On Zhang Xueliang's 90th birthday his old friends in Taiwan and his former subordinates jointly put their names to a congratulatory birthday message, this limited return to public life symbolizing the end of over half a century of seclusion. On New Year's Eve of the same year he expressed his feelings with the words "No fear of death, no love of money. Needing no sympathy. Facing the remaining years of life with openness and an indomitable spirit."
In the rare interviews that he has given he has said that he has "no regrets" about anything he has done in his life, including engineering the Xi'an Incident. He has also said that "the person I admire most is Chiang Kai-shek."
Looking back over his life, the first half was spent at the center of momentous events while, in the second half, history has continued to move inexorably forward without his participation. Has he really just these few lines as his testimony? Before his oral history is published in 2002 we can only understand him from the books that have been written about him.
When writing A Chronicle of Zhang Xueliang's Life-A True Record of the Rise and Fall of the Young Marshal the author, Su Deng-chi, has sought to introduce his own interpretations to the on-going argument as to whether Zhang should be seen as a hero or villain. His view of Zhang Xueliang offers an alternative viewpoint to that of the KMT or the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Q: You have worked in journalism for many years and researched Zhang Xueliang in your spare time. Is there any special reason for this? How do your methods differ from those of professional historians?
A: There should be no difference because I was a history student in my youth and I have always had a strong interest in modern history, especially military history. However, because I have worked in journalism for 20 years, my writing style may be more relaxed and simple.
As to why I chose to focus on Zhang Xueliang, he has played an important role in modern history and I am also very interested in military history. I was also very curious about him and was keen to learn what sort of a man he is. In his younger years he was very powerful, but he was forced to withdraw from the political scene in the prime of his life and idled away over half a century hidden away from the world. After all this, I wanted to know what he thinks about himself, other people and his country.
Before, my knowledge of Zhang was the same as everyone else's and I regarded him as a tragic hero and a victim of the times. However, after his 90th birthday, after reading most of the books printed in Taiwan and overseas over a period of years, and especially after reading the documents and files that have been made available by the PRC government, I began to feel that the facts are very different to what I had imagined. The historical materials contained in this book were all originally intended for my own use, but then I thought that they might be of assistance in helping readers interested in this part of history, and decided to publish the book.
Moral historical view
Q: You have used historical materials from both Taiwan and mainland China. Which side's historical view influenced you the most?
A: Everyone knows that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have completely different views of Zhang Xueliang. To the KMT he is a traitor whose name will be vilified through the ages and who brought calamity to the country and people, but to the CPC, he is a hero, an accolade that was decided by Zhou Enlai. Both these are subjective views and I don't accept either.
Looking at Zhang from the angle of traditional morality and responsibility, while enjoying the absolute confidence of Chiang Kai-shek and holding the position as commander-in-chief in charge of blockading the Communists he held secret peace talks with the leaders of the CPC and negotiated a truce. Stopping the fighting was not enough; he also provided the Communists with large amounts of capital and weapons, allowed the CPC to develop its organization, and also provided it with secret information concerning the blockade. When the Communists attacked he ordered his troops in the Northeast Army to refrain from assisting his allies when they were in difficulty. In the name of "blockading" the Communists in reality he actually provided assistance to them. This collaborationist approach in a time of war is not only illegal, it also does not stand up to argument morally.
I'll use a recent example to illustrate my point. Would it be acceptable if, when the police were looking for Chen Chin-hsing (a recently surrendered kidnapper and rapist) they not only couldn't bring him to justice, but senior officers were actually providing him with money, food and guns and also informing him in advance of attempts to capture him ?
Q: But Zhang Xueliang felt bitterness against the Japanese because they had both killed his father and were inflicting suffering on his people. His Northeast Army wanted to get revenge and take back their homeland, but Generalissimo Chiang inexplicably sent him to blockade the Communists, which gave the Communists an opportunity. Some propaganda said that the KMT's policy of "First stabilizing the domestic situation then dealing with external problems" was in fact a plan to cunningly kill two birds with one stone and deplete the "independent armies," with the intention of using the Communist forces to erode the Northeast Army. If this was the case, it seems that perhaps Zhang wasn't completely to blame. Are there any historical documents that support this idea?
A: No. Actually the national army led by Zhang had 300,000 men in all, including the Central Army, the Shanxi Army, the Ma Family Army and Yang Hucheng's 17th Route Army. The Northeast Army accounted for only 130,000 soldiers and the people at the front putting up a good fight were Hu Zongnan, Tang Enbo, Guan Lingwei, Wang Jun, and Mao Bingwen, all of the Central Army. How, then, can it be said that they were intent on destroying the Northeast Army?
However, when Zhang's troops first arrived in the Shaanxi/Gansu border area they had three bruising encounters with the Communists and came off worse each time. It is likely that this experience intimidated Zhang. These first of these three battles was the Battle of Laoshan on 1st October, 1935, when the 110th Division was lost and the divisional commander, He Lizhong, was killed. The second was the Battle of Yulin Bridge on 29th October, when a regimental commander, Gao Fuyuan, and many soldiers were captured. They were treated well by the Communists and also received a baptism in their thinking, which helped to deepen their suspicions towards the policies of the center. After their release it was inevitable that they influenced Zhang. The third time was 23rd November-the Battle of Zhiluozhen, where the 109th Division was destroyed, the divisional commander Niu Yuanfeng committed suicide and Shen Ke's 106th Division was heavily damaged. These unpleasant experiences left Zhang scared.
Joining the Communists against Japan
Summing up the situation at the time, it can be judged that Zhang decided to cooperate with the Communists for three main reasons:
1. Fear of defeat. He was scared that if he carried on fighting then the Northeast Army would be finished. At the same time he also gradually came to believe that the Communists had the power to resist Japan.
2. The so-called democratic progressive figures in the Northeast at the time were all Communist sympathizers, for example, Yan Baohang, Gao Zhongmin, and Du Zhong-yuan, who regularly criticized Chiang Kai-shek as a dictator. They were worried that the Northeast Army would be bled dry. They suggested to Zhang that he cooperate with the Communists in resisting the Japanese and their opinions were bound to have an influence on him.
3. The United Front efforts of the CPC bore fruit. They put forward the Anti-Japanese National United Front strategy saying that "the Northeast Army have lost their province and seen their homes destroyed. The Communists are willing to help them fight their way to reclaim their lost homeland." Zhang and his Northeast Army could not but be affected.
Q: Why did Chiang want to first settle internal problems then deal with external problems? When exactly did he plan to resist the Japanese? Zhang Xueliang constantly felt that it was a shame that he hadn't had a chance to go up against the Japanese and before he was dispatched to blockade the Communists he had never actually fought against the Japanese. Even when his father was assassinated by the Japanese and the Northeast was taken over three years later by the Japanese after the Mukden Incident (18th September 1931) he never once resisted.
A: First look at why he didn't energetically resist the Japanese. After Zhang Zuolin was killed by the Japanese on 4th June, 1928, Zhang Xueliang was at a crossroads. The Japanese attempted to keep him away from the Nanjing government and offered to provide military and economic assistance to help him resist the Nanjing government's Northern Expedition. However, Zhang's father had been killed by the Japanese and he had the imperative of responding to national calamity and the murder of his father. He was unwilling to compromise with the Japanese and also had no desire to be a traitor. He also knew that he was not powerful enough to resist them alone and hoped to enlist the power of the whole country to get revenge. Consequently, he decided to fall in with the central government and all the Northeast Army's forces changed their allegiance to the flag of the center, taking China's unification one step further.
However, after joining the center, the Northeast was still partially independent. Its military and tax systems were autonomous and its taxes did not go into central government coffers; neither did the center provide support to the Northeast. As for the relationship between the Northeast and Japan, there were several hundred unresolved matters, the handling of which Zhang delayed and passed onto the central government. They, however, had no idea about how to handle these things that related to the Northeast and had no way of solving the problems. The Japanese became more and more impatient, the ambitions of the young guard in the Japanese army began to intensify and the situation became increasingly tense.
"Pledge to end national humiliation"
The events of 18th September were very ominous for China. The Western powers were at the time entering a depression and had no energy to interfere in the affairs of the East. Secondly, blockading of the Communists was underway in Jiangxi. The Nanjing-Guangdong split had occurred, when leading military and political figures established an alternative government after the arrest of Hu Hanmin. The Yangtze also flooded with calamitous consequences, leaving millions of people dead or dislocated. The central government really did not have the means to resist Japan at the time, which meant that Chiang had no alternative but to endure.
In 1928, after the 3rd March Incident in Jinan, Chiang had made a "pledge to end national humiliation." He took steps to train troops, buy aeroplanes, build airports, hire foreign military advisers, build railways and roads, and strengthen fortifications; he built 4000 bunkers around China and established a metals industry. In Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Henan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and other areas he established food stores, and built the Hunan-Guizhou-Yunnan Railway. All the above show that he was preparing to carry out long term resistance against the Japanese.
In actual fact, on several occasions when war seemed to be imminent he deployed his forces and prepared to fight. The first time was when the "28th January Incident" occurred in 1932 in Shanghai and the Japanese continued to increase their troop strength. Chiang sent dispatches exhorting all the officers and men to resist Japanese with all their might, and also divided up the country into four defense areas, with Zhang Xueling, himself, He Yingqin and Chen Jitang in charge of the government forces in each area. In the end the situation was defused after foreign mediation.The second time was in 1933 when Jehol Province fell and the Japanese suddenly broke through the Great Wall, with fighting breaking out along a wide front. At the time Chiang was in Jiangxi blockading the Communists but he immediately transferred forces and personally went north to lead approximately 250,000 troops in bitter fighting against better equipped Japanese forces. Just when the tide of battle had turned against the government forces, the Japanese assault faded and they settled with forcing the government to sign the humiliating "Tanggu Agreement," which stabilized the situation temporarily.
The third time was in 1935 when the Japanese forced the establishment of a North China Government in a bid to repeat their successful establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo in the Northeast. This prompted Chiang to issue a secret mobilization order and concentrate troops in the Nanjing and Shanghai areas and along the Gansu-Lianyungang Railway. He also ordered the Chairman of the Henan Provincial Government, Liu Zhi, to build barges for the crossing of the Yellow River in preparation to take the fight to the Japanese. He also issued the famous proclamation, "While there is still a chance of peace we will not give up hope, before the time for sacrifice has arrived we won't make sacrifices lightly," which clearly showed that China wanted peace with Japan but would no longer give way and the choice of peace or war was in the hands of the Japanese.
His obvious willingness to fight if necessary, and the fact that, with the London Naval Conference about to begin, elder statesmen in Japan were concerned about international opinion and wanted to prevent the "Northeast Autonomous Area" from becoming an issue, lead them to stop the Kwantung Army from expanding the war in China. Thus China had a chance to take a deep breath once more.
The government at the time estimated that preparations to resist the Japanese could be ready by 1939, but the Japanese would not wait for preparations to mature before attacking. In 1937, the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident" was the spark for the eruption of a full-scale war. This was clearly connected to the Xi'an Incident and was also a key event in deciding the later fortunes of the Communists.
Q: What do you mean?
A: After the Xi'an Incident the Japanese Navy put forward the Special Intelligence Report No.1 on 6th January 1937 which said that following the incident, "even if Chiang Kai-shek's acceptance of the eight demands made by Zhang Xueliang was just an expedient, at least he has listened to opinions calling for resistance against Japan," and it estimated that the central government would harden its anti-Japanese stance, which meant that the Japanese invasion of China would need to be brought forward. Eventually, seven months after the Xi'an Incident, they engineered the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident" and China and Japan entered a period of full-scale war, which gave the Communists a chance to expand and, after victory in the war against Japan, successfully grab power.
After the Xi'an Incident Zhang was imprisoned which caused large numbers of Northeast Army troops to defect to the Communists, planting the seeds of the civil war and the eventual fall of the mainland to the Communists. The Xi'an Incident played havoc with Chiang's plans, starting the chain of events which led to the current situation.
Looking from another angle, after the Communist Party of China had won power, if they had governed well, developed China, fulfilled the calls to "overtake the US and Britain," and improved the living conditions of the people, then even if Zhang had acted traitorously, even though his actions were morally flawed, the result of these actions would have been that China became rich and strong and he would still be a national hero to be revered through the ages. However, this has not been the reality.
The truth about the Xi'an Incident
Q: According to your research, is the Young Marshal a brave man who sacrificed everything to resist Japan's invasion of China, or did he miscalculate the situation and launch the Xi'an Incident because he had decided to co-operate with the Communists?
A: The detaining of Chiang was not a spur of the moment thing because before the incident he had been having secret contacts with the Communists and intended to join with them against the Japanese. If it wasn't for the fact that the Soviet Union did not support the CPC, Zhang and Yang and their plan to replace Chiang, history would have been completely different.
According to historical materials, documents and memoirs of participants in Zhang's contact and co-operation with the Communists released in recent years by the PRC government (for more details refer to my book's chronicle of the major events of 1936) the situation was like this-Zhang and the Communists secretly planned to establish a Northeast National Defense Government and an Anti-Japanese United Army, with the Communists planning to make Zhang head of the National Defense Government and commander-in-chief of the United Army, with the CPC as his back-up. Military efforts would mainly be carried out by the CPC armed forces, with the Northeast Army secretly providing cover. They would first take Ningxia, then move through Gansu to Mongolia and Xinjiang, to make a contiguous border between Communist-controlled territory and the Soviet Union. Then they would acquire control of Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Qinghai and announce the establishment of a National Defense Government and an Anti-Japanese United Army, then look to expand into the north, center and south of China.
According to this plan, the Communists attacked in early October 1936. However, the Central Army was able to respond quickly and when the Communist forces were about to cross the Yellow River and move west they were cut in half by forces led by Guan Lingwei at Jingyuan. Only a 25,000 strong force was able to make it to the west bank of the river to fight alone, and was destroyed four months later. The remaining forces that had not crossed over retreated east to the Shaanxi-Gansu border area. They were then surrounded on their east, west and south by forces led by Wang Jun, Hu Zhongnan, Guan Lingwei, Li Jilan and Shen Jiucheng. Facing the unforgiving desert in the north, their situation was desperate.
Zhang saw that the Communist forces were in dire straits and that no matter if the party dissolved, was destroyed or broke through the encirclement to go into exile, his original plan to join with them in resisting the Japanese would come to nothing and the facts about his secret dealings with the Communists would come out. If this happened he would have to answer the serious charges of treason and colluding with the enemy. Faced with this situation he launched the Xi'an Incident and took the supreme commander, Chiang Kai-shek, hostage.
In the beginning, of course the CPC supported Chiang's detention and heaped praise on Zhang, saying that the party "had been liberated from prison" (Mao Zedong's words). However the Comintern sent a telegram to the CPC on December 20th clearly stating that whatever Zhang's motives were for launching the Xi'an Incident, China's "Anti-Japanese National United Front has been damaged," and that this move had without doubt encouraged the Japanese to invade. Therefore, though the incident had already occurred, everything possible should be done to resolve it peacefully.
If Chiang had been held captive for a long time or had been killed then China would have seen a large-scale civil war erupt and this would have provided a good opportunity for Japan to realize its ambition of occupying China which would, on a strategic level, have threatened the Soviet Union. This is the main reason why the Soviet Union did not support the holding of Chiang. Moscow's attitude influenced the CPC's attitude towards the Xi'an Incident. Following the incident, telegrams condemning it flew across China and opinion was firmly against the holding of Chiang; these factors created a sharp turnaround in events and led to their peaceful conclusion with the release of Chiang on December 25th.
Q: The idea that Zhang launched the Xi'an Incident because he was secretly contacting the Communists and planning treason is a very bold judgement and is also a serious accusation. Is this your own unique view or do other historians hold similar views?
A: The fact that Zhang conspired to co-operate with the Communists and planned to set up a Northeast National Defense Government and the Anti- Japanese United Army, and that this eventually developed into the Xi'an Incident, is revealed by historical materials, so of course it's not my view alone. Similar ideas are introduced in detail in books by mainland scholars, for example, Yang Kuisong's book A New Investigation of the Xi'an Incident and Zhang Kuitang's Biography of Zhang Xueliang and Epics of Crisis Recovery-The Xi'an Incident. Professor Chiang Yung-ching and Professsor Liu Wei-kai from Taiwan have both published articles with in-depth analysis of the process which saw Zhang move from co-operating with the Communists to launching the Xi'an Incident, and they put their case very clearly.
Q: Looking overall at Zhang's life, which are the most significant, his achievements or his errors?
A: Joining the central government in 1928 and ending the Central Plains War in 1930 were of major value in the development of China. However the 1936 Xi'an Incident was a mortal blow to both the KMT and the national government. However it was of incalculable value to the CPC. It is still difficult to decide whether his achievements outweigh his errors, or the positive outweighs the negative. As to how scholars in the future will see this question, I don't know.
A photo of a vigorous young Zhang Xueliang.
Chiang Kai-shek and Zhang Xueliang were very close and Zhang was one of the few outsiders who was allowed into Chiang's bedroom. However, because of the Xi'an Incident the two became estranged. After Chiang died Zhang wrote, in his own hand, the words "The solicitude of close relatives, the political struggles of enemies," in front of the coffin. The photo shows Generalissimo Chiang and Zhang together when Zhang was the commander of Field Headquarters in Wuchang.
A photo of Zhang (left) and Yang Hucheng before the Xi'an Incident. The fates of the two after the incident were very different and Yang was executed by personnel from one of the KMT government's secret service organs in 1949.
Knowing that his fate was unsure, before joining Chiang in returning to Nanjing, Zhang left instructions to all the North East Army's divisional commanders to obey the orders of second-in-command Yang and army commander Yu Xuezhong.