China Power | Politics | East Asia

A Forgotten Chinese Hero: Zhang Xueliang

The Xi’an Incident changed the course of Chinese history.

By Chi Wang for
A Forgotten Chinese Hero: Zhang Xueliang

Zhang Xuelian (left) and Chiang Kai-shek in 1930.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two generals and their men kidnap their leader and force him into an alliance with his sworn enemy in order to fight an even greater enemy. This is not the plot of an action movie – although an award-winning film about the event did come out in 1981. This is the true story of the Xi’an Incident, which took place from December 12, 1936 until Christmas Day.

In 1936, the Communists and Nationalists were at war. At the same time, however, the Japanese had already begun their invasion of China. Manchuria in northeast China fell to Japan in 1931 and a Japanese puppet state – Manchukuo – was established the following year. And, yet, the Republic of China’s Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was solely focused not on the external threat of encroaching Japanese troops, but on the domestic threats to his own personal leadership. In a telling example of how little attention Chiang was giving Japan at the time, they were not even officially considered to be at war. The “official” start of the Sino-Japanese War would not come until the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in Beijing in 1937.

The Young Marshal, Zhang Xueliang, was the warlord with command over Manchuria, having inherited the position from his father, the Old Marshal. At the time of the Japanese invasion, Manchuria had been unified under the banner of the Republic of China. Because of this, Zhang’s troops were spread out and Zhang himself was not in Manchuria at the time of the invasion. Generalissimo Chiang decided not to send troops to fend off the Japanese, instead allowing Manchuria to fall. Still, much of the blame was placed on Zhang and, with his homeland occupied, he left for Europe.

When he returned to China, he expected to join the fight against Japan. Chiang, however, remained focused on the Communists. Zhang despaired that the loss of his homeland seemed to have been in vain, that Chiang still did not take the Japanese threat seriously, and that he was instead expected to attack his Chinese brethren. It is in this context that 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 meeting. Ironically, he was later captured by the Communists in the Fall of Shenyang (1948) and died in a military prison.

After the meeting, Zhang decided to take action along with the local general in Xi’an, Yang Hucheng, who had become similarly disillusioned with Chiang. So, on December 12, they detained Chiang while he was in Xi’an and did not release him until he had agreed to halt his ongoing military campaign against the Communists and join with them in a “united front” against Japan.

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Today, the Xi’an Incident has largely been relegated to the footnotes of the history books. In China, emphasis has been placed 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 has stayed with me my entire life. I grew up during the Sino-Japanese war and experienced Japanese occupation. This was one of the major formative experiences of my life. Hearing about Zhang Xueliang’s actions to fight against the Japanese, and the personal suffering that heroism caused him, left a lasting impression on me.

My father, also a general from Manchuria, was close friends with the Old Marshal and worked together with the Young Marshal under Chiang Kai-shek. When I left China for the United States, my father urged me not to forget his good friend Zhang Xueliang. I did not forget and had the good fortune of becoming friends with Zhang during the later years of his life.

Zhang himself would not have minded having his actions forgotten. His goal had never been notoriety or credit. He had not even wanted to stage a coup – thus he left Chiang alive when he had the opportunity to kill him during his captivity. His only thought was of Manchuria. He wanted to fight the Japanese and return to his homeland.

While he succeeded in getting Chiang to fight the Japanese, Zhang would not be leading the troops. And, to Zhang’s deepest regret, he also would never see Manchuria again. Because Zhang was not trying to usurp Chiang, only change his military efforts, he opted to return to Nanjing with Chiang Kai-shek instead of joining the Communists. Chiang immediately placed him under house arrest. Zhang, who was moved to Taipei along with the Nationalists in 1949, remained under house arrest for over 50 years. When his house arrest was lifted, Zhang attempted to visit mainland China. His efforts, however, were thwarted – neither the Communists nor the Nationalists wanted the publicity his visit would bring, hoping instead that the Xi’an Incident would be forgotten.

But the Xi’an Incident is worth remembering, and not only for Zhang’s selfless efforts to fight the Japanese. Many lessons can be learned from this event – lessons that are left unlearned if the memory of the Xi’an Incident is lost.

The first lesson is how one unexpected event, and just a few people, can change history. Zhang Xueliang did not expect this one decision to shape the rest of his life. He also did not 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 predict this outcome when he chose to ignore Manchuria and the concerns of his general. Those two weeks in December of 1936, however, arguably changed the future of China and the world.

While Chiang was forced to refocus his efforts on the Japanese, the Communists were able to regroup and rebuild after they were nearly decimated in the Long March. They likely would not have survived if Chiang’s encirclement campaigns had continued.

Zhang’s actions also left Chiang even more concerned about his own personal power and the loyalty of those around him. He lost much of the trust he had for his Manchurian generals. Because of this, he overlooked what would end up being a major battleground in the ensuing civil war. When Manchuria was restored after the end of the Sino-Japanese War, Chiang divided up the region and installed his own officials from southern China instead of returning command to the existing Manchurian leadership.

He also disbanded the Manchurian troops that had been taken over by the Japanese under the puppet regime instead of absorbing them into his own forces. At the time, it was the Soviet troops who were stationed in the region, not Nationalist troops, allowing the Communists to gain a foothold there. Ultimately, some of the decisive final battles of the civil war took place in Manchuria, with the Communists taking both Shenyang and Changchun in 1948.

This leads us to the second lesson. History does not take place in isolation. The Chinese Civil War was about more than the fight between the Nationalists and the Communists. It was about the Japanese invasion and internal politics within the Nationalist government. It was about armies, yes, but also the individuals in them. It was about a man who loved his homeland so much he risked it all, and ended up losing almost everything.

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The Communists did not win on their own strength, talent, or rhetoric alone. Many factors contributed to their victory and a lot of them had very little to do with the Communists themselves. This is a lesson that is often ignored today as China’s leadership instead focuses on a hyper-nationalistic narrative. While it may help bolster Party support and legitimacy, this mindset is potentially damaging if it sets the tone for future policy decisions.

As nationalism and protectionism are both on the rise, the lessons of the Xi’an Incident are worth remembering. No people, no country, moves through the world alone. And single decisions, events, and people can have major impacts that move beyond the expected scope. The actions of one man like Zhang Xueliang have the power to change the course of history.

Dr. Chi Wang is president of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation and previously served as the head of the Chinese section at the Library of Congress.