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The KMT Military:
Party Army, Confederation, or Hegemony?

Although the Whampoa Academy had been created to provide the nucleus for the Party Army, Sun Yat-sen and some of his disciples concluded that the KMT needed military muscle more quickly than could be generated solely from the new academy. In the past, the conquest of China’s disinte­grated vastness forced dynastic founders to depend on alliances of military forces. For the same reason, the Canton regime sought to gather military allies outside the Revolutionary Base. In the early 1920s Sun had allied himself with Ch’en Chiung-ming and other southern militarists, and after Sun’s death the gathering in of military allies accelerated. The only ele­ment spiritually and materially tied to the KMT was the First Army, or Party Army. In 1925, after the establishment of the KMT’s National Government at Canton, its heterogeneous military system proliferated.

On August 26, 1925, four separate provincial forces, each built around an individual leader, joined with the Party Army under the new name of the National Revolutionary Army. At this time the Party Army was officially numbered the First Army, and the other units each received a number as an “army.” These first four allied armies and their leaders exemplify the diversity that characterized the KMT military camp at this time. The stories of these commanders are as complex as the era and will be outlined only briefly.

The Second Army, a force of about 15,000 Hunanese, joined the NRA through a KMT stalwart—T’an Yen-k’ai. At the age of forty-nine in 1925, 23T’an’s career reflected China’s experience of the past half century. He had entered the Ch’ing bureaucracy through the Imperial Examinations as a chin-shih degree holder and was appointed a compiler in the Hanlin Academy. Although his upward mobility would have been prohibited under a strong dynasty, T’an managed to rise in his own province, a sign of the decline in Peking’s authority. Pressed by reformers, the Ch’ing con­ceded to the formation of provincial assemblies in 1909, and in 1910 T’an Yen-k’ai became chairman of the new Hunan Provincial Assembly. It was in this position that he came under KMT influence. After the 1911 revolu­tion, T’an stayed on in his home province where he led an armed revolt against Yüan Shih-k’ai when Yüan attempted to become the new monarch of the province. By 1918 T’an was the civil-military governor of Hunan in control of a Hunan militia,1 and a proponent of provincial autonomy within a federation—as was Mao Tse-tung in the early 1920s.2

When ousted by stronger northern military forces, T’an and his troops gravitated across the border into Kwangtung to join with Sun Yat-sen. Although, in 1922, T’an had supported Sun in vain against the “rebellion” of Ch’en Chiung-ming, his military potential and political prestige were such that he soon was elected to the KMT’s Central Executive Committee. At this time, he managed to incorporate into his force a defeated Hunanese unit. By the time his troops became the Second Army, T’an had been appointed to the KMT’s high-level Political and Military councils.3 In late 1924 when Sun Yat-sen went to Peking to seek cooperation from the northern militarists, T’an attempted a supportive campaign to conquer Kiangsi and Hunan, but failed.4

The Third Army, like the Second and most of the other corps in China, was composed of fellow provincials—in this case from Yunnan. As was endemic in China, provincialism had risen while central authority disin­tegrated. Topography, self-sufficiency, dialects—all had played a role in the breaking apart of China; but then, in 1925, it was, ironically, provincial armies that helped to recentralize politics at the expense of the provinces. The Yunnanese of the Third Army took orders from Chu P’ei-teh, and included some who defected to the KMT during its victories in Kwangtung in mid-1925. Others had been absorbed into the corps after their defeat in June.5 Chu had been educated at the Yunnan Military Academy and then had gone on to a command in the provincial military system. Chu’s loyalty to Sun had been demonstrated when he brought Yunnanese troops to Sun’s aid during the struggle with Ch’en Chiung-ming. Considered reliable, Chu rose in status through his appointment as commander to the Third Army and membership in the Party’s Central Executive Committee.

A Kwangtung force controlled by Li Chi-shen became the Fourth Army. Favoring Li were his connections with Kwangsi military leaders Li Tsung-jen and Huang Shao-hsiung, as well as his continuing membership in the KMT and his experience as dean of Military Instruction at Whampoa Academy.6 When, in late 1925, the Hong Kong Strike organization was temporarily cut back, some strikers were transferred to the Fourth Army. Later in March 1926 when Chiang cleared Communists from the First 24Army and the academy, these, too, found themselves enrolled under Li’s supervision. Perhaps it was due to Li’s reliability in the eyes of Chiang that the Fourth Army in both cases received the CCP elements. Li’s chief of staff was Yeh T’ing, destined to become a founder of the future Red Army, who gained command of his Independent Regiment in the Fourth Army, a unit made up primarily of ex-Hong Kong strikers.7 Yeh, a Kwangtung native, had graduated from the prestigious Paoting Military Academy; he later served with Sun Yat-sen’s guards at Canton in 1922, and then went to Moscow to study in 1924. While at the University for the Toiling Workers of the East and at a military school, Yeh joined the Chinese Communist Party. Upon Yeh’s return to Canton, at the age of twenty-seven, he was appointed Li Chi-sen’s chief of staff.8 The Fourth Army saw early and continuous action in the Northern Expedition, and Yeh’s regiment has been immortalized in CCP histories as part of the vanguard of the future Red Army.

The Fifth Army of the NRA was commanded by Li Fu-lin, a Cantonese with experience as an anti-Manchu “bandit” leader. Li joined the T’ung-meng hui in 1908, and participated in the abortive revolt preceding the Revolution of 1911. In the postrevolutionary political flux, he gathered together a force of Fukienese and some Cantonese that operated in the Pearl River delta.9 Li also had ties with a non-KMT Merchant Corps, which made him suspect in the eyes of the Russian advisors of 1925.10 By that year, although Li’s Fifth Army ranked as the largest “army” in the NRA, he had managed to block the entry into it of Russian advisors and the KMT’s required Party Representatives. It was not until six months after the incorporation of the Fifth Army that Li accepted a Party Representative of his choice who was to set up the system of Political Departments. In March 1926, the KMT appointed as Party Representative to the Fifth Army Li Lang-ju, a Cantonese merchant who dealt in medicines.11 With Li Fu-lin’s influence centered on Honan Island across from Canton, the Fifth Army was probably most useful to the Canton regime as a means of controlling the rapacious bandits and pirates of the estuary and nearby coast.

As KMT victories expanded Party control in Kwangtung, the NRA added defeated and defected forces. On November 14, 1925, the Sixth Army, made up of Hunanese, was reorganized from forces defeated in the Second Eastern Expedition and put under the command of a fellow provincial, Ch’eng Ch’ien.12 Ch’eng, trained in his native province’s Hunan Military Service School, had also studied in Japan. In 1916 he fought with the Hunan militia against Yüan Shih-k’ai.13 From 1923 on, Ch’eng was an officer in Sun Yat-sen’s General Military Headquarters; when appointed to head the Sixth Army he was forty-three.14

The incorporation of a force of 30,000 Kwangsi troops as the Seventh Army in February 1926 was but a part of the broader strategy of bringing neighboring Kwangsi into the KMT fold. By then, Chiang Kai-shek was emerging as the KMT’s leading military man and, as he became less and less compliant to the influence of Borodin and the CCP, they felt the KMT-CCP alliance to be threatened. By the time Borodin discreetly left 25Canton in early February, the CCP had begun spreading rumors that Chiang was dealing with the northern warlords and the Japanese.15

Chiang’s rise forced the KMT and their allies to a decision on the military reunification of China, which Chiang fervently promoted. Chiang Kai-shek had pushed the expansion of the KMT’s military “confederation” and the centralization of authority necessary to integrate such a heterogeneous force for the conquest of China. In mid-February, agents of the Kwangsi military leaders, Li Tsung-jen, Huang Shao-hsiung, and Pai Ch’ung-hsi, negotiated with Canton, as did T’ang Sheng-chih who led a division in nearby southern Hunan.16 An important aspect of the bargain­ing was the amount of provincial autonomy the KMT could promise to potential military governors.

This expansion of KMT influence outside Kwantung favored Chiang since it added to his military machine and forced the Party to commit its support to a northern expedition in the near future. Since the northern warlords would respond defensively, Chiang and those who wanted to speed up the timetable for moving north out of the Revolutionary Base also sought in February 1926 to bring the Hong Kong Strike under closer control so as not to prejudice production of goods necessary for the military campaign. On the twenty-fourth, the same day that the National Govern­ment set up a committee for the unification of Kwangsi and Kwangtung, Chiang asked the CEC to “… decide as soon as possible the matter of plans for the Northern Expedition and whether to assist the Kuominchün [Feng Yü-hsiang’s army] in the northwest.”17

National Government chairman Wang Ching-wei apparently went to Kwangsi to represent Canton in the negotiation to bring that province into the KMT orbit. To the Kwangsi generals, Wang promised military and financial aid as an incentive for the joining of the two provinces. The Provincial Government Committee, required by KMT practices, that was to administer Kwangsi was to be a compromise between provincial au­tonomy and centralization under KMT’s National Government. This wil­lingness on the part of Canton to compromise with provincial autonomists set a precedent for dealings with provincial leaders later—a policy born of exigency but inconsistent with the goals of nationalization. Thus, the committee membership included two civilian officials, three KMT gener­als, and three Kwangsi generals (Li, Pai, and Huang). The agreement made Canton predominant in all judicial, diplomatic, and financial affairs. For Canton and especially for Chiang, there were the advantages of increased military potential, security from a Kwangsi attack, and through Li and Pai a wider range of possible connections with Paoting classmates, such as T’ang Sheng-chih in Hunan.18 The unification of the two provinces reached formalization on March 15, 1926, when Huang Shao-hsiung took an oath of office as a member of the National Government Committee.19

Shortly after the incorporation of the Seventh Army of Kwangsi, agents of the KMT met with T’ang Sheng-chih, whose three brigades in southern Hunan were supposedly allied with Wu P’ei-fu. Since T’ang’s units made him the strongest single elment in the four-division Hunan Army under 26Wu’s governor Chao Heng-t’i, he was a valuable point of entry for Canton into Hunan—and thus to the Yangtze basin. Politics in Hunan were rather confused, as were warlord politics elsewhere, in that Governor Chao held the province through Wu, the overlord of Central China, but local military power was divided between T’ang’s Fourth Division and the Third Divi­sion of his provincial rival, Yeh K’ai-hsin.20 Chao hoped to centralize provincial affairs under his own direct control.

The KMT’s contact with T’ang exemplifies the advantages in a nation­wide membership combined with the traditional personal ties within the Party. Canton assigned Liu Wen-tao, like T’ang a Hunanese graduate of Paoting, to be special emissary between the Party and T’ang. Their negoti­ations were further eased by other Paoting alumni, Li Tsung-jen and Pai Ch’ung-hsi.21 By February 18, 1926, T’ang’s anxieties over his ambitious superior, Governor Chao Heng-t’i, as well as some interest in the National Revolution, prompted him to send his agents to Canton to discuss terms.22 By the time that T’ang forced Governor Chao to retreat from Changsha, the Hunan capital, to Hankow in Hupei on February 24, the affiliation with Canton must have been completed. On the same day, Chiang ordered plans for the Northern Expedition, and Canton set up the committee to unite Kwangsi with Kwangtung.23 Continuing to expand his foothold in Hunan, T’ang attacked rival General Yeh K’ai-hsin at Yüehchou on the twenty-eighth. When he suffered reverses against Yeh in early March 1926 it was to the KMT that T’ang telegraphed for reinforcements.24 In particu­lar T’ang appealed to T’an Yen-k’ai’s Second Army—the Hunanese ele­ment in the NRA—in a tactic intended to smooth over future rivalry in Hunan.

In order to fill T’ang’s request for aid, the KMT not only had to be willing to commit its resources in Hunan, but also to open hostilities against Hunan’s overlord, Wu P’ei-fu. In early March, the KMT had not so committed its support, nor had T’ang formally submitted to Canton’s authority in Hunan. At that point, within the KMT, the factions split over the Northern Expedition and decision-making was slowed. The CCP, under Russian direction and supported by some KMT Leftists, opposed placing national reunification ahead of local social revolution. Chiang’s March 20 coup checked the CCP and others opposed to the expedition and reopened the way toward a final agreement between Canton and T’ang in Hunan. That coup will be outlined later. Within but a few days, on March 25, T’ang accepted the position of acting governor of Hunan from suppor­ters in Hunan’s Provincial Assembly. It was not until early June, when Canton had fulfilled its earlier promise of providing reinforcements, that he finalized his alliance with the KMT. Upon this accomplishment, T’ang exchanged the title of commander of a division for commander of the NRA’s Eighth Army, the KMT’s reward for defection. T’ang was also able to rise in the Hunan political structure from acting governor and head of the provin­cial Department of the Interior to the provisional governor of Hunan through the authority of the KMT’s National Government at Canton.25

In late March 1926, T’ang commenced an attack against Yüehchou, 27Hunan, in the name of the KMT, an action that committed Canton in Central China and pushed the Party to launch the Northern Expedition. At that time the KMT opened its campaign of propaganda against Wu P’ei-fu. In Hunan his subordinates warned Wu to reinforce his southern flank against the KMT; however, the KMT was able to take advantage of Wu’s absence from Hunan-Hupei and his preoccupation with an on-going strug­gle in North China.


1. China Yearbook 1928, p. 1158.

2. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 224.

3. Kuowen (March 14, 1926), p. 44. Interview with Leng Hsin, Taipei, 1966.

4. U. S. Peking Legation report of January 17, 1925, Department of State 893.00/6049.

5. Documents, p. 195, also in an interview with Leng Hsin.

6. T’ang Leang-li, p. 251. F.F. Liu, A Military History of Modern China 1924-1929 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), p. 41. Hereafter cited as F.F. Liu.

7. CCP Martyrs, p. 222.

8. “Yeh T’ing t’ung-chih lieh-li” [A history of comrade Yeh T’ing]. May 5, 1946. Short mimeographed biography held at the Bureau of Investigation, Research Center on Com­munism, Ch’ing-t’an, Taiwan.

9. T’ang Leang-li, p. 251.

10. Documents, p. 192.

11. SCMP (March 5, 1926). Kuo-chün cheng-kung shih-kao [History of political work in the national military] (Taipei: History Bureau of Ministry of Defense, 1960), vol. 1, p. 267. Hereafter cited as History of Political Work.

12. Ta-shih chi, p. 191.

13. Kuowen (November 21, 1926), n. p.

14. T’ang Leang-li, p. 251.

15. Documents, pp. 389, 392.

16. F.F. Liu, p. 26. Ta-shih chi, p. 201.

17. Ta-shih chi, p. 202.

18. SCMP (March 20, 1926), p. 8.

19. SCMP (March 18, 1926), p. 8.

20. Pei-fa chan-shih [Military history of the northern expedition] (Taipei: National Defense Ministry Historical and Political Bureau, 1959), vol. 1, p. 69. Hereafter cited as N. Exp.

21. History of Political Work, vol. 1, p. 267, and the observations of Leng Hsin.

22. Ta-shih chi, p. 201.

23. Ibid., p. 202.

24. SCMP (March 9, 1926), p. 8.

25. Ta-shih chi, pp. 203, 206.

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