What was the Northern Expedition? Was it, as some acclaimed, the Great National Revolution? For some Marxists, the term “national” referred to a phase of necessary bourgeois development that would precede the more significant work of the Social Revolution. For Kuomintang members and others influenced by the West, nationhood was a state of community togetherness that strengthened the modern world powers. The goals of the Northern Expedition of 1926–1928 are as encompassing as was Chinese nationalism in the 1920s. The arguments favoring nationhood differed then widely according to individual levels of education, “modernization,” and politicization. It may be easier to describe what it was against than what nationalism was for. Those promoting the expedition and the national movement were opposed to the status quo. Dismal decades of defeat as the Ch’ing regime fell apart had shattered the Chinese self-satisfaction. The failure of the revolutionaries after 1911 to reintegrate and reorder the Chinese state led to continuing disappointment and disillusionment. Both idealistic Chinese youth and their elders craved some improvement from the enervating disunity. The many military governors in their provinces marched their mercenaries and seemed more bent on grabbing from fellow Chinese than they were anxious over the greed of foreign imperialists. China’s “loss of face” in the world community was sensed mainly by those most aware of the outside world. Keeping fresh the disgrace of Japan’s gains from Yuan Shih-k’ai, the nationalists who commemorated National Humiliation Day were not the peasants hoeing in the field. By the launching x of the expedition in 1926, the National Revolution was an inclusive multilevel movement.
In order to achieve national reunification, the Northern Expedition of necessity became a “many splendored thing,” gathering in as many dissident elements as possible. Judging the success or tragedy of such a union was left to a later period. The only demand shared by all the participants was for a new, more integrated political system for China, one that would replace the existing, defenseless, kaleidoscopic patchwork of warlord satrapies.
The young elite educated in modern ways who gathered in the treaty ports were among the most aware of nationalism. Although but a tiny part of China’s millions, they were articulate, enthusiastic, and idealistic—if rather inexperienced and impractical. But in the search for new alternatives, even this elite element lacked homogeneity, for some saw strength in national unity while others envisioned a social struggle among Chinese that would revitalize China. The symbol of their common desire for a stronger China and their divergence over means to that end was the United Front of the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party from 1923 to 1927.
Also wanting a new chance for their plans were republicans, federalists, constitutionalists, and provincial autonomists. They, too, generally chafed under warlord rulers who were too strong for civilians to oust but too weak to resist the demands and bribes of foreign powers. Frustrated with his own impotence in Chinese politics, Sun Yat-sen had learned through bitter experience and forced exile that he would have to attract allies of all stripes. Although a symbol of nationalism for many, Sun allied himself with Kwangtung militarist Ch’en Chiung-ming and made overtures to regional overlords, such as Chang Tso-lin. Desperate to find means to pull Chinese together in a common cause, Sun had espoused provincial autonomy in federalism in 1921, but rejected them as the tide of nationalism swelled. In 1926 Chiang Kai-shek and other patrons of the military campaign resurrected them once again. With his experience in the outside world, Sun sought patronage from the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and finally from the Soviet Union. Sun then accepted Russia’s offer of aid free of imperialistic demands, but did not exclude the possibility of a rapprochement with the others.
The controversy as to whether Sun was a socialist, Communist, or a hybrid will be outside the scope of this study. Adherents of those ideological variants were gathered into the ranks of the national revolutionaries. The point to be introduced here is that the so-called National Revolution and its military phase, the Northern Expedition, cannot be labeled neatly as entirely nationalistic, socialistic, or opportunistic. Instead, the movement was a loose coalition of Chinese elites who were at least nationwide in their origins, if not nationalized according to Western specifications. They did share a righteous indignation over the treatment meted out to the disunited Chinese people by the foreign powers and their merchants. Only reunification could return to China the strength to determine her own destiny. Since it had become apparent that the armed forces of the warlords xicould only be overcome by military means, a new war would have to be waged to remove them as obstacles to reunification. Those militarists who would recognize the authority of the Kuomintang in national affairs could be eased into the movement as representing the interest of the people in their provinces.
The advantage of such an inclusive approach was its ability to quickly incorporate any who could contribute to the rapid reunification of China. Its weakness was to be the lack of a dynamic ideology that could keep the participants united and this led to misunderstanding and factionalism. Beyond the facade formed by these multifarious elites lay the vast masses of Chinese peasantry and the smaller clusterings of urban proletariats. How deeply did the desire for nationhood penetrate among them? Were the Chinese people as a whole responsive to the modern slogans of nationalism? The role of these peasants and workers received much publicity from Marxists and Trotskyites, which was what initially attracted my attention to the expedition. My evaluation of their role in the National Revolution is the most revisionistic or iconoclastic aspect of this study.
Differentiating the Kuomintang’s campaign of 1926–1928 from several prior abortive efforts by Sun Yat-sen was the more consolidated base in Kwangtung from which it was launched. Part 1 of this introductory survey of the expedition outlines the main features of the Revolutionary Base, where developed the Kuomintang’s Whampoa Academy and from where its Party Army spread Party rule in that key southern province. Although the Chinese Communists were part of the United Front, operating first in Kwangtung and then in the opening phase of the expedition, this study will not feature their parallel development as a party in those years. Instead, the focus will center on the Kuomintang as the promoter of the military campaign, albeit the Russian military advisors were ubiquitous once they were resigned to its commencement.
There has been no military account of the progress of the expedition available in the West, and even the Kuomintang’s chronicle is quite limited in its scope, and so Part 2 will describe the geographic parameters and the combatants, and will evaluate the intensity of the civil war. It became apparent during my research that the conflict was bloody and desperate at points, although this aspect had been ignored by political observers antagonistic to the military leadership. Initially I had searched for evidence to support the fascinating polemic of Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, from which I assumed that Communist-led mass organizations had overcome warlord forces ahead of the Party Army. Had the reunification been accomplished by peasant and worker propagandists rushing north? Had this political success set the style for the victories of Asian Communists later? If the masses were so all-powerful under Communist direction, then how can we make sense of their successive uprisings that failed from the spring of 1927 in Shanghai, through the summer in Hunan, at Nanchang, Swatow, and finally to the debacle at Canton in December? Had the Marxists been overly optimistic as to the politicization of the peasantry in their rush to apply political formulas to Chinese conditions? xii As my research progressed, especially in Communist materials, I found that while the mass organizations had aided the Party Army at particular points in 1925 and 1926, there had been a side to the mass movement that had been disruptive to the goal of military reunification of China. If the masses had been so crucial to the rise of Chiang Kai-shek in 1925, then why had he lost his initial enthusiasm for mass organizations? Less publicized was the success of the Party Army’s friendly approach toward the unorganized civilians of the countryside through which it fought.
Part 4 deals with these political efforts of the National Revolutionary Army, which evolved from the Party Army. The Political Departments of army units indoctrinated Kuomintang troops in correct ideology and behavior toward civilians, combining practical Chinese means with the latest Comintern techniques. Western concepts blended with the nineteenth-century practices of Tseng Kuo-fan, admired by Mao Tse-tung as well as by Chiang Kai-shek. Among the future Chinese Communist leaders who gained experience in political work at Canton and then on the expedition were not only Mao, but Chou En-lai, Liu Shao-ch’i, Li Li-san, Chu Teh, Lin Piao, and many others. The lessons learned both by the Communists and the Kuomintang influenced their later responses.
Taoists claimed, “In victory there is defeat, and in defeat there is victory.” This seems particularly suited to the Northern Expedition where the contributions made by warlord defectors speeded the national reunification but left the Kuomintang with one cause of its later decline. Part 5 outlines the Kuomintang’s tactics to subvert warlord subordinates and entice them into the ranks of the expansive National Revolutionary Army. One Party leader whom I interviewed, Sun Fo, explained to me that the gathering of these military forces increased the military potential of the Kuomintang and allowed the expeditionary forces to reach the Manchurian border within two years. This timetable, according to Sun Fo, was more dependent on the defections than on any other single factor.
Researching the Northern Expedition and the myriad of related topics reveals a skeletal outline, but one thin on details in many places. The problem of inaccessibility and loss of materials has been frustrating. Crates of Party records and reports were lost during the rapid retreat from Nanking in 1937. The Communists likewise lost much in quick departures from Shanghai, Canton, and elsewhere in 1927 and then in the Long March across the wilds of western China to Yenan. Also, despite the military victory of the Kuomintang by 1928, the collection of oral history from the survivors is hampered by either their malodorous connections with warlords or their involvement in the factional struggles that wracked the Kuomintang, leaving scars still tender, however well hidden. Thus, ex-Political Department workers are reluctant to recall their cooperation with Communists before 1927, or their participation in the mass movements that became taboo from mid-1927 on. Strangely enough, Kuomintang agencies supplied me more data on the Communist version of the expedition than on their own. Perhaps when some of the key participants have xiiipassed from positions of leadership, both in Taiwan and Peking, really useful materials may be more “conveniently” released.
In the meantime, this study has been based on a wide variety of official and private memoirs, published documents, archival materials, observations in Chinese and foreign newspapers, and oral history. As an outline it provides clues and questions, if not all the answers. Although these materials from university libraries, Hong Kong’s Supreme Court Library, centers in Taiwan, publications from Peking, the Hoover Institution’s East Asian Collection, the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington, records of the British Foreign Office, and French archives may be only the visible portion of the iceberg, some tentative conclusions can be made. Hopefully, this “draft outline,” as a Chinese scholar should classify his work, will stir enough controversy to stimulate further study. xiv