Xi'an Incident

Xi'an Incident

The Xi'an Incident of December 1936 (zh-tsp|t=西安事變|s=西安事变|p=Xī'ān Shìbìan) is an important episode of Chinese modern history, taking place in the city of Xi'an during the Chinese Civil War between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the rebel Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and just before the Second Sino-Japanese War. On 12 December 1936, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the KMT was suddenly arrested and kidnapped by Marshal Zhang Xueliang, a former warlord of Manchuria, then Japan-occupied Manchukuo. The incident led the Nationalists and the Communists to make peace so that the two could form a united front against the increasing threat posed by Japan. Some facts about the incident still remain unclear as most of the parties involved died without revealing in detail what happened during those chaotic few weeks. Thus, there are controversies over the causes, events and effects of this incident.


Zhang Xueliang, known also as The Young Marshal, was the son of Zhang Zuolin warlord of Manchuria in northeast China. For sometime before the KMT-led China-uniting Northern Expedition, the elder Zhang was being quietly supported by the Japanese government. When it became imminent that the advancing Expedition forces would defeat Zhang and thus threaten Japanese interests in Manchuria, rogue elements within the Kantogun (Japan's Army in Manchuria) forcibly halted the Expedition at Ji'nan and assassinated Zhang on the grounds that he was an unreliable ally, hoping to capitalise on the confusion caused by his death. They miscalculated however, and his son quickly pledged his allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek, turning his forces over to KMT control and supported Chiang in his war of unification against other warlords such as Li Zongren, Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan. As a reward, Zhang remained ruler of Manchuria and even extended his influence to Northern China around Beijing and Hebei. Following the Mukden Incident of 1931, when the Japanese invaded and took full and direct control over Manchuria, forcing Zhang, his army and all other Chinese to evacuate, the public placed the responsibility of the disaster on Zhang, who suffered great humiliation in China. By 1936 then, his father's assassination and the loss of his homeland made Zhang into an ardent opponent of the Japanese.

Zhang left China for military training in Europe. After his return, Zhang and his Northeastern China Army were sent to Anhui and Hubei to suppress the Red Army of the Communist Party of China. The CPC was forced on the Long March after suffering heavy losses and then set up another base in Yan'an, Shaanxi. Zhang and his troops were transferred to Shaanxi again for suppression in 1936, where he worked with General Yang Hucheng, who used to be a general of Northwestern China Army and a favorite of Feng Yuxiang but later defected to Chiang’s camp.

Zhang and Yang suffered great losses in their attempted suppression of the CPC, and Chiang did not give them any support in manpower and weaponry. It was quite natural for them to think Chiang would take advantage of CPC’s resistance to eliminate their own armies, which were not of Chiang’s own Whampoa Clique. Zhang and Yang began to contact the CPC secretly, and overtly agreed with while covertly opposing Chiang’s policies. Zhang and Yang reached an agreement with CPC for temporary peace. CPC even sent many members to work for Yang.

At the same time, the tension between China and Japan rose day by day. Japan was hoping to conquer China in its entirety by invading vast areas of Northern China. Japanese troops fought against KMT troops along the Great Wall in 1933. Then in 1935, under the accord signed between He Yingqin, the commander of KMT armies in Northern China, and Yoshijiro Umezu, the commander of Japanese troops in Northern China, elite KMT troops related to the group Blue Shirts Society, core of Chiang’s Whampoa Clique, had to evacuate from Beijing and Northern China, which put the whole of Northern China under direct threat of Japanese invasion. But Chiang preferred to unite China by eliminating the warlords and CPC forces first. Chiang believed that he was still too weak to launch an offensive to chase out Japan and that China needed time for a military build-up. Only after unification would it be possible for the KMT to mobilize a war against Japan. So he would rather ignore the discontent and anger among Chinese people at his policy of compromise with the Japanese, and urged Zhang and Yang to carry out suppression efficiently.

Meanwhile, Stalin and his Soviet Union in the 1920s and early of 1930s stood by Japan’s invasion of China at first, for they had also invaded Manchuria and waged a war against Zhang and his father. The Soviets were hoping to make their own territorial gains at the expense of China, dividing it with the JapaneseFact|date=June 2007 as they would do later with Germany over Poland in Europe. Soon the Soviets became wary of the Japanese ambition and success, fearing it might hurt Soviet interests in the Far East. Then, Stalin began to favor a stronger Chinese resistance to Japan.

Under the authorization of Stalin and Comintern, the delegation of CPC to Comintern led by Wang Ming issued a manifesto urging Chinese to set up a new united front against the Japanese, which was later called the August 1st Manifesto. In this manifesto, Wang acknowledged that the archenemy of CPC at the present stage was Japan instead of Chiang. But this received a cold shoulder from Mao Zedong and his associates, who ruled CPC and greatly disagreed with Chiang's policies.

These were the complicated situations of, and relationships between, the domestic and foreign parties which preceded the incident.


On 22 October 1936, Chiang flew to Xian from Nanjing and announced his new plan of suppression of the communist forces, raising opposition from both Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng. On 4 December 1936, Chiang came to Xian again, accompanied by many of senior KMT leaders including Chen Cheng to monitor the suppression campaign. In the interim between these two visits the Japanese backed Inner Mongolian Army had tried to invade Suiyuan. This invasion and had been defeated by the Chinese in the Suiyuan Campaign, the success giving many Chinese the belief that it was possible and necessary to resist the Japanese. [Guo Rugui,中国抗日战争正面战场作战记 ,第二部分:从“九一八”事变到西安事变 绥远抗战的巨大影响和军事上的经验]

After unsuccessfully attempting to persuade Chiang to voluntarily join forces with the CPC to meet the impending threat of Japan, Zhang and Yang finally decided to take matters into their own hands. In the early hours of 12 December 1936, Chiang and his entourage were arrested by Zhang's bodyguards. During the arrest, Shao Yuanchong ( _zh. 邵元冲 in Chinese), the incumbent minister of the propaganda department of the KMT, died after he was hit in his testicles while attempting to climb over a fence. Colonel Jiang Xiaoxian ( _zh. 蒋孝先 in Chinese), Chiang’s nephew and bodyguard, was also killed during the chaos for past grievances.

Misperceived as a coup by Zhang, news of the incident shocked the world. But Zhang and Yang had a different plan. While the country was reeling in confusion, they contacted the CPC and requested a delegation be sent to Xian to discuss Chiang’s fate and that of the whole of China.

There was great disagreement within both the CPC and KMT on how to handle the incident. In KMT, senior leaders decided to set up an acting commission for resolution. Chiang’s wife Soong May-ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek, _zh. 宋美齡) was excluded from this commission although she desperately asked for a peace negotiation. General Tung Cheuk Heem was appointed to take charge of military. His role was quite controversial. He was voted as acting commander to lead the KMT armies for the rescue of Chiang. Historians used to say that He Yingqin strongly supported solving this incident by force, for which He contacted Wang Jingwei asking him back to China to take charge of KMT. Two armies were marched to Xian to fight Zhang’s army. It has been said that when Madam Chiang came to him to ask for a peaceful solution, He refused her on the grounds of her being a woman with little knowledge of politics who should stay out of state issues.Citequote New evidence suggests that it was actually the Whampoa clique, especially the young and extremist officers of the Blue Shirts Society, that intended to launch military attacks against Zhang, even though He Yingqin rejected their request for military support. The radical young officers of the Blue Shirts Society and Whampoa clique could not wait for the decisions made by their senior leaders and launched expeditions against Zhang's forces. Although he did not support the young officers in public, his connivance did promote conditions calling for Chiang's death. However, warlords such as Li Zongren and Yan Xishan who used to oppose Chiang, did not want Chiang to die. They knew that if they advocated the execution of Chiang, Japan would benefit the most from a China without a national leader. These warlord generals sent their telegrams of reprimand to Zhang Xueliang and Yang and voiced their support of Chiang. Furthermore, most of the western powers, such as the United States and United Kingdom, preferred a peaceful resolution to the incident, for they regarded Chiang as the ideal person to govern China.

In the CPC, there were two opinions as well. Most of the leaders such as Mao and Zhu De proposed the execution of Chiang for his suppressions, which had damaged the CPC immensely. Some of them, such as Zhou Enlai and Zhang Wentian, did realize it could bring more damage to the anti-Japan movement if Chiang was executed. At last they only made a resolution to send a delegation consisting of senior leaders such as Zhou, Ye Jianying and Qin Bangxian to Xian at the request of Zhang and Yang.

As the fury over Chiang and pressure for his execution intensified among the CPC members and armies of Zhang and Yang, the situation worsened for Chiang. Madam Chiang did not believe that the KMT would be effective in freeing her husband. Thus, on 14 December 1936, Madam Chiang sent her Australian adviser, who also used to be Zhang’s adviser, to Xian for negotiation. The winds began to change his way after Stalin gave his guidance on this incident. Stalin believed that Chiang's execution would not be beneficial to either Chinese resistance to Japan or Soviet interests in the Far East. Desperately in need of Soviet aid, Mao relented to Stalin’s opinion and showed his enthusiasm for peace talks. On 17 December 1936, the CPC delegation was sent to Xian and met with Zhang and Yang to find a peaceful resolution. On 22 December 1936, Madam Chiang and her elder brother T.V. Soong flew to Xian to meet the CPC delegation, Zhang, and Yang. On 24 December 1936, the parties reached an agreement to establish a united front against Japan and to release prisoners accused of inciting anti-Japanese riots. The next day, Chiang and his entourage were released. Zhang escorted him back to Nanjing, although Zhou expressed his concern.


Although Chiang described his perseverance during the ordeal in "Half Month In Xian", parts of his journal were clearly fabricated. In his diary, Chiang described it as the greatest humiliation of his life--thus it was no surprise that he would later seek to take revenge on Zhang. As Chiang was the legitimate premier of China at that time, Zhang’s actions could be characterized as treasonous. Although some argued for a public trial, Chiang insisted on trying Zhang in a military court. Zhang was sentenced to ten years in prison, with Chiang quickly granting amnesty but nevertheless keeping Zhang in custody.

Zhang was incarcerated for most of the rest of his life, and his armies disbanded in the meantime; he did not publicly reveal any more details about the incident and died in 2001. Zhou Enlai publicly expressed his regrets about the incident, while Zhang privately told others that he felt that the CPC had betrayed him, insofar as his actions had saved the CPC from annihilation but they had put Zhang in custody anyway. Furthermore, Zhang’s real status and beliefs are still in question. Zhang’s enthusiasm for communism was no secret; he applied for membership in the CPC. According to the biography of Zhou, however, Zhou told others that Zhang’s application was opposed by Stalin, as he thought Zhang's status as a warlord made him a poor candidate for CPC membership. New theories argue that Zhang was indeed a CPC member, but that his status was kept secret so that only a few people, such as Zhou and Ye Jianying, knew about it. With eyewitnesses passing away, Zhang's true status may remain unknown. If Zhang’s CPC membership were ever to be verified, the history of the Xi'an Incident would probably be rewritten as a CPC conspiracy (as opposed to a spontaneous act motivated by patriotism).

Yang Hucheng probably lost the most in the incident, as he was removed from his position and sent abroad for "review"; later, he was held in a concentration camp for 13 years. When the KMT retreated to Taiwan, Chiang ordered the execution of Yang, his wife and his son as a small child.

It is generally accepted that the CPC benefited the most from the incident. Chiang held up his end of the peace agreement and suspended anti-Communist operations until the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War in 1945, with Mao exploiting the interlude, enlarging his base and strengthening his grip on power. By conforming to Soviet policy, Mao also appeased Stalin and avoided his further interference. Finally, the CPC won considerable support from the Chinese people for being open advocates of the anti-Japanese United Front. All of this laid a foundation for the CPC’s victory over the KMT after the end of the anti-Japanese war.



* Chiang Kai-shek, "Half Month in Xian"
* Gao Wenqian, "Later Years Of Zhou EnLai"
* JUNG CHANG and JON HOLLIDAY, "MAO – the untold Story"
* Fenby, Jonathian, "Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation he Lost"
* Koutsoukis, A.J. "From Samurai to Sanyo: A History of Modern Japan"
* 中国抗日战争正面战场作战记 (China's Anti-Japanese War Combat Operations)
** Guo Rugui, editor-in-chief Huang Yuzhang
** Jiangsu People's Publishing House
** Date published : 2005-7-1
** ISBN:7214030349
** Online in Chinese: http://www.wehoo.net/book/wlwh/a30012/A0170.htm
*** [http://www.wehoo.net/book/wlwh/a30012/04582.htm 第二部分:从“九一八”事变到西安事变 绥远抗战的巨大影响和军事上的经验]
*** Part II : From the "9/18" emergency to the Xi'an Incident Suiyuan Resistance War's huge influence and military experience

ee also

* Chiang Kai-shek
* Zhang Xueliang
* History of the Republic of China
* Central Plains War
* Madame Chiang Kai-shek
* Second Sino-Japanese War
* Military of the Republic of China
* Politics of the Republic of China
* Sino-German cooperation
* Chinese Nationalism
* History of China
* Kuomintang

External links

* [http://www.theepochtimes.com/news/4-12-13/24830.html On the Beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party]
* [http://www.republicanchina.org/terror.html#xian Xi'An Incident - Turning Point Of Modern History]

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