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Chang Tso-lin in Northeast China

January 29, 2010

Gavan McCormack. Chang Tso-lin in Northeast China, 1911-1928: China, Japan, and the Manchurian Idea. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1977.

Dahpon D. Ho (2005)

In March 1927, a little over a year before he was assassinated by Japanese military officers, warlord Zhang Zuolin tried in vain to drum up support for his faltering regime by proposing a joint invasion of the Soviet Union by Britain, France, Poland and his own armies. Of this, British minister Miles Lampson icily remarked: “I threw the coldest cold water on such inanity, but it does not do to tell Chang Tso-lin that he is an ass; he is apt to resent it” (p. 216). This is just one of the memorable details that Gavan McCormack draws from a wide range of English, Chinese and Japanese sources in study of Zhang Zuolin, arguably the most powerful single warlord of his day and a hitherto enigmatic figure who dominated the three northeastern provinces for over a decade.

McCormack’s approach is basically chronological, but binding his study together are the two main themes of warlordism and Japanese imperialism. Roughly the first half of the book, then, is concerned with Zhang Zuolin’s ambitious rise from a “tiny, frail-looking, mustachioed illiterate, leader of an obscure frontier bandit gang” to the apex of his career as “perhaps the greatest of that strange group of men known as the warlords” (p. 1). With a firm power base in China’s key northeast, Zhang marched onto the national stage in 1918 and fraternized with all kinds of shifting powers, factions and alliances. Though he suffered bitter defeat in the first Fengtian-Zhili War of 1922, the security of his northeastern bastion allowed him to isolate himself, nurse his army’s wounds and reorganize his administration for two years before bursting back with a vengeance in the Second Fengtian-Zhili War. By fall 1925, Zhang was two steps closer to his dream of becoming ruler of China, with his protégés and subordinates controlling a large swath from Shandong, Anhui and Jiangsu to Zhili and Jehol (Rehe).

Zhang’s position was always contingent, however, on a host of factors, not least of which was an uneasy symbiosis with Japanese imperialism. McCormack focuses the second half of the book on the hardening contradictions between Zhang’s ambitions and Japanese diplomatic, military and economic goals in the three northeastern provinces. Japanese military authorities had favored Zhang since his bandit days, hoping that he would prove himself a useful tool and a local watchdog to safeguard Japanese investments. But Zhang refused to play the puppet or stay put in “Manchuria.” Despite strong Japanese disapproval of his military adventures, Zhang never lost sight of his bid for power over all China. Initial tolerance thus hardened into mutual hostility and suspicion. McCormack writes: “He aimed, in other words, to use Japan; Japan, in turn, aimed to use him, and in a contest so unequal the outcome was never in doubt” (p. 254).

The “Manchurian Idea” alluded to in the title of this book, then, is in McCormack’s view essentially a creation of Japanese imperialist policy rather than a natural outgrowth of Zhang’s warlord politics. That is, the notion of Manchurian separateness – and therefore detachability – from China “formed no part of the thinking of the Chang [Zhang] regime” (p. 111), and Zhang’s northeastern autonomy was at most a “tactical retreat” in his quest for absolute power. Like his fellow warlords, Zhang had his eye fixated on the whole pie no matter how tasty his own rich slice might have been. The Japanese, on the other hand, wanted to reign him in and compel him to mind only Manchurian affairs.

McCormack boldly contends that Japan’s imperialist policy in China did not mutate from neutrality or “nonintervention” into active manipulation at the hands of some wildcard military leaders in the late 1920s. Rather, the fundamental principles of Japanese policy – namely, the separateness of Manchuria and the maintenance of Japanese interests in Manchuria by any means necessary – remained substantially unchanged from the 1910s onward, regardless of what leaders like Shidehara Kijūrō said in public. The so-called “Shidehara diplomacy” of strict nonintervention in the mid-1920s sounded nice on paper, McCormack argues, but “Shidehara’s determination to preserve Japan’s rights and interests in the Northeast free of disturbance from China’s civil wars thus led to a commitment, in effect, to the preservation of Chang Tso-lin [Zhang Zuolin] – Shidehara, in short, had as little respect for Chinese sovereignty in the Northeast as the military had” (p. 143). One reviewer has expressed reservations about this blanket treatment of Japanese policymakers (G. Ralph Falconeri, Journal of Asian Studies, 38:3, May 1979, p. 563-565), but McCormack’s reading of Japanese sources strongly suggests active Japanese support for Zhang Zuolin in the Second Fengtian-Zhili War (Japanese officers bribed warlord Feng Yuxiang to defect to Zhang’s side in 1924) and the Guo Songling rebellion in 1925 (when Japanese “neutrality” was used to restrict Guo’s mobility while Japanese artillery forces really backed Zhang). Without the support or at least tolerance of Japanese policymakers, McCormack argues that Zhang could not have survived so long. He was a man of many failings, “such as might otherwise have put an end to his career,” but Zhang was “saved by the fact that he remained a better instrument of Japanese imperialist purposes than any rival” (p. 147).

In sum, this study illuminates a shrewd, ambitious, calculating and adaptable, and sometimes ruthless man who dominated the rich areas of China’s northeast from 1912 to 1928. Most importantly, Zhang Zuolin’s story highlights the extent to which geography and imperialism were inextricably involved in warlord rivalries that have often been imagined primarily in terms of personal ambition and endogenous national fragmentation. Geography was a key asset in terms of providing Zhang with wealth and a strategic bastion, but it also placed him right in the path of Japanese expansion. He was no puppet, but he was forced to contend and negotiate with serious imperialist pressures, arguably to a larger extent than any of his rival warlords. His inability to resolve the growing contradiction between attempts to safeguard Chinese integrity and a Japanese policy inimical to Chinese unity eventually culminated in the bomb blast that tore Zhang’s train to shreds in June 1928, but as McCormack deftly shows, that bomb had a long fuse. James E. Sheridan, who helped pioneer the study of warlords with Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yü-hsiang (1966), has praised this work as “a welcome Manchurian dimension to our view of militarism and politics in the early republic – [and] the most detailed picture yet of foreign involvement with a Chinese warlord” (American Historical Review, 83:4, Oct. 1978, p. 1074).

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