- Historic Sites
A Yankee Among The War Lords
First of the Three Parts from STILWELL THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IN CHINA 1911-1945
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Dr. William B. Pettus, founder and director of the school, complained that Stilwell and Horsfall had picked up a bad accent at the language school in California, which could lead to confusion, for even the most fluent foreigner could encounter difficulties. Dr. Edward Hume, an old-timer who spoke perfect Chinese, told Stilwell that once in the countryside he asked two farmers the way to Changsha. They looked blank, and after repeating his question several times he gave up. As he walked on he overheard one farmer say to the other, “It sounds just as if the foreigner were asking, ‘Is this the road to Changsha?’”
Stilwell acquired, like all foreigners, a Chinese name derived from the sound of his own, in his case Shih Ti-wei, written:
Separately the characters meant “history,” “righteous path,” and “majestic” or “awe-inspiring"—a provocative collection. …
He met the charm and cruelty of China side by side. Kite flying was a favorite sport, with kites fashioned in the form of dragons, castles, or butterflies with gauzy tinted wings. Hung with whistles or bells or wooden chimes, they filled the air with color and motion and, as an observer described it, “a soft unearthly music … as of oriental cherubim.” Executions were equally popular, watched by eager crowds as the victim with hands bound was kicked to his knees and his head severed by a stroke of the heavy sword to admiring shouts of Hao! When the blood spurted, women and children rushed forward to dip strings of copper coins in it, which were then hung around the children’s necks to frighten away evil spirits. Nearby under a roofed plaza might be found a storyteller in gown and skullcap holding in rapt attention his audience of perhaps a hundred coolies and workers who squatted in total silence as they listened to a tale of ancient heroism and legendary deeds. The narrator softly clapped bamboo sticks in rhythm to his recital or changed into song for philosophical passages or beat a drum for the martial parts.
The seduction of China was at work. Stilwell had been in Peking less than a month when he answered a War Department questionnaire on preference of service by marking military attaché, China, as his only desired post.
Two months before Stilwell arrived, three war lords, each a remarkable personality, had combined in alliance for just long enough to oust the Anfu government and had then turned upon each other to vie for the dominant power that went with control of the capital. The winner, who now held Peking, was Marshal Wu P’ei-fu, a gentlemanly mandarin and graduate of the classical examinations; the loser was Marshal Chang Tso-lin, ex-bandit and lord of Manchuria; the holder of the balance of power was the “Christian General” of peasant birth, Feng Yu-hsiang.
Wu P’ei-fu sincerely regarded himself as a public servant with concern for public order and the hope, larger than personal ambition alone, of restoring national government to China. … For the benefit of an American journalist he exhibited a picture of George Washington on the wall of his yamen (residence headquarters) and told his visitor that it was his desire to do for his country what Washington had done in uniting the thirteen colonies. He maintained discipline among his troops and even regularly paid them their whole pay, which earned him the dislike of other chieftains but gave him an army that would not readily desert. …
Wu’s sometime ally, sometime enemy, was the renowned Manchurian marshal Chang Tso-lin, a small and delicate man who had started life as a common soldier in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, progressed to bandit, accepted an offer of amnesty, and in return for bringing in his troops received command of a garrison outside Mukden. From this base he acquired wealth by supplying first the Russians and then the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War. He now wore on his black satin skullcap a pearl said to be the largest in the world.
Around these two marshals in the struggle for control of North China other factions and tuchuns combined and recombined. The most considerable was Feng Yu-hsiang, less because of his prodigious stature than because like Wu he took care to build up a loyal and effective army. He had become converted not only to Christianity but also to the gospel of the revolution according to Sun Yat-sen, and he believed that moral indoctrination in addition to food, clothes, and pay was necessary in making good soldiers. During the shifts and confusions of the republican years he had been appointed military governor of the province of Shensi. He married the Chinese secretary of the Y.W.C.A. in Peking, baptized his soldiers with a hose, and taught them to sing evangelical hymns and marching songs to the words “We must not drink or smoke” and “We must not gamble or visit whores.” …
The subject of study of a military attaché and his staff is the soldiery of the host country. Stilwell began his acquaintance with the Chinese soldier, whom he was one day to command, under the conditions of the tuchuns’ strife.