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READ: Chinese Communist Revolution

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

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Second read: key ideas and understanding content

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Most of China was never formally colonized. So why has twentieth-century China seen itself as so engaged in a struggle against imperialism and colonialism?
  2. How did relations between the nationalist Guomindang (GMD) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) change between 1921 and 1949?
  3. What were the main policies of the communists under Chairman Mao, once they came to power?
  4. What was the goal of the Great Leap Forward, and did it succeed, according to the author?
  5. What was the goal of the Cultural Revolution, and did it succeed, according to the author?
  6. China is a communist power. Was it a Soviet ally during the Cold War?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. The author argues that, despite never formally being colonized, much of China’s recent history has been guided by an anti-imperial mindset. Do you believe she has proven her argument in this article? Why or why not?
  2. In the recent past, China has taken over Tibet and is trying to change Muslim citizens to be more “culturally” similar to the majority of the country. The government is also trying to enforce its rule in Hong Kong, which until recently was a British colony and most of whose population opposes many of the policies of the Chinese government. Does this evidence suggest that China is an imperial power, today?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Chinese Communist Revolution

Photo of a Chinese soldier participating in a toast with President Mao over a banquet table.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
China was never really colonized, but an anti-colonial vision drove much of its history in the twentieth century. Let's look at their unique route through empire, nationalism, communism and economic success.

Carving up the melon

In the early 1900s, there was one image that kept popping up in Chinese newspapers and magazines: the melon. No, it wasn't a diet craze. The melon was China. It was a time when foreign influences were exploiting China's weak state more and more. That created an anxiety that China was being "carved up like a melon" by greedy imperialists.
Anxiety about imperialism is understandable. But China has a complicated relationship with imperialism. For much of its history, China was an empire itself. In the nineteenth century, however, it struggled against foreign imperialism. Decades of unequal treaties with Western nations and rising Japanese power meant that China had lost control of key ports, cities, and spheres of influence. The government was also forced to borrow money from foreign banks. Although in most cases not technically colonies, large regions of China were in reality under foreign control.
Cartoon depicting six men standing over a large melon, preparing to cut it with a knife.
“Melon Theater” political cartoon in Popular Rights Illustrated in 1912. From the Journal of Transcultural Studies. CC BY-SA NC 4.0.
Cartoon that depicts various world leaders using knives to divide up a pastry with the word “China” written on it. In the background, a Chinse emperor holds up his hands in an attempt to stop them.
1898 political cartoon in Le Petit Journal titled “China. A delicacy for kings…and emperors.” Carving up was a widespread image – whether a watermelon, cake, or globe, H. Meyer. Public domain.
This situation was a large part of the reason why, in 1911, rebels started the Xinhai Revolution, overthrowing China's last imperial dynasty. The actual trigger came when the government gave control of China's railways to foreign companies. The revolt overthrew the six-year-old Emperor Puyi, and in 1912 opposition leaders established a Chinese republic.
Illustration of an army dressed in yellow laying siege to the city of Nanking. Soldiers are shown storming across a bridge with their guns drawn and hoisting each other up over the city’s walls. A fire burns in the background as explosions light up the night sky.
Lithograph illustrating the 1911 battle at Ta-ping gate, Nanking. From the Wellcome Library, London, CC BY 2.0.

Nationalists vs. communists (except during WWII)

After declaring a republican government, the new nationalist party, called the Guomindang (GMD)start superscript, 1, end superscript , tried to rebuild the country. Under the leadership of the first president, Sun Zhongshan, they set about modernizing and unifying the country. But they struggled to maintain unity, and in reality warlords ran the different regions of China. In 1921, revolutionaries inspired by socialist anti-imperialist ideas formed the Communist Party of China (CCP).
At first, the Communists allied with the GMD against the warlords, but it didn't last long. By 1927, shortly after Sun Zhongshan's death, things fell apart. The GMD became willing to ally with any warlords or landlords, no matter how they treated the peasants, as long as they agreed to fight the Communists. In the meantime, the Communists encouraged peasants to overthrow their landlords.
Map of China showing the extent of Japanese occupation in 1941 in red.
Map showing the extent of Japanese occupation in 1941. Public domain.
Map of China with the extent of Japanese occupation at the end of World War II shaded in red. Areas containing communist bases are shown using red and white stripes.
Map showing Japanese occupation (red) of eastern China near the end of the war, and Communist bases (striped). Public domain.
Between 1927 and 1937, Communists tried to gain power for themselves, with the nationalists suppressing them. Meanwhile, another danger was looming. While the Chinese had ended their own imperial government, outside empires were still a threat. At the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles had recognized some Japanese claims in China as a reward for Japan fighting alongside the victorious powers. By the 1920s, Japanese armies were pushing into Manchuria in northeast China. After 1937, China was officially at war with Japan. Reunited once again against imperialists, the GMD and CCP fought the Japanese invaders.
Fast forward to the end of WWII, and the Japanese were forced to surrender in China (as elsewhere), but only to the GMD.squared Their alliance of convenience ended, and for three years, 1946-1949, China was divided in a brutal civil war between the nationalists and the Communists. The Communists were the underdogs for many reasons, including US support for the GMT Nevertheless, they nevertheless emerged victorious in 1949. The Communist leader, Mao Zedong, declared a new socialist nation: The People's Republic of China (PRC). The nationalists and their leaders—about two million people— retreated to the island of Taiwan and established a rival Chinese nation, the Republic of China (ROC).

Rise of the Communist Party of China

So, the Communists had their revolution in China, only it took twenty-eight years for them to hold power. But better late than never. They had won a great deal of support among the common people, especially peasants, who were glad to escape from the control of wealthy landlords and corrupt warlords. And they were seen as anti-imperialist heroes for their efforts against the Japanese. The PRC, led by Mao Zedong, embarked on the huge task of building a socialist state.
Photo of Chinese President Mao dressed in his military uniform.
Mao Zedong in 1949/1950. From Washington Area Spark, CC BY-NC 2.0.
Chairman Mao (as he was known) had a plan to lower rent, redistribute land, energize industry, and uphold women's rights. But that required him to restructure society completely—an uphill battle, and a violent one. In the early 1950's, the PRC began its land reform process, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of poor peasants to liberate land from wealthy landlords and redistribute their resources. The landlords were subject to humiliation and violence. The struggle led to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of deaths. The process, as Mao admitted, was "not a dinner party."
Mao Zedong is reported to have said that "women hold up half the sky" and should be treated equally. During the early PRC days, he was true to his word. Marriage and land reforms gave women more rights, and women were encouraged to enter the work force—though there was a temporary reversal when urban women were encouraged to be good socialist housewives.
Following in Soviet footsteps and with Soviet support, the PRC also set out to centralize its industries, using five- year plans to set the pace of development. Focused on heavy industry, this commitment to industrializing continued with the Great Leap Forward. The what? Glad you asked…

The great leap forward

So, you know how on TV, when someone is doing something dangerous—and usually awesome—they say: don't try this at home! Well, the Chinese government gave the opposite advice, when it came to making steel. People were encouraged to build furnaces in their communities to make steel, in order to help China grow its industries. That's because China had been the biggest manufacturing center in the world before about 1750, but now they were way behind other parts of the world in industrial production. To catch up, they figured, why limit factory work to factories?
Photo of workers in a field making their own steel using tall, cylindrical barrels.
DIY (do it yourself) steel-making in 1958. Public domain.
Homemade steel wasn't the best idea ever, but it was part of new initiatives launched during the Great Leap Forward campaign. Mao introduced the campaign in the late 1950s to industrialize the countryside, usually with small-scale factories and workshops. The campaign also called for educational reforms and the use of people's communes, where people lived and worked collectively.
Though stay-at-home steel-making didn't pan out, other things did. Infrastructure, like railroads, bridges, canals, reservoirs, mines, power stations, and irrigation systems, were built and modernized. However, agricultural output was pretty bad. There was a period of bad weather, plus a lot of the grain that people managed to grow was exported to the Soviet Union to pay for industrial equipment. As a result, China experienced catastrophic famines that killed tens of millions of people.

The cultural revolution

Now if you're thinking: another revolution? Didn't China have two already?—don't worry. This wasn't that kind of revolution. It was another one of Mao's initiatives introduced in the mid-1960s: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward hadn't worked, and the economy was slow. Mao thought perhaps capitalism was still the culprit, so he started a social movement to weed it out of Chinese society.
He organized the "Red Guards," a militarized group of mostly teenagers. The goal was to destroy the "Four Olds" of pre-Communist China: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Much of China's cultural heritage was destroyed, as it was—said the campaign—associated with capitalist, feudal, or backwards ways of thinking. That included religion, and this was especially tough on religious minorities. Also, those young people in the Red Guard who suddenly had so much power were an unruly bunch, and central authorities did not really have control of them.
Photo of a large crowd of young students sitting on the ground holding small, red books in their hands. Each student is wearing a red armband.
Red Guards, many of whom are high school and university students, holding copies of Chairman Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book," gathering in Tian'anmen Square in Beijing in September 1966, the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Public domain.
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao and the PRC claimed to have achieved the goal of giving women equal rights, with Mao declaring, "The times have changed; men and women are the same." Women sported short hairstyles, wore army clothing, and worked alongside men. Despite this declaration, women continued to experience discrimination and abuse, but it was harder for them to speak up when Mao's message was that the battle for equality had already been won.
In the end, the Cultural Revolution caused a lot of problems. Schools suffered as students denounced their teachers as "bourgeois intellectuals"—but don't try that with your teachers. Many industries came to a halt as experts were driven off by the Red Guards. Even the Chinese Communist Party later called the policies "a great catastrophe", and many leaders believed it was really just Mao's way of eliminating his rivals within the party.

China and the world

After the Cultural Revolution, however, things began to stabilize. Despite some disastrous policies, between 1949 and Mao's death in 1976, China's economy vastly improved. Its residents during this time became on average wealthier, more educated, and healthier. China was also becoming a more powerful regional and global actor once again—just in time for decolonization.
Anti-imperialism had been a huge part of Chinese nationalism for most of the century, and China committed to fighting imperialist powers abroad. But the face of imperialism had changed since WWII, with the United States and the Soviet Union vying for control. And though the PRC was on good terms with the Soviets initially, the relationship had soured, and China was more or less on its own by the 1960s. It joined the Non-Aligned Nations—who were committed to not taking sides in the US - Soviet Union rivalry—and practiced a policy of overall opposition to imperialism and colonialism.
Drawing representing the support behind the proletarian cultural revolution in China. Men and women are depicted holding red books in the air. Chinese print at the bottom states “The proletarian cultural revolution in our country is shaking the whole world”.
Chinese Cultural Revolution image which says “The proletarian cultural revolution in our country is shaking the whole world.” From the University of Michigan Library, public domain.
Equipped with nuclear power after 1967, China emerged as the most powerful of these non-aligned nations. With a growing economy and a strong military, it became a powerful world actor. In fact, it was the PRC and not the Soviet Union that was the main socialist backer of Communists in the Korean and Vietnam Wars for a while. As its economy and power grew, China effectively became the third-strongest global power. And for a long time, it sponsored decolonization in many places. Ultimately, this powerful nation enacted policies that others claimed were Chinese imperialism—like taking over Tibet and trying to culturally change Muslim citizens in the south-west of China. Some might question, therefore, whether late twentieth-century China was becoming an empire once again.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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