Nanjing Decade (南京时期) Overview

The Nanjing decade was a ten-year period in which the Nationalist party or Guomindang led by Chiang Kai -Shek formed a government having ousted the warlord-led factions from power. Certain historians argue that this decade heralded substantive economic growth and vast improvements to infrastructure, particularly in terms of banking, railways and aviation. However, others point to a persistence in rural/urban inequality, regressive taxation on the poor and an inability in dealing with Japanese aggressors. Until 1927, the Nationalist Party had been in formal alliance with the growing Communist Party and received financial subsidies from the Soviet Union. This money funded what was known as the ‘Northern Expedition’, purging warlords from power with the intention of creating a united China.  Nanjing would henceforth become the national capital. However, Chiang Kai-Shek was increasingly worried about the influence of the Communist Party who had sought to usurp power from within. As such, with the collusion of the British-dominated International Concession in Shanghai, a brutal massacre of Communists, who had recently created a worker’s commune in the city, was instigated following a secret memorandum signed by Chiang Kai-Shek. Reports vary widely on the numbers executed with estimates of up to 10,000 in a single day. 

Until 1927, Shanghai had been an important centre for CCP activities, and indeed the founding city of the party, but competing factions prevented the Communist domination of this metropolis. As Barnouin and Yu (2006: 36) state: 

‘Harbouring a major proportion of China’s impoverished proletariat - which, according to Marxist theories should form the basis of revolution - it appeared to be the ideal location for the CCP’s central committee, but it turned out to be a difficult environment in which to operate openly. Although the Communists had been able to organise a General Labour Union, they were opposed by a well-established right-wing of the GMD, which maintained links with the financial, commercial and industrial community. The Green Gang, one of the major organisations of the Shanghai mafia, controlled large numbers of the city’s workers, thus presenting a direct challenge to the General Labour Union.’

After the massacre, it is no surprise that the Communists decided to regroup in rural Jiangxi. As Jonathan Spence puts it (1991:378): ‘In the face of the Guomindang’s military superiority, the CCP had begun to develop a successful new strategy for survival, one in which it temporarily gave up its urban bases and reliance on the proletariat, and reconsolidated deep in the countryside.’ Indeed, Stewart (2006:48) delineates the support base of the Nationalist and Communists along urban/rural lines: ‘From their new rural guerrilla bases, they offered a different and peasant-orientated vision of China. Chiang’s vision was rooted in the cities.’ In 1931, Jiangxi would be officially declared a Chinese Soviet republic, with Mao Zedong appointed the state chairman and head of government. The self-proclaimed entity had its own currency, bank and tax collection system but would be repeatedly be targeted by Chiang Kai-Shek during its three-year existence. In 1934, the Communists would be forced to decamp once more to the northern reaches of China, to a place called Yan’an after the mythical Long March, explored in the Yan’an decade section.

Source 1 Liangyou Huabao Issue 88 (1934) Such is Shanghai (Photo collage) <br />

Source 1 Liangyou Huabao Issue 88 (1934) Such is Shanghai (Photo collage)

The Shanghai that the Communists left behind spawned one of the most widely read pictorials of the era, Liangyou Huabao or The Young Companion.  With a print run of around 50,000 copies, the pictorial created a visual collage entitled Such is Shanghai in 1934 which aimed to convey rampant modernisation in this semi-colonial metropolis (Source 1). 

Notwithstanding, the bustling metropolis of Shanghai and the daily existence of its urban elite could not be further from the plight of the rural peasantry who remained in thrall to landlords during the Nanjing decade. In a novel by American writer William Hinton entitled Fanshen, the life of peasants under the Nationalist party is testified to by villagers of Long Bow before the post-war land reforms brought in by the Communist Party (Source 2) Although Chiang Kai-Shek announced a land law in 1930, which limited rents to 37% of the harvest, this was never actually ratified. Unsurprisingly, villagers began to sympathise with the Communist Party and the Nationalists would gradually lose control of the countryside.

Source 3: US Government (1944) China’s Progress Before the Invasion (Infographic)

Source 3: US Government (1944) China’s Progress Before the Invasion (Infographic)

Despite this startling rural/urban inequality, Chinese economic growth was applauded around the world and visible in many prominent international media outlets. A poster, created by the US Government in 1944, aimed to demonstrate China’s economic progress under the Nationalist Party via several compelling statistics (Source 3). 

This economic growth, was however, broadly confined to the largest cities, and biased towards Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Manchuria was rich in arable land and materials, hence, a highly desirable area for the Japanese to colonise. In 1931, in order to create a pretext for invasion, a small amount of dynamite was detonated by a Japanese general on a railway line near the city of Mukden (now known as Shenyang). The Chinese were blamed for this and Japan occupied the province of Manchuria, establishing a puppet state nominally headed by the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty Puyi. Whilst Chiang Kai-Shek is often critiqued for appeasing the Japanese, in 1931 he certainly tried to muster international support in the wake of the Mukden incident. Taylor (2009: 101) notes:

Chiang still tried to make Japan and the world believe he was truly prepared to go to war. He promoted a national boycott of Japanese goods, publicly pledged to send Central Army troops to Manchuria, discussed war mobilization with his staff, and talked about moving the capital and China's principal armies to the Northwest. He thought all this might alarm the international community into pressuring Japan […] For their part, the United States and the other Western powers responded with rhetorical support but refused to send observers or aid; similarly, the League of Nations sent a powerless commission of inquiry.

As such, Chiang would have faced Japan without any concrete military support from international allies if he had immediately declared war on the nation at this stage. 

Source 4  Sapajou ‘He Jumps First’ North China Daily News 3rd April 1934

Source 4 Sapajou ‘He Jumps First’ North China Daily News 3rd April 1934

Chiang was also burdened by inefficiencies within his own party ranks, notably, extensive corruption. In particular, many party cadres had been selling opium and carried out raids on non-government rivals under the guise of combatting the problem. It should be noted however that the sources of many corruption allegations were dubious to say the least. As Taylor (2009:113) notes ‘Like the allegations of mammoth corruption, stories of KMT political murders, true or false, were good news for the CCP, which amplified them and invented new ones. Chiang’s anti-Communist enemies, the rebellious warlords and militarists as well as non-Communist liberals, also spread and elaborated on the recurrent charges of such killings, both factual and invented’. In order to combat this negative public image, Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife Soong Mei-Lin inaugurated what was termed the New Life movement in 1934. Basically, the movement advocated that economic regeneration was not enough, ‘social regeneration’ was needed too. As Liu (2013:30) comments, 'the New life Movement was located in a new domain of state control between morality and law.’ Chiang believed the Chinese should abandon a hedonistic existence of smoking and gambling but the movement extended to ‘infinitesimal details of people’s everyday conduct, including how they should walk, dress, behave in public, and practice personal hygiene.’ (Liu: 2013:31). As such, certain historians have likened the New Life Movement to Fascism and a strategy concocted by Chiang to gain a dictatorial grip on power.

Chiang himself, however, related the movement to his predecessor Sun Yat-Sen’s three principles of nationalism, democracy and people’s livelihood. The movement was also supported by Christians in China. However, the idea of a ‘new life’ was not recognised in regions outside government control and often pilloried by the liberal press due to the interference of the state in people’s private lives. Take for example, a cartoon in the North China Daily News by the cartoonist known as Sapajou, a white Russian emigre living in Shanghai. Sapajou appears to point to the hypocrisy of Chiang in terms of highlighting persistent problems within his own party (Source 4).

Source 5: Nationalist party propaganda against imperialism Forward Pictorial Issue Number 9 Political Work of the Third National Revolutionary Army (led by Chiang Kai-Shek)

Source 5: Nationalist party propaganda against imperialism Forward Pictorial Issue Number 9 Political Work of the Third National Revolutionary Army (led by Chiang Kai-Shek)

One of Chiang’s tangible successes during the Nanjing decade was to curb the power of foreign-ruled treaty-ports. The amount of foreign concessions dropped from 33 to 13. The principle of extraterritoriality was theoretically abolished and many existing concessions were viewed as land belonging to China, under the proviso that China could provide a stable government in the years to come. Tariffs on goods also came under control of the Chinese government. This was a significant, although only partial, victory for the Nationalists countering what became known as China’s ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of foreign powers and their treaty ports. Indeed, Fung (1985:71) notes, ‘Nanjing feared that to maintain a hard line on white imperialism would antagonize those countries whose assistance and cooperation it badly needed. Consequently, anti-imperialism took a different form that emphasized treaty revision by negotiation. Notwithstanding, there are examples of anti-imperialist propaganda emanating from Nationalist Party sources and their role in stemming the colonial powers before the Sino-Japanese War should be acknowledged (Source 5).

Source 6 Zhang Leping (1934) ‘Preparing for a Peaceful Sleep’ Modern Miscellany.

Source 6 Zhang Leping (1934) ‘Preparing for a Peaceful Sleep’ Modern Miscellany.

As the Japanese menace increased, Chiang-Kai Shek was forced into a new pact with the Communist party and warlords in united opposition against the Japanese. In 1936, he was kidnapped in what would became known as the Xi'an Incident (see separate section). Throughout the Nanjing decade, Chiang Kai-Shek was unrelenting in his attacks on the Communist Party whilst pragmatically tolerating the Japanese as a supposed ‘lesser evil.’ Many media outlets seized upon the opportunity to ridicule the released general (Source 6) as well as depict him cowardly running away from the Japanese aggressors before the eventual outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 which abruptly signalled the end of the Nanjing Decade.  


Barnouin, Barbara.Yu, Changgen. (2007) Zhou Enlai : A Political Life. Sha Tin, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press

Fung, E. S. K. (1985) 'Anti-Imperialism and the Left Guomindang'.  Modern China 11 (1) 39-76

Liu, W. (2013) 'Redefining the Moral and Legal Roles of the State in Everyday Life: The New Life Movement in China in the Mid-1930s'. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 2 (2), 335-365

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

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

Taylor, J.  (2011) The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China.


Nanjing Decade Overview