Mao Tsetung: The Art of War

Part 1: Luring the Enemy in Deep

Revolutionary Worker #1030, November 14, 1999

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the victory of this People's War, the RW has been featuring articles about Mao Tsetung and the history of the Chinese Revolution. RW No. 1024, 1025, and 1026 featured a picture history of the People's War. This article is the first of two articles that take a deeper look at Mao's military strategy.

Part one focuses on the first three Encirclement and Suppression Campaigns, in which the communist forces led by Mao fought off Kuomintang (KMT) attempts to crush them.* In the fight against these attempts to destroy the first Red base areas many seeds of the strategy of Maoist People's War were sown. Later these principles were developed during the Anti-Japanese War and the second civil war vs. the Chiang Kai-shek KMT government.

Mao first had to struggle against the view of quick victory in the cities, arguing instead for a protracted war--beginning in the countryside, mobilizing the masses and developing political base areas. In the beginning, there was not a lot of military experience in this kind of warfare, but Mao had the attitude that the communists had to be good at learning. He showed how picking favorable ground politically and militarily was important for poorly armed popular troops fighting numerically superior, well-armed forces. The Red Army made masterful use of deception and surprise in attack. Mao's daring was based on the support of the masses, and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of his own army and that of the enemy.


In 1927, the Kuomintang (KMT) government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, launched a bloody anti-communist campaign in which the Chinese Communist Party suffered huge losses. To resist the KMT massacres, the Party led workers and soldiers to stage an uprising in Canton. But the revolutionaries were up against overwhelming odds and had been weakened by wrong lines in the Party. The uprising was drowned in blood. Mao Tsetung learned a hard lesson: The counter-revolution was too strong in the cities. The KMT forces were concentrated in the cities and, no matter how heroic, attempts by the workers to seize and hold cities were bound to fail. Contrary to the views of other Party leaders, the Chinese revolution could not be won with a strategy of quick victory based on starting out with insurrection in the cities.

Armies of landlords, warlords and the KMT were looking all over for communists and rebels to slaughter. Faced with this, Mao recruited workers and peasants into the First Peasants' and Workers' Army--to carry out the Autumn Harvest Uprising in the Hunan countryside. The troops were no more than 8,000. They had no uniforms and were armed with only spears, staffs, and a few guns. But they marched from Hunan to Kiangsi province, fighting the reactionary armies. As Mao wrote: "The long, open struggle for power now began." This was the first step towards the creation of a new kind of revolutionary war--what Mao called a People's War--aimed at establishing rural base areas, building a Red Army, carrying out agrarian revolution in the countryside, and waging protracted war in the countryside to surround and eventually seize the cities.

In late 1927, Mao led the Red Army to the moutainous Chingkangshan area to start the first Red base area. Chingkangshan was an area along the border between Hunan and Kiangsi provinces. Somewhat later, in 1929-30, through twists and turns and fighting the enemy, Mao and the Red Army forces led by him ended up in another part of Kiangsi, near Fukien province.

All through this first period of establishing base areas, the Red Army united with the people and promoted the agrarian revolution. As power was seized, land was seized from the landlords and redistributed among the peasants. Peasant militias were organized so the peasants could defend themselves. The task of the Red Army was not just to fight. It did political education among the people, organized them, armed them, helped them wage the struggle against the landlords, helped them set up a revolutionary government and build the Party. The Communist Party led this army, with Party units in the army's leadership and in its fighting forces. Never before had an army like this existed in China; it gave the peasants real hope for a brighter future.

In this early period Mao wrestled with big strategic questions facing the Chinese revolution. And it was in these early battles that Mao began to really develop his military doctrine. Guerrilla and mobile warfare were the Red Army's main forms of fighting. Guerrilla warfare is waged by smaller units of generally poorly armed troops attacking portions of a larger enemy army through surprise attacks--sometimes bringing dispersed guerrilla units together to hit the enemy. Mobile warfare is a war of movement waged by larger bodies of usually well-armed regular troops in coordinated attacks on the enemy, along fluid battle lines without being tied down to fixed positions.

Since the Red Army was much weaker than the government troops, a quick victory was impossible. So Mao said it was necessary to pursue a strategic policy of protracted warfare in the countryside to gradually bring about a change in the unfavorable balance of strength. Mao said: Our strategy is "pit one against ten" and our tactics are "pit ten against one." This meant that the Red Army had to concentrate its forces to have absolute numerical superiority in every battle in order to win, preserve its own strength, eliminate the enemy and eventually obtain a decisive victory. Mao also developed other principles of guerrilla warfare like: "Disperse the forces among the masses to arouse them, and concentrate the forces to deal with the enemy," and "When the enemy advances, we retreat; when the enemy halts, we harass; when the enemy tires, we attack; when the enemy retreats, we pursue." Mao and the CCP learned warfare from making warfare. The important thing, he said, was "to be good at learning."

By 1930, the Red Army had extended its base areas to 17 counties. In these areas, land was redistributed, the masses were politically educated and organized into associations and militias, and the Red Army was strengthened. This situation was intolerable to the KMT government, and in 1930, Chiang Kai-shek launched his Encirclement and Suppression Campaigns against the Communist base areas.


At the end of December 1930, at least seven columns of KMT drove down from the north under Lu Ti-p'ing, who was governor and commander in chief of the whole campaign. The KMT forces consisted of 12 divisions, totaling 100,000 soldiers. Mao and the Red Army devised a plan to defeat them.

Mao decided not to attack the enemy at the cities of Tungku and Futien because, at the time, the KMT had organized Anti-Bolshevik groups there in an attempt to rally the masses against the Red Army and to infiltrate the Red Army itself. So that area was not the most favorable in which the Red Army could fight.

The KMT 105th and 50th Divisions, which made up the main enemy force, had marched into the Lungkang-Yuantou area. It was here, where the Red Army was concentrated. The Red Army had 40,000 troops, but only about 25,000 were armed. This was an area of popular support and would help cover their approach. In other words, the masses would help hide the Red Army soldiers as they moved to attack the enemy, and mislead the KMT. All of which would enable the Red Army to surprise the KMT troops.

Each of the KMT divisions had about 14,000 men, and Mao figured that if the revolutionary forces attacked each of the KMT divisions separately, the revolutionary forces would have absolute superiority in each battle. If the Red Army could defeat them, the whole Encirclement and Suppression Campaign would be smashed.

The Red Army's 105th Division lured the overconfident KMT 18th Division southeastward into the mountains, which provided better terrain for battle. They deliberately created the impression that they were desperately trying to elude their enemy's advance guard--only sporadically firing on KMT units, leaving half-eaten meals along the line of march, even leaving some precious equipment along their trail.

By the night of Dec. 29, 1930, the 105th Division had enticed the KMT 18th into a narrow valley where they could get the drop on the enemy from the higher elevations of the surrounding mountains. At about 5:00 a.m. the Red Army attacked. The Red Army's 4th Corp attacked the front of the KMT column, blocking any further advance. At the same time, the 3rd and 12th Corps destroyed the two KMT forward brigades and their Division Headquarters in succession. Nine thousand KMT soldiers were annihilated, and the commander of the 18th Division was captured as well.

After the defeat of the KMT 18th Division the full weight of the Red Army was hurled against the KMT 50th Division, which was trying to withdraw. The Red Army tricked the enemy by wearing KMT uniforms and carrying KMT banners. The commander of the 50th Division was overjoyed when he saw some more friendly troops arriving. But his enjoyment was short-lived: half of his division was annihilated before he realized what was happening.

The Red Army seized thousands of rifles and other sorely needed equipment, including radios. With the annihilation of their main force, the rest of the KMT troops retreated. Through the strategy of luring the enemy deep into hostile territory, concentrating a superior force against the enemy, picking favorable terrain (both politically and geographically) for battle, and using surprise in the attack, Mao and the Red Army were able to defeat the First Encirclement and Suppression Campaign.

As Mao explained later: "By skillful use of maneuvering warfare we met and overcame this First Campaign, with great victories. Following out the tactics of swift concentration and swift dispersal, we attacked each unit separately, using our main forces. Admitting the enemy troops deeply into soviet (Red-governed) territory, we staged sudden concentrated attacks, in superior numbers, on isolated units of the Kuomintang troops, achieving positions of maneuver in which, momentarily, we could encircle them, thus reversing the general strategic advantage enjoyed by a numerically superior enemy."


For five months after this victory, the KMT assembled new forces to again drive against the base areas. The KMT commander Ho Ying-ch'in learned from the rash advances of the last campaign and moved his troops in cautiously this time. The KMT force was now 200,000 troops, but the mountainous terrain didn't permit easy communication among these divisions, nor did it allow them to easily reinforce each other. The strongest KMT units were those of the Nineteenth Route Army and the armies in the east, inside the border of Kiangsi Province. The rest were weaker.

Meanwhile, the Red Army had organized guerrilla units and mobilized villagers as far north as Nanfeng to provide vital intelligence and logistical support. This was a People's War where everyone had a mission that contributed to the defense of the base area. The Red Army was born among the peasantry who helped feed and house those who fought in their interests. And the peasants were the eyes and ears of the revolutionary army, keeping them continually informed of the whereabouts of the enemy force.

The revolutionaries had only 30,000 soldiers in their main force but for the first time the Red Army's guerrilla forces were strong enough so that, through their constant attacks on the KMT, they were able to confuse the enemy as to the location of their main forces.

From reading accounts of these battles, you get the impression that Mao was very daring. But the success of the Red Army came from a very careful evaluation of its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the enemy. In the first campaign, the Red Army launched its initial attack against the KMT's strongest division, but this time they chose the weakest. Mao reasoned that if they attacked the two weakest enemy forces, avoiding the crack Nineteenth Route Army, the Red Army forces could then sweep to the east surprising and attacking the KMT's 27th Division and the KMT 6th Corps. One consideration for this strategic direction was that by attacking the enemy in the east near Fukien province, the Red Army could extend the territory of the base areas in that vicinity. However, if the Red Army attacked to the west, it would run into the Kan River where it could advance no further--leaving the Red Army forces open to being pinned down against the river facing the KMT's strongest units.

For 15 days in succession, from May 16 to May 30, 1931, the Red Army first attacked the KMT 28th and 47th Divisions, then marched eastward--traveling 250 miles and fighting five battles. The attack on these first two enemy divisions was particularly daring since the Red Army had both the Nineteenth Route Army and the KMT 43rd Division on its flanks. Had the attack failed, the Red Army could have been encircled and itself annihilated. But Mao figured that they had the support of the masses in that area, as well as the disunity of the KMT forces in their favor.

After these two battles, the Red Army drove west to east. Nearing exhaustion, they defeated the crack 27th Division, and went on to attack the KMT 6th Corps (5th, 8th, and 24th Divs.) at Kwangchang. Having been beaten again, the KMT army fled northward and were pursued by some units of the Red Army. Meanwhile, the Red Third Army trapped and partially destroyed the KMT 56th Division.

The Red Army had made a quick breakthrough at the enemy's weakest point and then, in a quick succession of battles, annihilated the enemy's forces piecemeal. Mao pointed out, "Only by annihilating the enemy's effective strength can we smash his `encirclement and suppression' campaigns and expand our revolutionary base areas... A battle in which the enemy is routed is not basically decisive in a contest with a foe of great strength. A battle of annihilation, on the other hand, produces a great and immediate impact on any enemy... The forces annihilated in each of the encirclement and suppression campaigns constituted only part of his total strength, and yet all these `encirclement and suppression' campaigns were smashed. War of annihilation entails the concentration of superior forces and the adoption of encircling or outflanking tactics. Conditions such as popular support, favorable terrain, a vulnerable enemy force and the advantage of surprise are all indispensable for the purpose of annihilation."


After the defeats of the KMT army in the first two campaigns, Chiang Kai-shek personally took the field against the Red Army with 300,000 soldiers.

Chiang's strategy was to drive straight into the Kiangsi base area, press the Red Army against the Kan River and annihilate it there. There was only one month between the end of the second enemy campaign and the beginning of the third. The Red Army was still about 30,000 strong--having made up their losses through new recruits, including defections from the KMT army. But there was really no time to rest after much hard fighting. Besides, they had just marched 400 miles across the breadth of the base area to concentrate at Hsingkuo in the western part of Kiangsi, when the enemy pressed in hard from several directions.

The original plan for the Red Army was to leave from Hsingkuo and make a breakthrough at Futien. Then they would sweep from west to east across the enemy's rear communication lines. (And one of the things armies fear most is being encircled and cut off without any route of retreat.) Thus the KMT would make a deep, but useless penetration into the base area in southern Kiangsi. (The situation would be like a comical fighter taking a big swing at an opponent--who ducked to miss the blow and suddenly moved behind him.) Then when the enemy turned back northward, inevitably fatigued, the Red Army was to seize the opportunity to strike his vulnerable units.

But the KMT detected the Red Army just as they were about to make their breakthrough, and rushed two divisions to the scene at Futien. The Red Army had to fall back to the southeast. The next night, under cover of darkness, the Red soldiers made a quick change of direction, passing through a 15-mile gap between enemy forces. They then surrounded and attacked the KMT 47th Division at Kaohsinghsu, driving it off. Next they struck the 54th Division at Liangchen. One author commented that this first battle was "fought with the energy of despair, with tremendous speed and fury, and it could not have been otherwise, for they were encircled and hopelessly outnumbered."

Continuing their clockwise direction, the Red Army made a forced march eastward and, with no time to rest, struck the 5th Division north of Lunkang. Turning its attention to Tungshao, the Red Army annihilated the KMT 8th Division there. The Red Army won all three of the major battles and captured over 10,000 rifles. Referring to the fact that the Red Army had few weapons at the beginning of their struggle, and mainly took them from their defeated enemy, Mao was to say that the KMT, as well as the Japanese and the U.S. imperialists, were the "quartermasters" of the Red Army.

At this point, the enemy main forces converged at furious speed to seek battle and closed in on the Red Army. In coordination with the main force, guerrilla forces kept descending from the mountains and harassed the KMT rear, at times giving the impression of being a whole army. During the night of Aug. 11, the leaders of the Red Army again led 25,000 men through a three-mile-wide gap between the KMT armies closing in on them, and re-assembled in Hsingkuo. Meanwhile, the Red 12th Corps deceived the enemy as to the true location of their main force by moving as far north as Tungshao, waving red flags and leaving phony direction markers for non-existent units. By the time the enemy discovered this fact and began advancing west again, the Red Army already had some time to rest and were ready to take on the adversary. The KMT forces were hungry, exhausted and demoralized and were no good for fighting; they decided to retreat.

Taking advantage of the retreat, on Sept. 7 the Red Army attacked two divisions of the Nineteenth Route Army and wiped out one brigade and a division. Battles against the other divisions resulted in stalemate, and the enemy got away.

Mao showed through these battles that with all the confusing circumstances of war, the Red Army could maintain the initiative in battle--the initiative being the ability to do what you want to do in war, carrying out your own plans and dictating the terms of battle to the enemy. He said, "The initiative is not something imaginary but is concrete and material. Here the most important thing is to conserve and mass an armed force that is as large as possible and full of fighting spirit. Concentration of troops, mobile warfare, war of quick decision and war of annihilation are all necessary conditions for the full achievement of this aim. And of these, concentration of troops is the first and most essential."

Further, "A quick decision cannot be achieved simply by wanting it, but requires certain specific conditions. The main requirements are: adequate preparations, seizing the opportune moment, concentration of superior forces, encircling and outflanking tactics, favorable terrain, and striking at the enemy when he is on the move, or when he is stationary but has not yet consolidated his positions."

Through these battles against Chiang Kai-shek's Encirclement and Suppression Campaigns, one can see the kind of dynamic military strategy that Mao and the Red Army developed. But this military strategy was based on the support of and active participation of the masses in the revolutionary struggle. As one Red general commented, "We could not exist if the majority of the people did not support us. We are nothing but the fist of the people beating their oppressors."

* This was before the famous Long March, led by Mao. Mao and the Red Army was forced to begin the Long March in late 1934 after the KMT's Fifth Encirclement and Suppression Campaign. The CCP's fight against that fifth KMT campaign was weakened by wrong lines within the CCP, particularly the "left" opportunist line of Wang Ming.

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