- 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
The Kuomintang, by this time infused with new strength by its alliance with the Comintern, was already on the way up. The most significant help Sun Yat-sen had received from the Russians came in the form of two foreign advisers, Michael Borodin for civilian affairs and for military affairs the man known as Galen, who later as Marshal Vasili Bluecher was to command the Soviet Far Eastern Army. Borodin was a calm and deliberate man with a long view of history, whose influence over his clients grew until he came to be called the Emperor of Canton. The Russian advisers, together with Russian arms and other material support, marked the turning point in Kuomintang fortunes. Revolution, Dr. Sun was told, was not to be accomplished by relying on opportunistic alliances without a common goal. Its first requirement is an indoctrinated armed force of its own. Accordingly, a military academy with thirty Russian instructors under the direction of Galen was founded at Whampoa in 1923. For reciprocal indoctrination and training Dr. Sun sent a military mission to Moscow headed by a thirty-seven-year-old disciple of outstanding qualities, Chiang Kai-shek.
In 1924 Dr. Sun had proclaimed his program of the Three Principles with inspiring effect throughout China. But lured as ever by the prospect of power through arrangement, he accepted an invitation from Chang Tso-lin and Feng Yu-hsiang in Peking to join a conference of “reorganization” for national union. While in Peking he died of cancer on March 12, 1925, leaving behind his principles, a movement, and a successor already steeped in the realities of Chinese power politics.
Chiang Kai-shek was not one of the Western-educated group, nor did he become Soviet oriented, but rather the contrary, during his sojourn in Moscow. Born in 1886 of petty bourgeois origins in Chekiang, whose rather plebeian accent he never overcame, he had received a military education at the Paoting Academy and the Tokyo Military Academy. When in Japan he joined Sun’s party and later participated in the revolution. In the decade afterward he appeared and disappeared, sometimes sharing in Sun’s attempted coups, sometimes moving in the Shanghai mafia world of the Green Society, the archetypal long that controlled various rackets as well as the Chinese version of ward politics. He made connections with a leading Chekiang businessman, Chen Chi-mai, who became Dr. Sun’s principal financial patron, and he served for a while on the staff of the Fukien war lord, who was alternately Sun’s ally and enemy.
Appointed head of the Whampoa Academy upon his return from Moscow in 1924, Chiang enjoyed the prestige of the Teacher, to whom the highest loyalty of a Chinese is given. By virtue of control of the Revolutionary Army, which went with the Whampoa post, he emerged the dominant figure in the Kuomintang. He attracted loyalty and respect not through political inspiration like Sun Yat-sen but by the magnetism of an impressive personality. He was slim, laconic, and expressionless except for alert dark eyes that seemed to pierce through as if from an inner head behind a mask. His great talent was not military but political, exercised through a mastery of balance among factions and plots, so that he came to be called “the Billiken,” after the weighted doll that cannot be knocked over.
As soon as Sun’s death removed restraint, a schism between right and left wings within the Kuomintang came to the surface, with Chiang as leader of the right. He and his associates wanted national sovereignty, while the Communist-Left coalition wanted social revolution. Cabals and intrigues, arrests and assassinations, marked the internal struggle for control of the party.
Revolutionary effort among China’s proletariat, laboring twelve hours a day, seven days a week, in textile mills and dockyards, provided the tinder for the Shanghai Incident in 1925. Hatred of the foreigner, drummed on by agitators, spread north and south, surpassing anything since the Boxer outburst. More shots were fired and men killed at a riot in Hankow on June 11. At Canton a great parade of workers, students, and soldiers led by Whampoa cadets along the bund drew fire again—with some provocation—from British and French marines lined up opposite. This time fifty were killed and one hundred wounded.
A paralyzing boycott of the British in Hongkong followed that was to last fifteen months, cost the British millions of pounds, and, with servants deserting and goods and services withheld, emphasize to every foreigner in China his final vulnerability. Missionaries in the interior, as in Boxer days, suffered harassment and attacks, forcing some to close down or flee. Living as they did in Westernstyle houses in their own walled compounds, the missiona appeared to the Chinese as much the exponents of the unequal treaties as the consuls or the agents of Standard Oil. Missionary presence was more of an insult, despite the medicine and schooling they offered, because its basis was the assumption that Chinese ways of worship were inferior and should be discarded for those of the West.
The Kuomintang found its opportunity in the antiforeign furor and in July, 1925, proclaimed itself the Nationalist government of China. Rivalry for the succession to Sun Yat-sen was not yet resolved, and leadership was shared in fragile partnership between Chiang Kai-shek as military chief and the good-looking, persuasive, Frencheducated Wang Ching-wei as political chairman.