What helps set off the Northern Expedition from other military solutions to the problem of a disintegrated China is the role of the Chinese “masses.” Where earlier parallels in the dynastic accounts glorify a handful of heroes, the reuniting of modern China involved elite groups and whole classes. That the support of peasants must have aided Chinese strong men in their rise is obvious from the experience of such as Liu Pang, who rose with the help of his fellow peasants to found the great Han dynasty. In accounts of modern Chinas military reunification, this error of omitting mention of the peasantry is over corrected. The KMT and CCP of the 1920s that collaborated in a national revolution had both absorbed Western ideals of nation-state societies as a unified whole and had moved away from the more narrow and traditional focus on gentry support. But, each party emphasized leadership by a different social element within the whole.
Due to the CCP’s Marxist-oriented concerns for oppressed humanity, it emphasized the roles of the working and farming masses—with the tiny proletarian element most honored in ideology. The expansion of union and peasant organization paralleled that of the Northern Expedition, and CCP and Comintern writers have felt themselves committed to relating the “people” or “masses” to the expedition’s military success. As a party with many modern educated, the KMT was also aware of the necessity of building as broad a base of support as was possible. When Chiang’s KMT forced the CCP out of the military leadership in the March 20, 1926, Coup, the CCP concentrated its efforts in leading the civilian masses, partly to check 172the KMT military. From then on, the CCP claimed credit for politicizing the workers and peasants and leading them in the Northern Expedition or Great National Revolution against the “running dogs” of the imperialists—the warlords. This exclusion of the KMT from its due credit only elicited its greater attention to recording the annals of KMT-affiliated mass organizations—mainly unions of skilled laborers.
Granted, popular support did contribute to the relatively rapid military reunification of China from 1926 to 1928, as it did the consolidation of KMT authority in Kwangtung in 1925. However, the study of the nature and timing of that support has been too bound up with still smoldering partisan polemics. The most circulated and most cited accounts in the West have been decidedly partisan versions, which, however fascinating, lack impartiality. This part of the study will at least attempt to sift through the factional accounts to reassess the contributions of the mass organizations and, then, that of unorganized civilians in the territories through which the expediton progressed.