Yan'an was the endpoint of the Long March, and the center of the revolution from 1935 to 1948. Chinese communists celebrate Yan'an as the birthplace of the revolution.
Yan'an is currently a Prefecture-level city administering several counties, including , formerly , which served as the Chinese communist capital before the city of Yan'an proper took that role.
In medieval China, Yan'an was once called ''Yanzhou'', a location of strategic military importance for the Chinese empire and Tanguts of the Western Xia Dynasty. It was once successfully defended by the Song Dynasty era Chinese scientist, statesman, and general Shen Kuo . However, it was eventually taken over by the Tanguts in 1082 once Shen's defensive victories were marginalized and sacrificed by the new Chancellor Cai Que . Yan'an and the whole of Shaanxi was taken over by the Mongols in the late 1220s, only after their leader Genghis Khan had died during the siege of the Western Xia capital in 1227. The city was maintained by the successive Chinese Ming Dynasty , as well as the Manchu Qing Dynasty . After the fall of the Qing Dynasty the city fell into the hands of the newly-created Republic of China.
After the Long March Yan'an become the area for intensive training of party members and army troops. In the troops, women dressed as men would because they felt that they should not have to look like women. Raping of the villagers from the army was virtually unheard of due to the army's discipline. In 1941, Mao put special influence on a series of training programs to "correct unorthodox tendencies" and essentially mold the peasantry to the communist model. One of the first CPC program launched was the Yan'an Rectification Movement.
During the Second World War almost all buildings, except a pagoda, were destroyed by Japanese bombing, and most inhabitants took to living in yaodongs, artificial caves or s carved into hillsides which were traditional dwellings in Shaanxi. While Yan'an was the center of Chinese communist life many prominent Western journalists including Edgar Snow and Anna Louise Strong met with Mao Zedong and other important leaders for interviews. Politically, Yan'an symbolizes for many a utopian period in modern China's history where Chinese communists sought to realize their idealized vision of life, culture, and social justice, and thus stands for a former "golden age" when communist principles and ideals were actively pursued by many sincere, youthful supporters.
During the Second World War, Yan'an played host to the United States Army Observation Group, also known as the Dixie Mission. A joint military and civilian mission, it was sent to establish official ties with the Communists and explore possible plans of cooperation against the Japanese. The Americans had a presence in Yan'an from 1944 to 1947.