- Historic Sites
Homer Lea & The Decline Of The West
Early in the century a young American accurately predicted Japan’s imperialism and China’s and Russia’s rise. Then he set out to become China’s soldier leader.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Virtually unnoticed by the Western press, two other groups chose this seemingly propitious moment to revolt in southern China. One was led by the followers of K’ang Yu-wei; the other by a man with more revolutionary goals, Sun Yat-sen. He wanted to overthrow the Manchus and create a republican government in China. Although the two leaders disliked and distrusted each other, they temporarily joined forces. Into this maelstrom of confusion and violence Homer Lea plunged.
At first he was sent to Kwang-tung Province, to organize an army. There, according to reports from the American consul in Canton, the revolutionists were recruiting five hundred men a day. The alarmed Manchu viceroy had added fifteen thousand men to his army. When Lea heard that the dowager empress had fled Peking with the emperor Kuang-hsü still a prisoner in her entourage, the young American concocted the daring plan of pursuing her, rescuing the emperor, and putting him on the throne. He set out for Hankow, where he hoped to find K’ang’s forces and be given enough men to accomplish this feat.
Before he got there, K’ang’s rebellion unraveled. Some local secret societies revolted prematurely, and the Manchu viceroy in Hankow seized most of the rebel leaders and summarily executed them. When Lea reached Hankow, their heads were displayed on the city’s walls, and he wisely retreated into the hills. Meanwhile, Sun Yat-sen’s men were giving a much better account of themselves along the East River, south of Hankow. Lea joined these troops in at least one major battle, the capture of Po-lo, a city some seventy miles south of Canton. On this battlefield Lea acquired a Manchu officer’s sword as a trophy of war. Lea apparently acquitted himself with distinction. As one Chinese said, “he had eyes that could bury you nine feet under the ground, if you disobeyed him.”
For a while Sun Yat-sen’s forces looked like winners. They captured the city of Waichow, and the American consul in Canton soon reported they controlled the entire East River valley of Kwang-tung Province and had thirty thousand men under arms. But the Manchu military machine had been modernized in the 1890s, and the imperial troops counterattacked ferociously, cutting off the rebels from communication with the coast. A new government in Japan reneged on prior promises of ammunition and supplies, and the rebels soon disintegrated as a fighting force. Once more the leaders fled; those captured were swiftly beheaded. Homer Lea escaped; according to legend, he reached Hong Kong by disguising himself as a French missionary.
Back in California, Lea published an article in the San Francisco Call that was given the title “How I Was Made a General in the Chinese Army.” When the Manchu government’s consul denounced him as a fraud, the director of the Chinese Empire Reform Association vigorously backed him. He said Lea had been given a rank equivalent to lieutenant general and had traveled throughout China, inspecting and organizing thirty thousand troops in an army that now totaled four hundred thousand, determined to put the reform emperor back on the throne. There was obviously a good deal of propaganda in these numbers. The reform army existed mostly on paper, although the reform association was real and was supported by thousands of Chinese around the world. The reformer K’ang Yu-wei still had a far greater reputation among these people than Sun Yat-sen.
Lea spent much of the next two years recovering from his Chinese adventure. When he surfaced again, he had a new mission: training a cadre of officers who would lead the Chinese Reform Army. With the help of Ansel O’Banion, a former top sergeant in the 4th Cavalry, who had served three years in the Philippines, Lea set up the Western Military Academy. On weekends and evenings Lea and O’Banion drilled and instructed about sixty young Chinese. Prominent citizens of California served as “trustees” of this illegal organization, which Lea expanded to other cities. O’Banion recruited other army veterans to serve as drillmasters.
Soon the Western Military Academy was headquarters for the C.I.A.—the Chinese Imperial Army. It was organized into four regiments, with three companies in Los Angeles. Lea’s militance was on display when one of the leaders of the Chinese opposition, the scholarly Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, came to Los Angeles. When he visited the academy, Lea ordered two of his noncommissioned officers to seize the local merchant with the longest queue. While Liang watched, wide-eyed, O’Banion cut off the man’s queue, a symbol of subservience to the Manchus. Thereafter Lea urged queue cutting to numerous Chinese audiences and, according to O’Banion, often inspired mass amputations.
“He had eyes that could bury you if you disobeyed him,” said a Chinese who saw Lea in battle.
The United States government soon began investigating the academy for possible violations of the neutrality laws. Lea responded with a bold show of innocence. To emphasize the purely scholastic character of the Western Military Academy, he persuaded local officials to let fifty of the students march in the 1905 Tournament of Roses Parade.