A Yankee Among The War Lords

PrintPrintEmailEmail There were no railroads in the province and only one “so-called road” about ninety miles long from T’ung Kuan at the bend of the Yellow River to Sian, the provincial capital. This was hardly more than a track shovelled out without any surveying. Negotiations ensued between Feng and the Famine Relief Committee, which undertook to build a proper road from T’ung Kuan to Sian with Stilwell again as chief engineer.

He travelled as far as he could by the railroad, which came to an end in Honan, about one hundred miles from the border of Shensi. From here he continued in a convoy of fifty mule carts plus assorted camels, pack animals, wheelbarrows, pedestrians, and an escort of twenty soldiers to conduct them through bandit country. “Off we go in a cloud of dust, a chorus of yells and much cracking of whips. … We look like the flight of the Kalmucks or a squad of 49ers on the way to California.” Moving at a slow pace over a horrible road, the convoy constantly tangled with wheelbarrow traffic coming in the opposite direction. The barrows carried loads of cotton with babies tied on one side, mothers sitting opposite, fathers pushing, and one or two little boys out in front pulling. Congestion was thickened by beggars lying along the road and farmers’ boys with four-pronged forks and baskets picking up the droppings of draft animals and humans. Progress was a “constant succession of struggles between straining, sweating chinks and their unwieldy machines and unwilling beasts.”

It took four days of such travel to reach the border of Shensi and four more days to reach the capital. To escape the awful jolting of the cart, Stilwell walked eight, ten, or twelve miles a day, trudging through ruts and mudholes and swallowing dust. Nights were spent in a “dirty flea-bitten town” or a “filthy inn” or in one case in an opium den where hard-worked coolies “kept trooping in for 10, 15, or 20 coppers’ worth, put their money and their little pots down and got their poison.”

Crossing into Shensi, Stilwell at once saw signs of the Christian General’s rule. Soldiers sang hymns as they marched through the streets. “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” was sung around the theme of “save your ammunition” and the Doxology as an appeal to save the country from decadence. Admonitions painted in blue characters on whitewashed walls exhorted citizens, “Do not smoke cigarettes, do not drink wine,” “Be honest in business,” “Honor thy father and mother,” “Plow land, weave cloth, read books.”…

Entering bandit country, the convoy passed a man’s head hanging on a tree, and that night the tu fei (bandits), disguised in uniforms, killed a lieutenant and a soldier. Farther along, outside a town, they passed a dead bandit “shot recently and left for all to see.” Death was as common as the wind-blown dust of China, its reminder everywhere in the grave mounds that would wear away over the centuries to be plowed back into the fields, its visible presence in the corpse of a girl baby, victim of infanticide at birth, laid out unburied between the grave mounds for dogs to eat.

At a hot spring one day’s journey from the capital Stilwell learned “the Tuchun had sent orders for me to be taken up there and use his special tub.” It was his first bath since leaving Peking.

Stilwell was taken to meet the Tuchun at his headquarters in the old Imperial City, which he had reconstructed into “neat clean barracks and drill grounds using soldier labor and bricks from the ruins.” Feng Yu-hsiang, a big man of forty-one who abjured the usual war lord’s grandeur, lived in a “neat little brick shack and is a slow spoken bird … a solid sort of guy with no airs who makes friends.” Discussion of the road project was begun, but Feng did not seem very interested. The reason, as Stilwell discovered in further conversations, was that “he cares not if I build the road or not; he wants dope on military affairs.” Feng invited Stilwell to return next day to inspect his arsenals and meanwhile showed him through barracks and workshops.

In the barracks the soldiers’ rooms were each adorned with a map of China showing in vivid red the territories lost in the last fifty years—Indochina, Korea, Formosa, Port Arthur. Maps of Shensi, of China, and of the world were painted on the ends of buildings. The men, much neater and cleaner than the average Chinese soldier, were practicing giant swings on the horizontal bar, and their proficiency was something of a shock. “Show me any other organization in the world where man after man can get up on the bar and do a giant swing.” It was another shock to see men at rest studying the Bible. In classrooms they were being taught to read and write, and in the workshops they learned a craft—as weavers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, shoemakers, tailors, and blacksmiths. In the shoemakers’ shop an officer was in charge, working with the men. “This is also a shock. To see a captain pasting uppers doesn’t fit in with ordinary notions of military procedure.”


General Feng’s chief of staff came next day to ask “a lot of questions about planes, tanks, rifle grenades, etc.,” followed by the Tuchun himself, who talked to Stilwell for an hour about weapons.