The early decades of the 20th Century in China were tinted with a constant state of turmoil. After enduring a string of military defeats brought on by dissidents and foreign countries, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1912, ending almost 6,000 years of imperial rule in China. In its place was a new national republic, headed by the revolutionist, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.
While many saw the new government as a herald for a new age of nationalism and self-determination in China, the new republic was still in a fragile state. In truth, power was decentralized and fought over between regional warlords and militias, who claimed independence from the national government, and sought to serve their own needs.
On May 4, 1919, thousands of students rallied in Beijing for a demonstration against the national government. In what is now called the May Fourth Movement, the crowds protested the government's inability to unify the nation, as well as its failure to properly represent the country's interests overseas. As the protests subsided, they had laid the groundwork for social change in China. A populist movement overcame the people, while nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiments spread all over the nation.
It was during this time that Communism found its way into China's political ideology. Young intellectuals were intrigued by the revolutions that toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia, and sought to learn more about the Marxist ideals of socialism and egalitarianism. The party thus began as an informal network of students and intellectuals, which spread throughout the provinces of China during the late 1910s.
The Chinese Communist Party was formally named and established in the French Concession of Shanghai on July 1, 1921. While the party was officially founded by the Chinese scholars Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, it was also formed under the supervision of agents sent by Russia's Communist International (Comintern). Later that month, a national congregation was hosted in Shanghai, where party members and delegates from across the country were invited to attend the first meeting of the CCP. Mao Zedong was one of the delegates at the congregation. At the time, he represented members from Hunan Province.
As membership grew, the CCP began to draw the attention of the Kuomintang (KMT), the party co-founded by Sun Yat-Sen, and also the dominant political force at the time. Although the CCP's socialist views differed greatly from the KMT's nationalist focus, some members of the CCP advocated joining with the KMT. By doing this, these members had hoped to build on the KMT's recent successes in unifying the state, and gradually change the party from within. While this idea was rejected by most of the CCP's leadership, it was overruled by the Comintern authority, whose priority at the time was to unify China under any circumstance. In 1926, The CCP was forced into a fragile alliance with the KMT, who drew plans for the Northern Expedition, a joint effort to regain control of major territories that were held by warlords to the north.
The Northern Expedition initially proved successful as the CCP-KMT alliance was able to overthrow several major warlords within the first year of the campaign. However, tensions between the two parties grew as their different ideologies clashed. This was compounded by the fact that, after Sun Yat-Sen's death in 1925, each party saw itself as the legitimate successor to the national government.
Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the KMT at this time, especially mistrusted the Communists. While the expedition was in Shanghai on April 12, 1927, Chiang ended the alliance by ordering a purge of the CCP leadership. Many CCP leaders were assassinated or imprisoned during the purge, but some managed to escape to the west and established "Soviet Sectors" – Communist strongholds that were founded in rural, remote areas. The largest of these sectors were controlled by leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhu De. And although Chiang Kai-Shek was able to consolidate the KMT's power during this time, they had made bitter enemies out of the CCP.
As the CCP spent the next few years regaining its strength, the KMT saw an opportunity to crush its competitors. Still led by Chiang Kai-Shek, KMT forces attacked CCP strongholds in Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in 1933. The KMT armies eventually surrounded the CCP bases, and were able to cut off most of their supply lines. The blockade was successful, and within one year, the Communists lost 50 percent of their territory and almost 60,000 soldiers. With few options available, the CCP decided to relocate its base west to Communist-held territories in Hunan Province. The CCP initiated a full retreat in October 1934, thus beginning the Long March.
At the time, the CCP army was led by a German Comintern by the name of Otto Braun. After enduring several devastating losses to the pursuing KMT forces, Braun's leadership was eventually questioned by Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders. In January 1935, the Zunyi Conference was held to determine the future leadership of the CCP army. Mao managed to convince the party with his strategy, and was able to take control of the military from Braun. By this time, the CCP had shaken off all forms of foreign influence, and had come to follow their own "native" leadership. Unlike Braun's head-to-head battle plans, Mao advocated strategic guerrilla attacks against KMT forces, and under his direction, the CCP forces split into smaller groups. In order to surprise the enemy, the armies were told to march much further north to the Communist territories in Shaanxi Province.
The journey was not an easy one. The march took nearly one year and ended on October 1935. The CCP forces had marched through 9,000 kilometers of mountainous terrain, thick marshes and hostile regions still under control of local warlords. The army started the journey with around 87,000 soldiers, and less than 10,000 men remained at the end. In spite of these heavy losses, the journey took the CCP through most of China, and its surviving members learned much about the country and its people. In light of their efforts, Mao Zedong and the party received admiration and popular support from many of China's rural communities. In the end, the CCP army was able to regroup with the other forces in Shaanxi and regained most of their strength.