The name Zhang Xueliang (張學良) is widely recognized by the Chinese speaking world. This 20th century figure forever changed the trajectory of modern China by instigating the Xian Incident (西安事變) in 1936.
Zhang was born at the turn of the 20th century to Zhang Zuolin (張作霖), the powerful Manchurian warlord who governed northeast China. The elder Zhang gave him an education through the use of private tutors. As a young man, Zhang became addicted to opium and was a womanizer. He had a colorful personality and charisma, along with boyish good looks and status (he commanded his own large army in Northeast China), qualities that attracted many women. During the 1920s, Zhang met Song Meiling, the future wife of Chiang Kaishek. She turned down his advances, as she did many men who tried to pursue her. The two maintained a lifelong friendship that lasted into old age.
In 1928, Zhang’s father was killed when a bomb planted by the Japanese detonated his train as it was travelling in northeast China. The elder Zhang refused to accommodate Japanese designs in northeast China. The Japanese had hoped that the younger Zhang, who at the time lacked discipline and structure in his life, would be more cooperative toward them. Enraged by his father’s killing, the younger Zhang vowed never to associate with the Japanese.
Zhang brought his troops into the banner of Chiang Kaishek, who at the time was trying to unify China and rid the country, unsuccessfully, of warlordism. Grateful for Zhang’s support, Chiang began to mentor him as a father figure, and train him as a promising subordinate. But Zhang was still plagued with his opium addiction and womanizing problems. So Zhang decided to spend one year in Europe to self-reflect and study. During his time there, he learned the governments of Europe and the functioning of society there.
Zhang returned from Europe as a reinvigorated man. He permanently eliminated his opium addiction and womanizing. Energized with a fervent patriotism, Zhang formed a new working relationship with the Generalissimo based on respect and a love for the country. At the time Chiang wanted to “pacify the interior before facing the exterior” (攘外必先安内), in other words, eliminate the Communists first, who he viewed as a bigger threat, and then fight the Japanese. Chiang believed that China was not strong enough yet to confront the Japanese in a full scale conflict. He famously remarked that “The Japanese were a disease of the skin, but the Communists were a disease of the heart.” (日本是皮膚病，共產黨是心臟病)
From a perspective based on power politics and realism, this thinking made perfect rational sense because in hindsight, the Communists later did sweep him from power. But this thinking was heresy to Zhang. To him, it made no sense for Chinese to fight one another when the country was facing external aggression. Chiang wanted to buy time so he can finish off the Communists first, and later fight the Japanese from a position of strength. Zhang wanted his boss to devote full time to counter Japanese aggression.
Chiang viewed Zhang’s logic, which made sense in principle, as immature. He refused to follow his subordinate’s insistence that he stop the civil war with the communists and form a united front with them. Zhang then began secret discussions with the communists on his own, meeting with Zhou Enlai to find a “peaceful solution” to the civil war. When Chiang ordered Zhang to immediately launch an offensive against the Communist base at Yanan to finish them off, Zhang and another general Yang Hucheng (楊虎城) realized that the only way to talk sense into the resolute Chiang was to coerce him into action.
In December of 1936, Chiang flew to the northwest city of Xian to personally order Zhang to launch the final extermination campaign against the Communists. Chiang stayed at a hotsprings resort there, a site where Tang emperors and their concubines used to bathe. That morning shots rang out as Chiang was sleeping. Realizing that something was wrong and his safety in jeopardy, Chiang left the room barefoot and escaped up a mountain. He injured his back after falling down while desperately reaching higher ground. Zhang and Yang’s men finally found him shivering inside a cave. They brought him back to the complex. There Zhang Xueliang entered the room and addressed his boss: ''I wish to lay my views before your excellency". He explained why Chiang’s refusal to fight the Japanese was detrimental to the country. Infuriated by this insubordination, Chiang exclaimed “Are you my subordinate or my captor? If you are my subordinate, you should follow what I say. If you are my captor, then you should kill me immediately.” Zhang pleaded with his boss, but Chiang refused to answer toward an intransigent subordinate.
Word of Chiang’s kidnapping spread across the country. The military establishment at Nanjing, led by the pro-Japanese general He Yingqin (who Chiang and Song Meiling despised), wanted to end the crisis by bombing the complex, an action that would not only kill the hostage takers, but Chiang as well. Song Meiling, realizing the danger to her husband, persuaded He to hold off the bombing for three days so she can personally fly to Xian to help negotiate his release along with her brother Song Ziwen (宋子文, also known as T.V. Soong) and William Donald, the Song family’s Australian advisor.
The Communists were elated by Chiang’s kidnapping. For Mao Zedong, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to eliminate his sworn enemy once and for all. But what saved Chiang’s life was action by the Soviet Union. The Chen Clique, also known as the Chen brothers (Chen Lifu and Chen Guofu, diehard supporters of Chiang who were deeply anti-communist and anti-Japanese), sent a telegram to Josef Stalin, saying that Chiang’s kidnapping would not benefit the Soviet Union because it will make it easier for the Japanese to pincer the Soviet Union in conjunction with the Germans.
Convinced, Stalin sent instructions to Mao and the Communists to ensure the safety of Chiang, who was the only man capable of leading China and its different factions against the Japanese. Mao’s elation turned to anger, but he had no choice but to follow these instructions. Mao’s right hand man, the polished and urbane Zhou Enlai, who was highly skilled in personal diplomacy, and who Henry Kissinger later called “one of the two or three most brilliant minds he has ever met”, was sent to Xian to negotiate on the Communists’ behalf.
Zhang Xueliang met Song Meiling at the airport in Xian when she arrived. It was the first time that they met since their courtship days in the 1920s. When she stepped off the plane, she told him to please not let his bodyguards search her belongings on the plane “for she hates having her stuff messed up and searched”. The chivalrous Zhang responded “Ma’am. I would never do such a thing like that to you.” When she arrived at the compound in Xian, Chiang burst into tears at the sight of her entrance into the room. She brought him a copy of the Bible and his dentures. (Chiang had converted to Christianity under pressure from his mother-in-law before they married). Outraged at her husband’s condition from his ordeal, Song Meiling had a long discussion with Zhang Xueliang, saying that he was too impetuous and had made an awfully big mess of things.
Zhang’s personal relationship (關係 - guanxi) with Song Meiling was much stronger than his personal relationship with her husband. (他與宋美齡的關係比他與蔣介石的關係跟強). Their friendship resembled an elder sister-younger brother type of relationship. Zhang replied that had she been there earlier to smooth the problems between him and her husband, this whole thing might have been avoided.
Discussions between the parties at Xian went nowhere until Zhou Enlai arrived. Zhou was a seasoned diplomat who could charm friends and enemies alike. He could charm even the devil. He was once Chiang’s director of propaganda at the Nationalist Whampoa Military Academy (黃埔軍校) in Guangzhou when the Nationalists and Communists worked together under Sun Yatsen. In 1927 during the split with the Communists and the bloody crackdown on them in the streets of Shanghai (四一二清黨), Chiang had placed a hefty price tag on Zhou’s head, and decided at the last minute to let Zhou escape.
Now Chiang’s fate laid in the hands of Zhou Enlai, and the irony was not lost on both men. Chiang awaited Zhou’s arrival with anxiety. He did not know how his former Whampoa associate would treat him, yet was surprised when Zhou addressed him as a subordinate addressing a superior. During the negotiations at Xian, Chiang remarked that Zhou was the only reasonable Communist he knew. Song Meiling also was impressed by Zhou’s sophistication, and his grasp of details and political savvy.
Following two weeks of negotations, the parties at Xian reached an agreement where the Nationalists and Communists would form a united front to fight the Japanese. Chiang was released on the condition that he lead the united front. He emerged from the Xian Incident more popular than ever.
Zhang Xueliang’s fate however was uncertain. He was in deep trouble now because his original intent may have been to remove Chiang from power or even eliminate him. But he and the communists were instructed to keep Chiang alive.
Song Meiling urged her husband to treat Zhang leniently, saying that Zhang did not act out of selfish reasons or a desire to grab power, but acted for the good of the country. Under normal circumstances Zhang would have been put to death for kidnapping the national leader, but this situation was unique. First of all, the Japanese had murdered Zhang’s father. Understandably, he was upholding the principle of filial piety (孝), which is highly important in Chinese culture. Second, Zhang’s motives were patriotic (at least on the surface), and killing him might make him a martyr. Third, Zhang expressed genuine remorse for his actions, begging for punishment and even asking Chiang to give the death sentence for kidnapping him. Finally, Zhang’s guanxi with Song Meiling proved crucial in saving his life.
Zhang later wrote in his memoirs that “The reason why I am still alive today is because of Madame Chiang. The Generalissimo wanted me dead.” - 我今天還活著的原因是因爲宋美齡的援助. 蔣介石要了我死定.
Zhang could have easily gone over to the Communist side, but he decided to accompany Chiang to the Nationalist capital at Nanjing, where he was sentenced to long imprisonment. Chiang however commuted his sentence to house arrest.
Zhang’s co-conspirator Yang Hucheng, who had no such guanxi, suffered a far worse fate. Yang wanted to kill Chiang during the Xian Incident, but Zhang talked him out of it. Zhang had also convinced Chiang of the falsehood that Yang was the mastermind of the whole thing. In 1949 during the retreat to Taiwan, Chiang ordered the death of Yang. He, his wife, son, and other family members were dragged out in the middle of the night and shot in a final act of revenge. Even the Yang family housemaid was not spared.
The Xian Incident accomplished its goals. One year later in 1937, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge sparked a full-scale Japanese invasion. Chiang had to keep his word to fight the Japanese, and he refused to yield any more ground to them. The eight year war (1937-1945) claimed 20 million Chinese military and civilian casualties. The united front was never really a united front. Both sides fought their separate campaigns against the Japanese. All the major battles fought in China against the Japanese were done by the Nationalists, who bore the brunt of the fighting, while the Communists waged a smaller guerrilla campaign in the north.
The Communists exploited the Xian Incident to their advantage with great skill. Having the Nationalists concentrate on fighting the Japanese allowed the Communists time to rebuild their battered strength and conserve their resources for the future, final civil war confrontation. In 1972 during Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka’s visit to Beijing to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC, Mao Zedong personally thanked Tanaka for Japan’s invasion of China because without it, the Communists would never have risen to power.
To this day, the Nationalists view the Xian Incident as the pivotal event that led to their defeat on the mainland.
Zhang for his role in changing Chinese history was placed in lifetime house arrest, first on the mainland and then on Taiwan. His lifelong partner Edith Chao ( 趙一荻, also known as 趙四小姐) had stayed at his side during his house arrest on the mainland. When the Nationalists moved his house arrest to Taiwan, placing him in a comfortable villa in the foothills of Yangmingshan on the outskirts of Taipei, she voluntarily decided to join him again in confinement. Zhang’s previous first wife was so impressed by Edith’s lifelong devotion to him that she released him from his marriage vows. Edith remained a free woman and could leave the house whenever she wanted, but Zhang could only leave the house on prior approval and accompanied by security personnel.
During Zhang’s house arrest in Taiwan, Song Meiling felt great sympathy toward him and Edith, visiting them frequently and taking them out of the house to participate in outdoor activities in the city even though she was not supposed to. She often got into fights with her husband to gain Zhang’s release, but had little power to do anything. Politically, it was also impossible as long as Chiang was still alive. She gave Zhang a speaker radio and television set as his eyes and ears to the world. On weekends, she took him and Edith with her to attend Sunday chapel services. In 1965 with Song Meiling’s encouragement and support, Zhang and Edith finally married and converted to Christianity. Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo also became good friends with Zhang during this period. It is reported that Ching-kuo and him had nights out in Taipei drinking beer at local pubs.
As Taiwan democratized during the late 1980s, Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui released Zhang from captivity. The Communist government in China invited Zhang many times during the 1990s to visit the mainland, but he turned them down. He may have harbored regrets about his actions in 1936 after reflecting what happened in China under Communist rule. The events on the mainland while he was in house arrest in Taiwan, like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, may have given him a glimpse of the communists’ true colors. Also, his friend Song Meiling was still alive at the time and visiting the mainland would have been highly inappropriate. Meiling even refused to step foot on the mainland to attend her sister 宋慶齡’s funeral in 1981. To visit the mainland under these circumstances would have given the Communist government a symbolic victory.
Zhang and Edith moved to Hawaii, where they lived in retirement until their deaths in 2000 and 2001.
To this day both sides of the Taiwan Strait view Zhang Xueliang favorably. Beijing views him as a patriot, while Taipei and most people from Taiwan view him as a man who acted on principle even though his actions may have been naive and immature considering the circumstances. In an era of strife, corruption, and warlordism, Zhang’s colorful personality and sincerity stood out in contrast to his contemporaries.
It is remarkable that Zhang Xueliang was able to live a comfortable life considering the offense he made. During the 1960s, the people who previously offended Mao, like 劉少奇 and 彭德懷, all died violent deaths during the Cultural Revolution. Had Zhang done to Mao Zedong what he did to Chiang, he might have suffered a similar fate.