Boosting Nationalism with Non‐Nationalist Ideology: A Comparative Biographical Analysis of the Chinese Communist Revolutionaries

Luyang Zhou. Nations & Nationalism. Volume 24, Issue 3. July 2018.

This article conducts a comparative biographical analysis to explain why the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) revolutionaries used non‐nationalist Marxism to boost a nationalist movement. It argues that these people, based on their own observations of the precommunist Chinese nationalism, thought that China lacked structural conditions for making a solid nationalist movement such as cultural homogeneity, mass literacy, and a shared pride in modern history. They thus turned to seek a non‐national ideology that could still fulfil the functions of integrating leading elites, mobilizing the masses, and motivating the patriots themselves. Then, to explain why the CCP leaders particularly adopted Marxism, this article draws comparison with the Kuomintang (non‐communist nationalists) elites who advocated for more patience and insistence to develop regular nationalism. The comparison shows that the CCP’s impatient jump stemmed from their disadvantaged backgrounds that had limited their ideological horizon: lower‐class origins, narrow overseas experiences, poor education, and weak attachment to traditional culture. To pre‐existing literature, this article makes three contributions: (1) provides a more detailed interpretation of the CCP’s diagnosis of Chinese nationalism; (2) explains why the same structural dilemmas produced nationalist and non‐nationalist responses alike; and (3) draws a biographical database of the CCP and the Kuomintang.

Nation‐state building is never easy: it must deal with such problems as localism, mass indifference, ethnic heterogeneity, dark side of native history, and external intervention. These problems propel nationalists to invoke additional ideologies: liberalism, fascism, leftist populism, and so on. Nevertheless, around the world very few nationalists had moved so far in this direction as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Party sought to craft a modern nation‐state through Marxism, a class ideology that originally claimed itself to be opposed to nationalism. This article explains this exception.

Mainstream literature explains the CCP’s switch to class nationalism by three factors: the intention to introduce mass mobilization, the longstanding anarchist legacy, and the influences of the Soviet Russia. By drawing detailed analysis of biographical data of the CCP elites and comparison with the Chinese National Citizen Party’s (Kuomintang [KMT]) leading group, this article makes two new claims. First, the CCP’s estimation of China’s nation building was much more pessimistic than pre‐existing literature has suggested. The Party stressed that nationalism was not only overweighed by China’s tremendous cultural heterogeneity but also faced the problem of lacking historical materials to create modern national pride. The CCP also pointed out that the country’s illiterate populace could not be introduced to nationalism because it did not understand what nation was. Therefore, China was in a unique paradox where only an ideology that somewhat evaded the issue of nation could be used to boost nationalist movement. Second, this article explains why the CCP’s calculation was not followed by its major rival KMT. Facing the dilemma of nationalism alike, the KMT drew different lessons from the common repertoire such as the legacy of anarchism and Soviet influence, arguing for more patience, determination, and efforts to sustain a non‐class nationalism. A comparative biographical analysis shows that the CCP’s impatient turn to class stemmed from their disadvantaged backgrounds, limited experience of the external world, and weak attachment to imperial Confucianism.

This article consists of six sections. The section reviews major accounts for the CCP’s unusual position. The section introduces data and methods. The section describes the CCP’s diagnosis of the weakness of the first attempts at national formation after the fall of the dynasty. The section describes why they found class ideology attractive. The section introduces the comparison with the KMT. The section discusses the practical problems of the CCP approach of boosting nationalism through class.

The Appeal of Class

Three strands of literature have addressed the question of why the CCP adopted class ideology as a means to nation building. Political crisis theory suggests a neat story of rational learning. Seeing that the 1911 Revolution did not bring about a unified and independent Chinese nation‐state, many patriotic groups drew the conclusion that to rejuvenate the revolution broader social mobilization was needed, not least as a counterweight against colonial powers and their Chinese agents. Accordingly, such mobilization entailed a mass‐oriented ideology (Fitzgerald; Schwartz; Fairbank). This account ignores the fact that not all nationalists agreed that revolution must be based on mass participation. For example, the KMT of the 1920s-30s preferred Bismarck model: a professionalized military in combination with skilful diplomacy would be sufficient to build the nation, fearing that mass involvement might even be dangerous (Kirby: 175-6). This account also misses the CCP’s other reflections on nationalism: tremendous cultural diversity and insufficiency of cultural materials for drafting modern national pride.

A second strand tracks the spread of communist ideology in the 1920s back to the anarchism that had been prevailing in China since the late nineteenth century. This literature highlights such intellectual affinities between these two ideologies as the worship for science, freedom, ordinary people, violence, asceticism, social justice, and common antipathy to family, religion, tradition, nationalism, and militarism (Xu; Levine; Meisner; Dirlik; Schram and d’Encausse; Zarrow; Scalapino). While accepting important elements of these arguments, this article explains why the anarchist legacy influenced the CCP and KMT leaders in different ways. Both parties arose in the shadow of anarchism, but they borrowed varied notions and drafted nationalisms antagonistic to each other in many regards. What the CCP rejected, such as regionalism, gradual expansion of mass education, and enlightened recovery of Confucianism, won support and sympathy among sections of the KMT.

A third viewpoint stresses the influence of the Bolsheviks and Comintern detailing how the October Revolution was perceived by the future CCP elites, and how people were trained by the Soviet Union (Luk; Pantsov; Ishikawa and Fogel; Brandt). This article again explores why the CCP and KMT drew different lessons from the Bolshevik model. Both parties believed that participation in Lenin’s programme of boosting national revolutions in the East could empower China’s nationalism (Pantsov: 45), but only the CCP elites wanted to become the same as the Soviets. The KMT, in the long term, moved on to be opposed the Soviet‐style single‐class dictatorship and internationalist ideology. It merely wanted to partially adopt Leninist model of organization, which, in combination with nationalism, was in many ways reminiscent of fascism (Li Vol.2: 1092-3; Vol. 3: 1586-8; Vol. 8: 5324).

Data and Methods

Unlike most existing research, this article focuses on the actual makers of the class nation‐state established in 1949 rather than the founders of the CCP in 1921, most of whom had left or been purged and killed in the 1920s and 1930s. To draw detailed materials that reflect actors’ thinking on future national model, I confine analysis to the most vocal echelon of the party leading elites, the seventy‐seven members of the CCP’s Seventh Central Committee (1945-56), most of whom had biographies or equivalent biographical data, such as memoirs, diaries, chronicles, correspondences, anthologies, and so forth. A narrower (politburo members, for example) or expanded strategy of case selection would cause massive data loss and render a systematic comparison with the KMT impossible.

There are two major risks intrinsic to the biographical materials I use. On the one hand, not all of the analysed elite members were vocal to the same degree. To deal with this unevenness in the data, I use a twofold strategy. First, psychological mechanisms can be identified where the information is sufficiently nuanced. Such narratives help to reveal the causal links between political thought and social background, thus helping to explain why they viewed class as a solution. Second, I turn to numerical analysis for all elite members. This offers insight into the extent to which the causal link identified is ubiquitous among the entire leading group. The test gains more robustness when further extended to comparison with KMT leaders.

On the other hand, it is necessary to recognize that bias might come from the official ideology of the CCP in power, as the dataset is dominated by material published in communist China. I deal with this potential bias in three ways. First, I use secondary research published in the West, which helps reveal influences and activities that the CCP members are more likely to conceal. For example, some hid their earlier pessimistic views about the capacities of the common people – views that were at odds with the communist ideology they would propagate later (Ip: 47-54). Moreover, the CCP elites often depict their conversion as influenced directly by Marxist readings and Soviet propaganda, but it has been revealed that the admiration for power of peasants most likely derived from reading varied non‐Marxist literatures of the 1920s (Han: 63-72). My second strategy is to exploit the incoherence within the CCP censorship. Scholarly edited writings contain more original information than romanticized hagiographies, especially in the 1980s and 1990s when the state itself lacked clear criteria for censorship (Dirlik: 19). Inconsistencies can also be found even within the same person’s earlier and later narratives: it is not unusual for an autobiography to predict high levels of class mobilization only to concede that such mobilization did not work as imagined. In addition, I use primary documents and reports regarding army building, which are not created to romanticize particular leaders and thus give information that might otherwise be censored or self‐censored. My third strategy is to draw comparison with the KMT elites, which helps puncture the official myth. For example, the CCP tend to depict themselves as diligent and scholarly students, but numerical comparison over their education levels with the KMT elites’ show the opposite fact that they were actually the losers of the education system.

Diagnosing Chinese Nationalism

The CCP’s Seventh Central Committee was elected in 1945 and stayed in power until 1956, consisting of forty‐four formal members and thirty‐three candidates. Despite Mao’s personal influence, this committee was inclusive. It deliberately diversified the members’ backgrounds over regions, age, gender, education, and experience abroad. Even Mao’s rivals who returned from Russia were assigned seats. These people’s positions during their term have been summarized in Appendix .

These CCP elites were Chinese nationalists. They were ethnic Hans (only five were minorities but assimilated already), thus different from the communists in Xinjiang who sought to found a Turkic state. Most people were educated in the late‐imperial and postimperial periods (see Table ) when Confucianism was being replaced by the pursuit of forging national citizens (Jiang). There were several ‘internationalists’ who viewed following the USSR as vital, such as Bo Gu, Wang Ming, and Zhang Wentian, but they never lost their Chinese identities like many non‐Russian Bolsheviks who could only speak Russian.


Year of Birth Chinese Communist Party Kuomintang
1874 or earlier 0 1
1875-1884 2 27
1885-1894 7 88
1895-1904 39 84
1905-1914 28 13
1915 or later 1 0
Unknown 0 5
Total 77 213

Source: KMTs’ data are from Li and Liu .

Overwhelmed by Regional Fragmentation

When the oldest generation of the CCP leading elites approached the centre of the political stage, China had entered its postimperial period. Patriotic sentiment had become generalized among all literate elites, although intellectual controversy regarding specific strategies never ceased (Zarrow; Esherick; Min et al.; Kuhn). This consensus had two elements: achieving political unification by eliminating warlordism and obtaining full sovereignty by ending colonial privileges.

The CCP elites saw difficulties here. It seemed to them that China suffered from powerful subnational identities, based on China’s tremendous cultural heterogeneity – the differences between dialects were larger than those between major European languages. This diversity had been strengthened since late Qing military decentralization (McCord), and it came to overwhelm the homogeneous Han Chinese identity that in the aftermath of empire had only been maintained by such soft power as myths of ancestry and common written script. When making concrete political choices, people tended to rest upon tangible locality‐based bonds, from which kinship, lineage, patron‐client networks, and military‐political factions were derived. Early postimperial ideas for national building thus appeared hollow. Collusion and conspiracy often distorted formal rules, undermined institutions, and rendered concerted actions against warlords abortive.

Disappointment can be seen widely in the biographical data. Zhu De, a colonel who became the founder of the CCP’s Red Army in 1927, had been a war hero in the aftermath of the 1911 Revolution. Yet he was upset to find that the new army lacked any workable ideology to motivate its officer corps, while the morale of the old imperial army had been lost altogether. Pernicious habits – drug‐taking, gambling, and prostitution – were widespread, and officers were preoccupied with seizing territories, often causing armed conflict (Association of CCP History Elite Research, hereafter ACHER 1: 339-45). Similarly, Dong Biwu, who became one of the CCP’s founders in 1921, had become tired of mediating factional struggles within the anti‐restoration camp. He lost his final shred of hope for national renewal when his close friend, a patriotic officer, was killed in a conspiracy before a concerted anti‐warlordist expedition (ACHER 2: 615-20). Wang Weizhou, the CCP’s senior chief leader in charge of China’s north‐western region, was a local security leader in 1911. He attempted to create postimperial enlightened rule in his home county but was frustrated and finally defeated by warlords who stuck to no ideology but only to opportunism (Sichuan Association of the CCP History Elite Research: 233-4). Similar experiences were shared by many other 1911 veterans, such as Lin Boqu, the CCP’s government secretary in the early 1950s (Lin: 194-6); Zhang Yunyi, the CCP’s provincial party secretary of Guangxi (ACHER 5: 553-4); Liu Bocheng, a major marshal (ibid: 316-21); Wu Yuzhang, the first principal of Renmin University (Li : 31-103); and Liao Chengzhi, the CCP’s leader of overseas Chinese affairs, whose father had been a senior KMT leader who had been assassinated in an intra‐party factionalism (Tie: 65-6; Liao 1: 2-3).

Younger CCP elites perceived localism and the lack of national unity more indirectly. Observations are most concentrated in the biographies of student CCP elites from Hunan province. Due to Hunan’s strategic military location, major warlords had a vested interest in controlling this province, which led to devastating battles (Chen: 30-1). Most prominent Hunan CCP leaders, such as Mao Zedong (Mao: 33; ACHER 1: 9-10), Li Lisan (Tang: 9-10), Ren Bishi (CLRO: 9-10), and Chen Geng (Chen: 229) provide accounts of the atrocities perpetuated by warlord soldiers who passed through their hometown.

The challenge of localism was also perceived in the education system; the institution often seen by contemporary sociologists as a fundamental institution in the creation of nationalism. Mao recalled that at junior middle school, he was excluded by students from other counties who also generated factions along subcounty lines (Mao: 17-18). It is likely that other CCP elites had comparable experiences. Of the seventy‐three CCP elites who had completed school degrees, the majority attended schools in national capitals (nineteen), provincial capital cities (thirty‐eight), or regional education centers (five) where students from diverse regions adjacent were joined together in such a way that factionalism often followed. Additionally, eleven studied abroad: three in Japan and eight in France. As historians have shown, among students studying in Japan and France locale‐based factionalism prevailed as well because student groups were organized along regional lines (Saneto: 423-37; Department of CCP History at Qinghua University: 723-37).

A few people sensed the same problem later at the opening period of the second Sino‐Japanese War (1931-45). Seeing that local factionalism plagued the KMT army and caused military inefficiency, certain KMT officers turned to the CCP. For instance, Lv Zhengcao, later the CCP’s Ministry of Railway, was outraged that due to discrimination against his regional background, his troops did not receive the supplies that had been promised, which led to its collapse at the front (Lv: 75-6). Another KMT high commander, Wan Yi, was dismayed to see that fierce factional struggles had no sign of attenuation on the eve of the fall of China’s then capital Nanjing, which would be followed by a massacre causing 300,000 civilian casualties (Wan: 54-5).

This tremendous cultural heterogeneity – albeit within a singular ethnicity – was largely unique to China, distinguishing it from the multiethnic empires of the Romanovs, Ottomans, and Habsburgs. The Chinese social formation also differed from ethnically homogeneous societies of small demographic and territorial size, such as Germany, Japan, and Kemalist Turkey. The coincidence of homogenous ethnicity and vast territory had caused periodical political division in Chinese history, each time terminated by a new dynasty highlighting Confucian universalism. This time, however, the same political dynamic would turn China to communism.

For the CCP, class ideology appealed in offering an instrument to forge a common labour psychology that could dissolve attachment to regional particularities. Moreover, many CCP elites, as well as the KMT, were impressed by Soviet Russia’s material strengths when they visited the USSR or dealt with the Soviet military advisors (Wu: 82-5; Xiao: 23-30; Xu: 26; Chen: 18-9). Such admiration could be easily translated into the belief that joining the Russia‐led anti‐colonial united front might give revolutionaries an outsider supervisor to overcome internal fragmentation and counterweigh the warlords.

Not Appealing to Illiterate Masses

The political crisis theory attributes the rise of CCP movement to learning from the absence of mass participation in the struggle for national liberation, but the leaders’ biographies suggest a nuanced process: there had been attempts to get the masses involved, but most did not work because the people were largely illiterate. This propelled the future CCP elites to look for additional ideology to reach the common people.

All of those seeking to build China into a modern nation‐state faced the problem of an overwhelmingly illiterate society. The defunct imperial state left an uneducated population – its ambitious plan to spread literacy was interrupted by the 1911 Revolution (Harrison). Hereafter, educational expansion did continue, but slowly and unevenly. There was every reason to doubt that a people lacking access to China’s written script would ever have attachment to the Chinese nation and would sacrifice their lives for it. Of course, the postimperial period did see numerous peasant riots, but most were localized and apolitical (Bianco; Perry).

The CCP elites’ experiences confirmed this worry. Mass indifference was first observed in the armed forces, which were made up of illiterate peasants. National sentiments appeared ineffective to motivate soldiers as Peng Dehuai recalled. A battalion chief for a provincial warlord in the 1920s, and later a marshal in the Korean War, Peng built clandestine freemasonry with the hope of making his men patriotic; but very few soldiers showed interest (Peng: 31-49; Domes: 18-9). Similarly, He Long, another future marshal, started his career as a bandit leader and was concerned with maintaining discipline. He saw that without coherent ideologies, the army’s morale proved to be fragile, vulnerable to collapse when military defeat loomed (Li: 62-4; ACHER 6: 464-74). Finally, Chen Geng, the CCP’s Minister of Defence in the 1950s, abandoned his schooling so as to join the army, but he soon became depressed seeing poor discipline and lack of patriotism among his peer soldiers (ACHER 6: 3).

Frustrations also came from grassroots worker-peasant agitators. It is true that during the May 30th Movement, workers showed great patriotism, but the CCP’s perception was that this was unusual. Chen Yu, the CCP’s senior leader of the movement of sailors, reported how a strike organized by a national trade union failed due to egoism and corruption (ACHER 11: 468-70; Zhou et al.: 25-46). Other agitators did not report frustrations in detail but concluded that in order to turn existing local‐level protests into mass mobilization; something more than private grievances would be needed. This realization can be seen in the biographies of Chen Shaomin, the CCP’s later secretary of the General Trade Union (ACHER 14: 65-7; Wo: 1-7); Zhang Zongxun, the founder of the CCP’s central guard system (Zhang: 2-3); and Li Xiannian, the PRC’s state president in 1980s (ACHER 11: 86-7).

CCP students also saw popular indifference to nationalistic mobilizations. Bo Gu, the CCP’s supreme leader in the early 1930s, reported his disappointment with the lack of interest in patriotic boycotts. His essays describe that people merely stood by and even persuaded the boycotting students ‘not to get troubles for themselves’ (Wu et al.: 18). Similarly, Deng Yingchao, the CCP’s leader of the women’s movement, recalled that when she and her friends visited poor families in the Beijing suburbs to conduct patriotic propaganda, they were not allowed to enter or even to speak (CLRO: 9-10). Finally, Zhou Enlai, the PRC’s prime minister, concluded that national mobilization could not work in China because it required mass literacy as a precondition, which had been precluded by China’s poverty and warlordism (CLRO: 351-2).

The inability to imagine a national community is not the unique to China; to the contrary is common to other preindustrial societies in pursuit of full sovereignty. Nevertheless, China’s situation did contain an oddity. The empire had been discredited before it achieved the level of modernity allowing the formation of solid nationalism. It lacked the modernizing achievements in education of an empire such as that of the Habsburgs that diminished the distance between people and elite.

Dark History Discrediting National Pride

Many younger people converted to the CCP later than the 1910s. Towards the end of the 1920s, the former warlords joined the KMT while still retaining their power while foreign powers, especially Britain and the US, began abandoning their privileges as the result of the KMT’s diplomatic efforts. At this time, the KMT sought to impose an official nationalism. The future communists differed, feeling that national renewal could not be based on a discredited imperial tradition.

The KMT’s nationalism‐crafting project proved controversial, even to the designers of the ideology themselves. Before the 1911 Revolution, the KMT boosted ethnic nationalism, but this made no sense once the alien Manchurian dynasty had been overthrown. From 1912 onward, it underwent a long period of ideological vacuum, during which multiple options, from Christianity to socialism, were on offer – without any one of them gaining general acceptance. Towards the late 1920s, the KMT increasingly returned to Confucian culture, although in a diversified and moderate manner, as the KMT itself was a loose umbrella incorporating competing ideologies (Wells; Leng and Palmer).

Many young CCP students had felt the KMT national project to be intellectually crude. For example, Xu Xiangqian, later a CCP marshal, recalled that at military academies, a KMT nationalist ideologue was attacked by students for his poor lecture, an amorphous mixture of statist slogans and Confucian terms (Xu1: 33-5). Others said that the KMT national project was hollow, lacking substantial difference from feudal ethics. Chen Yun, the founder of the PRC’s central command economy, said that the KMT agitators simply repeated the monotonous concept of nation without providing any real articulation (CLRO 1: 19-26). Likewise, Deng Xiaoping, the supreme leader in the 1980s, insisted that the KMT statist activists lacked concrete political programmes, but only ‘rescued the nation via socials in balls and bars’ (Yang: 42-3). Such perceptions were not alien to other people who had the same experiences during the KMT‐CCP united front, like Lin Biao, marshal and Mao’s appointed successor (Ebon: 18) and Cheng Zihua (Cheng: 6-9), general and later provincial leader of Shanxi.

The KMT’s switch to Confucianism and broadly defined Chinese traditions irritated other people. Zhou Enlai, being a popular amateur actor at school, condemned old Chinese operas for contents that exhorted hierarchy and patriarchy (CLRO: 24-7). Zhang Wentian, the CCP’s General Secretary in the 1930s, viewed historical education at school as useless on the grounds that traditional Chinese nationality, if it even existed, was characterized by ‘Asiatic barbarism and backwardness’, and should never be brought back in (Zhang 1: 106-7). When speaking about classical studies, Zhang insisted that researchers should be recruited only among people who had had western training, rather than scholars with minds filled with nostalgia for the dynastic past (ibid.: 12-3).

Many other CCP members shared the reactions of Zhou Enlai and Zhang Wentian. The majority of the seventy leaders grew up in this intensifying anti‐Confucian atmosphere. While scepticism of Chinese political culture had been growing since the nineteenth century, 1905 marked a dramatic change. In this year, the imperial civil service exam, which had been held for more than 1,000 years, was abolished by the late Qing state. What followed was the transformation of China’s education system – the marginalization of old classics and the introduction of modern subjects such as algebra, geology, and geography (Peake, 1932). Anti‐traditionalist sentiment culminated in the second half of the 1910s in the wake of ‘New Cultural Movement’, which called for the negation of Confucianism and the rejection of the pattern of the Chinese past.

Many historians agree that it was military humiliation that eventually led to the creation of modern Chinese nationalism (Levenson; Fairbank). This article suggests a parallel mechanism: military defeats, interpreted as the mark of totally unsuccessful adaptation to modernity, delegitimized the native cultural materials that otherwise might have been used to as a basis for national pride. The elite was angry at intervention, but it lacked pride in its own past. This dilemma was special to China. Some national societies suffered defeats and humiliation too but retained strong national pride grounded on their total success in modernization – as was true of interwar Germany.

Class as Prescription

Where then did the CCP’s notion of class come from, and why did they see class and why did they see class as the solution? As in other agrarian societies, the CCP’s adoption of Marxism came less from reading original texts than through being exposed to a discourse that conflated the theory of industrial class consciousness with sympathy for poverty, misery, and worship for brotherhood and mass contention. In this regard, a pervasive influence was the popular literature of the 1920s, which had been undergoing a radical transformation from despising the common people to endorsing the force of the masses, romanticizing them as national heroes (Han: 63-70). These novels and poems were widespread and accessible for literate youths of that period. Most communists concealed their exposure, although a few conceded that they were influenced by ancient romance and folklore, both of which romanticized the heroism and military expertise present in peasant rebellion (ACHER 1: 20; Xinghuoliaoyuan Editorial Office 3: 211).

A more direct source of class norms was anarchist ideas; the influence of which was often alluded to in biographies. Chen Geng, Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Luo Ruiqing, Su Yu, Wang Jiaxiang, and many others started their radicalization with breaks from their families, in most cases for objecting to marriages imposed by parents; this reflected the popular anarchist norm of negating parental hierarchy (CLRO: 15-7; Li and Shu: 12; National Defense University: Chapter 1; Xu: 6). The influence of anarchism was also evident in the communists’ obsession with labour‐study movement, which sought to break the distinction between physical labour and intellectual creation. The work‐study project in France, which exposed the future communists to the intense propaganda of French and Soviet socialism, was actually sponsored by leading Chinese anarchists Wu Zhihui and Li Shizeng, although few communists mentioned this latter point in their recollections. Likewise, the Chinese students in Japan were also heavily influenced by the leading anarchist scholar Liu Shipei, arguably the first to propose peasant revolution (Dirlik: 109).

What biographical data shows most clearly is the manner in which the future CCP leaders understood Marxism. Those with student backgrounds read the intellectual wisdom off communist doctrines vis‐à‐vis the KMT doctrines. Zhou Enlai, for example, wrote that class discourse suspended the complicated disputes on nation‐inventing but focused on the more urgent issue of mobilizing the masses for their own sake (CLRO: 351-2). Likewise, Zhang Wentian endorsed communism for its targeting of the most concrete interests of ordinary people, such as food, clothes, and education – considering the discourse of the ‘strong nation’ to be essentially hollow (Zhang: 108-9). After comparing communism with other popular socialisms, Mao concluded that the former had the better intellectual plausibility (Mao: 1-2). Zhang Jichun, the CCP’s vice minister of propaganda in the 1950s, recalled that he was impressed by the logic of Marxism, which started with individual demands and then followed step‐by‐step articulations moving to structural and international factors (Zhang: 1-3).

A junior group of students became radicalized after the consolidation of the KMT’s rule. In their eyes, the new state’s corruption in contrast with Confucian ethics had discredited the KMT nationalism. In such a depressing context wherein embezzlement and corruption occurred every day, dissident reading with intellectual finesse was appealing. This partly explained why some junior CCP elites rejected the KMT Youth League joining instead the coexisting CCP counterpart. This judgement applies to Peng Zhen, the Beijing party secretary in the 1960s (CLRO 1: 1, 11-3); Bo Yibo, the CCP’s longtime financial leader (Bo: 32-40); Gao Gang, the CCP’s chief party head in north‐eastern China (Dai and Zhao: 8-10); Liu Lantao, a leader of China’s Three‐Front Project in the 1960s (Sitao: 1-4); Ma Mingfang, party secretary of Shannxi Province in the 1950s (Qiang and Li: 1-5); and Xi Zhongxun, the CCP’s longtime leader in the north‐western region (CLRO 1: 33-4).

Other people were convinced of the power of class socialism when studying abroad. Of the seventy‐seven men, eight had been members of the ‘Diligent Work and Thrifty Study’ programme in France between 1919 and 1922 – as mentioned actually an anarchist programme. Contrasting the well‐disciplined worker contention in postwar Europe to the divided popular protests in China, these members of the elite were impressed by the former’s high level of organization and coordination and attributed this strength to class‐based ideology (Central Literature Research Office and Nankai University 2: 108; Nie: 38; Party School of CCP Guizhou Committee: 44). Students studying in the Soviet Union were impressed by the material achievements, such as the abundance of supplies, teachers speaking two or more European languages, and relatively modern city facilities (Xu: 26; Wu: 82-5; Xiao: 23-30; Chen: 18-9). Having little knowledge of Bolshevik history and spatially enclosed in Moscow and Leningrad, they simply interpreted these qualities as the outcomes of a class revolution.

People outside of school followed the route of ‘learning by doing’. Many had opportunities to practice class agitation before they decided to convert. Li Xiannian, for example, had been in touch with Communists for some time but only became convinced after he had successfully mediated a conflict between two clans and fused them to jointly fight local landlords (CLRO: 14). Ye Jianying, another marshal who became China’s major leader after Mao’s death, had participated in organizing poor‐peasant associations under the instruction of pro‐CCP KMT leaders (Academy of Military Science 1: 37). Two former officers from the 1920s, Peng Dehuai and He Long, as mentioned, similarly converted after the class ideology proved to be a better doctrine for maintaining military discipline. Finally, Zhu De, the founder of the Red Army’s guerrilla strategies, recalled that as an old officer, he had realized that long‐lasting military operations in tough terrain required a solid doctrine to maintain soldier morale; earlier anti‐dynastic attempts at national renewal did not provide that. When reading a pamphlet introducing the Bolshevik Revolution, Zhu sensed what he had been looking for and decided to join the CCP (Zhu: 5-13).

Were CCP’s Diagnosis and Prescriptions Inevitable?

The CCP’s thoughts were by no means ‘truths’. The KMT elites would commonly question the CCP’s recommendations for putting substance into nationalism by means of class. First, certain KMT leaders viewed local factionalism as problematic, so they prescribed liberal universalism and fascism to cement various subnational cleavages. In contrast, the KMT with anarchist tendencies boosted regionalism and loose federation to counteract centralization (Dirlik: 275). Second, the KMT lamented the masses’ lack of national consciousness too – it was the party’s founder Sun Zhongshan that first depicted Chinese people as ‘a loose sheet of sand’ – but they rejected the proposal for mass mobilization. Rather, to contain imperialism, the KMT believed in the army and diplomacy (Murdock: 13-8). Furthermore, they thought that national feeling, like other modern civic sentiments, could be gradually instilled into people’s mind as mass education expanded. At this point the KMT elites were influenced by anarchism, although the latter endorsed non‐state education (ibid.: 90-5). In the third place, contrary to the CCP elites, the KMT eventually moderated its anti‐traditional position, choosing instead an enlightened version of Confucianism to shape modern national identity.

In order to explain the disagreement between the two groups, it is necessary to probe the biographies of the KMT’s Sixth Central Executive Committee (CEC) members. This group, numbering up to 218, had been elected in 1946, 1 year after the CCP’s Seventh Congress was held. Like the CCP counterpart, this group achieved a rather wide ideological spectrum, spanning from technocrats-liberals to Confucian conservatives and fascists (Wang: 317-8).

To overcome regional fragmentation, KMT elites prescribed liberalism or fascism. The former, like class, exhorted people to dissolve their narrow regional identities and devote themselves to building a nation in which everyone would achieve equality and freedom. In this regard, they resembled anarchists who trumpeted liberation from centralized power. The fascist approach, taking a statist tone, aimed at melting all subnational identities to forge a seamless Chinese nation. Given that both ideologies derived from non‐Chinese cultural traditions, the KMT’s attachment to them should be traced back to these people’s experiences abroad. Among the 218 CEC members, at least thirty‐four acquired postsecondary degrees in western countries that possessed solid liberal traditions, including twenty in United States, six in Britain, six in France, and two in Belgium.

Another group within the KMT elite graduated from universities or military academies in countries with deep militarist traditions. Many of them studied during the 1920s and 1930s when fascism was rising – at least thirty‐three attained degrees in Japan, four in Germany, one in Italy, and one in Turkey. It has been well known that in the 1930s, some young KMT leaders organized fascist and semi‐fascist agencies. They denied individual rights and class interests as destructive to national integration. Admiring Hitler and Mussolini, they despised softer ideologies, preferring leader worship and military discipline instead (Chang; Bedeski).

As has been shown, communists’ experience of the external world was not extensive, and this precluded the likelihood of forming attachment to non‐Bolshevik ideologies. Only the individuals trained in the Soviet Union, numbering thirteen, could be counted as having a solid record of overseas travel; they were enrolled in special schools, forced to speak Russian, taught skills for revolutionary conspiracy, and sent home after passing rigorous exams. For those who studied in other countries, the period of residence was too short and unfocused; very few accomplished genuine degrees or even mastered local languages. In total, only ten communists studied in liberal countries, one in the US, and nine in France, but none of them stayed longer than 2 years, and no one enrolled in regular institutions. Zhang Wentian, the sole CCP that had US experience, stayed in California as an independent reader with no affiliation to local institutions (Editing Group of Zhang Wentian’s Biographies: 41-51). People with French background were those who enrolled to the Work‐study Programme of the late 1910s. They never went beyond the level of language schools. Towards the end of their time in France, they were increasingly distracted from self‐studying to heavy physical work in factories, as stipends from the Beijing government drastically decreased (Chen and He: 24-38; Tang: Chapter 2; Fang and Jin: 15-21; CLRO: 21-4; Li: 103-7; Zhang 2010; Nie: 12-23; Vogel: 18-24). There were also eight who studied in Germany and Japan. Zhu De lived in Gottingen for a few months in the late 1910s. He audited lectures in the sociology department of University of Gottingen but soon left for the USSR (CLRO: 36-7). Most Japan‐returning students studied in crash schools, where one could attain a degree within 6 months or even shorter. Such schools were often run for Chinese students who did not have money but desired a foreign degree. Even so, some of them had abandoned their studies before graduation (CLRO: 10-3; 33-7; Li: 21-34; Lin: 20-31; People’s Press: 15-21).

The KMT viewed mass mobilization as a danger that could release brutal natural force from below. A major factor behind this mentality was family background (see Table ). The data regarding parents are incomplete: clear information is available for only 90 out of 218 CEC members. Nevertheless, this is sufficient to suggest that the KMT was a multiple‐class party. No fewer than fifteen were sons of businessmen, while thirteen came from landlord families. Twelve others grew up in high‐ranking officials’ or officers’ families, whose fathers had served as imperial governors, generals, major warship captains, and as supreme court judges. An indirect but not less reliable indicator is education achievement, which will be analysed in a moment. Such social origins predisposed the KMT elites to view mass unrest as ‘flood and beast’. In this regard, they declined the anarchist legacy, which was manifested in the repression on anarchists in 1929 (Dirlik: 249).

Social Backgrounds

Father’s Occupation Chinese Communist Party Kuomintang
Peasant 46 22
Rural school teacher 7 12
Peddler or artisan 9 2
Small landlord 9 0
Low‐rank officials 4 8
High‐ranking officials 0 9
Lawyer, professor, or doctor 1 3
Businessmen 0 19
Large landlord 1 14
Professional revolutionary 1 1
Unknown 0 128
Total 77 218

Source: KMTs’ data are from Li and Liu.

In contrast, the CCP was a party of the lower class. Bottom‐up mobilization appeared to them as a path to liberation. The absolute majority of the seventy‐seven CCP elites came from poor families, such as peasants, workers, rural teachers, and urban artisans. Some did have middle standing in their local communities, but as they migrated into cities for education, their families could no longer afford the expenses. Many had to work as physical workers, seasonal peasants, and rural teachers. Their original middlemen identities, if any, lapsed. Another factor that caused the future CCP elites to identify with the poor was schooling violence. In contrast to students from wealthy families, conflicts for CCP members occurred either in the form of organized confrontations or individual‐level insults, and often ended in expulsion or the abolition of the stipend of support. Such lower‐class backgrounds and experiences predisposed the future CCP elites to concern social injustice and generate psychological affinity with Marxism. As many said, they had difficulties in understanding Marx’s obscure texts but still came to be attracted as they could sense that this doctrine was something ‘speaking for the poor people’ (Wang: 11; Jin and Huang: 16; National Defense University: 9-10).

The KMT and CCP elites would also quarrel over the prescription ‘Rescue China through Education’. The KMT recommended a moderate approach to slowly develop people’s national consciousness, but the communists contended that such a proposal was a utopia in a society plagued by poverty and warfare. This disagreement derived from two parties’ educational achievement. The KMT leaders’ confidence in a gradualist approach reflected their success in schoolwork and academic studies. Out of the 200 CEC members whose information regarding education is clear, at least seventy‐six possessed bachelor degrees, while another sixteen had masters and eight had Ph.Ds. Five elders did not acquire degrees or diplomas in new systems, but completed old‐style education, passed the imperial civil service exam, and obtained official titles. Apart from the 104 well‐educated KMT elites who had bachelor or above degrees, most of the rest had decent training. They acquired diplomas from either military schools or middle schools and secondary schools. Only five stopped at elementary education or lower and three reported having dropped out of school. In contrast, the communists’ impatience for an immediate mass revolution derived from their unsuccessful experiences in pursuing education. Only one of the seventey‐seven CC members managed to obtain a bachelor degree. The overwhelming majority did not even complete middle school. The assertion that education could not develop in China was a reflection of the communists’ own sad experiences: at least twenty‐three reported dropping out of schools due to poverty and warfare. There is much to be said for the CCP’s scepticism. The KMT was developing civic education at primary and middle schools, but in the 1920s and 1930s only a very small proportion of Chinese teenage could afford attending schools, most of whom came from prosperous families at urban areas (Culp) (see Table ).


Education Level Chinese Communist Party Kuomintang
Ph.D. 0 8
Master 0 16
Bachelor 1 76
Complete Confucian education 1 5
Middle school (Gymnasium) 23 13
Normal school 16 7
Military‐police school 9 60
Special secondary school 11 5
Primary school 12 5
Less than 3 years 4 5
Unknown 0 18
Total 77 200

Source: KMTs’ data are from Li and Liu.

While KMT and the CCP elites shared views as to regional integration and mass mobilization, they were completely at odds over the status of Confucianism. Unlike the hardline communists, the KMT eventually ceased to view the Chinese tradition as antagonistic to nation building. This stance largely derived from the KMT leaders’ stronger attachment to the imperial legacies, which was largely a function of their age. While communists were youths who grew up in the period when China’s anti‐Confucian movement was rapidly approaching its peak, the KMT leaders completed their education earlier. When the Confucian ethics were removed from the imperial education system in 1905, the majority of the future KMT elites had reached the age when their values had already been formed. Out of 213 CEC members whose birth years are clear, only thirteen were born in or after the threshold year of 1905. Among the 200 pre‐1905‐born, their average age in the year 1905 was 21.2, significantly older than the average age of 6.9 for the pre‐1905‐born CCP elites. Moreover, at least thirteen passed very competitive imperial civil service exams and obtained official academic titles: ten had the titles of ‘Xiucai’, and three had ‘Juren’. Affinity with Chinese traditional culture could even be seen in KMT’s post‐1911 activities: at least ten of them published academic writings regarding the classics. The KMT elites were rebels against the Qing dynastic state, but sympathizers towards Confucian culture.


The CCP nationalism took shape as a response to the structural dilemma ‘the end of empire in the absence of nation‐state’ but also based on their own disadvantaged individual backgrounds that tended to exclude other ideological alternatives. Given that both factors did not change, this ideology would survive the 3‐decade long revolution: the state the CCP finally established in 1956 was a socialist nation‐state rather than a Soviet‐style non‐national polity or a fascist autocracy.

Nevertheless, the approach of strengthening nationalism through class was not as feasible as the CCP had expected. Tensions sharpened when the CCP had to highlight nationalism, especially when it held cooperation with the KMT. As Liu Shaoqi recalled, in the 1920s, the Party’s narrow emphasis on class abetted the spontaneity of urban workers, whose launched fierce strikes and sabotages and caused panic among other segments of the anti‐warlord movement (CLRO: 47-50). Deng Zihui remembered that in the early 1940s, the campaign of the rural workers against storekeepers irritated local commerce chambers and gentry but also aroused hatred among local peasants because the campaign blocked transportation and rendered local populace unable to deliver products (Li: 26).

The CCP also found that class consciousness was not as easy to create as anticipated. For example, Deng Xiaoping reported that training sessions designed for instilling ‘class consciousness’ among peasants that did not achieve the desired fruits (CLRO: 68-9). Chen Yi mentioned that the massive defection still occurred, even though the peasant-soldiers had been heavily ‘educated’ (Liu: 76). Reflecting on the failed military coup in 1928 at Guangzhou, Wang Ming pointed out that urban workers were not immune to political indifference either, for which the CCP had to rely upon secret societies (Morisato 2: 86-7). Moreover, the CCP could not find enough qualified ‘educators’. Most low‐ranking commissar cadres were illiterate, incapable of performing the basic propaganda techniques such as making leaflets and giving lectures (PLA Administration of Political Work, hereafter PLAAPW, 1: 14; 2: 1, 24).

Therefore, the CCP needed additional tactics to deal with the imperfect class frame. Having realized that class consciousness must be based on literacy, the Party switched from its earlier pessimism of mass education to efforts of cultural training, which transformed the revolutionary camp a school (Jiangsu CCP History Committee, hereafter JCHC: 147-9). Believing that class notion was easier to breed among people from lower backgrounds, the CCP also turned to scrutinize recruitment and regularize purges (PLAAPW 1: 25, 106, 112, 117, 157).

At places where class could not be made, the CCP sought other alternatives. To sustain guerrilla warfare, they retreated from preaching universalism to exploiting localism, as partisans’ strength proved to lie in peasant‐soldiers’ local connections and knowledge (Sheel: 217-30; Wou: 73-81). Two other strategies would produce more far‐reaching legacies. In the course of overcoming the passivity of the labour peasantry, the communists developed out the mobilizational tactic that it would heavily use in the land reforms of the 1950s: mobilizing people who were marginal to attack communal elites, which could dismantle the entire communal structure and hence make peasantry atomized and mobilizable (Chen). A second strategy was to cultivate Mao’s cult of personality in the name of creating an incarnation of class, which would set China’s political dynamics for the following 30 years.

According the CCP, the attachment to class derived from the weakness of nation. It is thus reasonable that as nation became better cultivated, the Communist Party should and would weaken the class element, which proved not so feasible and even counterproductive to nation‐building and modernization. This reversion occurred in the 1980s. As industrialization and mass education gained significant expansion in China, the Communist Party returned, not without zigzags, to a more regular nationalism that most polities adopted. This fact, together with the history of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, shows that communism needed weak nationalism to grow and survive. Once nationalism became full‐fledged, communism ended.