The Rise of Communism in China

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  • 0:04 Communism in China
  • 0:34 End of the Dynasties
  • 1:49 Communist Rise and Civil War
  • 3:07 WWII and Communist Triumph
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the early beginnings of communism in China. We begin in the 20th century and lead into the institution of China's first communist government in 1949.

Communism in China

Everything comes from something. Chickens, for instance, hatch from eggs, while humans give live birth to their young. Unlike humans and animals, political movements are a bit more complicated. Some rise out of deep-rooted social and economic forces, while others are reactions to momentous, but singular, events. In this lesson, we will explore the beginnings of communism in China in the early 20th century and up to the institution of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

End of the Dynasties

For thousands of years prior to the 20th century, China had been ruled by successions of emperors called dynasties. The last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, collapsed in 1912. Politics in China following the Qing collapse were chaotic. Though the military created the Republic of China soon after, its control extended little outside its capital, and most of the country was effectively controlled by local warlords.

In early 20th century China, the vast majority of the population consisted of poor farmers. The political chaos in China during this period made times even tougher on the Chinese. With the country in turmoil, some Chinese intellectuals looked to Russia, which also possessed a large population of poor farmers, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 as an example to follow.

In 1918, a librarian at Beijing University set up a Marxist study group, which future communist leader, Mao Zedong, joined a year later. Devoted to spreading Marxism in China and to setting up communist enclaves, or soviets, in the Chinese countryside, many of these same adherents formally established the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

Communist Rise and Civil War

The Communist Party remained small and present in large proportions only in the countryside. To further its national aims, the communists made an alliance with the Chinese National Party, the Kuomintang. However, when the Kuomintang came under the control of Chiang Kai-Shek, cooperation between the two parties ended in 1927.

Chiang set about eliminating all his rivals and consolidating his rule in China. He battled local warlords and communists alike. He set about rooting out communists wherever he could find them. Chiang's Kuomintang forces were far larger and better equipped than anything the communists could muster. The communists, led by Mao Zedong, formed small bands of guerrilla troops to battle the nationalists where they could.

Chiang's attacks against the communists were persistent. He consistently destroyed soviets and imprisoned and/or executed communist forces. At one point, Kuomintang forces had so cornered the communists that Mao led a secret retreat out of southern China, heading west, and eventually north into northern China. The more than 9,000 kilometer march or retreat lasted over a year, and only roughly one in ten of the communists made it successfully to northern China.

WWII and Communist Triumph

While Chiang was relatively successful in rooting out communism, he had failed to account for the other threat to his nationalist Chinese state: imperialist Japan. While Chiang was busy fighting Mao's communists, Japan had invaded the northern Chinese state of Manchuria and pushed even further south into China.

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