Chinese Civil War (国共内战) Overview

The cataclysmic effects of the atomic bomb in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th August 1945 respectively compelled the Japanese to surrender to allied forces, definitively ending the Sino-Japanese War. After the end of the war, the Nationalist Government was ill-equipped to deal with the tasks of managing millions of refugees, stabilising the economy and restoring order. To exacerbate this further, the Communists had grown considerably in force and strength during the conflict. As Geoff Stewart (2006:78) notes:

‘When the Japanese surrendered, the Communists had a membership of 1.2 million, approximately 900,000 soldiers under their command and a control of 19 base areas with a combined population of 90 million.’

Notwithstanding, the Nationalists enjoyed the support of the United States whilst still disposing of a much larger army and subsided military equipment from the US. Moreover, Russia, under Stalin, continued to support the Nationalist Party despite having ideological affinities with Mao as a fellow Communist. Stalin’s reasoning was two-fold: First of all, he simply believed the Communists lacked the military strength for victory. Equally, Stalin feared that the US may intervene further in the Far East if there was a Communist victory in China.

The US were highly keen to avoid the outbreak of civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, hoping the Communists could eventually be assimilated into a democratic Nationalist Government rather than continuing as a separate party. Both Mao and Chiang espoused notions of national unity at the end of the Sino-Japanese War but privately there was a lot of mutual distrust. Under these circumstances, the United States dispatched general George Marshall to mediate in peace talks between the two sides in December 1945. According to Carter (2015:178), US President ‘Truman had instructed Marshall to try to unify China peaceably and democratically to end the civil war that had by this time broken out. He was to speak frankly with Chiang and use Chiang’s desire for military and economic assistance as leverage.’ Indeed, US aid was one of Chiang’s key motivators into entering into peace talks. The US stipulated that the aid was given on the condition that Chiang would instigate democratic reform- something he failed to do.  

Marshall equally visited Mao in Yan’an in March of 1946 where he was met with a jubilant welcome (Source 1), however the Communists were privately worried that the liberated areas they controlled after the Sino-Japanese War would be compromised by an agreement with Chiang.  Indeed, military clashes between the Communists and the Nationalists continued throughout Marshall’s stay in China, despite occasional ceasefires. It could even be argued that both sides simply used the pretence of the Marshall mission as a much needed period of respite to regroup and strengthen their forces, in preparation for all-out civil war. Marshall would leave China in January 1947 condemning ‘extremism’ on both sides.


Source one : General George Marshall with Mao Zedong in Yan’an

The first battlefield of fully-fledged civil war would be Manchuria in Northern China in July 1946. At the end of the Second World War, the region was occupied by Soviet and Communist forces. With the soviets set to withdraw, Chiang Kai-Shek saw an opportunity to attack. As Westad (2004:35) explains:

‘For the Communists, their control of certain parts of Manchuria was the main prize gained after the war with Japan. Elsewhere, the party had failed, only in Manchuria, with the GMD government obstructed by Soviet occupation, had the CCP gained substantial new territories. As GMD troops started advancing on these territories, Mao did not dare to place his trust in negotiations.’  

Despite some early victories (Source 2), entering Manchuria would prove to be a fatal strategic error on the part of the Nationalists.  Although formally supporting Chiang Kai-Shek, Russia had given the Communists military training and seized Japanese war booty before retreating from Manchuria. As in the Sino-Japanese War, the Communists were well-versed in guerrilla warfare and able to counter Chiang’s thinly spread troops. The tide would turn towards the Communists by the spring of 1947. This interactive map denotes the changing tide of the Civil War. Once gaining the upper hand, the Communists’ tactics would then change from guerrilla warfare to using more offensive strategies.


Source 2: Nationalists invade Manchuria Anon. Nationalist Army enter Shenyang March 12th 1936

Chiang Kai-Shek was stunned at the sleight of Communist victories and testified to reasons for these sustained losses in speeches over the course of 1947-1948. One of the reasons Chiang himself identified was poor treatment of common soldiers. Eastman (1981:659) comments:

‘Chiang scolded the officers for their indifference towards the condition of their men. They ignored so many basic elements in their training such as aiming, firing, reconnoitring, and liaison that the soldiers skills were so poor that they could not fight. Nor did they provide the troops with adequate food, clothing or medical care, even embezzling supplies meant for the men.’

Whilst Chiang formally condemned this behaviour,  he supported the policy of conscription, forcing peasants into the conflict which made the Nationalists popular in the countryside – an area where Mao Zedong had been making substantial gains via his policy of land reform.

In stark contrast to the Nationalist’s treatment of their troops, the Communists were increasingly well received by the masses due to their respectful behaviour towards the local population. Mao Zedong had outlined a behavioural code known as the ‘Three Rules of Discipline and Eight points for attention’ in 1947:

The Three Main Rules of Discipline are as follows

(1) Obey orders in all your actions.

(2) Don't take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses.

(3) Turn in everything captured.

The Eight Points for Attention are as follows

(1) Speak politely.

(2) Pay fairly for what you buy.

(3) Return everything you borrow.

(4) Pay for anything you damage.

(5) Don't hit or swear at people.

(6) Don't damage crops.

(7) Don't take liberties with women.

(8) Don't ill-treat captives.

Such convincing propaganda campaigns rapidly won the hearts of a populace disillusioned with nationalists shortcomings. Witnessing the behaviour and treatment of communist soldiers inspired many villagers to join the people’s liberation army . In stark contrast, guomindang armies, invading areas where they were not based were desperate for supplies and often took what they wanted from peasants without paying.  As Lary (2015:128) aptly summarises: ‘It seemed that what the PLA achieved was what the GMD armies had not done: instil a tight discipline on its soldiers, a discipline imbued with socialist ideology. The product was ideological soldier (zhuyi bing), something that the Nationalist’s had once aspired to, under the influence of Sun Yat-Sen’s three principles of the people.’ The morale of the Communist soldiers was therefore considerably stronger than that of Nationalist soldiers who were not really motivated by any precise political ideals.


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Source 3: Behaviour of Red Army Soliders (Mao Zedong’s Three Rules of Discipline and Eight points for attention)

Another problem for the Nationalists was the economy.  The party injected a large amount of paper currency in an attempt to regain stability. However, Jonathan Spence  (1991: 498-499) notes: ‘Wholesale prices in Shanghai had increased fivefold by February 1946, elevenfold by May and thirtyfold by June 1947. Anyone on a fixed income was disastrously affected by this precipitous price rise. Industrial workers protested with particular vigor.’ This enabled Communists to infiltrate key factories in Shanghai and other cities, and there were strikes across the country.  The situation worsened and by 1949 banknotes of $1 million gold yuan were commonplace (roughly 3 million gold yuan = to $1USD).


Source 4 : Hyper-inflation 1 Million Yuan note from the Central bank of China printed 1949

Whilst this was a civil war, there were a lot of international stakeholders in the conflict. Notably, Stalin was following Mao’s progress in the very closely. In the latter stages of the civil war, Stalin had famously attempted to deter Mao from crossing the Yangtze river and invading Nanjing which was the Nationalist capital at the time. At this juncture of the civil war, the Communists were in control of northern China whilst the Nationalists controlled the South. Mao however resolutely ignored Stalin’s advice, stating :

 ‘Up to the year of 1949, when we were about to cross the Yangtze River, there was still someone who prevented us from doing so. It was said that we absolutely could not cross the river. If we did, the United States would dispatch troops and China would be in the situation similar to the “Northern and Southern Dynasties”’. Chairman Mao continued: ‘I did not listen to them’  (Kim: 2010).

Further to this, in January 1949, the Nationalists pragmatically asked for peace talks with the Communists in order to gain time to rebuild their supply lines and troops. Stalin wanted to act as a mediator but was resolutely turned down by Mao Zedong. In a telegram, Mao replied to Stalin:

 ‘The Soviet Government used to be and has always been willing to see a peaceful, democratic and united China. However, achieving China's peace, democracy and unity is a matter for the Chinese people themselves’

 As such, rather than accept fraught peace talks that may have divided China into two halves, north and south, Mao was pushing for a definitive victory in the civil war rather than resorting to compromise positions advocated by Stalin. Various telegrams between Mao and Stalin can be consulted here, testifying to their turbulent relationship (Source 5). In Stalin's defence, it could be argued that his motivation for advocating the peace talks related to his concern for Communism’s image - he did not want to be viewed as someone who stoked the flames of civil war and hence be held responsible for millions of deaths. He had commented to Mao that the peace talks were unlikely to succeed, however, by not participating in them, the CCP could be viewed as obstinate and unwilling to compromise. He had also feared that the United States may resume military action in China if a resolutely Communist government occupied such a large expanse of land with such a large population. He also feared that the US may wish to occupy China as a military base from which to oppose the Soviet Union. Stalin’s diplomatic manoeuvres would, however, be rejected by Mao – it would become increasingly clear that he would have to win the civil war of his own accord.


Source 6 American Aid During Civil War

Whilst General Marshall was unsuccessful in preventing the outbreak of civil war, once conflict definitively broke out, the United States supported the Nationalist Party. This poster from 1948 (source 7) depicts a relief kitchen funded by aid from the United States. In 1948, when the tide of civil war had turned against the Nationalists, the United States provided $400 million of initial funds. The US government feared that Soviet expansion in Asia would be a potent threat if China turned communist after the civil war. The US funds were not earmarked for military purposes but rather to alleviate the economic downturn the war engendered, however there is a lot of controversy as to whether the funds were used for the intended purposes and whether some had been embezzled by corrupt officials. Certain US commentators, although anti-Communist, did not hold Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist party in high esteem. Knusel (2017:231) notes: ‘Owen Lattimore, who had been a political advisor to the GMD in 1941 and 1942 […] stated in the Nation: ‘If America is unpopular in present day China, it is because it tried to support a government that all classes of Chinese have come to despise.’ It seemed then, by the latter stages of the civil war, that Chiang Kai-Shek was losing the propaganda war both at home and abroad.

One of the Communists most spectacular victories in the civil war was the Shanghai campaign. At the time, Shanghai was the largest city in china with a population of 6 million. At this stage of the civil war, the Nationalists were desperately hoping for foreign intervention. If not, the Nationalist strategy was to retreat to Taiwan with as many materials, foods and as much wealth as possible.  This photograph by Harrison Forman depicts the carefully coordinated retreat from Shanghai to Taiwan in 1949 (Source 7) . On this occasion, Communists had a greater number of troops than the Nationalists alongside the support of the civilian population who had suffered under hyperinflation. In the last days of the Nationalist Government, a horrific purge mirroring the Shanghai Massacre of 1927 was enacted - anyone suspected of harbouring communist affiliations would be taken out and shot. After the fall of Shanghai, closely followed by Nanjing, the Nationalist government had no choice but to retreat to Taiwan. Deaths from the civil war have been estimated as between 1.8 million and 3.5 million. 


Forman Shanghai.png

Source 7: Harrison Forman (1949) Shanghai (China), soldiers preparing American-made tanks for Nationalist retreat to Taiwan during Civil War

In summary,  the civil war era began with a robust Nationalist Party who enjoyed the international support of both the United States and the Soviet Union.  Notwithstanding, the civil war was won by the Communists who lacked the official support of another state government. The main ally of the CCP was the Chinese masses themselves, something which proved to be much more important than international intervention in terms of securing China’s fate. The civil war was ultimately a military victory of the Communists over the Nationalists after their fatal error to enter into Manchuria pre-emptively. In many battles, the Communist forces had superior tactics, initially pursuing guerilla warfare bfore gradually facing Nationalist soldiers head on in large battles. However, this military victory was contingent upon other factors. The Nationalist army’s behaviour did little to endear themselves to the local population, so much so, that peasants spread disinformation to Nationalist armies, aiding the Communists. During the civil war, a mass recruitment drive boosted CCP solider numbers whereas the Nationalist’s policy of conscription could only lead to deep-seated resentment and ill-equipped troops. The dire state of the economy  and corruption little to help the Nationalist cause, with many initial supporters among workers, professionals and other sections of society becoming ambivalent at best to the Nationalists by 1949. Finally, the Communists had developed an efficient state apparatus during their time in Yan'an. They were able to mobilize support across the country, and used propaganda to explain the message of the Communist revolution to persuade people around to their point of view. All this meant that on 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong was able to announce the founding of the People's Republic of China in the new capital Beijing. 


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Source 8: Mao Proclaims People’s Republic of China October 1st 1949


Carter, C. J. (2015) Mission to Yenan : American Liaison with the Chinese Communists, 1944-1947. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky

Eastman, L. E. (1981) 'Who Lost China? Chiang Kai-Shek Testifies'. The China Quarterly (88), 658-668

Kim, D. (2010) 'Stalin and the Chinese Civil War'. Cold War History 10 (2), 185-202

Knusel, A., (2017) FRAMING CHINA : Media Images and Political Debates in Britain, the USA and Switzerland, 1900-1950.  Farnham: Ashgate Publishing

Lary, Diana. (2015) China's Civil War : A Social History, 1945-1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spence, J. D. (1991) The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Stewart, Geoff. (2006) China : 1900-1976. Oxford: Heinemann

Westad, O. A. (2004) Decisive Encounters : The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press

Chinese Civil War Overview