In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Yan'an and the Revolutionary Base Areas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Guides to Sources
  • Guides to Libraries and Archives
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Base Area Newspapers
  • Journals
  • The “Peasant Nationalism” Debate
  • The “Yenan Way” Debate
  • The “Moral Economy” Debate
  • The GMD–CCP United Front, 1938–1945
  • Election Movements, Legal Systems, and “Democracy”
  • The Eighth Route and New Fourth Armies
  • Tenancy Reform
  • Economic Construction and Cooperatives
  • The Rectification Movement 整风运动
  • Foreign Eye-Witnesses

Chinese Studies Yan'an and the Revolutionary Base Areas
Pauline Keating
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0089


The field of base area studies grew, in part, out of the search by Western analysts to understand why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was able to defeat the Guomindang (GMD) and seize state power in 1949. The Cold War conspiracy and organizational weapon theories of the 1950s gave way in the early 1960s to Chalmers Johnson’s argument that, from 1937, the Party won the support of rural populations by tapping a “peasant nationalism.” Since Johnson, scholars have broadly agreed that the secret of CCP “success” lay in the resistance war period (1937–1945), but there has been a lot less agreement about how the Communists might have “appealed” to the peasants in that period. Lucien Bianco in 1967 argued the salience of socioeconomic appeals as well as nationalism, but stronger challenges to Johnson came from scholars such as Donald Gillin in 1964 and Mark Selden in 1971. Selden’s study of social revolution in a region that was never occupied by Japan was a strong reply to Johnson, but his Yenan Way model was itself challenged by scholars who could demonstrate that the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region, with Yan’an (Yenan) as its capital, was very different from the rear-area bases. The challenges to both the peasant nationalism and Yenan Way arguments gave rise to the base area studies genre, a turn to local history that has been a broad trend in recent decades. A definitive feature of the genre has been the rejection of grand theory (monolithic explanations of the CCP success), a dereification of “the Party” and the partial de-Maoification of Party history, and a strong emphasis on the regional diversities that resulted from, for example, different ecologies, stages of development, proximity to war fronts, and local cultures. A major factor in the rapid growth of base area studies in the 1980s and 1990s was the progressive opening of Chinese archives beginning in 1978, the explosion of document-compilation work among Chinese researchers, and the collaborations between Chinese and Western scholars in base area research. The collaborations have served significantly to expand and enrich the scholarship in this field.

General Overviews

Recognition of the decentralized nature of the wartime Communist movement has, to some extent, reduced scholarly interest in overviews that attempt to generalize broadly. Nevertheless, multiregion studies have their place. The Cambridge History of China chapter (Van Slyke 1986) is still indispensable as an English-language overview of Party history in the 1937 to 1945 period, and it introduces the base area studies that were beginning to emerge at the time the chapter was written. Chinese research on any of the base areas invariably begins with a study of “finance and the economy” (caizheng jingji); Caizheng kexue yanjiusuo 1987 provides an overview of the economies of the base areas generally. Xiao 1988 chronicles base area building across north, central, and eastern China. Tian 1995 is a broad overview of base area history by a scholar who is an authority on the history of the Taihang base. Li 2012 critically examines the scholarship about why peasants supported the CCP and argues against monocausal explanations. The essays in Hartford and Goldstein 1989, in the China Quarterly collection introduced in Saich 1994, and in Feng and Goodman 2000 all make the point that “general overviews” run the danger of masking the individuality of the different bases; these editors, nevertheless, draw attention to the commonalities that can be discerned in the revolutionary histories of the individual bases and seek to draw conclusions about how the Party appealed to the peasantry. Lucien Bianco has extensively researched peasant “rural disturbances” in the first half of the 20th century, and Bianco 2001 makes a strong statement about the “revolutionary potential” of the Chinese peasantry; Bianco’s findings are highly pertinent to all base area studies. For overviews of Party history that include sections on the resistance-war base areas, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on The Chinese Communist Party to 1949.

  • Bianco, Lucien. Peasants Without the Party. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

    As the title of this book signals, it is not about the CCP base areas, but it is essential reading for anyone studying base area histories. Bianco demonstrates here and in his other writings that China’s “peasants without the Party” were far from the stuff of which revolutions are made.

  • Caizheng kexue yanjiusuo 财政科学研究所. KangRi genjudide caizheng jingi (抗日根据地的财政经济). Beijing: Zhongguo caizheng jingji chubanshe, 1987.

    An overview of base area economies in a single volume.

  • Feng, Chongyi, and David S. G. Goodman, eds. North China at War: The Social Ecology of Revolution, 1937–1945. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

    Chinese and Western scholars contributed to this collection of essays on a good range of north China bases areas (Shaan-Gan-Ning, Jin-Sui, Jin-Cha-Ji, Jin-Ji-Lu-Yu, and Shandong). They are useful examples of the orientation away from grand theory, an orientation that is intrinsic to the base area studies genre.

  • Hartford, Kathleen, and Stephen M. Goldstein, eds. Single Sparks: China’s Rural Revolutions. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

    Single Sparks is the first English-language study to pull together scholarship on different Communist base areas into one volume. The essays collectively make the point that the CCP-led rural revolutions in the 1930s and 1940s originated as “single sparks” and, in many ways, remained singular during the resistance war period.

  • Li Jinzheng 李金铮. “Nongmin heyi zhichi yu canjia zhonggong geming?” (农民何以支持与参加中共革命?) Jindaishi yanjiu 近代史研究 4 (2012): 134–151.

    A useful review of analyses in both English and Chinese of why peasants supported the Communist Party before 1949. Li argues against an exclusive focus on political elites and the denial of agency to the peasants.

  • Saich, Tony. “Introduction: The Chinese Communist Party and the Anti-Japanese Base Areas.” China Quarterly 140 (1994): 1000–1006.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0305741000052875

    A useful discussion of the base area scholarship that flourished during the 1980s and that has deconstructed monolithic explanations of CCP “success.” Saich’s short article introduces three essays grouped in this issue of China Quarterly under the heading “New Light on CCP Base Areas.”

  • Tian Youru田酉如. Zhongguo kangRi genjudi fazhanshi (中国共产党根据地发展史). Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1995.

    An overview of the history of all of the resistance-war base areas by an authority on the subject.

  • Van Slyke, Lyman P. “The Chinese Communist Movement during the Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945.” In The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 13, Republican China, 1912–1949: Part 2. Edited by J. K. Fairbank and A. Feuerwerker, 609–721. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521243384

    This remains the most solid English-language overview of CCP history in the Yan’an period. It gives detailed attention to important topics such as Party leadership, the GMD–CCP United Front, the rear-area base area building and consolidation, the CCP armies, Japan’s advance, the Party’s mass campaigns, and popular mobilization strategies.

  • Xiao Yiping肖一平, ed. Zhongguo gongchandang kangRi zhanzheng shiqi dashiji (中国共产党抗日战争时期大事记). Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1988.

    A solid (524-page) chronology of CCP history in the resistance war period.

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