The Chinese Civil War & Mao’s Long March

The Chinese Civil War saw two ideologies and two prominent figures in history, Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek, fight for decades to impart their vision for the future of China.

Dec 6, 2023By James Keating, BA History

mao long march chinese civil war


One of the most important periods in 20th-century history was the Chinese Civil War. The result was the emergence of a Communist China by 1949, despite the Chinese Communist Party being so close to annihilation during The Long March. During this period, millions of lives were lost, and the influence of other forces, such as the Northern Chinese Warlords, Imperialist Japan, and the Soviet Union, massively steered China on its course through history during this time.


The Beginnings

The Shanghai Massacre of 1927, via Alchetron


Despite years of cooperation in the period prior, Kuomintang (KMT) leader Chiang Kai-Shek and several other high-ranking members held a meeting on April 7th, 1927, in which they decided Communist activities had become socially and economically disruptive. Mao claimed that Chiang’s tolerance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) waned as his power grew. The group decided that the Communist influence had to be undone for their Nationalist aims to be achieved. Five days later, in Shanghai, hundreds of arrests and executions occurred, targeting Communist members. Soon, the left wing of the KMT expelled CCP members from the Wuhan government. Shortly after, the KMT turned their attention and resumed their campaign against warlords in the “Northern Expedition,” and by the summer of 1928, they had successfully claimed Beijing.


In response to the Shanghai massacre, on August 1st, 1927, the Communist Party launched an uprising in Nanchang against the Nationalist Wuhan government, which had previously been sympathetic to the Communists. The conflict meant that the Wuhan government and Chiang were once again aligned to crush the CCP. This period is also acknowledged to have seen the emergence of the CCP’s “Red Army,” comprised of armed peasants and former nationalist soldiers. Despite KMT efforts to suppress the CCP forces, the communists successfully established control over many areas in southern China after attacks on cities such as Changsha, Shantou, and Guangzhou. In September, the leader of the Wuhan government, Wang Jingwei, was forced into exile.


By this point, three capitals were in effect across China: internationally-recognized Beijing, the KMT regime in Nanjing, and CCP-held Wuhan. This marked the start of a decade-long struggle known as the Ten-Year Civil War.

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The Early Civil War and The Long March

The path taken during The Long March, via Wikipedia


The earliest clash during this period would go on to be named the Central Plains War, in which Chiang tackled a coalition of warlords formerly aligned with himself. Commanders Yan Xishan, Feng Yuxiang, and Li Zongren were regional leaders who questioned the legitimacy of Chiang’s Nanjing government. Although the conflict started in early 1929 and only lasted until 1930, it was the biggest conflict during the warlord era and essentially led to the end of this era. As well as this, nationalist records claim that there were 150,000 enemy casualties by the time Chiang claimed his victory.


Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek, via The China Project


After defeating this coalition, Chiang quickly turned his attention to Mao’s Soviet Chinese Republic. He embarked on four failed “encirclement campaigns” against the CCP, in which his armies consistently failed to establish a foothold in the countryside. However, by 1934, and with the aid of newly hired Nazi advisors, Chiang’s forces would adopt a slower “blockhouse” method for encirclement. The process required much more patience and involved building fortified blockhouses roughly eight kilometers apart to cut off food and other supplies from passing through. In October 1934, Mao’s forces broke between these blockhouses in a tactical retreat that would famously become known as the Long March and led Mao Zedong’s army over an estimated 12,500-kilometer march.


Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong led a rapid retreat in which 9,000 kilometers (about twice the width of the United States) were traversed over a mere 370 days. Following a bureaucratic reshuffle in November 1935, as the Red Army rested in northern Shaanxi, Mao became chairman of the Military Commission, finally marking him as the leader of the Party.


Propaganda painting of the Long March from 1973, via Schools History


During the march, the Red Army took property and weapons from landlords and fortified its ranks by recruiting local peasants. Of the 100,000 who began the Long March, only around 8,000 of the original remained by the time the CCP finally reached the interior of Shaanxi. During the march, the leader of the 4th Red Army, Zhang Guotao, took an alternate route and had most of his forces diminished by Chiang and the Ma clique. Zhang was a founding member of the party, but at the end of the Long March, with his army destroyed, Mao eclipsed his influence and became the undisputed leader of the Communist Party.


Only a year after Mao’s success during The Long March, in 1936, the Xi’an incident took place. Since 1931, Japanese forces intensified their aggression towards China. Japan had quickly invaded northeastern China, and after the Long March, by 1936, The Communists declared they were sending troops to fight the Japanese invaders in Rehe and Hubei. However, nationalist leader Yan Xishan stopped them by force, and although successfully stopped, the patriotic attempt inspired 8,000 recruits from the Shanxi peasantry. Nationalist leaders were impressed, and a covert truce was brokered between Mao and Zhang Xueliang. KMT leader Chiang refused to accept such a truce, and Zhang quickly plotted a coup. Chiang was detained by December 1936, and a new era in Chinese internal relations dawned. The CCP and the KMT halted hostilities and created a new united Chinese front, adopting an anti-Japanese policy. In 1937, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China.


The Second United Front

Mao Zedong and Chiang-Kai-Shek during the Second United Front, 1936, via Wikipedia


Despite the new agreement, the KMT and CCP remained unalike. The KMT engaged in traditional warfare, while the CCP retained its guerilla tactics. The extent of genuine cooperation was minimal, despite their common enemy. During this Second United Front, the CCP and KMT couldn’t resist clashing over territorial claims in the Chinese lands not held by Imperial Japan. After the provocation of KMT forces by the CCP’s New Fourth Army in December 1940, Chiang demanded the CCP force evacuate Jiangsu and Anhui provinces. After a lot of pressure, the CCP complied, but they were ambushed the following year by the KMT during their evacuation, and thousands of lives were lost. This event drew an end to the relatively short-lived Second United Front.


International concern about a further civil war between the CCP and the KMT led Franklin D. Roosevelt to send a special envoy to Chiang and the Soviet Union to send a telegram to Mao. Both parties considered any further hostilities between the two to be a victory for Japan, their common enemy. Although explicit hostilities would halt until the Japanese surrender in 1945, both Mao and Chiang continued to produce venomous propaganda insulting each other’s regimes.


Japan surrenders, 1945, via Sky History


The Second Sino-Japanese War proved massive to the advantage of the CCP. The KMT was recognized as the legal and preeminent government in China, and therefore Japan conducted the brunt of its military operations with this in mind. Japan launched a major final offensive against Chiang in 1944, resulting in huge losses to KMT forces, a factor that would prove vital in post-war internal clashes for Mao’s CCP. As well as this, the CCP’s reliance on guerilla warfare was proving popular; they suffered far fewer losses, and the Red Army had grown to over 1.3 million strong by the end of the war.


Minor hostilities resumed even as the CCP and KMT attended peace conferences; however, large-scale battles were temporarily avoided during this period. An important element of Japan’s surrender was the power vacuum created when 700,000 troops surrendered in formerly Japanese-held Manchuria. During the last month of World War II, Soviet forces launched a huge offensive along the Chinese-Mongolian border and therefore had some priority in influencing this power vacuum. They quickly dismantled the Manchurian industrial areas to send back to their war-ravaged country. Joseph Stalin ordered that Mao Zedong’s CCP be awarded most of the Imperial armaments captured during the surrender. In late 1945, a Communist offensive in Shandong meant that, besides areas held by the US, most of this territory fell under the influence of the CCP. The following June, a full-scale civil war broke out again in China, another tumultuous period lasting over three years.


The Chinese Civil War Resumes

Kuomintang’s retreats eventually ending in Taiwan, via Wikipedia


Despite the KMT losing far more men to Japan’s offensives and Stalin’s support of the CCP, Mao was still aware of the disadvantages in manpower and equipment compared to Chiang’s KMT. In response, the Communists adopted a “passive defense” early in this newly renewed conflict. Like Mao’s early cautious military tactics, the army would avoid the stronger points of the KMT army and tactically abandon territories if it was to their advantage. The tactic was effective, and after one year, the balance of power was more favorable; the KMT lost 1.12 million troops, and the CCP’s army had grown to around 2 million strong.


Mao proclaims the People’s Republic of China, 1949, via Wikipedia


By 1948, the CCP had captured Shenyang and Changchun. A decisive victory was marked during the siege of Changchun when the KMT’s strongest force, The New 1st Army, was forced to surrender. This led to the capture of tanks, heavy artillery, and other equipment that would prove vital to the operations to push the KMT south. Mao ruthlessly pushed his advantage, despite Stalin’s advice not to cross the Yangtze. In various campaigns, the CCP inflicted the loss of around 1.5 million KMT veterans.


On October 1st, 1949, Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. At this point, the KMT had been pushed as far south as Guangzhou, and after Mao’s proclamation, Chiang Kai-Shek and approximately 2 million soldiers retreated to the island of Taiwan. Although later skirmishes occurred and tensions remain to this day, this marks the end of one of the most tumultuous periods in China.

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By James KeatingBA HistoryI hold a degree in History from the University of Liverpool and have always loved reading non-fiction in my spare time. My specific interests mainly lie in Russian history but I have also been fascinated with biographies outside of Russia from the biggest names in history such as Frida Kahlo or Oliver Cromwell.