The Chinese Civil War 1945 - 1949
The Chinese civil war is one of the key events of 20th century. The victory of the Communists over the Nationalists determined the Chinese history over several generations and defined international relations in East Asia throughout the Cold War era and after. The civil war in China represents not only the clashes of armies, but also of nations and classes. As all civil wars it represents furthermore a traumatic and painful process within a people with atrocities on both sides and horrendous suffering of combatants and civilians.
The civil strife between the Nationalists and Communists on mainland China had begun in the 1920s, coming to a head right after the end of World War II in 1945, when the Communists began the successful drive that won them final control over China in October 1949. From then on China was under the rule of Mao’s Communist Party with one exception: Taiwan. The island southeast of mainland China was ruled by Chiang Kai- shek. Since 1949 the world has dealt with two Chinese states: the People’s Republic of China or PRC in mainland China under the Communists and the Republic of China or ROC in Taiwan under the Nationalists.
I. A World in Turmoil
Asia was a centre of unrest and turmoil through generations from the beginning of the 20th century leading up to the present with violence and instability at many levels. Largescale civil war developed in China, Burma, Vietnam and Korea. Clashes between Communist-led insurgents and nationalist government forces or military coups took place in almost every state in South-East Asia, beginning in 1947 with rebellions in Malaya, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines.1
The history of the 20th century is best defined by the gigantic struggle of three ideologies, the democratic, the fascist and the communist. Two fascist aggressors, Japan and Germany, launched a global war of unsurpassed aggression, which threw Asia and Europe in a destructive survival struggle. This struggle ended with the defeat of Japan and Germany in 1945 and the divide of the global community in a democratic West and a communist East.
China was one of the center stage players in this war of ideologies. The world events explain also the fateful involvement of outside powers in China in the first half of the 20th century. Great Britain, the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union left their mark, were part of the Chinese struggle and civil war up to Mao’s final grasp of power, which threw the vast country into the opposite direction, a phase of isolation and insulation until Mao’s death in 1976.
The ideological struggle determined furthermore American policy during China’s civil war era. The US and the Soviet-Union had allied in World War II against the two fascist aggressors, but fell out right after the war ended. Their antagonism characterizes the era of the Cold War. The United States tried to contain the communist spread in China and got heavily tangled up with Chiang Kai-shek, an involvement, which failed to save China from communist rule.
II. Chinese Against Chinese: The Reality of Civil Warfare
Comrade Wang had been a commander with the guerillas since late 1945. Five decades later his daughter Jung Chang wrote down his story. Ms. Chang became a professor of English Literature in England and a well-known author of China’s tumultuous civil war era, of Mao and of the Cultural Revolution.2 Her father Wang, a devout communist, should move up high as an official in Mao’s China, but fall deep during the Cultural Revolution in the decade from 1966 to 1976.
From 1945 to 1949, we see in him one of the examples of idealistic young communists who desperately fought for a better China, for the rejuvenation of a great nation and the liberation from suppression and intervention of outside powers.
In April 1940 the 19year old Wang joined the Communist headquarters in the caves of Yan’an on the Yellow Earth Plateau, a remote and barren mountain area of Northwest China and the hide-out of Mao and his comrades after the ordeal of the Long March.3 The well-read young man passed the entrance exams for the Academy of Marxist- Leninist Studies and advanced soon in ranks. Chang writes that her father loved Yan’an. “He found the people there full of enthusiasm, optimism, and purpose. The Party leaders lived simply … in striking contrast with Kuomintang officials. Yan ’ an was no democracy, but compared with where [Wang] has come from it seemed to be a paradise of fairness.”4 Wang will soon learn that there were darker sides to the Communist party. When Mao started the “rectification” campaign, inviting criticism of the Party leadership, Wang was for the first time challenged by the dictatorial ways of Mao who was more out to “rectify” the critics than changing his leadership style.5 Wang and many others were publicly reprimanded for their open criticism. Wang still justified Mao’s actions due to the pressures of civil war. He thought that Party discipline was indispensable in order to defeat the reactionary enemy. Like his comrades Wang admired Mao for his shrewd strategies to hold out against the Japanese invaders and to fight the civil war against the Kuomintang.
A month after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, comrade Wang was ordered to leave Yan’an and lead a unit against Kuomintang forces in Chaoyang in southwest Manchuria. After walking for two months, Wang and his group reached Chaoyang, a barren mountainous area, similar to Yan’an. The area had been part of Manchuko until September 1945. At that time a small group of local communists had proclaimed their own “government”. This caused Kuomintang forces to do the same. Now Communist troops came racing over from Jinzhou, arrested the Kuomintang “governor” and executed him.
Wang’s group had the task to establish a proper administration for Chaoyang. This region had never known a decent government. It was ransacked in the warlord period, and then occupied and bled white by the Japanese for over a decade. Wang’s unit put up posters announcing the new communist policies: the release of all prisoners, the closure of all pawn shops; brothels were to be closed and prostitutes given six months living allowance by their owners; all grain stores were to be opened and the grain distributed to those in need; all property belonging to Japanese collaborators was to be confiscated. 6
These policies were enormously popular, but lasted only a few weeks, because then the Kuomintang forces rallied and came back to drive out the Communists. Mao issued an order to his forces to withdraw from all vulnerable cities and to pull back into the countryside - “leaving the high road alone and seizing the land on both sides” and “surrounding the cities from the countryside”.7
Comrade Wang knew that this meant guerilla warfare. He withdrew with his unit into the mountains, an area almost devoid from vegetation and bitter cold nights. From the exhilaration of seeing Japan’s defeat and the Communist takeover of large parts of the Northeast, victory seemed to dissipate into a far future. Wang and his comrades, who lived in caves, were in a somber mood. Some of them died from starvation or froze to death. The guerillas had very few arms, not the best condition for the imminent fighting with nearby Kuomintang forces.
Eventually Comrade Wang managed to set up a base at a place called Six Household Village, where the Xialong River starts. In this area, the main policy was to reduce the rent and interest on loans for the peasants. The Communists also confiscated grain and clothing from the landlords and distributed them to poor peasants. The guerillas were now better equipped with weapons which they either captured from Kuomintang forces or from local police and landlord forces. Fierce fighting occurred in the mountainous area. In November 1946 the Kuomintang stepped up their attacks again and took over Six Household Village.
Comrade Wang and his guerillas were once more forced to withdraw. With the Kuomintang the old leadership returned, among them the former landlord, Jin Ting-quan, who had also been the police chief, and had brutally raped many women. When he entered the village with the Kuomintang forces, the peasants were made to grovel in front of him and return all the goods they had been given by the Communists. Those who had eaten the grain, were tortured and their homes destroyed. One peasant who refused to kowtow or return the food was slowly burned to death.8
In spring 1947, however, the tide began to turn in favor of the Communists and now it was them again who took back Six Household Village. The terrorized peasant population was in the meantime so afraid that they refused to take Jin Ting-quan’s land or any of his possessions.
Although Jin Ting-quan was under arrest, the peasants bowed and scraped to him. The Communists soon learned about the man who was burned to death. Jin tin-quan was now sentenced to death by shooting by the communist government, but the family of the burnt man as well as the families of other victims wanted to see him suffer the same gruesome death. The result was that also Yin Ting-quan, the former landlord, was slowly burned to death.9
Comrade Wang told his daughter later about these events. He emphasized that the communists would have been opposed to torture in theory, but that the reality was very often a different one. He and other officials were told that they should not intervene “if the peasants wished to vent their anger in passionate acts of revenge”.10 Brutal and cruel landlords like Jin were called e-ba or “ferocious despots ”. Ordinary landlords were called “stones” or “obstacles to the revolution ”. Communist policy towards them was: “When in doubt, kill.”11 Wang and other Communists criticized this policy strongly. Soon the excesses got so out of hand, that the Party leadership issued instructions in 1948 to show more moderation.
In early 1948 Wang joined up with the regular Red Army. He was put in charge of an intelligence unit to track the movements and deployment of Kuomintang forces. Much of his information came from agents within the Kuomintang.12
Still before the civil war ended, the young intelligence officer Wang met the love of his life near Jinzhou. It was Chang’s mother who decided to work for the Communists. She was drawn to the new Party for the same reasons as Wang and was as idealistic and well educated as he was. A great real life love story sprang from this tumultuous time, which held through years of success as well as through years of imprisonment, public denouncements, beatings and labor camps.
III. Revolutionary Women
In 1945 Jung Chang’s mother became pregnant and was on a march of thousands of miles, swimming through rivers and enduring enormous hardship in fighting for the Communist cause.13 She was convinced that only Communism was able to liberate women from suppression in China.
1 The Times Atlas of World History, Times Books Limited, London 1978, Page 278, 279.
2 Jung Chang, Wild Swans. Three Daughters of China.
3 The Long March took place in 1934. For further information go on: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/long_march_1934_to_1935.htm
4 Chang, Page 119.
5 Chang, Page 120ff.
6 Chang, Page 121
7 Chang, Page 121, 122.
8 Chang, Page 124.
9 Chang, Page 124.
10 Chang, Page 124.
11 Chang, Page 124.
12 Chang, Page 125.
13 The account of Jung Chang of the lives of her grandmother, mother and herself are a valuable source for everyone who wants to learn about the reality of life in China in the 20th century.
- Quote paper
- Dr.phil. Irmtraud Eve Burianek (Author), 2010, The Chinese Civil War 1945 - 1949, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/199640