The Nanchang Uprising and the birth of the PLA

Society & Culture

China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, traces its founding to a 1927 rebellion designed largely as a last-ditch effort to boost morale after a purge by the Kuomintang had killed at least 90% of the members of the Chinese Communist Party.

illustration of PLA insignia
Illustration by Derek Zheng

This Week in China’s History: August 1, 1927

At a glance, the insignia on the dress uniforms of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), carry a red star. This is unsurprising, even expected, but a closer look reveals two characters on the star, in gold: 八一 (bā yī), meaning August 1. This week, we look back to August 1, 1927, at what has come to be recognized as the founding of the PLA.

What is perhaps most surprising is that the People’s Republic or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would want to commemorate anything at all about the year 1927.

The year began with promise for the Communists. Their uneasy but useful alliance with the Nationalists (Kuomintang), called the First United Front, brought together the heirs of Sun Yat-sen (孫中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) into a single organization. Although neither the Communists, supported by Moscow’s Communist International (Comintern), nor the Nationalists, who under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石 Jiǎng Jièshí) would flirt with fascism, trusted their counterparts, the alliance provided the Communist movement room to grow. There were signs of regional unrest and potential for revolution in the countryside, while in Shanghai, Communists like Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来 were organizing labor in China’s largest metropolis. In March, some 800,000 Shanghai workers mobilized in a general strike. With both rural and urban revolts, an alliance with their most powerful political rival, and support from Moscow, the CCP future seemed bright.

But anti-Communist forces also noticed the signs. Foreign business interests in Shanghai, led by the British Chamber of Commerce, sought out Chiang Kai-shek to see what might be done about the specter of communism. Enlisting the aid of the Green Gang crime organization, the foreign police, and possibly even the Japanese, Chiang moved ruthlessly against the Communists. Starting in April, Chiang Kai-shek led a purge that would kill tens of thousands of Communists and their allies. Public executions were common; pro-Communist student protesters were fired on with machine guns.

The purge seemed a mortal blow: At least 90% of the CCP’s members had been killed, including many in leadership positions. In the weeks to come, the news got only worse. After initially allying with a “left-Kuomintang” alternative government, the Communists were formally expelled from the Kuomintang alliance in mid-July. Their Comintern advisers, at Stalin’s orders, fled back to the Soviet Union. The Communist movement that had, just a few months before, seemed poised for success, was now decimated and isolated.

The Communist Party had planned on an urban-based revolution, one that would follow the Nationalist revolution the Kuomintang sought with the support of the Soviets. With all of these options now out of reach, new plans were needed.

With that alliance gone, the Party needed soldiers if it were to survive.

The seeds of that survival lay in the army trained at the Whampoa Military Academy, where Communists and Nationalists had trained side by side. Although the soldiers trained at Whampoa became part of the Kuomintang’s National Revolutionary Army, many of them were CCP members, including some officers. Among the KMT officers who were Communists were Hè Lóng 贺龙, Yè Tǐng 叶挺, and Chén Yì 陈毅, who would later be the first Communist mayor of Shanghai. Lín Biāo 林彪, who would later become China’s defense minister and one of Máo Zédōng’s 毛泽东 greatest enablers during the Cultural Revolution, was also an officer.

Together with these men, Zhou Enlai, who was of course widely known as one of the leaders of the Communist Party in China, hatched a plan to rebel against the Kuomintang at Nanchang, the capital and largest city of Jiangxi Province. Some 100 miles southeast of Wuhan on a tributary of the Yangtze River, Nanchang had recently been Chiang Kai-shek’s regional base during his Northern Expedition to unify China under Kuomintang rule. It was from Nanchang that Chiang had planned the move against the Communists in Shanghai.

Put together in the last weeks of July 1927, what would come to be known as the Nanchang Uprising was designed to boost morale at least as much as it was to achieve specific strategic or tactical objectives. The CCP leaders had to know that their chances of long-term success were minimal. Moreover, if the Communist Party had any chance to survive, it needed at this moment to demonstrate its viability.

The Communist officers and their supporters were able to organize 20,000–30,000 soldiers to take part in the rebellion. Critical to the plan was the involvement of General Zhū Dé 朱德, who would go on to be the commander in chief of the PLA and, for a brief period five decades later, China’s head of state. Zhu had studied in Moscow as part of the United Front between the KMT and CCP (something Chiang Kai-shek had done as well) and while there, had apparently decided to support the Communist cause. He kept this secret, though, so successfully that he was the KMT’s head of security at Nanchang. Zhu met secretly with Communist leaders and co-conspirators in the days leading up to the mutiny.

So complete was Zhu’s secrecy that he was leading rebel troops when his KMT commanders informed him of the rebellion and ordered him to help fight against the Communists! His cover exposed, Zhu De formally defected from the KMT and joined the Communist Party.

At 2 a.m., rifle fire announced the start of the uprising, by mutinying officers of the KMT army, identifying themselves with red scarves around their necks. These are celebrated as the first shots by what would become the People’s Liberation Army. The troops led by Chen Yi, He Long, Zhu De, and others surrounded and captured the city in the pre-dawn hours. By 9 a.m., the city was under Communist control.

The Communists quickly established a Revolutionary committee in Nanchang, which included names like Soong Ching-ling (宋庆龄 Sòng Qìnglíng), Zhou Enlai, Péng Pài 彭湃, and Lǐ Lìsān 李立三, but their situation was precarious.

Although they held the city, reinforcements under KMT Commander Zhāng Fākuí 張發奎 were responding more quickly than expected, and their numbers would soon overwhelm the mutineers. Amid great internal division, the Communist leadership decided to strategically retreat rather than engage the KMT forces, which were much larger and would soon grow dramatically as reinforcements arrived.

Over objection from, particularly, He Long, the Communist forces embarked on this “Little Long March”: a 1,000-mile retreat to Guangzhou, where another insurrection was planned. Some 25,000 troops began their march on August 3, but within days a third of them had deserted. The mutineers’ forces divided, they were beaten piecemeal. None of them ever reached Guangzhou, let alone staged an insurrection there. The Communists leaders dispersed. Several, including Zhou Enlai, Ye Ting, and Yè Jiànyīng 叶剑英, made their way to Hong Kong.

The through line to the People’s Liberation Army, tenuous though it is, was in the forces led by Zhu De and Chen Yi. Beaten down to just 1,000 soldiers in late 1927, they hid and regrouped in the mountains, gradually building their forces up to 10,000 by the time they joined Mao Zedong at his base area in the Jinggang Mountains, in 1928.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.