Chinese Communists

Photograph of Chinese Communist guerrillas during the Hundred Regiments Offensive

Wikipedia Commons

The Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-tung fought a brutal three-way war with the Japanese and the Kuomintang from 1937 to 1945. Driven to the hills of Shensi Province by Chiang Kai-shek before the war, and cynically abandoned by Stalin, they fought alone until Allied victory in the Pacific changed Stalin's attitude and brought renewed Russian support. They would then seize control of all of China except Formosa and usher in a reign of terror (the Great Cultural Revolution) that is among the worst the world has ever seen.

Following the First World War, the new Soviet government in Russia saw an opportunity to instigate a Communist movement in China, and the Chinese Communist Party was founded in July 1921 under the tutelage of Russian advisers. These same Russian advisers pressured the Communists into joining with the Kuomintang, which soon after the death of founder Sun Yat-sen on 12 March 1925 came under the control of Chiang Kai-shek. However, the Communists distrusted Chiang who had begun making alliances with landlord organizations in south China. When Chiang began his first expedition against the warlords in July 1926, the Communists took advantage of his absence to organize in the countryside and win over the support of a number of Kuomintang division and regiment commanders. However, Chiang struck first, on 12 April 1927, and drove the Communists underground.

Chiang began a campaign to exterminate the Communists, and by October 1934 he had the strongest of the Communist forces, that of Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh, bottled up in the mountains of southern Kiangsi. Mao and Che's 100,000 guerrillas constituted perhaps 90% of the Communist guerrillas in China at the time. In desperation, the Communists broke through the encirclement and began the Long March through southern and western China, during which Mao cemented his position as the leader of the Chinese Communists. Mao eventually led his force to Shansi province in northwest China and established his headquarters at Yanan. Meanwhile Chiang's efforts to rid himself of the Communists were brought to and end by the threat of Japanese expansion into north China.

Following the Sian Incident of December 1936, in which Chiang was kidnapped by Chang Hsüeh-liang and forced to agree to a United Front with the Communists against the Japanese, the People's Liberation Army was nominally incorporated into the national army, with its main formation (8 Route Army) designated as 18 Army Group. The Communist government was also nominally absorbed into the national government and designated the Shensi-Kansu-Ningshia Border Region, with Lin Po-ch'u as chairman. After some dispute, the Kuomintang recognized Communist rule in 18 counties (hsien) in July 1940. By then the Communists were claiming up to 28 counties. The area was about 35,500 square miles (92,000 square kilometers) with a population of about 1,420,000. The population of Yanan itself was swelled by about 100,000 men — and they were overwhelmingly male; the ratio was 30 to 1 in 1938 and was still eight to one in 1944. The Communists and the Kuomintang also become somewhat reconciliatory in their propaganda towards each other, but with the exception of some local cooperation between Communist and Kuomintang guerrillas behind Japanese lines, there was little genuine cooperation between the groups.

Relations soured in early 1939, when Chiang moved some 400,000 troops to the west and south of the Communist base area. The troops did not move into Communist-controlled areas, but they effectively blockaded the Communists. Combined with poor harvests in 1939 and 1940, this led to inflation of 4400 per cent in Yanan versus 1400 per cent in Chungking.

The actual contribution of the Chinese Communists to Allied victory remains difficult to assess. This is partly because of their isolation during the war years, and partly because neither they, the Kuomintang, nor the Japanese had much interest in keeping an accurate account. Reports of the skill and success of Communist guerrillas against the Japanese may have been exaggerated to excuse their subsequent success against the Kuomintang. However, the preponderance of evidence is that the Communist contribution to fighting the Japanese was small. It seems likely that Mao never had any intention of engaging in serious fighting against the Japanese. Only 30% of Communist manpower was assigned to guerrilla operations against the Japanese, while the other 70% were engaged in building up the Communist base areas for the inevitable postwar showdown with the Kuomintang. Thus Mao's policy was to wait for the Japanese to clear an area of Kuomintang forces, then move into the vacuum behind the front line. He commented that "The more land Japan took, the better." Russian adviser Peter Vladimirov reported that "the CCP leadership; rejoices at the news of the defeat suffered by Chiang Kai-shek's troops in Honan and Hunan... His calculations are simple — whenever Chiang Kai-shek suffers a defeat, [Yanan] benefits from it" (quoted by Mitter 2013). The Communists appear to have fought just two significant actions in eight years of Japanese incursion. These were an ambush of a column of 5 Division at Pingxingguan, and the Hundred Regiments Offensive in August 1940. Both were carried out against Mao's wishes.

American ambassador Clarence Gauss, who seems to have been a remarkably clear-eyed observer of the faults of both the Kuomintang and the Communists, wrote of the latter (Mitter 2013):

They appear to have avoided meeting the Japanese in frontal clashes, confining themselves in the main to occasional attacks against small elements of the enemy. In reviewing the battles of the past seven years in China, it would seem safe to say that Communist participation has been on a relatively minor scale. The Communist[s] have fought no battles comparable in scope and intensity to those of the Shanghai, Hsuchow, Hankow, and Changsha campaigns; and their claims to the contrary notwithstanding they appear to have contained but a minor proportion of the Japanese military forces operating in China,.

Chinese historians are also coming to acknowledge that the Yan'an regime engaged in substantial opium trafficking, including with the Japanese. Yang Jinghua has declared that "Mao and the Communists engaged in the opium trade. How else could they pay their troops? Nothing else that would grow in Yan'an was marketable. In such a situation, you do what you must" (Hastings 2007.) Japan's China Affairs Board is alleged to have negotiated with the Communists for supplies of opium, although the evidence is fragmentary. The Yan'an regime also heavily taxed the more prosperous peasants in its area of control, with the grain tax reaching 13.6 per cent in 1941, though the poorest 20% of peasants were exempt from taxation.

Japanese sources seem agreed that the Communists were never considered a serious threat and the preponderance of Japanese strength was deployed against the Kuomintang. By 1944, only 30% of Japanese forces were deployed against the Communists. The Japanese staged 17 air raids against Yan'an between 1938 and 1941, killing 214, versus over 5000 killed at Chungking in just two raids on 3-4 May 1939. Rather than fight the Japanese, most Communist forces struggled simply to feed themselves. Nevertheless, by the time of the surrender, the People's Liberation Army numbered over a million men, and the Communists governed a population of 100 million in an area of 370,000 square miles (950,000 square kilometers). Party membership had grown to 2.7 million. The Communists had also won considerable foreign sympathy. All these elements were essential to the ultimate Communist victory in the civil war of 1945-1949.

Communist propaganda was effective in creating the illusion that the Communists were effectively fighting the Japanese and at concealing true conditions in the Communist-controlled areas. As a result, some 100,000 young Chinese had joined the Communists by 1940, and another 86,000 came between 1941 and 1944. About half of these were students and other intellectuals. Few were strongly committed to Marxism, but were disillusioned by the military reverses suffered by the Kuomintang and believed the Communists had a better chance of expelling foreign invaders.

The Hundred Regiments Offensive. The Hundred Regiments Offensive began on 20 August 1940. It was masterminded by Chu Teh but led by P'eng Te-huai. 8 Route Army began the battle with 40,000 troops in 22 regiments but eventually expanded the offensive to 400,000 troops (about half guerrillas and half regular troops) drawn primarily from 120 and 129 Divisions and organized into 116 regiments. The battle lasted three and a half months, ending on 5 December. The attacks focused on the Shihchiachuang-Taiyuan, Peiping-Hankow, and Tatung-Fenglingtu rail lines and caught the Japanese off-guard, inflicted heavy casualties. The Japanese recovered by late September as the Communists tried to reduce Japanese strongholds in the Taihang mountains. This shift from hit-and-run to positional tactics was an unwise strategy for a guerrilla force. The Hundred Regiments offensive managed to greatly annoy the Japanese, who responded with a massive counteroffensive from 6 October to 5 December that killed 90,000 Communist troops.  Total Japanese deaths were 20,645 plus another 5,155 puppet troops dead. Material damage was fairly significant, with 600 miles of railroad destroyed and the Chingching coal mine near Taiyuan shut down for six months.

The Japanese counteroffensive was accompanied by the unleashing of the "security-strengthening movement" or Three Alls on northern China: "Kill all, loot all, burn all." During 1941-1942 the Communist strength in north China  was reduced from 500,000 to 300,000 men and considerable territory was lost, with the population under Communist control shrinking from 44 million to 25 million. Desertions became significant. This led the Communists to adopt the cheng-feng or "rectification" movement, which began on 1 February 1942 and peaked in 1943 and whose excesses foreshadowed the later Cultural Revolution. Many of the intellectuals who had come to the Communists from other areas of China found themselves brutally interrogated during the "cadre investigations" of 1943. The strategic thinking behind the Hundred Regiments Offensive was particularly denounced. The tax on peasants went from 1.2% of their grain to 16.5%. Communist tactics thereafter were described as "sparrow warfare:"

Sparrow warfare is a popular method of fighting created by the Communist-led anti-Japanese guerrilla units and militia behind the enemy lines. It was called sparrow warfare because, first, it was used diffusely, like the flight of sparrows in the sky; and because, second, it was used flexibly by guerrillas or militiamen, operating in threes or fives, appearing and disappearing unexpectedly and wounding, killing, depleting and wearing out the enemy forces.

 The Japanese continued to regard the Kuomintang as the more dangerous enemy at least as late as autumn 1942.

The New 4 Army Incident. The New 4 Army was organized by Hsiang Ying, who had become disaffected with Mao in 1931 and was left behind by the Long March. Hsiang's forces precipitated a clash with Kuomintang forces at Huang-ch'iao in early October 1940 and annihilated two Kuomintang divisions. Chiang ordered the New 4 Army to move north of the Yellow River by the end of November. The Communists announced their intention to comply, but when elements of New 4 Army began moving south rather than north (the Communist leadership claiming this was a detour in the interests of safety) the Kuomintang waylaid the movement with seven divisions at Maolin. Five thousand Communists were taken prisoner and another four thousand killed. Curiously, the attack appears to have been ordered by the local commander, Ku Chu-tung, rather than Chiang.

Chiang ordered New 4 Army dissolved on 17 January 1941. The order was ignored by the Communists, who responded with a propaganda campaign to discredit Chiang for fomenting internal strife when the country should be united against the Japanese foe. Chiang responded with his own claims that New 4 Army was mutinous and its disbandment strictly a matter of military discipline rather than politics.

Order of battle, 7 December 1941

People's Liberation Army (Mao Tse-tung; at Yenan)
Eighth Route Army (Chu Teh; in Shansi province) Claimed to have grown from 80,000 to 600,000 troops during the war. Chu Teh, who was not trusted by Mao, was largely a figurehead; de facto command was exercised by his deputy, P'eng Te-huai. During the period of the United Front, when the Communist forces were nominally part of the national army, Chiang designated 8 Route Army as 18 Army Group and authorized its strength at 40,000 men, a limit that was ignored. One regiment from each of its divisions was retained at Yenan to protect the Communist base.

115 Division (Lin Biao;)
Ambushed and nearly annihilated a column of 10000 men from 5 Division in 1937 at Pingxingguan. However, the division itself lost nearly a thousand casualties.

120 Division (Ho Lung; in northwest Shansi)

129 Division (Liu Po-ch'eng)
Includes 769 Regiment.

New Fourth Army (Chen Yi; in Fukien and Kiangsi provinces)     
Ordered north of the Yellow River by Chiang in 1940. This resulted in clashes with the Kuomintang and the end of effective cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Communists. Its authorized strength under the United Front was 12,000 men, a limit likely ignored.

Guerrilla bases

Shansi-Chahar-Hopei (in the Wut'ai Mountains of northeast Shansi)

Shansi-Hopei-Shantung-Honan (in the Taihang mountains of south Hopei and western Shantung)

Shansi-Suiyuan (Ningwu and Shen-ch'ih counties)

Shantung (Fan Chu-hsien)

East Kiangsu

Central Kiangsu

South Kiangsu

Huai River North

Huai River South

Central Anhwei

East Chekiang


East River (Kwangtung)

Ch'iung-ya (Hainan)

Complete Chinese Communist Order of Battle


Chang and Halliday (2005)

Domes (1985)

Dorn (1974)

Dunnigan and Nofi (1998)

Hastings (2007)
Hsiung and Levine (1992)

Mitter (2013)

Peattie et al. (2011)

Sih (1977) (accessed 2009-9-12)

Wilson (1982)

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