Map showing the situation of China during the Xi'an Incident in December 1936
The Xi'an Incident (traditional Chinese: 西安事變; simplified Chinese: 西安事变; pinyin: Xī'ān Shìbìan) was a political crisis that took place in Xi'an, Republic of China in 1936. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China, was detained by his subordinates Generals Chang Hsüeh-liang (Zhang Xueliang) and Yang Hucheng, in order to force the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) to change its policies regarding the Empire of Japan and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Prior to the incident, Chiang Kai-shek followed a strategy of “first internal pacification, then external resistance” that entailed eliminating the CCP and appeasing Japan to allow time for the modernization of China and its military. After the incident, Chiang aligned with the Communists against the Japanese. However, by the time Chiang arrived in Xi'an on 4 December 1936, negotiations for a united front had been in the works for two years. The crisis ended after two weeks of negotiation, in which Chiang was eventually released and returned to Nanjing, accompanied by Zhang. Chiang agreed to end the ongoing civil war against the CCP and began actively preparing for the impending war with Japan.
Japanese invasion of Manchuria
In 1931, the Empire of Japan continued to escalate aggression against China through the Mukden Incident and the eventual occupation of Northeast China. The "Young Marshal" Chang Hsüeh-liang, the successor of Fengtian army stationed in the Northeast, was widely criticized for the loss of his territory against the Imperial Japanese Army. In response, Chang resigned from his position and went on a tour of Europe.
In the aftermath of the Northern Expedition in 1928, China was nominally unified under the authority of the Nationalist government in Nanjing. Simultaneously, the Nationalist government violently purged members of the CCP in the Kuomintang, effectively ending the alliance between the two parties. Beginning in the 1930s, the Nationalist government launched a series of campaigns against the CCP. After Zhang returned from his tour of Europe, he was given the task of overseeing these campaigns with his Northeast Army. In the meanwhile, the impending war against Japan led to nationwide unrest and surge of Chinese nationalism. Consequently, the campaigns against the Communist Party were becoming increasingly unpopular. Chiang, fearing the loss of leadership to China, continued the civil war against the CCP despite lacking popular support. Chang was hoping to reverse the Nationalist policy of prioritizing the purge of Communists, and instead focusing on military preparation against Japanese aggression. After his proposal was rejected by Chiang, the CCP was able to convince Zhang of their commitment to fight the Japanese as a united front, and Chang began to plot a coup in "great secrecy". By June 1936, the secret agreement between Chang and the CCP had been successfully settled.
Chang Hsüeh-liang and Yang Hucheng in 1936
On 12 December 1936, bodyguards of Chang Hsüeh-liang and Yang Hucheng stormed the cabin where Chiang was staying and detained the Nationalist leader. A telegram was sent to Nanking (Nanjing) to demand immediate end to civil war against the CCP, and to reorganize the Nationalist government by expelling pro-Japanese factions and adopting an active anti-Japanese stance. As conflicting reports unfolded, the Nationalist government in Nanjing was sent into disarray.
Negotiations and release
Many young officers in the Northeast Army demanded Chiang be killed, but this was refused by Zhang as his intention was "only to change his policy". The responses to the coup from high-level Nationalist figures in Nanking were divided. The Military Affairs Commission led by He Yingqin recommended a military campaign against Xi'an, and immediately send a regiment to capture Tongguan. Soong Mei-ling and Kong Xiangxi were strongly in favor of negotiating a settlement to ensure the safety of Chiang.
On 16 December, Zhou Enlai arrived in Xi'an for negotiations, accompanied by fellow CCP diplomat Lin Boqu. At first, Chiang was opposed to negotiating with a CCP delegate, but withdrew his opposition when it became clear that his life and freedom were largely dependent on Communist goodwill towards him. Influencing his decision was also the arrival of Madame Chiang on 22 December, who had travelled to Xi'an hoping to secure his speedy release, fearing military intervention from factions within the Kuomintang. On 24 December, Chiang received Zhou for a meeting, the first time that the two had seen each other since Zhou had left Whampoa Military Academy over ten years earlier. Zhou began the conversation by saying: "In the ten years since we have met, you seem to have aged very little." Chiang nodded and said: "Enlai, you were my subordinate. You should do what I say." Zhou replied that if Chiang would halt the civil war and resist the Japanese instead, the Red Army would willingly accept Chiang's command. By the end of the meeting, Chiang promised to end the civil war, to resist the Japanese together, and to invite Zhou to Nanjing for further talks.
The Xi'an Incident was a turning point for the CCP. Chiang's leadership over political and military affairs in China was affirmed, while the CCP was able to expand its own strength under the new united front, which later played a factor in the Chinese Communist Revolution.
Chang was kept under house arrest for over 50 years before emigrating to Hawaii in 1993, while Yang was imprisoned and eventually executed on the order of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, before the Nationalist retreat to Taiwan.
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