Big Army Groups, Standardization, and Assaulting Fortified Positions: Chinese “Ways of War” and the Transition from Guerrilla to Conventional War in China’s Northeast, 1945-1948

In: Journal of Chinese Military History
Harold M. Tanner University of North Texas

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Western military historians often describe the Chinese “way of war” as emphasizing a gradualist military strategy, tending to avoid battle except when victory was assured, and preferring to use subterfuge, maneuver, or psychological means to defeat the enemy without actually fighting. The roots of this understanding of the Chinese way of war lie in selective readings of Sunzi’s Art of War and Mao Zedong’s writings on guerrilla warfare. The record of Chinese Communist operations in China’s Northeast (Manchuria) from 1945 through 1948 instead suggests a Chinese approach to war that is characterized not only by close attention to strategy and maneuver, but also by a preference for offensive operations leading to the ultimate destruction of the enemy in battles of annihilation. In the Northeast theater of China’s civil war we also see that the Communist forces had to go through a process of transformation before they were able to carry out large-scale maneuvers, deploy overwhelming firepower, and conduct large-scale operations or campaigns of annihilation. In order to gain victory, the Chinese Communist forces in the Northeast under Lin Biao’s command had to make the transition from guerrilla to conventional warfare, including the ability to attack cities. This transformation was achieved through a combination of factors: critical assessment of battlefield performance, incorporation of new weapons and equipment, and techniques of staff work. This suggests that any workable understanding of Chinese ways of war must go beyond cultural determinism to take account of the Chinese military’s flexibility and capacity for learning.

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