Khrushchev: Wrong. A nation cannot be destroyed.
Mao: But that is how Stalin's cable read.
The Presidency of Yuan Shikai - 1912 to 1916
Yuan Shikai, called out of retirement to lead the Beiyang Army against the forces of the Revolutionaries in 1911, turned on the Emperor and used his clout as a military leader to declare an end to the Manchu Empire of the Qing. He went on to use his influence to secure his appointment to the Presidency of the Republic of China. Yuan was, though more popular than the Manchu, still not a particularly popular leader as he conceded most of the '21 Demands' made by Imperial Japan upon threat of war (which asked for economic concessions in North China/Manchuria) and later tried to declare himself Emperor. Both moves were to be expected - in Chinese history, those who overthrew the previous dynasty often started their own. However, most of the country's middle classes wanted a Republic, and a democratic one at that. Yuan was forced to resign as Emperor in 1916, and died soon after. His rule undid many of the successes of the 1911 Revolution, most notably all hope of a central and stable government, let alone a democratic one. Under his rule the different regions of China slowly drifted apart, and upon his death the country fragmented.
The Warlord Period - 1916 to 1927
When Yuan died, the central government broke down entirely. Yuan's 'military governors', recognised as such for their power-bases in their locales, went their own way and effectively carved out their own states. Some Warlords, like Zhang Zuolin of Manchuria (a godawful governor himself, but he had some very able administrators whom he largely left alone and trusted to run things for him as long as they gave him enough money for his armies) were effective rulers, but most... not so much. Warlord rule was characterized by extremely high and largely arbitrary taxes (some collected years in advance), arbitrary conscription into their personal armies and a lack of economic development in those areas governed by the worst warlords. Many Warlords would even force their peasants to produce opium (and heroin) to support them and their drug monopolies. It's important to note, though, that warlords' attitudes and temperaments varied wildly. Feng Yuxiang (warlord of Anhui province and the lower Yangzi) acquired the moniker 'The Backstabbing General' from his own troops and was a devout Christian who took to baptising his soldiers before battles (reputedly with a firehose). Zhang Zongchang (warlord of Shandong province) was dubbed by Time magazine 'China's basest warlord' and was known throughout China as 'The Three Don't Knows' because he reputedly had no idea how much money,note how many concubines,note or how many soldiersnote he had.
It's worth noting that although overall growth was veeeery slow because most regions attracted little foreign investment from those not keen to invest in intermittent-warzones, domestic investment prevented stagnation and several more stable and relatively-unmolested areas, like Manchuria (and the lower Yangzi, to a lesser extent), prospered and experienced growth and development which brought them on-par with parts of south-eastern Europe, India, or Latin America. The net effect was a Chinese economy which grew at roughly the same rate it had done in the last few decades of the Empire of the Qing's existence. One could say that this was development despite the country's somewhat-unstable political situation, and certainly not because of it.
The founding of the KMT/10 Years of the "Golden Age" - 1927 to 1936
Sun Yat-sen (also known as Sun Yixian among other names, based on the current Pinyin scheme of transcribing the Chinese language into the Latin alphabet) failed (1911-)revolutionary and 'Father of the (Chinese) Nation', set up the Chinese Guomindang (GMD for Guomindang or KMT for Kuomintang) or National(ist) Party in Guangzhou in 1919. The old 'Guomindang' still existed, but the Warlords had made it irrelevant in most of China. This new KMT was more of a coalition, with various wings possessing different ideas on how a Chinese republic should be run. Political leanings ranged from liberal to staunchly conservative, while other wings focused on styles of government, ranging from authoritarian to democratic. As Sun and Chiang took advice from all the different wings at certain points, the KMT was effectively centrist as a political party for many decades. Sun Yat-sen had been elected President of the Republic in 1917, but the post had become meaningless by that point. The Kuomintang accepted foreign aid, mostly from the USSR in the form of advisers like Borodin, at whose insistence socialists were also allowed into the KMT. In 1923, Chiang Kai-shek, by now, brother-in-law of Sun and likely successor (also known as Jiang Jieshi) became the director of Whampoa Military Academy, the core of Sun's vision for a China unified by force. Sun died in 1925.
Incidentally, after the end of World War I, the KMT became very close to the Weimar Republic, who became a key source of both military and industrial support for its forces (known as NRA or National Revolutionary Army). German industrial and military equipment (or the license to produce them in China) were purchased in large quantities, in return for Chinese raw materials. Chinese students and military officers studied in Germany (including an adopted son of Chiang Kai-Shek, who participated as a tank man with the German Army in the Anschluss). German military advisers, lead by Alexander von Falkenhausen, trained the best units of the NRA. This continued into the mid-1930s.
Due to their non-aligned stance, the KMT continued to maintain close relations with the Soviet Union—notwithstanding its looming conflict with the Chinese communists (see below). Among others, Chiang Kai-shek's eldest son, Chiang Ching-kuo (and his eventual successor) studied in Russia and married an Ukrainian lady. After the Germans reduced cooperation with KMT as Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated in the latter half of 1930s, Soviet equipment and advisers replaced the German in NRA (to be supplanted by the Americans, in turn, by the early 1940s). Russian general Vasily Chuikov served as the chief Russian advisor to Chiang Kai-shek until 1942, when he was assigned to defend some place called Stalingrad.
The founding of the CCP
On May 4th, 1919, a student movement protesting the Treaty of Versailles was held. German ports in China were given to the Japanese, instead of being returned to China. This decision was made without consultation, and so the Chinese were just a little upset. The protest then switched its focus to western imperialism. Out of this came the rise of (often secret, frequently suppressed) political parties in Warlord China.
In 1921, a few dozen left-wing radicals and socialists formally founded a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai. Also attendant at the meeting was a nobody, a librarian from the Beijing University Library - 'Mao' something. At the Soviet Union's (covert) insistence, they joined the KMT and constituted a full third of the Kuomintang force that set off on the Northern Expedition of 1927 to unify the country.
Chiang Kai-shek led this KMT expeditionary force, and from 1927 to 1928 they fought up the country. Warlords were either killed or (much more often) chose to 'ally' with them in exchange for keeping power. Such 'allies' could not be trusted, but Chiang didn't have the resources to fight everybody, which is what he'd end up doing if he said 'no thanks' the next time someone offered not to fight him. Things were bad enough with the split within the party.
The start of the Civil War
In April 1927, Chiang ordered a series of purges of socialists in the towns and cities under not-communist Guomindang control, starting with Shanghai. The city had largely been abandoned to its own devices after the local warlord had fled the area, and in his wake an uneasy coalition of gangster syndicates and Communist cells took control (the latter led by, among others, Zhou Enlai).
When the KMT arrived, Chiang sensed that the lower Yangzi might be a strong enough power base to allow him to terminate his alliance with the Communists early, before they gained sufficient influence within the party to betray him. It was a now-or-never decision as well, as the Communist-Guomindang forces had managed to secure Wuhan on the mid-Yangzi, which would offer them a significant support base of their own if they were given time to consolidate their hold on it.
And so, Chiang sided with the gangsters - who exterminated the socialists (within the KMT) with great brutality. Anyone suspected to be a Communist (within the KMT) was shot on the spot. Some people merely wearing red clothing were also killed, as one of the emblems of the CCP were red clothes, particularly red scarves. If a person was found to have red paint on their neck or traces of it, they were shot by the KMT immediately. These massacres quickly spread to other cities, dissolving the alliance and forcing the CCP's standing army to make a stand against Chiang's forces. Outnumbered and with their morale crumbling, their forces were defeated in a series of hammer blows and Wuhan was captured, the CCP's armies melting away into the countryside. Chiang soon had to turn his attention to the drive northward, however, and the mid-Yangzi area was not cleared of communists before he was forced to move on.
What was left of the CCP set up shop in the countryside around the mid-lower Yangzi and founded a series of communes, one of the biggest being in the mountains of Jiangxi Province. They attempted to make the peasantry their new support base, seeing as they had alienated the migrant-workers who made up the industrial proletariat and lost most of their urban contacts in the purges. Like the Kuomintang, they gained a measure of popularity among some peasants by policies of rent-reduction and land re-distribution, plus encouraging their soldiers to treat the peasants kindly (a huge contrast to KMT troops, who often beat up peasants). However, the CCP's policies of land collectivisation, conscription, and campaigns to suppress religion and 'feudal' culture resulted in riots and even outright rebellion against their rule in many areas. They also had serious trouble shaking off the appearance of standing for something - Russian Communism - that was wholly alien to China, courtesy of KMT propaganda.
The KMT, on the other hand, set up an authoritarian government based out of Nanjing in the lower Yangzi delta (GMD-friendly and -'friendly' warlords remained in control of almost everything south, north, and west/upriver of the mid-Yangzi). Their new regime was marked by an unusually high degree of competence and efficiency (by the rather low standards of the Chinese governments of the time, and it was to be never seen again until the KMT established itself in Taiwan). As an administration, the Kuomintang was hampered at every turn by the need to sustain near-constant campaigning against rebels and rebellious 'allies'. This meant that the Kuomintang only had the budget to implement their own programs of rural reform (rent-reduction, limited land-redistribution from the corrupt and obscenely wealthy) in areas where the army was present, particularly during the Soviet-suppression campaigns.
As far as the peasantry was concerned, the KMT was good news as it meant an end to the constant warfare of the warlord era and a drop in their tax-burden (the KMT only collected taxes from the towns and cities under its direct control, which is to say most of those in the provinces along the mid-to-lower Yangzi). Much of this need for constant campaigning was because Chiang and the KMT had become the most powerful force in the country, the natural inclinations of Chiang's warlord 'allies' being to unite against him to take him down - which they tried, several times, with little success. Chiang attempted to harness the power of 'blueshirts', paramilitary strongmen hired by the Guomindang in its capacity as a political party, to 'influence' public opinion in conjunction with a new secret police force under the secretive and sadistic head, Dai Li (a name that Avatar: The Last Airbender fans will recognise, as the Secret Police of Ba Sing Se are named after this guy).
The Central Plains War and Anti-Soviet Campaigns
With the lower Yangzi cleared of warlords and the borders of Kuomintang territory secured, Chiang took the opportunity to consolidate his hold over the region by leading a series of campaigns to destroy the Soviets in the region. Several Soviets were destroyed in just this way, but the Jiangxi Soviet continued to hold out thanks to KMT supply problems, bad terrain, a rebellion in Fujian province, and yet another backstab-invasion of Kuomintang territory by Chiang's 'allies'. The 1930 'Central Plains' War' saw a grand alliance of warlords, made up of Feng Yuxiang of Anhui, Yan Xishan of Shanxi and Shaanxi, and the powerful New Guangxi Clique (including Li Zongren and Bai Chongxi, who would later be among the KMT's most able commanders) to take Chiang down once and for all. Neither Long Yun of Yunnan nor Zhang Xueliang of Manchuria rallied to Chiang's defence, and as the Kuomintang teetered on the edge of bankruptcy Time Magazine proclaimed that Yan Xishan would in all probability soon become the next president of China. However, the Kuomintang managed to pull through and defeat the numerically-superior forces of each of its enemies in turn, quickly moving to crush Feng's forces and annex his territories before throwing back the armies of Yan and the Guangxi Clique. When Zhang Xueliang moved troops up to his border with Yan, the latter sued for peace with Chiang. Though the war had been a desperate attempt to check his power, Chiang and the Kuomintang ultimately emerged from the conflict strong enough to quite literally take on all the Chinese regimes at once and win. However, seeing how the expense of the Central Plains War had pretty much broken the proverbial bank, direct annexation of the rest of China was ruled out.
Meanwhile, the CCP had managed to replace its losses as its control of the Jiangxi countryside enabled them to conscript as many men as they needed, using guerilla tactics to harass the forces Chiang left behind whilst he was occupied with fighting elsewhere. However, on the Fourth Extermination Campaign (1933) Chiang, with help from Alexander von Falkenhausen and no other enemies to deal with, was finally able to pour some decent resources into an improvement upon the old strategy of encirclement and gradual advances. This improved strategy involved the use of several rings of blockhouses and field fortifications which ringed the Jiangxi Soviet and basically besieged them. This cut the Jiangxi Soviet off from outside supply and prevented them launching raids, forcing them to confiscate food from their civilian population and eventually to starve as continuing to do so looked like it would result in rebellion.
One million peasant and 60,000 military dead later, with Chiang's forces inexorably closing in, the leaders of the Soviet decided to make a desperate move and stage a break-out. They left their wounded and too-weak-to-move soldiers behind and, throwing all their remaining forces behind a desperate attack at a weak point in the blockade, forced their way out and cut a swathe of devastation through the countryside as the force of 100,000 soldiers pillaged and looted their way through the mountains, taking what they needed at gunpoint.
As unimportant and ignominious it seemed at the time, the "Long March" has since been called a pivotal moment in Chinese history. 100,000 soldiers broke out of the Jiangxi Soviet, but less than 20,000 soldiers (half of those 20,000 were survivors from the other mid-lower Yangzi Soviets) made it to the Soviet in Yan'an province. They fled a total of 9,000 kilometres, taking a long route through the Himalayan foothills to avoid Chiang, who used chasing them by his men and his air force as a pretext for a 'Communist Suppression Campaign' which allowed him to effectively seize control of the mid-upper Yangzi. Mao led the main band of Communist soldiers, which finally numbered around 8,000 people. Other groups took different routes, and many were caught and killed to a man, but most ultimately met up at Yan'an.
Along the way they spread CCP propaganda at gunpoint, endearing themselves to the locals by carrying out vigilante executions of corrupt local officials and bad landlords. The Long March effectively gave the CCP a new leadership, as Mao and most of his lackeys and advisors partook in the March, which gave him and his followers a sort of moral authority which (together with ruthlessness and ambition) his competitors lacked. The Long March later acquired something of a mythical status as a result of post-war CCP propaganda, a result of which being that hundreds of people follow the route every year.
The Civil War (temporarily) ended in December 1936 when the brilliant but embittered Manchurian warlord General Zhang Xueliang, son of the 'Old Marshal' warlord Zhang Zuolinnote and commander of the final Communist Extermination Campaign to destroy the Yan'an Soviet, rebelled.
It had been Zhang who had lost out when elements of Japan's Kwantung army had struck out and established an 'independent' Manchuria in 1931, leaving him only a scrap of his former power-base in the area around Beijing. The remnants of his territory had since been encroached upon as the Japanese Army gave its backing to and carved more 'client states' out of north-eastern China through the 1930s. Knowing that Chiang's campaign had a reasonable chance of success, he betrayed Chiang. Slaughtering Chiang's guards and holding him hostage, Zhang urged him - at gunpoint - to call off the campaign and form a United Front with the Communists (against Japan). It's been argued that Zhang's real hope was that the left-leaning Wang Jingwei would be able to step into the void left by Chiang - Wang was still a powerful figure in the KMT as Chiang had kept him close, as per the old sayin.note Wang was widely regarded as a credible alternative to Chiang for the party's leadership, and unlike Chiang he would have had the support of moderates and socialists, something that would've defused or ensured a quick end to the Civil War.
However, Chiang's wife and brother-in-law T.V. Soong checked Wang's attempts to take over and sabotage the negotiations (in the hopes of getting Chiang killed, making Wang de facto leader of the Kuomintang). Meanwhile, Chiang knew that Zhang was bluffing; if Zhang killed Chiang without Wang being firmly in control (and perhaps even if he was), China would disintegrate again. All the same Chiang agreed to Zhang's terms and, remarkably, kept his word - though he 'did' have Zhang imprisoned for life. The CCP was delighted.
The Second Sino-Japanese and Second World Wars
Has its own article. Also, it overlaps nicely with World War II. Interestingly, the CCP and the KMT continued to fight during the war. Nationalist China was officially one of the Allies, but the CCP was neglected by pretty much everybody, with America only launching diplomatic ventures to Yan'an in 1944. It's worth noting that the KMT's reputation as a corrupt, peasant-crushing administration was forged in the course of the war; with huge swathes of its territory occupied, the KMT had to turn to decentralising its administration (devolving power to the local and regional levels) as well as taxing and conscripting the peasantry to survive from about 1939 onwards (after two years of total war). The regime was tottering on the edge of total destruction at the end of 1941, but massive loans from the USA helped stave off the regime's immediate implosion for a time. The inevitable result of such a large cash infusion into the country was, however, inflation on a level that make the pre-existing inflation (courtesy of the KMT's desperate printing of money to avoid taxing its remaining territories into starvation and/or rebellion) several orders of magnitude worse.
The end of the Civil War
After WW2 was over, the CCP and the KMT turned on each other almost immediately. Chiang was torn between focusing on the anti-CCP campaign and overseeing a process of administrative reform and re-centralisation. Chiang's paranoia was his downfall in this regard, as he trusted too few people as a result of several decades' worth of coup and assassination attempts. Chiang's personal workload was too big for any one man to handle, and both the campaign and the reforms suffered as a result. Though he was the favourite of both Stalin and Roosevelt, and his forces managed to secure the CCP headquarters at Yan'an, his decision to send his best forces to secure Manchuria as the Soviet Union withdrew from the area was a grave mistake. The corruption had also frustrated Truman's government enough that the USA quickly withdrew both their Marines and all support for China, leaving the KMT without a major weapons source, while the CCP continued to receive small amounts of aid from the USSR.
The result of such a massive deployment of loyal and competent troops away from what should have been the main focus of his campaign - clearing KMT territory of all large Soviets and Communist guerilla forces before moving to encircle and exterminate the Yan'an Soviet, advancing into Manchuria 'last' - was that the CCP was able to execute a fighting retreat from the Soviet and fade away into the countryside to conduct a guerilla warfare campaign against substandard forces belonging to Chiang's warlord buddies. Moreover, the decision 'not' to concentrate on eliminating the small Soviets first played havoc with the KMT's supply lines. Chiang had to divert significant forces to the area around Beijing and the Yellow river, where numerous Soviet communes had arisen during the War against Japan.
The first year or so of the war (1946-47) saw the KMT's forces whittled down through an extensive campaign of guerilla warfare, the next two years seeing small and eventually large-scale conventional attacks by the CCP's forces. Much of the action took place in Manchuria initially, where the CCP managed to encircle and exterminate most of Chiang's best and most loyal forces. This led to one reversal after another, with the Communists eventually launching two major campaigns to make the Beijing/North-China area theirs by the beginning of 1949. By this time the numbers on both sides were roughly equal, but this betrayed a huge inequality that resulted from the CCP's relative efficiency as a military organisation (decent) and the KMT's (godawful on account of factional and inter-force rivalries that have to be read about in detail to be understood, let alone believed).
The beaten Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the island of Taiwan - taking a few hundred thousand soldiers, a couple of million refugees, the central bank's gold and silver reserves, and much of the country's best government-owned artwork with him. With most of China (save USSR-influenced Xinjiang and semi-British Tibet, plus the island of Hainan which remained under KMT control for another year) under Communist control, the establishment of a People's Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1st, 1949.
Works set in this period (excluding the Second Sino-Japanese War):
- The latter parts of Towards The Republic deal, as the title of the series implies, with the troubled establishment of the Republic of China.
- The second half of Moment in Peking takes place between the 1911 revolution and the beginning of the war.
- Peking Opera Blues is about a whole slew of plots happening during Yuan Shikai's reign.
- More than half of Farewell My Concubine happens during this period, along with transitions to Second Sino-Japanese War and Communist take-over.
- The Sand Pebbles is about an American gunboat deployed in China at the height of the warlord period.
- Raise The Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou is set in the 1920s.
- The Painted Veil is about an American couple who go to China for humanitarian field work in the 1920s.
- Shanghai Triad also by Zhang Yimou is set in the 1930s.
- Pavilion of Women is a novel by Pearl Buck made into a movie in 2001, set in the period just before the beginning of the war.
- The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is about a British missionary in a remote corner of northern China in the 1930s.
- The Bitter Tea of General Yen by Frank Capra is about the love story between a warlord and a missionary.
- Tintin's adventure The Blue Lotus depicts the Japanese encroachment on China in the 1930s and the opium trade.
- A Pinwheel Without Wind (starring Zhou Xun) is set in the short lull between the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the resumption of the civil war in the late 1940s.
- So is the 1948 classic film Spring in a Small Town (小城之春) by Fei Mu, as well as its 2002 remake by Tian Zhuangzhuang.
- The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is set in China in 1946, after the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War and before the Communist takeover.
- Superpower Empire: China 1912 is an Alternate History work that looks at what might have happened if Yuan Shikai had died in 1912 instead of 1916.
- 1911, starring Jackie Chan as Huang Xing, Sun Yat-sen's Number Two.
- The opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
- Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst (1957) is a British war film that tells the story of the British frigate HMS Amethyst caught up in the Chinese Civil War.
- Assassin's Creed: Templars has a story arc in 1927, where the Shanghai Rite of the Templar Order struggle to stop the warlords, Communists and the Kuomintang from attacking each other, plus keeping the Shanghai gangsters at bay. It reveals that Sun Yat-sen was Grand Master of the Chinese Templars, and his death was caused by Assassins. At one point, Darius Gift, a member of the British Rite, attempts to bribe Chiang into joining the Templars. Chiang accepts, but ultimately betrays the Templars by initiating the Shanghai massacre with Du Yuesheng's help, destroying the Templars' dreams of bringing order to and unifying China. Chiang's main reason is that he has no interest in working for anyone else anymore, and that he needs Templar money to continue ruling China, but only if the Templars in Shanghai accept his rule. They do, and Chiang spares them from the massacre.