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Republic of China (1911-1949)

Major events and people:

Sun Yatsen was declared president of the new Republic of China in 1911. His leadership of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, lasted only 2 years. In 1913, he stepped down and retreated from the political spotlight under pressure from the military leader Yuan Shikai.

Yuan's death in 1916 plunged China into the warlord era, which was to last until 1927. Sun Yatsen returned to politics during this time to form a southern Kuomintang government, which exercised nominal control over parts of the south in the 1920s.

Despite the infighting between regional warlords, this was an era of intellectual development, especially in the realm of political thought. Traditional Confucian ideology was abandoned in favor of new liberal western strains of political thought. Students, for the first time in China, began to play a part in the political development of their country. However, infighting among the warlords created a situation in which incursions by foreign powers, most notably the Japanese could not be stemmed.

On May 4, 1919, 3,000 students from Beijing University converged in Tiananmen Square to protest the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty, which ended World War II, did nothing to stem Japanese aggression in China or to eliminate the unequal treaty system. The May Fourth Movement, as the demonstration is now remembered, was taken up by students and sympathizers all over the country.

In this climate of protest, change and intellectual development, some turned their attention to Communism as a political ideology. In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded. The founders included, Chen Duxiu, one of the student leaders of the May Fourth Movement, Mao Zedong, and Zhou Enlai. The group received advice and guidance from Russia.

In the early 1920s, the greatest threat facing China, aside from internal fighting among the warlords, was Japanese aggression. In order to have the strength to rebuff a Japanese invasion, China had to be united in her desire to stem the Japanese tide. To achieve this end, 2 ideologically different parties, the newly founded CCP and the Kuomintang (KMT) joined forces. They formed their First United Front with their forces making up the National Revolutionary Army (NRA). The common goal uniting these 2 forces was a sense of nationalism. However, Chiang Kaishek, a violently anti-Communist military commander, succeeded Sun Yatsen in 1925 as head of the KMT. In 1926, the NRA launched the Northern Expedition to subdue the remaining warlords. The campaign was a success. The United Front was not, however, to last.

Towards the end of the expedition, as Chiang's forces were poised to capture Shanghai, communist workers who had been clandestinely organized by Party leaders seized the city, effectively capturing it for Chiang. When Chiang's forces entered the city his desire to rid his ranks of the Communists was made abundantly clear. To the horror of the workers, they opened fire. Thousands were massacred, purging the majority of the original communist party founders. Thus the communist voice in the alliance was silenced and the façade of the United Front crumbled. Chiang was declared head of the new national government in 1928. His government was effectively a military dictatorship with a small popular power base. Uninterested in reform or the extreme poverty the majority of the population faced, Chiang's government represented the elite.

Shocked by Chiang's sudden and treacherous purging of their ranks, Communist party members regrouped in guerilla bases in the countryside. The principle communist base, commanded by Mao, was in Jiangxi Province. Contrary to the Soviet precedent, Mao believed that the key to Chinese style communism lay with the peasants, not with the workers. Mao recruited cadres from the poverty stricken peasants and workers to form his Red Army. The Red Army managed to rebuff the constant attacks by Chiang's forces that were under orders to exterminate them.

In 1934, Chiang organized what was to be his last extermination campaign against the Red Army. He encircled their base in Jiangxi province with 500,000 troops, concrete and barbed wire. With no choice but to retreat in the face of such vastly superior numbers and armaments, Mao organized the retreat that has come to be known as the Long March. The yearlong 9500km (5,890 mile) trek across some of China's most daunting mountain ranges and grueling terrain, took the lives of some 60,000 through hunger, cold, or battle.

The Long March has assumed something of mythic proportions in the Communist Party Ideology. By the time the Communists reached their new base at Yenan in northern Shaanxi province in 1935, Mao was the undisputed head of the Party. Dependency on Russia had been severed. Until his death in 1976, Mao's closest comrades and his most loyal followers were those who had withstood the trial of the Long March.

The Long March also served as a massive advertisement for the CCP. The Red Army "liberated" the peasants along their route, instituting land reform and spreading the message of communism. Unlike their KMT counterparts, who lived off the land, the Red Army troops were forbidden to take anything from the peasants without paying. This order was enforced. Not only did thousands become aware of their existence when the Red Army marched through, but the difficulties they faced along the way and the respect they showed those they met, earned the CCP immense respect.

While Chiang's armies had been chasing after the Red Army, Japanese forces had invaded Manchuria (1933) Manchukuo under the Japanese. They installed Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, as a figurehead. In light of the imminent threat of a Japanese invasion, Mao wrote to Chiang that he advocated an end to the civil war, in order to concentrate on the common enemy. Chiang was convinced of the necessity of a Second United Front only after being kidnapped by his General in Manchuria. His General favored unification as the only way to get rid of the Japanese. In the incident that became known as the Xian Incident, Chiang was only released on the condition that he would support a unified stance against the Japanese.

Despite a united front against them, the Japanese, who invaded China proper in 1937, made huge inroads into China. 95% of the population was under Japanese rule in little over a year. Japanese occupation of China was brutal. The Rape of Nanjing in which 20,000 women were raped and 330,000 civilians killed, is the most vivid incident of this brutality.

During the Japanese occupation, the Communists organized in the countryside, building a huge resistance network. Communist forces continually harassed the Japanese army. Despite the United Front, Chiang continued to favor hunting down and harassing CCP forces to concentrating on driving out the Japanese. The CCP earned great popular support for their aggressive stance against the Japanese.

The end of World War II in the Pacific heralded the Japanese surrender in China in 1945. The end of the war with Japan also signaled the end of the Second United Front. Despite attempts to broker a peace agreement, full-scale civil war broke out between the CCP and KMT in 1947. Although technologically inferior, the CCP managed to win successive battles against the corrupt KMT. In 1948, Red Army forces began their final assault on the KMT. In 1949, right before the liberation of Shanghai by the Communists, Chiang, along with many KMT top leaders, fled to Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the formation of the People's Republic of China from the rostrum of Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.


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