Numerous sources have noted the (Communist) 8th Route Army's effectiveness in its resistance against Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) occupation; British, American observers, even Japanese commanders have remarked that fighting the 8th Route required more caution than similar National Revolutionary Army (Nationalist) forces.

This can be surprising, since the 8th Route are an extremely poorly-armed peasant army, having to scavenge for weapons, controlling a small, impoverished portion of North China, whereas the Chinese Nationalists had a much larger population and industrial base to draw from.

How is it that such a modest force could be more effective? Did they have natural advantages? Were they superior in some aspect? Or was it purely down to circumstance?

Here are some sources; I admit these look anecdotal and possibly cherry-picked, but I look forward to well-reasoned arguments supporting or rebutting the depictions shown. Some of this looks like poorly-sourced material that's been reposted endlessly among Chinese sites, so if anyone can track down the originals (e.g. untranslated/uncensored Japanese) or prove that these are fabrications/distortions that would be great too.

Japanese / collaborationist sources

1943年6月日本中国派遣军司令部接到华北方面军报告: “从今年1月到5月与共产军交战次数为5524次之多。……敌大半为中共军。与蒋军相反,在本年交战1.5万次中,和中共的作战占七成五。在交战的200万敌军中,半数以上也都是中共军。在我方所收容的19.9万具敌遗体中,中共军也占半数。但与此相比较,在我所收容的7.5万俘虏中,中共军所占的比例则只占一成五。这一方面暴露了重庆军的劣弱性,同时也说明了中共军交战意识的昂扬。……因此,华北皇军今后的任务是更增加其重要性了。只有对于为华北致命伤的中共军的灭绝性作战,才是华北皇军今后的重要使命。

A battle report for the North China region reads that Communist forces for the year of 1943 consisted of the majority of engagements, enemies encountered, and corpses, but only 1/5th of the POWs, and concludes that this shows the inferiority of "Chongqing" troops (a.k.a. Nationalists).

伪山西《新民报》1943年载该报随军记者张文心《癸末春太行作战纪评》: “一向即以狡黠著称之共党军,彼等确有不可漠视之独特战法……共产军其所以几年仍未全灭者,实不能不归功于其特有战法,即彼等得意之游击战。……以上所述,皆为狡黠共产党军所用之战法……如中央军者,集则易乱,散则无力,其溃灭尚较为容易,而共产党军集则为整,化则为零,其每个散在之小组皆为有机体……”

An article in the Shanxi Xinminbao newspaper by war correspondant Zhang Wenxin describes the Communists as more disciplined than the Nationalists.


A memoir in an article in the magazine Rekigun describes the 8th Route Army as a more dangerous foe than the Nationalists.

Other sources

Book excerpt from Pacific War, 1931-1945 by Saburo Ienaga:

Japanese forces held their own against the Nationalist units, but the Communist Eighth Route Army was a different story. Never in the earlier wars against the Manchus, tsarist Russia, Imperial Germany, Chinese warlords, or Chiang Kai-shek had the Imperial Army come up against troops like those of the Eighth Route Army: they defied conventional military modes of analysis and bloodied the Japanese army. The unique qualities of the Eighth Route Army are documented in the detailed accounts of American Journalists like Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley and the German Gunther Stein and in General Stilwell's reports.41

  • 2
    What are these "numerous sources" and what do they actually say? I think you've built a number of false assumptions into the question.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 7:25
  • What is the IJA? NRA? 8th RA? When?
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 16:12
  • @Mark C.Wallace: I edited the post to make this clear.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 16:34
  • 2
    These sources seem dubious. (1) source is known to be a heavily "edited (censored)" translation; and its figures for Japanese casualties would suggest the Communists were utterly worthless (2) doesn't seem to be any evidence this journalist/article exist - my google results return the exact passage only (3) the purported source rekishi gunso is a bimonthly magazine and has no "issue 10, 2002"; the Oct '02 edition (#55) contains an interview with a chef of the Imperial Hotel (4) apparently rely on heavily pro-Communist sources + Stilwell who was in a power struggle with the Nationalists.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 13:22
  • Do you have access to Ienaga's book? He goes on to provide some explanations. Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 0:03

5 Answers 5


Because they were not "better" or "more effective".

There are generally poor reports of the People's Liberation Army's effectiveness against Japan during World War II.

- Elleman, Bruce A. Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989. Routledge, 2005.

Keep in mind that comparisons are difficult to make because the Nationalists[1] bore the brunt[2] of all fighting during the Sino-Japanese War. They held the line with set-piece battles against qualitatively superior Japanese forces. In contrast, Communist forces mainly operated in rural areas, deep behind enemy lines, usually avoiding Japanese units of any significant strength. Technically the Communists were guerrillas, but in reality they weren't particularly active at that either.

In fact their only[3] major operation was the so-called Hundred Regiments Offensive, in August 1940. For most of the war they busied themselves converting the peasants ideologically and building up their armies. It is difficult to justify claims of "better at resisting" when they barely did any such resistance, at least relative to the Nationalists.

The one battle of 1937 and the campaign of 1940 apart, there were no major encounters between the Chinese Communists and the Japanese. The transition to mobile warfare that Mao had demanded did not, in fact, occur until after the war had ended.

- Laqueur, Walter. Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical and Critical Study. Transaction Publishers, 1976.

In their one major operation, Communists forces targeted depleted, unprepared Japanese garrisons[4]. Yet despite the destruction they carried out, in terms of actual fighting they didn't do particularly well against all but very isolated groups of Japanese troops[5]. There is no real sign that they were any better than the Nationalist guerrillas, who - as was the case on the frontlines - bore the brunt of Japanese counterinsurgency operations.

An estimated 400,000 troops participated in this campaign. The PLA's victories were negligible, however, while Japanese counter-attacks devastated the Communists' base area, and the 8th Route Army, local forces, and the militia forces reportedly sustained a total of 100,000 casualties versus only about 20,000 Japanese casualties and some 25,000 casualties from Japan's Chinese allies.

- Elleman, Bruce A. Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989. Routledge, 2005.

Even if the communists had done well in this one operation, their overall inactivity could quite reasonably be considered ineffectiveness. Which, again, they didn't -their campaign soon stalled as Japanese units rallied. Chinese histories tend to very conveniently end the Hundred Regiments Offensive here. In reality, the Japanese counterattacked deep into Communist heartland. By 1941 the Communists had lost over a quarter of their forces and the population under their control shrank by 45%.

With the territorial losses that accrued following the failure of the massive Hundred Regiments Offensive in August 1940 ... communist forces reverted to their traditional preference for guerrilla warfare, continuously harassing the imperial army for the remainder of the Sino-Japanese conflict.

- Phillips, Andrew. War, Religion and Empire: the Transformation of International Orders. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

The Communists suffered heavily during the Hundred Regiments Offensive and were forced to rebuild and reclaim a great deal of territory over the next four years ... the PLA would never again challenge the Japanese on such a scale.

- Lew, Christopher R., and Edwin Pak-wah Leung. Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Civil War. Scarecrow Press, 2013.

The reality is that, despite the glorification of guerrilla resistance, they were simply not a huge factor in the war. Partly this is because, after the painful lessons of the Hundred Regiments Offensive, the Communists learnt to hold back on fighting. It is also partly because Japan did not have truly vital interests in the region to justify and motivate a comprehensive effort.

Wherever the Japanese were really concerned, it must be noted, they managed to stamp out the guerrillas without undue difficulty; this refers above all to Manchuria, China's main industrial center.

- Laqueur, Walter. Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical and Critical Study. Transaction Publishers, 1976.

It isn't as though the Communists weren't trying to expand their operations into Manchuria, either.

[T]he Communists lacked an established base in Manchuria ... The lack of a guerilla base was due to Japan's success in repelling all previous CCP incursions into the region. For instance, the Manchurian Provincial Committee, the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, and the 8th Route Army expeditions were all defeated in rapid succession during World War II.

- Lew, Christopher R. The Third Chinese Revolutionary Civil War, 1945–49: An Analysis of Communist Strategy and Leadership. Routledge, 2009.

Regardless of their actual performance, there is no reason to think the Communists were particularly worse off, either. Although the Nationalists controlled the nominal central government, they did not hold absolute power. Factionalism (including Communists) was rife in both politics and military. For example many of the non-Nationalist faction within the army, especially those from the Northeast, were prone to wholesale defections to the Japanese. Others, chiefly the Communists, were prone to engaging in hostile takeovers.

More importantly, unlike the Communists, the Nationalists were responsible for the defence of China. Though they controlled more population, they also had to equip and provide for a much larger conventional army to defend an even greater territory. Keep in mind also that much of the most productive parts of China pre-war had quickly been occupied by Japan.

By the end of the war, the Communist Party controlled territories totaling close to 100 million in population. Its army was at least an order of magnitude greater than it was at the start of hostilities.

Following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Communist Party enlarged the territory under its control to a degree previously imagined even by the Communist leaders themselves... Before Japan's capitulation in 1945, one-fifth of the population of China was living in these guerrilla bases and following the leadership of the Communist Party.


The Chinese Communist military force at the end of the Sino-Japanese War was ten times the size of the Communist Army mobilized immediately following the Japanese invasion.

- Johnson, Chalmers A. Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: the Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945. Stanford University Press, 1962.


[1]: I assume the OP is really comparing the Communists with the Nationalists, because the so-called "8th route army" was in fact a unit of the "NRA". The National Revolutionary Army was the official military of the Republic of China and contains many factions nominally loyal to the central government, including the Communists. They were initially incorporated into the national army as the Eighth Route Army, but their official designation during most of the war was in fact "18th Army Group of the National Revolutionary Army".

[2]: The National Revolutionary Army fought all 22 major campaigns of the Sino-Japanese War and suffered about 3.3 million casualties. All 206 Chinese generals killed in action were members of the Chinese Nationalist Party. The Communist formation of 18th Army Group took part in just one campaign, Taiyuang. Their role in the war was above all growing their own strength, both militarily and in terms of political capital.

[3]: Communist forces famously took part in the Battle of Pingxin Pass, part of the Taiyuang Campaign. Their role was however negligible. The main action were by the Nationalists, who massed approximately 150,000 troops from seven corps in a bid to halt the Japanese advance into Shanxi. Two Communist divisions were present, but neither took part in the main fighting. Their claim to fame occurred on 24 September 1924, when the 115th Division ambushed an "elite" Japanese transport and supply unit and inflicted about 1000 (Communist claim) to 200 (Japanese records) casualties, while suffering around 500 killed and wounded themselves. This has since been mythologised as the "Great Victory of Pingxin Pass".

[4]: The Hundred Regiments Offensive was essentially a coordinated mass surprise attack, somewhat similar to the Tet Offensive of Vietnam. Up till this point, the Imperial Japanese Army had very little respect for the Communists, partly because of their inactivity. The extended relative quiet also made them complacent, and most regular units were redeployed to the front. The occupation was maintained only by a very light garrison, who were extremely unprepared and overextended.

[5]: They tended to do poorly against bigger or fortified groups, not just militarily but also due to a overcautious strategy. On the first day of the offensive, Communist forces numbering some 2-3000 attempted to storm the strategic Lady's Pass on the Great Wall. They might have overwhelmed the 200-strong garrison, except they retreated at the sight of 800 unarmed Japanese passengers disembarking from a nearby train station. Consequently the Japanese sortied on 22 August, when a 150 contingent of reinforcements arrived, and on 25th, when they routed a 700 men unit. The siege was abandoned after about a week.


I looked up Ienaga's book, which seems to be generally speaking a credible source.

However, the pages where he discusses the 8th Route army and the Communist resistance to the Japanese in general (pp. 88-96) are actually not as well-documented as the rest of the book.

His main argument is basically that the Communists were so successful in their opposition to the Japanese forces because they had the full support of the local population, which they won by their land and debt reforms in favour of the peasantry, by their fair and generous treatment of the peasants and by their commitment to democratic values.

Here's his conclusion in his own words:

Furthermore, Japan's inability to destroy the Communists despite a superiority in weapons was due to the democratic power of the Red armies. (p.96)

I, for one, am not quite convinced. Ienaga's evidence is mostly of two kinds: reports by the Western journalists Snow, Smedley and Stein and a number of scattered comments which he collected from memoirs by Japanese officers and civilians.

Taken all together these data may seem convincing but then one must recall that all three Westerners were known as Communist sympathizers who lived and worked among the Communists. Though they were honest and competent journalists, their perspective was very slanted and their sources were ultimately Communist, and they had little access to Nationalist sources to rectify their bias. Thus, I think that their data has to be taken with a lot of caution.

The quotes from Japanese sources are rather few and episodic (about 5) and when considered on their own and not buttressed by the previously discussed data they do not amount to much. For example: after the war was over, the Communists treated some Japanese residents in Manchuria well, unlike the Russians and the local population. Presumably true, but not very relevant. Etc.

In fact, Ienaga does inadvertently show at one point that his analysis is superficial when he writes:

Veterans of the China campaign wrote only about the fighting against the Nationalists. (p. 95)

Regrettably, he does not pause to consider that this demolishes his argument about the leading role played by the Communists during the war.


The Stilwell Papers

I looked up the The Stilwell Papers. It's basically a diary+letters (starting in December 1941) written by General Stilwell and edited by White. Since Ienaga did not give any page numbers in his reference to Stilwell, I had to consult the index. I found no entry about the 8th Route Army but there are 7 entries under "Communists", mostly casual and favourable mentions. The only one which seems to be relevant is on p.324:

The Communists were fighting valiantly against the Japanese in North China.

That's about it, the continuation being a discussion of the conflicts between CCP and KMT. But, hang on, the quote above isn't even really by Stilwell himself! It is part of the editor's introduction to Chapter 11 and is clearly set in a different font, to make sure nobody attributes it to Stilwell himself...

I think it can be more or less safely summarized that Ienaga has, alas, dropped the ball on this subject and that his sources are not at all of the high quality we could have expected. Therefore, his whole treatment cannot be given much weight.

To be updated/revised

Another source which Ienaga mentions only in a footnote (right after the passage OP quoted) is a book by Jono Hiroshi Sansei dokuritsu senki - The War for Independence in Shansi - which he claims "substantiates the descriptions by Western writes of Communist military units). However, Ienaga says that Hiroshi "fought against Communist forces in Shanghai after 1945" so it's not clear how really relevant his testimony is. Anyway, I can't review it.

He also introduces with no comment in the footnote another source: Jack Belden's China Shakes The World.


Agnes Smedley, Communist spy and triple agent, was writing much of the "reporting" about the Communist army in the field. So, an independent observer rating of less than zero. She also helped the Communists by suckering Gen. Smedley to send them arms.


  • OK. But does this answer the question? Are you asserting that, in fact, the 8th was not 'better than' the Nationalists? That they were better because of the arms? I read your link, and it does nothing to answer the question asked, nor prove what I think you are trying to say here.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 19:49

The Communists didn't use "better" tactics than the Nationalists. But they used different, specifically guerrilla tactics.

For instance, both the Japanese and Nationalists fought along fixed lines. Then the idea was to break the enemy line, and once this was accomplished, you won the battle. On the other hand, the Communists would fight on an "all points" basis, using what American basketball player would call a "full court press." According to Robert Leckie, "The War in Korea, the Chinese Communists used tactics of infiltration and night fighting that even the Americans found hard to resist, never mind the Japanese. General Vasily Chuikov made similar points in the "Battle For Stalingrad." Basically, you haven't beaten them until you have pushed the last Communist off the battlefield.

It's also true that the Communists were (initially) less well armed than the Nationalists. But they also made a battle doctrine of capturing enemy weapons and turning them around in the same battle (while leaving behind very few weapons of their own). This meant that if the Communists ever gained an advantage over the Japanese at any part of the battle, these advantages would be "compounded" or "parlayed."

The Japanese weren't used to such tactics, so they were more "wary" of Communists. Whether or not they were "better" (in terms of inflicting more casualties) is open to question. But the Germans felt much the same way at Stalingrad (Chuikov was among the most "Communist" of Soviet commanders and urged his troops to join the Communist Party), so "Communist" tactics had at least some psychological impact.

  • The Nationalists also deployed guerilla fighters behind enemy lines. In fact the policy was that 1/3 of the available force should be operating in enemy territory. I'm not sure how their actual deployed numbers compare to the doctrine, but it was definitely pretty significant.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 16:18
  • @Semaphore: The Communists were better GUERRILLA fighters than the Nationalists. Even if they were (initially) inferior in conventional warfare.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 16:32
  • My response was directed at you saying the Communists used "different, specifically guerilla" tactics; "better" is not "different". Also, while I'd agree the Communists were better organised, I have no real reason to think they were better in actual fighting.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 16:45
  • @Semaphore: Maybe not in WWII itself. But certainly AFTER the war.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 16:58
  • 1
    Right. But Japan is out of the picture at that point, by definition. Though even then it is difficult to determine how much of the KMT's eventual defeat was political rather than military. I know Nationalist military thinking still likes to attribute their defeat in key battles to compromised intel.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 17:02

The Communist army did not oppose the Japanese in any meaningful way. One report they sent to Stalin listed casualties as 97% KMT and 3% 8th Route Army. Also, the Communists had no heavy weapons so they could not fight in the field anyway and simply had to retreat. Much of the fighting with the Communists was not even done by regular soldiers, but by Japanese police, or their Chinese allies. The Maoists called these Chinese forces "Japanese puppets". One of the larger of these armies was called the "Grand Han Righteous Army" which fought some police actions against the Maoists.

It may true that the Communists were more "disciplined", but such things are hard to judge, especially when you are talking about a guerilla force that is spending most of its time hiding. Obviously, if the Japanese did not even deign to fight the Communists themselves and just sent their "puppets" and civilian police, it would suggest they did not consider the Communists to be a serious problem.

  • 1
    The grand Han righteous army was disbanded 1936, before the war even started
    – user5001
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 17:36
  • @user5001 Ok, bad example, but the main point is that the Japanese had collaborationist forces that were the main point of contact with Communist forces. Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 18:03

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