Learning Through Practice

Lin Biao and the Transition to Conventional Combined Operations in China’s Northeast, 1946-1948

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

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American scholars of Chinese history have generally explained the outcome of China’s civil war (1945-1949) by reference to social, economic, and political factors rather than by looking at the conduct of the war itself. Recently, military historians have begun to shift the focus to Communist strategy and operations. However, the question of how the Chinese Communist forces made the transition from guerrilla to conventional warfare has still not received sufficient attention. Using Mao Zedong’s theories of guerrilla warfare and Peter Senge’s model of the “learning organization” to analyze Lin Biao’s conduct of the war against the Nationalists in China’s Northeast (Manchuria), we can better understand how the Northeast People’s Liberation Army transformed itself from a force characterized by “guerrilla-ism” to the powerful army capable of defeating Jiang Jieshi’s best troops. The Communists performed poorly when they first encountered American-trained Nationalist units in the Northeast. Lin Biao and his staff responded to defeat by devising principles of tactics which they applied in a series of campaigns beginning with the “Three Expeditions/Four Defenses” (winter 1946-47). The Communist forces continued to derive lessons from their experience and to incorporate those lessons into programs of education and training. As a result, they made great strides forward in terms of the coordination of infantry, artillery, and armor in order to be able to pull off a conventional combined arms operation on the scale of the Liao-Shen Campaign. The Communist forces would bring these strengths with them when they entered the Korean War in 1950.

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