Military Theme in Chinese Socialist Realism

UDC 821.581
Publication date: 01.02.2024
International Journal of Professional Science №2-2-2024

Military Theme in Chinese Socialist Realism

Sidorenko Andrei,
PhD in Philology, Dept. of Chinese Philology, Faculty of Asian and African Studies, St. Petersburg State University
Abstract: The article gives an overview of the military theme in the Chinese socialist realist novels, also known as the Chinese Red Classics, the literature or the 17-year period. Military theme is divided into two main categories – Anti-Japanese War and Civil War. The article traces the main events of these two periods and their role as a foundation for the socialist realist grant narrative as its treatment by the Chinese Red Classics. It is concluded that the military theme constitutes an indispensable basis for the socialist realist narrative strategy.
Keywords: Chinese Literature, socialist realism, military theme, Civil war, anti-Japanese war, military fiction


Military theme is one of the defining themes of the Chinese socialist novels since it provides aviable foundation for legitimizing the coming of CPC to power in 1949, and, therefore, the founding of the PRC. In connection with the Chinese history and literature, this theme can be broadly categorized into two main sections – Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945) and Civil War (1945-1949).

Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945)

After a heavy defeat, interpreted by «revolutionary history» as a «victorious» Great March in 1934-1935 [3, 2013, c. 167-171], the communists, profitably using the situation in the country and hiding behind the slogan of the struggle against Japan, entered a new phase of revolutionary activity, starting intensive preparations for the armed struggle against the Kuomintang [4, p. 362].

According to the agreement on a united anti-Japanese front with the Kuomintang, the Red Army in August 1937 was renamed the Eighth National Revolutionary Army. The CCP took an active part in organizing the guerrilla war of resistance to the Japanese. The Kuomintang recognized the communist government in the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region and gave the CCP access to a number of government offices. The CCP’s activities had been legalized again.

The active phase of fighting essentially ended by the end of 1938. Japan was counting on a quick victory and complete surrender of the Kuomintang. However, this did not happen. Despite significant territorial losses, the Kuomintang still managed to retain its troops, dragging Japan into a protracted positional war, for which it was not ready. There was a pause in active hostilities that lasted until the spring of 1944.

Japan, by occupying vast territories in eastern China and pushing the Kuomintang troops to the west, created favorable conditions for the emergence of many centers of the CCP’s activity on the occupied territory. It would seem that with the arrival of the enemy, the state of affairs in the communist camp should have deteriorated. However, the situation developed somewhat differently, since the Japanese forces were only enough to maintain their order in large cities and relatively important settlements and within a radius of several tens of kilometers from them. The communists, skillfully taking advantage of this situation, were able not only to preserve the remnants of their forces, but also to significantly increase both the numerical strength of their armed forces and expand their social base, taking advantage of the lack of opposition from the Kuomintang. The main tactic of the communists during the anti-Japanese war was guerrilla warfare.

The expansion of the social base of the CCP was also facilitated by adjustments in the agrarian and economic policy of the CCP, which at this stage refused to confiscate land and their complete redistribution, which was previously practiced in the «Soviet regions.» It was now a matter of lowering rents and interest rates. On the one hand, this did not increase the antagonism on the part of the landowners and the relatively wealthy strata of the rural population, on the other hand, it ensured an increase in the level of support for the CCP among the peasantry and the poor.

New areas under the control of the communists appeared in the territories occupied by Japan. The number of members of the CPC grew rapidly, which actually ceased to be the party of the working classes, which it was in previous periods. Moreover, many of those who joined the party did not realize the differences between the CCP and the Kuomintang, they were illiterate. People from the socially privileged strata — representatives of the village nobility, relatives of the landowners — began to become cadres. Chinese socialist realism is silent about this, but the literature of the 1980-1990s speaks about it eloquently.

1941-1944 was a very hard time for the communists, since in connection with the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, the USSR stopped providing support to China, including the CCP. At some point, Chiang Kai-shek was even going to destroy the communist support base on the border of Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia provinces [6, p. 168-175]. Self-reliance and refusal to conduct active hostilities helped the communists survive the most difficult years.

In addition, it was during the anti-Japanese war that the CCP’s ideological platform evolved. On the one hand, this was the adaptation of Marxism to Chinese realities, on the other, the strengthening of Mao Zedong’s power, especially at the end of the anti-Japanese war, in 1942-1945, during the «Yan’an Rectification Movement» 整风运动, the first large-scale campaign to combat dissent in the CCP.

The ideological and political consolidation of the party under the control of Mao Zedong was completed by the spring-summer of 1945 [5, p. 487-488].  By the time the VII Congress of the CCP was held in April-June 1945, there were 19 “liberated,” that is, communist-controlled regions, with a total population of about 100 million. The number of the armed forces of the CPC was 900 thousand soldiers and more than 2 million militias [4, p. 435-436]. The most urgent task at that time was preparation for the inevitable full-scale war with the Kuomintang.

Guerrilla warfare is widely described in Chinese literature from 1949-1966. First of all, we should note here the novel by Liu Zhixia 侠知侠 «Guerrilla Unit on the Railroad» 铁道游击队 (1954). The author of this novel was closely acquainted with the prototypes of his heroes and was originally going to write a documentary book, but after the commander of the guerrilla unit, about which the book was written, went over to the side of the nationalists, Liu Zhixia, instead had to abandon his original plan and finish the work in the form of fiction [2, 2016, p. 139].

In addition, we should note the novel «Storm on the Great River» 大江风雷 (1965) by Ai Xuan艾煊, which describes the creation of partisan bases south of the Huaihe River in 1939-1941, as well as the well-known novel “Bitter Herb” 苦菜花 (1958) by Feng Deying 冯德英.

The underground struggle of the communists against the Japanese in 1943 is described in the novel «Spring fire scorches the city» 野火春风斗古城 (1958) by Li Yingru 李英儒.

The underground anti-Japanese struggle is described in the novel “A Detachment of Armed Propagandists Behind the Enemy Lines” 敌后武工队 (1958) by Feng Zhi 冯至. In addition, the story of Zhao Shuli 赵树理 «Changes in Lijiazhuang» 李家庄的变迁 (1946) should be mentioned here which tells about the life of peasants from prov. Shanxi since the early 1930s until 1945.

Civil War (1945-1949)

Civil war broke out after Japan’s surrender. In October 1945, Chiang Kai-shek ordered a full-scale offensive against the communist armed forces. In the initial period of the war, the tactics of the CPC did not change, still noticeably inferior to the Kuomintang in technical equipment, the communists tended to conduct a mobile guerrilla war, exhausting the Kuomintang army.

The Eighth and New Fourth Armies, due to poor technical equipment at the initial stage of the civil war, were forced to occupy small and medium-sized cities and the surrounding countryside. The first serious success of the communist troops was the occupation of settlements in Manchuria, liberated by the Soviet army from the Japanese.

Northeast China became the main theater of military operations. The Kuomintang achieved some success here, but it was not able to completely defeat the troops of the communists. In May 1946, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from China had been completed, but the Soviet-Chinese treaty of August 14, 1945 and a number of agreements provided the CPC with a reliable rear in Manchuria. In turn, the United States retained military support for the Kuomintang.

By this time, the number of Kuomintang troops exceeded 4 million people, technically they were much better equipped than the CPC troops. In the first year of the war, in 1946, Chiang Kai-shek led an active offensive, which was generally successful, the largest cities of southern Manchuria were occupied, the «liberated» region in the Central Plain was abandoned by the city of Yan’an, where the headquarters of the leadership was located for the previous ten years PDA. Du Pengcheng’s famous novel “Defense of Yan’an” is based on these events.

The turning point in hostilities came in the middle of 1947. The USSR played an important role in this, having transferred a large amount of Japanese captured weapons to the communist troops. From the end of 1947, the Eighth and New Fourth Armies became known as the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA, 解放军).

In the second half of 1947, Chiang Kai-shek’s troops were forced to go on the defensive. The morale of the soldiers who fought on the side of the Kuomintang was rapidly declining. A significant part of the losses of their army in 1946-1947 accounted for desertion or going over to the side of the communists. The attitude of the population towards conscription is colorfully described in the novel by Chen Zhongshi «The Plain of the White Deer» (1993).

Often, surrender or desertion to the side of the enemy was done by whole formations, with weapons, ammunition and military equipment. In October 1948, the battles of Shenyang and Jinzhou took place in Manchuria, in which Chiang Kai-shek lost more than 400 thousand troops. Historians recognize this battle as decisive, since after the victory in it, the balance of forces sharply shifted in favor of the communists. The number of their troops and the technical equipment of the PLA surpassed the army of the Kuomintang.

By the end of 1948, the NRA was almost completely demoralized and out of control of the command, desertion and the transfer of personnel to the side of the enemy took on a massive scale. In January 1949, PLA units captured Tianjin and entered Beijing without fighting. Until the end of 1949, the NRA continued to hold the defense on certain lines, especially in the south.

On October 1, 1949, at a mass rally in Beijing, the declaration of the Central People’s Government on the establishment of the People’s Republic of China was announced.

The plot of «revolutionary history», as it seems to us, is structured as if its development could not have had any other path than the victory of the CCP, which in its struggle represented the interests of the progressive strata of society and, guided by the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, moved history forward. In the literature of socialist realism — both Soviet and Chinese — this concept is considered one of the fundamentals and is called «historical optimism» [1, p. 107-112].

The civil war is widely covered in the literature of Chinese socialist realism. The most famous works are the novels “Defense of Yan’an” (1954; in Russian translation — Battle for Yan’an, 1957) by Du Pengcheng, “The Red Sun” 红日 Wu Qiang (1957), The Battle Drum Awakens Spring 战鼓催春(1963) by Xiao Yu 肖玉, and many others.


Summing up, it should be noted that in the 1950s the military theme was one of the main topics in the literature of the PRC. Moreover, the war was not treated as a catastrophe and disaster. During this period, the understanding of the war based on Chinese literature took place under the direct influence of Soviet socialist realism.


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