An unsung Chinese hero: Zhang Xueliang (2023)

chinese power|Politics|is from asia

The Xi'an incident changed the course of Chinese history.

VonWang Chi

December 28, 2020

An unsung Chinese hero: Zhang Xueliang (1)

Two generals and their men kidnap their leader and force him to join forces with his sworn enemy to fight an even greater foe. This is not the plot of an action film, although an award-winning film was released about the event in 1981. This is the true story of the Xi'an Incident that took place from December 12, 1936 to Christmas Day.

In 1936 the communists and the nationalists were at war. At the same time, however, the Japanese had already begun their invasion of China. Manchuria in northeastern China fell to Japan in 1931, and a Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo, was established the following year. And yet ROC nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek focused not only on the external threat posed by invading Japanese troops, but also on the internal threat to his own personal leadership. In a telling example of how little attention Chiang was paying Japan at the time, they weren't even officially thought to be at war. The "official" start of the Sino-Japanese War was not to come until the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in Beijing in 1937.

Young Marshal Zhang Xueliang was the commanding warlord of Manchuria, having inherited the office from his father, the old Marshal. At the time of the Japanese invasion, Manchuria was united under the banner of the Republic of China. Because of this, Zhang's troops were scattered and Zhang himself was not in Manchuria at the time of the invasion. Generalissimo Chiang decided not to send troops to defend against the Japanese and dropped Manchuria. Still, much of the blame fell on Zhang, and when his homeland was occupied, he went to Europe.

Returning to China, he expected to join the fight against Japan. However, Chiang continued to focus on the communists. Zhang despaired that the loss of his homeland seemed to have been in vain, that Chiang still didn't take the Japanese threat seriously and should attack his Chinese brothers instead. In this regard, Zhang had a secret meeting with Zhou Enlai and other communist officials. My cousin Chou Fucheng was serving under Zhang Xueliang at the time and attended the assembly. Ironically, he was later captured by the communists in the Shenyang case (1948) and died in a military prison.

After the meeting, Zhang decided to work with the local general in Xi'an, Yang Hucheng, who was also disillusioned with Chiang. Thus, on December 12, Chiang was arrested in Xi'an and only released after he agreed to end his ongoing campaign against the Communists and join them in a "united front" against Japan.

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Today, the Xi'an incident has largely been relegated to the footnotes of history books. In China, the focus was on Chairman Mao and the "Communist Revolution". The actions of a nationalist general do not fit the communist narrative. For me, however, the story of the Xi'an incident and Zhang Xueliang stayed with me throughout my life. I grew up during the Sino-Japanese War and witnessed the Japanese occupation. This was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Hearing about Zhang Xueliang's actions in the fight against the Japanese and the personal suffering that heroism inflicted on him left a lasting impression on me.

My father, also a Manchu general, was a close friend of the old marshal and worked closely with the young marshal under Chiang Kai-shek. When I left China for the United States, my father insisted that I do not forget his good friend Zhang Xueliang. I have not forgotten him and was lucky enough to be friends with Zhang in the last years of his life.

Zhang himself would not mind if his actions were forgotten. His goal was never publicity or fame. He didn't even want to land a hit, so he let Chiang live when he got the chance to kill him during his captivity. His only thought was Manchuria. He wanted to fight the Japanese and return to his homeland.

Although he managed to get Chiang to fight the Japanese, Zhang did not lead the troops. And to Zhang's great regret, he would never see Manchuria again either. Since Zhang was not attempting to usurp Chiang but only to undo his military efforts, he chose to return to Nanjing with Chiang Kai-shek rather than join the communists. Chiang immediately placed him under house arrest. Zhang, who was transferred to Taipei with the Nationalists in 1949, remained under house arrest for over 50 years. After his house arrest was released, Zhang attempted to visit mainland China. However, their efforts were thwarted: neither the Communists nor the Nationalists wanted the publicity their visit would bring, hoping instead that the Xi'an incident would be forgotten.

But the Xi'an incident is worth remembering, and not just because of Zhang's selfless efforts to fight the Japanese. Many lessons can be learned from this event, lessons that will not be learned if the memory of the Xi'an incident is lost.

The first lesson is how an unexpected event and just a few people can change history. Zhang Xueliang did not expect this decision to shape the rest of his life. He also failed to consider the impact his actions would have on the communists, Chiang Kai-shek and ultimately the outcome of the Chinese Civil War. Likewise, Generalissimo Chiang did not foresee this outcome when he chose to ignore Manchuria and his general's concerns. However, those two weeks in December 1936 arguably changed the future of China and the world.

While Chiang was forced to refocus his efforts on the Japanese, the communists managed to regroup and rebuild after nearly being decimated on the Long March. They probably would not have survived had Chiang's siege campaigns continued.

Zhang's actions also made Chiang even more concerned about his own personal power and the loyalty of those around him. He lost much of the confidence he had in his Manchu generals. Because of this, it bypassed what would prove to be a major battlefield in the civil war that followed. When Manchuria was restored after the end of the Sino-Japanese War, Chiang partitioned the region and used his own officers from southern China rather than returning command to the existing Manchu leadership.

He also dispersed the Manchurian troops that had been taken over by the Japanese under the puppet regime, rather than absorbing them into his own forces. Back then, it was Soviet troops stationed in the region, not nationalist troops, that allowed the communists to get a foothold there. Finally, some of the last decisive battles of the Manchurian Civil War took place when the communists took Shenyang and Changchun in 1948.

That brings us to the second lesson. The story does not develop in isolation. The Chinese Civil War was more than a struggle between nationalists and communists. It was about the Japanese invasion and internal politics within the Nationalist government. It was about armies, yes, but also about the individuals who made them up. This was a man who loved his country so much that he risked everything and ended up losing almost everything.

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The communists did not win by their own strength, talent, or rhetoric alone. Many factors contributed to their victory, and many of them had very little to do with the communists themselves. This is a lesson that is often ignored today as China's leadership focuses on a hypernationalist narrative. While it can help bolster party support and legitimacy, this mindset is potentially damaging if it sets the tone for future policy decisions.

With nationalism and protectionism on the rise, it is worth remembering the lessons of the Xi'an incident. No people, no country moves around the world alone. And single decisions, events and people can have important repercussions that go beyond what is expected. The actions of a man like Zhang Xueliang have the power to change the course of history.

The doctor. Chi Wang is President of the US-China Policy Foundation and was previously head of the China Section at the Library of Congress.

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