Military Ghosts of Modern China

On May 1, 1924, on Changzhou Island, a motley crew of unlikely allies celebrated the opening of one of the most famous schools in modern Chinese history.

way-back-when2_Aug-2017

The Republic of China Military Academy, better known as the Whampoa Military Academy, only spent six terms on Changzhou Island, but those six terms between 1924 and 1927 were a crucible from which some of China’s most influential 20th-century political and military leaders emerged.

The school emerged from the accidental confederacy of Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary hero and founder and titular leader of the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party in China, and agents from the Comintern, which was founded in 1915 to spread Communism and national revolution throughout the world.

The major powers—including Britain, Japan and the United States—had little interest in supporting Sun’s dreams of a unified and strong China. So long as the government allowed the foreigners their special rights and concessions granted by a century of unequal treaties, the powers were happy.

 

Following the failure of the Republic of China at the hands of erstwhile Kuomintang ally and would be Emperor Yuan Shikai in 1916, China fragmented. China became what we would call in the 21st century, a failed state.

Young intellectuals searched for a way forward for the country by pursuing ideas and ideologies from around the world. The betrayal of China at the Paris Peace Conferences following World War I angered an entire generation, who took to the streets in the May 4, 1919 demonstrations.

A few young men from this generation formed China’s first Communist Party in 1921. Others followed Sun Yat-sen and his dream of unifying China by force. But to do that, Sun would need an army and that army would require training, arms and financial support.

The major powers—including Britain, Japan and the United States—had little interest in supporting Sun’s dreams of a unified and strong China. So long as the government allowed the foreigners their special rights and concessions granted by a century of unequal treaties, the powers were happy.

In fact, the only government willing to take Sun’s calls was the Soviet Union—who had their own agenda. The Soviet Union and the Comintern believed that revolution in the more developed countries of Europe and North America could be hastened if those countries no longer had colonies to exploit. Ideologically, Sun and the Soviets were hardly simpatico, but the Comintern felt Sun was the best bet for a national revolution in China.

There was one caveat: Sun had to allow the members of  the Chinese Communist Party join Sun’s Kuomintang as a United Front.

The faculty at the Whampoa Military Academy reflected this wobbly coalition. The first commandant of the academy was Sun’s young protégés, Chiang Kai-shek. A dour and disciplined young man with a shady past, Chiang used the academy to build a cadre of cadets loyal to Chiang.

The deputy director of the Academy’s Political Department was future PRC überstateman, Zhou Enlai. Wang Jingwei—later an arch-rival of Chiang for control of the KMT and the head of the collaborationist Reorganized National Government of China during World War II—was an instructor. Soviet advisors taught courses on military strategy, revolutionary tactics and political agitation.

The young cadets at Whampoa soon found themselves needing to transform their new knowledge into action. Sun Yat-sen’s position in Guangzhou was based on an alliance with the warlord Chen Jiongming. Chen and Sun’s relationship was complicated, and their off-again, on-again bromance finally fell apart in the early 1920s in part over Sun’s decision to allow the Communists to join the KMT.

Over the next few years, Chen fought a series of campaigns against Sun who grew to rely on the Whampoa as a pipeline of young military talent. Ultimately, it would be these same cadets who would be at the core of the Northern Expedition, Sun’s long-held dream to unify China under KMT rule. Sun would not live to see his vision become a reality.

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 setting off a brief struggle among his protégés over who would succeed the great revolutionary as the head of the KMT. Chiang—with his Whampoa clique of young military officers backing him—emerged as Sun’s successor. It would be Chiang who would organize the Northern Expedition of 1926 to 1927, which would bring a large swath of Central China under his rule. From 1927 to 1937, the “Nanjing Decade,” Chiang would be the acknowledged leader of the Republic of China, again often relying on the support of his former Whampoa students.

The unlikely alliance between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party, which played a major role in the success of the Northern Expedition, blew apart in the spring of 1927 when KMT troops began a full-scale purge of Communists and their sympathizers.

Chiang would remain nominal commandant of the military academy until 1947, even as the academy itself reorganized first in Nanjing and then in the wartime capital in Chongqing. It was re-established in 1950 in Fengshan, Kaohsiung in Taiwan where it remains today.

The original location of the Whampoa Academy on Changzhou Island is now a museum and memorial to the cadets who served there.

Category Way Back When