top of page

1.11  Evolution of China’s Feudalistic Culture before Mao's Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution

1 July 2018

China’s History of Dynastic Cycle and its Feudalistic Culture


The working of the ancient Chinese history can best be described by the dynastic cycle theory which posits that every dynasty goes through the stages of prosperity, corruption, decay, decline, and revolution before a new dynasty emerges and the cycle repeats. There had been at least thirty three distinct political regimes or dynasties within over four millennia of Chinese history due to dynastic cyclical revolution.[1]


This dynamic of dynastic cycle was made possible by the relatively contained and secluded environment which China enjoyed as a result of its geographical location and her geological features. The vast continent was isolated from the external world with oceans on the east and the south, mountainous ranges in the west and the sparsely populated and arid Central Asia and Mongolia in the northwest and north. Initially, the expansive territory and the ecological diversity entailed the presence of distinctly local cultural enclaves. But with political unification dating back to 221 BC by Emperor Qin Shihuang (秦始皇) came also cultural unification which culminated in the emergence of a dominant national culture threaded together initially by a common political system and a writing language. This national culture was further reinforced over the last two thousand years by the teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism which provided a philosophical framework through which a common set of Chinese values, beliefs and customs were promulgated over generations.


During the Han Dynasty, for example, Confucianism was adopted as the state ideology. Confucianism was thus more than just a set of cultural values and beliefs. It was also a doctrine that formalized the social hierarchy as well as the running of the state bureaucracy and political institutions. The grasp of Confucianism on the Chinese society was therefore complete and thorough, transversing horizontally across cultural, social and political boundaries; and permeating vertically from the state at the top through the family units and all the way down to the individuals. Every entity within the whole framework was prescribed a role that came with a set of duties and responsibility underpinned by filial piety for the elders within the family as well as respect for the authority and loyalty to the state. Transgressive behaviours were inexcusable and everybody functioned within the framework of rules. In effect, the perennial emphasis on the learning of moral and ethic not only reduced variation but also served as a sieving or selection mechanism that kept out undesirable exogenous influences. Over time, a stable and orderly environment, propitious for strong central rule but inconducive for widespread endogenous changes, was created.


The Chinese culture underpinned by Confucianism thus played a useful role in maintaining stability for most part of the Chinese History. It also created an identity that all Chinese and even foreign invaders like the Mongols and Manchu identified with. This sense of identity in turn helped to keep China together as one. The Chinese culture based on Confucianism therefore performed a very important role of nation building.


The greatest deficiency that resulted from the emphasis of Confucian ethics was the low value attached to the study of science. Scientific innovation was regarded as ‘play’ which would erode a person’s ambition (玩物丧志) and any digression from the study of moral and ethics as prescribed by the sages would be promptly and resolutely proscribed.


Another force which reduced variation was the colossal central bureaucratic system that the Chinese emperors established to control their dynasty. The system administrators were officials appointed to their jobs by excelling in the imperial examination which quizzed them on the faithful interpretation of the teachings of the ancient sages. The administration of the state was therefore based on moralistic measures as well as conformation to antiquated precedents, rules and teachings rather than on practicality and pragmatism.


To be sure, China had exceptional rate of innovation up till the time of Song Dynasty (A.D.979–A.D.1279).[2] It had already acquired superb knowledge of bronze metallurgy as early as the third millennium B.C. and had developed the earliest cast-iron production technology in the world by 500 B.C.[3] During the next 1,500 years, more Chinese technological inventions such as paper, the compass, the wheelbarrow, and gunpowder followed suit. Foreign seaborne trades, aided by very advanced junks equipped with compasses, were encouraged. As a result, trade networks with Southeast Asia and Japan developed very rapidly. To support the booming commercial activities, huge amount of coinage were produced. Agricultural foundations were also revolutionized during this period and specialization in crops other than grains became commercially feasible. The use of woodblock printing by the government enabled the widespread and rapid diffusion of new knowledge in metallurgy, farming and engineering. Not all new ideas were Chinese though. Foreign ideas or technologies imported included new strains of rice from Vietnam, hydraulic irrigation techniques from the Islamic world, and advanced textile manufacturing methods from India. The cumulative effects of these changes made China possibly the most productive agricultural sector in the world by the thirteenth century Song Dynasty. In fact, China was technologically more advanced than Europe until around 1450 A.D.


Despite the technological leads that it enjoyed, however, the systemic weakness attributable to its antiquated feudalistic culture and mode of governance prevented its migration from an agrarian to a modern mercantile economy. The government’s role in promoting the economy was limited and passive.[4] The concept of building up economic power to strengthen the state power was ostentatiously missing. The heavy taxation and the various forms of state monopoly and licensing put a drag on economic growth. There was also a lack of active promotion of mercantile activity and the jobs of public officials were limited to providing mundane services such as tax and fee collections, maintenance of the waterworks and the stocking of granaries. Commercial growth was therefore generally subordinated to political, administrative and military objective.


More pertinently, the Chinese took great pride in the long and rich culture. Emperor Qianlong, for example, declared just barely a century prior to the incursions of the foreign powers, that China needed nothing from the West. It was this pride that became a strong inertia to any radical change. Any proposal of reform would be met with overwhelming resistance from the reactionary pedants who, vested interested aside, would defend ardently the ancient ways of the sages. For technical efficiency and gains, which were aggressively sought after in western culture, were of lesser value in a Chinese culture that believed in maintaining harmony and stability. Hence, the feudalistic culture protected the status quo and prevented peaceful linear societal and political evolution to a better system. For the emperor, the objective of the system was stability and control rather than efficiency and progress. The system helped to prolong the reign of the dynasty but inevitably stifled innovation and inhibited change. Over time, the system became rigid and inflexible and was incapable of coping with the demands of the rapidly ballooning population. The beleaguered commoners had also become submissive and developed a slavish mentality.


Meanwhile, whatever external influence China received came in only mostly through trade and religion, though both of which were tightly monitored and controlled by the Chinese authorities. Three groups of foreigners, in particular, made significant contribution by serving as a conduit through which Western influences mediated to the Chinese. They include individuals employed by the Chinese government, traders and missionaries.


Compared to the previous two groups, the missionaries were more widespread as a change agent. Their presence could be traced back to as early as the A.D. 635 with the entry of Assyrian Church of the East.  However, their missionary activities petered out because of the anti-religious policies adopted in A.D. 845 by the Tang government. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), Christianity made a comeback when the Franciscan missionaries were commissioned by the Pope in 1294. However, the spread of the faith was once more interrupted by the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. From the late 16th century, several groups of missionaries from the West again began arriving in China. One of these groups, for example, was from the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits


While most missionaries were located in or near the port cities, some, especially the Roman Catholics, went deep into the interior.  Apart from spreading the Christian faith, they made a notable contribution in raising the standard of education in China by introducing western science, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and visual arts to the Chinese. They also pioneered education for girls and provided technical training in engineering and agriculture. As such, many missionaries were regarded as educated elites and some became trusted advisors to the Imperial Court. At the same time, some Chinese, including Confucian scholars, adopted the Christian faith and became members of the Society of the Jesus.


On the whole, however, evolution of China was held back by endogenous inert forces while the rest of the world was undergoing metamorphic changes. The ruling elites were cut off from the external environment because of their ethnocentric mentality and isolationist policies. As a result, they had little information about the dramatic changes outside China and the inward looking Chinese system was deprived of external stimuli. In the end, once corruption and dynastic decay set in and life became increasingly unbearable, changes were usually forced upon the system in the form of a violent revolution from the bottom. The leader of the revolution then became the new emperor and a new dynastic cycle was set in motion.


Hence, even though revolutions were common in the long course of Chinese history, they were never about fundamentally reforming the cyclical development mode, not until when Sun Yatsen sought to establish a new political order to replace the antiquated Qing Dynasty by embarking on “geming” (革命 revolution), an originally Chinese term which he saw in a Japanese newspaper describing his revolutionary efforts.[5]


Impacts of Semi-Colonization of China on its Feudalistic Culture during Late Qing


The Chinese social, cultural, economic and political systems evolved with limited external stimuli until the late Qing Dynasty when China’s isolation was forcibly broken by the Western powers, particularly after the Qing Navy was defeated by the British in the First Opium War (1839 – 1842) which is seen by many as a turning point for the Qing Dynasty. The huge compensation and the cession of land to Britain, as stipulated in the unequal Treaty of Nanking signed by the Qing government, not only revealed its gross inadequacies in standing up to foreign powers and in defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China but also set a precedent for other foreign powers to seek economic gains by resorting to the use of military power. Indeed, imperialistic activities by foreign powers in China picked up pace in the second half of the 19th century. Other major wars fought included the Sino-Japanese War (甲午战争1894 – 1895) and the war with the Eight-Nation Alliance (八国联军 1900). After each defeat, in addition to huge payment of silver dollars, more land was ceded as compensation. Coastal cities and ports such as Shandong, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau were either ceded to foreign powers or had to be open for trade. In effect, China had become a semi-colonial state by the late nineteenth century.


The successive humiliating defeats of the Qing military by foreign powers jolted the Qing government. In the early 1860s, it decided to undertake a series of modernizing reforms, in a programme called Self-Strengthening Movement (自强运动 aka 洋务运动1861–1895) with the objective of saving the dynasty from internal rebellion and foreign aggression. This period in Qing history is known as the Tongzhi Restoration (同治中兴). However, the reform leaders were basically still conservative in their thinking. They believed in the soundness of the Chinese state and society based on its Confucianist culture and concluded that what was needed was only modern technology. The plan was therefore to graft western technology onto Chinese institutions (“中学为体,西学为用”,简称“中体西用”). As a result, little fundamental reform to the social, cultural, political and economic structures was carried out. The objective of the movement was indeed to preserve the status quo rather than to build a modernized nation state as the Japanese did with their Meiji Restoration (明治维新). Despite so, significant progress was made, especially in the use of Western technology in modernizing its military, under the leadership of Li Hongzhang (李鸿章) and his patron Zeng Guofan (曾国藩). Li also oversaw the development of several industrial enterprises in the north and initiated the laying of the telegraph lines, connecting many main cities by the end of the century.


The ensuing defeat by the Japanese navy in the Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki (马关条约) in 1895, however, left no doubt that the Self-Strengthening Movement, which had by then lasted more than three decades, had not been a success. The defeat was especially shocking because Japan, traditionally regarded condescendingly as a nation of pirates by the Chinese, scored a decisive victory over the supposedly modernized North Ocean Fleet (北洋舰队) which was thought to be the strongest naval force in Asia before the war.


In the aftermath of the humiliating defeat, the Chinese people’s voices clamouring for fundamental political changes began to appear. Younger and more reform-minded officials were also increasingly impatient with the older and more conservative higher-ranking officials. Amidst rising threats from internal turmoil and foreign powers’ encroachment, debates erupted between the reactionary pedants defending China’s Sinocentric cyclical past and the progressive-minded reformers advocating linear evolutionary changes.


The successive humiliations inflicted on the Chinese by the foreign powers were so shocking that the reformers now ruled out gradualism and incrementalism and clamoured for radicalism and the total importation of western systems. Instead of replacing the Qing Dynasty with yet another dynastic regime, these reformers promoted a political system that would be modelled after either the constitutional monarchy (君主立宪制) or the democratic republic (民主共和制) in the West, even though the implementation of these political models would not have been easy in the rigid Chinese environment where the submissive masses possessed no concepts of liberalism and individual rights.


“Study societies” soon began to surface to talk about “Weixin” (维新new reforms). At the same time, more newspapers, books, commercial presses, and reading rooms also mushroomed. Some of the newspapers were even run by progressive-minded officials, including Governor General Zhang Zidong (张之洞), who started Shiwu bao (时务报The Chinese Progress) to publish translation of foreign articles.[6] Collectively, the newspapers played an especially pivotal role in educating the masses and shaping public opinions. Articles about popular rights (民权minquan), democracy (民主minzhu) and Western parliaments soon began to surface in these newspapers. As days passed, the voice for radical changes grew more vocal and the surge in social energy was becoming increasingly difficult for the bureaucracy to control.


In 1898, Emperor GuangXu (光绪皇帝) launched the Hundred Days’ Reform (百日維新/戊戌變法) based on ideas from progressive-minded thinkers including Kang Youwei (康有为), his student Liang Qichao (梁启超) and six others known as the "Six Gentlemen" (戊戌六君子 or more appropriately the Six Martyrs). However, worried about being sidelined by the reformists, Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) engineered a coup d'état (戊戌政變 The Coup of 1898) to put down the 104-day reformative movement. She was supported by the conservative ruling elites, who were bent on preserving the status quo and protecting their vested interests. Kang and Liang fled to France and Japan respectively but the “Six Gentlemen” were executed. In the aftermath of the coup, all study societies were banned but many turned up underground.


Amidst the internal turmoil, pressures for more concessions from the foreign powers continued unabated. Jointly, they colluded on a policy of “slicing up the Chinese melon” and scrambled to establish their own “spheres of interest” in different parts of China.[7]


By this time, the disillusionment with the ineffectual government had prompted some radicals to resort to armed uprising. The activities of secret societies plotting to overthrow the regressive Qing government began to gather steam. One of these revolutionary secret societies was the Tongmeng Hui (同盟会Chinese United League), an alliance led by Sun Yat-sen (孙中山). Following an uprising originating from Wuchang (武昌起义) initiated by Tongmeng Hui and supported by many others in 1911, a series of provinces declared independence from the Qing government. The revolution, known as Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命), succeeded in bringing down the Qing Dynasty and in 1912, four years after the passing of Empress Dowager Cixi. China was declared a republic with Sun as the provisional president of the Nationalist government.


In short, even when changes were adopted initially by the ruling elites, they were half-hearted measured based on the old system to protect the status quo. In the end, change was forced upon the Qing ruling elites. The result was the century-long process of disintegration and painful transformation, culminating not only in the decimation of the dynastic cycle and the demise of the Qing Dynasty in early twentieth century but also in the emancipation of a tumultuous process of total iconoclasm of its feudalistic culture and the old traditional order.


Iconoclasm of Antiquated Confucian Culture in Post-Qing China


Shortly after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, Song Jiaoren (宋教仁) and Sun Yat-sen registered Tongmenghui as Kuomintang (国民党KMT, often translated as the Nationalist Party of China) and declared China’s independence with the establishment of the Republic of China. The birth of the new republic was marked by Sun Yat-sen’s presentation of KMT’s official political platform of “Three Principles of the People” (三民主义) which he had initially laid out in 1907.[8] The three principles are often translated into and summarized as nationalism (民族主义), democracy (民权主义), and the livelihood of the people (民生主义).


One of the first tasks the Nationalists embarked on was the setting up of a parliament and the drawing up of a constitution for the new Republic. However, the reformers soon realised that, while the mechanics of doing so was tedious but achievable, the effectual functioning of the system demanded more than just the fervour of a group of revolutionaries. Most of all, what could not be changed quickly was Chinese thinking which was still encumbered by self-interest as well as values and practices inherited from the past. Reformers believed that it China’s long history of unquestioning Confucian reverence to the family and the state had resulted in the slavishness of the Chinese (奴性). There were also worries that the long history of tyrannical rule had snuffed out the people’s spirit and that smothered spirit now had to be rekindled. Therefore, to liberate the country from practices of feudalism, the mind of the people must first be liberated. In other words, the success of a political reformation must build on the foundation of a successful cultural reformation. For China to heal, individuals, especially the youths, needed to be released from the straitjacket of the traditional order so that their creative energy could be harnessed for the betterment of a modern Chinese society. For the intellects, this could only be achieved through the total iconoclasm of antiquated Confucian culture.


The reign of the Nationalists was therefore marked by the reopening of China coupled with a process of cultural self-evaluation and changes. The interest in foreign culture was not limited to just imported goods and exotic foreign lifestyles. Beneath the skin-deep superficial pursuit of modernity associated with the West, there was a fundamental transformation in the thinking of the intellectuals. This was indeed a vibrant period when the intellectuals looked both inwardly at the deficiencies of China’s antiquated Confucian culture and outwardly at the West for ideas of political, cultural and social reformation.


The New Culture Movement in 1915


The period between 1912 and 1916 was therefore a time of cultural and social upheaval. The process of disintegration of the antiquity eventually snowballed into a nation-wide movement called the New Culture Movement (新文化运动) in 1915.


The movement was triggered by Yuan Shikai’s announced ambition of restituting the monarchic institution. It was inaugurated by the publication of the iconoclast New Youth (新青年) journal by Chen Duxiu. Its original objective was to mobilize resistance against Yuan’s monarchical ambition. In an effort to amass support for his dream to be emperor, Yuan had tried to elevate his personal authority by reviving Confucianism. He honoured Confucius, promoted the study of Confucian classics, and employed Confucianist symbols and rituals. His actions were strongly attacked by the New Youth which advocated the adoption of Western culture of science and democracy in place of the feudalistic Chinese culture. The movement continued unabated, even after Yuan’s death, underpinned by a broader objective of appealing to China's youth to take up the struggle and assume responsibility for the creation of a new culture and society.


Despite so, some historians questioned how widespread the total rejection of the traditional order was. They noted that the masses were frustrated more by foreign powers encroachment and the exploitations by capitalists, landowners and warlords rather than the ‘undesirable’ effects of Confucianism.[9] This explains why the revolution waged by the communists against the imperialists, landowners and the warlords eventually won the hearts of the masses.


In other words, the total iconoclasm against Confucianism was a movement, to an extent, for and by the intellectuals and students. It was not a concept easily ingested by the majority of the masses, especially the urban working class and the rural peasants, whose livelihood was made increasingly unbearable by the incessant fighting – arising from Taiping Revolution, Boxing Revolution, warlordism, and, later, the civil war between KMT and CCP and the Japanese invasion – and by natural disasters.


More significantly, few people, not even the protagonists of the movement, had a clear idea of what the end state would be like, other than the clutch of ideals which they derived and upheld based on the experiences of nations in the West. In the absence of a viable alternative of social structure and values, therefore, it was hard to imagine how the movement could achieve extensive and sustainable success after the initial euphoria.


Another reason why the New Cultural Movement was met with only limited success was because this process of complete re-evaluation of Chinese culture was interrupted before it could reach a significant milestone. In 1919, at the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference, former German interests in Shandong were transferred to Japan, amidst strong objections from the Chinese delegation. Nation-wide protests and demonstration ensued, culminating in the genesis of the May Fourth Movement in 1919. What began as a cultural and social movement in 1915 therefore experienced an abrupt change in course and evolved into a political movement in 1919.


The Rise of Modern Chinese Nationalism


One concern the Chinese elites had about the iconoclasm of Confucianism was that it would create a social, cultural and ideological vacuum in a time of great turbulence. Despite the many social maladies which the intellectuals rightly or unjustly attributed to Confucianism, the Chinese culture underpinned by Confucianism did play a useful role in maintaining social order and stability for most part of the Chinese History. It created a distinctive identity that all Chinese and even foreign invaders like the Mongols and Manchu identified with. This sense of identity in turn helped to bring all elements within China together as one. Without Confucianism, the Chinese would be deprived of an accustomed cultural beacon they could readily identify with. The nascent republic would also be deprived of a new unifying ideology around which it could rally the masses. The ruling elites thus needed a new beacon that could galvanize and spur the masses. They found it in the call of nationalism.


One Chinese intellect, Yan Fu (严复), whose work “Tianyan Lun” (天演论) was inspired by Herbert Spencer’s, Thomas Huxley’s, and Charles Darwin’s writings on evolutionary theories, concluded that Western society’s struggle for existence in a malevolent environment had resulted in the evolution of a “social organism” that takes the form of a nation. He further posited that the root of western nations’ wealth and power lay in their dynamism, progress and evolution of the society as a whole, underpinned by individual’s freedom and democracy. To be as strong as the western nations, China needed to break away from the dynastic cycle and emerge as a nation state.


Yan Fu’s book became a hot-seller as soon as it was published in December 1897. It influenced a whole generation of intellects including, Hu Shi (胡适), who later led the New Cultural Movement. Ethnic-focused Han nationalism was on a rapid rise then amidst the social and political turbulence. However, unlike many young Chinese whose narrow-minded Han nationalism was focused more on returning the rule of China to Han people, Yan and many intellects advocated modern Chinese nationalism for all Chinese regardless of ethnicity. They worried that the focus on one ethnicity would result in the fragmentation of the identity of the new republic, leading to further weakening of the Chinese society. It was why some intellects, including Yan Fu and Liang Qichao, were supportive of a constitutional monarchy. They feared that a violent revolution to overthrow the Qing government would lead to disintegration and greater foreign intervention. They thus preferred a more orderly approach of reform within the framework of the Qing government, a concept which found little resonance in the radical reformers and revolutionaries.


Notwithstanding, while Sun’s approach of armed uprising differed radically from Yan and Liang’s peaceful and orderly approach, all their conceptions were underpinned by nationalism which the new China needed to foster. The debates over nationalism helped in the new republic’s formulation and adoption of an ideology that set aside differences in ethnicity in order to build a genuine and strong Chinese nation-state.[10]


The Introduction of Modern School System


Another area of great changes in the early twentieth century was education. In fact, textbooks used in the 1890s had already started to reflect the need to foster nationalism in the Chinese masses to combat European imperialism. With the introduction of the modern school system and the abolition of the imperial examination in 1905, the clutch of the ancient sages on the Chinese youth was finally officially unshackled. Instead of focusing on archaic teachings of morals and ethics, reformers sought to stimulate patriotism and nationalism among the young students. New textbooks of history and geography outlined the five races in the world and the supremacy of the white race while emphasizing China’s precarious struggle for survival in the face of foreign encroachments.[11] China must therefore rejuvenate itself to prevent being colonized. To help to strengthen the Chinese and to catch up with the white race technologically, reformers also promoted an alternative vision that emphasized rational scientific thought.


Many students were sent abroad to study, some during the late Qing period in the early twentieth century. Among these overseas scholars were Yan Fu (严复), Hu Shi (胡适), Zhang Junmai (张君劢), Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培), Zhou Enlai (周恩来) and Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), all of whom played a pivotal role in the evolution of events in the following decades. 


The May Fourth Movement in 1919


The reforms in education facilitated the rapid spread of political awareness and national consciousness, a process that was soon accelerated by external events. Of these, the watershed event indubitably must be the May Fourth Movement (五四运动) that erupted in 1919 when the Paris Peace Conference, after the First World War, supported Japan’s acquisition of Germany’s interest in China, contrary to the Chinese expectations that those interests would be returned to China.


Chinese’s reactions were quick and explosive. Thousands of students took to the streets, supported by workers, traders, sailors, and merchants, who soon also joined the protests, staged strikes and boycotted Japanese goods. Within weeks, the waves of nationalistic fervour were transformed into a nationwide anti-imperialist movement known as the May Fourth Movement. In the face of the solidarity displayed by the indignant Chinese across the nation, the Chinese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference walked out without signing the Versailles Treaty and the cabinet as a whole resigned in the aftermath. The massive scale of the demonstration and the unity displayed by all Chinese across all segments of the society were unprecedented, prompting some historians to pronounce May Fourth Movement as the genesis of Chinese nationalism.


The movement was a milestone not only for the explosive outburst of patriotism and nationalism. By this time, many students and intellectuals were totally disillusioned with the West for the hegemonic exploitation of their imperialism as well as the social ills of their capitalism. Some began to have reservations about aspects of European culture after the First World War (1914 – 18). In particular, the massive destruction of Europe during the war changed the views of some Chinese intellectuals towards the values of western science and technology for China. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation”. In Europe, development of science and technology led to efficiency which cultivated greed that was attainable only through “strife, exploitation, restless change, discontent and destruction”.[12]


For Liang Qichao, especially after his 1919 visit to Europe where he saw the social ills arising from the Western material culture and the widespread devastation wreaked by the war, he was further convinced that the humanistic Chinese culture was more suitable for the Chinese society. As such, he held that “while the ‘shell’ of Chinese society should be Western and scientific, the ‘kernel’ must remain purely Confucian”.[13] 


Liang’s view was embraced by another two Chinese intellectuals Liang Shuming (梁漱溟) and Zhang Junmai (张君劢). The former was an ardent defender of the relevance of Confucianism in a modern society, arguing that in an increasingly ‘dehumanized technological world’, Confucian’s humanism could enrich the human soul.  Zhang, on the other hand was a European-trained philosopher who held the view that science and philosophy of life were incompatible and that problems involving the philosophy of life could be better solved by the Chinese humanistic tradition, especially the neo-Confucianism of the Song and Ming dynasties (宋明理学).[14]


1920s therefore saw the evolution of Song-Ming neo-Confucianism into New Confucianism (现代新儒学) under the leadership of New Confucianists like Liang Shuming, Xiong Shili (熊十力), Feng Youlan (冯友兰), He Ling (贺麟) and Zhang Junmai. Efforts were made to provide a modern analytical framework for the study of Confucianism in order to reposition it and to make it relevant to a modern China.[15] 


Despite their defence of Chinese culture, however, Liang Qichao, Liang Shuming and Zhang Junmai were unlike the past reactionary pedants of Confucianism who were vehemently against the importation of western influences. While acknowledging the importance of science and technology in the modernization of China, they believed that the maladies of the West could be moderated by the humanistic approach of the Chinese culture. The trio recognized that the external environment had changed and China had no choice but to evolve too, even though they would have preferred the traditional Chinese way of life as professed by Confucius and the other ancient sages.


The May Fourth Movement, therefore both as an event and as a point of reference in the evolutionary timeframe, marked the beginning of a fresh round of debates between the radicals, liberal reformers and conservatives. Their increasing concerns about the social-illnesses of the materialistic Western society prompted them to seek alternative models of social, political and economic reforms for China’s next phase of development.


The Genesis of Chinese Communism


One such alternative was communism. In the tussles between the reformers and the conservatives, the reformers prevented China from falling back to the traditional order but yet were not strong enough to push through a new order. Amidst the pandemonium that these cultural and political tussles created, a third force, communism, riding high domestically on nationalism and externally on the success of the Russian October Revolution, emerged.


Enthralled by Karl Marx writings of classless struggle and inspired by the success of the Communist October Revolution in 1917 in Russia, some radicals were increasingly drawn to communism for ideas of nation-building and for solutions to the woes of the poor and helpless peasants and urban workers, the two groups exploited by the warlords and the capitalists. Two of these radicals were Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) and Li Dazhao (李大钊) who were mesmerized by the Marxist concepts of a classless society. Chen’s New Youth journal, based in Shanghai, now increasingly reflected that Marxist overtone. By 1919, the division among intellectuals who once shared common grounds became increasingly apparent. Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu became Marxists while Hu became a Deweyan liberal.[16] They were opposed by conservatives such as Liang Qichao, Liang Shuming and Zhang Junmai.[17]


The emergence of communism greatly complicated China’s soul-searching process which had hitherto been based on models from the capitalist West. Before 1921, the mass-culture debate was regarded as a battle between the feudalist culture and the new democratic culture. With the introduction of communism, the debate for some became a battle between the proletariat culture and the bourgeois culture.


Despite the divergence in ideological stance of the radicals (i.e. Marxists), the conservatives and the liberals, however, one common thread did run through all the three groups. All of them were steadfastly committed to the concept of evolutionary changes for the Chinese society in response to exogenous challenges from the West. Marxists, for example, viewed their classless struggle as a form of struggle for existence in an environment made hostile not only by imperialists but also capitalists and land owners. Conservatives, who were ardent defenders of traditionalism, on the other hand, acknowledged the inadequacies of the archaic teachings of Confucius and were keenly aware of the necessity for Confucianism to evolve with societal changes in order to stay relevant.


As the May Fourth Movement evolved, the Russians won the hearts of many students and intellectuals when they pronounced that Russia was ‘ready to practice genuine fraternal internationalism’ in contrast to the imperialistic exploitations of the other foreign powers. Riding on the waves of anti-Japanese strikes and protests, the Chinese communists went about helping the organizations of student unions and spreading communist literatures. Three universities in Beijing, Shanghai and Canton became centres from which communist ideas emancipated. From 1920 onwards, batches of sixty students were sent to Russia for intense six months’ training.[18]


In 1921, with the help of Soviet Union, the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed and Chen was elected the first general secretary. CCP’s creeds of anti-warlordism and anti-imperialism soon attracted many patriotic young people, especially the idealistic students who became leaders and organized urban workers and rural peasants into labour unions and farmer associations thus giving the under-privileged working class and peasants a voice against their exploitations by capitalists and land-owners.


In 1923, the Russian communists, who saw the elimination of the warlords and the foreign imperialists as a common goal between the nationalists and the communists, eagerly courted Sun and engineered the setting up of the first KMT-CCP United Front. With the help of Soviet advisors, KMT was reorganized along Soviet lines of democratic centralism. The combination of Sun’s political ideology and the communist’s organizational efficiency in mobilizing the masses coupled with their effective propaganda techniques proved to be an extremely successful formula. It was therefore unfortunate that Sun passed away in 1925, merely two years after the setting up of the United Front, just as the situation was beginning to improve for the Nationalists. Sun was succeeded by Jiang Jieshi (蒋介石Chiang Kai Shek) who carried on with Sun’s unfinished campaign against the northern warlords to reunify China.


In 1927, while Jiang was away on his third Northern Expedition, dissenting leftist Nationalists led by Wang Jingwei (汪精卫) based in Wuhan, in collaboration with the leftists, expelled Jiang from the KMT. In response, Jiang set up his new rightist Nationalist government in Nanjing in March 1927, dissolved the United Front and began the purging of communists in April who then went underground. Some communists stayed on in the city to continue organizing the rapidly increasing number of industrial workers. Others fled to the countryside to mobilize the peasants and to continue building up their military strength.


By then, the communists were not only winning the hearts of the masses but also the minds of non-communist KMT members within the United Front. Even though the communists constituted only a minority within the party, their strong influence helped shape the thinking of large numbers of members of the KMT. At the same time, they were also making impressive headway with the masses with their hard work and effective propaganda. They were credited with keeping the fire of ‘People’s Revolution’ burning while the members of KMT were perceived as basking in ease and pleasure from their earlier success and “degenerating into officialdom”.


Reforms under Nationalist Jiang Jieshi


In early 1928, Jiang succeeded in reunifying the two factions of KMT and resumed his northern campaign. In December that year, he also reunified China when Zhang Xueliang (张学良), who had succeeded his father Zhang Zuolin (张作霖) as the warlord in Manchuria, declared his affiliation with the Nanjing government. The year 1928 thus marked the beginning of Nationalist’s rule of the reunified China under the leadership of Jiang.


In an effort to counter the success of the communist propaganda, Jiang sought to stop the unrestrained disintegration of the old system by bringing back traditional Confucian morality. In 1934, Jiang also launched the New Life Movement, a movement that combined new western ideas with traditional Chinese system. Through the state-directed social campaign, he hoped to forge “a new national consciousness and mass psychology” as a defence against the communist propaganda.[19] By extolling western values such as modern hygiene and discipline, the movement also aimed to eradicate bad practices and create a new type of citizen. Despite having a good start, the national campaign produced limited success in the end.


In other reforms, especially related to the rural areas, the new government also ran into obstacles. There were not enough trained personnel for all the government positions needed. To make matter worse, old warlords and landed gentries were allowed into the party. Even though the central government passed land and agrarian reforms aimed to improve the livings of the Chinese peasants, the new measures were opposed by these self-seeking local bullies and elites. Moreover, by purging the communists off the party, KMT had lost a vital albeit indirect link it had with the peasants through the communists. Modernization efforts were therefore concentrated in the urban areas and the countryside remained poverty-stricken. The KMT became gradually known as an urban-based movement. The KMT’s inability to implement reforms in the rural regions provided an opportunity for the communists to establish their power base by liberating the peasants from the stranglehold of the exploitative warlords and landed gentries.


Moreover, Jiang did not have the luxury of focusing his efforts fully on the reconstruction programme. In addition to having to fend off challenges from Wang Jingwei and others party members, trouble was also brewing in the northeast where Japan had developed an industrial centre after defeating Russia in Manchuria in 1905. In 1931, Japan staged the Mukden Incident and seized Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manzhouguo (满洲国) with the last Qing emperor, Puyi, as the figurehead. Japan’s action greatly alarmed the patriotic and nationalistic Chinese. Public pressure was mounting for the communists and nationalists to stop fighting in the face of foreign aggression.


Jiang, however, was convinced that before he could focus on addressing the Japanese threat, the communist menace had to be dealt with first.


The Growth of CCP in Jiangxi and Yanan


By then, the communists had already established its first rural revolutionary base (农村革命根据地) at Jinggangshan (井冈山) at the border region of Hunan-Jiangxi provinces, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, who had just led the unsuccessful Autumn Harvest Uprising (秋收起义) in Changsha in August 1927. In April 1928, Mao was joined by Zhu De (朱德) and Chen Yi (陈毅) with their remnant forces after their unsuccessful Nanchang Uprising (南昌起义) during the same period. The two forces combined to form the Fourth Army. Other veterans who later joined the new base included Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai. It is here at Jinggangshan that Mao abandoned the Soviet-inspired urban-centred armed-struggle strategy and formulated his theory of establishing rural revolutionary base areas to encircle the cities as well as his strategy of using guerrilla tactics to counter KMT’s larger and better-equipped forces. Jinggangshan is therefore known not only as the birthplace of the Chinese Red Army (predecessor of the People's Liberation Army) but also the "cradle of the Chinese revolution".


In 1929, Mao also went on to establish the “Jiangxi–Fujian Soviet" (commonly called the Jiangxi Soviet), which became the largest component of the “Chinese Soviet Republic” (CSR, 中华苏维埃共和国), a new country helped set up by the Soviet Union in November 1931. The CSR had its own bank, printed its own money, and collected tax through its own tax bureau.


Between 1930 and 1934, Jiang made five attempts to encircle and decimate the communist forces. In autumn of 1934, when the Jiangxi-Fujian base area was finally overrun by the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army in the Fifth of its Encirclement Campaigns, the Red Army embarked on its most famous year-long 6000-mile Long March (长征) to establish a new base in Shaanxi (陕西) in the north.


During the Long March, a meeting was called at Zunyi (遵义) in January 1935. The meeting concluded that responsibilities for the defeats that led to the long retreat fell on Bo Gu (博古 Original name: Qin Bangxian 秦邦憲) and his associates, Mao’s opponents within the CCP. From the founding of the CCP in 1921 until Mao gained pre-eminence within the Central Committee in 1935, the Party was deeply divided by factional disputes concerning the course of the Chinese revolution. Mao was particularly critical of the adventuristic military posture and harsh political and economic policies of leaders of the so-called "third 'left' line" from 1931 to 1934, men who largely belonged to the returned student faction. This faction, led by Bo, had close Soviet ties and gained ascendancy in the Central Committee due to the direct intervention of Comintern agents. Their incompetence led to heavy losses suffered by the communist troops during the fighting against Jiang’s Fifth Encirclement as well as along the Long March. At Zunyi, the faction was finally overcome by Mao without the benefit of Comintern support following the fall of the Jiangsi Soviet. Mao emerged as the new leader of the CCP at the end of the meeting.[20]


The Long March ended on October 20, 1935 at Yanan (延安) in northern Shannxi. An orderly government was set up there, clamouring for another United Front with the KMT to fight the Japanese’s encroachment. In December 1936, Jiang was kept under house-arrest by Zhang Xueliang when the former flew into Xian (西安) to coordinate an anti-communist campaign. Zhang demanded Jiang to join hand with the communists to fight the Japanese. The Xian coup culminated in the formation of the second United Front between the communists and KMT in 1936. 


The Yanan era proved to be a very important phase in the history of the CCP. At the end of the Long March in 1935, the CCP was a relatively small band of less than 10,000 worn out troops from the south, displaced to an isolated and poor area in the hinterlands of northern China. By the end of the Yanan era, however, the CCP's forces had grown to nearly 2.8 million members, and the Party governed nineteen base areas with a population of nearly one hundred million people.


The time at Yanan was important also personally for Mao. It was at Yanan that Mao’s paramount role within the CCP was consolidated and a Party constitution that endorsed Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought was adopted as guiding ideologies. The moves formalized Mao's deviation from the Moscow party line and the importance of Mao's major adaptations of communism to the conditions of China. An ideological campaign lasting from 1942 to 1944 was carried out to either convince or coerce the other leaders of the CCP to support Mao.


Because the CCP had overcome great odds to grow and develop during this period, the methods employed in Yanan were looked upon in reverence during Mao's later years. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, he would repeatedly use some of those tactics whenever he felt the need to monopolize political power.[21]


The Start of Eight-Year Resistance War against Japan (八年抗战)


On July 7 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (卢沟桥事变, 七七事变) erupted and a large-scale all-out Japanese invasion of China started. Initial resistance from the Chinese was weak and the Japanese captured a large area in the north. As part of the United Front, the communists in the north were organized into the Eight Route Army (八路军) while those in central China became the New Fourth Army (新四军).


The fighting in central China opened with the fall of Shanghai in August 1937. In October 1937, Jiang began shifting his government to Chongqing which remained as the war-time capital. By the end of 1938, the Japanese had captured all the urban centres in the plains up to the western mountainous barriers, leaving the Nationalists in control of the southwest and the CCP the northwest. In 1940, a puppet Chinese government was installed in Nanjing headed by Wang Jingwei. Guerillas activities dominated the second phase of the war from 1939 – 1941. The war had become a stalemate and the United Front between the GMD and CCP had virtually disintegrated by this time. Both the communists and the nationalists did not trust each other and so did not throw everything they had into the resistance.


The third phase of Japanese expansionism started with the bombing of Pearl Harbour In January 1941, bringing United States officially into the Second World War. In July 1941, the Japanese expanded the war further into Indochina and Southeast Asia where they achieved quick victory. However, following the conclusion of the wars in Europe, Japan’s fate began to turn as the Allied forces focused their attention on Asia. Japan soon surrendered on August 14, 1945 after the dropping of two American nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Both the communists and the nationalists rushed to accept the Japanese surrender in order to gain territory and to seize weaponry. Soviet troops poured into northeast China while American troops captured Shanghai, Qingdao, Dagu, and Guangzhou. In the northeast, the Soviet tried to arrange for the Japanese surrender to be accepted by the Chinese communists. The American, on the other hand, helped with the transport of nationalist troops to help them regain control of major cities. Negotiations for a coalition government between the KMT and CCP failed and a long-anticipated civil war broke out.

The end of the resistance war saw the Communists in control of areas mostly in the north while the Nationalists the south. The civil war started with the Nationalists seemingly having an upper hard especially in terms of troop number, weapons, and supplies. Aids amounting to US$2 billions were also provided by the United States to the KMT between 1945 and 1948.  However, those advantages proved to be untenable given the changed circumstances. During the resistance war years, the CCP grew considerably in strength.  Its members increased from 40 000 in 1937 to 800 000 in 1940 and 1.2 million in 1945. Its total troop strength in 1945 had also grown to 900 000.[22]

More significantly, the communists had become more popular because they were more successful in presenting an anti-Japanese and anti-imperialism image. The party leadership also enforced strict discipline and ensured that their troops did not abuse the local populace wherever they went.  At the same time, the communists had worked hard in raising the peasants’ political consciousness while gaining valuable experiences in mobilizing the peasants. In areas under their control, they had implemented land and agrarian reforms, liberating peasants from the exploitations of landlords and surviving warlords. These changes aimed at ameliorating the livelihood of the peasants were immensely popular with the peasants, many of whom decided to join the communists.[23]

In contrast, the Nationalist government continued to be plagued with rampant corruption. Inflation soared in the southwest where KMT ruled. In 1944, yuan was only worth 1/500 of its value before the war. By August 1948, one U.S. dollar was equivalent to 12 million Chinese yuan.[24] Resentment against the government and corrupt officials grew as inflation continued to climb. The middle class and the civil servants were especially hard hit. Both the civilians and military became increasingly demoralized and defections of troops to the CCP mounted. Soon, city-dwellers who were inordinately disillusion by the corrupt Nationalist government also switched their support to the communists.

The first major showdown between the two sides for the control of Manchuria ended with the surrender of over 300 000 Nationalist troops in October 1948. The next crucial battle was fought in the Huai River Basin area. A combination of other factors, including troops’ low morale and Jiang’s unwillingness to delegate authority, caused KMT to lose over half a million men in December 1948. Tianjin and Beijing fell to the communists in January 1949. The communists crossed the Yangzi River in April 1949 and captured Luoyang in April, Shanghai in May, Canton in October, and Chongqing in November. The People’s Republic of China was officially proclaimed in Beijing on October 1, 1949. In December 1949, Jiang and his government fled to Taiwan.

Looking back, the rapid turns of events were such that China never really had the opportunity for gradual and incremental evolution despite their success in overthrowing the antiquated Qing Dynasty. The introduction of communism further greatly complicated the soul-searching process. Before the Chinese could savour the fruits of their decades-long process of cultural evaluation that had begun in the late Qing, they were hastened to move from the stage of cultural and social evolution in 1915 to the stage of ideological and political struggle in 1921, followed quickly by armed revolution between the Nationalists and the Communists starting 1928. In 1937, the civil war was interrupted by the Japanese invasion but it resumed in 1945 with the surrender of the Japanese and ended eventually four years later in 1949 culminating in the dawn of a communist state and the start of a new phase of cultural debates and struggles.

PREVIOUS: 1.10 Factors Contributing to Mao’s Launching of the Cultural Revolution

NEXT: 1.12  Mao's Theories and Past Campaigns on Culture



[1] See Rodzinski W (1984). “The Walled Kingdom: A History of China from Antiquity to the Present”. New York, The Free Press.

[2] See Christian David. (2004). “Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History”. University of California Press,

[3] See Diamond, Jared. (1997) “Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years”.

[4] See Fairbank John K., Eckstein Alexander, Yang L. S. (1960). “Economic Change in Early Modern China: An Analytic Framework”. Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 9, No. 1, Part 1 (Oct., 1960), pp 1-26. The University of Chicago Press

[5] See Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. (2003). “Twentieth-Century China: New Approaches”. Routledge.

[6] See Rankin, Mary Backus. (2008). “Political and Cultural Changes in Late Nineteenth-Century China”. Late Imperial China Vol. 29, No. 1 (June 2008): 40–63. Rankin’s paper provided a detailed account of the activities of the intellects and scholars during the period after the Sino-Japanese War. One of those intellects was Kang Youwei (康有为) whose theory of reform was accepted by Guangxu and was subsequently implemented in the Hundred Days’ Reform.

[7] See Woodhouse, Eiko (2003) “The Chinese Hsinhai Revolution: G. E. Morrison and Anglo-Japanese Relations, 1897-1920”. Routledge Curzon

[8] See Sterns, Peter N. and others (2001). “The Encyclopedia of World History”. Houghton Mifflin Company

[9] See Cherry, Ralph L. and Martinson, Scott Magnuson. (1981). “Modernization and the Status of the Aged in China: Decline or Equalization?” The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring, 1981), pp. 253-261. Blackwell Publishing.

[10] See Wang Ke-wen. (1998); Lee, Chiu-chun. “Liang Qichao”. pp 185

[11] See Bai, Limin. (2008). “Children As The Youthful Hope Of An Old Empire: Race, Nationalism, And Elementary Education In China, 1895–1915”. Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (v.1.2). The Johns Hopkins University Press

[12] See Russell, Bertrand. (1922). “The Problem of China”. George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

[13] See Murphy, Franklin D. Sullivan, Michael.(1996). “Art and Artists of Twentieth-century China”. Berkeley University of California Press.

[14] Wang Ke-wen. (1998) “Modern China - An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism”. Garland Publishing Inc.; Hon, Tze-ki. “Liang Shuming”. pp 186.

[15] Wang Ke-wen. (1998).

[16] See Sterns, Peter N. and others (2001). “The Encyclopedia of World History”. Houghton Mifflin Company

[17] See Wang, ZhongJiang 王中江 (2002). “进化主义在中国Jinhua Zhuyi zai zhongguo”. 首都师范大学出版社. ISBN 7-81064-245-6

[18] See Price, Maurice T. (1930). “Communist Policy and the Chinese Nationalist Revolution”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 152, China (Nov., 1930), pp. 229-240. Sage Publications, Inc.

[19] See Sterns, Peter N. and others (2001).

[20] See Frederick C. Teiwes. (1976). “The Origins of Rectification: Inner-Party Purges and Education before Liberation.” The China Quarterly. No. 65 (Mar., 1976), pp. 15-53.

[21] See Lieberthal, Kenneth. (2003). “Governing China: From Revolution to Reform”. W.W. Norton & Co.; Second edition. Pg. 45-48.

[22] See Sterns, Peter N. and others (2001).

[23] See Wright, Mary C. (1959). “Modern China in Transition, 1900-1950”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 321, Contemporary China and the Chinese (Jan., 1959), pp. 1-8. Sage Publications, Inc.

[24] See Sterns, Peter N. and others (2001).

bottom of page