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Péng Déhuái

The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography
Michael DillonMichael DILLON

Péng Déhuái 彭德怀 1898–1974—Military leader; outspoken critic of Mao Zedong 

Péng Déhuái


Peng Dehuai is lauded in modern-day China as one of the nation’s greatest twentieth-century military generals. As Mao Zedong’s senior military commander, he participated in the Communists’ Long March, led China’s troops in Korea, and became national defense minister. His support was crucial to Mao’s rise to power. After his criticism of some of Mao’s policies—particularly his disastrous Great Leap Forward—Mao made the extraordinary claim that if Peng’s criticisms were formally endorsed he would return to the countryside to create a new Red Army of peasants to overthrow the government. Peng was later stripped of all his official posts during the Cultural Revolution and was imprisoned and tortured. He is remembered as an uncompromising, if blunt and unsophisticated, officer who refused to bow before his former ally Mao’s total authority.


Peng Dehuai had a distinguished career as a battlefield commander in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Red Army and was commander in chief of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPVA) during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. He is best known, however, as the minister of defense who confronted his long-term ally Máo Zédōng 毛泽东‎ (1893–1976) at the Lushan Conference of 1959, criticizing Mao’s Great Leap Forward policies which had impoverished China’s peasants and contributed to the millions of deaths that resulted from the famine of 1959–1962. Peng was purged and replaced by Lín Biāo 林彪‎ (1907–1971) but remains an icon for reform-minded Chinese. He is remembered as an uncompromising, if blunt and unsophisticated, officer who respected his men, and as a political figure whose integrity and refusal to bow before Mao’s authority gained him respect in turn.

Hunan Childhood

Peng was born in 1888 in Hunan Province, and his native village, Shixiang, is not far from Mao’s birthplace, Shaoshan. Colleagues were known to refer to them as a pair of ill-tempered Hunan mules. Peng’s family were peasant farmers, which thereafter colored his political outlook, but they had not always been poor as they owned land and a shop selling bean curd. He was “a rough hewn man from very humble beginnings” (Gao 2007, 83) who at first received a traditional Confucian primary education, later moving to a school with a modern curriculum. His mother’s death in 1905 coincided with disastrous harvests which impoverished the Pengs and other local farmers. Peng left school in 1908 and found work in a coal mine in Xiangtan County, but the owner was declared bankrupt in 1912. Peng became unemployed and had to scrape for odd jobs. A severe drought affected Hunan in 1913 and famine once again ensued. Peng became involved in what may have been his first political activism when he joined in protests against merchants who were hoarding grain to force up its price. Fleeing Xiangtan under threat of arrest, he worked on the construction site for a dam on Dongting Lake, but when the work came to an end in 1916 he returned home. As no other work was available, like many Chinese peasants he decided to become a soldier. He enlisted in the forces of the Hunan warlord Tan Yankai (1880–1930), who preceded Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石‎ (1887–1975) as the first internationally recognized Nationalist head of state, and remained a military man for the rest of his life.

Warlord Soldier

Peng travelled to Changsha, the provincial capital, in May 1916 to join the Second Division of the Hunan Army as a private (second class) but was rapidly promoted to private (first class), permitting him to send money home to support his family. War broke out in 1917 between the warlords of the south—many of whom supported Dr. Sun Yat-sen 孙中山‎ (1866–1925) and the nascent Nationalist Party (Guomindang, or GMD)—and northern warlords led by Wu Peifu (1874–1939). This created divisions within many military units, including Peng’s. His unit was forced to withdraw to southern Hunan but was reconstituted under a pro-Nationalist commanding officer. There Peng came under the influence of Nationalist officers and also improved his own literacy and general education. He carried out undercover surveillance operations and was imprisoned, but on his release returned to his unit and was promoted. By 1919, he had obtained a rank equivalent to sergeant major and served as acting commander of a platoon. His division returned to Changsha in 1920 after successful action against Wu Peifu loyalists. Although Peng had supported his troops in a dispute over wages he was, nevertheless, commissioned as a second lieutenant, given command of a platoon, and—within a short space of time—a company.

In the autumn and winter of 1921, confronted by the poverty and exploitation that peasants of southern Hunan had to endure, he actively encouraged them to organize themselves to oppose a rapacious landlord. On leave from the Hunan army, he established the Association to Aid the Poor (Jiù pín huì 救贫会‎) in his own county, Xiangtan. Documents produced for this group indicate the increasing influence of the Nationalist Party on his thinking, and the following January he travelled to Guangdong, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s power base (Domes 1985, 12–17). He did not find the situation there to his liking and returned to Hunan by a roundabout coastal route that took him through unfamiliar territory, travel by sea and river at that time being both faster and safer than journeys overland. After working on land that his father had purchased, partly with the help of Peng’s remittances from the army, he took the entrance examination for the Hunan Provincial Military Academy and to his surprise was accepted from 1 September 1922. He graduated in August 1923, returned to his original regiment with the rank of captain, and rapidly became the acting battalion commander. In the complex and confused military politics of the warlord era Peng initially found himself fighting against Nationalist units, but by June 1926 his battalion had become incorporated into the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) created by Chiang Kai-shek and was fully engaged in Chiang’s Northern Expedition (1926–1928) to reunite China.

Joining the Communist Party

Until 1927, the Nationalist Party and the CCP were allies and there were many members of the CCP within the NRA, some openly but many under cover. Peng, who rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and then full colonel during the Northern Expedition, appears to have joined the CCP in late 1927 or early 1928, under the influence of friends who were already party members. It is not clear precisely when he became a member but some sources suggest he was a clandestine member from 15 February 1928 (Domes 1985, 19–22). By May 1928, his unit was based in the mountains in Pingjiang County, northeast of Changsha: he was noticeably reluctant to attack Communist guerrilla bands and was already helping to organize underground Communist cells in Pingjiang. On 18 July 1928, Peng’s regiment declared itself loyal to the CCP and on 22 July they occupied the town of Pingjiang, executed the local magistrate and many landlords and militia officers, and proclaimed the establishment of the Hunan Province Soviet Government. Peng was appointed commanding officer of the newly designated Fifth Corps of the Chinese Workers and Peasants’ Red Army. The Fifth Corps, with only two thousand soldiers, was outmatched by the Nationalists. Peng was forced to withdraw from Pingjiang, leading his remaining troops to Jinggangshan, where he joined Mao Zedong and the general Zhū Dé 朱德‎ (1886–1976).

Thirty years later, as Marshal Peng, he came back to Pingjiang for the first time and revisited the school building (by then renamed No. 1 Middle School) that had been his base during the “uprising.” He charmed the villagers with his recollections of local delicacies and dialect words. Speaking to the schoolchildren and teachers who had gathered to welcome him, he said, “Thirty years ago I was here and today I have returned. At that time I had been ordered to come to Pingjiang to suppress bandits but when I got here I saw that there were only ordinary peasants. There were no bandits. How were they to know that I was a Communist Party member?” (Wu 1980, 29)

Fighting the Nationalists and the Japanese

Peng’s troops held the Communist base of Jinggangshan as Mao and Zhu moved their forces out toward Ruijin and what would become the Jiangxi Soviet’s center of operations, but Peng retreated under pressure from a superior Nationalist force, once again joining the main body of the Red Army at Ruijin. Criticized by Mao for withdrawing—the first of many conflicts between them—Peng returned to Jinggangshan, where he subdued two local irregular “bandit” militias and incorporated most of their men into his Fifth Corps. In 1929 and 1930, Peng’s units carried out raids into southern Hunan to replenish food and other supplies for the Communist armies. Opinion within the CCP was divided on whether the guerrilla strategy favored by Mao should replace the traditional positional warfare preferred by Zhu De and Peng, the professional soldiers. Mao lost the argument temporarily, and in 1930 the CCP, then under the control of Lǐ Lìsān 李立三‎ (1899–1967, an early Communist leader and later member of the Central Committee of the CCP), became embroiled in a “revolutionary high tide” which was to begin with a massive attack on Changsha and other cities. Changsha was captured by Peng’s forces and a Soviet government established on 1 August, but the expected support for revolution failed to materialize and Peng was forced out of Changsha.

Péng DéhuáiClick to view larger

Peng Dehuai during the War of Resistance against Japan (the name in China for the Second Sino-Japanese War), 1940.

Unknown photographer.

Regrouping in Jiangxi after heavy losses, Zhu and Peng agreed to follow Mao and to consolidate the Soviet bases. The CCP was weakened by internal dissension and from 1931 came under sustained attack from the Nationalists’ “encirclement campaigns” (Chiang led five “Encirclement Campaigns to Annihilate Communists” against Mao’s forces) which were resisted primarily by using traditional positional tactics. Moscow-trained officers joined the CCP forces and reinforced Zhu and Peng’s influence. Although Peng’s units were defeated in an attack on Ganzhou in 1932, his standing was sufficient for him to be elected to the CCP Military Commission from which Mao had been excluded and in 1934 to the Sixth Central Committee as an alternate member. From October 1933 the Jiangxi Soviet came under attack in the fifth and final of Chiang’s “encirclement campaigns.” Units under Peng’s control resisted but suffered heavy losses, and when the decision was made to evacuate the Soviet district, Peng’s troops took part in the initial breakout though Nationalist lines which began the Long March—a series of military retreats undertaken by the CCP’s Red Army—to Shaanxi. (This map shows the approximate source of the Long March.) He was one of the commanders who completed the trek. By the time the CCP arrived in Yan’an in October 1935, Peng had become reconciled to Mao’s military and political strategies although there had been differences over Mao’s insistence on the army crossing and recrossing the Chishui River in Guizhou. In 1937, Peng was appointed second in command of the Red Army, subordinate only to Zhu De, the commander in chief.

Japanese military units began to occupy large parts of northeast China after the Marco Polo Bridge (Lúgōu qiáo 卢沟桥‎) incident of 7 July 1937 (which would trigger the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945, known in China as the War of Resistance against Japan) led to a period of cooperation between the CCP and the Nationalists known as the Second United Front. Peng Dehuai established his headquarters in the Taihang Mountains in the east of Shanxi Province, close to the Japanese forces’ front line, while Peng’s rival commander, Lin Biao, was based in western Shanxi. Peng was effectively in command of the Hundred Regiments campaign to contain and push back the Imperial Japanese Army, but this was only partially successful and, although Mao congratulated him at the time, his tactics were later to be held against him during the political struggles of the Cultural Revolution. Peng, faced with a major Japanese counterattack, withdrew from the Taihang Mountains, arriving in Yan’an (Yenan)—the CCP’s post–Long-March revolutionary base—in 1941. His political relationship with Mao continued to improve; he publicly endorsed Mao’s guerrilla strategy and began to attend meetings of the politburo (Domes, 1985, 38–42).

In the course of internal factional disputes, Peng earned full membership on the Central Committee in 1938 and became acting secretary of the Party’s North China Bureau in 1942. By the Seventh Party Congress of 1945, he had entered the core leadership of the Party, and joined the Politburo (short for “political bureau”) in June 1945. Even as a rising political star he remained popular as an officer who knew and cared about the men under his command.

Following the announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender on 15 August 1945, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending World War II, civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists resumed. Units under the command of Peng Dehuai accepted the surrender of Japanese troops in Inner Mongolia in October 1945, and Peng was appointed commander in chief of the Northwest Field Army of the newly designated People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Northwest Field Army was responsible for the defense of Yan’an but had to abandon the CCP base in the face of an onslaught by superior Nationalist forces in March 1947. Nevertheless, Peng’s troops blocked the further advance of the Nationalists and saved Mao and other key party leaders from capture by enemy troops. Mao commemorated the event in a poem, “Snow” (“Xuě” 雪‎), originally composed in 1936 but rewritten and dedicated to Peng. The tide was turning in favor of the PLA in general, but Peng’s forces were facing diehard Nationalist units.

In February 1949, after reorganization of the field-army structure, Peng’s units had been redesignated as the First Field Army and launched a campaign that brought northwestern China under CCP control, capturing Xi’an in May, Lanzhou in August, and Xining in September of 1949. It also took Xinjiang after the capitulation of Nationalist commander Tao Zhiyue, who handed the province over in October 1949 to Wang Zhen and Wang Enmao, future leaders of Xinjiang. Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 1 October 1949, and Peng Dehuai found himself in control of all of northwestern China as chairman of the Northwest China Military and Administrative Commission and as commander of the Xinjiang Military Region.

These campaigns established Peng’s reputation as a courageous and professional military man who could invariably count on the loyalty of the officers and men who served under him. He was not a military strategist of the highest caliber, and his grasp of the finer points of political theory and factional disputes inside the CCP was minimal. He was prepared to tolerate political commissars as long as they were subordinate to professional soldiers. This was not Mao Zedong’s view of their role, however, and this disagreement became yet another difference between them that, in spite of Peng’s loyalty, was to culminate in the great clash between the two at Lushan in 1959.

Korean War

With the establishment of the PRC, the main priority of the CCP was to consolidate its control over China, but it also had a new war to deal with. After months of cross-border incidents between the newly established regimes in northern and southern Korea, the northern forces invaded the South on 25 June 1950. Under pressure from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the leader of Communist North Korea, Kim Il-sung, China was persuaded to intervene on the side of the North. Beijing created the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPVA) out of existing units of the PLA, some of them due to be demobilized, and put them under the command of Peng Dehuai, who had been concentrating on trying to wipe out Uygur resistance in Xinjiang. Peng crossed over into North Korea with the advance guard of the CPVA: a photograph published in the March 2012 issue of the reform-minded journal, Yánhuáng chūnqiū 炎黄春秋‎, shows Peng in the autumn of 1951 with a group of his officers and members of the North Korean government looking every inch the tough general. South Korean, American, and United Nations forces were gradually pushed back to the existing border and an armistice was signed at Panmunjon on 27 July 1953.

There had been considerable disagreement among the CCP leadership on the question of support for what many saw as Kim Il-sung’s ill-advised adventure in invading the South. Mao appeared strongly in favor of it, however, and probably had had little choice if he wanted to retain Moscow’s support, but Peng Dehuai’s acquiescence was crucial in the final decision. There were great gains for China—and for Peng—as the Chinese military emerged from the war with enhanced prestige and respect both domestically and internationally. They also suffered appalling casualties, however, that were partly blamed on Peng’s “human wave” tactics of massed bayonet charges in the face of heavy enemy fire. Contemporary Chinese sources now claim that 180,000 members of the CPVA died in Korea, but a figure as high as 900,000 is often used in Western sources to represent the total number of Chinese killed and injured during the war. With the benefit of hindsight, Peng’s tactics have been criticized, but the death of Mao Anying, Mao’s son, who was serving as a Russian interpreter for the headquarters staff in Korea, was to cause Peng particular political trouble (Benson 2002, 25).

The Korean War ended in stalemate and no peace treaty was concluded, but Peng signed the armistice agreement at Panmunjon on 27 July 1953 and was lauded as a victor and a hero both in China and North Korea. He stepped down as commander of the CPVA and in 1954 became first vice chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission (the political head of the PLA) and minister of National Defense. The dreadful losses that the Chinese forces suffered in Korea informed his approach to his new responsibilities. He understood that the CCP forces had been hampered by a lack of modern equipment and training, and he was determined to create a modern, professional, technically advanced, and well-disciplined PLA. This vision was in contrast to Mao Zedong’s concept of a “people’s war” with politically educated guerrilla and militia forces, and the only model on which Peng could base his modernization plans was that of the Soviet Union. In 1955, Peng visited the USSR, Poland, and East Germany to meet political leaders and senior military officers and to examine for himself the armies, navies, and air forces of China’s Warsaw Pact allies. He used this experience to put into practice his plan for professionalization on his return to China introducing standardized uniforms, new rank structures and insignia, compulsory military service, and new pay scales for all ranks. This did not please Mao and his supporters, and Peng’s modernization drive was criticized by Lin Biao as early as October 1957 at a meeting of the Central Military Commission.

Peng may have liked to see himself as a bluff soldier, popular with his troops, but he was now also a political soldier, and his views were becoming sharply opposed to those of Mao, who was beginning to reject the Soviet model. The very nature of the PLA—with its roots in the CCP’s Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army and its system of political commissars and its interlinked military and political command structure—meant that it was impossible to separate military and political issues, however much Peng Dehuai tried to do so. He did not openly oppose Mao, even though he had serious disagreements with him on military strategy. He did, however, criticize the emergence of a personality cult surrounding Mao in the late 1950s, and at the Eighth CCP Congress in 1956, which was dominated by supporters of the planners and pragmatists, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, he proposed that the concept of “Mao Zedong Thought”—the collective name for the leader’s thoughts and sayings—should be excised from the CCP constitution. When he was later criticized by ultra-Maoist Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, these dissenting views would be construed as evidence of Peng’s disloyalty toward Mao and his “revisionist tendencies.”

By the second half of the 1950s the Chinese political establishment was deeply divided. The rift with the Soviet Union that opened in the early 1960s was widening, and internal divisions reflected this as well as the differences concerning domestic policy. During the Cultural Revolution, these divisions were referred to as the “struggle between the two lines,” a simplification but a reflection of the polarization of political thinking and alliances within the CCP. Liu and Deng were more sympathetic to the USSR and certainly to its methods of planned growth and bureaucratic management. Peng Dehuai concurred with them. In the opposite camp was Mao, who favored continuing the revolutionary spirit that had brought the CCP to power, as was—significantly for Peng Dehuai—his rival military commander Lin Biao, whose theories of “people’s war” were diametrically opposed to Peng’s determination to modernize and professionalize the military.

Criticizing Mao’s Policies

The German political scientist Jürgen Domes has argued that “for some nine months between late November 1958 and mid-August 1959 [Peng] stood at the very centre of political decision making; and the conflict between him and [Mao Zedong] which now developed became, in a way, the essence of PRC politics” (1985, 77). During the short-lived Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, criticisms of CCP policies invited by the leadership revealed widespread discontent and alienation, especially among the educated and urban dwellers. (The article on Liu Shaoqi includes a sidebar describing the Hundred Flowers Campaign.) In 1958, Mao and his followers decided to launch the Great Leap Forward as a Chinese (for which, read non-Soviet) political direction, drawing on the “revolutionary enthusiasm” of the peasant masses to increase production and to consolidate their own political position. One of the key policies of the Great Leap (discussed in the sidebar) was the rapid amalgamation of smaller agricultural collectives into People’s Communes. The speed and lack of planning of this fusion led to severe structural problems, and eventually to widespread shortages. A catastrophic famine followed, leading to the death of millions, which may not have been caused entirely by the CCP’s agricultural policies—famine had been a regular occurrence in China—but was certainly compounded by it.

Opposition to these policies developed both at the village level, where farmers tried to avoid delivering their allocated quotas of grain to the state authorities, and within the party and government. Peng Dehuai was Mao’s greatest high-ranking critic, and in the course of 1958 his criticism shifted from differences over military strategy to wider political issues. Political leaders in China rely on their own intelligence networks to inform themselves of developments that are not necessarily revealed in even the most confidential briefing documents produced by the Party. Peng’s main source of independent information came from his military intelligence networks, and through contact with his officers, particularly the rank and file soldiers, the vast majority of whom came from peasant families. Peng’s long-standing policy of keeping in touch with, and being concerned about, his soldiers paid dividends in terms of political intelligence, but in the end cost him his military and political career.

An official visit Peng made to the poor northwestern province of Gansu in October 1958 added credence to the concerns he had about the manner in which transformation to the commune system was being handled. He personally witnessed that the “backyard furnaces” employed to produce steel were useless and were diverting labor from farming, with the result that crops were left to rot in the field. Nevertheless, he was slow to voice his criticism even at the Sixth Plenum of the 8th Central Committee of the CCP in the winter of 1958 at which Mao stepped down as chairman of the PRC (but, crucially, not as CCP chairman). Further tours took Peng to Hunan and the village where he had grown up and later to the provinces of Jiangxi, Anhui, and Hebei. The evidence that he gathered from these “inspection tours” confirmed his views that the Great Leap was creating poverty and misery in the countryside and that local party cadres were being at best selective and at worst dishonest in the way they were reporting on grain production and other statistics to the party’s center.

Peng finally criticized Mao publicly at the Seventh Plenum of the 8th Central Committee held in Shanghai in April 1959, accusing him of going against the wishes of the collective leadership of the Standing Committee of the Politburo (SCP). Peng was no longer alone in his open opposition to the Great Leap: senior CCP figures began to voice their alarm at its effects, including Deng Xiaoping, who was secretary general; Bo Yibo, the chairman of the State Economic Commission; and Li Xiannian, the minister of finance, who had previously been an enthusiastic supporter of the People’s Communes. Nevertheless, it was Peng’s criticisms which affected Mao most and their political differences were exacerbated by personal animosity.

Peng Dehuai left China in late April 1959 for a planned military mission to visit China’s allies in Eastern Europe that would keep him away from Beijing for seven weeks. In Tirana, the Albanian capital, he had a lengthy meeting with Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev at which they discussed the Chinese military and Sino-Soviet relations as well as Peng’s differences with Mao over the Great Leap. Khrushchev canceled a nuclear aid agreement with China in June 1959 and publicly attacked the commune policy. This would subsequently be used to accuse Peng of treason and collusion with the USSR in his attacks on Mao, but there is no evidence to suggest that he was motivated by any conspiracy with Khrushchev, especially in the light of his open attack on Mao in Shanghai (Domes 1985, 87–88).

Confrontation at Lushan

The scene for the final and fateful confrontation between Mao and Peng was Lushan, a hill station and summer resort for senior cadres set in spectacular scenery near Poyang Lake in the northeast of Jiangxi Province. Two decisive meetings were convened in Lushan in the summer of 1959, an enlarged meeting of the Politburo and the Eighth Plenum of the Central Committee. At the Politburo meeting, Peng launched a devastating political attack on Mao, bolstered by the increased authority of Liu Shaoqi and other opponents of the Chairman and influenced by Zhang Wentian, an old adversary of Mao from the 1930s and 1940s. Peng’s attack on Mao and on the whole approach of the Great Leap Forward was a tour de force. It was in turns emotional, sarcastic, and mordant. He attacked the fanaticism of the frenzy to collectivize and the unreality of Mao’s ambitions, but in particular he condemned the sycophancy and the craven performance of party leaders who had encouraged the exaggeration of both targets and achievements in industrial production. The majority of those present at the conference may have sympathized with Peng’s strictures, but his condemnation of the Great Leap Forward was not just an argument about policy: it was a direct assault on Mao and the nature and quality of his leadership. This was more than Mao could bear and his counterattack was furious, vicious, and personal. He linked Peng with the “revisionist” faction that he had defeated in the past and, in an extraordinary declaration, made it clear that if Peng’s criticisms were formally endorsed he would be prepared to return to the countryside to create a new Red Army of peasants to overthrow the government. The nature of Peng’s attack on Mao and his intentions remain unclear. The denunciation was based on a letter that was probably meant as a private communication from Peng to Mao but which was published on Mao’s instructions as a formal Party document, the “Letter with Comrade Peng Dehuai’s views” (“Péng Déhuái tóngzhì de yìjiàn shū” 彭德怀同志的意见书‎), and therefore could not be ignored.

No one was prepared to call Mao’s bluff, however, and the denunciation of Peng continued at the much larger meeting of the Eighth Plenum in August. Although the opponents of the Great Leap achieved some of their objectives, including a reduction of the more unrealistic economic targets, the price was the condemnation of “the anti-Party clique headed by Peng Dehuai” and the decision to remove him from his posts of minister of national defense and first vice-chairman of the CCP’s powerful Central Military Commission. He was allowed to retain his formal membership on the Central Committee and in the Politburo but was excluded from meetings, and “right opportunist” supporters of his views were purged at every level in the CCP. The Party and the government were in crisis.

Peng Dehuai and his supporters were the sacrificial lambs, “slaughtered” to appease Mao, but in fact China was moving into a new political phase in which Mao was obliged to take a back seat, his Great Leap policies were moderated, and for all practical purposes, day-to-day government decisions were in the hands of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Mao was unable to accept even this compromise and the Cultural Revolution that he launched in 1966 was, among other things, his attempt to regain the power and influence that he had lost. Peng was forced to make a humiliating self-criticism at the meeting. He was moved out of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound, his glorious political and military careers came to an ignominious end, and his rival, Marshal Lin Biao, was appointed minister of National Defense in his stead.

Defeat and Defiance

After his downfall, Peng lived in Wujia Gardens, a typical but rundown Beijing-style courtyard house in Jiaoyuju Hutong, between the old and the new Summer Palaces. Whether he was technically under house arrest is a moot point but his activities were under the constant surveillance of a platoon of the PLA Central Guard Regiment that was responsible for the security of the senior party leadership and loyal to Mao Zedong (Domes 1985, 111–117). Peng managed to revive a garden which had long been neglected. He grew vegetables and fruit and established a pisciculture pond to farm fish. His work in the garden allowed him contact with local farmers, which he welcomed. As a member of the Politburo he was entitled to receive documents but was not invited to meetings, although some senior officials, including future President Yáng Shàngkūn 杨尚昆‎ (1907–1998), visited him regularly; he maintained his criticism of the follies of the Great Leap Forward—even if only informally at first.

As knowledge of the extent of the famine spread, Peng became less of a persona non grata, and in late 1961 he was permitted to make a semi-official visit to Hunan. He inspected communes and their production brigades and a coal mine and, finding that malnutrition was even more widespread than it had been in 1958, he compiled a report with recommendations for reforms to the commune system, which he presented to the party center in June 1962. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping began to publicly endorse Peng’s criticism and worked to secure his rehabilitation, but Peng’s report also included a robust defense of his own position. The formal rehabilitation was not approved until 1965 when he was sent to Chengdu with responsibility for the Third Front, a military industrial strategy for China’s defense in the event of an attack by a foreign power.

No sooner had he been rehabilitated than the Cultural Revolution broke out, and he immediately became the target of Red Guards in his new home of Chengdu as a “rightist” opponent of chairman Mao. Criticisms by Mao’s supporters of Wu Han’s play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office (Hǎi Ruì bà guān 海瑞罢官‎) are often regarded as the veritable beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Hǎi Ruì 海瑞‎ (1514–1587) was an incorruptible official of the Míng 明‎ dynasty (1368–1644) who was dismissed for criticizing the Jiajing emperor’s quest for longevity through the performance of Daoist (Taoist) rituals. The parallels with Peng Dehuai’s fate were clear. The Cultural Revolution Group (CRG)—established in 1966 as a replacement for the Central Committee Secretariat and even, for a time, the Standing Committee of the Politburo when it functioned as China’s supreme power organ—on orders from Mao’s wife Jiāng Qīng 江青‎ (1914–1991), issued orders that Peng should be arrested, and Beijing Red Guards used their contacts in Chengdu to track him down. He was seized on 25 December 1966 and his house ransacked. Premier Zhou Enlai attempted to guarantee Peng’s safety by ordering the Red Guards to hand him over to PLA officers, but they disobeyed and Peng was subjected to “struggle meetings” and beatings by Red Guards. He was finally transferred to a PLA prison where he was ill treated and subjected to interrogations and a formal “mass criticism” under the direct orders of Mao and Lin Biao before being sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in the prison hospital on 29 November 1974 and was posthumously rehabilitated in 1978, after the death of Mao Zedong. He is hailed in contemporary China as one of the nation’s greatest military generals of the twentieth century.

Michael DILLON

Independent scholar


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