The end of imperial rule was followed by nearly four decades of major socioeconomic development and sociopolitical discord. The initial establishment of a Western style government—the Republic of China—was followed by several efforts to restore the throne. Lack of a strong central authority led to regional fragmentation, warlordism, and civil war.
The main figure in the revolutionary movement that overthrew imperial rule was Sun Yatsen (1866– 1925), who, along with other republican political leaders, endeavored to establish a parliamentary democracy. They were thwarted by warlords with imperial and quasi-democratic pretensions who resorted to assassination, rebellion, civil war, and collusion with foreign powers (especially Japan) in their efforts to gain control. A major political and social movement during this time was the May Fourth Movement (1919), in which calls for the study of “science” and “democracy” were combined with a new patriotism that became the focus of an anti-Japanese and antigovernment movement. Ignored by the Western powers and in charge of a southern military government with its capital in Guangzhou, Sun Yatsen eventually turned to the new Soviet Union for inspiration and assistance.
The Soviets obliged Sun and his Guomindang (Nationalist Party). Soviet advisers helped the Guomindang establish political and military training activities. A key individual in these developments was Jiang Jieshi (1888–1975; Chiang Kai-shek in Yue dialect), one of Sun’s lieutenants from the early revolution days. But Moscow also supported the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was founded by Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and others in Shanghai in 1921. The Soviets hoped for consolidation of the Guomindang and the CCP but were prepared for either side to emerge victorious. The struggle for power in China began between the Guomindang and the CCP as both parties also sought the unification of China.
Sun’s untimely death from illness in 1925 brought a split in the Guomindang and eventually an uneasy united front between the Guomindang and the CCP. Jiang Jieshi’s military academy trained a new generation of officers who would soon embark on the Northern Expedition. Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), who later become premier of China under the communists, was a political commissar at this academy. Jiang, who succeeded Sun Yatsen, broke with his Soviet advisers and with the communists but by 1927 was successful in defeating the northern warlords and unifying China. The years 1928 to 1937 are often referred to as the Nanjing Decade because of the national development that took place under Jiang’s presidency before World War II when China’s capital was in Nanjing (Southern Capital). The Northern Expedition had culminated in the capture of Beijing, which was renamed Beiping (Northern Peace). Thereafter, the Nanjing government received international recognition as the sole legitimate government of China.
With the 1927 split between the Guomindang and the CCP, the CCP began to engage in armed struggle against the Jiang regime. The Red Army was established in 1927, and after a series of uprisings and internal political struggles, the CCP announced the establishment in 1931 of the Chinese Soviet Republic under the chairmanship of Mao in Jiangxi Province in south-central China. After a series of deadly annihilation campaigns by Jiang’s armies, the Red Army and the CCP apparatus broke out of Jiangxi and embarked on their epic 12,500-kilometer Long March of 1934–35 to a new stronghold in Shaanxi Province in the north. During the march, Mao consolidated his hold over the CCP when in 1935 he became chairman, a position he held until his death in 1976.
Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, established the puppet government of Manchukuo in 1932, and soon pushed south into North China. The 1936 Xi’an Incident—in which Jiang Jieshi was held captive by local military forces until he agreed to a second front with the CCP—brought new impetus to China’s resistance to Japan. However, a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beiping on July 7, 1937, marked the beginning of full-scale warfare. Shanghai was attacked and quickly fell. An indication of the ferocity of Tokyo’s determination to annihilate the Guomindang government is reflected in the major atrocity committed by the Japanese army in and around Nanjing during a six-week period in December 1937 and January 1938.
Known in history as the Nanjing Massacre, wanton rape, looting, arson, and mass executions took place, so that in one horrific day, some 57,418 Chinese prisoners of war and civilians reportedly were killed. Japanese sources admit to a total of 142,000 deaths during the Nanjing Massacre, but Chinese sources report upward of 340,000 deaths and 20,000 women raped. Japan expanded its war effort in the Pacific, Southeast, and South Asia, and by 1941 the United States had entered the war. With Allied assistance, Chinese military forces—both Guomindang and CCP—defeated Japan. Civil war between the Guomindang and the CCP broke out in 1946, and the Guomindang forces were defeated and had retreated to a few offshore islands and Taiwan by 1949. Mao and the other CCP leaders reestablished the capital in Beiping, which they renamed Beijing.