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Zhu De versus Chiang Kai-shek: A Military Clash That Created New China

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Message Rossen Vassilev


As China's former Communist leader Mao Zedong once wrote in a Realpolitik defense of revolutionary violence,

"Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. All things grow out of the barrel of a gun. Some people ridicule us as advocates of the 'omnipotence of war.' Yes, we are advocates of the omnipotence of revolutionary war; that is good, not bad. We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun."1

Mao justified revolutionary war as the best means to end class oppression, social violence, and foreign domination in pre-Communist China. From Mao's quintessentially Realist perspective, the use of organized revolutionary violence was a fully legitimate instrument for attaining higher ideological, political, social and economic goals, such as the liberation of the impoverished and oppressed Chinese masses, social justice and economic equality, as well as defending China's national sovereignty and independence against Western and Japanese imperialism and colonialism. China's "Great Helmsman" thus seemed in agreement with the ideas of another famous Realist, Florentine Renaissance writer and pioneer political scientist Niccolo Machiavelli, who famously wrote in The Prince, his magnum opus, that "All armed prophets succeed whereas unarmed ones fail."2

In the struggle for military-political control over China's destiny and future direction, Mao and his Communist followers waged pitched battles against the government troops of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887-1975), the political and military leader of the Republic of China (ROC) from 1928 until 1975. Sycophantic Maoist historiography later gave the "Great Helmsman" all the credit for the Communists' dazzling military achievements in outfoxing and subduing Chiang-led forces. But it was Zhu De (Chu The, 1886-1976), Mao's principal companion-in-arms and legendary military field commander, who led the Communist revolutionary forces to total victory in China's protracted civil war. Zhu De used innovative, masterful and ultimately successful guerrilla tactics of avoiding major frontal confrontations with Chiang Kai-shek's numerically superior and better-armed troops, while concentrating his attacks on exposed or weak positions in the enemy's flanks and rear--fully in accordance with the advice which an earlier Chinese Realist, Sun Tzu, gave some 2,500 years ago.3 The ever-growing nationalist guerrilla movement led by Mao and Zhu triumphed on the battlefield mostly by encircling and annihilating piecemeal a large number of smaller, isolated Nationalist units.

The aim of this article is to describe the crucial role which superior military leadership and tactics--as exemplified by the consummate generalship of Communist military commander Zhu De, rather than Mao's exaggerated role in Maoist mythology--played in determining the final outcome of the epic struggle between the Nationalist and Communist antagonists for control of republican China. From the autumn of 1934, Chiang and Zhu were pitted directly against one another in a ferocious clash that would stretch over fifteen years. Although he commanded a larger, more modern and better-supplied armed force and was also at the head of a highly centralized and disciplined military-bureaucratic apparatus, Chiang was doomed to be on the losing side of history. For all the formidable forces at his command and for all his powerful allies from abroad, the Generalissimo--once contemptuously branded by Mao as "a dictator, a butcher, and a half-wit"4--lost the military campaign to the top Communist general who proved to be his better in both long-term strategic planning and daily battlefield tactics. In his many campaigns against the Communist forces, Chiang employed a pitiless "scorched earth" policy of devastating and pillaging huge populated areas and killing millions of Chinese peasants suspected of being "Red bandits" or their sympathizers, with his troops even collecting the severed heads or ears of their countless victims.5 Distrustful, uncompromising and aloof, he seemed far more concerned with physically eliminating all his perceived rivals and enemies to the point of sacrificing numerous innocent lives than with winning any propaganda battles for the hearts and minds of ordinary Chinese, even among his own soldiers.6 In the end, Chiang's misguided policies and callous indifference to the plight and suffering of the peasantry--the overwhelming majority of the population in a country which was predominantly rural, agricultural and agrarian--turned out to be a losing strategy and he ultimately became known as the leader who "lost" China.

Justifiably dubbed "China's Napoleon," Zhu De built the Red Army into a skilled, highly adaptive and self-reliant guerrilla force that moved about freely in the countryside ("like fish in the open ocean") and gained the allegiance of Chinese peasants by its policy of "patiently explaining" the Communist cause to them, by its relatively good behavior and charity towards them, as well as its generous treatment of captured enemy soldiers. His main contribution to modern military science was transforming rural guerrilla warfare from a small-scale appendage of conventional military tactics into a major war-fighting strategy for all future third-world revolutionary armies. Zhu's strategy was to surround the enemy and cut its lines of supply and communications, gradually wearing down Chiang Kai-shek's greater military strength by attrition rather than engaging in prolonged pitched battles against large enemy concentrations. He saw control of "liberated" areas in China's rural heartland as a more effective long-term strategy than costly attacks to seize and hold large urban-industrial centers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Zhu De wrote the ultimate manual on how to employ successfully the tactics and methods of modern asymmetric warfare. His brilliant military strategy and tactics of surrounding the enemy and destroying its cohesion and morale were most spectacularly copied by Vietnam's Communist revolutionary forces in their protracted struggles against the numerically and technologically superior French and American armies and their local allies during the two Indochina wars of 1946-1954 and 1960-1975.

The Generalissimo

Chiang Kai-shek assumed control of the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) after the death of its illustrious revolutionary founder, Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Sun Yixian, 1866-1925), and led the Nationalist government--first on mainland China and then in exile on Taiwan. The son of a moderately prosperous merchant, Chiang was born in Xikou (Chikou), a village in the coastal Zhejiang province, on 31 October 1887. His father died when he was only eight, leaving the formerly middle-class family destitute. Chiang was raised by his doting yet domineering mother who had a strong formative influence on his character. When he was only 14, his mother married him off to an illiterate 19-year-old peasant girl, so that her daughter-in-law would take care of her in her old age.

Against the wishes of his mother who wanted him to become a lawyer, Chiang joined the provincial army and in 1906 began his military education at the Baoding Cadet Academy in the ancient capital Peking (Beijing). Harboring deep resentment against the humiliating domination and colonization of his country by the technologically and militarily superior Western powers and Imperial Japan, he believed that only a strong national military could be China's salvation. Chiang also hated the cruel and corrupt Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1912), blaming its primitive backwardness for China's military-technological weakness. Chiang even cut his traditional ponytail, a very risky gesture signaling his revolutionary opposition to Manchu rule. Although his mother still disapproved of his military career, in 1907-1911 he attended the Military Staff School in Tokyo, Japan. Despite his harsh and frugal life as a military cadet, Chiang greatly admired Japan's disciplined and Spartan-like army. While in Japan, he also met Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the exiled Nationalist leader, becoming an ardent follower and joining his anti-monarchist revolutionary organization, which eventually became the Kuomintang.

During the 1911 Revolution, in which the Nationalists overthrew the Qing dynasty and proclaimed the Republic of China, Chiang returned from Japan to head a revolutionary army brigade which won a spectacular military victory in the fighting around Hangzhou, the main city in his home province of Zhejiang. During the widespread post-revolutionary turmoil and infighting, he opposed China's new president and would-be emperor, the Beijing warlord Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-kai, 1859-1916), who forced Sun Yat-sen and his Nationalists, including Chiang, to flee back to Japan. In 1916, a deeply disappointed Chiang retired from politics and settled in the seaport city of Shanghai, where he became a member of the "Green Gang," a notorious criminal crew. In 1919, Chiang met a 13-year-old Shanghai girl, Chen Chieh-ju (Jennie Chen), whom he married two years later, after divorcing his first wife.7

Chiang soon rejoined the Kuomintang, which Sun Yat-sen was rebuilding from abroad as a Leninist-type revolutionary vanguard party. When Sun returned to China in February 1921 and formed a Nationalist government based at the southeastern city of Guangzhou (Canton) in Guangdong province, Chiang became his top military aide and trusted protege, serving for a time as his personal bodyguard and on one occasion even saving his life from a treacherous local warlord. In 1923, Sun sent Chiang to the Soviet Union--the only foreign country which had recognized the Kuomintang's Guangzhou government--for advanced military training. When he returned to China, Sun appointed him the first commandant of the newly-established Whampoa Military Academy.

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Rossen V. Vassilev was a Bulgarian diplomat to the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in 1980-1988. He received a Ph.D. in political science from the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, in 2000. Dr. Vassilev has been teaching (more...)

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