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The September Government and the Northern Expedition

By September 14, 1927, the reconciliation talks in Shanghai had progres­sed far enough that the delegates decided that the group should be ex­panded into a plenary session for a KMT Fourth National Assembly at Nanking. The promoters of the new coalition were the Kwangsi generals Li Tsung-jen and Pai Ch’ung-hsi and the Wuhan moderates Sun Fo and T’an Yen-k’ai. With allied troops in the vicinity of Nanking, Li and Pai had leverage to use against the other civilians. Wang Ching-wei was hundreds of miles from his military confederate T’ang Sheng-chih, and, thus, had refused to recognize a “hostile” territory like Nanking as the National Government’s seat. Sputtering that Sun Fo and T’an Yen-k’ai had “be­trayed” the Wuhan faction and refusing to follow the others to Nanking, Wang Ching-wei left Shanghai on September 13 for Kiangsi.

At Nanking on September 15, thirteen KMT members representing the CEC, the Control Committee, and the Military Council met as a body to create a coalition of KMT members. By September 19, the gathering had completed the necessary compromises to achieve the formation of a new government to express: faith in the Three People’s Principles, obedience to KMT authority, opposition to CCP interference, and the resolve to com­plete the Northern Expedition and the unification of China.1 The credo was to be broad enough to encompass as many “pure” KMT members as possible, but the September Government excluded the two most able to lead—Wang Ching-wei with his flair for attracting civilian support, and Chiang, representative of the symbiosis between the Party and its vital 144military components. By September 1927, the stimuli of the Northern Ex­pedition and the antiforeign activity had swelled the heterogeneous ranks of the KMT to several million members. Although the Party’s member­ship has not been made public, the CCP claims that the KMT grew from 500,000 in mid-1926 at the launching of the expedition to 5 million by its completion, “… due to the activists among the masses entering the revolutionary movement.”2 Allowing for possible exaggeration of rhetoric, it still indicates a tremendous period of growth for the KMT and the ensuing problems of Party discipline and interrelations.

The September Government faced a multitude of hostile forces, three of which were: (1) T’ang Sheng-chih up the Yangtze valley, (2) the Ankuochün of North China, and (3) CCP insurgents. Under the guise of moving troops into Kiangsi to confront Chiang, the CCP had managed to maneuver sympathetic units of Wuhan’s NRA to Nanchang, where they staged a coup in early August with the aim of taking over Kiangsi as a revolutionary base of their own. Although the Nanchang Uprising lasted only from August 1 to 4, it marked the beginning of an autumn of armed uprisings in Kiangsi, Fukien, and Kwangtung. Upon failure at Nanchang, the CCP’s Central Committee resolved to maintain its existence through “underground” operations and future armed uprisings. The means would be to: centralize CCP authority, tighten discipline and “absolute obedience,” carefully reexamine loyalty of membership, and continue its work through its influ­ence over unions and peasants’ associations.3

To suppress these insurgents, on August 10 before his retirement, Chiang had ordered Li Chi-shen to commence operations out of Kwang­tung into the rebel areas of Hunan and Kiangsi. By August 12, Li’s old subordinate, Chang Fa-kuei, had also begun an anti-insurgency campaign there. However, lack of security in the southern border hills was to remain a problem for Nanking.

Other challenges abounded for Nanking. Seeing no chance for his rising through the Nanking regime, T’ang Sheng-chih had resisted inclusion in the September Government and had even broken with most of the Wuhan KMT. His opportunism bade ominously of the reliability of defected warlords. By August 21, 1927, T’ang had pushed the Nanking-affiliated forces of Wang P’u and Hsia Tou-yin out of Anking, Anhui, and from there he moved downriver along the south bank to invest Wuhu on September 6. At that point, T’ang could boast control of Hupei, Hunan, Kiangsi, and the heart of Anhui, now that the Wuhan government had dissolved. Under his command were his old subordinates from before his defection in early 1926—Ho Ch’ien with his new Thirty-fifth Army on the Yangtze’s north bank, and Liu Hsing and his Thirty-sixth Army on the south bank at Wuhu. T’ang was anathema even to his old associates of the KMT Left; some claimed he had colluded with Sun Ch’uan-fang during the desperate Lung-t’an campaign.4 When Feng Yü-hsiang had been distracted by the Ankuochün in Honan, T’ang had used that to his advantage in early September by sending his troops into southern Honan over the Wusheng Pass.

145On the NRA’s western flank, T’ang’s hostile presence prejudiced the expedition moving north, so that during September the advance north slowed to a crawl. With units shifting east to end T’ang’s “rebellion,” the NRA Center merely maintained a bridgehead at P’u-k’ou with its vanguard posted at Ch’uhsien, a mere twenty-five miles to the north.

Finally on October 15, the NRA began to move units up the banks of the Yangtze against T’ang. Those forces cooperating with Nanking included Li Tsung-jen and Ch’en T’iao-yüan on the north bank and Ch’eng Ch’ien’s Sixth Army and Yeh K’ai-hsin’s Forty-fourth Army on the south bank. Chu P’ei-teh with his Third Army threatened T’ang from the Hunan-Kiangsi border hills. From the south, Li Chi-shen poised his troops along the Kwangtung border, and in early November finally attacked into southern Hunan.5 Completing the encirclement, from western Hupei Yang Shen again moved toward Wuhan. Although the main fighting against T’ang occurred along the Yangtze as the Nanking force moved upstream, a coordinated effort had, as usual, won the day. T’ang “retired” to Japan aboard a Yangtze steamer on November 12.6 It was only after NRA allies secured the vulnerable western flank that they could resume in earnest their offensive against the Ankuochün in North China.

Since September, conditions at the bridgehead across the Yangtze had remained static, but once again the NRA moved north quickly over thirty miles, taking Mingkuang, Anhui, on November 9, then Fengyang on the fourteenth, and after two attacks captured Anhui’s capital, P’engpu, on the sixteenth. Although the offensive centered on the Tientsin-P’u-k’ou Rail­road, the NRA avoided frontal attacks on the line fortified by heavy railroad artillery, and instead, in tactics that it had perfected, swept around the enemy’s flanks and threatened the enemy by moving toward its rail com­munications to the rear.7 Even though the warlords were skilled in scour­ing the countryside for livestock, food, and coolies, the peasants were apparently well-schooled in the age-old practice of hiding their produce and vanishing (as did the Taoists) before the strength of the voracious soldiers. Thus, without the steady flow of supplies, especially ammunition, the northern units faced an inevitable withering upon the vine.

Sun Ch’uan-fang attempted to counterattack P’engpu so as to isolate the city from southern communication lines, but, upon failing, had to withdraw his exhausted soldiers north out of the strategic Huai River valley by means of the railroad. The NRA sped up the withdrawal of Sun’s troops by continuing its flanking and circling maneuvers behind his front line. Thus, when Kuchen fell in November, Sun’s Shantung troops once more found themselves in northernmost Kiangsu with their backs up against the rug­ged hills of their native province.

Poised in Shantung were the 150,000 troops of Chang Tsung-ch’ang. Although Sun and Chang were recent allies in the Ankuochün, since 1924 they had been contenders for the interstice between the Yellow River and the Yangtze—the traditional route of Chinese conquerors. Chang’s native army, known as the Lu-chün (Shantung Army), would collaborate with Sun only when under attack by the revolutionaries. Sun could not easily coexist 146with Chang in Shantung, but had to reconquer at least Kiangsu. Sun needed more than the southern NRA to prod the northern allies to over­look their differences.

As in the preceding summer retreat of the NRA and then during the northern counterattack at Lung-t’an, Feng Yü-hsiang provided a distrac­tion on the Ankuochün’s flank in Honan. Promised vital arms and financial aid, Feng remained “loyal” and helpful to Nanking from his settlement with Chiang in June of 1927 through the completion of the expedition in 1928. The November and December campaign into North China was won through cooperation among the NRA’s various elements.

Moving toward the Hsüchou, Kiangsu, sector under Ho Ying-ch’in‘s command were his First Army, the Ninth, Hsia Tou-yin’s new Tenth Army, and Ho Yao-tsu’s Fortieth Army. Forty miles to the west, Po Wen-wei’s Thirty-third Army moved north to join with Feng in assaulting the western approaches of Hsüchou.8 On December 12, the Ankuochün combine responded by counterattacking down the rail line from Hsüchou with Chang Tsung-ch’ang’s 60,000 troops and 10,000 troops of Sun Ch’uan-fang. Although spearheaded by the armored train’s firepower and the air support of a covey of aircraft flown by White Russians, Japanese, French, and Chinese pilots who strafed NRA positions, the counterattack ground to a halt on its second day, December 14. The NRA repulsed the Ankuochün and turned the wings of the movement so that with pressure from the west as well as the south, Hsüchou came under siege. When the city fell on December 16, Sun’s whole front along the east-west Lung-Hai Railroad crumpled, forcing the Ankuochün to beat a fast retreat over the border hills into Shantung, where they dug in for the duration of the winter.

The cooperation exhibited in the autumn offensive belied the continuing divisions within the Nanking regime. The era of the Northern Expedition reveals as much the weakness of Chinese nationalism as it does its strength. The repetitious coming together and breaking apart of the KMT coalition as first one faction and then another won primacy, often with the support of military elements, seem almost as dismal as the vagaries of the warlord “opportunists.” No sooner had Nanking’s troops pacified the rebel T’ang Sheng-chih in the mid-Yangtze then another disgruntled element broke off. The September Government lacked stability since neither Wang Ching-wei nor Chiang had been neutralized. Both resented the new influence of the Kwangsi generals over Nanking. Bristling against the dominance of the upstart generals, members less than two years of the National Revolution, Wang Ching-wei had stomped away from the KMT reunion effort and eventually headed for the region in which he felt the most secure politically—his home province of Kwangtung. Although the generals in Canton had cooperated with Nanking in drawing the noose around T’ang Sheng-chih’s base area, by October 1927 they fell under Wang’s charisma as he built up his own base. To Kwangtung came a coterie of KMT civilians, who, with Wang, tried again to utilize the defensible 147province as a fortress from which to expand political power—this time to recapture the National Revolution.

In need of more support, Wang was politically “flexible” enough to consider Chiang Kai-shek’s potential. After all, they had both been frus­trated by the Kwangsi clique and had both suffered the pangs of political impotence. To rebuild his image, which had become tainted with Com­munism from 1925 on, Wang began a recantation of his prior alliance with the Russians and the CCP. On November 5, 1927, Wang published an open letter in Canton’s Sun Yat-sen University daily newspaper.9 He admitted that upon return from abroad in March, he had believed, in his naïveté, CCP leader Ch’en Tu-hsiu’s protestations of CCP cooperation with the KMT, but said he now believed that Chiang had been correct. He had come to agree with Chiang’s restraining of the CCP, both on March 20, 1926, at Canton, and during the following spring in Shanghai. The recanta­tion was not lost on Chiang who was at that time communicating with Wang by telegraph.10

However, even the Kwangtung that Wang Ching-wei coveted as a base was not easily unified. Identifying more with the Nanking regime than with Wang were Li Chi-shen and elements of his Fourth Army and Huang Shao-hsiung with his Kwangsi troops. Colluding with Wang were Chang Fa-kuei and a portion of his corps that had fought the Communists in Kiangsi and then southward into Kwangtung, and Hsüeh Yueh’s division, and Li Fu-lin’s Fifth Army, all the leaders of which were rankled by the Kwangsi ascendancy. After Chiang had telegraphed Wang Ching-wei and Li Chi-shen on November 10 asking them to negotiate with him and T’an Yen-k’ai, who was representing Nanking, Wang decided to go to Shanghai.

The day following Wang and Li’s departure on November 16 from Canton, Wang’s general, Chang Fa-kuei, led a coup against Li Chi-shen’s troops at Canton. Apparently Chang also hoped to catch Huang Shao-hsiung and his Kwangsi troops off guard and make them turn over their weapons and the Shih-ching Arsenal to a pro-Wang Ching-wei armed force. Chang’s coup succeeded in taking Canton and a portion of Li Chi-shen’s troops; but the rest and Huang Shao-hsiung’s Kwangsi troops managed to escape north into the hills. While Wang conferred with Chiang and other KMT members during the rest of November, Chang Fa-kuei tried to consolidate his military supremacy around Canton. The continued existence of military rivals within Kwangtung was but one of Wang Ching-wei’s problems in his home province. Chang Fa-kuei worked to eliminate the pervading influence of the CCP in Canton’s mass organiza­tions and placed the Russian consulate under surveillance since he knew from the KMT’s past experiences that the Russians directed CCP activities. Chang Fa-kuei’s anxieties over CCP subversion were well founded.

During November, the CCP also planned the seizure of Kwangtung as a new revolutionary base. Through the Canton consulate, Stalin sent in mid-November his order to step up armed activism in China. Beginning by strengthening control over union labor and peasants’ associations, the CCP 148used the economic issue of the low standard of living of the masses, the need to overthrow the KMT, and the alternate advantages of the Soviet economic system to induce people to join in its efforts. Slogans of the propaganda campaign included:

Raise the Soldiers’ Pay to 20 Silver Dollars!

Food for the Workers!

Land to the Tillers!

Knock Down the KMT and the Warlords!

Kill All the Country Bullies and the Evil Landlords!

Confiscate the Capitalists’ Homes and Give Them to the Rebel Masses!

All Authority to the Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers!11

This decision of the CCP was precipitated by Chang Fa-kuei’s move to finally close down the venerable Hong Kong Strike Committee establish­ment. By late November, a “Red Defense Corps,” including “Dare-to-die” units of disbanded Hong Kong Strike pickets and members of the Seamen’s Union, trained and gathered arms under the direction of the CCP.

In December, just as Wang Ching-wei’s prospects for a return to politi­cal eminence seemed within his grasp, events in Kwangtung turned against him. During the second week of December, after a rising crescendo of strikes including one by the Canton public utilities union, the CCP sprang their coup. Led by Chang T’ai-lei and Su Ch’ao-cheng, ex-leader of the Hong Kong Strike apparatus and ex-Minister of Labor at Wuhan, the Red Defense Corps moved into the Canton streets in the predawn hours of December 11, 1927. The activists first induced numbers of sympathizers within Chang Fa-kuei’s army to join the uprising along with Communist workers. With the morning light, the “Dare-to-die” units and groups of workers completed their seizure of police stations including police rifles, machine guns, and armored cars. Captured city buses and trucks helped spread the rebels, who quickly took the KMT’s government buildings, the Central Bank with its silver reserves, and the local barracks with more arms. To suppress resistance, the CCP executed ten “reactionary” officers and, during the street fighting, marked and set afire the homes of KMT cadre. Many of those who did not escape were executed.12* Hoping to combine the urban uprising with rural support, the CCP at Canton ex­pected peasants’ associations to seize power throughout Kwangtung. At Hailufeng where there had been Communist supervision for several years over the peasants’ association, a peasants’ soviet was set up exemplifying rural support. Rushing down from the hills of Kwangtung, remnants of the 149Red Army that had been fighting and retreating from the Nanchang Upris­ing entered Canton under Yeh T’ing’s leadership.13

However bloody and victorious the take-over, it was short-lived. Out­side Canton, Chang Fa-kuei, aided by Li Fu-lin (Fifth Army), river gun­boats, and loyal Mechanics’ Union personnel within the city, outmanned and outgunned the participants in the uprising so that the red hammer and sickle flags came down from the smoke-hazed Canton sky on December 14—after less than four days. The ensuing impassioned anti-Communist bloodbath carried away even Russian collaborators from the consulate, underlining Wang Ching-wei’s protests in Shanghai that his KMT Left was guiltless of the CCP coup. A “White Terror” at Canton spread to Wuhan where it may have exceeded in thoroughness the April purge in Shanghai.14

The reaction within the KMT against the violent CCP uprising changed the course of the reconciliation talks going on in Shanghai. The day before the uprising, December 10, Wang Ching-wei, at a KMT plenary session for the Party’s Fourth Congress scheduled for January, proposed that Chiang be invited back to his post as commander-in-chief. The reaction added more steam to the movement favoring Chiang’s return to power. Chiang maintained his anti-Communist stance; on December 13 he called for the cessation of relations with Russia, which Nanking implemented on the fourteenth by ordering closed all Russian consulates and agencies in KMT territory, and the speedy return to Russia of all Soviet personnel.15

Although Wang Ching-wei had agreed earlier to Chiang’s leadership of the NRA while he himself led the Party government, the Canton Uprising in Wang’s own backyard further solidified suspicions of his laxity toward the CCP—suspicions that were the legacy of his honeymoon with the CCP at Wuhan during the past spring. Once again this tragicomic figure found himself being hauled off the national stage just as the curtain was ready to be raised. On December 17, 1927, Wang Ching-wei again boarded a steamer, this time bound for France and a “rest cure.” When his ship stopped at Hong Kong, so near Canton, Wang did not even step ashore.16 Also departing China was an exodus of Russians, all of whom had left Nanking’s domain by December 24.

With Wang gone, the focus of Party attention narrowed on Chiang Kai-shek. No other single figure remained who could begin to weld the NRA confederacy into a cooperative force and who could claim to represent the party of Sun Yat-sen. Although Chiang had risen in 1924 and 1925 through his identification with the so-called Left, his return in the winter of 1927 seemed dependent on the anti-Communist reaction within the KMT. Chiang’s union with the accomplished Soong family through his marriage to Soong Mei-ling early in December, which was followed by her brother T.V. Soong’s return to Nanking from Wang Ching-wei’s camp where he had acted as Finance Minister, symbolized the support Chiang was to receive from the modern elite of the port cities.

On December 20, General Ho Ying-ch’in telegraphed Nanking from the northern front calling for an all-KMT assembly and Chiang’s resumption of 150his old duties as C-in-C.17 Thereupon, the Shanghai branch of the KMT petitioned Chiang to take up his duties, a plea then repeated by all the various Nanking agencies. Finally on January 1, 1928, the National Gov­ernment at Nanking invited Chiang by telegraph to first delineate the NRA’s chain of command and then return to Nanking to hold all revolution­ary powers.18


1. Arthur N. Holcombe, The Chinese Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930), p. 238.

2. CKHT, p. 121. Kuowen (June 5, 1927), “Weekly News Diary.”

3. CCP Central Committee emergency meeting recorded in Chung-yang t’ung-hsin [Communiqué from the headquarters], vol. 2 (August 23, 1927), pp. 14-15.316

4. N. Exp., vol. 3, pp. 1089-1102.

5. N. Exp., vol. 3, pp. 1106-1108.

6. Ta-shih chi, p. 274.

7. N. Exp., vol. 3, p. 1024.

8. Ibid., p. 1047.

9. Wang Ching-wei, pp. 1-10.

10. T’ang Leang-li, pp. 309-310.

11. Kuang-chou p’ao-tung-chih yi-yi chiao-hsün [The significance and lessons learned from the Canton uprising] (CCP Central Committee, 1928), pp. 6-11. Hereafter cited as Canton Uprising.

12. Interview in 1966 with Teng Hui-fang, a women’s movement leader of the KMT, who was in Canton during the coup.

13. Canton Uprising, p. 10.

14. SCMP (May 4, 1928), p. 10. Conrad Brandt, Stalin’s Failure in China: 1924-1927 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), pp. 162-163. Akimova, p. 337.

15. Ta-shih chi, p. 278.

16. T’ang Leang-li, p. 319. Ta-shih chi, pp, 278-279.

17. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 18, pp. 10-11, quotes the telegram in full.

18. Ta-shih chi, p. 281.

* The CCP used burning cans of kerosene to give the impression of large fires in the night, which brought residents out from behind their locked doors where propagandists informed them that Canton had been taken over. The red-arm-banded cadre shouted that rewards of thirty silver dollars would go to those who would identify policemen and KMT members for execution. Houses to be burned were marked with a red slash, a circle meant an inhabitant was to be killed, a yellow mark meant the contents were to be confiscated, and a black mark guaranteed safety.

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