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 Republic of China refers to the historical period that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the rise of the Kuomintang (KMT) government, and finally the Communist reunification of China in 1949. Feng Keli wrote in Sixth Tone: “ For ideological reasons, the post-1949 government has taken a somewhat selective official approach toward the Republican era. As a result, many people on the Chinese mainland associate the period with social decay and submission to colonial powers. Most Chinese learn the official interpretations of historical events during the late Republican era: the brutal acts of the Japanese invasion, the valiant resistance by Communist soldiers, and the rampant corruption in KMT-controlled areas, [Source: Feng Keli, Sixth Tone, May 3, 2018; translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh]

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

Important Events During China's Republican Period

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.

Everyday Life in Republic China

Song Zheyuan, another warlord

On photographs taken in the Republican period, Feng Keli wrote in Sixth Tone: “In 1928, the KMT moved its capital to Nanjing; from then until 1935, locals enjoyed a period of relative stability. A photograph, taken in 1936, depicts residents of Zhenjiang, a city in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, standing before the window of a Popular Education Center — a government-sponsored mass teaching initiative. A young woman wearing a floral qipao dress and two small girls in her care have paused to look at a poster; the woman appears to be explaining something to the children. The slogan written in traditional Chinese characters across the window display reads: “Raising and caring for children is the responsibility of both parents and teachers.” [Source: Feng Keli, Sixth Tone, May 3, 2018; translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh]

“The taller girl standing on the left is called Huang Yongmei. In 1999, when she was 70 years old, she contributed this image to “Old Photos” and published a memoir with us. “It was the autumn of 1936,” Huang recalled. “I was 7 years old and a pupil in second grade at the [Popular Education Center] primary school. My father died when I was 4, after contracting an acute illness while he was teaching out of town. My mother watched over me and my younger sisters at our family home in Zhenjiang, where we depended on each other for everything.” Huang’s school was located in a Confucian temple less than 100 meters from her home. “The young, modern principal, Mrs. Wang, was the wife of a man who studied abroad,” Huang explained, although she didn’t remember where he had studied. “She would stand at the lectern and demonstrate how to brush our teeth, or tell us about how Japanese militarists were brainwashing Japanese children with ideas about invading China.”

“In the temple’s main hall were displayed a collection of small clay figurines of characters from classic tales in the Chinese canon. “There were also models and pictures used for education about personal hygiene,” Huang continued. “Most fun of all, the education center would screen movies on weekends for local residents. Being able to watch [Charlie] Chaplin’s slapstick performances back then — silent though they were — was hugely enjoyable.”

“In those days, my uncle worked out of town. That year, when he came back to visit family, he brought my aunt and cousin to see us one Sunday. I was so happy to take them to see my beloved school,” Huang concluded. “As we approached the window display, the poster caught the attention of me and my cousin. We stopped and took a closer look, while my aunt gave us an explanation. I listened, enraptured, while my cousin locked her eyes on the small children in the painting. Seeing our expressions, my uncle spontaneously — and unbeknownst to us — took a shot with his camera.” Huang’s early life was rocked by losing her father, yet unlike previous generations, this did not mean she missed out on school. The Popular Education Center instructed children in both Chinese and Western educational principles, passing on both traditional Chinese culture and knowledge considered more “modern” — for example, personal hygiene.

“Rural schools, too, were encouraged to embrace new educational strategies. The above group photograph, captured in January 1937 in Wenshui — a county in northern China’s Shanxi province — shows both staff and students at a girls’ primary school in Li Village. “The woman sitting upright in the center of the shot is probably the school principal. Her smart clothing and confident aura make me think that she probably received a “modern” education, a privilege that would have been denied to most women at the time. Similarly, all the female students in the photograph are smartly dressed and proper-looking. A traditional Chinese saying exhorts us to leave the best buildings for educators and students, and the carved beams and painted rafters behind this group indicate that local villagers took that to heart.

“The presence of the female headteacher is made more arresting by the four men at her side. Due to the patriarchal nature of Chinese society, senior men tend to pose front-and-center in most old photographs, while women are usually relegated to the background. This image goes against that custom and hints at early visual representations of female emancipation. That’s one reason why I like this shot so much: Often, social progress is revealed not through the bedlam of concerted political campaigns, but through the gradual changes seen in life’s inconsequential details.

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

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

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 *]

“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]

Kuomintang Under Chiang Kai-shek

Kuomintang meeting in 1920

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]

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]

site of first Kuomintang Congress in 1924

“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.

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]

Kuomintang Ideology: Was It a Fascist Movement?

young General Chiang Kai-shek

“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 .

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).

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

Kuomintang 3rd Plenary Session of the 2nd Central Committee

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.

China Before the Communists Took Over

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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