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Joining the Army and the People

NRA political work also sought to relate the army to the “people”—the civilians in the territory through which the army moved. Sun Yat-sen had been a civilian political figure, but had been forced to acknowledge the need for military power in order to unify China. However, Sun made the point that the KMT must differ from its opponents by “… joining … the army and the people.”1 With the National Revolution’s high principles and an army whose proven exemplary behavior proved its respect for the people, the campaign to unify China would receive wide support and defeat the warlords.

Indoctrinated in the ideal of his close relationship to the people, the soldier was taught that what harmed the people would ultimately harm him. Two of the NRA’s key slogans were “Do Not Seize Workers” and “Do Not Live in the People’s Houses.” Rather than be parasites of the citizenry, the soldiers were to treat the people well and to pay them fairly for all goods and services obtained. Songs, as well as slogans, reminded the troops about the relationship between the army and the people. At Whampoa the cadets learned a song written in 1858 for Tseng Kuo-fan’s soldiers in Kiangsi during their fight against the Taiping rebels.2

The song, Ai-min ko [Song of love for the people], is of interest as a source of the political ideas used by the NRA and its leaders, and gives an instance in which the KMT and CCP in their political technique do relate to the 240heritage of traditional China. Mao Tse-tung’s later ideal of the army among the people like a fish in water evolved in part from his experience with the NRA and his respect for a heroic fellow Hunanese, Tseng Kuo-fan, a respect shared with fellow nationalist Chiang Kai-shek.3 The song seems so relevant to the NRA and contemporary China that it is translated here in full.

Ai-min ko

Soldiers, listen carefully, loving the people is most important.

The robbers oppress the people; only we can save them.

They suffer from the thieves; all officers and soldiers must right this wrong.

Don’t be lazy when making camp; don’t take people’s doors and boards; don’t pull down their homes for a few bricks and tiles.

Don’t ruin growing rice by tramping through the paddies.

Don’t strike at the people’s chickens and ducks, or borrow their pots and bowls.

Don’t seize them to dig your trenches, nor make an inn of their homes.

When a wall is razed don’t block the road, and when felling trees don’t fell those on graves.

When drawing water don’t take it from ponds with fish.

No matter what the argument is, concede to the people, and behave well when out on the street.

Set up camp every night, but don’t go into the towns and take over the shops, nor use the houses in country villages.

Don’t make an uproar over trifles, nor shove people aside if they don’t make way.

If you have no money to pay, don’t eat the vegetables along the road or drink the tea.

Of even greater importance, don’t force them to work as coolies.

When one man is kidnapped to carry for you, his home will be torn by wailing.

A mother’s eyes will be swollen from crying for her son, and a wife’s tears will be used up for her husband.

Among them the local police extort their money, threatening that, if they don’t send their quotas of men, then they must send money.

Their donkeys and pigs are also taken, the fowl fly, and the dogs run away, and even the fish in the ponds die of fright.

Discipline also must be strictly observed, so that soldiers do not roam freely from the camp, since once out of the camp they learn evil and always cause the civilians trouble.

Either they cheat money from the wealthy, or dally with the women of the poor families.

They get local rascals to join them in their plans, buy wine, get drunk, and then want to fight with civilians or take their anger out on the shopkeepers.

What a pity the people are beaten and bleed, and yet they dare not speak out.

Fearing the anger of the soldiers they pay them money and ask their pardon.241

If you want the people to live in peace, the troops must be under discipline so that the soldiers do not go out, nor the sailors go ashore as they please.

At home you were good men and having become soldiers you are still men.

Military men are basically different from bandits; we are humans while they act as beasts.

Soldiers don’t steal but the bandits do; Soldiers don’t ravish but the bandits do.

If soldiers rape and steal, then they are of the same mind as the bandits, and then share the same, evil reputation.

If that is the case, your angered superiors will not pay your salaries.

When the people hear, they will be disgusted and not sell you their rice and salt.

An army that loves the people will be welcomed everywhere; an army that disturbs the people will be hated everywhere.

My soldiers have been with me a long time, and for many years have enjoyed a good reputation.

Now the people are worse off then ever, so please observe carefully my soldiers.

Soldiers and the people are like one family, so never take advantage of them.

If we sing the song of love for the people every day; heaven, earth, and man will be at peace.

The high reputation of most of the NRA elements in the Northern Expedition testifies that many must have tried to live up to the ideals inculcated by the army’s political workers, who must have been effective in their jobs. The political work of the NRA also had an impact on the Chinese civilian population. It affected civilians in territory occupied by the NRA and those under enemy control. In seeking through various forms of propaganda to reach the people behind enemy lines, one aim of the NRA was to turn the people actively or passively (as was most common) against the warlord regimes. Another response hoped for was that the people would come to relate their own needs to the goals of the KMT.

Propagandizing by the Vanguard

Contrary to some Western interpretations, there was not a mass wave of propagandists preceding the NRA. However, as the Northern Expedition began, there were small propaganda units and some individuals preceding the armies that infiltrated parts of Hunan and Fukien. In hostile territory, they made contact with local KMT members or sympathizers; sometimes secret KMT branch headquarters were available. Both the KMT and the CCP were close to the revolutionary tradition in China of using secret societies as agents of subversion. The KMT had to operate in secrecy outside its own territory since all the northern military regimes united in opposing Communism and considered the KMT at Canton tainted “Red” and under Russian influence. In mid-1926, Chiang and the NRA were known as the Red General and the Red Army. Seeking outside aid in spreading propaganda, the agents of the NRA and the Party found middle school students to be the most responsive of all to the KMT and to the call of nationalism and socialism.

242Chinese students at that time seethed with frustrations as they were herded into overcrowded classrooms and primitive dormitories in schools whose operating funds went to feed the rapacious appetites of military authorities. Teachers went unpaid and provincial school faculties were understaffed. This was not at all acceptable in a society that revered its literate intellectuals. After graduation, students found further disappoint­ment awaiting them in an economy that would normally only absorb a handful of the modern educated and that was slowed in its modernizing by civil strife and lack of political direction. The KMT ideology and its opera­tion in Kwangtung gave rise to hope among many unemployed students who ultimately went south to join the National Revolution. These students were also available to cooperate with NRA Political Department propagan­dists when they arrived.

The Party cadre sometimes called upon students to organize parades protesting warlord practices and imperialism; the parades also served to disseminate slogans and catchwords useful to the KMT. In 1926, prior to the arrival of the expedition, provincial middle school students in Wuchang, Hupei, frequently left their classrooms to march in political parades. The common people were always curious about processions and tended to respect the students as their superiors. Although the warlord authorities generally ignored these parades as childish nonsense, the parades did spread propaganda and forged a link between students and the revolutionary movement. Those who committed themselves to the dan­gers of marching generally began to identify themselves with the revolu­tion. The Student Unions of the middle schools and universities, usually organized and infiltrated by KMT sympathizers, led in organizing most of the parades.4 In 1925 and early 1926, the Wuchang Student Union was led by a CCP member, Yün Tai-ying, who had been trained in Shanghai and sent back to his hometown to work in the student union.5 Both the KMT and the CCP tried to utilize local talent if possible.

Spreading propaganda was difficult since severe punishments were meted out to those caught even reading KMT literature. Therefore, much of the propaganda was spread orally—a practice valuable in reaching the illiterate majority.6 Some was spread by means of leaflets passed by stu­dents or propagandists who impersonated workers in order to move about inconspicuously. Posing as delivery men, agents could infiltrate even military camps and headquarters where they dropped their bills un­noticed.

Some of the student parades and demonstrations were called for more than propagandizing. On March 18, 1926, Peking students led by the head of Peking’s KMT headquarters, Ting Wei-fen, and by Lu Yu-yü paraded against the Peking National Government. The occasion was Peking’s con­cession to Japanese demands that international shipping not be examined by Feng Yü-hsiang’s agents at Taku, an agreement that would allow ship­ments of Japanese aid to Peking Government authorities and to Chang Tso-lin in North China. The demonstration organizers hoped to provoke a response from the authorities that could be used to tie the Peking Govern­ment 243 and Chang Tso-lin to their Japanese patrons. Because of his opposi­tion to the agreement, Feng Yü-hsiang was then patronized by the Rus­sians, the CCP, and the KMT. During the demonstration a guard force of the Peking Government obliged with a fusillade that killed between thirty and forty of the student marchers. This suppression was used to great advantage as propaganda with the intellectuals and students.7

The propagandists who preceded the NRA into southeastern China often emphasized the material benefits that would accrue should the new army be victorious. In addition to the benefits from the NRA’s exemplary con­duct and the policy of nonseizure of coolies, the Party and its army wanted to elevate the livelihoods of the people. Considering the level of political awareness and literacy on the countryside, appealing to the acquisitive nature of the Chinese peasantry seemed most practical (as it did in the 1960s and 1970s to the “revisionist” promoters of “economism”). One technique agents used in gaining the attention of the local countrymen was to enter a village eating place, order a large banquet, and invite in pass­ersby. During the meal the agent would tell villagers of the victories being won by the NRA (always a good omen), of its concern for the well-being of the people, and of the employment of carriers and workers. After revealing his connection with the NRA, the propagandist would pay generously for the meal with silver dollars and tell his guests that these were what the army used to pay for carriers and food. The word would spread quickly and often upon arrival at a town or village an NRA unit would find a group of peasants or workers assembled ready for work and with a market for the sale of food and tea.8

As they entered Hunan during the summer of 1926, the political workers could take advantage of local calamity. Due to a combination of drought in the southern Hsiang valley and flood in the north around the lake, there were numbers of peasants unable to produce the usual food crops and desperate for ways to supplement their incomes. Since the NRA did pay well, the recruiting of carriers was simplified. So many went off as carriers that by mid-September in Changsha those who had not joined with the NRA as carriers or soldiers were able to demand exceptionally high prices for their services.9 Apparently, starting with Canton, wherever the KMT movement expanded the cost of labor rose.

Another means of spreading revolutionary propaganda ahead of the NRA was through sympathetic coverage in the press—a natural ally of modern nationalism. Some of the newspapers in the north were secretly under KMT or CCP direction,10 and on other newspapers, individual staff writers or editors—some Party members, some sympathizers—saw to it that the progress of the expedition and KMT movements received optimum cover­age. According to a report from Peking University in November 1926, the students crowded reading rooms to read the newspapers that reported the progress of the Northern Expedition and the NRA, which was described as “brave … and well disciplined.”11

Long a sanctuary for revolutionaries, like the region outside the Great Wall for the nomad conquerors, the treaty port concessions allowed the 244Chinese newspapers considerably more freedom to transmit revolutionary points of view and to criticize warlord regimes.12 Newspapers were a highly effective means of disseminating propaganda in urban areas. Con­centrated in cities were students and other literates who were likely to have been exposed to concepts of nationalism through the modern public schools and mission schools. Especially in the ports, these elites were more aware of China’s weakness vis-à-vis the “imperialists” and therefore sus­ceptible to the KMT’s propaganda about warlord greed and the oppression suffered by China at the hands of their imperialist cohorts. The vocabulary and issues were relevant.

In the countryside, the pragmatic Chinese were stirred to hate the warlords or favor the approaching NRA according to the effect of the antagonists on their livelihoods. Slogans such as “Don’t Seize Coolies” and “Don’t Live in the People’s Homes” helped to separate the idealistic NRA from the rapacious warlord forces. The effectiveness of propaganda calling for the lowering of rent to 25 percent of the harvest or the equalization of land is more difficult to evaluate. On the one hand, the interest of tenant farmers in the area ahead of the army could be aroused, but on the other hand most of the farmers owned some land and might share with the gentry grave misgivings. In 1927 the landholders did effectively block the plans of the CCP for a take-over. Even in the late 1940s, Mao was still troubled by the sorting out of small peasants, middle peasants, and big peasant-landlords. Since so many of the NRA officer cadre were from landholding families, the KMT could not afford to lose the support of the gentry by promising radical land reform.

As the NRA was fast approaching Chiahsing, Chekiang, its local Party headquarters directed members to paste posters on walls around the town with slogans to “Knock Down Imperialism,” “Welcome the Revolutionary Army Which Will Save Our Country and Our Fellow Citizens,” “The Three People’s Principles Are the Ones to Save the Nation,” and “Tear Down City Walls and Construct Highways.”13 The local KMT and agents of the vanguard did spread widely the word of the pending arrival, the good reputation of the NRA, and their victories against the hated Shantung troops of Sun Ch’uan-fang. This “spreading the good news” must account in part for the large turnout of people to welcome the NRA there and elsewhere en route.

Another type of propaganda that was reminiscent of the military theoretician Sun Tzu was the use of the false rumor transmitted by the propagandists for the NRA. In one of its manifestations, agents would instigate cooperative civilians to spread the word that a large body of the NRA had been seen moving toward a particular sector of the front. The enemy commanders would pick up this information and transfer their troops to reinforce the threatened sector. Then, the NRA would glean intelligence from the civilians indicating the weakest sector in the enemy’s line, which the NRA would then attack. This strategem was quite effective in the Fukien and Chekiang campaigns of the East Route Army, where rugged hills and valleys cut up the front line.14 In the Kiangsi campaign late in 1926 and again in the Peking campaign in May of 1928, the NRA and a 245sympathetic press spread the rumors that the enemy leaders had lost hope. In Kiangsi the rumor used was that Sun Ch‘uan-fang and his generals had sent their families back to Shanghai to avoid capture. In May 1928, it was that Chang Tso-lin’s family and those of his subordinates had been sent back to Manchuria from Peking due to the hopelessness of defending Hopei.

Another function of propaganda was to ease the way for vital dealings between the NRA Supply Corps and the local people. This mundane aspect of political work done behind enemy lines arranged in advance for goods and services that the NRA would need upon arrival. As noted earlier, the propaganda quieted the anxieties of the peasants that they would be seized for work or that their goods would be confiscated by replacing these with guarantees of personal safety and assurances that providing food and drink for the NRA would be highly profitable. In the process, NRA agents lined up local people who had intimate knowledge of local topography to act as guides, and gathered civilian observations on the enemy’s strength and placement. As the NRA approached, the agents were often ordered to stimulate interest among the local men in joining the NRA.

Recruiting took into account groups as well as individuals. In Fukien before the NRA invaded, a KMT front organization, the Hsin-min t’ung-chih she [The society of comrades of new Fukien], coordinated efforts for the NRA. (Quite probably the KMT with its pre-1911 history of Triad connections used secret societies as well.) The New Fukien Society men were able to meet with leaders of the rural min-t’uan and gain their sympathy for the KMT cause.15 Quite possibly min-t’uan fought with the warlords behind their lines in Fukien; at least it is known that they definitely joined in battle with the NRA as it arrived. Apparently, part of Ho Ying-ch’in’s offensive in October 1926 counted on winning a decisive victory early in the Fukien campaign in order to attract min-t’uan support. The practical Chinese peasantry was much more impressed by deeds and success than by ideology. If, as Chang Kuo-t’ao claimed, the min-t’uan were promoted by landed gentry, then this, too, would have checked the NRA Political Departments from advocating radical land reforms.16

The political workers ahead of the NRA also functioned as gatherers of political as well as military intelligence. In particular, the NRA’s Political Departments wanted to determine whether the local officials, such as the hsien-chang, were respected for their ability and popular with the people. If the officials were acceptable, the KMT agents encouraged these men to stay on at their posts rather than flee with the enemy army. On the other hand if they were unpopular, perhaps from their greed or incompetence, or had fled, the political workers looked for qualified local men to eventu­ally take the positions. For this purpose, the agents inquired after persons who were widely respected, not corrupt, and sympathetic to the KMT movement. Later upon the creation of provisional and then regular provin­cial and hsien governments, these men would be appointed as the new administrators—acceptable to the natives but dependent on the KMT for their authority in the absence of elections.17

The number of Political Department personnel and Party agents involved 246 in propaganda work behind enemy lines can be only roughly estimated until the KMT’s own records are available. A widely circulated guess of George Sokolsky in 1927 was that “at one time, it was estimated that as many as 40,000 strike pickets had marched in the van of the Nationalist Army from Canton to the Yangtze Valley.”18 But his report from Shanghai seems to be the result of confusion or it reflects the long distance from its source. When a body of Hong Kong Strike picket-trained propagandists moved north from Canton, a Western news agency may have equated this group for the entire Hong Kong organization—around 40,000 during the Hunan-Hupei Campaign. Closer to the source, Canton’s Chung-hua min-pao, reporting on the “propagandists” for the expedition, published an organizational table in which five large groups of 180 each, or a total of 900 propagandists, were assigned to work in enemy territory ahead of the NRA as it moved north.19 Considering the length of the front line and the territory ahead of the NRA, this would have meant several hundred Political Department workers in any one province under attack. In 1928, during the second phase of the expedition, the official table of organization for propagandists in the Political Training Department stated that there were 1,200 workers in the propaganda section.20

Most likely, the total number of KMT personnel moving into enemy territory ahead of the NRA numbered no more than one or two thousand, and even if the entire number of propagandists working for the Political Department had preceded the army, they would have numbered no more than several thousand. It is reasonable to estimate that by 1927, 6,000 cadre had been trained at Whampoa in political work. To this could be added 2,000 strike pickets. Since many of these potential political workers functioned within NRA units and since Political Departments left behind numbers of their workers as provisional civil administrators, this meant that those remaining to propagandize ahead of the armies were spread exceedingly thin along a front over 1,000 miles long in late 1926.

Thus, there was good reason for the Party to insist that the army build and maintain a good reputation in its dealings with the civilians. Since one of the greatest Chinese pastimes is passing on worldly stories about people and their politics, word about the NRA went out from the people them­selves who had seen it in action, spreading ahead quickly and greatly encouraging civilian cooperation. All the military men and political work­ers cited here agreed that the exemplary conduct of the army impressed the “people” more than any ideological content in the propaganda. The Chinese people are perhaps unusually skeptical of abstract rhetoric iso­lated from deeds—as pointed out by Confucius and other Chinese think­ers. It was mainly the reputation of the NRA that preceded it into warlord territory.


1. History of Political Work, vol. 1, p. 461.

2. Ibid., p. 97. Li Hsiao-ling recalled the song in an interview. Ai-min Ko is published in Tseng Wen-cheng kung ch’üan-chi [Collected works of Duke Tseng] (Shanghai: World Book Co., 1932, 1st edition; second reprint in Taiwan, 1956), vol. 10, pt. 2, pp. 71-72.

3. Schram, pp. 51-52.

4. Interview with Wang Chien-min, who experienced the political activities of student life in the mid-1920s. See Ka-che Yip “Student Activism in the 1920’s” in Nationalism and Revolution: China in the 1920’s, vol. 1 of Twentieth-Century China (New York: New View­points, 1976).324

5. CCP Martyrs, pp. 79-81.

6. Interview with ex-Political Department workers Liao Wen-yin and Li Hsiao-ling, and in History of Political Work, vol. 1, p. 289.

7. Kuowen (April 4, 1926), n. p.

8. Ch’en Kung-po, p. 53.

9. SCMP (September 30, 1926), p. 8.

10. Interview in 1966 with journalist Liu Tsu-ch’iang, who had been a student leader in 1926.

11. Wang Jih-hsin’s editorial in Hsien-tai p’ing-lün (November 20, 1926), pp. 18-20.

12. For example, the Kuowen chou-pao cited in this study was, from 1926 through 1928, published alternately in the international concession at Shanghai and in the Japanese conces­sion at Tientsin.

13. Kuowen (March 13, 1927), n. p.

14. Interview with Liao Wen-yin in Taipei, December 22, 1965.

15. Ibid.

16. Chang Kuo-t’ao (vol. 1, p. 603) implied that people’s militias were generally set up by the landholding gentry, another reason why radical land reform was not preached in Fukien by the NRA.

17. Ibid., and History of Political Work, vol. 1, p. 291.

18. China Yearbook 1928, p. 981, and disseminated earlier through other press agencies.

19. HKDP (April 7, 1926), p. 5; another 2,300 “propagandists” were assigned to work within Kwangtung-Kwangsi. Chang Kuo-t’ao, head of the CCP’s Military Department in mid-1926, remembers the tiny scale of his operation and an “insurrection corps” of eight that he sent to join forces with other partisans in Wuhan to “harass the rear lines of the enemy, to incite desertions and uprisings, and to seize the arms of the enemy troops in order to arm ourselves.” He then found his men inside Wuchang after its long siege ended (Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, pp. 530, 538).

20. History of Political Work, vol. 1, p. 370.

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