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Political Offensive against Warlords

Had the KMT in the Revolutionary Base declared war on all the outside warlords and provoked their counteroffensive, the national revolutionary movement would have been overwhelmed by forces superior in numbers and firepower. When the expedition began in 1926, the entire conglomer­ate of the NRA approached 100,000 troops; a total of the warlord forces would have been nearly 1 million. Using practical Chinese reasoning, in the manner of Sun Tzu, the advocate of economical wars, the regime at Canton carefully conserved and consolidated their resources, and carefully considered the weaknesses of their opponents. Since the warlords feared each other more than the infant movement in Canton, the revolutionary diplomats sought to divide them, isolate one from another, and offer incentives for noninvolvement in or even collusion with the expedition. As in earlier dynasty founding, the revolutionaries were quite eclectic in their taste for allies—those who were not openly fighting against them were potentially for them. Initially, Canton singled out one warlord for attack (Wu P’ei-fu), promoted a rebellion within his camp, used this rebel (T’ang Sheng-chih) as an entrée to Hunan, and all the while spoke peace with the other warlords, inviting their inclusion in the national revolution.

In February 1926, when the KMT in Canton began publicizing nation­ally its hopes of opening a military offensive to reunite China, a national revolutionary movement, its manifesto denounced Wu, but carefully avoided mention of Sun Ch’uan-fang in his neighboring United Pro­vinces.1264

Diplomacy with the Ruler of the Five United Provinces, Sun Ch’uan-fang

With his five provinces, two of which pressed rocky shoulders against Kwangtung’s borders, and three of which milled China’s rice to finance a large military machine, Sun Ch’uan-fang was not a power to take lightly. As early as December 29, 1925, at Swatow, just across the border from Sun’s Fukien, and again on February 3, 1926, at Canton, the revolutionary capital, Chiang and Wang Ching-wei met with representatives of Sun Ch’uan-fang to discuss the future of their relations.2 The details of their “secret” agreement are not public, but involved a quid-pro-quo arrange­ment where Canton would not attack the United Provinces and Sun would not come to Wu P’ei-fu’s aid if Canton attacked Hunan.3 Sun may also have been invited to cooperate with the national revolutionary movement, which, however, would have meant some lessening of Sun’s power over the fruits of earlier-won victories.4 The agreement, as precarious as it must have been, did begin to isolate Wu in his Central China enclave. When the KMT brought Kwangsi under the National Government of Canton in February 1926, Wu was becoming boxed into Hunan with only access to the north.

While Canton’s envoys met with Sun, efforts continued in March 1926 to entice T’ang Sheng-chih and his Hunanese force away from Wu’s clique.5 In a deal typical of those offered by the KMT, Canton probably offered T’ang what he later received: promotion from division commander under Wu to Eighth Army Commander under the NRA and at least chairmanship of the provisional Hunan government and chairmanship of the KMT’s Hunan headquarters. The same arrangement had drawn Li Tsung-jen and Huang Shao-hsiung of Kwangsi into the revolutionary fold. Should T’ang’s revolt succeed with NRA assistance, T’ang would move up in status in Hunan to what amounted to acting civil-military governor of the province. This would place him above fellow Hunanese division commander Yeh K’ai-hsin, then contending with T’ang for military preeminence in Hunan.

To keep Sun Ch’uan-fang neutralized, Canton’s agents continued to talk with him. Frequently representing the KMT was the son of its beatified leader.6 Sun Fo’s name carried the prestige of his father, Sun Yat-sen, and helped to guarantee Canton’s sincerity. When Sun Fo left Canton for Shanghai and Nanking on March 4, 1926, it is likely that he met with overlord Sun Ch’uan-fang.7 Most of these diplomatic contacts with war­lords related to the promotion of the Northern Expedition, Chiang Kai-shek’s goal in early 1926. The success of the anti-Communist coup elevated Chiang and his plans for the expedition, so that when Sun Fo again traveled to Shanghai in mid-April, it was on the publicized mission of forming a better relationship with Sun Ch’uan-fang that might draw him into the unification of China.8 By July, Chinese newspapers were publish­ing reports of a “secret agreement of non-aggression between Kwangtung and Fukien.”9

265Once the NRA invaded Hunan, Sun Ch’uan-fang began to have second thoughts about the wisdom of neutrality. Although his interests may have seemed closer to Wu’s, Sun also relished waiting while the NRA weakened Wu’s strength in Central China. By mid-July, Wu wired a request to Sun for support against the NRA offensive in Hunan, and Sun watched for the point when Wu would be worn down and yet the NRA would have to fight on two fronts. Then Sun stood a chance of taking all. By early August, Sun began reinforcing the Kiangsi border with Hunan.10 Aware of his vulnera­bility, Chiang ordered his chief-of-staff on August 6 to send a telegram to Sun’s Kiangsi governor stating that:

The aim of our armies is to overthrow Wu P’ei-fu, but not to start a conflict with Kiangsi and break our friendly relationship. I have heard from Nanking that Sun has sent troops to Kiangsi and don’t know if the actual idea is to attack Kwangtung or for another purpose. If he wants to maintain the friendship, he should make this clear in order to avoid a misunderstanding.11

Sun replied by telegram that he had reinforced Kiangsi for its defense, but he warned Chiang that he should get rid of the Russians and radicals in his camp or “we will consider you a ‘red’ and will attack.”12 Chiang’s telegram on August 12 stalled by advising that Sun should be aware of the tide of revolution and not aid Wu in his continued disturbance of the nation with prolonged war.13 In other words, Sun should be ready to reach an accommodation with the winning side. The psychology of victory in China was such that the NRA had to win victories during the opening months of the expedition if the people and warlords were to view the National Revolution as having enough power to succeed—the sanction of the Man­date of Heaven.

In August 1926, the dialog between Chiang and Sun Ch’uan-fang esca­lated, with messages clarifying and amplifying their respective positions, but both were merely bidding for time. In early August, KMT agents feverishly attempted to subvert Sun’s subordinates in Kiangsi. By August 10, a defection settlement with Fang Pen-jen saw his secret appointment as the KMT’s provisional governor of Kiangsi and the commanding officer of what would be called the Eleventh Army of the NRA, a settlement that Fang accepted on August 20.14 In southern Kiangsi, the KMT worked on another subordinate who controlled Sun’s key defense sector there. By August 23, Chiang had offered to call Lai Shih-huang’s division the Four­teenth Army of the NRA under Lai’s command upon his joining the revolution.15 On the twenty-sixth, Lai secretly accepted his command from the NRA and proceeded to turn over valuable information on the defenses of Kiangsi.

To secure the NRA’s mountainous western flank, similar offers had been made: The Kweichow troops of warlords Peng Han-chang and Wang T’ien-p’ei had become the Ninth and Tenth Armies.16 (One of their regi­mental commanders was Ho Lung, destined to become a famous leader of the CCP’s Red Army.) These Kweichow troops were readied to rush 266eastward through Hunan toward the Kiangsi border. Also on the western flank, the KMT had neutralized a group of Wu P’ei-fu’s generals with a peace agreement and an invitation to join the revolution. (Late in 1926, after the NRA had proven its endurance in the victory of Kiangsi, five Szechwan militarists became the commanders of the NRA’s Twentieth, Twenty-first, Twenty-second, Twenty-third, and Twenty-fourth armies.) In early August, two KMT agents had convinced the generals that Szech­wan would benefit by severing ties with Wu P’ei-fu.17 Thus, by August 21 when Chiang ordered the Third and Sixth armies to the Hunan-Kiangsi border, diplomacy and subversion had considerably strengthened the NRA’s position in Hunan and weakened Sun Ch’uan-fang’s Kiangsi de­fense. When Sun gathered his subordinates together at his Nanking head­quarters on August 25, he ordered the forces of his five provinces to contribute 100,000 troops for an attack on Hunan—but he could not be sure of their reliability.18

After the attack on Kiangsi began on September 1, the KMT used psychological warfare to weaken the morale and unity of Sun’s clique. One tactic repeated was to offer Sun and his subordinates a truce and an invitation to join the revolution. The euphemism for defection was kuei-fu, which includes the sense of “returning to the fold” as in the case of rebels, thus implying the original legitimacy of the Canton government, which traced itself back to the 1917 split of the southern National Assemblymen from the Peking group. By keeping the door open to kuei-fu, the NRA deprived Sun’s followers of the situation in which they would have no alternative but to fight. This tactic also harks back to one used by Sun Tzu, the military philosopher of the warring states era that so inspired Mao Tse-tung’s military thinking. Upon the outbreak of the battle for Kiangsi, the KMT sent two representatives to Sun with proposals for a settlement—all publicized to Sun’s subordinates through the Chinese press. Sun countered the offer with a telegram demanding the withdrawal of NRA units from Kiangsi (although the southern quarter of the province had already fallen).19 During the peak of fighting in October, negotiation efforts continued,20 and in November as Sun fell back out of Kiangsi, Chiang sent another two representatives to persuade him to defect in order to save China through unification.21 Using a classmate of Sun’s from the Shikan Gakko in Japan, the KMT made contact with Sun through Li Lieh-chün, who had been appointed the KMT’s chairman of the Kiangsi provincial government and military committees.22

In April 1927 during the prolonged struggle for Kiangsu and following Sun’s loss of Shanghai, the KMT again attempted negotiations.23 By mid-June, Sun had been forced completely out of Kiangsu and still the KMT held out offers of a deal.24 Sun continued to hold out against being absorbed into the revolutionary tide—perhaps because the KMT was so weakened from within that its momentum had slowed. Although he and his inner coterie refused to submit to the Party, the well-publicized invitations to defect and the resultant settlements did affect his outer ring of satellite militarists from the five provinces, as proved by the number of defectors.267

Subversive Political Movements within Sun’s Provinces

While the KMT applied military and diplomatic pressure on Sun from without, the Party also promoted peace and autonomy movements within his provinces. In Chekiang, an association of gentry pressed Sun with peace proposals in early September 1926. Through the means of the All-Chekiang Association (Ch’uan-che kung-hui), the idea was circulated of the necessity for peace between Sun and Canton in order that the South might better defend its provinces against a pending invasion by the Man­churians of the Ankuochün.25 Leaders in the All-Chekiang Association included KMT partisans Chiang Tsung-kuei, who had headed a Ningpo Independence Movement in 1924, and Ch’u Fu-ch’eng, a KMT member who in 1925, as the vice-speaker in Peking’s National Assembly, had proposed a federation of autonomous Chinese provinces.26 By September 1926, with Sun in communication with the Manchurian clique over a possible nation-wide military confederation against the southern “Reds,” the nonpartisan Chekiang leadership began to weigh Sun’s northern orien­tation against the Canton alternative. Under KMT influence, the group proposed a cease-fire followed by the joint Sun and Chiang defense against the rumored Manchurian intrusion.27 In early October, those Chekiangese took part in a broader movement representing all of Sun’s United Pro­vinces. The movement again presented demands for peace and a coalition of Sun with the KMT against Chang Tso-lin and Chang Tsung-ch’ang of North China.28 Although these civilian peace efforts did not achieve the apparent primary goal of peace, they did label Sun as a warlord, callous to the local interests of his provincial subjects.

In late 1926, this movement against Sun evolved effectively into move­ments for provincial autonomy within the five United Provinces. Some of the same persons who had been active in proposing peace took part in urging Sun to turn over more authority to provincial leaders and even to permit his provinces to defend themselves. Since the partisan affiliation was obvious, Sun rightly saw this as a pro-KMT rebellion. The first provin­cial movement to organize was in Chekiang. There, it peaked in the coup of Governor Hsia Ch’ao who proclaimed independence on October 16, 1926, and accepted from Canton the title of Eighteenth Army commander.29

Once Sun had the revolt nearly suppressed, he ordered a commander of a Chekiang division, Ch’en Yi, to return to his home province to replace Hsia as civil governor.30 Sun’s Chekiang commanders, Chou Feng-ch’i and Ch’en Yi, returned with their troops to Chekiang in late November 1926, and almost immediately became ambivalent toward Sun’s suzerainty. Al­though their relationship with the KMT was still unclear, negotiations with Party agents like Ma Hsü-lun proceeded.31

Autonomy movements gained momentum in Anhui, Kiangsi, and even in the municipality of Shanghai, where activists promoted a free city.32 The subversion was most effective in Chekiang where the KMT had responsive Chekiang troops. It was there that Sun had to send troops on December 19 to regain the authority lost when Ch’en Yi and a committee for provincial 268government declared its independence from Sun.33 Sun’s general, Meng Ch’ao-yüeh, entered Chekiang on December 22, quickly pushing pro-KMT rebels into the hinterland where they retained but a foothold in southwestern Chekiang (where the NRA was able to enter in mid-January).

In Kiangsu, Sun’s governor threatened to resign if Sun invited his fellow Ankuochün leader, Shantung warlord Chang Tsung-ch’ang, to reinforce the province. On the same grounds, the commander of the Shanghai navy claimed he would take his fleet elsewhere if Chang brought Shantung troops into the delta area. The local autonomy movement had mixed results: in Chekiang the rebels provided the NRA with a place of entry and the movement allowed for effective anti-Sun propaganda. In other south­eastern provinces the movement turned public sympathy toward local rule as an alternative to Sun—an issue that had appeal to Chinese with their strong provincial loyalties—and the spokesmen for local rule surfaced later as KMT partisans. Provincial military leaders, loosely tied to Sun’s federa­tion, also responded to the pull away from Sun. In Shanghai the idea of an autonomous municipality endured, later blossoming under the nurture of the CCP, who confronted the incoming NRA with the prospect of a city run by the GLU’s Soviets.

The Tactic of Isolating Warlords from Political Allies

During the fall of 1926 and early 1927, while the KMT focused its military and political offensive against Sun Ch’uan-fang, the Party hoped to avoid a struggle with all the northern warlords. Easing its criticism of Sun’s ally Chang Tso-lin, the KMT in Chiang’s camp claimed it attacked only Sun, not Shantung or North China. However, since this tactic had been used earlier with Sun against Wu, it became less effective in separating Sun from Chang Tso-lin and Chang Tsung-ch’ang. By May 1927, after a year of NRA victories, the northern warlords finally saw sufficient danger to join forces against the KMT. The alliance was represented by the Ankuochün and not easily shaken by artful diplomacy. But, of the northern militarists, Chang Tso-lin had been the most sympathetic to Sun Yat-sen’s movement. Chiang’s part of the NRA therefore worked secretly to either lull Chang Tso-lin and Chang Tsung-ch’ang into a feeling of security, safe from KMT attack, or to convince them that they were opposing a just cause and should join the National Revolution. It was in response to this strategy that the Russians and the CCP directed their concern during the heat of the lower Yangtze campaign in February 1927.

To the Russians, Chang Tso-lin represented Japanese imperialism and any KMT strategy that relieved pressure on Japan was “incorrect.” They did not want to see their mission be a part to Japan’s gaining a sphere of influence over North China. Thus, the Russian advisors with the KMT ordered the CCP members to work against any rapprochement between the KMT and Chang Tso-lin, and to remove Chiang as a promoter of treasonous collaboration.34 Since the CCP members in the KMT political structure could likely gain access to Chiang’s plans, it is also probable that their fears of collusion were well founded. Nevertheless, on the basis of 269Chiang’s prior tactics and what later occurred, it would seem that the “softening” of Chiang and the KMT toward the northern militarists was a temporary device to dissuade them from reinforcing Sun in South China. With Chang Tso-lin, the stance of the Shanghai KMT may have influenced his decision not to transfer troops south to aid Sun’s sector in mid-1927. By late July, rumors of a north-south settlement were well covered by the Chinese press. Although representatives at that time traveled between Peking and Nanking, neither side would compromise its ambitions for supremacy.35 The KMT had also used its ally Yen Hsi-shan in June to urge Chang to compromise with Nanking, but to no avail.36 However, Chang did avoid directly committing his Manchurian troops to the lower Yangtze as he had earlier in 1925.

During the last phase of the Northern Expedition in 1928, when the offensive aimed at three of the remaining warlords, the KMT continued negotiating and inducing the enemy leaders and subordinates to submit to the National Government. In January 1928, KMT agents operated in North China to win defections before the offensive began. Lu Ho-sheng was one then sent to Tientsin’s foreign concessions to coordinate the subversion of the warlord infrastructure. Later, working behind enemy lines, men such as Nan Kuei-hsiang contacted officers of the Ankuochün, especially Sun’s officer cadre (possibly even Sun himself).37 Besides selling Nanking to the northern officers, the agents carried on an effective campaign of rumors, such as the one reporting that Chang Tso-lin’s clique had already conceded defeat and therefore had sent their families home to Manchuria. In a family-centered society, a move like that would attain great significance. By early June 1928, Nan Kuei-hsiang was credited with gaining access to Sun Ch’uan-fang whom Nan persuaded to flee while still possible from the futile struggle with the victorious NRA. Thus, Sun pulled his forces out of the line defending Peking, thereby making possible the final NRA break­through toward the old capital—while Sun escaped to Japanese-held Dairen.38

Up to this final episode, Sun had resisted KMT efforts to gain his inclusion in the national revolutionary camp, which had welcomed a wide spectrum of military leaders. Wu P’ei-fu, Chang Tso-lin, and Chang Tsung-ch’ang had likewise resisted. However, the KMT had effectively approached their subordinates, those of Wu and Sun in particular, many of whom deserted to join with the victorious revolutionaries. Two prominent warlords, secure in their mountainous strongholds, did join with the KMT in the expedition—Feng Yü-hsiang and Yen Hsi-shan.


1. T’ang Leang-li, p. 242. Ta-shih chi, under February 16, 1926, p. 201.

2. Ta-shih chi, pp. 196, 200. U.S. Canton Consul D. Jenkins report of February 20, 1926 (State Dept. 893.00/7291).

3. Intelligence report gathered by U.S. naval attaché, March 1, 1926 (State Dept. 893.00/7277).

4. Kuowen (August 8, 1926), n. p.

5. Ta-shih chi, p. 201.

6. Interview (May 25, 1966, Yangmingshan, Taiwan) with Sun Fo, who negotiated for the KMT with many of the warlords.

7. SCMP (March 6, 1926), p. 3.

8. HKDP (April 19, 1926), p. 5.

9. Kuowen (August 8, 1926), n. p.

10. Ibid.

11. National Military Historical Museum collection, Taipei.

12. Kuowen (August 29, 1926), p. 23.

13. Ta-shih chi, p. 219.

14. SCMP (August 16, 1926), p. 8. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 20, p. 1690.

15. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 20, p. 1690. Interview in Taipei with Liao Wen-yin, January, 1966.

16. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 12, p. 162 and vol. 20, p. 1689. SCMP (August 16, 1926), p. 8.

17. Kuowen (August 29, 1926), n. p.

18. Ta-shih chi, p. 219.

19. Kuowen (September 12, 1926), p. 4.

20. Documents, p. 373.

21. History of Political Work, vol. 1, p. 294.

22. SCMP (November 5, 1926), p. 8.

23. Kuowen (May 1, 1927), n. p.

24. Kuowen (June 19, 1927), n. p.

25. SCMP (September 10, 1926), p. 9.

26. NCH (October 23, and 30, 1926), Reuter reports from Canton dated October 19 and 23. SCMP (October 21 and 28, 1926).

27. Kuowen (September 19, 1926), p. 2; SCMP (September 10, 1926), p. 9.326

28. Kuowen (October 10, 1926), n. p.

29. Kuowen (October 24, 1926), n. p.

30. SCMP (October 23, 1926), p. 9; Ta-shih chi, p. 229.

31. Kuowen (November 28, 1926), n. p.

32. HTSL, vol. 3, pp. 174-176; SCMP (October 18, 1926), p. 9; Kuowen (November 21, 1926), n. p.; Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 586.

33. Kuowen (December 26, 1926), n. p.

34. Documents, p. 389; Robert C. North, M.N. Roy’s Mission to China (Berkeley: Univer­sity of California Press, 1963), p. 50.

35. Kuowen (August 7, 1927), n. p. The negotiations between Nanking and Chang Tso-lin repeated Sun Yat-sen’s attempts in 1922 to gain Chang’s acquiescence to a northern expedi­tion against Wu. Sheng ching Daily (Mukden, March 3, 1922); North China Daily News (Shanghai, March 14, 1922); U.S. Vice-Consul to Canton’s interview with KMT diplomats C.C. Wu and Wu T’ing-fang on April, 1, 1922 (State Dept. report of April 4, 1922 in National Archives microfilm series 329, roll no. 29).

36. Kuowen (June 19, 1927), n. p.

37. N. Exp., vol. 4, p. 1428.

38. Ibid.

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