The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.
The Boxer Uprising
At the dawn of the twentieth century a xenophobic and superstitious popular movement was sweeping through northern and central China. Known in English as the Boxer Rebellion or the Boxer Uprising and initially in Chinese as yihequan (more or less Righteous and Harmonious Fists), by the summer of 1900 its followers had surrounded foreign legations in Peking and were poised for the wholesale slaughter of foreign diplomats, businessmen, and missionaries. The Boxers, as they were called by Westerners, were practitioners of traditional Chinese martial arts who sought to eliminate foreigners and foreign influence in China. The movement was quelled in August 1900 when an allied force of almost 20,000 troops from several Western nations and Japan arrived in Peking and put the Boxers to flight, but not before 231 foreigners in several areas of northern China had been killed by the insurgents, including two medical missionaries educated at Princeton. The subsequent Boxer Indemnity, which became an enormous burden for the Qing dynasty, proved to be one of the factors that led to its overthrow in 1911.
A good portion of the Boxers’ anger was originally directed at the Manchus and their Qing government, which they perceived as incompetent to resist the inroads the foreigners had made into China. A native Chinese government, they believed, would have been better able and better equipped to cope with the Western challenge. The Boxers’ xenophobia focused particularly on Protestant and Catholic missionaries, who were, especially in the countryside, the most visible reminder of China’s semicolonial subjugation. Chinese everywhere were acutely aware that the missionaries had entered China in the wakes of their nations’ gunboats, and popular resentment against them festered because of their occasionally haughty attitudes and the presumptuousness of some of their converts. There was also considerable animosity toward Christianity as a religion. Economic difficulties and urban unemployment caused by the influx of cheap European textiles contributed to popular restlessness, as did frequent floods and other natural disasters in China in the late nineteenth century, all of which seemed to suggest a pending loss of the Mandate of Heaven for the Qing government.
One major center of Boxer activity was Shandong province, an area devastated by floodwaters in 1898 when the dikes of the Yellow River burst. By 1899 Boxing was a craze in Shandong, and thousands of people began believing Boxer claims that mental and physical discipline through martial arts training would make them impervious to foreign bullets and bayonets. Even the governor of Shandong was impressed with the Boxers, and in 1899 he changed their name to the more flattering and official-sounding Righteous and Harmonious Militia (Yihetuan).
Foreigners in Shandong were horrified by the increasingly bold and public displays of Boxer xenophobia, and their governments pressured the Qing into dismissing the governor for his unseemly support of the movement. In April 1900, however, Empress Dowager Cixi became more or less converted to the Boxer cause, and she approved of Boxer militia organization efforts in several northern Chinese provinces. By May, Boxing had become a craze, and the foreign legations in Peking were becoming increasingly alarmed by news of foreigners being murdered in the provinces and by the obviously hostile intentions of the Boxers in Peking who constantly paraded and protested outside legation compounds. Several legations got word to their governments that the situation might well become critical and require military assistance.
The empress dowager, far from doing anything to allay these concerns, goaded the Boxers into further boldness. On June 3 Boxers cut the railway link between Tianjin (then called Tientsin) and Peking, effectively cutting the foreign legations off from contact with the outside world. By June 13 mobs of Boxers were rampaging freely throughout Peking, burning foreign homes and churches, murdering Chinese Christians on sight, and desecrating foreign graves. Most ominously of all, on June 19, the empress dowager announced to the legations that she was breaking off diplomatic ties with all foreign nations and gave diplomats 24 hours to leave China under military protection. Some left, but some were so worried about their personal safety that they elected to remain behind in Peking. These concerns were not entirely unwarranted; the next day, the German minister, Clemens von Ketteler, was murdered by a mob.
The foreign legations, convinced that the Boxers and the empress dowager meant to destroy their compounds and murder all foreigners, had managed to get word out about their impending peril before things got out of hand. Assembling an international relief force took time, however, and until it arrived the diplomats and other foreigners who had taken refuge in the legations had to endure a low-level, muted siege. There was a lull in hostile demonstrations in July, and at times the surrounding of the compounds was obviously halfhearted and done more for show than anything else. By late July, real hostilities against the legations were launched again, and the legations were not relieved until August 14, when a combined force of 18,000 troops from Japan, Russia, Britain, the United States, France, Austria, and Italy arrived, lifted the siege against the legations, and then proceeded to loot the city. Humiliated supporters of the Boxers committed suicide, and the next day the empress dowager fled the city along with the puppet emperor she dominated.
Li Hongzhang was left in Peking to negotiate with the foreigners. Negotiations for a peace settlement and indemnities dragged on until September 1901, when the Boxer Protocol was finally concluded. Its provisions included huge indemnities for more than 10 nations. Punishments were also specified for the hard-liners in the government who had supported the Boxers and for the cities where Boxer activity had been the most intense.
The Boxer Uprising and the allied relief expedition that quelled it were both exceedingly humiliating to China. The predations of what the Chinese dubbed the Allied Armies of Eight Nations robbed China of much of its national esteem, and some Chinese turned from condescension toward foreigners to outright fear of and toadying to them. The onerous Boxer Indemnity payments impeded economic growth in China, accelerated imperialistic designs to “carve up the Chinese melon” among the foreign powers, and convinced many Chinese patriots that the Qing government, which had done more than its share to produce the entire crisis in the first place, had to go—now only outright revolution, no longer simple reform, could save China. The Boxer Rebellion also damaged the image and reputation of China in foreign countries, and in the West talk of the “yellow peril,” or the implacable hostility of the “yellow race” for the “white race,” became widespread.
It should be remembered, however, that the Boxer Rebellion was largely a northern Chinese disturbance; many provinces in the south more or less concluded separate peaces with the foreigners and were not attacked by allied forces. The Qing central government had been severely weakened in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion, and at no time was this more apparent than during the Boxer Rebellion, when it was clear that Peking’s real authority extended only to the provinces in the north. The rest of China was more or less free to deal with foreign governments in whichever ways they saw fit, and many provinces did just that.
Sun Yat-Sen and the Revolution of 1911
The moribund Qing dynasty limped along for a few more years and launched a few halfhearted reforms, but its days were numbered. The empress dowager died in 1908, just after having her nephew, the Guangxu emperor (r. 1875-1908), murdered. A child emperor was installed, and one last imperial regency was established, but the Chinese had had enough. On October 10, 1911, a mutiny that broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuchang quickly spread. In early 1912, the last Manchu emperor of China abdicated peacefully and amicably, without a cataclysmic final showdown between dynastic and revolutionary forces. China’s last dynasty passed into history not with a bang, but a whimper.
Many Chinese worked long and hard to promote and achieve this revolution, but the most well-known of them all is undoubtedly Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese patriot and medical doctor born in Guangdong province in 1866. In his youth, Sun was quite impressed with the order and cleanliness of the British and other foreign settlements in Canton. Early in his life he began envying the wealth, power, and good order of the West, and he nursed a nationalistic sense of regret that China was not the equal of the West. He followed his brother to Hawaii in 1879 and, once again favorably impressed with the West, enrolled in a Christian school. In the 1880s he went to Hong Kong and Canton and earned a medical degree, and in the early 1890s he began his medical practice.
His heart, however, was not in medicine but in treating the disease of his native land. In 1894 he traveled to Peking and sought an interview with Li Hongzhang himself to discuss possible cures for China’s national ills. Li, however, did not have time to discuss national affairs with a nobody who had a Western medical degree but no Jinshi credentials. Sun resented the snub for the rest of his life, and the incident helped him resolve to overthrow the Qing dynasty. The Manchus, he concluded, were holding China back; China would be better off led by a native Chinese regime. By 1895 he had abandoned his medical practice, and he went to Canton and Hong Kong to foment revolutionary sentiment. There he broadened his contacts with secret Chinese fraternal orders and launched an abortive revolutionary uprising in Canton. This was foiled, however, and he fled to Hong Kong and thence to Japan, where he was given a hero’s welcome. In Japan Sun decided that he would need more money for his revolutionary program, and the best source for that was the relatively wealthy community of overseas Chinese in Japan, Hawaii, North America, and Britain. In all of these places he appealed to the Chinese communities for money for his cause and tried to inspire them with a vision of his anti-Manchu revolution.
Sun continued his globe-trotting, fund-raising, and anti-Manchu rhetoric in London the next year, in 1896. There he was lured into the Qing embassy and arrested by Qing officials, who intended to take him back to China for trial and certain execution. Sun managed to get word of his “kidnapping” out to the British public, and when the story was splashed all over the London newspapers, the British Foreign Office pressured the embassy into releasing him. With this incident, Sun had become a celebrity in Britain and the rest of the world. He remained in Britain until late 1897 where he formulated the ideology for his revolution: the Three Principles of the People, or nationalism, socialism, and democracy.
Sun then went to Japan and preached revolution there, but the response was tepid. He was startled to find that the Japanese were more enthusiastic about his revolutionary program than the Chinese there were. He was bitterly disappointed that his own Chinese people were apparently fatalistic, apathetic, and living in fear of Manchu reprisals, but he had an ideological rival in Japan: Kang Youwei, who was arguing for a constitutional monarchy in China. Sun, a thoroughgoing republican by this time, would not hear of this and debated with Kang vigorously. Kang, for his part, shared Li Hongzhang’s contempt for Sun as a nobody without so much as a Shengyuan degree.
Sun’s revolutionary cause was given a shot in the arm in 1903 with the publication of the virulently anti-Manchu tract The Revolutionary Army, written by an 18-year-old racist and Chinese patriot named Zou Rong. This pamphlet, which was an instant success among the Chinese community in Japan, berated the Chinese for their slavish and shameless acceptance of Manchu rule and tyranny over them. The Revolutionary Army did for the Chinese what Sun had largely failed to do: it energized them and helped tip the balance of public opinion in favor of revolution for China and away from Kang Youwei’s Emperor Protection Society. Two passages from it will perhaps convey some of the flavor, an almost hysterical patriotism and anti-Manchu racism, of Zou Rong’s tract:
Revolution! Revolution! Why should my 400 million fellow country men embark on revolution today? I first cry out (and I put all I know into it):
Unjust! Unjust! What is most bitter and unjust in China today is to have to bear with the wolvish ambitions of this inferior race of nomads, the brigand Manchus, our rulers. And when we seek to be wealthy and noble, we wag our tails and beg for pity, we kneel thrice and make ninefold kowtows, delighted and intoxicated to find ourselves under them, shameless and unable to come to our senses. Alas, fellow country men, you have no feelings of patriotism! Alas, you have no racial feelings, no feelings of independence!
As for the Manchu scoundrels, our common foes and antagonists, 260 years of their slavery can still be thrown off, let alone a few score years of it…. Let us steel ourselves in deadly struggles to drive out the Manchu scoundrels who humiliate us, tyrannize over us, slaughter us and debauch our women, in the end to restore the great China of our heritage, to recover our natural rights, to win back the freedom which should be ours from birth.
Let there be revolution in China! Let there be revolution in China! The French carried out three revolutions, the Americans the Seven Years War (of Independence). Therefore there should be revolution in China. … I should like to hold the whip daily, to take part in the revolution of my fellow country men, to implore my fellow country men to carry out their revolution.
How can I bear to see robes and regalia of the Upper Land fall to the barbarian? Let us lead the heroes of the Middle Plain to win back our rivers and hills.
Is this the resolve of my fellow country men, too? (Tsou/Lust 1968, 65, 82)
In 1904 Sun traveled once again to Hawaii and the United States where he politicized the secret Chinese fraternities there and converted them to his anti-Manchu program. The next year, he organized a union of these fraternities called the Tongmenghui, or United Chinese League. Initiates into it were told that they were no longer subjects of the Qing or the Manchus. The league’s membership grew quickly, and by 1906 branches of it had been established in many places throughout the world and were contributing money for the revolution in China. Meanwhile, Sun’s supporters and other like-minded Chinese patriots were attempting to make several more uprisings in China. The last of the unsuccessful uprisings against the Manchus was attempted in the Canton suburb of Huanghuagang in April 1911, in which several dozen insurgents lost their lives.
The uprising that touched off the revolution instead of being crushed as just another rebellion occurred on October 10, 1911, in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province. Wuhan was chosen because of its central location in China. Republican revolutionaries were in control of the city by noon, and two weeks later a neighboring province, Hunan, announced its break with the Qing. Other provinces quickly followed suit, and by December 1911, more than half of China had declared its independence from the Qing government.
Sun Yat-sen read about the October 10 uprising while he was in Denver, Colorado, on one of his many globe-trotting fund-raising trips. Sun did not immediately return to China upon learning of the subsequent success of the uprising but instead made efforts to secure American and European support for the new republican regime. Although Sun was an effective agitator for revolution, he did not command as much military power as he would need to sustain a new republican regime once it was established. Someone else, however, did. He was an unscrupulous and conniving general named Yuan Shikai, who had long served the Manchus. After the success of the October 1911 revolution, Sun did not insist on becoming the president of the new Republic of China himself, but turned the presidency over to Yuan Shikai on February 2, 1912, one day after the final and official abdication of the last Manchu emperor.
Sun had wanted the capital of the republic to be in Nanjing. Because Beijing had been the capital of two conquest dynasties (Mongol Yuan and Manchu Qing), he and other Chinese patriots antagonistic toward the Manchus wanted to relocate the nation’s capital to a city more identified with native Chinese rule. (Nanjing was the capital of the early Ming and had been the capital of several native Chinese dynasties during the Period of Division.) Yuan Shikai, however, wanted the capital to be located in his base of power in Beijing, and Sun reluctantly assented to this.
In one sense, Sun’s republican revolution was quite decisive—it ended over 250 years of Manchu imperial rule—but his revolution was not thorough. China needed more than an end to the ancien regime to become a functional republic: it needed a stable and functional government, which unfortunately neither Sun nor Yuan could provide. The results for China were tragic. Yuan made a mockery out of republican rule and soon scrapped it altogether in favor of a constitutional monarchy, with himself as head of state and head of government. His death in 1916 did little to prevent China from sliding into a decade of regional warlordism. Sun Yat-sen meanwhile retreated to Canton in southern China and tried in vain to rally China and the world to his cause. He died a disappointed and frustrated man in 1925, before his dream of seeing China unified under a strong and modern republican government could be realized.
Yuan Shikai turned out to be no friend of the revolution. To the disgust of Sun Yat-sen and many others who had high hopes for China after the 1911 revolution, it soon became apparent that Yuan meant to do little more than replace the Qing dynasty with one of his own. Yuan soon convinced himself and a coterie of Western advisors, including an American who had been president of Johns Hopkins University, that China was not ready for republican rule and was much more suited for a monarchy. Accordingly, he had a constitution drawn up in 1914 that gave him unlimited power and the lifelong right to rule over China. The Japanese helped him, flattered that he admired the imperial style of governance in post-Meiji Japan. To curry favor with them, he gave in to Japan’s infamous Twenty-one Demands, which included such humiliating provisions as Japanese control of key Chinese industries, including steel production. This became intolerable to many provinces, and in late 1915 a southern province declared its independence of his rule. Several provinces followed suit, and once again a regime collapsed. By May 1916, Yuan found himself abandoned by several provinces and his erstwhile Japanese supporters, and he died the next month.
The Warlord Period
The collapse of Yuan’s regime led to a decade of chaos and division in China. It produced a power vacuum that no regime could hope to fill, and China disintegrated into several geopolitical regions, all more or less dominated by military commanders dubbed “warlords” by Western writers. The warlord period was so confusing that most foreign governments simply chose to recognize whichever regime occupied Beijing as the legitimate government of China. Warlords fought and allied with one another in an execrable and Byzantine pattern of intrigue, cooperation, and betrayal. Several civil wars between warlord armies raged, and almost invariably the warlords claimed to be fighting not for their own selfish purposes but for the good of China. While it is easy to be cynical about these claims, it is important to remember that few if any of the warlords claimed to be legitimate governments; in their view, political legitimacy would come after they had established order in China. They did not usually pretend to be governments in their own right, although they certainly dominated many local and regional governments and often intimidated them into doing their bidding. And they craved the legitimacy and recognition that could be conferred on them by official governmental documents and properly signed and sealed appointments. Many even sought to have their photographs and biographies published (in Chinese and English) in the “who’s who in China” books popular in the early twentieth century.
The May Fourth Movement and Period
The warlord-dominated regimes were often interested in little more than the raw exercise of power and seldom took much thought for matters of public ideology. What mattered to them was not what people thought or believed about the state, but that they would obey rather than defy the state. The lack of an official ideology in China after the fall of the Qing certainly had its drawbacks, but in one way it helped the intellectual revolution. The very absence of an ideology fostered much debate and speculation about just what China’s guiding ideology should be. Because the warlord armies cared little for safeguarding any particular state orthodoxy or dogma, Chinese students and intellectuals during the warlord period were freer than ever before or since to speak their minds and earnestly discuss what philosophy or guiding system of thought China ought to espouse in building its future. Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, which became China’s official state ideology in 1949, had its birth in the discussions among students and intellectuals during the May Fourth period.
The May Fourth period is so named because of a large, nationalistic protest movement against Japanese aggression that was held on May 4, 1919. Because the protest typified much of the nationalistic energy and intellectual openness of its time, the entire period between the late 1910s and early 1920s is now generally referred to as the May Fourth period. The Chinese of this time knew intuitively that their nation was at an intellectual and political crossroads, and what they discussed and wrote still has ramifications for China today.
The epicenter of the May Fourth period in China was Peking University, or Beida, as it is usually abbreviated in Chinese. Beida was (and still is) the Harvard of China, and it often set trends that other Chinese universities followed. During World War I, many Chinese intellectuals who had been studying abroad in Japan, Europe, and the United States came home to China, and many of the best and brightest of them were recruited to Beida to become professors or administrators. Foremost among the promising and talented young Chinese returning home were Chen Duxiu and Cai Yuanpei from Europe, Lu Xun from Japan, and Hu Shi from the United States. All were to emerge as bright stars in Beida’s intellectual constellation.
Cai Yuanpei was particularly important. He had earned his Jinshi degree in the 1880s, but in 1907 he went to Germany to study. He was appointed China’s minister of education after the 1911 revolution, but Yuan Shikai’s subsequent antics so disgusted him that he returned to Europe for further study in Germany and France. With Yuan’s death in 1916, however, he returned once again to China and was soon appointed chancellor of Beida. Cai’s chancellorship transformed Beida into a modern, first-class institution of higher learning. Beida had formerly been more or less a training college for government hacks, and its standards of commitment and scholarship for both students and faculty members were abysmal. Cai changed all of this and insisted that Beida become a committed and energetic place where study and absolute academic freedom would be taken seriously. Beida would no longer be a place where students simply partied their educational careers away and made interpersonal contacts that would last them through a lifetime of service to the government. Furthermore, there would be no party line to toe; Beida would be an intellectually alive place where the expression of all varieties of thought would be allowed and even encouraged. The new intellectual atmosphere, openness, and commitment fostered by Cai Yuanpei were enormously attractive to China’s rising generation of young and energetic intellectuals, and many of them flocked to Beida. In 1916 Cai had set the stage for the intellectual renaissance that would follow.
Chen Duxiu, who had earned a Shengyuan degree in 1896, studied in Japan and France. He returned to China in 1915 to protest Japan’s infamous Twenty-one Demands, and in Shanghai he published a monthly magazine called New Youth, in which he relentlessly slammed what he considered the intellectual sources of China’s backwardness. He regularly skewered Confucianism and the traditional Chinese family in the pages of New Youth and urged China’s young people to reject much of their traditional heritage, including traditional attitudes toward women. (Chen was recognizably feminist in some of his thought.) He was antitraditional but not anti-Chinese. Like all intellectuals of his era, he deeply loved his country and was passionately committed to creating a better future for an imperiled China. In 1917 Chen was made a professor of literature at Beida, and there he continued to influence young Chinese intellectuals. Chen himself also underwent a transformation at Beida. He began studying Marxism-Leninism along with Li Dazhao, the newly appointed head librarian at Beida. (In Li Dazhao’s employ at Beida was a young library assistant named Mao Zedong.) Chen and Li Dazhao would, a few years later, emerge as the cofounders of the Chinese Communist party.
Hu Shi was America’s man in China. Hu, like the other key members of the May Fourth period, had a dual intellectual heritage: he had pursued traditional Chinese learning in his youth and then Western studies. Hu went to the United States in 1909 at the age of 18 and entered Cornell University, where he learned English well and became convinced that written Chinese ought to reflect the spoken vernacular Chinese instead of being highly literary, allusive, and formulaic. He later took his Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University, where he was influenced by the study of evolution and the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey. Hu eventually went to Beida, where he attracted quite a following of energetic young Chinese students. Like Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi detested Confucianism and wanted an end to it. Hu argued that Confucianism, shown by pragmatism to be inapplicable to modern Chinese realities, should be discarded. “Down with the Confucian establishment” or “Put Ye Olde Confucian Curiosity Shoppe out of business” became favorite slogans at Beida and elsewhere. As replacements for Confucianism he tirelessly promoted “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” as the new guiding ideology and institution for China. He also widely promoted the use of plain vernacular language in published writing. Plain language was, he argued, much easier to learn and would increase literacy in China. The plain language movement turned out to be Hu’s most enduring contribution to China; it eventually won out over the old literary language, and today the newspapers and books of China are published in the vernacular or semivernacular style. The old literary language now appears almost exclusively in historical records. Indeed, modern writing in the old classical language is now often regarded as pretentious, anachronistic, or just plain silly.
Inspired by Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu, and others, Beida students founded a vernacular magazine called New Tide that promoted critical thinking and language reform. Other student magazines eventually joined in the fray, and soon many aspects of traditional China were under attack and ridiculed in these publications. Warlordism, constitutional monarchy, traditional customs, filial piety, and patriarchy were singled out for special scorn in the pages of these student periodicals, and new issues were eagerly awaited and snatched up as soon as they became available.
Beida was an exciting and intellectually alive place. Many foreign intellectuals, including John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, traveled to China and spoke with interested and engaged students about the best alternatives for China’s future. During the May Fourth period, Chinese students sampled many ideologies and “-isms,” including socialism, liberalism, anarchism, and even social Darwinism. Some foreign intellectuals commented that there was much more interest in their ideas in China than there was in their own home countries.
The May Fourth Protest
Into this lively academic atmosphere came a protest against Japanese aggression on May 4, 1919. At the center of the upheaval was the fate of Shandong, a Chinese province. Shandong had more or less been a German colony since 1898, when Germany leased Jiaozhou as a naval base for 99 years and set up beer breweries in nearby Qingdao. When World War I broke out, China at first remained neutral. This changed in September 1919, when the warlord-dominated government in Beijing entered into secret discussions with Japan about Shandong.
The Japanese, who sensed Germany’s impending defeat in the war, had begun to covet the German holdings in Shandong and were soon scheming for a way for them to be transferred to Japan at war’s end. The Japanese made a substantial loan to the Beijing government in exchange for Beijing’s recognition of Japan’s claims to Shandong and for granting rights to Japan for constructing railroads and stationing troops throughout the province. All of this was unknown to the Chinese public.
Meanwhile, Chinese students and intellectuals at Beida and other universities had high hopes for the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of World War I. They hoped that the idealistic principles voiced by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and other international leaders would result in the righting of wrongs China had suffered at the hands of foreign powers ever since the Opium War. The Chinese delegation to Versailles was bitterly disappointed to learn that the conference would address only matters immediately pertaining to World War I, and it was outraged to learn of its own government’s secret negotiations with Japan that would even deprive China of the Shandong territory it had lost to the Germans in 1898. The final adjudication of Shandong’s fate came at Versailles on April 28, 1919, in Japan’s favor.
When word of this adjudication reached China, the Chinese public was enraged. Student hotheads began calling for the defense of Shandong and cabled the Chinese delegation in Versailles with impassioned pleas not to sign the final peace agreement. On May 4 a major demonstration was organized. Angry crowds marched past the house of the foreign minister who had approved the secret agreement, and police responded by arresting several student demonstrators. This arrest, in turn, led to a larger general strike in Beijing, and a boycott of Japanese goods followed. Unprepared for the magnitude of public indignation at its actions, the Beijing government released the students a few days later and informed the delegation in Versailles that it could decide for itself whether or not to sign the final peace treaty. When Chinese students in Paris were told about this, they immediately surrounded the quarters of the Chinese delegation in an around-the-clock vigil. As a result, the Chinese delegation did not sign the final peace agreement ending World War I.
To Go West or Go East, Young Man: That is the Question
The Versailles settlement was deeply disappointing to many Chinese intellectuals and led many of them to become disillusioned with the West. Perhaps the West, after all, did not have the answers to China’s problems. Western Europe, which many Chinese intellectuals had looked to as the pinnacle of modern civilization, had very nearly destroyed itself in World War I. What had caused the tragic war—excessive materialism, rampant nationalism, unfeeling capitalism? Western Europe and North America then stood by and did little to blunt Japanese ambitions toward Shandong. Were they really China’s friends after all? Many disillusioned students began listening to voices critical of the West, including Chinese nativists and, more important, the Bolsheviks. Perhaps the answers were in Eastern Europe and Russia. One of the most extensive and penetrating critiques of Western civilization was Marxism-Leninism, an ideology that both excoriated the West’s domination of the world and predicted its eventual collapse. Such ideas were comforting and powerfully appealing to a generation of young Chinese hotheads angry with how the West sold out China at Versailles. Out of this anger and disillusionment came renewed interest in Marxism-Leninism and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Perhaps in a very real way, the West’s failure to emerge as China’s friend at a crucial historical moment turned a good portion of modern China’s key transitional generation away from the West and toward the East.
The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party
In order to make sense of the history of communism in China, it is necessary to have a rudimentary understanding of Marxist-Leninist dogma, which holds that history is driven by class conflict and unfolds in five main stages. The most primitive historical stage is “slave society,” in which slaves are ruled over by masters. Eventually the slaves rise up and overthrow their masters, and this leads to a “feudal society.” In the feudal society, serfs eventually overthrow their lords and advance on to a “capitalist society,” in which the “bourgeoisie,” or city-dwelling capitalists, exploit the “proletariat,” or laboring industrial class. When the proletariat overthrow the bourgeoisie, the advancement is to a “socialist society.” Eventually socialist society advances to a “communist society” in which there is no more exploitation or class conflict. This historical model seems to resemble the linear conception of historical development in Judaeo-Christian thought, but with social perfection replacing God’s judgment as the final culmination of all history.
Almost all Communists agreed that China was stuck in a “feudal” society and would need to have a “bourgeois revolution” to capitalism. After the bourgeois revolutionaries had outlived their usefulness, their capitalist society would be overthrown and China would advance to socialism. Marxist-Leninist study groups came to this conclusion during the heady days of the May Fourth period. The May 1, 1919, issue of Chen Duxiu’s New Youth was dedicated to Marxism, although most of the articles appearing in this issue were critical of the ideology. Earlier study groups had been considering Marxism-Leninism in some detail, but this May Day edition of New Youth introduced it into the broader intellectual communities at Beida and elsewhere. Li Dazhao, Beida’s head librarian, had been holding such study groups earlier, and his office became affectionately known as the “Red Chamber” by his adoring students and groupies, including the future leader Mao Zedong. Li had, in fact, written the lone article in favor of Marxism in the May 1 issue; Chen at this time was still undecided. Chen’s adherence to Marxism came in mid-1920, after he had left Beida. Chen concluded that multiparty democracy on the Anglo-American model was nothing but a sham, a tool for the bourgeoisie to maintain political control over capitalist society.
In 1920, then, there were two centers of Marxist study in China: one at Beida under Li Dazhao, and one in Shanghai under Chen Duxiu. In the Soviet Union, the Comintern learned about this and dispatched an agent, Grigory Voitinsky, to organize a Communist party in China. Voitinsky met with Li and Chen and helped young Marxists in China organize the Chinese Communist party. The party’s First Congress was held in a girls’ school in Shanghai’s French concession area in July 1921. The First Congress decided that the Communists would cooperate with Sun Yat-sen and accommodate his ideology for the time being because Sun was, in their estimation, China’s best hope for a bourgeois revolution. Ironically, neither Chen Duxiu nor Li Dazhao attended this First Congress, but they are still honored as the two cofounders of the party in China. (Mao later revised his favorable impression of Chen and maintained that Li, who saw a greater revolutionary role for China’s peasants than Chen did, was the more ideologically correct of the two).
The Chinese Communist party (or CCP, as it is sometimes abbreviated in English) organized youth leagues and held foreign language classes to prepare China’s brightest minds for further training and indoctrination in Moscow. It also helped organize several labor unions and strikes in Shanghai. Labor unions then spread to other Chinese cities, where suspicious Chinese warlords sometimes violently opposed them. In Peking, for instance, the warlord Wu Peifu opened fire with machine guns in February 1923 on striking railroad workers, killing or wounding several hundred of them.
By July 1922 the CCP had over 100 members in several Chinese cities, and the Second Congress had decided to place the CCP under the Comintern’s control and direction. This meant that Moscow would, in theory at least, be in charge of ideological and doctrinal matters pertaining to communism in China. This would eventually lead to some friction in China between more orthodox Communists who followed Moscow’s guidance for “bourgeois” and “proletariat” revolution on the one hand and the peasantist group (including Mao Zedong) on the other, which advocated a greater revolutionary role for China’s millions of peasants.
The First United Front
The warlord period did not drag on forever. The geopolitical division and intellectual openness it fostered had both come to an end by 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek, one of Sun Yat-sen’s key generals, finally defeated most of the warlord regimes and more or less allied or entered into a state of detente with the rest of them. In achieving a nominal unification of China, Chiang Kai-shek also broke off all ties with the Chinese Communists. This led to periodic civil war in China until 1949 and the final Chinese Communist triumph.
After Yuan Shikai betrayed Sun’s republican revolution, Sun once again went abroad for a time, seeking more funds from his followers and eventually regrouping them into a more tightly organized body, which he named the Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (sometimes also known as the KMT, after the initials of its old-style spelling, Kuomintang). He eventually returned to China and established a government of his own in southern China to serve as an alternative to the various warlord-dominated regimes in Beijing.
The Soviets wanted to export their Bolshevik Revolution, and Russian interest in China increased after the May Fourth protests. Their purpose was to advance China from feudalism to capitalism and, ultimately, to socialism. Accordingly, Soviet agents from the Comintern, an international organization that sought to export the Bolshevik Revolution to other countries and guide them along the Marxist-Leninist paradigm for revolution and social salvation, searched for suitable candidates for a bourgeois revolution in China. At first they thought warlords could fill this role, but after several warlords rebuffed Soviet overtures, the Soviets finally “discovered” Sun Yat-sen in southern China and identified him as their man. They planned to use Sun Yat-sen to accomplish the bourgeois revolution and then dispose of him after he outlived his usefulness and a new socialist revolution had taken hold in China.
Sun Yat-sen himself was by no means a Communist and clearly rejected communism as unsuitable for China. He was, however, interested in working with the Communists temporarily in order to achieve his immediate objective of toppling the warlord-dominated governments in China and achieving real and lasting national unification. Sun turned to the Communists and the Soviet Union because no other Western nation showed much interest in cooperating with his political program for China. By the early 1920s he was thoroughly disillusioned with the West and regarded the Soviet Union as the only European power even remotely interested in seeing a republic established in China. Accordingly, in 1922, he allowed Chinese Communists to join his own Nationalist Party, but he made it clear that they were joining as individuals, not as a political bloc. Sun did not envision or approve of a union between the two parties. Both parties, then, hoped to outlive the other after national unification and the defeat of the warlords. Only one party could win at this precarious game, and in 1949 the Communists emerged as the victorious party.
Sun’s decision to admit the Chinese Communists into the Nationalist Party is still controversial. Some rabidly anti-Communist officials in his own party objected adamantly to this, but he overruled them and argued that all Chinese had the right to join in his revolution and that Soviet aid might go elsewhere in China if he refused to accommodate the Chinese Communists. Besides, he argued, there was some conceptual overlap between his Three Principles of the People and Marxist-Leninist ideas.
Accordingly, in the early 1920s, the Soviets sent an agent to help Sun achieve this alliance between the two parties and also to help him reorganize the Nationalist party along more Leninist, Bolshevik lines. Chiang Kai-shek, one of Sun’s main generals, was sent to Moscow for political indoctrination and training. While in Moscow, Chiang Kai-shek developed an enmity toward the Soviets and communism that endured for the rest of his life. He repeatedly wrote to Sun warning him about the real Soviet intentions for him and for China, but Sun brushed off these warnings as the loyal but overheated anxieties of a hot-blooded young Chinese patriot. Chiang Kai-shek bit his lip and did not dare cross Sun, but after Sun died in 1925 he assumed the leadership of the Nationalists and decided to break with the Chinese Communists. That break came in 1927 with blood and terror. This first period of cooperation between the Nationalists and the Chinese Communists became known as the First United Front.
The Northern Expedition
After he established working political and military ties with the Soviets, Sun Yat-sen was eager to launch his Northern Expedition, a military campaign against the warlords, and destroy their power. (He had long since given up on any purely political solution to the problem of warlordism in China.) He died, however, in March 1925 from cancer before his long-envisioned march could take place. Sun was a giant of a man with enormous prestige and following in China, and no single leader could take his place. His mantle of leadership fell on two main figures. Political leadership went to Wang Jingwei, a left-wing Nationalist politician who was somewhat sympathetic with the Chinese Communists. The all-important command of the military, however, went to Chiang Kai-shek, who by this time had pronounced right-wing tendencies and a deep and abiding hatred of the Chinese Communists.
On July 27, 1926, Chiang began the Northern Expedition, and it went more smoothly than almost anyone had anticipated. By September the Nationalists and their Communist allies had captured Wuhan, the centrally located and strategically important city where the Revolution of 1911 had first broken out, and left-wing elements of the Nationalist government soon moved their capital to the city from Canton. Chiang Kai-shek then marched on Shanghai and Nanjing, and in March 1927 his troops entered Shanghai unopposed and also captured Nanjing, where Chiang Kai-shek set up his own right-wing government. Chiang then turned with a vengeance on the generally pro-Communist labor unions in Shanghai. On April 12, 1927, he launched a brutal and bloody anti-Communist campaign in the city. His agents and police ruthlessly tracked down Communist cells and shot suspected Communists on sight. The Nationalist government in Wuhan was appalled at his actions and sought to distance itself from his Nanjing regime, but by February 1928 the Wuhan government, having concluded that it would be unwise and futile to confront Chiang Kai-shek militarily, dissolved itself and recognized Chiang’s Nanjing-based regime as the new capital of the restored republic. (Nanjing was, after all, where Sun Yat-sen had wanted China’s new capital to be located.) By 1929 Chiang had marched on Beijing, expelled the warlord Zhang Zuolin, and renamed the city Beiping, which means “Northern Peace” or “Pacified North.”
By 1929, then, Chiang Kai-shek had emerged as China’s new strongman. His forces had broken the warlords’ power, nominally unified China under the control of a Nanjing-based government, and expelled the Chinese Communists from Shanghai, Beijing, and other major cities. The Communists had not been defeated, however, but simply driven underground. They quickly reemerged in the countryside where they organized peasant resistance movements. For the next two decades, Chiang tried in vain to rid China of communism. By 1931 a new and ominous threat would emerge: Japanese militarism and aggression.
The Chinese Communists in the Countryside
After Chiang’s coup against them, the Chinese Communists were down but not out. Many of them went into hiding in the cities where they continued, at the Comintern’s insistence, to foment classic proletariat uprisings in the major cities. All the urban uprisings failed. Typically, they lasted for three days and were then suppressed by massive numbers of KMT forces who were sent to the cities. By 1930 enthusiasm among Chinese Communists for urban uprisings was waning.
A minority of Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, had meanwhile retreated to the countryside, beyond the immediate reach of Chiang’s city-based forces. Mao returned to his native province of Hunan, and in 1927 he led an unsuccessful peasant uprising, but he was not discouraged. In August of that year several thousand KMT troops defected to the Chinese Communists, among them Zhu De, who eventually became the commander of the Red Army, and Zhou Enlai, who later served as China’s premier and was, after Mao, the second most powerful leader in China.
Mao and Zhu eventually relocated to Jiangxi province, where they organized a rural soviet, a Communist-led regime that confiscated land from greedy landlords, punished or executed them, and redistributed their land to poor peasants. This simple program of land reform was tremendously appealing to Jiangxi’s peasantry, and by early 1930 Mao’s Communist movement in the province was gaining enormous popular support. This was ominous for Chiang Kai-shek, but he found even more unsettling Zhu De’s command over a Red Army emerging to protect the new soviet from attack. In November 1930 Chiang Kai-shek launched the first of five “encirclement and extermination” campaigns against the Jiangxi soviet. The first four were unsuccessful, but the fifth in October 1933 succeeded in dislodging the Chinese Communists and sending them on the epic Long March. They finally relocated in Yan’an in the faraway northern province of Shaanxi.
Japan was undeniably the first nation in East Asia to modernize itself effectively, and by the early twentieth century some Japanese chauvinists and militarists envisioned that Japan would emerge as the next conquest dynasty in China and rule over the Chinese as the Mongols and Manchus had done in previous centuries. Japanese militarists regarded themselves and their country as the force that would save the rest of East Asia and the Pacific islands from the twin perils of communism and white man’s imperialism. This would also allow Japan to establish its own empire in the same area, but the Japanese imagined that East Asia would prefer Japanese imperialism to Western imperialism. Eventually Japan originated a charming euphemism for its East Asian empire: the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Japan’s aggression against China began on September 18, 1931, when Japanese forces manufactured a pretext to conquer Manchuria, or China’s northeast. The Japanese claimed that on this day a bomb exploded on a train in Mukden, Manchuria, and that Japanese troops investigating the explosion were fired upon. Japan therefore had no choice but to take over all of Manchuria in self-defense. This action, known as the Manchurian Incident or the Mukden Incident, was the beginning of World War II for China. The next year, Japan transformed Manchuria into an “independent” state and named it Manchukuo, or the “Nation of Manchuria.” Japan then installed a puppet government in Manchukuo that was headed up by Henry Pu Yi, the last Qing emperor who was only a child of about three when his dynasty abdicated in early 1912. The rest of the world was not fooled by Japan’s claims that the people of Manchuria had begged Japan to make theirs an independent state, and the League of Nations criticized Japan for its aggression. Japan responded by withdrawing from the League and more or less thumbing its nose at the rest of the world. Japan’s lack of concern for its international image became further apparent in January 1932, when it attacked and occupied the Chinese areas of Shanghai and did not withdraw until the middle of the year, after several foreign powers intervened to help negotiate a truce. But Japanese occupying troops remained in Manchuria, and during the early and mid-1930s the tentacles of Japanese military occupation spread to other areas of northern China. The Japanese knew that Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Nanjing was too busy with the Chinese Communists to resist their invasions effectively.
Diseases of Skin and Heart
The great and pressing question for Chiang Kai-shek’s government during the Japanese aggression of the 1930s was who to fight first: the Japanese invaders or the Chinese Communist insurgents. This question, in turn, boiled down to an assessment of which was the greater threat, the invasion from without or the subversion from within. For Chiang Kai-shek there was little question that the Communists posed the greater peril to China. Comparing the Japanese to a disease of the skin and the Chinese Communists to a disease of the heart, he reasoned that only a strong and internally unified China freed of subversion could successfully resist the Japanese invasion. Accordingly, he continued his relentless search for Chinese Communists in the cities and continued the fight against the rural soviet regime in Jiangxi.
The Extermination and Encirclement Campaigns
Chiang Kai-shek had launched the first of his ominously named extermination and encirclement campaigns against Jiangxi in November 1930. This was a disastrous failure: 40,000 Red Army troops defeated 100,000 Nationalist troops. Undeterred and undiscouraged, Chiang attacked a second time from February through June 1931, but with similar results: 30,000 Red Army troops defeated an army of 200,000 Nationalist men. Chiang personally led 300,000 troops on the third campaign in the summer of 1931 and penetrated deep into Jiangxi, but Mao and Zhu successfully divided the army into small, isolated units and then ambushed them individually, inflicting enormous casualties. A fourth campaign launched in mid-1932 against other soviets in other provinces also ended in defeat for Chiang Kai-shek’s government. The fifth and final campaign, launched against Jiangxi in October 1933, was a massive, well-coordinated assault, with 750,000 Nationalist troops, air support, and German military advice. The Chinese Communists were defeated in this attack and were forced to evacuate the province.
The reasons for the Communists’ defeat in this last campaign are controversial. Mao, a classic guerrilla warrior, disliked traditional positional warfare and preferred to lure enemy units into isolation and then wear them down through hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. Other Communist strategists and Otto Braun, a German military advisor to the Chinese Communists, opposed Mao’s tactics and pointed out that soviets in other provinces had defeated campaigns against them through European-style positional warfare. They ultimately had their way, and the results for the Chinese Communists were disastrous. Chiang’s massive fifth campaign was intelligently conceived and competently coordinated, and his troops advanced slowly and steadily instead of rushing forth and being “lured in deep.” They built blockhouses and left reinforcements in conquered areas before advancing farther, and a slowly constricting ring of troops was eventually established around the Communists, cutting them off from the outside world and depriving them of salt, a commodity in desperately short supply. By late 1934, facing impending defeat, the Chinese Communists decided to concentrate all of their firepower and break out of the encirclement at one point. Mao disagreed with these tactics and argued for classic guerrilla tactics: Communist troops should slip through the encirclements at night in small fire teams and regroup later elsewhere. Once again overruled, Mao angrily watched the breakthrough successfully achieved in late 1934, but at a very high cost to the Red Army. The Long March had begun.
The Long March of the Chinese Communists
The Long March is one of the pivotal events in the history of the Chinese Communist movement. Around 400,000 people started out, but only 40,000 made it all the way to Yan’an. The rest deserted or were killed or captured. It was a make-or-break struggle for the Chinese Communists who participated in it, and the few who survived became a core generation for Chinese leadership well into the 1980s and even the 1990s. For the Chinese Communists, the Long March became the stuff of legends. It was a crucial, nation-making event, and to have participated in it was like having fought at Vimy Ridge in World War I for Canadians or having wintered at Valley Forge for Americans. The Long March today is immortalized in China in movies, television dramas, novels, plays, and ear-splitting arias sung by rosy-cheeked peasant girls. Chinese space rockets today are called Long March rockets, and the CCP still occasionally touts “the Yan’an spirit” as a pristine and selfless ideological puritanism to counter what it sees as the corrosive cultural and economic influences of the modern Western, capitalistic world.
In reality, the Long March was the long retreat of a defeated army and regime. The Nationalists called it the “Great Rat Scamper” (da liu-cuan), and many old Nationalists in Taiwan today still chuckle at its glorification and exaggeration in mainland China. KMT aircraft followed the course of the Long March and regularly bombed and strafed it, so that the marchers eventually had to march at night and rest during the daytime. Hostile foot soldiers often ambushed them and decimated their numbers. The Long Marchers suffered terribly and often went without shoes, warm clothing, and adequate nutrition. (Photographs of Mao taken right after the Long March show him to be gaunt and emaciated, and the few months after he arrived in Yan’an were the only time in his adult life when he was not overweight.)
On January 5, 1935, the Long Marchers stopped in the town of Zunyi in Guizhou province where they conferred on their damage and progress. One Communist leader after another stood up to denounce those who had insisted on positional warfare in fighting against the last Nationalist extermination campaign. This pleased Mao, who, of course, had also criticized the nonguerrilla style of warfare and argued that the decision to break out of the encirclement in one block had produced needless casualties. Mao was given strategic leadership over the Red Army and also admitted to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the highest policy-making body of the CCP. Ever after this, Mao was the dominant personality of the Chinese Communist movement. The conference at Zunyi made his career, and throughout the rest of his life he retained supreme command over the Red Army.
The adventures and narrow escapes encountered and overcome by the Long Marchers are too numerous to recount in detail. One challenge, however, the crossing of the Luding Bridge in a steep and mountainous region in Sichuan province, stands out as the most notable. The bridge was a suspension bridge from which KMT troops had removed the wooden planking. Large numbers of KMT troops waited on the other side of the bridge, ready to resist any Communist troops who attempted to cross it. At great odds and with enormous casualties, the Long Marchers captured and crossed the bridge and moved on.
The Long March finally ended in Shaanxi province in October 1935, and by 1936 the Communists had holed up in the town of Yan’an, a strategically important area that was nearly impossible to bomb from the air because the dwellings were dug into the faces of nearly vertical cliffs. There the Chinese Communists remained headquartered until the end of World War II in August 1945, beyond the reach of Japanese and KMT foes alike. The time in Yan’an was a breather for Mao, and there he received foreign sympathizers, gave interviews to adventurous American journalists, wrote theoretical essays, fine-tuned his ideology, and regained his lost weight.
The Xi’an Incident and the Second United Front
The KMT government of Chiang Kai-shek was, of course, not content to allow Mao and the Communists to remain unchallenged in Yan’an. Because the approaches to Yan’an were heavily defended, Chiang blockaded the entire area around the town to starve the Communists out by choking off their supplies. He also continued his campaign of hunting down other pockets of Communist activity in China and violently eliminating them.
This did not always play well in Chinese public opinion. Many Chinese who otherwise had reservations about the Chinese Communist movement wondered why, during Japan’s ongoing invasion of China, Chiang was intent on ignoring the Japanese and killing large numbers of his own Chinese people who happened to be Communists. Was not an invasion by foreigners a greater threat and shame than insurrection by a few thousand misguided rebels? By late December 1935, students in Beiping and Shanghai were protesting against the anti-Communist campaigns. Their simple insistence that “Chinese must not kill Chinese” had a direct and powerful appeal to large segments of the Chinese public, including the very military units in Shaanxi that were manning the blockades and fighting the Chinese Communists.
These units were under the control of a young general named Zhang Xueliang, son of a former warlord and himself only nominally allied with Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT government. Zhang and his men were not at all enthusiastic about fighting the Communists while the Japanese invasion was unfolding, and by the summer of 1936 Zhang had significantly downscaled his anti-Communist campaigns and was, by some reports, even conferring with Chinese Communist leaders. Continuing reports to this effect were distressing to Chiang Kai-shek, and in early December 1936 he boarded a plane and flew to Xi’an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi, intending to persuade Zhang Xueliang to continue with the anti-Communist struggle. He arrived in Xi’an on December 10 and soon realized that he was getting nowhere with Zhang.
What happened next is a matter of some controversy. In the early hours of December 12, Zhang and his men apparently surrounded Chiang Kai-shek’s quarters to kidnap him. Chiang attempted to escape but was soon captured by Zhang’s men, who treated him well but insisted that he call off the anti-Communist campaign and instead fight the Japanese. On December 25, 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was released and allowed to fly back to Nanjing, but with Zhang Xueliang in his company as a prisoner. Once back in Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek did call off the anti-Communist offensive but placed Zhang under house arrest. (Zhang endured this punishment after the removal of the Nationalist government to Taiwan in 1949. He was finally released in the late 1980s by Chiang Kai-shek’s son and allowed to move to Hawaii. Astonishingly, Zhang was still alive in the year 2000, aged 101.) In early 1937 Chiang’s government declared all-out war on the Japanese invaders, much to the relief and satisfaction of the Chinese Communists and much of the rest of China’s educated population as well. This was the beginning of the Second United Front, a period of renewed cooperation between the Nationalists and Communists. In the First United Front the common enemy had been the warlords, and now the common enemy was Japan. The Second United Front lasted until 1941, when it largely fell apart as both parties renewed armed attacks on one another.
Was Zhang a sacrificial lamb of sorts? Was an agreement reached during the Xi’an Incident that enabled Chiang Kai-shek to call off the anti-Communist offensive while saving face? Did Zhang agree to become Chiang’s prisoner in exchange for the cancellation of his war against the Communists? Only Zhang Xueliang knew the real answers to these questions, and hopefully he had them recorded somewhere for the benefit of history prior to his death in the early twenty-first century. In the People’s Republic of China today, Zhang is highly revered, and if while he was alive he had ever chosen to return to the mainland, he would have received a tumultuous hero’s welcome.
World War II in China
Europeans usually date the beginning of World War II to 1939 and Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Americans often date it to December 7, 1941, and the infamous Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. For the Chinese, it began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September 1931 and did not end until Japan’s defeat by the United States in August 1945.
World War II in China was at times a complicated three-way war, with the Chinese Communists and Nationalists sometimes fighting each other as well as the Japanese. Each side accused the other of secretly collaborating with the Japanese and waging half-hearted war against them. The truth is that, after the American entry into the war in late December 1941, both sides became convinced that the United States would eventually prevail against Japan, and they decided to retain their best forces in reserve for the civil war and final showdown they knew would follow Japan’s surrender. Some U.S. forces were committed to the war effort in China. General Joseph Stilwell commanded American army units in southern China and found Chiang Kai-shek’s refusal to wage an all-out war against the Japanese supremely frustrating, and rogue fighter pilots under Claire Chennault of American Flying Tigers fame shot down many Japanese aircraft for Chiang Kai-shek in the early months of America’s involvement in World War II. (Chiang reportedly paid $500 for each Japanese plane shot down.) In the end, however, American forces in China did not play a decisive role in defeating the Japanese. The major actions of the United States against the Japanese empire occurred in the Pacific War.
World War II in China proved to be the Chinese Communists’ salvation. The power vacuum created in China by the Japanese invasion and the Second United Front gave them the opportunity to recover and consolidate their hold over vast areas of Chinese territory. Without the Japanese invasion the Chinese Communists would never have come to power; Mao directly admitted as much to Tanaka Kakuei, the prime minister of Japan during the early 1970s (Li 1994, 567-68). During the war Mao apportioned his efforts as follows: 70 percent to Communist expansion, 20 percent to cooperation with the KMT, and 10 percent to fighting the Japanese invaders (Hsu 1990, 589).
Unnerved by the Second United Front and the prospect of fighting a China united against them, in July 1937 Japanese militarists unleashed a full-scale invasion of China. They soon occupied several major Chinese cities, and by December they had captured Nanjing, then internationally recognized as China’s capital and the seat of Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Chiang abandoned the city to the Japanese but did not surrender to them; he and his government relocated far up the Yangtze to the city of Chongqing (Chungking) in mountainous Sichuan province, where they remained for the duration of World War II. Frustrated that their capture of Nanjing did not result in China’s official surrender, the Japanese invaders brutally murdered more than 300,000 innocent and unarmed civilians in the city. The Rape of Nanking, as it became known in the West, shocked the world and led to deep shame in Japan at the end of the war when the Japanese public learned about it. The Rape of Nanking, a historical reality still denied by right-wing extremists in Japan, remains today a source of considerable anti-Japanese feeling in China, in part because of the Japanese government’s continual refusal to apologize for it officially. A recent book written by Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1997), contains graphic descriptions of Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, including murder, torture, and widespread rape. Many booksellers in Japan today are afraid to display or sell the book for fear of violent and destructive reprisals by ultraconservative Japanese groups.
By 1944 the Japanese controlled roughly the eastern half of China, but they never succeeded in conquering the entire country. Chongqing and Yan’an, the wartime capitals of the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, respectively, remained beyond their reach throughout the war, although Japanese aircraft bombed the cities whenever they could. Japanese power in China had begun evaporating by late 1944 and early 1945 as troops were pulled out of China for the anticipated defense of the Japanese home islands against advancing American forces.