Chaos in China: The Turning Point in Modern Chinese History


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

Chiang Kai-shek’s rule in China in the early 20th century was a turbulent one. On one hand, there was trouble within the state with Mao Zedong leading the communist uprising, while on the other hand, China faced the threat of Japanese invasion. Was Chiang Kai-shek able to successfully handle these problems?

Image showing a statue of Mao Zedong.
Mao Zedong was the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. (Image: Krzysztof Stepien/Shutterstock)

Failure of the 28 Bolsheviks

The revolutionary mass movement orchestrated by Mao Zedong and Zhu De in the Jiangxi Soviet Republic was a major concern for Chiang Kai-shek. He concentrated on terminating the communist threat rather than dealing with the military threat from the Japanese. By the mid-1930s, he was able to create a serious rift within the Communist leadership.

In 1930, a group of pro-Moscow Communists dubbed the ‘28 Bolsheviks’ were sent to take control of the Soviet government from Mao on Joseph Stalin’s orders. However, Chiang Kai-shek’s continuous assaults on Jiangxi Soviet Republic led the Red Army to execute a hastily-planned escape to ensure their survival.

In January 1935, the retreating Red Army forces paused to rest in the town of Zunyi, in eastern Guizhou Province. There the Communist Party held an important leadership conference, in the course of which the pro-Moscow ‘28 Bolsheviks’ received a sharp rebuke for having failed to prevent the Red Army’s defeat in the fifth annihilation campaign.

Their top leader, Bo Gu, was held responsible for the debacle and was removed from power. With that, the Autumn Harvest veterans assumed control of the party, with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in overall command.

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Mao Zedong’s Darker Side

By this time, Mao Zedong began to reveal his darker side, including his overwhelming ambition, manipulativeness, and ruthless nature. Not content to share power with Zhou Enlai, the ambitious Mao moved to undermine Zhou’s co-equal status through various strategies, including the use of blackmail.

Zhou did not relish a political showdown with Mao, and he volunteered to take a back seat. From that point on, Mao Zedong completely dominated Zhou, manipulating and intimidating him virtually at will, and assumed full control of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

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Final Destination of the Communists’ Long March

The escape of the Communists was known as the Long March and included 85,000 soldiers, 15,000 party and government officials, and only 35 women. With Mao now in charge of planning for the Long March, the Communists set as their final destination the city of Yan’an in northern Shaanxi Province, some 800 miles to the northwest.

By the time the Red Army reached Yan’an at the end of 1935, 13 months after they set out, the Communists had traversed nine provinces and crossed snow-covered peaks, raging rivers, and uninhabitable forests, from Western Guangdong to eastern Tibet.

Of the original 100,000 Long Marchers, only 8,000 reached their destination. The rest, more than nine-tenths of the original Communist force, had either been killed, taken prisoner, or had dropped out along the way. Having finally reached Yan’an, out of reach of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies, Mao’s forces rested.

The New Life Movement

Image showing an ancient painting of Confucius.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher whose teachings were included in the New Life Movement. (Image: Wu Daozi, Tang Dynasty/Public domain)

At the time the Communists were undertaking their arduous Long March, back in Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek and his American-educated wife, Soong Mei-ling, were launching a New Life Movement.

Designed to foster a new spiritual awakening for the Chinese people, the movement drew from both Confucian and Christian moral traditions, accompanied by liberal political rhetoric drawn from Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Three People’s Principles’.

The movement sought to create a new national consciousness based on the traditional Chinese virtues of propriety, justice, integrity, and self-awareness. It also stressed Christian values such as plain living, personal hygiene, cleanliness, and self-discipline.

Chiang once boasted that when properly implemented, the New Life Movement would lead to the “social regeneration of China”.

Drawbacks of the New Life Movement

However, in reality, many of the precepts of the New Life Movement were essentially a reprise of failed Confucian traditions and were highly reflective of Chiang’s own deepening right-wing authoritarian tendencies.

The movement offered no economic reforms to ameliorate the poverty of China’s long-suffering workers and peasants, and no political framework to allow ordinary Chinese to participate in deliberating the important issues of the day. Indeed, at its core, Chiang Kai-shek’s New Life Movement was an attempt to create an orderly, well-disciplined, highly regimented, conformist, and obedient society under patriarchal leadership.

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The Japanese Advances in China

In 1932, in response to a growing Chinese patriotic movement to boycott Japanese goods, a shipload of fully armed Japanese marines came ashore in Shanghai. After a brief exchange of gunfire with Nationalist troops, the Japanese commander ordered an aerial bombardment of the city, followed by a full-scale ground attack on Shanghai’s defenders.

Three divisions of Japanese soldiers were committed to the battle, which ended in an armistice three months later. However, early in 1933, Japanese forces struck south of their Manchukuo stronghold, attacking Jehol Province, north of Beijing. Then, in the spring of the same year, they occupied a strategic mountain pass at the eastern terminus of the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan, less than 150 miles from Beijing. Soon, they moved into Hebei Province, south of the Great Wall.

Confronted with such audacious acts of Japanese aggression, Chiang Kai-shek temporized, ordering his outmanned troops to stand down and seek a cease-fire, rather than fight with the Japanese. But, anti-Japanese sentiment had been building steadily in China ever since the Japanese seizure of Manchuria, and in December of 1935 thousands of Chinese students demonstrated in several Chinese cities demanding that Chiang cease his vendetta against the Communists and instead create a national united front to resist Japan.

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Turning Point in Modern Chinese History

Chiang Kai-shek refused to abandon his plan to wipe out the Communists and ordered an attack on Yan’an. His best commanding officer, Zhang Xueliang had no intention of fighting fellow Chinese, Communists or otherwise. Ever since the Japanese militarists had assassinated his father, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin, the ‘Young Marshal’, as he was known, had been waiting to fight Japan.

When Chiang learned of the Young Marshal’s refusal to attack Yan’an, the Generalissimo flew to the city of Xian, 100 miles south of Yan’an, to confront him. But Zhang turned the tables on his commander-in-chief, kidnapping him in the middle of the night and holding him hostage.

Image showing a black and white photo of Zhang Xueliang.
Zhang Xueliang was the son of the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin who was assassinated by the Japanese. (Image: Central Archive Press/Public domain)

The Young Marshal’s demands were simple—Chiang Kai-shek must call off his planned attack on the Communists and form a second united front with the Chinese Communist Party, directed against the Japanese.

At first, Chiang stubbornly refused; but when his wife learned of his predicament, she flew to Xian and convinced her husband to agree to the rebels’ demands. And so, a second Guomindang/Chinese Communist Party, the united front, came into being in December of 1936, a full decade after the first united front had ended abruptly with Chiang’s murderous coup in Shanghai.

Common Questions about Chaos in China—the Turning Point in Modern Chinese History

Q: What was the final destination of the Communists’ Long March?

After Mao Zedong took charge of the planning for the Long March, the final destination was the city of Yan’an in northern Shaanxi Province.

Q: What did Chiang Kai-shek and his wife’s New Life Movement seek to create?

The New Life Movement sought to create a new national consciousness based on traditional Chinese virtues of propriety, justice, integrity, and self-awareness.

Q: What were Zhang Xueliang’s demands after he kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek?

Zhang Xueliang’s demands were simple—Chiang Kai-shek must call off his planned attack on the Communists and form a second united front with the Chinese Communist Party, directed against the Japanese.

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