Perry, Elizabeth. “Rebels Meet Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Huai-pei” pp. 208-247 in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 (1980)
In chapter six’s opening paragraph, Elizabeth Perry poses a series of questions concerning the relationship between battle-hardened peasants and the Chinese communist movement in the early twentieth century. She introduces her work by asking how these groups would relate: would they join forces or stand at odds with one another? Would peasants, who were so accustomed to fighting for their local interests, support or impede the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to reform the country on a national level? It appears, as she introduces us to a multitude of peasant organizations, that Perry believes it depends on the interests of each group. Reactions will vary by organization because there are too many complexities of circumstance.
For instance, the CCP was most interested in gaining the help of the Red Spears society, which had millions of armed supporters and could thus have a heavy impact on the revolution. Although the CCP disliked the religious practices and other aspects of the Red Spears, they were willing to ignore those for the sake of the greater communist good. However, the Red Spears were totally loyal to their rich landlords of Honan (who sought to maintain their power and wealth), which sat at odds with the communist call for peasants to overthrow corrupt landlords. Potential for an alliance disintegrated over this issue, and even led to violence between the two groups.
So the communist party focused instead on the Bare Eggs society. Unlike the Red Spears, the Bare Eggs were what Perry calls a “predatory” organization, one made up of poor, unemployed members who suffer under that status quo. The Red Spears and others were “defensive” organizations, opposing redistribution of wealth. Therefore, Perry concludes, the CCP had much greater success with predatory groups. Indeed, the Bare Eggs sent hundreds of troops to join the Red Army.
Other barriers to CCP efforts included the Divine Strike Corps, which became a communist enemy because of suggested land reforms. The two sides also differed on their attitudes toward bandits. The communists wanted any allies they could get to battle the invading Japanese (though overall the bandits mostly posed a barrier to CCP success in the region), but the Divine Strike Corps opposed all bandits and aimed to punish and destroy them. Communist efforts at reorganizing bandits therefore displeased both the Divine Strike Corps and the bandits themselves.
The CCP did have some success when they realized that defensive (or “protector”) groups were more receptive to communist ideas. Groups like the Big Swords joined their side. However, Perry concludes by saying old forms of peasant violence were the greatest obstacle to communist success. They were able to have limited success with protective groups and great success with predatory ones. Essentially it was the preexisting interests of each group that determined if they would help the CCP, whether those be political, social or economic reasons, or something as simple as security.
I find it interesting that such a complex web of alliances, so to speak, developed. With warlords, landlords, communists, nationalists, bandits, the Japanese, protective societies, predatory societies and individuals all fighting and scrambling for support, if one allies with another group he is sure to inadvertently make a few new enemies.