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The term Chinese Revolution refers to a series of great political upheavals in China between 1911 and 1949 that brought the classical, Confucian, imperial era to an end and eventually led to Communist rule and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The first phase of the Chinese Revolution started with the republican revolution of 1911, which came about as a result of growing social unrest, the disruptive and humiliating presence of Western and Japanese troops on Chinese soil, and the inability of the imperial government to launch the process of China’s belated modernization or even to defend national sovereignty and dignity. The Manchu-descended Qing dynasty (1644–1912) was easily overthrown by a popular rebellion led by nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), his National People’s Party (Guomindang), and other revolutionary groups. The last Qing monarch, child emperor Pu Yi (1906–1967), was forced to abdicate on February 12, 1912. A republic was proclaimed under the provisional Nanjing Constitution of 1912, which was supposed to translate into practice Sun Yat-sen’s three principles for the revolution: democracy, nationalism, and socialism.
A republican government headed by General Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), the military leader of the most powerful revolutionary faction, was established in the ancient capital, Beijing. In spite of his greater popularity, Sun Yatsen, who briefly became nominal president in 1913, had to step aside in Yuan’s favor in order to avoid a civil war. Having initially committed himself to a constitutional order in China, General Yuan proved to be more interested in imposing a centralized personal dictatorship. He suspended the republican constitution, dispersed the fledgling national assembly in Nanjing, proclaimed himself president for life, and even tried to bring back the abolished monarchy with himself as emperor. Yuan Shikai was deposed in 1916 and replaced by another military warlord in Beijing. This political crisis only deepened the power vacuum in Chinese politics, which persisted until the ultimate triumph in 1949 of Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976).
The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 after World War I (1914–1918) sparked great nationalist turmoil in the young Chinese Republic. Having participated in the war on the side of the victorious Entente allies, the Chinese hoped to see an end to the imposed and unequal foreign treaties under which China had been coerced to grant Western powers and Japan “extraterritorial” rule over the main Chinese seaports, as well as unfair and predatory trade privileges. They felt betrayed when the so-called treaty port system was left in place, frustrating Chinese hopes for territorial integrity and national self-determination. To add insult to injury, defeated Germany’s land “concessions” in China were turned over to Japan as a result of a secret treaty signed in 1917 by Britain, France, and the warlord government in Beijing. The ensuing sense of national outrage and betrayal ignited a storm of popular unrest in Beijing, in which angry Chinese from all walks of life participated in a student-led demonstration held at the famous Tiananmen Square on May 4, 1919. The Tiananmen protesters were later joined by many other patriotic-minded Chinese in a nationwide wave of demonstrations, marches, strikes, and boycotts of Japanese goods that became known as the “May Fourth movement” and which contributed immensely to the explosive growth and radicalization of Chinese nationalism.
The second phase of the Chinese Revolution was the Nationalist revolution, which began in the early 1920s. By 1923 Sun Yat-sen had formed a military-political alliance with the recently formed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in an attempt to restore national unity and prevent a civil war. Inspired by the example of Vladimir I. Lenin (1870–1924) and his Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Sun Yat-sen also established close ties with Moscow, receiving Soviet advisers, weapons, military training, and economic assistance. With Soviet help, Sun Yat-sen and his associates set up a Nationalist government in Guangzhou, which modified Sun’s “Three Principles of the People” to stress a more radical, anti-imperialist, and anticapitalist ideological agenda. The Guomindang’s National Liberation Army, led by General Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887–1975), Sun’s brother-in-law, fanned out of Guangzhou to challenge the power of local warlords, who had sprung up across China in the absence of a strong central authority. But Sun’s death in 1925 left the Chinese Republic without a unifying figure, and it soon fell into the internecine conflict and bloodshed that he had feared.
By 1927 Chiang Kai-shek had emerged as the Guomindang’s new leader, trying to extend the authority of the Guangzhou government and meet the serious challenge posed by local warlords and their separatist ambitions, as well as by growing Communist influence throughout the country. In a military effort to reunify China, he and his Communist allies waged a successful military campaign against the powerful northern warlords, overrunning half of China’s provinces and many important cities. But a new civil war broke out when Chiang moved to destroy his alliance with the Communists and also severed most ties with the Soviet Union. Under pressure from wealthier and more conservative members of the Guomindang, he turned on his erstwhile Communist allies, starting with the so-called Shanghai massacre of 1927, in which tens of thousands of Communist Party members were brutally executed by the Nationalists in Shanghai and many other Chinese cities in what came to be known as the Nationalist “White Terror.”
With the Communists temporarily crushed and driven out of the cities, Chiang resumed his northern expedition against the local warlords and their private armies. By 1928 most of China, including Beijing, was finally brought under Nationalist control, thereby ending the period of warlordism (even though some northern warlords continued to defy the central government’s authority until 1937). The new Guomindang government established at Nanjing, however, was weakened by the stubborn opposition of the Communists and especially by imperial Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria in 1931. Even after the Japanese attack, Chiang pressed the fight against the Communists, whom he regarded as the more dangerous enemy. His decision not to fight Japan’s aggression in Manchuria cost him and his party a loss of support among the more nationalistic sectors of Chinese society, who began to view the Communists, rather than the Nationalists, as leading the struggle for national sovereignty and unification.
Chiang launched a series of military offensives that surrounded the Communist troops in southeast China in 1930, but legendary Communist military commander Zhu De (1886–1976) managed to break out of the encirclement and resorted to rural guerrilla warfare to harrass his Nationalist opponents. Zhu De had created a welltrained, disciplined, and highly mobile professional military corps, the Red Army, which was based on the peasantry as the main revolutionary force in a country that was predominantly rural, agrarian, and agricultural. Under constant attack by the numerically superior Guomindang troops, the Communists retreated to the southeastern province of Jiangxi, where they proclaimed the short-lived Chinese Soviet Republic (1931–1933). They introduced radical land reforms, which attracted significant support among the poor peasants. After more Nationalist assaults, the Communists were forced to flee Jiangxi, which led to their famous Long March to escape total rout. The 6,000-mile Long March to the northwest, which took place from October 1934 to October 1935, depleted the Communist ranks from over 100,000 to little more than 20,000 survivors, mainly as a result of skirmishes with the pursuing Guomindang soldiers, as well as the harsh weather and terrain conditions. But it also resulted in the emergence of Mao Zedong as the ablest and most charismatic Communist leader. The exhausted Red Army troops finally settled around Yenan in Shanxi Province, where they remained until 1946.
Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Manchurian units of his army to move against Mao’s weakened forces in 1936, but his plan to finish off the Communists backfired. Determined to liberate their home region from Japanese occupation and encouraged by the Communists, mutinous Manchurian officers arrested Chiang and held him captive for two weeks, demanding an end to the civil war and the formation of a united front against Japan. Their patriotic revolt eventually led to an uneasy alliance between the Guomindang and the Communists to expel the foreign invader. For a while, most of China rallied behind the Guomindang government for an all-out resistance against the Japanese. In 1937 full-scale fighting broke out between the Chinese and the Japanese Imperial Army in the so-called Second Sino-Japanese War, which later merged with World War II (1939–1945). The Japanese armies overran most of eastern China and the main coastal cities, which forced the Guomindang government to relocate its capital far inland to Chongqing. Japan’s brutal occupation and wanton disregard for Chinese lives was symbolized by the infamous “rape of Nanjing,” in which Japanese soldiers pillaged and burned the city, while systematically massacring nearly three hundred thousand men, women, and children. With logistical and air support from the United States and Britain, the Chinese troops—especially the militarily more effective Communist guerrilla units—managed to tie down the bulk of the Japanese Imperial Army inside mainland China. Abandoned by the Guomindang government, millions of poor peasants in eastern China turned away from the Nationalists, relying instead on the Red Army for protection from the Japanese occupation forces. The national mass mobilization in the struggle against Japan only reinforced the existing bonds of unity and cooperation between the peasantry and the Communists that had originated in the years of their Yenan retreat. Animosity between the Nationalists and the Communists persisted, however, as Chiang’s army continued to blockade the areas under Mao’s control.
The last phase of the Chinese Revolution was the Communist revolution, which began with the resumption of the civil war, temporarily interrupted by the SinoJapanese War of 1937 to 1945, and culminated with Communist Party rule being established throughout China in 1949. While all Chinese had pooled military resources against the Japanese during World War II, open civil war flared up again in 1946, when the Red Army (now renamed the People’s Liberation Army) and the ruling Nationalists resumed fighting each other. Dominated by the conservative landlord class, which was determined to preserve the traditional semifeudal order, the Guomindang was losing the support of urban-based middle-class professionals and businessmen, who demanded wide-ranging social and economic reforms. Using skillful propaganda and moderating their radical land redistribution program, the Communists mobilized millions of disaffected Chinese, especially in the impoverished countryside. By 1945 the Communist Party had more than 1.2 million members and the People’s Liberation Army numbered about 1 million soldiers ready to fight to the death for the proclaimed Communist ideals of economic equality, social justice, and national independence. With strong support from Moscow, the Communists had acquired the numbers, organizational resources, and military strength necessary to successfully challenge Guomindang rule. Diplomatic efforts, spearheaded by U.S. general George Catlett Marshall (1880–1959), to mediate a negotiated agreement between the warring parties failed to prevent the renewal of all-out conflict.
At first the strategic initiative was in the hands of the Nationalists, who were receiving substantial U.S. military and financial assistance. American ships and planes helped transport Chiang’s troops, who captured all principal cities, including Yenan, the coastal areas, and most of northern China, but failed to weaken the Communist stranglehold on the countryside. Communist military leader Zhu De used aggressive guerrilla tactics, launching hard-hitting counterattacks against the enemy’s overstretched overland lines of communications and supply. Throughout 1948 the Communist “war of the villages against the cities” proved to be so effective in encircling enemy-held areas and urban centers that the Nationalist troops in Manchuria were completely cut off and had to be resupplied by air. By the end of the year, all of China north of the Yangtze River was under Mao’s control. In 1949 the demoralized Nationalist forces were decisively defeated, compelling Chiang Kai-shek to resign the presidency and seek a negotiated peace with his adversaries. But it was too late for any compromise settlement with the victorious Communists. Meeting only token resistance, the People’s Liberation Army began its final push to capture the remainder of China south of the Yangtze, including the major cities of Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. On January 31, Beijing fell to the advancing Communist forces. Following their total defeat, Chiang, his government, and fifty thousand surviving Nationalist soldiers were evacuated to the island of Formosa (now Taiwan), where the Guomindang was the dominant political party into the 1990s. With the civil war finally over, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China before huge cheering crowds in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
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- Eastman, Lloyd E. 1984. Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, 1937–1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Leutner, Mechthild, ed. 2002. The Chinese Revolution in the 1920s: Between Triumph and Disaster. London and New York: Routledge Curzon.
- Saich, Tony, ed. 1996. The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party: Documents and Analysis. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.
- Saich, Tony, and Hans J. van de Ven, eds. 1995. New Perspectives on the Chinese Communist Revolution. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.
- Schiffrin, Harold Z. 1968. Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Schrecker, John E. 2004. The Chinese Revolution in Historical Perspective. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Sheridan, James E. 1975. China in Disintegration: The Republican Era in Chinese History, 1912–1949. New York: Free Press.
- Snow, Edgar. 1968. Red Star over China. Rev. and enlarged ed. New York: Grove.
- Weston, Anthony. 1980. The Chinese Revolution. Saint Paul, MN: Greenhaven.
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