Chinese Civil War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1926, the Chinese Nationalist Party (also called the Kuomintang) broke with the Chinese Communist Party. The nationalists pushed the Communists into remote sanctuaries until Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 forced an uneasy truce in the civil war. After Japan’s surrender in August of 1945, hopes for a Chinese coalition government were dashed when the Kuomintang and the Communists resumed their conflict. Fighting ended in late 1949, when the Communists conquered mainland China and the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan.

Summary of Event

The Chinese revolution of 1912 established the Republic of China, but it did not give rise to a stable government. To unify China, in early 1923 the revolutionary leader Sun Yixian Sun Yixian (also known as Sun Yat-sen) allied his Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, with the Soviet Union and the tiny Chinese Communist Party. In September of 1924, Sun’s Soviet-advised forces defeated northern Chinese warlords. However, Sun died of liver cancer in Beijing on March 12, 1925. [kw]Chinese Civil War (1926-1949) [kw]Civil War, Chinese (1926-1949) [kw]War, Chinese Civil (1926-1949) Chinese Civil War (1926-1949) Communist Party;China Kuomintang;conflict with Chinese Communist Party [g]China;1926-1949: Chinese Civil War[06600] [g]East Asia;1926-1949: Chinese Civil War[06600] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1926-1949: Chinese Civil War[06600] [c]Government and politics;1926-1949: Chinese Civil War[06600] Chiang Kai-shek Mao Zedong Lin Biao Zhou Enlai Zhang Xueliang Marshall, George C.

Without Sun, the Communist-Kuomintang alliance began to break under the weight of different ideological positions. On March 20, 1926, the new Kuomintang leader, Chiang Kai-shek, suspected that the captain of a Communist gunboat planned to kidnap him, and Chiang had him arrested. He and the Soviets agreed to limit Communist influence and continued their military alliance.

After capturing Shanghai from a warlord in March of 1927, Chiang Kai-shek moved against the Communists. On April 12, Kuomintang-controlled gangsters attacked the city’s union members, killing and arresting many, and the next day, Kuomintang troops fired on protestors, killing about one hundred. Chiang Kai-shek set up a rival Nationalist government in Nanjing on April 18 and purged it of all Communists.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin instructed the Chinese Communists to fight Chiang’s government. On August 1, 1927, Communist troops under Zhou Enlai seized Nanchang in Jiangxi Province, but they were defeated and fled east to the coast and then into the mountains. Mao Zedong proposed a Communist uprising in Hunan, but it failed. A Communist uprising in Guangzhou, in December of 1927, was suppressed with equal brutality. By 1928, the Communists were surviving in remote rural sanctuaries while Chiang destroyed the warlord’s powers either through military victory or political alliance. His Kuomintang formed a new national government on October 10, 1928.

Chiang Kai-shek’s efforts to annihilate the Communists were thwarted by two forces: the Japanese army and the Kuomintang’s unstable alliances with warlords. In September of 1931, the Japanese moved into Manchuria and annexed Chinese land to form the country of Manchukuo Manchukuo, creation in February of 1932. Chiang’s policy was to avoid fighting Japan while trying to destroy Communist strongholds such as Mao’s Jiangxi Soviet area, a tactic that alienated many Chinese.





Chiang launched an attack on the Jiangxi Soviet in late 1934. Mao engineered a prominent role for himself on the Communists’ Long March Long March (1934-1935) to northern Yan’an in Shaanxi Province, and he was officially recognized as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 1935. He firmly established his rule once the surviving Communists reached Yan’an in late October of 1935.

The Communists appealed to the Kuomintang in hopes of forming a common front against the Japanese. On a visit to troops designated to attack the Communists, on December 12, 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang, who wanted to resurrect the Communist alliance. The Chinese public and Joseph Stalin objected to killing Chiang, and he was released on December 25 after promising to establish a truce. Zhang accompanied Chiang to his jail cell in Nanjing.

Negotiations dragged on between the Kuomintang and the Communists until incidents in Beijing on July 7, 1937, and Shanghai on August 13 provoked a Japanese attack. Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)[Second Sinojapanese War] On August 21, China and the Soviet Union signed a treaty allying their nations, and Stalin sent military supplies, piloted aircraft, and advisers. As Chiang’s best armies were destroyed in late 1937 and 1938, the Communists held back most of their troops.

Chiang Kai-shek moved the Nationalist government to Chongqing, in Sichuan Province, in October of 1938. For a time, the Japanese held on to the territory they had conquered in China, and the Kuomintang and Communists avoided fighting each other. A major clash, however, occurred in January of 1941, when the Kuomintang destroyed a Communist force south of the Chang (also called the Yangtze) River. Chinese people protested the Kuomintang’s attack, and the shaky alliance between Kuomintang and Communists survived.

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Chinese Communists lost an important source of support; the Soviets were too distracted with defending their own nation to help China. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, however, brought the Western Allies into the war in China. Western support generally went to Chiang, who faced the Japanese in a long stalemate. While Mao consolidated his power through terror and permitted the use of guerrilla tactics against the Japanese, the Kuomintang faced severe economic difficulties. In the meantime, in 1944 Japan’s Ichi-Go offensive destroyed vast Kuomintang armies and gave some Americans the feeling that the Communists were worth supporting.

Before Japan gave its unconditional surrender on September 2, 1945, the United States tried to produce a Kuomintang-Communist coalition, but the desire for unity could not overcome the two Chinese factions’ mutual hatred. Instead of joining sides, both the Kuomintang and the Communists raced to occupy as much territory as possible. While the Americans transported Kuomintang troops into Manchuria to prevent a Communist takeover in late 1945, American General George Marshall desperately tried to negotiate a compromise. By early 1946, however, it was clear that both Chinese parties preferred civil war. General Marshall asked Chiang Kai-shek on May 31 to stop warfare in Manchuria, and Chiang, dependent on American support, agreed to a temporary truce.

After the truce, Kuomintang troops advanced in Manchuria but could not defeat the Communists led by Lin Biao. The United States grew weary of the Kuomintang and objected to its intensely corrupt adminstration. When the Kuomintang promulgated a new constitution for China on January 1, 1947, the Communists ended negotiations. Lin Biao continued guerrilla warfare in Manchuria, and the Communists brutally enforced land reform in their areas. Meanwhile, the Kuomintang faced severe inflation and a loss of public trust.

The Communists had several major victories in 1948. Leadership by the Kuomintang’s generals was so bad that some historians suggested that some of their generals were Communist moles. In northeastern China, Communist armies solidified their position, won major battles, and captured Jinan, in Shandong Province, on September 24. Lin Biao’s army triumphed in Manchuria, where it encircled Kuomintang troops in the key cities it had been ordered to hold and won decisive defeats. On October 17, Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province, fell after a brutal siege, and Changchun followed on October 20. After terrible civilian losses, Communist control over Manchuria was finally secured.

On January 10, 1949, Mao’s general Zhu De won the Battle of Xuzhou, Xuzhou, Battle of (1949) and on January 21, Chiang Kai-shek resigned as president of China. Although he was succeeded by Li Zongren, Chiang still wielded considerable power. On February 23, Beijing surrendered to the Communists, who controlled China north of the Chang River. Communist terms for peace proved too harsh for the Kuomintang to accept, but the United States had decided on a policy of neutrality. In April, the Communists launched their final offensive, and they captured Nanjing on April 24 and Shanghai on May 25. In Beijing, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. Remaining Kuomintang forces were in disarray and were easily defeated, and the Communists took the last cities in mainland China in October and November. On December 10, 1949, Chiang Kai-shek flew from Chengdu to Taiwan, ending organized Kuomintang presence on mainland China.


The Communist victory in China’s civil war effectively placed the people of mainland China under Mao Zedong’s power and added the world’s most populous nation to the Communist camp. China was exhausted and suffering by the end of the civil war, and the Communists used the people’s desire for peace and stability to erect an iron rule. Because of their decisive military victory, the Communists enjoyed virtually unlimited power in mainland China, and they were able to unify the area, which had been divided since 1912.

By using propaganda to glorify the Communists’ role in the civil war and by maintaining complete control over Chinese society, Mao and the Communists had virtually free rein, although their actions often had catastrophic consequences. Victory in the civil war, however, ensured the Communist Party’s political dominance into the twenty-first century, even as the economy was liberalized. Stunned Westerners realized that the Communists blamed them for their earlier support of the Kuomintang, and the People’s Republic of China conducted a strong anti-Western foreign policy until 1972.

In the United States, Americans laid the blame for the loss of China on politicians who had supported neutrality toward Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist victory in China further hardened Western resolve in the Cold War. Chiang Kai-shek and his successors managed to hold on to the Taiwan-based Republic of China, which prevented China’s complete reunification. Increased democratization in Taiwan continued to be viewed with utter suspicion by the People’s Republic, as was any attempt to establish a Taiwan formally independent from China. Chinese Civil War (1926-1949) Communist Party;China Kuomintang;conflict with Chinese Communist Party

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Stunning historical deconstruction of Mao’s Communist propaganda that proposes a radical new look at the history of the event. Controversial but based on thorough research, this book has opened fresh historical debate about the facts of the event. Illustrated, maps, notes, bibliography, index (generally uses Pinyin to romanize text).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Detailed, accessible and generally balanced presentation of the event. Maps, illustrations, notes, glossary, bibliography, index (uses Pinyin).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westad, Odd Arne. Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Covers the final years of the civil war with references to its origin and earlier development. Strong focus on Communist side. Maps, bibliography, index, notes.

China Allows Some Western Reforms

Sun Yixian Overthrows the Qing Dynasty

May Fourth Movement

Mao’s Long March

China Declares War on Japan

Rape of Nanjing

Categories: History