Mao Tsetung: The Art of War

Part 2: The War Against Japanese Aggression:
The Battle of Pinghshingkuan Pass

Revolutionary Worker #1031, November 21, 1999

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the victory of Chinese Revolution, the RW has been featuring articles about Mao Tsetung and the history of the revolutionary wars in China. RW No. 1024, 1025, and 1026 featured a picture history of the people's war that won nationwide victory in 1949. This article is the second of two articles that take a deeper look at Mao's military strategy.

Part one (RW No. 1030) focused on the first three Encirclement and Suppression Campaigns, where the communist forces led by Mao fought off KMT attempts to crush them.

Part two begins with the Japanese invasion of China and Chiang's refusal to fight the Japanese, while concentrating his troops to encircle and suppress the Red Army--forcing the Red Army to undertake the Long March.

This article recounts the victory of the Red Army at Pinghshingkuan Pass--the first major defeat of the Japanese, despite the failure of the KMT forces to join the battle.

There were great differences between the Red Army, which served the people, and the army of the KMT, which oppressed them. As the Japanese army intensified its attack on China, it committed many atrocities against the people. All the while, the KMT cowered in the face of the invaders, while the Red Army became the main target of the Japanese imperialists.

The KMT army attacked the Red Army and collaborated with the Japanese to smash the Communist-led forces. In response, the Red Army deepened their ties among the masses and set up liberated base areas, where they mobilized the people to carry out production and fight the Japanese. Through this period full of twists and turns, the CCP gained the confidence and support of the masses that was crucial to defeat the Japanese imperialists and to ultimately defeat the U.S.-backed KMT and seize nationwide power in 1949.

On September 18, 1931 Japanese troops stationed in Northeast China launched an attack on Shenyang (Mukden). Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang Party (KMT) ruler of China, pursued a policy of "non-resistance," and three provinces fell into the hands of the Japanese in three months. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued a proclamation calling for "mobilization of the masses to resist the aggression of the Japanese imperialists...and the setting up of a guerrilla corps in the Northwest to fight the Japanese imperialists directly."

Rather than fight the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek continued to wage war on the Chinese Communist Party and its Red Army in their base areas in Kiangsi. In January 1933 the Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army issued another proclamation, asserting their readiness to stop fighting the KMT and negotiate with the KMT and other warlords--with a view to uniting all who could be united against the Japanese--on the conditions that all attacks on the Red Army be ceased, that the rights of the people be guaranteed, and that the masses be armed. In answer to these demands, Chiang launched a series of encirclement and suppression campaigns against the Red Army. The Red Army successfully defeated the first four encirclement campaigns and gained valuable military experience. However, with the fifth encirclement campaign, the Red Army was forced to give up its base areas and make a strategic retreat from Kiangsi. This was the incredible and heroic Long March.

The Red Army traversed 6,000 miles of some of the most hazardous terrain on the planet, crossing 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers. They marched through 12 provinces where 200 million people lived and occupied 62 cities and towns. The Red Army troops averaged nearly one skirmish a day and made 235 day marches and 18 night marches, fighting and beating one million KMT soldiers. A year later, when the Long March ended in Northwest China, there were only 20,000 Red troops left out of an original 100,000.

The Long March marked a strategic retreat in response to the defeat of the Red Army in the fifth encirclement campaign1, but the Long March itself was not a defeat. The Red Army reached their new base area in Yenan with the leadership intact and the political will of the combatants as strong as ever.2 Along the march the Red Army armed the peasants and helped them liberate their areas, fighting and defeating the old landlords, redistributing the land, and setting up Red-governed base areas. With their stronghold in Yenan, the CCP and the Red Army continued to build and expand liberated base areas that were the foundation for waging revolutionary war.

The War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression:
Two Different Armies

With the ultimate aim of subjugating all of China, the Japanese launched a new attack at Lukouchiao (Marco Polo Bridge) near Peking on July 7, 1937. Finally, Chiang was forced to fight the Japanese imperialists both because of the pressure from the masses and the fact that the very life of his regime was endangered by the full-scale invasion of the Japanese. Chiang himself was kidnapped by some of his own officers, and he finally agreed to join a united front against the Japanese imperialists.

By August 1937, according to an agreement with the KMT, the main force of the Chinese Red Army was reorganized as the Eighth Route Army and immediately dispatched to the front lines in North China. In October, the Red Army Guerrilla Corps was reorganized into the New Fourth Army which then marched to the Central China Front. And the people of China embarked on their heroic War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression.

From the outset there were two battlefronts created in the War of Resistance: the KMT front and the front of the liberated areas. In the liberated areas, the CCP-led armies distributed weapons to the peasants. The policies of the agrarian revolution--around confiscating and redistributing land to the peasants--had to be adjusted because of the united front against Japan, but the CCP continued to lead the peasants in transforming feudal relations, including struggling for rent and interest reduction.

The CCP-led armies served the people. The masses came from all over China to join these people's armies and, at the risk of their own lives, gave them their support. The people were the CCP-led armies' eyes and ears. They usually knew where the enemy was and what he was up to. When the enemy came around, the masses misled him saying, "The Red Army went thatta way." Based on the people's support, the people's army was able to wage both guerrilla warfare by smaller groups in the mountains of China's expansive countryside as well as highly mobile warfare by larger units of its regular troops. The people's army was like a fish among friendly waters able to move freely among the people and surprise the enemy.

The KMT, on the other hand, served imperialism and the big landlords. (The KMT generally served the interests of U.S. and British imperialism, in particular.) Even when they were part of the United Front against Japan, they continued to enforce the backward feudal relations in China--where there was grinding poverty and the life of a peasant was valued less than a dog.

The class character of the KMT affected its methods of fighting. This was very clear when it fought against the Red Army, and this continued in various ways even during this period of national struggle against Japan. The KMT had lots of weapons, but unlike the Communist Party and its armies who were leading the peasants toward liberation, the KMT hated and feared the masses. They could not wage the same kind of highly mobile warfare that depended on secrecy of movement and the support of the people. Their officer corps was riddled with corruption. They enforced discipline with brutality. Many of their soldiers defected (especially when the KMT was fighting against the Communist-led armies). So militarily, the KMT mainly adopted a passive strategy of relying solely on defense of big cities, which were their own strongholds. Although the KMT troops resisted the Japanese during the early stage of the war, they soon sustained crushing defeats. In a little over half a year, the whole of North China fell into the hands of the Japanese.

In contrast to the KMT, the people's army led by the CCP fought valiantly and won many battles as soon as they got to the front. The troops under communist leadership began to operate on highly mobile lines, going deeply into Japanese-occupied territory and often losing contact with their own headquarters. They sliced Japanese communications, annihilated forward detachments, and wiped out many outposts. The people's army was a constant threat to the flanks of Japan's southward drive down into the soft valley of the Yangzi River. The Japanese were distracted from their real goal of seizing China's largest cities, including the KMT capital of Nanking, and they were forced into the hills where they were vulnerable to guerrilla ambush.

Rather than defend large cities where the enemy could concentrate its forces against them, the Communist strategy was to draw the enemy deep into the expansive countryside--which was hostile territory for the enemy--and fight battles of quick decision in order to annihilate the Japanese army piecemeal, all the while gaining strength to fight larger, more decisive battles later. A Communist general offered a little verse about this strategy. "If you keep men and lose land, the land can be taken again. If you keep land and lose men, you lose both land and men." Following a dynamic military strategy, it was the people's army who delivered Japan's first big defeat.

The Battle of Pinghshingkuan Pass

In the latter part of 1937, one Japanese army, led by the notorious Samurai Fifth Division under general Itagaki Seishiro, moved southward in Shansi province, meeting little resistance from the KMT troops in his path. The Japanese general was confident. But he was unaware that the 115th Division of the Eighth Route Army had secretly worked its way around to the rear of Itagaki's Division and had taken up positions to the south side of Pinghshingkuan pass.

The terrain at the Pinghshingkuan Pass was rugged. The Japanese column had to march along an old trail sunk beneath the floor of the valley, winding between hills. The Chinese plan was for one group under an anti-communist KMT general to block the main route of the Japanese advance, while two brigades of Communist forces launched a surprise attack from the south flank and rear.

At midnight on the 24th of September, the orders were given to destroy the Japanese as they marched along the seven-mile stretch of ridges between Pinghshingkuan Pass and Laoyehmiao. At seven in the morning the Japanese entered the Pass. As a Chinese officer described, "The distant drone of motors was heard from the canyon. A fleet of vehicles carrying Japanese troops and military supplies was moving up toward Pinghshingkuan Pass. Someone was counting in a low voice, `One...two...fifty...a hundred...'

"Following the lorries were more than 200 animal-drawn carts, and mules and horses were drawing large-calibre guns. Behind them was the cavalry. Vehicles and animals were stretched in an unbroken line. With cars honking and hoofs clanging, they were a very imposing sight indeed."

"The Japanese troops riding on horseback or sitting in lorries wore leather boots, steel helmets, and woolen overcoats. They had rifles slung diagonally across their shoulders. They were quite at ease, talking and laughing."

"Some were eating, while others were whipping the press-ganged porters...slimy black mire was ankle-deep at some places on the highway."

At one point some of the lorries had to turn back because of the difficulties of the road ahead, so that the road became clogged with lorries held up by the congestion. It was an ideal moment for the attack. But there was some confusion in the Communist Headquarters because the KMT troops had not moved up into their blocking position. The 115th Division, however, decided to move immediately if the advantage of surprise and position were to be utilized. The order to attack went out."

"The moment the fighters had long awaited, had come at last. The ridges south of the highway roared and rocked under the impact to the explosion of hand grenades, trench mortars and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns. The enemy who had cluttered the highway went down in large numbers. One lorry...caught fire, others collided."

The people's army commanders checked out their situation and came up with a plan. "We have encircled one enemy brigade of over 4,000 men, but one big group is hard to tackle. We have to cut it up into several sections. Your men should cross the highway and divide the enemy at that point, then use one battalion to take the heights at Laoyehmiao. Once we have taken that commanding point, we could easily annihilate the enemy down there."

The people's army soldiers charged down toward the highway, and the enemy scattered and ran wildly. But the Japanese were formidable. "They showed no inclination to quit. Their shooting was quite accurate. Despite heavy casualties, they remained in ditches and depressions of the road. Their bullets kept whizzing over our heads. I was furious. I looked through my field glasses and saw that the wheat stalks were being mowed down by the enemy's fire. It was clear that their fire-power was superior to ours."

"Our casualties were mounting but we still hadn't reached the highway. Some of the Japanese were retreating up to Laoyehmiao! We would be in a very unfavorable position if we didn't act fast. The order was given. `Third Battalion, charge at all costs!' The companies on the flanks intensified their attack to draw the enemy fire so as to give the troops at the front a chance to charge down the road.

"The valley was shrouded in smoke and the din of gunfire and explosions was deafening. Our men were dashing through the dust and smoke, running, crawling and rolling forward." At last they made it, and a hand-to-hand fight with the enemy ensued. In about half an hour, the Japanese soldiers were driven to take shelter beneath the lorries. "We didn't know that the right thing for us to do at the time was to burn the lorries to deprive them of their shelter...We thought that, if we pressed them hard, they would surrender. But the Japanese were instilled with the idea of conquering China, slaughtering the Chinese people and exploiting them. As our men had no previous experience fighting the Japanese, many were killed or wounded by those desperate fiends. Because of the savagery and haughtiness of the enemy, the fighting had, from the very beginning, been extremely fierce. Even the wounded fought each other like devils until one was killed or both were locked in a death embrace."

Fierce fighting continued. "But the Japanese did not understand the tactics of mountain warfare. Save for a small group of Japanese still holding out at Laoyehmiao, all the rest remained on the highway where there was no place to take cover. After getting past the highway, we rushed straight toward Laoyehmiao. Despite the fact that we were attacked both from above and below and the mountainside was steep, our soldiers managed to climb up. With the help of Second Battalion, the Third Battalion finally succeeded in occupying the strategic height at Laoyehmiao."

"We attacked the highway from the Laoyehmiao Temple which dominated it from both sides. The enemy troops were fully exposed to our raking fire. They finally understood what mountain warfare meant. Now, the enemy commanders, realizing their mistake, ordered their men to scale the barren summit. Enemy planes were hovering over our heads as the Japanese regrouped for an attack on the heights." But the planes couldn't do anything because the troops of both sides were so close together. The Communist officer continued, "If the other regiment posted on our left flank couldn't get up quickly, we would have another hand-to-hand fight with the Japanese. We stood firm before the enemy onslaughts until one in the afternoon. The 687th Regiment arrived at last. I noticed a faltering in the rear of the enemy line. I instantly knew the time had come. I ordered my troops to close in for the kill. We set upon the Japanese from both directions and succeeded in completely annihilating them along the mountain ravine from Hsingchuang to Laoyehmiao."

The people's army continued to take the fight to the Japanese at nearby Tungpaochih, where about 2,000 to 3,000 enemy troops were stationed. As originally arranged, they should have been the target of attack for the KMT forces. The Chinese soldiers observed that the enemy troops there were encircled. But the KMT did not attack to coordinate with their action as planned. With all the people's army squads and platoons badly depleted from the earlier battle, they launched the attack but could not press home the advantage with the enemy planes now strafing and bombing the Chinese positions. When enemy reinforcements arrived the people's army forces had to withdraw from the battlefield. An opportunity had been missed.

But Itagaki's Division had suffered a fatal defeat at Pinghshingkuan Pass. The Japanese aggressors experienced the might of the Chinese people for the first time. The villagers in the vicinity, hearing that the people's army had defeated the Japanese, came to lend a hand. They helped take the wounded down on stretchers and carried the captured arms away. They worked non-stop for more than two days. One Communist general told a foreign correspondent, "All my life I have wanted to fight the Japanese and I could never get at them! But now they have come to me..." This first great victory by the Eighth Route Army at Pinghshingkuan Pass in September 1937 helped brace the drooping spirits of the people and inspired them with confidence in the struggle of resistance.

The Hard Road to Victory

Though the Japanese imperialists suffered this defeat, they were still very strong and continued their invasion of China. The Japanese army committed great crimes against the Chinese people. They carried out the policy of the Three Alls: "burn all, kill all, loot all." In December 1937, the KMT capital of Nanking was given up. 50,000 Japanese troops were let loose in an orgy of rape, murder, and looting. In four weeks 300,000 people were killed. Japanese soldiers beheaded babies and raped thousands of females, including young girls and old women. Thousands of men were lined up and machine-gunned. Groups of Chinese were used for bayonet practice. Others were doused with kerosene and burned alive. This was mad, brutal war--aimed at totally subjugating the Chinese people and breaking their will to resist.

The KMT troops continued to be defeated by the Japanese juggernaut. By October 1938, most of Central China was lost. Chiang Kai-shek now concentrated his army in Southwest and Northwest China to avoid a serious clash with the Japanese Army. The greater part of KMT forces behind Japanese lines had surrendered to the enemy and collaborated against the people's armed forces.

While the KMT were collaborating with the Japanese, the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army penetrated into the enemy's rear in North, East, Central and South China. They regained vast areas lost to the Japanese by the KMT, armed the people, and developed guerrilla warfare against the Japanese forces. By 1940, the people's anti-Japanese forces had grown from 40,000 to half a million, and they engaged half of the Japanese troops in China. With the people's armed forces in their rear, the Japanese focused all their efforts on the liberated areas which had turned the Japanese rear into battlegrounds and threatened the communication lines under Japanese control. The Japanese discontinued all strategic assaults on the KMT battlefront. By this time, the KMT had passed from relatively active to totally passive resistance to Japan, while actively struggling against the Communist Party, its armies, and the people.

While the Communist Party led the people to wage fierce battles against the Japanese, Chiang refused to mobilize his troops except to attack the Communist-led forces. In one instance 50,000 KMT troops surrounded and attacked 9,000 people's army troops and 4,000 people's army soldiers were killed. The KMT armies furthered their collaboration with or totally surrendered to the Japanese troops. By 1944 more than 60 percent of the puppet Chinese armies fighting on the side of the Japanese (about 425,000 troops) were made up of former KMT soldiers and officers.

Under such an onslaught, the liberated areas dwindled, and the CCP pursued various effective measures to cope with the situation. They developed their policy of advancing when the enemy retreated, retreating when the enemy advanced, and pursuing the enemy when he was on the run. People's army detachments penetrated deep into the enemy's rear to open new base areas. Communist work teams went behind enemy lines to arouse and organize against the puppet regimes. The people's army strengthened its militia, waged mine and tunnel warfare, and extended guerrilla warfare on a broad popular basis.

Production campaigns were initiated, large-scale rent and interest reduction were implemented. After the Japanese put an economic blockade on the liberated areas, the Communist Party started a big production drive in 1941. Workshops were set up involving tens of thousands of people to produce all the necessities of daily life. An arsenal was set up that made explosives and grenades (even though most of the people's army's ammunition continued to be taken from the enemy). Money was printed in the liberated areas and bills had slogans on them like: "Stop the Civil War!," Unite to Resist Japan," and "Long Live the Chinese Revolution!"

By 1943, there were 19 liberated base areas in China with a population of almost a million. The number of troops in the Eighth Route and New Fourth Armies grew to 900,000. The militia in the liberated areas expanded to over 2 million. At that time 60 percent of the Japanese army and 95 percent of their "Chinese" puppet army were held down or locked in combat in the battlefronts of the liberated areas.

In the eight years of the War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression--under the correct leadership of the CCP and with the great support of the masses of the people--the Eighth Route Army, the New Fourth Army and the South China Anti-Japanese column had developed into a powerful force of 1,300,000 soldiers. They fought 125,000 engagements, in the course of which they killed or captured 1,700,000 Japanese and puppet troops, and the liberated territories had a population of 160,000,000 people. They had become a powerful force, unprecedented in Chinese history. This was an important guarantee for the ultimate nation-wide victory which the Chinese people achieved in 1949.

(1) An important factor in the Red Army's inability to beat back the KMT's fifth encirclement and suppression campaign were wrong lines in the leadership, in opposition to Mao's line--and, in particular, the "left" opportunist line of Wang Ming. As Chairman Avakian said in Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions, "In this period of the early 1930s Wang Ming's `left' opportunist line with regard to military affairs underestimated the enemy and insisted on the strategy of attacking large cities in opposition to the correct line of establishing and linking up base areas and luring the enemy in deep in order to strike at it, concentrate superior forces in particular battles and wipe out its troops, and in this way break through the encirclement and in the particular campaign go from the defensive to the offensive.

(2) During the Long March, one extremely important development at the leadership level was that Mao's leadership in the CCP was basically established at the Tsunyi conference in January 1935.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)