atrocities. Nationalist and Communist forces had no pity for whoever supported the other side. In addition to that, the two armies often killed innocent civilians and organized massive executions. Out of cynical pragmatism and radical allegiance to their respective ideals, the two factions imposed a reign of terror in the territories under their control. Moreover, other fighting groups, such as the Turkic Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, also committed their fair share of atrocities in the short time they took part in the war (1933-1934).


The Chinese Civil War lasted from 1927 to 1949, with a truce being concluded during the Japanese invasion from 1937 to 1945. By the war’s end, it was estimated that civilian casualties were between 1.8 million and 3.5 million. This ranks the conflict as the third bloodiest war of the 20th century after the two world wars. During the whole duration of the hostilities, more than a few dozen of massacres were organized by the KMT and the CCP.


2. The Shanghai Massacre & Purge of the Kuomintang

Execution of suspected communists during the Shanghai Massacre in 1927, via socialistalternative.org


To prevent a split-up of the party and a rise in prominence of the CCP, the Kuomintang’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek issued a radical measure. On the 12th of April 1927, forces loyal to Chiang violently suppressed communists in Shanghai. For three days, right-leaning forces massacred leftist activists from the city’s unions, killing between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals. This massacre was followed by similar carnages in Guangzhou and Changsha, where 10,000 communists and sympathizers were executed.


Following this event, the USSR helped the Chinese Communist Party to organize itself into a working army. The Chinese Civil War had begun. However, the first months of the conflict saw the CCP beaten back from most of their strongholds. As the war continued, both sides committed more and more atrocities.


3. Countless Anti-Communist Massacres were Carried Out by the Kuomintang

Honor guards perform in front of a statue of late Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei, 7 February 2007, via VOA News


Following the slaughter in Shanghai, the Kuomintang launched a brutal campaign of repression against communists in China. The nationalist’s victories on the battlefield were often followed by mass murders of leftist sympathizers and massacres of unprecedented cruelty.


Following the events in Shanghai, more than 10,000 communist sympathizers were arrested and executed in Canton, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Changsha. Moreover, fighting in the first month of the conflict got so brutal that more than 380,000 civilians died in Hunan Province alone. The KMT’s brutality was limitless. More than 310,000 people were killed under the orders of the nationalists in 1928.


4. The Tyranny of the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet 

Major leaders of the Communist Party of China, 7 November 1931, via China Daily


While the first years of the conflict were difficult for the Chinese Communist Party, it still managed to affirm its authority in some areas, such as Jiangxi and Fujian Provinces. With the support of the USSR, the communists managed to establish an autonomous government in the area in November 1931. Said government took direct inspiration from the Soviet Union and called itself the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet.


The communist authorities launched several violent campaigns in the region. Those who criticized the CCP or attempted to flee the provinces were brutally murdered. Opponents of the regime had their proprieties confiscated and were sent to do forced work in hard labor brigades.


By the time of the conquest of the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet by the Kuomintang in 1934, it is estimated that around 700,000 civilians had been murdered by communist authorities. In 1983, the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the People’s Republic of China officially rehabilitated the victims of the Soviet’s brutality.


5. The Kizil & Kashgar Massacres

First East Turkestan Republic Government in 1933, via everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org


The war between the CCP and the KMT started in 1927. However, China was already stuck in endless conflicts since 1911. Moreover, some ethnic minorities present in the late Empire of the Qing Dynasty were still fighting for independence. Among these were Tibet and the Turkic Islamic Republic of East Turkestan.


In 1933, Uighur and Kirghiz fighters of the National Army of East Turkestan agreed with the Kuomintang to allow the safe retreat of Hui Chinese soldiers and civilians towards the city of Kashgar. But by June, the independence fighters broke the accord and attacked the retreating columns, killing up to 800 civilians. This assault is remembered today as the Kizil Massacre.


A few months later, the same Uighur and Kirghiz forces attacked the city of Kashgar, where KMT forces were trapped. From January to February 1934, the National Army of East Turkestan relentlessly attacked the city but was eventually repulsed by a relief force on their rear. This victory was followed by the massacre of 2,000 to 8,000 Uighur and Kirghiz of the city by the Hui and Han Chinese soldiers as revenge for the Kizil slaughter.


6. The Long March

Propaganda poster of The Long March, via schoolshistory.org.uk


Following the fall of the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet, the Chinese Communist Party was left without any strongholds. This major defeat pushed the CCP to launch a major retreat operation from Southern China towards the North in Shaanxi Province.


The communist forces split into two groups. The first, led by Zhang Guotao, was the largest and marched through the North-West. The other group was led by Mao Zedong, who decided to make a circling retreat by the South. The march north began in October 1934 and was accompanied by constant harassment from the Kuomintang forces and KMT-aligned warlords.


Chiang Kai-Shek initially chose to focus on the largest force under the command of Zhang Guotao. In a series of battles, Zhang’s forces were completely obliterated, leaving the KMT to deal with Mao’s force.


The other CCP army managed to avoid major combats with the Kuomintang and reached Shaanxi by October 1935. The Long March lasted for a year and saw the communist forces being reduced from 69,000 troops in October 1934 to 7,000 in October 1935. This important military maneuver also saw the rise of Mao Zedong to head of the Chinese Communist Party.


7. The Yan’an Rectification Movement

Mao Zedong in the center with his supporters in Yan’an, via alphahistory.com


The Japanese attack on China in 1937 forced nationalists and communists to halt hostilities and form a united front against the invaders. For eight years, the CCP and the KMT fought side by side against Tokyo. However, it was clear to both parties that the Chinese Civil War was to resume once the enemy was driven out of the country.


The conflict against Japan was also a time of relative peace for the CCP. Mao Zedong used this time to launch an internal reform known today as the Yan’an Rectification Movement, which lasted from 1942 to 1945.


During this period, Mao solidified his position as the sole leader of the CCP and deviated from the USSR’s line of communism. He also purged the party from all potential internal opposition. This inner purge led to the death of 10,000 people. More were arrested and tortured under the pretense that they were spies either for the Kuomintang or the Japanese Army. This mass persecution movement aimed at instituting absolute loyalty to the newly established Maoist line of CCP communists.


8. The Incident of 28 February 1947

Angry mob occupying an official building in Taipei, 28 February 1947, via Foreign Policy Research Institute


In the aftermath of World War II in 1945, Japan had to relinquish Korea and Taiwan, which had been occupied since the end of the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. While the first found itself divided between the USSR and the United States, Taiwan was returned to China. The Kuomintang was fast to occupy the island. One year later, the Chinese Civil War resumed on the mainland.


The inhabitants of Taiwan were resentful of the corrupt conduct of KMT officials. Confiscation of property, economic mismanagement, and exclusion from political participation were among the grievances of the population.


On 27 February 1947, local police struck a Taiwanese woman for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. This caused the anger of bystanders, who, in response, were shot at by the military. The next day, demonstrators violently marched on the streets of Taipei and occupied a radio station, broadcasting the revolt to the whole island.


Local Kuomintang governor Chen Yi called for reinforcements, which were provided by Chiang Kai-Shek. The popular uprising was violently put down, and for two months, the Taiwanese population was severely persecuted. It is estimated that the KMT’s brutality killed 20,000 to 80,000 civilians. Following this tragedy, Taiwan was put under martial law until 1987. It was the time of the White Terror.


9. The Land Reform Movement

A Landlord is executed near Fujiang, Xinjiang Province, 1949, via chinesehistoryforteachers.omeka.net


When the Chinese Civil War resumed in 1946, the Chinese Communist Party launched a radical campaign against the owners of agricultural lands.


The campaign started in July with the confiscation of property of landlords and rich peasants and giving it to the poor. The populations of each village under the control of the CCP were divided into categories: landlord, rich, middle, poor, and landless. By October 1947, the action got more aggressive. The CCP forcefully arrested landlords and rich peasants. The condemned were buried alive, dismembered, strangled, and shot.


The Kuomintang attempted to respond to this massive execution campaign by creating a “Homecoming Legion” composed of landlords who managed to escape the slaughter. This new fighting unit partook in military operations and conducted guerrilla warfare against the CCP until the end of the civil war in mainland China in 1949.


10. The Final Major Atrocity of the Chinese Civil War: The Siege of Changchun

Communists before the Siege of Changchun, via The Epoch Times


By the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had occupied Manchuria. As the Chinese Civil War resumed, the Red Army retreated from the region.


The Kuomintang forces quickly occupied most of Manchuria. However, by the winter of 1947, the tide started to turn in favor of the Chinese Communist Party. Over the next few months, the CCP managed to push the nationalists out of most of mainland China. By March 1948, the communists managed to drive the nationalists from most of Manchuria. Only a few strongholds, such as Changchun, remained in the hands of the KMT.


In May, the CCP besieged the town and cut it off completely from the world. Communist forces went even as far as destroying the city’s airport and putting a garrison in its place to block any supplies from reaching Changchun. In a matter of weeks, resources became scarce, and the soldiers started confiscating food from civilians. Massive famine led to 120,000 to 160,000 fatal casualties.


From that point onward, defense of the city swiftly disintegrated, as numerous battalions switched sides and joined the CCP. On 19 October 1948, the garrison surrendered, and Changchun fell to the communists.


Over the next few months, the Chinese Communist Party pushed the Kuomintang out of the mainland. In October 1949, Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. Chiang Kai-Shek retreated with more than two million soldiers to Taiwan. In December, the last nationalist stronghold in mainland China fell to the CCP. The war was over, but no peace treaty or reconciliation was made. Nowadays, the People’s Republic of China does not recognize the Republic of China in Taiwan, and war still threatens the region.

Author Image

By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.