Yan’an is a small town in northern Sha’anxi (Shensi) province that became the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from 1936 after the Long March until 1949. The Yan’an period referred to the years between 1937 and 1945; it was crucial in preparing the CCP for power.
Japan’s total war against China in July 1937 propelled the Nationalist, or Kuomintang (KMT), government to stop its campaign against the CCP. The two sides formed a second United Front on September 12, 1937. In a manifesto titled “Together We Confront the National Crisis,” the CCP agreed to obey
Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles (the ideology of the KMT), cease all anti-KMT activities, abolish the Soviet-style government in areas it controlled, and reorganize the Red Army to integrate it into the National Army. In reality, the CCP retained control of areas where it was already established, only changing the name of its government, and also control of its military units, renaming the Red Army the Eighth Route Army in the northwest and the New Fourth Army in Jiangxi (Kiangsi).
With the Nationalist government bearing the brunt of Japan’s assault, the CCP was freed from KMT attacks and used the unprecedented opportunity to grow. The CCP priority, as Communist leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) ordered his cadres, was “70 percent expansion, 20 percent dealing with the Kuomintang, and 10 percent resisting Japan.” His goal was to expand the CCP forces from 30,000 men to 1 million by the end of the war. He also mapped out a three-step strategy: first to manage the compromise with the KMT, next to attempt to achieve parity with it, and third to infiltrate to new areas and establish new guerrilla bases. The United Front had broken down completely by 1941 with a major clash in the New Fourth Army incident. Negotiations during the remainder of the war never resolved the conflicting goals of the two sides. A war within the war enmeshed the two Chinese parties, with the CCP continuing to expand its bases and the KMT blockading the Yan’an area.
The Yan’an period was also important for laying down the principles of Chinese communism. Mao spent much time thinking and writing, as did his second in command, Liu Shaoqi (Liu Shao-ch’i). Mao’s essays included “On the Protracted War,” “Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War against Japan,” “On New Democracy,” and “On Liberalism.” Liu’s works included “How to be a Good Communist” and “On Inner-Party Struggle.” Mao’s works formed the basis of his later claim to be an original contributor in the development of Marxist-Leninist ideology.
The Yan’an period was also marked by the training and education of workers and peasants to be active supporters of the CCP, moderate land reform policies, and improvements to the rural economy. As a result the few Westerners (mostly reporters and not trained specialists on China) who were able to avoid the KMT blockade or were permitted to make brief chaperoned visits reported glowingly of their Yan’an experience. From journalist Edgar Snow’s book Red Star Over China, the result of his visit in 1936 and his interviews with Mao and other leaders, and from the accounts of shorter visits by other journalists, Westerners learned that the CCP leaders were not like the Soviet Communists but were agrarian reformers. They compared Yan’an favorably with the Nationalist capital, Chongqing (Chungking), which they described as corrupt. Moscow also fostered this view when Joseph Stalin called the CCP “margarine” or “radish” Communists.
See also Sino-Japanese War.
Further reading: Barrett, David D. Dixie Mission: The United States Army Observer Group in Yenan, 1944. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970; Ch’en, Yung-fa. Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986; Kataoka, Tetsuya. Resistance and Revolution in China: The Communists and the Second United Front. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974; Selden, Mark. The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.