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Mass Movements in Warlord Territories:
Vanguard of the NRA?

If the KMT was permissive, initially, to the organization of workers and peasants, the warlord regimes were not. Except in the concessions of the nearby treaty ports, organizers faced harsh restrictions within warlord territories. An example would be the union movement and its strike on the Peking-Hankow Railroad in Honan under Wu P’ei-fu. On February 7, 1923, Wu’s troops struck quickly in bloody raids on the union’s meeting places in the province; thirty-nine workers were killed in the raids.1 In Hunan, his subordinate Chao Heng-t’i disbanded the union movement with force, as had Chang Tso-lin to the north and Sun Ch’uan-fang in his five United Provinces. Also hampering unionization was the paternalism in employer-employee relations common to the large traditional sector of the economy, and even the smaller modern factories. Where industrial opera­tions were on a small scale, it was fairly easy to keep check on factory workers. With vast unemployment, workers also feared losing their jobs to the swarms of peasants who came into the cities from the overpopulated countryside. Large-scale industrial operations with an alienated anon­ymous proletariat were still the exception. Outside the concessions in Shanghai and Wuhan, the military police knew the effective use of quick armed force to break up open union bravado. Suppression was bloody and common. As the Northern Expedition moved forward, how strong were the mass organizations that might have supported the NRA in the territory ahead?

Although there are popular accounts that credit unions and peasants’ 223associations with defeating the northern warlords before the arrival of the NRA, even CCP accounts admit that in 1925 (the year of the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike) and 1926 (the year the expedition began) the labor movement in warlord territories had declined. In the areas under Chang Tso-lin, Wu P’ei-fu, Sun Ch’uan-fang, and Chang Tsung-ch’ang, the unions “… had practically broken down under the iron boot of the warlords….”2

If the collaboration of the CCP (including mass organizations) and the KMT in the Northern Expedition terminated after the Wuhan purges, then the period of this support from the CCP’s mass organizations would be from May 1926 to the summer of 1927. During that year the provinces taken by the NRA were Hunan, Hupei, Kiangsi, Fukien, Chekiang, Anhui, southern Kiangsu, and Honan; they thus constitute the area of possible support. CCP sources give an indication of the status of unions and peasants’ associations in these provinces before and after their occupation by the NRA.

Most accessible to cadre from the Revolutionary Base would have been neighboring Hunan with a population of 25 million—mostly farmers. Be­fore the NRA moved through from May to August 1926, there does seem to have been a sizable peasant element organized into associations. According to the CCP’s “November Report of 1925,” there were 1,367,000 peasants represented by peasants’ associations in twenty-nine of the provinces hsien.3 Three months after the province was occupied, when data was more accessible, a CCP report of November 1926 gave the total peasant mem­bership in associations at 1,071,137 in fifty-four hsien and noted that during 1926 the membership had increased by 600,000 Hunanese peasants.4

By interpolation there would have been somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 organized peasants in Hunan during the military campaign, and these would have been spread out over thirty to fifty hsien— -a membership comparable to the organized peasantry in Kwangtung. These organized peasants were the largest group of partisan peasants in any province under warlord control and their presence may relate to the predominance in the CCP press and histories of reported aid from these Hunanese peasants’ associations. Of greater significance was the rate of growth after the occupation of Hunan: by January 1927 the membership had practically doubled to 2 million and then by April 1927 the January membership had more than doubled to 5 million.5 Although the Northern Expedition may have seen organized peasants operating in the sector east of the Hsiang River in Hunan, “mass” power in Marxist terms does not become available until the organizers who were with the NRA advanced through Hunan. The record of small-scale peripheral support of associa­tions during the expedition bears this out.

The union movement of Hunan was similar to the peasant movement but started from an even less impressive base. In May of 1926, a CCP report on the state of the labor movement in China notes that Hunan’s union mem­bership is “progressing,” although it is less than Peking’s with 10,000 members.6 In Hunan’s largest city, Changsha, the one thousand unionized 224workers failed to lead the general strike prior to the NRA’s arrival in July. According to a later CCP account, there were, “when the Northern Ex­peditionary Army arrived,” 60,000 union members located in five hsien.7

On September 5, 1926, one week after the NRA had cleared Hunan of Wu’s forces, Hunan’s provincial executive committee of the CCP congratu­lated the branch GLUs at Hunan and Changsha after their establishment on September 1 and noted that there were already 100,000 workers in seventy-six unions.8 The membership then must have multiplied by ten in the two months after Changsha fell to the NRA. In another two months, by November, union membership had grown some 30 percent to 150,000.9 Recruiting began to expand significantly from the organized base in November, and by December 20, 1926, when Mao Tse-tung addressed the Hunan Peasants and Workers’ Representatives Assembly, he spoke to 175 union delegates representing 326,000 members (a doubling in one month).10 Although this growth of CCP unions under KMT protection was impressive and indicated a total membership near to that of industrial Shanghai, the membership of the outlawed unions prior to the occupation was spread thin and by no means could have provided “mass support.” That Hunan’s workers and peasants made the going easier for the NRA is not supported by the chronology of the expedition. The Hunan campaign from May through August was slower than the ensuing Hupei campaign (August 28 to October 10) or the campaign in Kiangsi (September 4 to November 11) where the unions and peasants’ associations were even less developed.11

Despite the presence of the industrial complex of Wuhan, there is less data available on the numbers of organized masses in Hupei preceding the arrival of the expedition. The strikes were minimal in Wuhan before the fall of Hanyang and Hankow in September 1926, but from then until De­cember 1926 the organizers set up 200 unions in the Wuhan area.12 The effects have been noted in chapter 21. Nearly four months after the ex­pedition had entered Hupei, the provincial peasants’ associations claimed a total membership of 100,000 members in twenty hsien—obviously a movement that had expanded from a very small base.13 However, once the base was established the movement grew rapidly to include 800,000 peas­ants by March 1927 and 2 million by May 15.14

In Kiangsi where the expedition had been nearly thrown back during October 1926, the peasantry organized in associations was nominal—a mere 6,276 members spread out over 128 associations. Following the capture of Nanchang and the creation there of the Provincial Peasants’ Association Office, recruiting proceeded, and, by the month’s end, associa­tions claimed over 40,000 members. By the following May, after six months, the peasants’ office listed 82,617 members.15 The minimal size of this movement sheds some light on the debacle the CCP faced in its Nanchang Uprising in August 1927, and does not indicate a source of mass support for the NRA. Although the KMT account credits organized support from the provincial postal workers, neither CCP nor KMT accounts indi­cate more than nominal union activity before the NRA took Kiangsi.

225In KMT or CCP sources on union and peasant movements, there is much less mention of the other provinces through which the expedition progressed in late 1926 and the spring of 1927. At the January 1927 meeting, the CCP Central reported on the status of peasants’ associations in various provinces, some of which were behind warlord lines.16 The report states that in Anhui organizing the peasants was postponed until the province came under KMT authority. Chekiang’s rulers had banned peas­ants’ associations since 1921, but in March 1926 the KMT did set up a Peasants’ Department for the province. By January 1927, when the NRA began to enter Chekiang, the movement was “… beginning to start in secret.” Kiangsu also prohibited the associations, and a leader of one peasant group had been recently decapitated by military authorities; but, there also, the KMT established a Peasants’ Department. However, the January report claims that hsien-level peasants’ associations are not to be found and also that there was nothing known of any peasant organizing. This CCP report disclaims any influence on the largest secret society in Kiangsu, the Green Society (or Gang), which was so helpful to Chiang in carrying out the purge of the CCP in Shanghai four months later.

The Red Spears Secret Society of Honan, the CCP reported as being within the peasants’ association framework since “the various leaders of peasants’ associations have come from this kind of society.” The CCP reported on the Red Spears’ nonpayment of taxes, a practice promoted in the Peasants’ Movement Class at Canton that had adjourned in October. However, in early May 1926 Wu P’ei-fu had quickly moved to squelch any such movement in his territory—he attacked directly the Red Spears’ headquarters at Chihsien, reportedly “massacring” 5,000, burning twenty villages, and then executing another 2,000 Red Spear members.17 Both nonpayment of rent and taxes were involved in Wu’s suppression.

According to the CCP account, Wu P’ei-fu had also sought earlier to utilize the armed strength of the Red Spears, which claimed to be able to mobilize 300,000 peasant fighters. He had attracted their support in early 1926 to fight Feng Yü-hsiang’s Kuominchün by offering the Red Spears an end to a number of taxes. After defeating the Kuominchün, Wu apparently had second thoughts about abolishing the taxes and instead tried to liqui­date the Red Spears.18 After Wu’s direct action against them had deci­mated their leadership, the Red Spears did not surface to participate in any action against Wu in the expedition. However, to the east in Hupei, the NRA gained assistance from the Red Spears through their attacks on Chang Tso-lin and Chang Tsung-ch’ang in the summer of 1927.19 Thus, both of the modern political parties sought to utilize Chinese secret societies during the Northern Expedition—a strategy that placed them in the mainstream of Chinese “revolutionary” practice since most dynastic founders made use of this source of power against the existing regime. The CCP’s January report of 1927 does not state whether it includes the Red Spears in its estimate of Peasants’ Association membership at 145,000 for Honan.

For Fukien, there are no sure figures on peasants’ associations, although the peasantry organized in the min-t’uan have already been noted. The 226union movement in Fukien was prohibited by Sun Ch’uan-fang and his subordinate there, and neither the CCP nor the KMT makes mention of any underground modern workers’ union. Of course, in Fukien as else­where in China then, workers and artisans were organized into guilds but apparently behind warlord lines these were not politicized. Su Ch’ao-cheng’s GLU at Canton claimed to have a branch operating at Foochow, perhaps secretly or in the foreign concession, but there are no reports of any union activities against the warlord regime there. What radical be­havior was reported took place after the NRA had taken Foochow in December 1926, when workers turned on missionaries and ex-officials from Sun’s regime.

Outside of the few large industrial centers in China, the workers or proletariat available as “mass support” were simply not present. Where numbers did organize to better their bargaining position, or to press for a reform, they faced bloody suppression by the warlords’ police and troops. In Kwangtung where the CCP did unionize considerable numbers of workers, their aims did not generally harmonize with the immediate needs of the Northern Expedition. This divergence in direction can be analyzed in the CCP’s most detailed work on the proletariat during the period: The Workers’ Movement during the First Period of the National Revolutionary War. Of the sixty-three pieces reproduced from contemporary press and partisan reports, only two deal with the support of organized workers for the expedition at the front. One of these two relates the contributions of the Hong Kong Strike organization and the other the aid of Hunanese union members. The largest category of articles comprises thirty pieces focusing on the creation of new unions and their growth in areas occupied by the NRA—in other words, with workers’ activities behind friendly lines. None deals with the organized masses rising up against warlord power within firmly held warlord territory.

In reality, what was most significant to the CCP was this growth of mass organizations within KMT territories as a result of the expedition. Behind the United Front with the KMT, the CCP not only nurtured and then controlled the new, proliferating mass organizations, but it also recruited from them, and from the student unions, new membership for the CCP itself. A Commnunist history written in the fall of 1926 after the occupation of Hunan and Hupei states:

In 1926 the status of the CCP changed. In the past we had been merely a society that had studied doctrine and had no practical application. We studied, and now participate in practical work…. The aim of the CCP now is to gain power among the working masses and to become close to the peasants…. The CCP movement is developing day by day, without ceasing.20

Figures on total CCP membership at the start of the expedition in July 1926 are rather inconsistent, but are close to 30,000 members.21 From its establishment in 1921 until 1925, the membership edged toward 1,000. In 1925, with the effective Hong Kong Strike, membership shot quickly to 30,000 from the start of the strike to the launching of the expedition.22 Most 227of the new members came from within the Revolutionary Base and Hong Kong. From 30,000 in July 1926, this total nearly doubled to 57,000 members by April 1927 when the KMT split with the CCP began. KMT researchers claim CCP membership at the start of the expedition to have been closer to 7,000 than 30,000, but they support the CCP claim for the spring of 1927 with a figure of 57,900 CCP members.23

If, as the CCP claims, their mass organizations were crucial to the expedition, what of the progress of the NRA northward once it was purged of the CCP and its organizations? Did, in fact, the NRA proceed more quickly with or without the mass organizations created by the CCP? May 1926 to April 1927, the period during which the CCP claim their masses supported the expedition, was about nine months; the expedition went on without these organizations for another fourteen months—May 1927 to June 1928. Part of this latter period was consumed with intraparty conflict during the second half of 1927.

So far as the speed with which the NRA fought its way north during the CCP period is concerned, the campaign took Hunan, Hupei, Kiangsi, Anhui, Fukien, Chekiang, southern Kiangsu, and Honan in ten months. After the anti-Communist purge, the NRA took northern Kiangsu in three-and-one-half months and then Shangtung, Hopei, northern Shansi, Suiyuan, and Chahar in less than five months during the spring and summer of 1928 for a total of eight-and-one-half months without the Communist mass organizations. The final combined military offensive during the spring of 1928 from northern Kiangsu, Honan, and Shansi on to the North China Plain saw the fastest moving action of the civil war. Even the Japanese intervention in Shantung did not slow, significantly, the schedule for the taking of Peking. During this final military phase of the unification campaign, many KMT civilians bemoaned the greatly weakened condition of the Political Department since its purge of CCP cadre. However, the NRA’s Collective Armies continued north into what had long been hostile territory, far from either the Revolutionary Base or the new capital at Nanking, without being slowed noticeably by difficulties either within its ranks or in relations with the populace along the way. Thus, the organized masses in China must have been something less than the primary force behind the success of the Northern Expedition.

The Northern Expedition held lessons for both the CCP and the KMT on the subject of “mass organizations.” The CCP’s cadre, which was to be the source of its hierarchy in the decades ahead, all developed techniques and gained experience in political organization and leadership. Mao Tse-tung who established the Peasants’ Movement Class and the KMT’s Depart­ment of Peasants and Labor is an example. The effectiveness of anti-Japanese nationalism and the need for economic incentives were all proven during the expedition. From the organized masses, the CCP recruited a wide following and its cadre, but it learned during the anti-Communist purges and then during the series of uprisings from mid-to late 1927, all of which failed spectacularly, that the control of organized masses was not enough. In 1927 both the few proletariat and the innumerable peasantry 228were generally too apathetic to any but their own economic concerns to devote themselves to a political movement. Therefore, the CCP cadre—especially Mao Tse-tung—learned that a successful political movement in China required its own military arm. Even armed with Marxism, political power in China apparently had to grow out of the barrel of a gun. The lessons learned by the KMT differed as to mass organizations in that the KMT came to fear unions and peasants’ associations as uncon­trollable, disruptive forces whose narrow interests upset the national har­mony of the all-class union. The workers and peasants had to be included in the revolution in some way, but could not be trusted to guide it.


1. Wang Chien-min, vol. 1, p. 163. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 548.

2. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 187.

3. Chan-shih chou-pao (September 19, 1926) published the report, which the 1st Peasants’ Movement reproduces on p. 273.

4. The report of the Hunan peasants’ delegation to the Sixth Hunan CCP Assembly included in the Hunan Executive Committee report, reproduced in 1st Workers’ Movement, pp. 372-374. Chang Kuo-t’ao, (vol. 1, p. 609), claimed to the contrary that in mid-1926 there were 200,000; in December, 1,360,000.

5. CKHT, p. 172.

6. Chang Ch’iu-jen, “Report on the Progress of the Labor Movement in China,” Cheng-chih chou-pao (May 3, 1926), reproduced in1st Workers’ Movement, pp. 194-198.

7. CKHT, p. 172.

8. “Letter from Hunan’s CCP Executive Committee,” Chan-shih chou-pao (September 5, 1926), reproduced in 1st Workers’ Movement, pp. 316-318.

9. CKHT, p. 172.)

10. 1st Peasants’ Movement, p. 275.

11. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 609, p. 714fn. 36.

12. Documents, p. 376. 1st Peasants’ Movement, p. 400, claims there were 100,000 organized workers in all Hupei prior to its liberation and 300,000 three months later.323

13. CKHT, p. 172. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 609, however, claims there were 280,000 by December 1926.

14. CKHT, p. 192.

15. Chung-kuo nung-yeh ching-chi ts’ai-liao [Materials on China’s agricultural economy] (Nanking?, 1934), reproduced in 1st Peasants’ Movement, pp. 412-420. Chang Kuo-t’ao, (vol. 1, p. 609) claims Kiangsi’s movement was inferior to that in Hupei.

16. Chung-kuo nung-min wen-t’i [The Chinese peasant question] (January 1927), repro­duced in 1st Peasants’ Movement, pp. 922-924.

17. Ibid. Chang Kuo-t’ao, (vol. 1, p. 410) recalled CCP plans to transform Honan’s Red Spears into peasants’ associations in 1925.

18. “Hunan Newsletter,” datelined May 25, 1926, in Hsiang Tao (July 16, 1926), pp. 1545-1546.

19. Kuowen (July 17, 1927, n. p.), which claims the Comintern recently decided to make better use of the Red Spears and to place more emphasis on peasant power.

20. CCP History, p. 19A.

21. Ibid., p. 1, and other CCP sources.

22. Yün-yung t’ung-yi chan-hsien yi-ch’ien Chung-kung-chih chien-shih [A short history of the CCP before the united front] (Yenan: Chinese Communist Central Committee, 1939), pp. 37–38. C. Martin Wilbur’s interpolation in Documents, pp. 94, 110.

23. Figures from the staff of the CCP Studies Research Center, Taipei hsien, which agree with Ch’en Tu-hsiu’s compilation in April 1927 cited in James P. Harrison, The Long March to Power (New York: Praeger, 1972), p. 99.

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