Having given up the presidency of the would-be new Chinese republic almost as quickly as he had received it, the ever-idealistic Sun Yat-sen looked for other areas where he could be of service in nudging his country toward modernity. He asked for and was given the post of railroad commissioner in the new government, for he believed, reasonably enough, that the national railway network that had been so long discussed but never properly constructed was essential for binding the disparate regions of China together into an organized, geopolitically competitive whole.
But, as usual, his approach to the task left something to be desired in practical terms. W.H. Donald, an Australian journalist who spent decades in close association with Sun and the Soong family, found him happily drawing suspiciously symmetrical lines across a map of China one day. “That line circling Tibet can never be built,” Donald interceded. “You can build it with brush and ink, and that’s all. Some of the passes over which your railway would run are 15,000 feet [4600 meters] high.”
“There are roads there, aren’t there?” asked Sun.
“Not roads. Just narrow, rough trails,” said Donald.
“Where there’s a road, a railway can be built,” replied Sun with sanguine equanimity.
While he was thus frittering his time away on railroads in the sky, the nation’s politics were going horribly if predictably off the rails, as General Yuan revealed himself not to be the ideal man to have entrusted with China’s democratic future. It became clear in very little time at all that he saw himself not as the caretaker shepherding China toward democracy, but rather as the founder of its next imperial dynasty. He worked toward that end by murdering potential rivals and hoarding tax money to fund the army he had painstakingly assembled during the last years of the Qing — an army that was still loyal to him personally rather than the Chinese state. He greeted the second anniversary of the rebellion in Wuhan that had led to the toppling of the dynasty to which he had once pledged undying loyalty by holding a belated but lavish and disconcertingly imperial-flavored inauguration party for himself in Beijing. The dominoes fell one by one after that: he fired Sun Yat-sen from his post as railroad commissioner (not that he was accomplishing much in that capacity anyway), outlawed his rival’s political party the Kuomintang, dissolved China’s fledgling parliament, binned its preliminary constitution, and at last formally declared himself president for life — a move that one didn’t have to be an unusually shrewd political observer to recognize as a prelude to an eventual claim to the Mandate of Heaven.
These were bleak times for Sun Yat-sen and Charlie Soong, who could only watch as everything they had worked for slipped away. In justifiable fear for their lives, both men fled with their families to Japan. From here the tireless Sun returned to his familiar role of exiled advocate for a better China. But even he struggled to keep the faith in the face of these latest setbacks.
To make matters worse, a personal rift had developed between him and Charlie, a supremely unnecessary falling-out for which Sun was solely and directly responsible. It seems that an unfortunate blitheness about the details of revolution was not the only weakness of Sun Yat-sen. “Sun was not just an impractical visionary,” wrote W.H. Donald later, “but the worst of it was that the old boy could not keep his hands off women.” Not long after Soong Ai-ling had become his secretary, he had confessed to Donald that he wanted to marry her, despite the fact that he already had a wife, the one arranged for him by his family decades ago. An aghast Donald objected that Sun had been like an uncle to Ai-ling, who was 22 years younger than him. “I know it, I know it,” Sun replied, “but I want to marry her just the same.”
And so he went to Charlie Soong and asked for his daughter’s hand. His friend visibly flinched, as if Sun had physically struck him. Finally he managed to splutter out an indignant refusal. “I want you to go,” he said. “I want you to go, and I never want you to come back. My door is closed to you forever.” He immediately ordered Ai-ling, a sensible girl who had no romantic interest whatsoever in Sun, to resign as his secretary.
These events had occurred while Sun Yat-sen still held the title of railroad commissioner. Although it marked the end of the two men’s close personal friendship, Charlie still believed in the cause to which they had both devoted so much of themselves, and continued to support it financially. In Japan in 1914, not long after arranging a more appropriate match for Ai-ling with one H.H. Kung, the wealthy scion of a prominent Chinese banking and trading family, Charlie even allowed his second daughter Ching-ling, now also returned from her time at university in the United States, to become Sun’s next secretary. In contrast to the thoroughly pragmatic Ai-ling, Ching-ling was a patriotic idealist to the core. She had still been attending university in Georgia when the Qing dynasty fell, whereupon she had bemused her American classmates by pulling an imperial Chinese flag down off the wall and stomping on it; she had then gone on to write an editorial for her university’s newspaper that called the downfall of the Qing “the greatest event since Waterloo.” For his part, Sun was more than satisfied to trade the eldest Soong daughter for this younger, prettier girl who worshiped the very ground he walked on. The Apollonian instinct soon joined forces with the Dionysian, and the two began a torrid affair.
When rumors of this second, even more underhanded betrayal reached Charlie, he reacted as many a father would: he bundled up his daughter and left town with her. In fact, he left the country of Japan altogether, arranging to return to Shanghai with his family and live there in the international quarter, which General Yuan’s goons would have difficulty penetrating. He tried to negotiate another marriage for Ching-ling, but she would have none of it. In the end, he had to literally lock her in her room in order to keep her at home — until she climbed out of her window one night and boarded a ship bound for Japan and a reunion with her paramour in exile. Upon her arrival, Sun asked her to marry him, even though he was already married to someone else. While it was still relatively commonplace for wealthy or well-born Chinese men to have multiple wives during this period, the practice was of course anathema to the Christian faith professed by both the Soong family and Sun himself. But Ching-ling didn’t care, was willing to accept in lieu of any legal proof of divorce Sun’s assertion that he had never been “spiritually” joined with the wife he hardly knew. Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling were married by a Japanese lawyer in his home on October 25, 1915. He was 48 years old; she was 22.
Charlie Soong vacillated for a while between rage and sorrow after he got the news. “I never was so hurt in my life,” he told an American friend from his university days. “My own daughter and my best friend.” Still, man of business that he was, he was able to recognize a done deal when he saw one. At length, he grudgingly accepted the union in public, although he never forgave Sun personally.
General Yuan took the inevitable step of declaring himself emperor of China in December of 1915, but died suddenly of uremia just three months later, before he could properly consolidate his position. There was still enough of a civil government left in Beijing to force his son to abdicate, to reestablish the parliament and the constitution, and to elevate his former vice president to the post of president — on paper, that is. In reality, the central government was unable to assert its will without the support of General Yuan’s legions, all of which defected to pledge their loyalty to other individual generals now that their previous standard bearer was gone. It seemed that the chance to establish a united republic of China had slipped away, as power devolved from the institutions in the capital to these and other warlords who established themselves all over the country. China reverted to a feudal land of squabbling city-states and provinces, not that far removed from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms era of division after the fall of the Han dynasty. Sun Yat-sen returned to his homeland to beg and harangue for a more enlightened political perspective, but the better angels of his revolution seemed to have departed, replaced by the more familiar demons of Chinese realpolitik.
On May 3, 1918, Charlie Soong died at the age of just 55. His family said that the cause was stomach cancer, but this struck many as odd in that Charlie had shown no sign of any illness until less than a month before his death. Some then and now suspect that one of his many political enemies might have poisoned him. Regardless, he surely died a disappointed man, having witnessed all of his revolutionary efforts amount to so little, not to mention the two separate betrayals of his trust by his best friend. Being now estranged by his difficulties with Sun Yat-sen from many of the revolutionaries he had worked alongside for so many years, he was written out of the movement’s histories. “Sun’s political supporters had to defend the doctor against Charlie’s deprecations,” notes Sterling Seagrave, “so Charlie automatically ceased being a hero in the movement. When he died, he could not be celebrated. Dr. Sun was once more trying to establish a foothold. He did not need just then to have the world reminded of how much he owed others.” So, Charlie Soong’s Horatio Alger story did not quite have the requisite happy ending.
While China was fragmenting and Charlie was despairing and finally dying, Europe was in the throes of the titanic conflict that would go down in history as the First World War. Ever opportunistic, Japan had cast its lot with Britain, France and Russia already upon the commencement of hostilities in August of 1914, seeing the war as a delicious chance to grab some choice German possessions in East Asia. Foremost among these was a territory of 213 square miles (552 square kilometers) in Inner China’s Shandong Province, not far from Beijing, which Germany had pressured the Qing dynasty into leasing to it for a span of 99 years back in 1898. This territory was in Japanese hands already before 1914 was over.
For its part, China dithered until August of 1917, when it too joined the war on the Allied side — not that it made much difference to anyone, given that China’s feeble central government was barely even in control of Beijing. Rather than sending soldiers, the government wound up sending thousands of coolies to help the cause with manual labor in Europe and the Middle East.
One of the most important outcomes of the First World War — easily as important as the defeat of Germany in geopolitical terms — was the revolution that took place in Russia in November of 1917, which placed the largest country in the world in the hands of card-carrying communists, determined to put into practice a radically collectivist social theory that had existed only as coffee-shop chatter prior to this point. The would-be revolutionaries of China now began to split into two groups, depending on whether they were appalled or excited by events in the newly minted Soviet Union. The group that Karl Marx would have called the bourgeoisie was made up of people like the Soong family, who dreamed of a modern Chinese state created in the image of the United States, complete with elected officials and a market economy that would let them retain and grow their considerable wealth. But there were also increasing numbers of Chinese who counted themselves unapologetic members of the proletariat class, who looked to China’s closer neighbor for inspiration. Staying true to form, Sun Yat-sen kept his own rhetoric vague enough that both groups were able to continue seeing him as their spiritual leader. Nevertheless, the question of just what sort of revolution Sun really stood for got more and more urgent at the margins. Charlie Soong had once told his friend that he should endeavor to become China’s “George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.” Did that metaphor still stand, or should those names now be replaced by those of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky?
After the First World War ended in November of 1918, the victors turned to the task of formulating a long-term peace at France’s Palace of Versailles. The tiny Chinese delegation that traveled to the deliberations got an ugly surprise: they learned that Britain and France, eager to coax Japan into joining the conflict, had secretly promised it back in 1914 that it could hold onto Germany’s Shandong lease in Northern Inner China in perpetuity after the war was over. This was, needless to say, not a promise which international law empowered them to make. Chalk it up as just the latest entry in the West’s long record of treating China’s territorial sovereignty with dismissive contempt.
This time, however, China believed that at least one Western country might be willing to take a stand against such behavior. President Woodrow Wilson of the United States had been pushing for an equitable and sustainable peace, one that would prove right all of those politicians who had sold the First World War to their citizens as “the war to end all wars.” The foundation of his new world order was to be a League of Nations, a grand assembly where leaders of all the countries of the world could meet and work out their differences around conference tables instead of on battlefields. Surely the man behind such a visionary plan as this one would step in to prevent China from being misused so egregiously by his allies; in the past the United States had not trampled on China’s rights as blatantly as had the European countries, had at times even cast itself as China’s defender, as with the proposal of the “Open Door Policy” just before the Boxer Rebellion. With nowhere else to turn, China’s beleaguered government cast itself on the tender mercies of President Wilson, asking him to intervene and arrange to return to it its rightful territory. And Wilson had no trouble seeing that China had good cause to feel aggrieved.
But when he broached the matter with Japan, he found that country was adamant that the agreement that had precipitated its entry into the war must be honored. If the other parties to that agreement reneged, it said, it would retaliate by spurning the League of Nations. Desperate to secure Japan’s membership in his precious league — Japan was, after all, one of the more obviously dangerous loose cannons on the current geopolitical scene — Wilson reluctantly agreed to pay the price it demanded for its participation, blatant injustice toward China though it was. Incensed, the Chinese delegation refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the First World War . “If I sign,” said the head Chinese diplomat to one of the Americans at Versailles, “I shall not have what you in New York call a Chinaman’s chance [among my people back home].”
Even as it was, he heard plenty from them. A mob of thousands, made up mostly of university students and other young people, demonstrated against the corrupt bargain fulfilled on May 4, 1919, in Beijing; some of the protests turned violent, with break-ins and mass arrests. In the days that followed, this “May Fourth Movement” spread across China, prompting not only more demonstrations and riots but strikes and boycotts of Japanese goods. The activists were as angry at their own ineffectual government as they were at Japan and the West, especially when it emerged that said government intended to join the League of Nations despite this latest insult; with China as weak and unstable as it was, the protection the international body might offer it in the future against further depredations by the likes of Japan was deemed too valuable to pass up.
In the end, President Wilson sold out China for nothing. His League of Nations turned into something of a fiasco when the United States Congress, manifesting a haughty isolationist sentiment that had much in common with many eras of Chinese history, refused him permission to join his own brainchild. Meanwhile the May Fourth Movement slowly petered out, as it must, given that there was no obvious way to remedy an injustice that had now been enshrined in the most important geopolitical agreement to be signed in the last 100 years.
The real importance of the May Fourth Movement and the events that had precipitated it lay not in anything that was accomplished in the short term but rather in the profound effect they had on the psychology of China’s revolutionary cadre. Confronted with one more indelible example of the West’s disrespect for China, combined with a demonstration of the capriciousness of Western-style democracy in the form of the United States’s rejection of its own League of Nations, more and more of them turned their worshipful gaze away from Washington, D.C., and toward Moscow. Why should China attempt to emulate countries that so plainly still held it in contempt?
For their part, the Soviets were keenly conscious of what it could mean to bring the most populous country in the world into the communist camp. In what can only be described as a brilliant public-relations move, they unilaterally cancelled all of the unequal treaties which the old Russian czarist regime had forced the Chinese to sign over the years. The contrast with the Western democracies could hardly have been starker. As more and more of Sun Yat-sen’s followers shifted their sympathy toward the Soviet Union, the bourgeois revolutionaries typified by the Soong family became more and more nervous about this dragon they had helped to unleash.
A young woman named Deng Yingchao, who would go on to marry Zhou Enlai, a man who would be second in authority in China only to Chairman Mao for many years, was among the young radicals.
At that time we did not have definite political convictions, nor did we know much about communism. We just had a vague idea that the principle of distribution in the most advantageous society was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” We knew only that a revolution led by Lenin in Russia had been successful, and that the aim of that revolution was to emancipate the majority of the people who were oppressed, and to establish a classless society. How we longed for such a society! But at that time we could not learn about such a society because we could scarcely find any copies of Lenin’s ideas or information about the [Russian] Revolution.
In July of 1921, thirteen men assembled for four days in Shanghai in order to negotiate a tentative founding framework for a new Communist Party of China. Among their number was a strikingly tall, broad-chested 27-year-old schoolteacher from Hunan province by the name of Mao Zedong; his brusque physicality and rough country mannerisms caused him to stand out from the scrupulously polite, bespectacled scholars that surrounded him. Also present was a liaison from the Soviet Union, tasked by Moscow with teaching this group of diffident eggheads about the harsh realities of an effective proletariat revolution.
Progress on that front was frustratingly slow. “The first seven years of communism in China,” writes Julia Lovell, “were dominated by intellectuals and bookworms, who consistently refused to acknowledge the violence inherent in the theory and practice of communism.” Believing that their communist utopia would arise of itself, like a flower bursting out of the earth, if they could only plant the seed, they organized “worker associations” in the cities to bargain for their rights, and were shocked when such initiatives were broken up by the warlords of the provinces where they took place with horrific, indiscriminate brutality. One cannot help but picture Mao observing all of these well-meaning but fruitless appeals to the ruling classes’ better natures, then going on to formulate the first of the Maoist aphorisms that would become famous all over the world: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” He at least would prove himself well able not just to acknowledge the threat of violence that always accompanies major political change but to employ violence for his own ends — to employ it copiously, effectively, and by all indications gleefully.
Sun Yat-sen and his young wife Ching-ling had spent the years since their return from exile traveling between Shanghai and Guangzhou, trying to forward Sun’s latest grandiose scheme: to get the warlords of Southern Inner China to all pledge their support to him and help him to raise an army, which he would then lead triumphantly over the Qingling Mountains to subdue the North and establish at last the strong, unified Chinese republic that had been undone by the bad faith of General Yuan. The problem was that few to none of the warlords found his idealism very appealing, preferring to imagine themselves conquering China personally and becoming its next emperor, as it had been done for the last 2000 years.
Ever since the two men had first met in 1913, Sun had been relying increasingly upon a rather strange fellow named Chiang Kai-shek. Born some distance south of Shanghai in 1887, Chiang had led an active and not always reputable life before becoming a revolutionary, having served as both an officer in the Japanese army and as a gangster on the streets of Shanghai. He was unprepossessing in appearance; his personal pilot would later describe him as “a small, ascetic-faced man who might have passed for an Episcopalian minister or a YMCA secretary.” Yet he could be an unnerving person to be around for any length of time, with a weirdly high-pitched speaking voice that turned into a piercing falsetto when he grew angry, with a general affect that was just somehow off. Sterling Seagrave calls him “pathologically devious, a man of mercurial nature, alternating between shrill outbursts of hysterics that terrified his subordinates and baffling interludes of self-condemnation and near groveling before his bewildered opponents.” Indeed, his secret weapon was his sheer inscrutability: other people “did not know what to make of Chiang’s performance.” He was utterly without humor and utterly indifferent to ethical or logical persuasion after he had decided on any given course of action, and he could pout like a teenager for weeks or months at a time whenever he felt himself to have been slighted. A self-admitted nymphomaniac who had cut such a swath through the prostitutes of China and Japan that he had turned his body into a Petri dish of competing venereal diseases, thereby rendering himself sterile, he was quite possibly a psychopath as well, having likely murdered a number of people already by the time he fell in with Sun. He was not a democrat by disposition, but he was an opportunist: his one fixed conviction was that he could and should become the anointed successor to Sun Yat-sen and the next leader of China. Although his greatest talent was undoubtedly that of personal survival and advancement, he was relatively adept at getting things done for Sun as a means to that end. And because Sun had few men around him who got things done so effectively as he, Chiang rose quickly in his favor.
Chiang Kai-shek was 39 years old and Sun Yat-sen was 56 in January of 1923, when the latter agreed to officially receive a Soviet envoy at his current residence in Shanghai. Sun had still failed to firmly state a preference between the bourgeoisie revolutionaries who dominated the leadership of the Kuomintang, the party he himself had founded in those heady days of 1911, and the radicals of China’s new Communist Party. The Soviets were under no illusions about him; Vladimir Lenin called Sun a man of “inimitable — one might say virginal — naïveté.” Recognizing that this babe in the woods would need all the help he could get to take over China, the Soviets shrewdly did not encourage him to break ranks with his bourgeois contingent just yet. They rather urged him to continue to accommodate both parties, and use them together to gain control of China. Only once that was accomplished and the Communists had a seat at the table of the new government, the Soviets must have judged, would it be time to set about the task of turning China into a completely communist nation in their own image. They were willing to play the long game.
In Augustof 1923, Sun Yat-sen sent Chiang Kai-shek to the Soviet Union at the head of a reciprocal delegation. Whatever his other failings, Chiang was neither virginal nor naïve, and the report he delivered to Sun upon his return in December showed that he hadn’t been taken in by the welcome wagon the Soviets had rolled out for him. “From my observations, the Russian party lacks sincerity,” he wrote. “[Its] sole aim is to make the Chinese Communist Party its legitimate heir. I feel that they wish to make Manchuria, Mongolia, Sinkiang, and Tibet part of their own Soviet Union. As to [Inner] China, they wish ultimately to Sovietize it too.” His report’s final conclusion would become one of the guiding principles of his political life going forward: “You cannot trust a communist.”
But Sun Yat-sen had already elected to do just that: while Chiang was away, he had received another, semi-permanent Soviet delegation, led by a supremely articulate and charming liaison named Mikhail Borodin, who promised to help him “form an army on the Soviet model and to prepare a base for an expedition to the North.” Borodin promised that the Soviets would provide not only advice and training but the modern weapons and money Sun needed to make his dream a reality. Sun had not completely abandoned his infatuation with Western-style liberalism, and showed palpable signs of discomfort with his dogmatic new bedfellows. But, as he confessed to a reporter for The New York Times, “We have lost hope of help from America, England, France, or any other of the great powers. The only country that shows any signs of helping us is the Soviet government of Russia.” Any port in a storm…
It is indicative of the muddled ideologies of Sun Yat-sen’s movement that Chiang Kai-shek, who had by now become a vocal opponent of communism in China, was nonetheless made the director of the new military academy which the Soviets helped to establish on Pazhou, an island on the Pearl River just south of Guangzhou. Sun gave the opening address to the first group of trainees to arrive there in May of 1924:
The foundation of our republic scarcely exists. The reason is a simple one: our revolution has been carried on by the struggles of a revolutionary party but not a revolutionary army. Because of the lack of a revolutionary army, the republic has been mismanaged by warlords and bureaucrats. Our revolution will never succeed if this continues. With the establishment of this school, a new hope is born for us today. From now on, a new era has begun for your revolution. This school is the basis of the revolutionary army, of which you students form the nucleus.
The new army was blooded faster than anyone had anticipated. Guangzhou was first and foremost a commercial city, second only to Shanghai in that respect among Chinese cities, and its old guard of merchants and financiers, many of whom had supported Sun’s revolution at least tacitly prior to this point, were horrified by his new partnership with the Soviets. Aided by British friends and partners in Hong Kong and by the local warlords, none of whom wanted a renegade communist contingent in their midst, they blockaded Chiang’s army on its island, preventing the weapons that were being sent from the Soviet Union from reaching his troops. Chiang responded by attacking Guangzhou itself on the night of October 14, 1924, using tried and true Soviet techniques of partisan warfare, which relied on indiscriminate killing and arson. Within 24 hours, a burning, corpse-strewn Guangzhou belonged to him. Sun’s slow burn of a revolution had entered a new, more extreme phase, during which it would be much less hesitant to employ violence as the means to its ends.
Perhaps it was a blessing for the high-minded Sun Yat-sen that he didn’t get to see much of this new face of his revolution. After decades of ceaseless travel and striving in pursuit of a goal that seemed always to be fluttering just beyond his grasp, his health had begun to decline precipitously during the second half of 1924. Ching-ling and other concerned members of his entourage convinced him to go to Beijing, home of the best hospital in China. (By now, the last remnants of a proper national government in Beijing had collapsed, but the city was in the hands of one Feng Yuxiang, a Christian warlord who professed a measure of solidarity with Sun’s cause and was happy to welcome him there.) Alas, the best doctors in China could do nothing for Sun: they could only deliver a diagnosis of advanced liver cancer, and then watch over him while he died. Ching-ling was at his bedside constantly during his last days, as were her sisters Ai-ling and Mei-ling almost as frequently. Mikhail Borodin was there as well, orchestrating proceedings with the intention of creating a cult around the deceased leader similar to the one that had been built up around the recently departed Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet Union.
Following Sun Yat-sen’s death on March 12, 1925, his body lay in state in Beijing for two weeks, where it was viewed by half a million people. His will, which had more to say about the future disposition of China than it did about his personal property, was read out with pious reverence at special ceremonies that were held all over the country.
For 40 years, I have devoted myself to the cause of the national revolution, the object of which is to raise China to a position of independence and equality. The experience of these 40 years has convinced me that, to attain this goal, the people must be aroused and that we must associate ourselves in a common struggle with the peoples of the world who treat us as equals. The revolution has not yet been successfully concluded. Let all our comrades follow my writings and make every effort to carry them into effect. Above all, my recent declaration in favor of holding a national convention of the people of China and abolishing the unequal treaties should be carried into effect as soon as possible. This is my last will and testament.
The line about “common struggle with the peoples of the world who treat us as equals” shows the influence of Borodin with particular clarity.
Sun had died of natural causes, but that didn’t prevent him from being deified as the fallen martyr of the revolution. “He dedicated himself to the revolution without any armies to put his plans into effect, and so he got cancer,” said Chiang Kai-shek to his troops, who saw no reason to question this dubious formulation of cause and effect. As an American intelligence officer stationed in China would later observe, “Sun Yat-sen was worth more to Chiang and the Kuomintang dead than alive.” Chiang went so far as to tell anyone who would listen that his own name had been the last syllables ever uttered by the great man — an anecdote he appears to have made up from whole cloth. Determined to cement his link with the Chinese people’s martyr by any and all means possible, he proposed marriage to Ching-ling as soon as the mourning period for her first husband was over. She declined; as she would later dryly explain to a journalist, she “thought it was politics, not love.”
The loss of Sun Yat-sen left the revolutionary movement dangerously destabilized, balanced more precariously than ever upon the twin pillars of Western democracy and Soviet communism. The Kuomintang initially tried to hold things together via an unwieldy division of power among three rather faceless civilian bureaucrats, none of whom were overly entrenched with either camp. But Chiang worked methodically behind the scenes to fulfill the destiny he had earmarked for himself. Through a mixture of bribery, intimidation, and assassination, he eliminated his rivals and maneuvered himself into position to take full control of the party and its revolution. On May 15, 1926, the Kuomintang’s nervous remaining leadership surrendered to the inevitable, voting to make Chiang Kai-shek their party’s permanent head. His first coup was complete.
Just weeks later, the long-awaited, oft-delayed march to the North began at last. A western prong with strong left-wing sympathies reached Wuhan, the largest inland city south of the Qingling Mountains, in October of 1926. Soong Ching-ling traveled with this prong, winning the nickname of “China’s Joan of Arc” among some admiring journalists for thus staying in the thick of the revolution to which her late husband had devoted his entire life. Also among the leadership ranks was Mao Zedong. Those Communists who were under his direct command were fast shedding their former naïveté. When they took over a village, they left it to peasant tribunes to decide the fates of their erstwhile oppressors in the ruling classes. Their verdicts tended not to be overly merciful. Mao:
The peasants are clear-sighted. Who is bad and who is not, who is the worst and who is not so vicious, who deserves severe punishment and who deserves to be let off lightly — the peasants keep clear accounts, and very seldom has the punishment exceeded the crime. A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.
The only effective way of suppressing the reactionaries is to execute at least one or two in each county. It is necessary to bring about a brief reign of terror in every rural area…
Meanwhile an eastern prong of right-wing revolutionaries under Chiang Kai-shek took Nanjing, then prepared to wheel upon the juicy prize of Shanghai, the richest, most dynamic, and most cosmopolitan city in all of China.
But Shanghai was also the place where the Chinese Communist Party had been born, and it remained a city in which thousands upon thousands of committed Communists lived cheek by jowl with bourgeois commercial interests. These Communists couldn’t resist taking matters into their own hands while they awaited the revolutionary army’s arrival. They organized strikes which paralyzed the city, drove the local warlord and the police force away, and forced even the dreaded gangsters of Shanghai underground. They marched militantly day after day through the streets while the foreigners in this most international of all Chinese cities, for many of whom life prior to this point really had consisted of little more than a succession of dinner parties, cowered in their palatial homes, abandoned even by many of their servants, and wrote fevered missives back home which were picked up by Western newspapers.
But in truth, nothing was quite as it seemed, as some of the foreigners might have begun to suspect if they had paused to wonder why the gangsters, the most potent force in Shanghai life, had caved in so easily. The reality was that the gangsters were just biding their time, as was the suspiciously tardy Chiang Kai-shek, who had once counted himself among their number and still retained close relationships with them. Together they now implemented the ultimate protection racket. Knocking quietly at the doors of the most well-heeled Western and Chinese families of Shanghai, the gangsters demanded money in return for driving out the Communist menace; some of this money was forwarded on to Chiang.
By early April of 1927, Chiang’s army had finally reached the outskirts of Shanghai. At four in the morning on April 12, the trap was sprung: gangsters and undercover soldiers attacked all of the nerve centers of the Shanghai Communists. Hundreds died in brutal street fights. Playing the role of the moderate peace maker, Chiang convinced the Communist leaders to come unarmed to a parley with the gangsters that would hopefully end the violence. When they arrived, a contingent of his soldiers which had been hidden in the wings shot them dead. The purge of Communists from the revolutionary ranks then spread out across China, as those deemed insufficiently loyal to Chiang personally were disemboweled, beheaded, or strangled in large numbers.
For in Chiang’s judgment he had gone as far as his ambitions allowed him to in partnership with the Communists and their Soviet backers. The break he now made was as masterfully executed as it was savage. In the eyes of the West, he became at a stroke China’s Reasonable Man, singular and indispensable, who had rescued the good citizens of Shanghai from the leftist mobs and would soon do the same for the rest of the country. Announcing that he could no longer bear to associate himself in any way with communist extremism, he ordered all of his Soviet advisors to leave the country — this even as he continued to use the weapons they had provided to prosecute his broader revolution.
Although not yet an avowed Communist herself, Soong Ching-ling recognized that Chiang was well down the path to establishing a right-wing military dictatorship of China. She denounced him as a traitor to her late husband’s legacy, and traveled personally to Moscow to beg for help in fighting him. But much to her dismay, none was forthcoming. The death of Lenin in 1924 had precipitated a power struggle between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, which the latter had by now won. Whereas Trotsky had advocated for spreading communist revolution by any and all means possible to other countries around the world, Stalin wished for the time being at least for a more restrained foreign policy and a measure of accommodation with the established international order. He had no desire to embroil the Soviet Union any further in China’s troubles; better to get his own house in order. In the wake of Chiang’s bald-faced betrayal, the prevalent mood in Moscow when it came to China was one of disgust; the recalled Mikhail Borodin called its politics “a toilet, which, as often as you flush it, still stinks.” Stalin acquiesced to only one meeting with Soong Ching-ling, at which he told her bluntly that her best option for now was to go home and seek an accommodation with Chiang. But this she refused to do. Echoing the peripatetic career of her husband, she traveled on to several Western capitals to plead her case, always without success. For better or for worse, the Western establishment had decided that Chiang Kai-shek was its man in China, and it would not budge from this position for many, many years.
Thus the outside world did nothing to interfere as Chiang in his methodical way put the finishing touches on his grand design. Having reserved all of the best equipment and best-trained soldiers to himself, Chiang stood at the head of an army that was much superior to anything the Communists could muster in Wuhan. Some of the leaders there were killed, some came over to his side, others melted away into the countryside — among these was Mao Zedong — and the city fell to him without a fight. Membership in the Communist Party declined from 58,000 at the beginning of 1927 to no more than 10,000 by the end of the year, huddling in scattered cells in the countryside rather than meeting openly in the halls of power.
With the Communists thus seemingly vanquished, Chiang could turn his gaze northward again. He defeated some of the Northern warlords and co-opted others, and on October 10, 1928 — the seventeenth anniversary of the start of the uprising that had brought down the Qing dynasty — Beijing fell into his hands. China, it seemed, now belonged to him. And by this point the same could be said of the youngest of the Soong sisters.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)