The Xi'an Incident of December 1936 (traditional Chinese: 西安事變; simplified Chinese: 西安事变; pinyin: Xī'ān Shìbìan), an important turning point in Chinese modern history, took place in the city of Xi'an during the Chinese Civil War between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the insurgent Chinese Communist Party and just before the Second Sino-Japanese War. On 12 December 1936, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang, was arrested by Marshal Zhang Xueliang, a former warlord of Manchuria and Commander of the North Eastern Army who had fought against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and subsequent expansion into Inner Mongolia by the Japanese and troops of the puppet state of Manchukuo that had been created in Manchuria.
The incident led to a truce between the Nationalists and the Communists in order to form a united front against the threat posed by Japan. Some facts about the incident still remain unclear today, as most of those involved died without revealing details. Before the Xi'an Incident, the Chinese Communist Party had established itself in Shaanxi province after having been driven from Jiangxi and other regions in southern China in 1934. Japan had invaded northeast China in 1931, only coming to a temporary halt in 1933 after having captured Rehe Province. Chiang Kai-shek's response to the invasion had been weak, and he had failed to support commanders such as Marshal Zhang, who had fought to halt Japan's advance.
He Yingqin, a pro-Japanese senior general in the Kuomintang, was preparing to lead military forces to Xi'an from the KMT capital, Nanjing at the time of the incident. This appeared to be putting more of northern China at risk of conquest by the Japanese, something which was to come true in 1937. Some believe the steps taken by Marshal Zhang were inspired by the Soviets, but there were sufficient grounds for Zhang and Yang Hucheng to act on their own behalf in order to develop an effective resistance to the Japanese invasion.
The Xi'an Incident is seen as a turning point for the Chinese Communist Party, as before the incident it was facing a new round of assaults by Kuomintang forces. Chinese nationalism had been roused by the Japanese invasion, but potential Chinese resistance was strengthened by the Xi'an Incident, leading to the United Front of Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party. Ultimately it would benefit the Chinese Communists once the Chinese Civil War revived after the defeat of Japan in 1945.
Zhang Xueliang, known also as The Young Marshal, was the son of Zhang Zuolin, warlord of Manchuria in northeast China. For some time prior to the Kuomintang-led China-uniting Northern Expedition (1926–27), the elder Zhang was being quietly supported by the Japanese government. When it became imminent 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 in Ji'nan and assassinated Zhang on the grounds 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 Kuomintang control and supporting 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, the Japanese invaded, aided by the defections of Chinese generals and the flight of local governments, and quickly took full control of Manchuria. As with the other generals who tried to resist the invasion, Zhang's forces lacked equipment and reinforcements due to Chiang's reluctance to fight the Japanese, and were pushed back. By 1936 his father's assassination and the loss of his homeland made Zhang one of the leading opponents of the Japanese among the Chinese general staff.
Zhang left China for military training in Europe. After his return he and his Northeastern China Army were sent to Anhui and Hubei to suppress the Red Army of the Chinese Communist Party. 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 Gen. 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 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, while overtly accepting Chiang's policies, covertly opposed Chiang’s leadership. Zhang and Yang reached an agreement with CPC for temporary peace. CPC even sent many members to work for Yang.
At the same time tension between China and Japan increased day by day. Japan was hoping to conquer China in its entirety by invading vast areas of Northern China. Japanese troops fought against Kuomintang troops along the Great Wall in 1933. Then in 1935, under the accord signed between He Yingqin, the commander of Kuomintang armies in Northern China, and Yoshijirō Umezu, the commander of Japanese troops in Northern China, elite Kuomintang troops related to the group Blue Shirts Society, the core of Chiang’s Whampoa Clique, had to evacuate from Beijing and Northern China, which put the whole of that area under direct threat of Japanese invasion. However, Chiang preferred to unite China by eliminating the warlords and CPC forces first. He believed that he was still too weak to launch an offensive chase out Japan and China needed time for a military build-up. Only after unification would it be possible for the Kuomintang to mobilize a war against Japan, so he would rather ignore the discontent and anger within the Chinese people at his policy of compromise with the Japanese, and urged Zhang and Yang to carry out suppression efficiently.
Meanwhile, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the 1920s and early 1930s stood by Japan’s invasion of China at first, for he too 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 Japanese as they would do later with Germany over Poland in Europe. Soon, however, the Soviets became wary of Japanese ambitions 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 the 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 Ba Yi Xuan Yan. In this manifesto Wang acknowledged the archenemy of CPC at the present stage was Japan instead of Chiang. However, this received "the cold shoulder" from Mao Zedong and his associates, who ruled the CPC and strongly disagreed with Chiang's policies. These were the complicated situations and relationships between the domestic and foreign parties which preceded the incident.
On 22 October 1936 Chiang flew to Xi'an from Nanjing and announced his new plan of suppression of the communist forces, raising objections from both Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng. On 4 December 1936 Chiang came to Xi'an again, accompanied by many senior Kuomintang 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 was defeated by the Chinese in the Suiyuan Campaign (1936), the success giving many Chinese the belief that it was possible and necessary to resist the Japanese.
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 (Chinese: 邵元冲), the incumbent minister of the propaganda department of the Kuomintang, died after he was hit in his testicles while attempting to climb over a fence. Col. Jiang Xiaoxian (Chinese: 蒋孝先), Chiang's nephew and bodyguard, was also killed during the chaos, but it was apparently a payback for past grievances.
Misconstrued as a coup by Zhang, news of the incident shocked the world. Zhang and Yang had a different plan, however. 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 Communist Party and the Kuomintang on how to handle the incident. Senior leaders of the Kuomintang decided to set up an acting commission for resolution. Chiang’s wife Soong Mei-ling ("Madame Chiang Kai-shek") was excluded from this commission, although she pleaded for a peace negotiation. Gen. Tung Cheuk Heem was appointed to take charge of the military. His role was quite controversial. He was voted as acting commander to lead the Kuomintang 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 and him back to China to take charge of Kuomintang. 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. New evidence suggests that it was actually the Whampoa clique, especially the young and extremist officers from the Blue Shirts Society, who 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 to be 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 him 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 for Chiang. Furthermore, most of the western powers, such as the US and United Kingdom, preferred a peaceful resolution to the incident, for they regarded Chiang as the ideal person to govern China.
For the Communists, there were two opinions as well. Leaders such as Mao and Zhu De proposed the execution of Chiang for his attempted suppression of Communists, 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 Xi'an at the request of Zhang and Yang.
As the fury over Chiang and pressure for his execution intensified among CPC members and armies of Zhang and Yang, the situation worsened for Chiang, who was held in solitary confinement at the scenic Huaqing Pool in the outskirts of Xi'an under military guard. Madam Chiang did not believe that the Kuomintang would be effective in freeing her husband. Therefore, on 14 December 1936, she sent her Australian adviser, William Henry Donald, who had previously been Zhang’s adviser (and had helped him overcome opium addiction), to Xi'an for negotiations. The winds began to blow his way after Stalin gave his guidance on this incident. He 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 deferred to Stalin’s opinion and showed his enthusiasm for peace talks. On 17 December 1936 the CPC delegation was sent to Xi'an 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, so it was no surprise that he would later seek to take revenge on Zhang. As Chiang was the legitimate premier of China at the 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. He was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison, with Chiang quickly granting amnesty but nevertheless keeping him 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 regrets about the incident, while Zhang privately told others he felt 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 were still in question. His 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 argued that Zhang was indeed a CPC member, but his status was kept secret so only a few people, such as Zhou and Ye Jianying, knew. With eyewitnesses in their advanced years and fewer of them, 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 Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, Chiang ordered the execution of Yang, his wife and young son, a 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; this has been credited with the mass expansion of the National Salvation singing campaign responsible for many Chinese folk songs of the era, whose earlier organizers such as Nie Er and Liu Liangmo had been forced into exile by KMT harassment. Until the outbreak of the New Fourth Army incident, Mao also exploited the interlude, enlarging his base and strengthening his grip on power. By conforming to Soviet policy, Mao also appeased Stalin and avoided further interference. Finally, the CPC won considerable support from the Chinese people for being open advocates of the anti-Japanese United Front. All this laid the foundation for the CPC’s victory over the Kuomintang after the end of the anti-Japanese war.