P'eng Te-huai (1898-1974)

Photograph of Peng Dehuai

Wikipedia Commons

P'eng Te-huai (Peng Dehuai) was born in Hunan province under circumstances of significant personal hardship. However, sources disagree on the particulars of his early life, including even the year of his birth. P'eng's own autobiography gives his date of birth as 10 September 1898, but on the old lunar calendar, which corresponds to 24 October 1898 in the Western calendar. He came from a peasant background, but Communist propaganda reported different levels of prosperity as P'eng himself fell in and out of favor: poor peasants when he was in favor, rich peasants when he was not. According to a careful Western biography (Domes 1985) the truth likely lay somewhere in the middle, with his father owning about an acre and a half of land and a bean curd shop in the local village.

P'eng's mother died when he was young, probably in 1905. His education was limited to three years in a private primary school, which would have emphasized Confucian literature, followed by a year in a modern hsien (county) school. These were undoubtedly years of considerable poverty for his family, with his mother dead and his father ill and with the 1905 and 1906 harvests being very poor. His youngest brother, who was six months old, starved and his father was forced to sell most of the family land. His great-uncle was a Taiping rebel and helped shape P'eng's social and political philosophy. After his great-uncle's death in 1911, P'eng  left his native village to work as a common laborer in a coal mine. A year later the mine went bankrupt and P'eng returned to his village, surviving on odd jobs, and participated in a grain riot that led to a warrant being issued for his arrest. He fled to north Hunan and found another job as a laborer on a dam, returning home after two years when the authorities had lost interest in him.

In March 1916 P'eng joined the local warlord army, which was contesting control of Hunan with a Kuomintang army under T'ang Hsiang-ming. His platoon leader was a follower of Sun Yat-sen, and Kuomintang influence was evident throughout the younger officer corps. In 1917 the division mutinied and went over to the Kuomintang side. P'eng was given instructions both in military tactics and in classical written Chinese. Thereafter he rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming an officer in 1921. In November 1921 he summarily executed a local landlord for mistreating peasants, for which he was reprimanded but not dismissed or demoted. An attempt to join the central Kuomintang army at Guerr in February 1922 was unsuccessful, but in August 1922 he passed the entrance exam and was admitted to the Hunan Military Academy. He graduated nine months later and became a captain in his old unit. Although 2 Division was again fighting the Kuomintang, P'eng continued to sympathize with the Kuomintang cause. 2 Division again mutinied in March 1926 and went over to the Kuomintang for good, joining Chiang's Northern Expedition as 1 Division, 8 Corps.

P'eng's division initially sided with the Communists in the split of October 1927, but defected to Chiang in February 1928. When P'eng's unit was assigned to anti-Communist operations near Changsha, P'eng kept his unit passive; he had already secretly joined the Chinese Communist Part by this time. No political ideologue, P'eng was simply "a rebel with a populist desire for the improvement of the living conditions of the rural masses" (Domes 1985). His unit defected to the Communists on 22 July 1928, marking the occasion by summarily executing the local magistrate and about 100 other local landlords and militia leaders. His force was driven out of Hunan, suffering heavy casualties, and he joined Mao Tse-tung in the Kiangsi Soviet along with a few hundred of his men. P'eng became deputy commander (under Chu Teh) of 4 Corps, with Mao as political commissar.

P'eng rescued Mao from likely capture and execution when Mao's unit was cut off, and later commanded the rearguard (5 Corps) when the Kiangsi Soviet moved to Juichin. Thirty-eight years later, this would be condemned by the Red Guard as P'eng's "first crime" (Domes 1985). Later P'eng joined Chu in arguing for strict military discipline and organized warfare rather than guerrilla tactics; Mao accepted a compromise strategy of professional military leadership combined with political indoctrination. On 25 July 1930 P'eng's force participated in a general offensive ordered by the Central Committee in Shanghai, broke through the Kuomintang lines, and captured Changsha. However, Mao was to distant to effectively support P'eng, and he was driven out of Changsha on 5 August by a Kuomintang counteroffensive that cost him 7500 of his men.

Between December 1930 and April 1933, Chiang attempted four times to wipe out the Kiangsi Soviet, failing each time with heavy losses. This emboldened the Communists and their Russian advisers, who launched a conventional military offensive against Kanchow by 5, 7, and 8 Corps under P'eng in February 1932. The city was defended by well-trained Kuomintang troops under Ch'en Ch'eng who crushed the Communist offensive. Chiang now launched a fifth campaign against the Communists, personally  leading 800,000 Kuomintang troops against 150,000 Communist defenders. Ch'en defeated P'eng a second time near Kwangchang, inflicting 30% casualties on P'eng's force. The Communists were forced to break out to Hunan and begin what became known as the Long March to distant northern Shensi.

P'eng commanded 3 Army during the Long March. Of the 18,000 men under his command who began the March, only 3000 made it to northern Shensi. P'eng was then made the deputy commander of 8 Route Army under Chu. However, Mao did not trust Chu, and P'eng had long held the real authority over the army.  In 1937 P'eng wrote a pamphlet arguing for a full-scale military effort against the Japanese, but by 1939 his writings fully supported Mao's strategy of guerrilla warfare and expansion of base areas.

P'eng led the Hundred Regiments Offensive in 1940, which greatly irritated the Japanese but was costly to the Communists. Although the Hundred Regiments Offensive could reasonably be regarded as a limited success, it was denounced as P'eng's "second crime" (Domes 1985) when he fell into disfavor decades later. Following the Hundred Regiments Offensive, the Japanese launched a counteroffensive against P'eng's headquarters in the Taihang Mountains which compelled P'eng to withdraw rather than suffer unacceptable attrition. Thereafter he restricted himself to inserting Communist forces into areas swept clear of the Kuomintang by the Japanese advance.

During this time P'eng grew increasingly close to Mao, and he played a major role in the cheng-feng or "rectification" movement of 1943. He became a Politburo member sometime in 1945.

Following the Japanese surrender, P'eng commanded Northwest Field Army in the unsuccessful defense of Yenan in March 1947 against the well-trained Kuomintang troops of the capable Hu Tsung-nan. However, he finally halted Hu's offensive in August 1947 at Shachiatien, a battle often considered the turning point of the Chinese Civil War. P'eng recaptured the Yenan area in April 1948 and embarked on the conquest of northwest China. Following the Communist victory in the civil war, P'eng commanded the Chinese forces in Korea from the spring of 1950 and became minister of defense in 1954, becoming one of the ten marshals of the People's Liberation Army.

P'eng was forced into retirement after criticizing the economic disruption of the Great Leap Forward in 1958-1959, was imprisoned in 1966, and was subject to severe torture by the Red Guards in July 1967. He was transferred to a military hospital after becoming seriously ill in 1974, but was discharged and, on Mao's orders, denied further medical care. "He died alone, lying in a pool of his own blood, on November 29, 1974" (Domes 1985). He was posthumously rehabilitated on 22 December 1978 as a "great revolutionary fighter and loyal member of the Party."

P'eng was a capable and dedicated soldier, blunt, honest, and mindful of his subordinates. He was one of the few Chinese Communists leaders whom P.P. Vladimirov, a Russian adviser to the Chinese Communists between 1942 and 1945, spoke well of (Domes 1985):

P'eng Te-huai is well-versed in military affairs, and is popular in the army. He dresses simply, even in Yenan terms. The most significant trait of this character is modesty. He has a deep, coarse voice, his movements are slow. This man has a rare sense of personal dignity. He holds Mao Tse-tung in respect as the leader of the CCP.

It was likely P'eng's air of modesty that allowed him to survive for as long as he did. However, his willingness to speak the truth even to Mao eventually cost him his life.

Service record


Born in Hunan province
Private second class     
Joins 2 Division, Hunan Army (warlord army of T'an Yen-k'ai)
Master sergeant

Second lieutenant


Enters Hunan Military Academy
Commander, 1 Company, 1 Battalion, 6 Regiment, 3 Brigade, 2 Division, Hunan Army
Commander, 1 Battalion, 1 Regiment, 1 Division, 8 Corps, National Republican Army
Lieutenant colonel
Commander, 1 Regiment, 1 Division, 35 Corps
Commander, 1 Regiment, 5 Division, National Republican Army

Commander, 5 Corps
Lieutenant general     
Commander, 3 Army, Long March
General Deputy commander, 8 Route Army


Commander, Northwest Field Army

Commander, People's Volunteers Army, Korea

Minister of Defense

Forced into retirement

Secretary, Control Commission, Southwest China Bureau



Photo Gallery

Photograph of P'eng Te-huai during the Long March


Photograph of P'eng Te-huai ca. 1941


Photograph of P'eng Te-huai departing for Korea in 1950



Domes (1985)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Chang and Halliday (2005)
Tong (1947)

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