On the 11th of October 1945, Harry Truman receives an intel briefing from Patrick J. Hurley, ambassador to China, that will change the course of history.
“Mr. President,” it reads, “Chiang Kai-Shek has decided to abandon the north to the Communists.”
Against US urgings, Chiang decides to leave everything north of Shandong to Mao. It is an unpopular decision, and raises incredible debate amongst the KMT (Nationalist) generals. After all, Chiang is not only surrendering China’s industrial base and huge coal reserves in Manchuria, but also letting the Communists get their hands on the gigantic arsenal of Japanese weapons that has been left there after Japan’s surrender.
But deep down, Chiang knows it is the only option. His generals are too corrupt and too weak, and he cannot hold the North. US support is strong, but he feels it will likely wane now that peace is on the horizon. Better to consolidate his territory, and then move onto attacking the Communists from a position of strength than to spread himself too thin.
Mao immediately moves his troops closer to the improvised border, while dispatching brigades to take over major cities such as Beijing, Shenyang and Harbin.
To his utter dismay, he finds that the Soviet troops there are busy dismantling all industrial resources and shipping it back to the USSR. Entire factories are being packed onto trains and sent across the border, and the USSR is pillaging all remaining stocks of steel, coal and iron.
He vehemently protests by telegraph, only to receive a short and curt answer from the ambassador to China – a slap in the face as Stalin deliberately chooses to show him he is not important enough to warrant a direct response from the USSR leader.
“We have left all Japanese weapons. Use them in your fight comrades.”
Enraged, but unable to prevent the pillage, Mao redistributes the superior Japanese technology to his troops on the new border, and cements his control over his new territory by moving the capital to Beijing. Yes, it is closer to the soon-to-be main battle line, but then again, Yanan wasn’t very safe either.
Chiang meanwhile, moves the capital back to Nanjing, a city still traumatised by the massacre that occurred during the first years of the war, and begins a difficult reconstruction effort to raise morale. Slogans are brandied about: “A New China Begins”, “Victors Over the Japanese Aggressor” and “From Pain will Grow the Future”. One takes on steam more than the others however: “Phoenix”. From the ashes of war-torn China, the superpower will rise once again.
But Chiang knows he has little time to act – skirmishes are already beginning along the Northern line, and Mao’s troops, relatively untouched during the war and now newly equipped with Japanese weapons, are itching for a fight.
Start of the Chinese Civil War
The first major battle occurs when Communist troops, headed by the already legendary Lin Biao, assault the town of Qingdao. The KMT commander there, Liu Yuzhang, puts up a token defense but quickly flees by the sea with his close circle, leaving his army stranded and leaderless. It is an incredible coup, and 100,000 KMT troops are captured or killed in the offensive.
In Tai’an, farther along the border, the brilliant Hu Zongnan manages to repel an attack by Zhu De, preserving the city. Zhu De, upon Mao’s instruction, scatters his armies in the surrounding fields and engages in guerilla attacks in the region while waiting for back-up.
The Shandong Offensive (Feb. 1946)
Back in Nanjing, Chiang is incensed at the loss of Qingdao and the continuing struggles in Shandong province. When the defeated Liu Yuzhang lands in Shanghai, he is immediately intercepted by military police and sent to Nanjing, where he is mercilessly executed. Chiang is sending a message: we are fighting for our lives.
He initiates a purge amongst his general staff, rooting out the corrupt and the incompetent, promoted due to relationships, and tries to identify promising generals among the more junior staff.
Unsure of their worth however, he also asks the Americans to lend him military assistance in the form of consultants. Worried about the rise of Red China, that now controls half the country and appears to be winning, Truman quickly dispatches some of his best advisers and convinces General MacArthur to lend a hand.
Mao meanwhile, is delighted by the victory in Qingdao. Wanting to strike a decisive blow, he comes up with a plan, the Nanjing Strike, and sets Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi to oversee its execution.
The plan is simple: it is a Blitzkrieg type attack, sending in a giant burst of troops through Henan Province straight for Nanjing, cutting off a potential retreat to Sichuan and hopefully capturing the capital of the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek, the Generalissimo, in one blow.
The Nanjing Strike (Jun. 1946)
The Nanjing Strike is immensely successful at first, and the Communist forces make it to the bank of the Yang-tse river in barely two weeks of forced march. Just on the other side looms Nanjing, and Liu Shaoqi splits his troops into three, sending one group north and one south to cross the river and surround the city.
By an incredible coincidence however, the Nanjing Strike was launched on the exact same day as Chiang’s planned attack on Yan’an, to the west, the historical base of the Communist Party, towards which he has been discretely amassing troops to mark a symbolic victory.
As soon as news reaches Chen Quzhen, leader of the Yan’an attack, he diverts his forces and starts a rush towards Nanjing, fast on the heels of Liu and Deng. He arrives at the city barely four days after. Nanjing is still standing, fighting fiercely against the Communist invaders.
Chen Quzhen’s forces slam into the Communist forces from the back, completely obliterating them. The Southern group is pursued relentlessly until it surrenders, while the Northern Group starts a desperate retreat towards the North, attempting to reach Communist Shandong. Unfortunately, waiting halfway is Tai’an’s Hu Zongnan, who has been alerted to their presence and taken half of his forces into the fields to intercept them. The Northern Group is crushed. Deng Xiaoping perishes in combat while valiantly holding up a Communist flag and Liu Shaoqi is captured and sent back to Nanjing.
The Battle of Nanjing (Jul. 1946)
Chiang Kai-shek’s victory is complete. Mao has been dealt an incredibly strong blow. Over 300,000 Communist troops have been captured or killed, and the Japanese made weapons taken from them are sent to strengthen the KMT’s current armament.
From the streets of Nanjing a cry rings out: “Phoenix! Phoenix! May the Phoenix live 10,000 years!” – Chiang Kai-shek, risen from the ashes of defeat, has earned himself a new nickname.
Chen Quzhen, emboldened by his victory at Nanjing, immediately departs for a counterattack in Northern China. He tacks straight for Yanan, but this time through Shanxi. The ex-capital of the Communists falls surprisingly easily, having nothing but a token defense of a few thousand men. Chen quickly realises that after the rout in Shandong, Mao has recalled his men to Beijing, afraid that the next strike would be for Beijing. He immediately turns North and East towards Ningxia and Inner-Mongolia, intent on cutting the Communist’s territory in half. Undefended, it falls easily.
Using small brigades, Chen easily subdues Qinghai and Gansu and starts moving to the East, where the core of the Communists’ power lies. Chiang Kai-shek, meanwhile, has been actively recruiting both in China and abroad, and a force of over 300,000 men, of which 100,000 US soldiers, move from Nanjing towards Taian.
KMT vs. Communist Territories (Nov. 1946)
At this point in the Civil War, the Kuomintang is in a position of force, and things look good for Chiang. He is about to open two major fronts against Communist China, one headed by Chen in Inner Mongolia and the other by Hu in Shandong. Chiang’s experts estimate the size of the Communist army at less than 30% the size of the KMT’s, and supplies seem to be running low, while the US has been helpfully providing more and more resources, including guns, ammunitions, planes and even naval support.
However, two events are about to completely turn the tables.
The Execution of Hirohito
Although Truman’s first choice for handling the occupation of Japan had been MacArthur, his involvement in the Chinese Civil War had forced him to turn to Chester W. Nimitz.
After a full investigation, which included damning evidence such as the Sugiyama memo and the diaries of Kido and Konoe, Nimitz comes to a simple conclusion: the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, was not only fully aware of the war atrocities being committed by his troops, but had also given his seal of approval to many of them.
The Tribunal that judged Hirohito
Faced with his undeniable guilt, Nimitz arranges a trial which sees the Emperor sentenced to death. On the 3rd of December 1946, the Emperor Hirohito is executed by hanging, in an American military outpost on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Wanting to ensure that the occupation of Japan is not overly disrupted by the event, the radio broadcast that accompanies the news of Hirohito’s execution specifies that he is succeeded by his son, Emperor Akihito, with Prince Higashikuni to serve as regent until Akihito comes of age.
Unfortunately, that is not enough to ensure calm. The entire population revolts at the news. Okinawa quickly becomes another bloodbath as civilians assault the American base that has just been set up. They attack with whatever weapon they can find: guns, swords and even kitchen knives. All across the country, American forces are overwhelmed by the sheer mass of people. The dead are counted in the hundreds of thousands.
Nimitz immediately calls to MacArthur for aid, who splits off 80,000 US soldiers (of the 100,000+ present) from China and sends them to Japan to re-establish law and order.
The Yiyi Bingshi
While the KMT’s forces have been ravaging through the Western part of Communist China’s territory, Mao has not been inactive. The troops he has recalled are quickly used in a gigantic propaganda effort: reaching out to the peasants in the regions he controls.
The message is kept simple: with us, you get to keep your land. If the KMT comes, they will give it to large property owners and you will be no better than slaves. The peasants are quick to catch on, and ask what they can do. Hundreds of thousands flock to Beijing, leaving their fields in the hands of their women and children. Compelled by the Communist slogan “Two arms can hold a gun”, many women join up too.
The USSR has also been following the situation in China with a worried look. Seeing China begin to collapse, it sends over arms and grain, hoping to both equip and feed the untrained army Mao is creating. Talks in the Kremlin revolve around whether or not to participate – US soldiers are fighting alongside the Nationalists after all – but Stalin decides not to force a confrontation until they are ready. And by ready, he means the progress that is secretly being made on the Soviet nuclear program.
On the 23rd of January 1947, Hu and Chen launch a synchronised attack. Chiang expects at least one of the two to succeed in piercing through the Communist forces, and then swing around Beijing to help finish off the fight of the other if need be. Ideally, both will work.
What arrives instead is something that shocks the entire Western world. All American soldiers present will describe it ever after as “The Human Wave”. International press in France calls it “The Yellow Tide”. But in China, it is simply known as the 一亿兵士 – the Yiyi Bingshi, or the Hundred Million Soldiers.
Historians estimate that 4 million (and not the oft-claimed hundred million) peasants were sent to both fronts, despite there being only a gun for every 5 men. Armed with nothing but knives, pitchforks and courage, the Yiyi Bingshi tore down towards Chiang’s massed armies, like a human tidal wave, unstoppable and implacable.
The Yiyi Bingshi charge at the Tangshan Valley Battleground, one of the bloodiest in the entire Chinese Civil War
The Yiyi Bingshi losses are horrific – historians will eventually estimate that at least 2 million soldiers lost their lives in those two brutal charges. Machine-gun fire simply decimated their ranks, and their utter lack of experience meant the concepts such as cover or stealthy, organised advances weren’t something they considered.
But the charges are effective. Both of Chiang’s armies are overwhelmed by sheer numbers, break rank and run. The Yiyi Bingshi continue to push forward, destroying the KMT’s forces as they catch up with the stragglers.
Lacking American air support and soldiers, both tied up in Japan trying to quell the revolts, MacArthur appeals directly to Truman to use the atomic bomb. “Let’s use a whole string of ‘em” he is quoted as saying to the journalists, “Let’s bomb the Commies from Qingdao to Hohhot! A line they’ll never pass again!”
Eventually, the Yiyi Bingshi are forced to stop, called back by their commanders and faced with KMT troops dug into mountainsides. The invasion has been successfully repelled and more – Mao has regained a large portion of his losses. Losses have been horrific on both sides, and each retires to lick their wounds, making sure to leave enough forces, if need be, to repel a future attack.
New territorial limits as of Mar. 1947 – KMT and Communist China
The US, still struggling to keep Japan under control, reaches out to the USSR to help broker a peace arrangement in China. A peace conference is arranged in Pyongyang, North Korea, deemed a neutral location for both participants. Chiang arrives by plane, and Mao, wary as ever, takes the train. Urged by their respective superpowers, both Chiang and Mao agree to the parts of China they currently control.
Neither fully trusts the other however. As soon as the talks end, both begin massive construction on either side of the line, building up giant barricades separated by a demilitarised zone 8 km in width. It runs for hundreds of kilometers, and quickly earns a more colloquial name. Xin Changcheng – The New Great Wall of China.
If you liked this short story, make sure to sign up to my newsletter for more! Thanks for reading!