Chinese warlord Feng Yuxiang

In the 20th century, China endured a revolution, a short-lived republic, a period of warlordism, a civil war, a partial occupation, a world war, a second revolution and a communist dictatorship.Most of the decisive events in the late 19th and early 20th century took place in northern China. The city of Shenyang, for example, was the site of key battles in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and then was occupied by warlords, the Japanese (1931-1945), the Russians (1945-46), the Kuomintang (1946) and the Communists in 1945 and after.

The Chinese republic was established in 1912 after the 1911 Revolution ended the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The republic was ruled briefly by Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yatsen), followed by Yuan Shikai (Yuän Shihkai), but after that entered a relatively long period of internal strife. In August 1912 a new political party was founded by Song Jiaoren (1882-1913), one of Sun Yat-sen's associates. The party, the Kuomintang (Guomindang or KMT — the National People's Party, frequently referred to as the Nationalist Party), was an amalgamation of small political groups, including Sun's Tongmeng Hui. In the national elections held in February 1913 for the new bicameral parliament, Song campaigned against the Yuan administration, and his party won a majority of seats.

Yuan had Song assassinated in March 1913, In October 1913 an intimidated parliament formally elected Yuan president of the Republic of China, and the major powers extended recognition to his government. To achieve international recognition, Yuan Shikai had to agree to autonomy for Outer Mongolia and Tibet. China was still to be suzerain, but it would have to allow Russia a free hand in Outer Mongolia and Britain continuance of its influence in Tibet. [Source: The Library of Congress]

The 1910s and 1920s in China was a time of “complete collapse of the political power of the Beijing government—years of entire dissolution. In the south Sun Yat-sen had been elected generalissimo in 1921. In 1924 he was re-elected with a mandate for a campaign against the north. In 1924 there also met in Canton the first general congress of the Kuomintang ("People's Party"). The Kuomintang (in 1929 it had 653,000 members, or roughly 0.15 per cent of the population) is the continuation of the Komingtang ("Revolutionary Party") founded by Sun Yat-sen, which as a middle-class party had worked for the removal of the dynasty. The new Kuomintang was more socialistic, as is shown by its admission of Communists and the stress laid upon land reform. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“At the end of 1924 Sun Yat-sen with some of his followers went to Beijing, to discuss the possibility of a reunion between north and south on the basis of the program of the People's Party. There, however, he died at the beginning of 1925, before any definite results had been attained; there was no prospect of achieving anything by the negotiations, and the south broke them off. But the death of Sun Yat-sen had been followed after a time by tension within the party between its right and left wings. The southern government had invited a number of Russian advisers in 1923 to assist in building up the administration, civil and military, and on their advice the system of government had been reorganized on lines similar to those of the soviet and commissar system. This change had been advocated by an old friend of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, who later married Sun's sister-in-law. Chiang Kai-shek, who was born in 1886, was the head of the military academy at Whampoa, near Canton, where Russian instructors were at work. The new system was approved by Sun Yat-sen's successor, Hu Han-min (who died in 1936), in his capacity of party leader. It was opposed by the elements of the right, who at first had little influence. Chiang Kai-shek soon became one of the principal leaders of the south, as he had command of the efficient troops of Canton, who had been organized by the Russians.

“The People's Party of the south and its governments, at that time fairly radical in politics, were disliked by the foreign powers; only Japan supported them for a time, owing to the anti-British feeling of the South Chinese and in order to further her purpose of maintaining disunion in China. The first serious collision with the outer world came on May 30th, 1925, when British soldiers shot at a crowd demonstrating in Shanghai. This produced a widespread boycott of British goods in Canton and in British Hong Kong, inflicting a great loss on British trade with China and bringing considerable advantages in consequence to Japanese trade and shipping: from the time of this boycott began the Japanese grip on Chinese coastwise shipping.

“The second party congress was held in Canton in 1926. Chiang Kai-shek already played a prominent part. The People's Party, under Chiang Kai-shek and with the support of the communists, began the great campaign against the north. At first it had good success: the various provincial governors and generals and the Beijing government were played off against each other, and in a short time one leader after another was defeated. The Yangtze was reached, and in 1926 the southern government moved to Hankow. All over the southern provinces there now came a genuine rising of the masses of the people, mainly the result of communist propaganda and of the government's promise to give land to the peasants, to set limits to the big estates, and to bring order into the taxation. In spite of its communist element, at the beginning of 1927 the southern government was essentially one of the middle class and the peasantry, with a socialistic tendency.

Until the Communist takeover Beijing was known as Beiping (“Northern Peace”). The capital of China was in Nanjing (Nanking).

Early 20th Century China : John Fairbank Memorial Chinese History Virtual Library offers links to sites related to modern Chinese history (Qing, Republic, PRC) and has good pictures; Sun Yat-sen Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; May 4th Movement Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Obituary Madame Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi; Wikipedia article Wikipedia Books on Cixi; The Last Emperor Puyi Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; His Widow's Account; Puyi Biography Boxer Rebellion National Archives ; Modern History Sourcebook ; San Francisco 1900 newspaper article Library of Congress ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Cox Rebellion PhotosCaldwell Kvaran ; Eyewitness Account ; Sino-Japanese ; Wikipedia article on the Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia Chinese History: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Books: "The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China" by Jay Taylor, former U.S. foreign service officer; "Enter the Dragon: A Look at the Western Fever Dream of Insatiable Chinese Power" by Tom Scocca ; "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China" by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); "China: Alive in the Bitter Sea" by Fox Butterfield; "China: A New History" by John K. Fairbank; "China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History" by Charles O. Hucker; "In Search of Modern China" by Jonathan D. Spence; “China in the 21st Century” by Jeffrey Wasserstrom; “Penguin History of Modern China: 1850-2009” by Jonathan Fenby; “The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China” edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom covers from 1550 to the present day. "Shark Fins and Millet" is an excellent depiction of China in the 1930s by Polish-born journalist Ilona Ralf Sues, who met up with Big-Eared Du and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

Freedom, Humor and Openness in Republican China

Christopher Rea wrote in “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter”: “China’s Republican period was one of remarkable openness, a new climate of earnest searching and experimentation with roots in the exploratory culture of the late Qing. Irreverence — meaning an insouciant attitude toward convention and authority — was one disposition driving the exploration. Breaking rules, disobeying authorities, making mischief, mocking intransigent behaviour and thought, and pursuing fun all contributed to an atmosphere of cultural liberalisation. [Source: “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China” by Christopher Rea (University of California Press, 2015). Rea is an Associate Professor of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia]

“Open contempt for the Manchu royal court fuelled the 1911 revolution. Irreverence also helped to enable positivistic blue-sky thinking, as seen in a wave of futuristic science fantasy novels in the 1900s. Impudent humour, of course, is not the exclusive province of modernists or traditionalists, conservatives or radicals. Chinese writers and artists of the early twentieth century were equally irreverent in inveighing against the fads, excesses, and new sacred cows of the modern era.

“During the first four decades of the twentieth century, playfulness, derision, frivolity, profanity, absurdity, and other expressions of humour abounded in China’s public sphere. One driver of the proliferation of funny stories, cartoons, parodies, curses, and other expressions of mirth was a fast-growing transnational Chinese-language publishing market…. At the turn of the century, a wave of new urban tabloid or ‘small’ newspapers emerged — between 1897 and 1911 more than forty were published in Shanghai alone — offering readers an alternative source of entertainment and political commentary to ‘big’ (and often more conservative) papers. Between 1876 and 1937, more than three hundred publishing houses and bookshops set up operations on Fuzhou Road in Shanghai, the centre of Chinese publishing. By 1929, the southern province of Guangdong had more than two hundred periodicals and Jiangsu Province (on the Yangtze River) more than three hundred; by 1935, Shanghai had almost four hundred.

Warlordism in China

Song Zheyuan, another warlord

After Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, China was torn apart even more by rivalry and fighting between local warlords. The Kuomintang was taken over by Chiang Kai-shek. It and the Communists were two of many parties vying for power during a period of upheaval and anarchy that lasted until the Communists took over in 1949. Warlords and their personal armies divided up local ruler. People died from starvation and warfare in the tens of millions.Through years of wars, by the late 1920s or early 1930s, Chiang Kai-shek of the Kuomintang (Nationalists - KMT) eventually managed to defeat separatist warlords and put the whole of China under his centralized authority - largely nominally than in actuality.

As a result, to benefit themselves, many local government and military leaders, in asking for funds from the power center, exaggerated the size of their establishments by including deceased or non-existent civil servants or soldiers on their payrolls. This became so bad that there was a view that Mao Zedong could lead his Red Army on the Long March (1934-1935) to overcome the KMT partly because the local KMT troops along the way were so laden with "dead souls" as to be unable to block Mao's advance.

The warlord armies were for the most part ill-disciplined and incompetent and unable to make much progress against their rivals. Describing a battle between warlord armies in the Yangtze Gorge in 1932, American paleontologists Walter Gramger wrote: "Some of them managed to get into ravines between the pinnacles, and reach the water’s edge by steep trail, but many were actually pushed over the sheer face of the slope and rolled down to the water's edge, either killed by the fall or drowned as they plunged into the river."

Founding of the Kuomintang and Its Early Years

Kuomintang emblem

In August 1912 a new political party was founded by Song Jiaoren (1882-1913), one of Sun's associates. The party, the Kuomintang (Guomindang or KMT — the National People's Party, frequently referred to as the Nationalist Party), was an amalgamation of small political groups, including Sun's Tongmeng Hui.

The Kuomintang of China was one of the dominant parties of the early Republic of China, from 1912 onwards, and remains one of the main political parties in modern Taiwan. Its guiding ideology is the Three Principles of the People, advocated by Sun Yat-sen. It is the oldest political party in the Republic of China, which it helped found. It is currently the ruling party in Taiwan. The Kuomintang refer reverentially to founder Sun Yat-sen as the "Father of the Nation." [Source: Wikipedia]

The Kuomintang traces its ideological and organizational roots to the work of Sun Yat-sen, a proponent of Chinese nationalism, who founded Revive China Society in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1894. In 1905, Sun joined forces with other anti-monarchist societies in Tokyo to form the Tongmenghui or the Revolutionary Alliance, a group committed to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of a republican government. The group planned and supported the Republican Revolution of 1911.

The Kuomintang was established at the Huguang Guild Hall in Beijing, where the Revolutionary Alliance and five smaller pro-revolution parties merged to contest the first national elections. Sun, the then Premier of the ROC, was chosen as the party chairman with Huang Xing as his deputy. The most influential member of the party was the third ranking Song Jiaoren, who mobilized mass support from gentry and merchants for the KMT on a democratic socialist platform in favor of a constitutional parliamentary democracy. The party was opposed to constitutional monarchists and sought to check the power of Yuan. The Kuomintang won an overwhelming majority of the first National Assembly in December 1912.

Kuomintang Versus Yuan Shikai

Sun's power and charisma unfortunately was not enough to overcome the military muscle of China's divided warlords and the remnants of the Manchu army and forge China into a true nation. With the preservation of the republic taking precedence over his own ambitions, Sun relinquished power after only three months to Gen. Yuan Shikai, a commander in the Manchu Army who promised to get the Manchu's to surrender and install a republican government.

Yuan Shikai had helped Sun's Nationalists to force the Manchu abdication. Once the KMT was in power Yuan reneged on his promise and set about shoring up his power by murdering political opponents, ignoring the new constitution, ruthlessly putting down local uprisings and later named himself emperor of a new dynasty.

After the 1912-13 elections, Yuan ignored the parliament in making presidential decisions and had parliamentary leader Song Jiaoren assassinated in Shanghai in 1913. Members of the KMT led by Sun Yat-sen staged the Second Revolution in July 1913, a poorly planned and ill-supported armed rising to overthrow Yuan, and failed. Yuan, claiming subversiveness and betrayal, expelled adherents of the Kuomintang from the parliament. Yuan dissolved the KMT in November (whose members had largely fled into exile in Japan) and dismissed the parliament early in 1914.

Yuan Shikai proclaimed himself emperor in December 1915. While exiled in Japan in 1914, Sun established the Chinese Revolutionary Party, but many of his old revolutionary comrades, including Huang Xing, Wang Jingwei, Hu Hanmin and Chen Jiongming, refused to join him or support his efforts in inciting armed uprising against Yuan Shikai. In order to join the Chinese Revolutionary Party, members must take an oath of personal loyalty to Sun, which many old revolutionaries regarded as undemocratic and contrary to the spirit of the revolution.

Thus, many old revolutionaries did not join Sun's new organisation, and he was largely sidelined within the Republican movement during this period. Sun returned to China in 1917 to establish a rival government at Guangzhou, but was soon forced out of office and exiled to Shanghai. There, with renewed support, he resurrected the KMT on October 10, 1919, but under the name of the Chinese Kuomintang, as the old party had simply been called the Kuomintang. In 1920, Sun and the KMT were restored in Guangdong.

Warlord alliances in 1925

Yuan Shikai: the Warlord Leader of China from 1913 to 1916

In November 1913, Yuan Shikai, legally president, ordered the Kuomintang dissolved and its members removed from parliament. Within a few months, he suspended parliament and the provincial assemblies and forced the promulgation of a new constitution, which, in effect, made him president for life. Yuan's ambitions still were not satisfied, and, by the end of 1915, it was announced that he would reestablish the monarchy. Widespread rebellions ensued, and numerous provinces declared independence. With opposition at every quarter and the nation breaking up into warlord factions.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Meanwhile Yuan Shikai had made all preparations for turning the Republic once more into an empire, in which he would be emperor; the empire was to be based once more on the gentry group. In 1914 he secured an amendment of the Constitution under which the governing power was to be entirely in the hands of the president; at the end of 1914 he secured his appointment as president for life, and at the end of 1915 he induced the parliament to resolve that he should become emperor. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“This naturally aroused the resentment of the republicans, but it also annoyed the generals belonging to the gentry, who had the same ambition. Thus there were disturbances, especially in the south, where Sun Yat-sen with his followers agitated for a democratic republic. The foreign powers recognized that a divided China would be much easier to penetrate and annex than a united China, and accordingly opposed Yuan Shikai. Before he could ascend the throne, he died suddenly of natural causes in June 1916, deserted by his lieutenants—and this terminated the first attempt to re-establish monarchy.

China Before the Communists Took Over

After Yuan Shikai China Deteriorates Into Warlordism

After Yuan Shikai's death in 1916, China deteriorated into anarchy as fragmented states ruled by rival warlords fought for control. The predecessors of the Communist party that existed at this time consisted of discussion groups at Beijing University who argued over points in the Communist Manifesto.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Yuan was succeeded as president by Li Yuanhong. Meanwhile five provinces had declared themselves independent. Foreign pressure on China steadily grew. She was forced to declare war on Germany, and though this made no practical difference to the war, it enabled the European powers to penetrate further into China. Difficulties grew to such an extent in 1917 that a dictatorship was set up and soon after came an interlude, the recall of the Manchus and the reinstatement of the deposed emperor (July 1st-8th, 1917). [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“This led to various risings of generals, each aiming simply at the satisfaction of his thirst for personal power. Ultimately the victorious group of generals, headed by Tuan Ch'i-jui, secured the election of Fêng Kuo-chang in place of the retiring president. Fêng was succeeded at the end of 1918 by Hsu Shih-ch'ang, who held office until 1922. Hsu, as a former ward of the emperor, was a typical representative of the gentry, and was opposed to all republican reforms.

“The south held aloof from these northern governments. In Canton an opposition government was set up, formed mainly of followers of Sun Yat-sen; the Beijing government was unable to remove the Canton government. But the Beijing government and its president scarcely counted any longer even in the north. All that counted were the generals, the most prominent of whom were: 1) Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-lin), a former bandit who had control of Manchuria and had made certain terms with Japan, but who was ultimately murdered by the Japanese (1928); 2)Wu Peifu, who held North China; 3) the so-called "Christian general", Feng Yuxiang, and 4) Cao Kun (Ts'ao K'un), who became president in 1923.

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “ Civil war raged between Sun's new revolutionary party, the Kuomintang, which established a government in Guangzhou and received the support of the southern provinces, and the national government in Beijing, supported by warlords (semi-independent military commanders) in the north. As cultural ferment seethed throughout China, intellectuals sought inspiration in Western ideals; Hu Shih, prominent in the burgeoning literary renaissance, began a movement to simplify the Chinese written language. Labor agitation, especially against foreign-owned companies, became more common, and resentment against Western religious ideas grew. Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

China Around the Time of World War I

After Yuan Shikai's death, shifting alliances of regional warlords fought for control of the Beijing government. The nation also was threatened from without by the Japanese. When World War I broke out in 1914, Japan fought on the Allied side and seized German holdings in Shandong Province. In 1915 the Japanese set before the warlord government in Beijing the so-called Twenty-One Demands, which would have made China a Japanese protectorate. The Beijing government rejected some of these demands but yielded to the Japanese insistence on keeping the Shandong territory already in its possession. Beijing also recognized Tokyo's authority over southern Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia. In 1917, in secret communiques, Britain, France, and Italy assented to the Japanese claim in exchange for the Japan's naval action against Germany. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Kuomintang meeting in 1920

“In 1917 China declared war on Germany in the hope of recovering its lost province, then under Japanese control. But in 1918 the Beijing government signed a secret deal with Japan accepting the latter's claim to Shandong. When the Paris peace conference of 1919 confirmed the Japanese claim to Shandong and Beijing's sellout became public, internal reaction was shattering. *

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In 1918, the Republic of China, established in 1912, had collapsed into chaos. President Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), who had no use for democracy and ruled with an iron hand, had died in 1916. Without him, the various military commanders of the country (many of whom had not been happy with Yuan to begin with) became de facto rulers of whatever territory they could control — which ranged from a county or two to one or more provinces. The central government itself continued to exist in Beijing, but had no real power within the country. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Kuomintang-Communist Alliance

Politically weakened and disunified China opened the way for two opposing political parties — the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kaishek — each with a different vision of a modern, united nation to unify China. The two tried to join forces, with Chiang as the head of the National Revolutionary Army, but that union was short lived and dissension led to a civil war. Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: In the 1920s, Chinese Republican leader Sun Yat-sen established a revolutionary base in south China and set out to unite the fragmented nation. With Soviet assistance, he organized the Kuomintang (KMT or “Chinese Nationalist People's Party”), and entered into an alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After Sun's death in 1925, one of his proteges, Chiang Kai-shek, seized control of the KMT and succeeded in bringing most of south and central China under its rule. In 1927, Chiang turned on the CCP and executed many of its leaders.The remnants fled into the mountains of eastern China. In 1934, driven out of their mountain bases, the CCP's forces embarked on a “Long March” across some of China's most desolate terrain to the northwestern province of Shaanxi, where they established a guerrilla base at Yan’an. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale, 2008; Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The Kuomintang under Sun Yat-sen built a strong, disciplined party in the south, at Guangzhou (Canton). In 1922 the Kuomintang-warlord alliance in Guangzhou was ruptured, and Sun fled to Shanghai. By then Sun saw the need to seek Soviet support for his cause. In 1923 a joint statement by Sun and a Soviet representative in Shanghai pledged Soviet assistance for China's national unification. Soviet advisers — the most prominent of whom was an agent of the Comintern, Mikhail Borodin — began to arrive in China in 1923 to aid in the reorganization and consolidation of the Kuomintang along the lines of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. [Source: The Library of Congress]

“The CCP was under Comintern instructions to cooperate with the Kuomintang, and its members were encouraged to join while maintaining their party identities. The CCP was still small at the time, having a membership of 300 in 1922 and only 1,500 by 1925. The Kuomintang in 1922 already had 150,000 members. Soviet advisers also helped the Nationalists set up a political institute to train propagandists in mass mobilization techniques and in 1923 sent Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi in pinyin), one of Sun's lieutenants from Tongmeng Hui days, for several months' military and political study in Moscow. [Ibid]

“After Chiang's return in late 1923, he participated in the establishment of the Whampoa (Huangpu in pinyin) Military Academy outside Guangzhou, which was the seat of government under the Kuomintang-CCP alliance. In 1924 Chiang became head of the academy and began the rise to prominence that would make him Sun's successor as head of the Kuomintang and the unifier of all China under the right-wing nationalist government. [Ibid]

Kuomintang and Communists After Sun Yat-Sen’s Death

site of first Kuomintang Congress in 1924

Sun Yat-sen died of cancer in Beijing in March 1925, but the Nationalist movement he had helped to initiate was gaining momentum. During the summer of 1925, Chiang, as commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army, set out on the long-delayed Northern Expedition against the northern warlords. Within nine months, half of China had been conquered. By 1926, however, the Kuomintang had divided into left- and right-wing factions, and the Communist bloc within it was also growing. In March 1926, after thwarting a kidnapping attempt against him, Chiang abruptly dismissed his Soviet advisers, imposed restrictions on CCP members' participation in the top leadership, and emerged as the preeminent Kuomintang leader. The Soviet Union, still hoping to prevent a split between Chiang and the CCP, ordered Communist underground activities to facilitate the Northern Expedition, which was finally launched by Chiang from Guangzhou in July 1926. [Source: The Library of Congress]

In early 1927 the Kuomintang-CCP rivalry led to a split in the revolutionary ranks. The CCP and the left wing of the Kuomintang had decided to move the seat of the Nationalist government from Guangzhou to Wuhan. But Chiang, whose Northern Expedition was proving successful, set his forces to destroying the Shanghai CCP apparatus and established an anti-Communist government at Nanjing in April 1927. There now were three capitals in China: the internationally recognized warlord regime in Beijing; the Communist and left-wing Kuomintang regime at Wuhan; and the right-wing civilian-military regime at Nanjing, which would remain the Nationalist capital for the next decade.

The Comintern cause appeared bankrupt. A new policy was instituted calling on the CCP to foment armed insurrections in both urban and rural areas in preparation for an expected rising tide of revolution. Unsuccessful attempts were made by Communists to take cities such as Nanchang, Changsha, Shantou, and Guangzhou, and an armed rural insurrection, known as the Autumn Harvest Uprising, was staged by peasants in Hunan Province. The insurrection was led by Mao Zedong (1893-1976), who would later become chairman of the CCP and head of state of the People's Republic of China. Mao was of peasant origins and was one of the founders of the CCP.

But in mid-1927 the CCP was at a low ebb. The Communists had been expelled from Wuhan by their left-wing Kuomintang allies, who in turn were toppled by a military regime. By 1928 all of China was at least nominally under Chiang's control, and the Nanjing government received prompt international recognition as the sole legitimate government of China. The Nationalist government announced that in conformity with Sun Yat-sen's formula for the three stages of revolution — military unification, political tutelage, and constitutional democracy — China had reached the end of the first phase and would embark on the second, which would be under Kuomintang direction.

The decade of 1928-37 was one of consolidation and accomplishment by the Kuomintang. Some of the harsh aspects of foreign concessions and privileges in China were moderated through diplomacy. The government acted energetically to modernize the legal and penal systems, stabilize prices, amortize debts, reform the banking and currency systems, build railroads and highways, improve public health facilities, legislate against traffic in narcotics, and augment industrial and agricultural production. Great strides also were made in education and, in an effort to help unify Chinese society, in a program to popularize the national language and overcome dialectal variations. The widespread establishment of communications facilities further encouraged a sense of unity and pride among the people.

There were forces at work during this period of progress that would eventually undermine the Chiang Kai-shek government. The first was the gradual rise of the Communists.

Kuomintang Under Chiang Kai-shek

young General Chiang Kai-shek

After Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, the Kuomintang splintered into competing factions. Chiang Kai-shek allied himself with warlords in southern and central China and emerged as the Kuomintang leader in 1926. He built up his army with the help of the Soviet Union, who regarded the Kuomintang as more progressive than the warlords in the north, and was able to crush the warlords in the north.

Chiang Kai-shek formally became head of the Kuomintang in 1927.In 1928, Chiang led his army from southern China into Beijing. For political ideology he combined Sun's "Three Principles of the People" with his own "New Life Movement," based on Methodist principals.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “With the continued success of the northern campaign, and with Chiang Kai-shek's southern army at the gates of Shanghai (March 21st, 1927), a decision had to be taken. Should the left wing be allowed to gain the upper hand, and the great capitalists of Shanghai be expropriated as it was proposed to expropriate the gentry? Or should the right wing prevail, an alliance be concluded with the capitalists, and limits be set to the expropriation of landed estates? Chiang Kai-shek, through his marriage with Sun Yat-sen's wife's sister, had become allied with one of the greatest banking families. In the days of the siege of Shanghai Chiang, together with his closest colleagues (with the exception of Hu Hanmin and Wang Jingwei, a leader who will be mentioned later), decided on the second alternative. Shanghai came into his hands without a struggle, and the capital of the Shanghai financiers, and soon foreign capital as well, was placed at his disposal, so that he was able to pay his troops and finance his administration. At the same time the Russian advisers were dismissed or executed. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The decision arrived at by Chiang Kai-shek and his friends did not remain unopposed, and he parted from the "left group" (1927) which formed a rival government in Hankow, while Chiang Kai-shek made Nanking the seat of his government (April 1927). In that year Chiang not only concluded peace with the financiers and industrialists, but also a sort of "armistice" with the landowning gentry. "Land reform" still stood on the party program, but nothing was done, and in this way the confidence and co-operation of large sections of the gentry was secured. The choice of Nanking as the new capital pleased both the industrialists and the agrarians: the great bulk of China's young industries lay in the Yangtze region, and that region was still the principal one for agricultural produce; the landowners of the region were also in a better position with the great market of the capital in their neighborhood.

“Meanwhile the Nanking government had succeeded in carrying its dealings with the northern generals to a point at which they were largely out-manoeuvred and became ready for some sort of collaboration (1928). There were now four supreme commanders—Chiang Kai-shek, Feng Yuxiang (the "Christian general"),Yen Xishan, the governor of Shanxi, and the Muslim Li Chung-yen. Naturally this was not a permanent solution; not only did Chiang Kai-shek's three rivals try to free themselves from his ever-growing influence and to gain full power themselves, but various groups under military leadership rose again and again, even in the home of the Republic, Canton itself. These struggles, which were carried on more by means of diplomacy and bribery than at arms, lasted until 1936. Chiang Kai-shek, as by far the most skilful player in this game, and at the same time the man who had the support of the foreign governments and of the financiers of Shanghai, gained the victory. China became unified under his dictatorship.

Kuomintang Ideology: Was It a Fascist Movement?

Jeremy Tai of McGill University wrote: Maggie Clinton’s Revolutionary Nativism: Fascism and Culture in China, 1925-1937 (2017) and Brian Tsui’s China’s Conservative Revolution: The Quest for a New Order, 1927-1949 (2018), revisit the long-running debate over whether Nationalist rule in the Republican era can be deemed fascist. Building on previous scholarship of Guomindang (GMD, Kuomintang, KMT) ideology, these studies delve into the ways that major right-wing leaders, such as Dai Jitao Chen Lifu, and He Zhonghan, guided the regime’s efforts in cultural production, mass mobilization, and diplomacy, and answer in the affirmative. In particular, Clinton examines the forays of the Blue Shirts and CC Clique into mass media as evidence of what she calls Cultural Revolution from the right. She shows that these right-wing groups comprising military men and engineers took an active interest in the cultural realm, producing works characterized by an embrace of modernism, a call for violence against political enemies, and an attempt to reconcile a Confucian past with a state-led industrial future. Tsui recounts the story of a conservative revolution inaugurated by the April 12, 1927 coup that purged the Communists and labor activists from the ranks of the GMD. He attends to the ideological labor underlying this sharp rightward shift of the GMD, and how the regime went on to organize mass movements and forge alliances with Chinese liberals and Indian nationalists. [Source: Jeremy Tai, McGill University, MCLC Resource Center, January, 2019]

“For Clinton and Tsui, fascism was a political worldview shared globally by right-wing movements that sought an alternative to both liberalism and communism in the interwar period. Such a global historical perspective allows them to go beyond social scientific frameworks, which, in spite of sources indicating self-identification with fascism, dismissed the significance of right-wing desires and initiatives in China by considering them to be derivative of Italian and German ideal types and only superficial in resemblance because of the weakness of the GMD state. While acknowledging the limits of GMD state power, Clinton and Tsui demonstrate how the radical right in China was in conversation not only with Italy and Germany but also, in response to the historical reality of imperialism, with anti-colonial struggles for sovereignty that emphasized the need to reclaim and defend domestic traditions. For Clinton, “anticolonial nationalism [was] as potentially as susceptible to fascist radicalization as their metropolitan counterparts”. In addition, Tsui asserts that the historical convergence of capitalist and territorial logics in modern colonial empires presented Chinese rightists, and others, with a choice between joining the capitalist interstate system or challenging the premises of property and imperialist hegemony..

“Chinese fascists certainly shared with conservatives a profound anxiety over social transformations set into motion by the New Culture and May Fourth movements. Their defense of Confucianism from iconoclasts, in particular, was animated by the conviction that imperialists were already forcibly dispossessing China of its heritage. At the same time, however, right-wing leaders distanced themselves from the conservatives, whom they accused of elitism and feudalism, to speak in the name of the masses and orient the work of national revival toward the future, not the past. In Brian Tsui’s words, “conservative revolutionaries appealed to precapitalist and archaic forces not to conserve an idealized past but wanted to create it for the first time” (Tsui 2018: 10). Clinton observes how rightists argued that “renaissance does not equal resuscitating the past”. Rather, Confucianism would serve as a constant site of cultural identification as the nation hurtled forward in an industrial age .

“The GMD embraced decidedly conservative socioeconomic goals that, in Tsui’s words, decoupled national and social revolution. Ridiculing the call for class struggle and the elimination of private property as naïve and foreign, the GMD envisioned instead state management of the economy, corporatist social relations, a self-disciplined population, and a moral order distinct from the West—all for the sake of the nation, the only legitimate organizing principle of social life. According to Clinton, fascism promoted dramatic change in one direction and precluded it in others, appealing to a strong centralized state that could introduce capitalist forms of production throughout the country while violently crushing egalitarian and internationalist movements.

“A striking example of how rightists presented themselves as anticonservative revolutionaries is their use of modern technology and modernist aesthetics, which Clinton examines in depth in her book. In chapter 1, she argues that the technocratic CC Clique and the militarist Blue Shirts, long considered rival factions within the GMD, converged in their desire for a strong state to impose hierarchy, efficiency, and discipline onto the nation. In their view, state management would extend into the cultural realm, which should be treated in the same manner as natural resources and factories. Because state censorship had a limited reach, however, rightists had to compete with liberals and leftists in publishing, radio, and film, and attempted to define modernist developments, such as art deco, with their own messages of national rejuvenation and rationalization. Consequently, Clinton argues, “no single party or organization successfully monopolized a particular aesthetic or effectively fused it to their own political program”.

Books: “Revolutionary Nativism: Fascism and Culture in China, 1925-1937" by Maggie Clinton, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); “China’s Conservative Revolution: The Quest for a New Order, 1927-1949 by Brian Tsui, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Ideology of the Early Chinese Nationalists and Forging China Into a Nation

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “A central theme is the essays in the academic collection "A Critical Introduction to Mao" edited by Timothy Cheek, is Mao’s ‘sinification” of a European tradition of revolution. Mao belonged to a Chinese generation of activists and thinkers who developed a fierce political awareness at the end of a long century of internal decay, humiliations by Western powers and by Japan, and failed imperial reforms.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]

Kuomintang 3rd Plenary Session of the 2nd Central Committee

“Whatever their ideological inclinations,” Mishra wrote, “they all believed in a version of Social Darwinism — the survival of the fittest applied to international relations. They worried about the social and political passivity of ordinary Chinese, and were electrified by the possibility that a strong, centralized nation-state would protect them from the depredations of foreign imperialists and domestic warlords.” As Sun Yat-sen, China’s first modern revolutionary, explained in a speech shortly before his death, in 1925, “If we are to resist foreign oppression in the future, we must overcome individual freedom and join together as a firm unit, just as one adds water and cement to loose gravel to produce something as solid as a rock.”

“Others took on the arduous task of welding a defunct empire into a nation-state, most prominently Chiang Kai-shek, whose urban-based Nationalist Party first brought a semblance of political unity to postimperial China. But it was Mao who, helped by a savage Japanese invasion and Chiang Kai-shek’s ineptitude, came up with an ideologically like-minded and disciplined organization capable of enlisting the loyalty and passions of the majority of the Chinese population in the countryside.”

"More enduringly, Mao provided a battered and proud people with a compelling national narrative of decline and redemption. As he stressed shortly before the founding of the People’s Republic, “The Chinese have always been a great, courageous and industrious nation; it is only in modern times that they have fallen behind. And that was due entirely to oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialism and domestic reactionary governments.” This would change: “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. . . . We will have not only a powerful army but also a powerful air force and a powerful navy.”

On a speech about change in China, William Kirby, the historian who heads Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, said: “If China is to define in some measure the twenty-first century,” he said, “it is because of its recovery and rise in the twentieth century.” In other words, China was awakening a century ago — and it is still awakening today. As in the last century, that process is bound to be more protracted and erratic than we predict. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker website, March 19, 2011]

Japan Takes Control of Manchuria and Its Impact on Chiang Kai-shek

In December 1931, Chiang’s government collapsed after the Japanese took control Manchuria. Tens of thousands of students rioted in Nanking, taking virtual control of the government there. In Manchuria students demonstrated against the unwillingness of the Chinese army under Chiang to fight the Japanese.

Around the time this was happening Chiang wrote in his journal, “The war with Japan is not a matter of victory or defeat. It’s a matter of life or death for a people and their country” and “our determination will even overcome fate. I’ll wipe out the disgrace” and “we will not think about victory or defeat and national interest. We will sacrifice ourselves to show the class of our country and display national spirit.” Before and during World War II the Kuomintang mounted little resistance against the Japanese.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: ““As early as 1928, when there seemed a possibility of uniting China, with the exception of Manchuria, which was dominated by Japan, and when the European powers began more and more to support Chiang Kai-shek, Japan felt that her interests in North China were threatened, and landed troops in Shandong. There was hard fighting on May 3rd, 1928. General Zhang Zuolin , in Manchuria, who was allied to Japan, endeavoured to secure a cessation of hostilities, but he fell victim to a Japanese assassin; his place was taken by his son, Chang Hsueh-liang, who pursued an anti-Japanese policy. The Japanese recognized, however, that in view of the international situation the time had not yet come for intervention in North China. In 1929 they withdrew their troops and concentrated instead on their plans for Manchuria. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Until the time of the "Manchurian incident" (1931), the Nanking government steadily grew in strength. It gained the confidence of the western powers, who proposed to make use of it in opposition to Japan's policy of expansion in the Pacific sphere. On the strength of this favourable situation in its foreign relations, the Nanking government succeeded in getting rid of one after another of the Capitulations. Above all, the administration of the "Maritime Customs", that is to say of the collection of duties on imports and exports, was brought under the control of the Chinese government: until then it had been under foreign control. Now that China could act with more freedom in the matter of tariffs, the government had greater financial resources, and through this and other measures it became financially more independent of the provinces. It succeeded in building up a small but modern army, loyal to the government and superior to the still existing provincial armies. This army gained its military experience in skirmishes with the Communists and the remaining generals.

“It is true that when in 1931 the Japanese occupied Manchuria, Nanking was helpless, since Manchuria was only loosely associated with Nanking, and its governor, Chang Hsueh-liang, had tried to remain independent of it. Thus Manchuria was lost almost without a blow. On the other hand, the fighting with Japan that broke out soon afterwards in Shanghai brought credit to the young Nanking army, though owing to its numerical inferiority it was unsuccessful. China protested to the League of Nations against its loss of Manchuria. The League sent a commission (the Lytton Commission), which condemned Japan's action, but nothing further happened, and China indignantly broke away from her association with the Western powers (1932-1933). In view of the tense European situation (the beginning of the Hitler era in Germany, and the Italian plans of expansion), the Western powers did not want to fight Japan on China's behalf, and without that nothing more could be done. They pursued, indeed, a policy of playing off Japan against China, in order to keep those two powers occupied with each other, and so to divert Japan from Indo-China and the Pacific.

“China had thus to be prepared for being involved one day in a great war with Japan. Chiang Kai-shek wanted to postpone war as long as possible. He wanted time to establish his power more thoroughly within the country, and to strengthen his army. In regard to external relations, the great powers would have to decide their attitude sooner or later. America could not be expected to take up a clear attitude: she was for peace and commerce, and she made greater profits out of her relations with Japan than with China; she sent supplies to both (until 1941). On the other hand, Britain and France were more and more turning away from Japan, and Russo-Japanese relations were at all times tense. Japan tried to emerge from her isolation by joining the "axis powers", Germany and Italy (1936); but it was still doubtful whether the Western powers would proceed with Russia, and therefore against Japan, or with the Axis, and therefore in alliance with Japan.

“Japan for her part considered that if she was to raise the standard of living of her large population and to remain a world power, she must bring into being her "Greater East Asia", so as to have the needed raw material sources and export markets in the event of a collision with the Western powers; in addition to this, she needed a security girdle as extensive as possible in case of a conflict with Russia. In any case, "Greater East Asia" must be secured before the European conflict should break out.

Republican Fever in Modern China

In recent years, mainland China has experienced waves of “Republican fever” such when Eileen Chang’s “Little Reunions” was published in 2009 Louisa Chiang and Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Republican” refers to the years 1912–1949, when the Kuomintang ( KMT ) ruled most of China, and sometimes refers also to Taiwan and Hong Kong after 1949. Before Little Reunions Little Reunions, there had been fevers over the classic stories of Eileen Chang; over Qiong Yao, a Taiwanese writer of romances; Jin Yong, the master of historical martial-arts fiction from Hong Kong; and Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese crooner of love songs. For young people, these artists seemed to be lifting a curtain on another way to be Chinese; for older people, they recalled a bygone time whose cultural resources, after the Maoist blight, might once again prove useful. [Source: Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018]

“An important issue in the fascination with the Republican era has been questions about what really happened among the Nationalists, the Communists, and the Japanese during the War of Resistance (1937–1945) and the ensuing Civil War (1945–1949). Was it true, as the Communists claimed in their textbooks and novels, that their guerrilla fighters expelled the Japanese? Or as historians and journalists were now discovering, did Nationalist troops do most of the fighting? In 1984 the government built a museum in Nanjing to commemorate the horrific 1937–1938 “Nanjing massacre” in which Japanese troops slaughtered as many as 300,000 noncombatant Chinese. Now, though, writers were comparing that massacre with the Communists’ 1948 siege, during the Civil War, of the northeastern city of Changchun, where a similar number of innocents died, in this case of starvation. On the Changchun disaster, Communist textbooks note only that “Changchun was liberated without a shot.” In a 2007 essay Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in prison last year, argued that the Communist government’s lies about the war made Japanese lies about the war more plausible.*

Chinese readers’ sense that they had been lied to about the war fueled a desire to reexamine the Republican years more broadly. Were they really as bad as official textbooks claimed? After 1949 Mao had started violent political campaigns, a famine that killed thirty million or more people, and a devastating Cultural Revolution. Was “liberation” really better than what had gone before? The urban young not only began to imitate Republican-era fashion — such things as qipao gowns, high-heeled shoes, and wire-rimmed glasses with round lenses — but sometimes chose to write Chinese in traditional characters rather than the simplified characters that the Communists had introduced in 1955. Shopkeepers took to using traditional characters on their signs until the government banned the practice in 2015. Intellectuals looked to the Republican era for possible remedies for contemporary moral bankruptcy and cultural malaise. Some sought out Republican-era textbooks to give their children for extracurricular reading.

“New editions of the works of intellectual luminaries from the Republican period — including Liang Qichao (1873–1929), the polymath humanist-reformer; Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), the president of Peking University and famous champion of academic freedom; and Chen Yinke (1890–1969), the preeminent China historian of his time — appeared sporadically through the 1980s and 1990s. The trend accelerated between 1999 and 2013 and eventually included dozens of distinguished writers. In 2011 a three-volume work by Yue Nan called Crossing to the South and Returning to the Northcompared the fates of Republican-era intellectuals who went to Taiwan or abroad in 1949 with those who stayed behind, and between 2013 and 2016, four volumes by Tian Xiaoqing called Currents in Republican Thought appeared.

“These publications made political comments in two ways: first, they spotlighted Republican-era liberal thinkers who had envisioned a different route for China. Reexamining their works in the present raised the question What if…? Second, and more subtly, Republican liberals were useful for those who wished to comment on the present. A writer in the Xi Jinping era might be barred from calling explicitly for certain intellectual freedoms but could show how far liberals in the Republican era were able to go. He or she might know full well that the freedoms back then existed mostly in spite of the government, not because of it, but the goal was to make a point about today.

“Collected works of scholars were attractive only to the very well educated, but Republican fever spread beyond the elite, to popular books and articles and middlebrow television shows. In 2015 a three-volume work called The Deeply Historic Republican Era by Jiang Cheng claimed on its front cover to be “recommended by one million readers on the Web.” Yuan Tengfei, a high school history teacher in Beijing, used the Internet to charm people with his sharp insights, delivered with sprightly sarcasm, into every decade of twentieth-century Chinese history. In one of his barbs, he juxtaposes Chiang Kai-shek’s “white terror” of 1927, in which several hundred Communists were massacred, with Mao’s slaughter of 710,000 counterrevolutionaries in 1950, then poses the question, “How many do you have to kill in order to attain the level of Great Leader?” Before his social media accounts were shut down in September 2017, Yuan had 16 million online fans.

“On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the philosopher and diplomat Hu Shih (1891–1962) loomed as the image of the flawless scholar-official, unswerving in his defense of tolerance and academic freedom in the face of political interference. People noted that Chiang Ching-kuo (1910–1988), the son of Chiang Kai-shek, helped bring democracy to Taiwan in the late 1980s — the very era when mainland politics were moving in the other direction, culminating in a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989. The Republican comparison fed a growing public perception that the Nationalists were not, after all, as bad as the Communists, who seemed to stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power.

“But comparisons to the Republican past could also go too far. A contrast with the ills of the Communist era could lead to nostalgia for only its better side. Thus Mao’s extreme violence could make Chiang Kai-shek’s seem less notable; the obscene wealth of the Communist elite today could adumbrate the severe social inequality of the Republican era. Disillusionment following the discovery of Communist lies could lead pro-democracy intellectuals to lurch uncritically in the opposite direction. Because Mao’s spectacular human rights abuses were perpetrated in the name of economic justice, for example, some were led to dismiss concerns over economic inequality as resurgent Marxist baloney in disguise.

“In 2013 China’s authorities began pushing back against Republican fever. A set of instructions called “Document No. 9” was circulated internally to officials around the country. It warned against “constitutional democracy,” “civil society,” “press freedom,” “historical nihilism,” and other maladies that had been seeping into China. The phrase “historical nihilism,” which seemed puzzling at first, was political code for denying the glorious record of the Chinese Communist Party. Censors set to work enforcing Document No. 9, and two years later Republican fever began to recede.

Image Sources: 1) Warlod map, Nolls website; 2) Chiang Kai shek, Ohio State University; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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