Zhang Xueliang

Tuesday 16 October 2001 00:00

Zhang Xueliang, soldier: born Mukden, China 3 June 1901; three times married (one son, one daughter); died Honolulu 14 October 2001.

Just before Christmas 1936, a Chinese general known as the Young Marshal kidnapped his commander-in-chief, and, quite possibly, prevented the elimination of Mao Tse-tung's forces who would conquer the country 13 years later.

Zhang Xueliang, who died in Honolulu on Sunday at the age of 100, wanted to force Chiang Kai-shek to form a united front with the Communists to oppose the Japanese aggression spreading across the country. But the pivotal episode in modern Chinese history he engineered ended up with his being held as a prisoner for 50 years.

The Young Marshal was the son of the powerful warlord Zhang Zuolin, who controlled the three northern provinces which made up Manchuria and had ambitions to make himself emperor. But the Japanese army, with its own designs in northern China, blew him up in his private train, calculating that his son would not provide much opposition to their expansion. They had good reason to suppose this: the Young Marshal was a morphine addict, accompanied everywhere by aides carrying drugs and syringes in a briefcase.

The younger Zhang proved a surprisingly brisk ruler, however, introducing education reforms, encouraging industry and arranging the assassination of two suspect generals at a dinner. As his adviser, he appointed a former journalist from Melbourne called William Henry Donald who tried to get him to kick his habit.

On the national stage, the Marshal allied himself with the Nationalist army Chiang Kai-shek had led out of the south in 1926 to conquer much of China. Zhang raised the Kuomintang flag over his northern domain and became deputy commander-in-chief under Chiang, who wrote that the younger man looked on him as a father. Zhang's 200,000-strong army moved from Manchuria into the region round Peking, where it became the Nationalist garrison.

As well as working together, the two men socialised: a photograph taken in Shanghai shows Chiang in white tie and tails, his eyes hooded, looking like a rather sinister lounge lizard while Zhang, in a long dark gown, stares fixedly into the camera.

While in Peking in the autumn of 1931, Zhang returned to his residence after a dinner at the British Legation and received a message from the Manchurian capital of Mukden. The Japanese had set off an explosion on the railway near the capital, blamed the Chinese and were demanding major concessions. Eleven hours later, the operator on the Mukden switchboard told him: "I can talk no more. The Japanese have entered my office."

The Marshal and his army became warriors without a homeland. The Japanese turned Manchuria into a puppet state nominally ruled by Pu Yi, the last Manchu emperor. Seeking a scapegoat for the turn of events, Chiang relieved Zhang of his command, telling him that, since the ship of state had hit a rock, some ballast had to be thrown overboard. Urging his troops to remain loyal to the Generalissimo, the Marshal flew to Shanghai with his wives and W.H. Donald.

There, the Australian called in an American drugs specialist who put Zhang and his equally addicted wives to sleep, and injected their arms with fluid drawn from blisters he had induced on their stomachs. The Young Marshal's aides were told they would be shot if they interfered. Three days later, Zhang and his wives were cured. They set out with Donald for a sea voyage to Europe, during which Zhang flirted with Mussolini's daughter who was returning home with her husband, the outgoing Italian Consul in Shanghai.

Touring Europe, the rejuvenated Young Marshal rented a house in Brighton, and stayed in London at the Dorchester, where he met luminaries including the former prime minister Ramsay MacDonald. He was highly impressed by signs of national revival in Italy and Germany, and, on his return to China, told Chiang that their country needed serious reform. As a result, he was put in charge of operations in three major provinces, where Donald organised a drive against corruption while the Young Marshal badgered Chiang to adopt a more resolute stance against the growing Japanese aggression.

But the Generalissimo was intent on finishing off the Communists first, having driven them into the remote fastness of Shaanxi province at the end of the Long March. Zhang was the key player since his headquarters were in Xian, the old imperial city which was the provincial capital. At the beginning of 1936, he met a Communist emissary, and agreed to take a "passive" position in the civil war. Then, at all-night talks in a Christian church, he and Chou En-lai agreed on the formation of a united national government and army.

After fruitless attempts to get Chiang to change his priorities, Zhang decided to take Chiang prisoner to force him to budge. His chance came when the Generalissimo flew into Xian at the beginning of December 1936, to put the finishing touches to the final drive against the severely weakened Communists. After a violent argument with his commander-in-chief, Zhang ordered an élite unit to kidnap Chiang in the early morning of 12 December at the hot-springs resort near Xian where he was staying.

Hearing shooting outside his villa, the Generalissimo fled in his nightshirt. He was eventually found hiding in a cave, and taken down to the military headquarters. Showing his characteristic stubbornness, he refused to acknowledge his captors, telling them to obey him or to shoot him. Donald, who was now working for Chiang, flew in with the Generalissimo's wife to conduct negotiations. Chou En-lai arrived, too.

On Christmas Day, Zhang blinked first, and agreed to release his commander-in-chief. He had summoned up the courage to kidnap him, but had not known what to do next. He believed that Chiang had implicitly agreed to suspend the civil war and form a united front against the Japanese. This did, indeed, happen for a while – long enough for the Communists to regroup and restore themselves. But the accounts of the incident by Chiang and his wife make plain that they did not consider any such undertaking had been given.

Zhang insisted on flying back to the capital of Nanking with Chiang. There, he was promptly court-martialled and, in effect, sentenced to be held under house arrest at the Generalissimo's pleasure. His followers in Xian raised a revolt, but were crushed and went off to join the Red Army after emptying the treasury. For his former captor's first detention site, Chiang chose a guest house on the hill behind his own home village south of Shanghai.

As the Japanese advances pushed him back into the interior of China, the Generalissimo took Zhang with him as his personal prisoner. In 1949, he was shipped with the retreating Nationalists to Taiwan where he was not freed till 1988. Regarded as a national hero on the mainland, he preferred to go to live in Hawaii rather than return to his homeland.

Zhang always said he had no regrets about having kidnapped Chiang, and his mixture of sadness and hope shows through in a poem written early in his own captivity:

The lonely shadow of my body lies under the sky. There is a long way to go; my hair turns white from growing old; little by little my tears become bright and the wind of spring is still blowing.

Jonathan Fenby

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in