The origins and growth of the Chinese Communist Movement

Document Type

Encyclopedia entry

Source Publication

Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History

Publication Date



Advance online publication


Oxford University Press


China, Communism, Social Movements, Maoism, Bolshevism, CCP, KMT, Socialism


When the origins and development of the Chinese Communist Movement before it seized the state power in 1949 are examined, while conventionally the movement is periodized according to its respective main task of struggle, it can also be divided into four distinct phases in reference to the dominant ethos and style in each phase. To avoid the movement-centric pitfalls, it can be shown how the structural circumstances and organizational ecologies in each phase conditioned the fashioning of its dominant ethos. In its earliest phase, a failing parliamentary politics with relatively strong civil society and weak state institutions thus shaped its ethos as a social movement led by intellectuals, with sprawling networks but loose coordination. After being purged and outlawed by the Kuomintang, the movement began to bifurcate into two segments, one dedicating to urban clandestine activities and the other capitalizing on the state devolution in the countryside. The KMT’s incremental state building efforts narrowed the space of the movement, until it came almost to the brink of organizational extinction, even though its intellectual fellow travelers had helped score much success in ideological and cultural domains. The forced retreat of the Long March inaugurated a third phase of exploration and openness, when the movement regained its legal activities and attracted broadening support from a variety of social sectors. Yet, the scrambling of resources as a result of the structure of triadic conflicts with Japan and the KMT ended that phase of exploration and openness. A new phase of internal tightening and external softening cemented its hegemony yet also consolidated and institutionalized a leader-centric organizational culture that partly mirrored its competitor and partly borrowed from the Soviet template. Tracing its transformation from a social movement to an institution with its own organizational myths, rituals and rules, the teleological narrative gives way to an emphasis on the contingent interactions between its organizational environment and its internal evolution. Such a viewpoint also underscores the politics of interpretation in the formation of its organizational power and authority.



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Recommended Citation

Xu, X. (2018). The origins and growth of the Chinese Communist Movement. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.013.131