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In War and Geopolitics in Interwar Manchuria Kwong Chi Man revisits the civil wars in China (1925-1928) from the perspective of the often-overlooked "warlords," who fought against the joint forces of the Nationalist and Communist parties. In particular, this work focuses on Zhang Zuolin, the leader of the "Fengian Clique" who was sometimes seen as the representative of the Japanese interest in Manchuria. Using primary and secondary sources from China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, this work tries to revisit the wars during the period from international, political, military, and economic-financial perspectives. It sheds new light on Zhang Zuolin's decision to fight against the Nationalists and the Communists and offers an alternative explanation to the Nationalists (temporary) victory by revealing the central importance of geopolitics in the civil wars in China during the interwar period.
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War and Geopolitics in Interwar Manchuria

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | doi 10.1163/9789004340848_001



Studies on
Modern East Asian History
Edited by
Robert Bickers (University of Bristol)
Rana Mitter (Oxford China Centre)
Peter O’Connor (Musashino University)


The titles published in this series are listed at


War and Geopolitics in Interwar
Zhang Zuolin and the Fengtian Clique during the
Northern Expedition

Kwong Chi Man




Cover illustration: Zhang Zuolin (left), Zhang Zongchang (center), and Wu Peifu (right) met at Beijing, 
28 June 1926. From Putnam Weale (Bertram Lenox Simpson), The Vanished Empire (London: Macmillan,
The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available online at
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Acknowledgements ix
List of Illustrations xi
List of Abbreviations xiii
Note on Romanization xiv
Introduction: “Northern ; Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?
State Formation and Geopolitics 5
Strategic History as an Approach 9
Northeast Asia and the “Northern Expedition” 11
The Military Factor 16
Structure 19


1 Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”: International Conflicts in
Manchuria and Northeast Asia, 1850-1920 21
Introduction 21
Northeast Asia: Implications of Geography 22
International Relations of Northeast Asia, 1600-1920 27
China and Manchuria: From Empire to Nation? 35
Fengjin, Migration and Manchurian Society, 1636-1911 35
Manchuria and Mongolia after 1911 41
Regional Economy in Northeast Asia 43
Manchurian Economy before 1890 43
Reorienting the Manchurian Economy 45
The Competing Currencies 48
Concluding Remarks 50
2 Manchuria under Zhang Zuolin and the Fengtian Clique 52
Introduction 52
The Larger Context: Chinese Politics after the Abolition of the
Examination System 53
The Ascendancy of Zhang Zuolin and the Fengtian Clique 58
Exploiting the Circumstances 58
Enlisting Elite Support 60
From the Fengtian Clique to Anguojun: Zhang’s Military Supporters
Decision-making Mechanism of the Fengtian Clique 67
Military and Economic Build Up and Their Consequences 70
Regionalism and Relations with the Central Government 75




Japanese Connection Revisited 77
Becoming a National Leader: Zhang Zuolin’s Strife for Legitimacy and
Political Power 79
Zhang’s Perception of the Nation’s Problems 79
Zhang’s Struggle for Political Legitimacy 83
Concluding Remarks 88
3 The Fengtian Clique’s Strategies and Their Failure, 1925-1931 90
Phase I, January-December 1925 93
Overview 93
Responding to Political Vacuum in North China and the Soviet Design 95
The Anti-Fengtian War of 1925 103
Phase II, January-September 1926 106
The Fengtian Clique’s Attempt to Restore the Beijing Government 106
Improving the Internal and External Situation through Decisive Battle:
The Battle of Nankou, 1926 110
Phase III, September 1926-June 1927 113
Seeking Peaceful Resolution through War: The Creation of the
Anguojun 113
Increasing Japanese Pressure and Changing British Attitudes 118
The Failure in Henan and Its Impact 121
Phase IV, June 1927-June 1928 122
Responding to Defeats: The Generalissimo Government and Peace Talk
with the KMT 122
Cracks in the Beijing-Mukden Regime 129
Manchuria Encircled: The Coming of a Japanese-Soviet Alliance 131
The Final Straw: Military Defeats in Late 1927 and Early 1928 133
Phase V, June 1928-September 1931 135
Strategic Inconsistency of the Fengtian Clique 135
The Decline of the Fengtian Clique’s Cohesion and Authority 137
Deteriorating Internal Condition and Geopolitical Situation 140
Concluding Remarks 142
4 Military Dimension of the “Northern Expedition” 143
Introduction 143
Military Geography and the War in China in the 1920s 144
Warfare in China in the Mid-1920s 145
Anguojun, the National Pacification Army 149
Organization 152
Equipment and Supply 155



Training and Recruitment 156
Cohesion 157
Relations with the People 159
The Henan-Anhui-Jiangsu-Zhejiang Operations, Jan-Jun 1927 160
Disaster of Dispersal: The Shanghai-Nanjing-Anhui Operations 162
The Henan Campaign: Background 166
The Henan Campaign: Mobility, Firepower and Geography 168
The Battles of Xuzhou and Longtan, June-September 1927 176
Situation After the Henan Campaign 176
Operational Success, Strategic Dilemma: The Xuzhou Battle and Prelude to
Longtan, Jun-Aug 1927 177
A Strategic Gamble Lost: The Battle of Longtan, Aug-Sep 1927 182
Tipping the Balance: The Autumn and Winter Campaigns of 1927 187
The Situation After Longtan 187
Wrong Priorities: The Shanxi Campaign, Sep-Dec 1927 188
The Second Henan Campaign, Oct-Dec 1927 192
Endgame: The Shanxi-Henan-Shandong Campaign of April 1928 195
Seeking the Decisive Battle 195
An Operational Disaster: The Southern Zhili-Shandong Campaign 197
Concluding Remarks 200
5 The Manchurian Economy and the Northern Expedition, 1925-1928 202
Introduction 202
The Fall of the fengpiao and Its Effects, 1926-1928 204
Financial Limitations Faced by the Fengtian Clique 212
Limited Internal Revenue and High Expenditure 212
Decline of the Value of Silver 216
Japanese and Russian Presence and Their Financial Policies in
Manchuria 218
Bankruptcy of the Central Government 220
The Fengtian Clique’s Attempts to Overcome Financial Difficulties 222
Issuing fengpiao 222
Increasing Tax and Manipulating Currencies 223
Issuing Bonds or Borrowing 226
Collecting the Customs Surtax 229
The Financial Collapse of the Fengtian Clique 233
Failure to Secure Shanghai and the Financial Difficulties of Beijing 233
The Succession Crisis and North-South Peace, Jan-June 1928 235
Concluding Remarks 238




Appendix 1: Literature Review 245
Appendix 2: A Note on the Sources 249
Appendix 3: Short Biographies of the Anguojun Figures 251
Appendix 4: Glossary 258
Appendix 5: Order of Battle of the Anguojun and the NRA, March 1927April 1928 262
Index 318




I would not have been able to complete this book without Prof. Hans van de
Ven, whose guidance was impeccable. My examiners, Dr. Barak Kushner and
Prof. Rana Mitter, also gave me invaluable advice; to discuss my work with
them was a most joyful experience. I am also deeply indebted to the anonymous reviewers whose suggestions turned a thesis into a publishable mon­o­
graph. I would also like to thank the academics and staff of the Faculty of Asian
and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, including Prof. Roel
Sterckx, Prof. Peter Kornicki, Dr. Joseph McDermott, Ms. Natahsa Sabbah, and
Carol Pleasance. During my study in Cambridge, I was fortunate enough to
meet George Mak Kam-wah, John Feng Heisn-hsiang, John Lee Tung-chun, Li
Chen, Park Dae-in, Sam Yin Zhiguang, and Xu Mengyao, all post-graduates of
the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. I could never forget the oftenheated debates among us, the joyful times we spent together, and all the
encouragement you gave me. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.
My undergraduate supervisor, Prof. Yip Hon-ming from the History Depart­
ment of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, inspired me all through the way
and was always supportive. The late Prof. Gerald Jordan persuaded me to continue my study of military history after graduating from my Chinese University.
His advice changed my life. Professors Frederick Cheung Hok-ming, Cathy
Potter, David Lederer, and Dr Yoko Miyakawa all inspired and encouraged me
to pursue my study and I am very grateful to all of them. Dr. Ma Zhendu of 
the Second Historical Archive of Nanjing allowed me to use the archival
sources that broadened my understanding of the issue. The staff of the Second
Historical Archive, the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records, and the
University Library at Cambridge also offered me kind assistance.
Prof. Ricardo Mak King Sang and Prof. Ho Lau Wing Chung of the History
Department of the Hong Kong Baptist University have been exceptionally kind
to me, and provided me with an ideal working environment to finish this
book. Professors Chow Kai-wing, Lee Kam-keung, Lam Kai-yin, Chung Po-yin,
Dr. Wong Man Kong, Dr. Tam Ka Chai, Dr. Bettina Dietz, Dr. Catherine Ladds,
Dr. Loretta Kim, Dr. Fan Wing Chung, and Dr. Law Yuen Han have given me
much encouragement and opportunity to work as a military historian in Hong
Kong. Prof. Ian Chong of the National University of Singapore provided crucial
assistance in my attempt to put Zhang Zuolin’s case in a larger context. His
work on modern state formation is most inspiring.



I would also like to especially thank Mr. Jin Xudong, an antique bookseller
from China, who kindly sold and photocopied me the unpublished manuscripts of the reminiscences of the warlord officers. Without his timely rescue
of the manuscripts from the garbage bins, the voices of some of these warlord
officers would be lost forever.
When revising this thesis into a book manuscript,, the author was aided by
the 2013 General Research Fund of the Hong Kong University Grants Committee
(Project No: 244313).
After all, without the patience and the caring love of my family this work
could not have been finished.
Everyone mentioned above deserves all the credit of this work, and I alone
should be responsible for all the faults and defects.

List of Illustrations
List of Illustrations


List of Illustrations
3. 1

Zhang Zuolin as the defender of the Republic 86
Zhang Xueliang as the successor of Sun Wen 87
Feng Yuxiang, bible in hand and dressed as a “Christian” priest, ousted Cao
Kun 99
3. 2 Three soldiers playing 110
3. 3 “The incomplete reconstruction – it is why the Nationalists failed” 128
5.1 Monthly average exchange rate between fengpiao and 100 gold yen in Mukden,
Jan 1926-Jan 1927 206
5.2 Daily exchange rate between fengpiao and 100 gold yen, 4 Jan 1927-29 Dec
1927 209
5.3 Daily exchange rate between fengpiao and 100 gold yen, 1 Dec 1927-30 Jun
1928 211
5.4 Daily exchange rate between fengpiao and 100 gold yen, 4 Dec 1926-30 Jun
1928 211


A Manchukuo map showing the relief of Fengtian, Jilin, Heilongjiang and
Rehe 23
Railway of Manchuria 24
The “Funnel Effect”: the front lengthened as an army progressed south 146
Operations in Shanghai-Nanjing-Northern Anhui Area, 1 Feb-30 Mar 1927 164
Operations in Shanghai-Nanjing-Northern Anhui Area, 1 Apr-15 May 1927 165
Operations in Henan, 5-24 May 1927 172
Operations in Henan, 24-30 May 1927 173
Anguojun Retreat from Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang: May-Jun 1927 175
The Battle of Xuzhou, Jul-Aug 1927 179
Sun Chuanfang Advancing, 10 Aug-3 Sep 1927 181
The Battle of Longtan 24-28 Aug 1927 184
The Battle of Longtan 24-28 Aug 1927 (2) 185
Operations in Shanxi-Zhili-Henan-Shandong, 25 Sept -1 Nov 1927 190
Operations in Shanxi-Zhili-Henan-Shandong, 1 Nov-31 Dec 1927 191
Defeat and retreat of the Anguojun, 1 Apr-25 May 1928 199


List Of Illustrations

2. 1

Breakdown of the regular income of the Fengtian Province, 1923 75
Estimated annual income of Fengtian Province, 1926 213
Estimated annual expenditure of Fengtian Province, 1926 214
Estimated expenditure of the Fengtian Field Forces in China based on its
strength in November 1927 215
Annual income of the Shandong Province, Apr 1926 to Mar 1927 in
yinyuan 216
Yearly average exchange rate between kinds of fengpiao and 100 gold yen,
1914–1924 217
Year average silver price in New York, 1920–1928 217
Income of the Beijing Government, Jul 1927 234
Income of the Beijing Government, Apr 1928 234

List of Abbreviations
List of Abbreviations


List of Abbreviations

Chinese Eastern Railway
China Political Reports, 1911-1960, Foreign Office
China Weekly Review
China Year Book
Fengxi junfa midian
Fengxi junfa mixin xuanji
British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign
Office Confidential Print
Papers relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States
Gaimushō kiroku
Guowen Weekly
JACAR Japan Center for Asian Historical Records
Kokuritsu kōbunsho kan
National Revolutionary Army
Bōei shō bōei kenkyūsho, Rikugunshō dainichiki
SFMCLR Sir Frederick Maze’s Confidential Letters and Reports
South Manchuria Railway
Shijie Ribao
Shuntian Shibao
U.S. Military Intelligence Reports: China, 1911-1941
Week in China
ZMDZH Zhonghua minguo shi dangan ziliao huibian


Note on Romanization

Note On Romanization

Note on Romanization
Throughout the book I use the pinyin system for Chinese and the Hepburn
system for Japanese names and terms. There are exceptions as some of the
names are better known in other romanization systems: Chiang Kai-shek
(instead of Jiang Jieshi in pingyin); Kuomintang, KMT (instead of Guomindang,
GMD); Kuominchun, KMC (Guominjun, GMJ); Kwantung (Guandong); Manchu­
kuo (Manzhouguo), and Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan). The Glossary will be
provided in the Appendices before the bibliography. Short biographies of the
lesser-known warlord officers are also provided in Appendix.

Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


Introduction: “Northern Expedition,” or the War
for Northeast Asia?
When conducting research for this book, the author came across a group of
hand-written manuscripts for the Literary and Historical Materials (wenshi
ziliao).1 This group of documents include: He Zhuguo, “Dongbeijun duikang
beifa de bufen shifang (Some Facts about the Northeastern Army’s War against
the Northern Expedition),” (1955); Zhang Yousan, “Yijiu erba nian Zhang Zuolin
Beijing huairentang ying yishang guanyuan xunhua (Zhang Zuolin’s Speech to
Officers of the Battalion Level or above in 1928),” (1964); Zhang Youluan, “Zhang
Zuolin xiang Nanjing zhengfu qiuhe shibaiji (Zhang Zuolin’s Failure to Sue
Peace with the Nanjing Government),” (1963); Pan Yuming, “Dongbei hangkong
jianshi ziliao (Notes on the Short History of the Northeastern Air Force),”
(1960s); Tian Yunqing and Pan Zhenying, “Sun Chuanfang toukao Zhang Zuolin
qianhou (Sun Chuanfang’s Turn to Zhang Zuolin)” (1962). Most of these manuscripts were eventually published, but some of the contents were censored.
The original manuscripts were discarded and then eventually reached the
author through a second-hand bookseller. The censor deleted sentences and
paragraphs from the original manuscripts, probably with the understanding
that the originals would never be seen by others, so censored lines were simply
crossed out by a thin red line instead of being completely darkened. For example, in Tian Yunqing and Pan Zhenying’s manuscript, they described a scene
when his brigade was helped by locals near Pukou while fighting against the
KMT forces in 1927:

1 The wenshi ziliao was the product of a country-wide effort proposed by Zhou Enlai, Premier
of the People’s Republic of China and launched by the PRC government through the Chinese
People’s Political Consultative Conference from national and provincial to county levels. Tens
of thousands of articles were collected from prominent pre-1949 political and military figures
to ordinary people who could write (or dictate) their recollections. For an overview of the
wenshi ziliao, see Annie K. Chang, “The Wenshi Ziliao Collection of the Center for Chinese
Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley,” Twenty-Century China, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2000),
103-8. For a critical reappraisal of the writing and collection of the wenshi ziliao and its relationship with the political and economic shifts of the PRC, see Martin Fromm, Producing
History through ‘Wenshi Ziliao’: Personal Memory, Post-Mao Ideology, and Migration to
Manchuria (Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University, 2010).

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | doi 10.1163/9789004340848_002



[During the engagement near Pukou in March 1927] When the villagers
saw [our] soldiers with “lotus-leaf hats”2 coming, they were exalted. They
gathered and offered us food, which we politely declined…
[During the Battle of Longtan in August 1927] Backed by two regiments of
reinforcements, we advanced for more than fifty li (25km). It was very
difficult to advance in a reed field with numerous ditches, but the villagers voluntarily came to our aid with large planks of wood dismantled
from doors and windows. It was such a touching scene…3
The authors of these manuscripts were field officers of the northern warlord
forces, some of which have faded into obscurity and little could be found about
their lives.4 Others, such as He Zhuguo, had a distinguished military career
during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Some of these officers’ legacies of
involvement were purged before and after 1949 for one reason or another.5
Although one should not jump to the conclusion that the deleted parts are the
more reliable version of the past or are more important compared to other
sources, the reminiscences of this group of forgotten officers offer some
2 The soldiers of Sun Chuanfang’s army wore a peculiar type of hat that resembled the shape
of a lotus leaf.
3 Tian Yunqing, Pan Zhenying, “Sun Chuanfang toukao Zhang Zuolin qianhou,” (1962) unpublished
manuscript, 6, 24.
4 The term warlord is very difficult to define, as it is always politically charged, but Diana Lary’s
definition is useful. Lary defines warlordism as “the possession of autonomous military force,
the control of a base region, the use of force as the final arbiter, the reliance on personal rather
than impersonal patterns of rule, and a ruthless and extractive attitude towards society and
the economy.” In this sense, to a certain extent the NRA can be seen as a warlord faction. The
warlords were so diverse in ideology and origin that one can hardly define them as a group,
and tension existed between peculiarity and generalization in the studies on warlordism in
early-Republican China. When looking at the republican warlords, one should not assume
there was a certain “warlord behaviour” that is applicable to all Republican warlords and easily
dismiss the role of nationalism and ideology in the warlords’ decision-making. For studies on
the origin of warlordism in Republican China, see Diana Lary, “Warlord Studies,” in Modern
China, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), 441; Ch’i Hsi-sheng, Warlord Politics in China: 1916-1928 (Stanford,
1976); Hans van de Ven, “Public Finance and the Rise of Warlordism,” in Modern Asian Studies,
Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), 829-68.
5 For example, He Zhuguo was categorized and purged as a rightist during the Anti-Right
Movement in 1957 because of his proposals, as a member of the Political Consultative
Conference, about democraticizing elections and improving the livelihood of the peasants.
His name was not rehabilitated until 1978. See Zhang Hong, “He Zhugo,” in Liaoning shengwei
dangshi yanjiushi, Liaoning dangshi renwuzhuan (Shenyang, 2006), 186.

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


interesting alternative views to what is now known as the Northern Expedition,
the military campaign launched by the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) of
the Chinese Nationalists Party (or Kuomintang, KMT), ostensibly to overthrow
the northern “warlords” controlling the Beijing Government and a substantial
part of Central and Northern China.
In June of 1926, the NRA marched north to overthrow the Beijing Government.
To resist the NRA, the northern warlords, led by Zhang Zuolin, formed the
National Pacification Army (Anguojun) later that year. Almost exactly two
years later, when the vanguard of the NRA reached Jinan and threatened
Beijing, Zhang decided to return to Manchuria, but was assassinated along the
way. The war has been seen as the “National Revolution” led by the KMT, or as
the “First Democratic Revolutionary War,” a name that highlights the communists’ role and suits their interpretation of history.6
These names privileged some historical narratives and suppressed others.
The “First Democratic Revolutionary War” version puts the war in a history of
successive revolutionary struggles from the Opium War (1839-1842), including
the Taiping Rebellion and the 1911 Revolution. In this narrative, the bourgeois
revolutions of 1911 and 1927 were preludes to a more complete proletariat revolution, with the May Fourth Movement during the 1920s being portrayed as a
watershed between the “Old” and “New” Democratic Revolutions.7 In contrast,
the KMT narrative put the role of Sun Yat-sen, the NRA, and Chiang Kai-shek at
the forefront since the war was seen as a KMT-led “Northern Expedition”
against the “warlords.” These narratives have been challenged by many, including Luo Zhitian, Rana Mitter, and many others, who pointed to their limitations

6 A typical view of the Northern Expedition as a war of unification could be found in Li Jiannong,
Zhongguo jin bainian zhengzhi shi (Taibei, 1974, c. 1942); Guofangbu sihzheng ju, Beifa zhanshi
(Taipei, 1967); Jiang Weiguo (ed.), Beifa tongyi (Taipei, 1980); Jiang Yongjing, Guomin geming
yu Zhongguo tongyi yundong (Taibei, 1982); Huang Xiurong, Guomin geming shi (Chongqing,
1992); for an English work, see Martin C. Wilbur’s authoritative The Nationalist Revolution in
China, 1923-1928 (Cambridge, 1984). Later scholars such as Luo Zhitian certainly pointed out
the incompleteness of the KMT’s “unification.” Luo Zhitian, Luanshi qianliu: minzu zhuyi yu
minguo zhengzhi (Beijing, 2001), 215. For a work that set the tone for generations of Marxist
historical materialist narratives, see Hu Sheng, Cong Yapian zhanzheng dao Wusi yundong
(Beijing, 1981). For the discussion of his work, see Li Huaiyin, Reinventing Modern China:
Imagination and Authenticity in Chinese Historical Writing (Hawaii: 2012), 113-4.
7 Wang Zonghua, Ma Guying, preface; Zhang Yutian, Zhongguo jindai junshi shi (Shenyang,
1983), preface, 1-2; Zeng Xianlin, Zeng Chenggui, Jiang Xia, Beifa zhanzheng shi (Chengdu,



in explaining the genesis of modern China.8 However, a revision of the war
from the perspective of the KMT’s opponents is still lacking.
As Li Huaiyin suggested, instead of treating modern Chinese history as one
pre-ordinated narrative leading to the establishment of a centralized state
controlling a substantial part of the former territory of the Qing Dynasty, one
should approach it from a “within-time” and “open-ended” perspective, that is,
not to treat the historical changes of modern China as a pre-determined issue.9
It has been assumed that the emergence of China as a modern sovereign state
was inevitable as the result of the nationalist movements and the activities of
the Chinese Nationalists and Communist Parties. Historians have spent much
effort trying to find evidence to substantiate the claim that such a process was
inevitable. With more sources surfacing, such an argument has become
increasingly difficult to defend.
Similarly, Prasenjit Duara has pointed out that the 1920s was “an open-ended
historical situation” for Manchuria.10 It was an era when political boundaries
were fluid and alternatives, however improbable in retrospect, were available.
As Duara suggested, the Chinese claim on Manchuria was not uncontested:
The incorporation of Manchuria into the Chinese nation during a period
of high imperialism presented considerable problems. While its demographic Sinicization should have made the political claim of Chinese
nationhood easy, it was precisely the historical image of Manchuria as a
frontier, a virgin land of “primitive” and martial peoples unrelated to the
Chinese, that was to undergird imperialist – especially, but not only,
Japanese – claims to the area.11




Their studies on the cultural and intellectual changes during the 1920s shed much new
light on the period and pointed out the limitation of the revolutionary narrative. See John
Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution
(Stanford, 1996); Luo Zhitian, Luanshi qianliu; Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution: China’s
Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford, 2004), 3-152; Luo Zhitian, Jibian shidai de wenhua
yu zhengzhi: cong xinwenhua yundong dao beifa (Beijing, 2006); Yang Tianhong,
Zhengdang jianzhi yu minguo zhengzhi zhouxiang (Beijing, 2008); Wang Qisheng, Geming
yu fangeming: shehui wenhua shiyexia de mingguo zhengzhi (Beijing, 2010).
Li Huaiyin, 267-72.
Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern
(Lanham, Md., 2003), 41. I use “Manchuria” more often than dongbei (Northeast China) for
the same reason as Duara, as using the latter term might “[impose] the perspective of
subsequent historical developments and nationalist historiography.”
Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity, 49.

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


Some of these alternatives were almost realized. For example, a Russian victory
in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 would have made Manchuria a Russian/
Soviet-satellite, like Outer Mongolia. Likewise, after the Russo-Japanese War,
the Japanese could have annexed Manchuria as they did Korea. Manchuria
could have become the “motherland” of the Manchus, or have been “balkanised” into several states, with each backed by a neighbouring power.
This book tries to explain the reason why the alternatives did not work, and
to analyse the attempts made by the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin (18751928), a migrant of Chinese descent who became the leader of a regional
militarist group called the Fengtian Clique (fengxi junfa), to link up Manchuria
with Northern China between 1925 and 1928, the period known as the “Northern
Expedition” or the “National Revolution.” To understand Zhang Zuolin’s strategies and actions during the “Northern Expedition,” the focus should not be on
a “China,” whose boundaries were, at that time, still not entirely clear, but on
Northeast Asia. Without placing Manchuria and Zhang Zuolin in a Northeastern
Asian context, his failure to turn Manchuria into a basis from which he
expanded into China, and his reasons for attempting to do so, cannot be understood. “Northeast Asia” in this study includes Northern China, Manchuria,
Mongolia, the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese Archipelago, and a part of Eas­
tern Siberia. State or non-state players such as the Beijing Government, Zhang
Zuolin’s Manchurian regime, the Nationalists (KMT), and the Communists
(CCP), Japan, the Soviet Union, the Comintern, and the British Empire were all
involved. This study explains the choices and decisions of Zhang Zuolin as
flowing forth from the position he faced in Northeast Asia. It looks at the
grand-strategic decisions of Zhang’s Fengtian Clique with reference to domestic and international relations in China and Northeast Asia, the economic
situation in the region, and social and political structures of Manchuria. It also
analyzes the warlords’ military strategy, revisits the campaigns during the
Northern Expedition, and examines the impact of Zhang’s failure on the strategic situation in Northeast Asia.
State Formation and Geopolitics
“National Unification” movements in the 18th and 19th centuries, in retrospect,
could be seen as expansion of a dominating polity within a perceived
“nation”— Prussia in Germany and Piedmont in Italy are the obvious examples.12 Manchuria under Zhang Zuolin and the Fengtian Clique could have

For the unification of Germany see Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: the Rise and Downfall
of Prussia, 1600-1947 (London, 2006); for Italy, John A. Davis, Italy in the Nineteenth Century



been one such region for China during the 1920s. Some comparisons with
Prussia and Piedmont are instructive. Manchuria, like Prussia, had a strong
army and was among the leading economies in their region. Although their
political leadership opted to “unify” a roughly defined territory in the name of
nation-building, they were surrounded by potential and actual enemies. In its
relative power and status vis-à-vis neighbouring polities, Manchuria was more
like Piedmont: both were among the weaker powers in their regions. All three
states tried to “unify” a country through military, political, economic and
bureaucratic means; only Manchuria failed in its attempt. Why did Manchuria
not become China’s Prussia or Piedmont? The nature of the state created by
Zhang Zuolin and the Fengtian Clique and external factors were two important factors in answering this question.
Previous discussions on state-building placed much emphasis on internal
driving forces and agents, such as the role of nationalism and the nationalist
movements/leaders. Chong Ja Ian, on the other hand, suggested that external
forces, especially the intervention of foreign actors, was equally or perhaps
more important in the formation of sovereign states. As he pointed out, “sovereign statehood represents a departure from pre-existing political arrangements
in most parts of the world during the mid-twentieth century…many polities in
the global periphery existed as colonies, vassal states, and feudalized states to
list a few examples.”13 He identified three main attributes for sovereign states:
political centralization, territorial exclusivity, and external autonomy. Colonies,
vassal states, and feudalized states all had “shortfalls” in one or another of
these aspects. A colonial state could be political centralized and maintain territorial exclusivity, but was still subjected to external control. A vassal state
could be centralized, but might not achieve complete territorial exclusivity
and was to an extent subjected to foreign control. A feudal state could be more
autonomous, but much less centralized politically.
Using the cases of China, Siam, and Indonesia (previously the Dutch East
Indies) during modern times as examples, he argued that the external powers’
decision to intervene or not was based mainly on the opportunity cost of intervention, as perceived by the foreign actors. If the cost was low, a foreign actor
would actively intervene and try to achieve monopoly in access to the target.
On the other hand, if the cost of intervention is high, a foreign actor would


(London, 2000); Edgar Holt, The Making of Italy 1815–1870 (New York, 1971). For a com­
parative discussion, see MacGregor Knox, Common Destiny: Dictatorship, Foreign Policy
and War in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (Cambridge, 2000), 7-52.
Chong Ja Ian, External Intervention and State Formation - China, Indonesia, Thailand, 18921952 (Cambridge, 2012), 4.

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


seek access to that country through less direct means of control.14 In short, he
argued that foreign intervention, more specifically the competition of external
actors over the access to the targeted state, also played a crucial role.15
The state Zhang Zuolin created could not be seen as a sovereign state. He
never actually saw his polity as an independent nation, nor was it recognised
as such by other states. As Chong suggested, the type of state that would
emerge in China remained an open-ended question at least until the late
1930s.16 The problems and opportunities faced by Zhang when he rose to power
in the 1910s were similar to those faced by the rulers of Siam in the latter half of
the 19th century. At the beginning, King Chulalongkorn and Zhang ruled a
decentralized polity that consisted of numerous local power holders.
Economically, the areas under their rule were increasingly integrated in a volatile world market. In the case of Zhang, political decentralization was in the
form of the semi-autonomous civilian and military governors in the three
provinces of Manchuria. As discussed in detail in Chapter 2, after he became
the unchallenged political and military leader of the Fengtian province, the
largest polity of all in Manchuria, Zhang was able to establish a relatively centralized polity by the early 1920s. More importantly, like the Thai King, Zhang
created a centralized military to suppress internal challengers and was able to
develop the infrastructure of the export of raw materials for further reforms.
In terms of territorial exclusivity, while King Chulalongkorn struggled to
maintain the territorial integrity of his kingdom, Zhang Zuolin and the
Fengtian Clique had to bear the existence of a number of foreign-controlled
“special territories” within the area under their control, including “railway
zones” along the Chinese Eastern Railway and the South Manchuria Railway,
as well as the Kwantung Leased Territory that was garrisoned and administered by foreigners. The former was under Soviet influence, while the latter two
were under Japanese control. There were also extensive Soviet and Japanese
political and economic activities in the area controlled by the Fengtian Clique.
On the other hand, both Prussia and the Piedmont faced no such problem as
they were seen as sovereign states in the European system, and had a much
greater control over the periphery of their territory. As it was impossible for the
Fengtian Clique to maintain a high degree of territorial exclusivity, it always
had to divert a considerable part of military forces in Manchuria when it was
trying to fight in China Proper, otherwise the Clique risked its base being overrun by a determined attempt to take over by one of the neighbouring powers,

Ibid., 1-3, 28-30.
Ibid., 14.
Chong Ja Ian, 8.



or even by the foreign garrisons on the spot. As Chapter 4 shows, this was
exactly what happened to Manchuria in September of 1931, three years after
the death of Zhang Zuolin near his own capital Shenyang (Mukden).
As for the issue of foreign intervention, both Manchuria and Siam were
sandwiched by powerful and potentially aggressive neighbours immensely
greater in strength. As Chong Ja Ian pointed out, the perceived cost of intervention to a large extent determined the approach of intervention of the foreign
actors over the targeted state. In the case of Siam, both Britain and France felt
the cost of establishing direct control over Siam unjustifiable, especially in the
context that it might lead to potential conflict between the two powers.17 In
the case of Manchuria, both Japan and the Soviet Union continuously adjusted
their approach towards the Fengtian Clique from offering alliances to exerting
military pressure or even launching an outright invasion. More importantly,
unlike Britain and France, the Japanese and Russian agents and their governments often shared very different views as to the best approach for Manchuria.
Zhang and the Thai King also continuously adjusted their approach towards
the foreign actors. Whereas the Thai King turned to and then was disappointed
by the British during the Franco-Thai border conflict in 1893, Zhang understood that the Powers would not fight against one another for him. Zhang had
steered between Japan and Russia without committing himself to either of
them from 1917 to 1925, before he turned against the Russians and their allies in
China afterwards. Unlike Britain and France, the Soviet Union and Japan were
willing and able to intervene in Manchuria, and placed much geopolitical pressure on Zhang throughout the period covered by this study.
If Zhang and the Fengtian Clique owned a very powerful military like
Prussia, they might have enjoyed more geopolitical freedom when dealing
with the Soviet Union and Japan. However, the Fengtian Army, although a
respectable force by the late 1920s, was still inadequate when facing the more
efficient Soviet and Japanese forces. It was also smaller compared to the two
powers’ forces. Moreover, before 1871 Prussia and Piedmont had enjoyed to an
extent the protection of Britain, which was determined to prevent the emergence of any predominant power on the European continent. No power, on the
other hand, could guarantee the integrity of the Chinese polity in Manchuria
(either as a semi-autonomous Chinese state or part of the Chinese Republic)
with force. This left Zhang and the Fengtian Clique almost alone in fending off
Manchuria’s powerful neighbours. While King Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of
Piedmont used part of the kingdom’s territory (Savoy and Nice) to trade for

Chong Ja Ian, 201-5.

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


French support when he was unifying the Italian Peninsula, Zhang Zuolin and
the Fengtian Clique could hardly take similar steps, as the territorial exclusivity
of their polity was limited and trading territory for support with one of the
powers would lead to reaction of other rival powers in the region. Of equal
importance that made such a move impossible was the prevalence of nationalism among the Chinese in Manchuria and China Proper, making such a move
politically unfeasible. Given the disadvantaged geopolitical situation facing
Zhang and the Fengtian Clique, their achievements through war and political
interactions with the neighbouring powers and the political forces in China
Proper, as illustrated in this book, was remarkable.
Strategic History as an Approach
War played a crucial role in the rise and fall of Zhang Zuolin and the Fengtian
Clique in Manchuria. To systematically approach the issue of war, this book
adopts the framework of strategic history as outlined by Colin Gray. Strategic
history sees as its subject the relationship between “politics and war,” “war and
peace,” and “war and warfare.”18 This book pays attention to the tension
between the uncertainties of war and the intention of the decision makers, the
difficulties of defining a clear political goal and maintaining it despite the
changing situation, and the relationship between the actual conduct of warfare and the post-war political dispensation. Strategic history also puts war in
political, socio-cultural, economic, technological, military-strategic, geographical, and historical contexts.19 These dimensions form a useful framework for
this study.
Strategic history is more than narratives of battles and campaigns because it
focuses on the relationship between political ends and military means as well
as the dynamics between strategic contexts and decision-makers. It differs


Colin Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History
(London, 2007); Colin Gray, Strategy and History: Theory and Practice (London, 2006). For
discussions on “strategy,” see Edward Luttwak, Strategy: the Logic of War and Peace
(Cambridge, 2001); Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, Alvin Bernstein, The Making of
Strategy: Rulers, States, and War (Cambridge, 1994); Archer Jones, Elements of Military
Strategy: an Historical Approach (Westport, Conn., 1996); Colin Gray, Modern strategy
(Oxford, 1999); Hans van de Ven (ed.), “introduction,” in Warfare in Chinese History
(Leiden; Boston, 2000); Zheng Ruilong, Jinglüe youyan (979-987): Song Liao zhanzheng
junshi zainan de zhanlüe fenxi (Hong Kong, 2003).
Colin Gray, Strategy and History, 4; Colin Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations,



from narratives of military change that focus exclusively on the technology
and see military change as a teleological process.20 The strategic approach is
also different from the “New Military History,” which concentrates on the social
and cultural dimensions of the military, but often elides the actual conduct of
warfare and the battles of armies.21 Perhaps more than other analytical frameworks, strategic history takes account of individual choice, interaction of
opposing minds, circumstances, and dynamics between decision makers,
events, and combat actions.
Looking at Zhang Zuolin and the coalition of the northern warlords from
the perspective of strategic history extends the biographical approach that has
dominated Warlord Studies since the 1970s.22 Although this work draws on the
rich biographical studies of the warlords available, it does not focus on the life
of one individual, nor does it share the emphasis on central-local relations of
Warlord Studies. Although Warlord Studies devotes much attention to the warlords’ relationship with the Powers, their central-peripheral perspective
overlooks the importance of intra and inter-regional factors. By assuming that
the position of Zhang Zuolin in Manchuria was a peripheral one, some historians portrayed him as a “typical” warlord who competed for national power
from his “virtually impregnable sanctuary on the fringes of the empire.”23 They




The best example of interpreting Chinese military history as a teleological process is the
Zhongguo renmin geming junshi bowuguan (ed.), Zhongguo zhanzheng fazhan shi
(Beijing, 2001).
Important works of New Military History include works by Jay Winter, Brian Bond, and
others on the military’s impact on society, civil-military relations, war and nation building,
and commemoration of war. Although this approach helped to elevate the study of
military history as an academic discipline, historians such as Jeremy Black criticised this
as “demilitarizing” military history. See Brian Bond, War and society in Europe, 1870-1970
(New York, 1983); Jay Winter, Remembering War: the Great War between Memory and
History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, 2006). For Black’s criticism, see Jeremy
Black, Rethinking Military History (London, 2004), 53-4.
Some examples of Warlord Studies: James Sheridan, Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng
Yuxiang (Stanford, 1966); Ch’i Hsi-sheng, Warlord Politics in China: 1916-1928, op. cited;
Diana Lary, Region and Nation: the Kwangsi clique in Chinese politics, 1925-1937 (London;
New York, 1974); Gavan McCormack, Chang Tso-lin in Northeast China, 1911-1928 (Stanford,
1977); Diana Lary, “Warlord Studies,” in Modern China, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Oct., 1980); Diana Lary,
Warlord Soldiers: Chinese Common Soldiers, 1911-1937 (Cambridge, 1985); Edward McCord,
The Power of the Gun: the Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism (Berkeley, 1993). In the
last decade, Chinese historians have also produced extensively researched works that
were no longer bound by the KMT-CCP historiography. The best example of these works is
Xu Yong, Zhongguo jindai junzheng guanxi yu “junfa” huayu yanjiu (Beijing, 2009).
Gavan McCormack, 251-53.

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


could not fully explain Zhang’s strategic behaviour, and attributed his defeat to
his over-ambition and lack of ideology.24
Northeast Asia and the “Northern Expedition”
Hans van de Ven rightly points out that the Northern Expedition has to be
placed in both domestic and international contexts.25 This study is partly
inspired by the works of William C. Kirby, William Skinner, and Hamashita
Takeshi, who at different levels elucidated the importance of intra and interregional dynamics in Chinese history and helped us to move on from the
“Sino-centric” to the East Asian and Global perspective.26 The purpose of this
study is to shift a “Chinese” political-military event from the nation-centric
narrative to a regional and transnational framework.
“Manchuria” has long been a disputed territory. Even the name of the area
was in dispute. The Chinese called the area “the Northeast” (dongbei), the
Japanese called it “Manshū,” while the English world usually referred the area
as “Manchuria” before the end of the Manchukuo. In the Cairo Communiqué
of 1943, when the Allies stipulated that Japan had to return the area to China,
the area was referred to as “Manchuria.”27 The use of “Manchuria” here is only
for the convenience, as it was by far the most well known name of the vast area



A study of the relationship between geography and the Fengtian warlord by Michael
Pillsbury has pointed out this fact by acknowledging the potential vulnerability of
Manchuria. See Michael Pillsbury, Environment and power warlord strategic behaviour in
Szechwan, Manchuria, and the Yangtze Delta, Unpublished Ph. D. Thesis, Columbia
University (1980), 279. However, Pillsbury’s work looks at the issue strictly from geo­
political and geographical perspectives.
Hans van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China, 1925-1945 (London, 2003), 64.
William C. Kirby, “The Internationalization of China,” in China Quarterly, No. 150 (Jun,
1997); Hamashita Takeshi, Ouyang Fei (tr.), Jindai Zhongguo de guoji qiji: chaogong maoyi
tixi yu jindai Yazhou jingjiquan (Kindai chūgoku no kokusaiteki keiki) (Beijing, 1999), 8-9.
Skinner excluded Manchuria in his study of the regional economic networks based on
urban centers, as he pointed out that “Manchuria’s urban system was embryonic,” and the
Chinese system of civil administration was only introduced fairly recently in the early
20th century. William Skinner, The City in late imperial China (Stanford, 1977); William
Skinner, “Presidential Address: The Structure of Chinese History,” in Journal of Asian
Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (1985); G. Skinner, “Cities and the Hierarchy of Local Systems,” in
Arthur Wolf (ed.), Studies in Chinese Society (Stanford, Calif., 1978), 75-6; see also Prasenjit
Duara, 44.
“Cairo Communiqué, December 1, 1943,” National Diet Library Japan Website: <http://>.



concerned in this study. It is problematic to see Manchuria as merely a peripheral area of China or a Chinese territory that fell victim to Japanese and Russian
imperialism. Until 1907, Manchuria was still ruled as a distinctive part of the
Qing Empire, which officially kept Manchuria separate from China “south of
the Great Wall” as its homeland. It was occupied by Russia from 1900 to 1905
and then by Japan, which seized it again in 1931. Until 1945, Manchuria was the
stage of an international struggle that involved not only the surrounding countries but also the World Powers. Instead of being peripheral, Manchuria should
be seen at the center of the stage where the changes in Northeast Asia since
the late 19th century were being worked out.
As Michael Tsin suggested, “the term ‘nationalism’ hardly does justice to the
multi-dimensional working of the myriad factors that enable or undermine, at
times simultaneously, the project to construct a cohesive polity.”28 Besides
nationalism, the political map of Northeast Asia was shaped by the demographic, technological, and economic changes that took place from the 1850s.
Whereas Russia and Japan increased their presence in Manchuria through railway construction, economic expansion, and war, the Qing Empire retained its
influence through migration and expansion of local government. This period
also witnessed the integration of Manchuria into the global market as a result
of the infrastructure and institutions created by the three powers.29
Zhang Zuolin, the leader of the Fengtian Clique, rose to power from being a
local militia leader by successfully exploiting circumstances and the political,
administrative, and military foundations of the Chinese presence in Manchuria
laid by the Late Qing Reform. By working with the central government, military allies within Manchuria and the local elites, he gradually became the
leader of the Chinese in Manchuria from the late 1910s. However, his success
was checked by the situation in China, where constant civil wars and changing
hands of the central government threatened his position in Manchuria, especially after 1924. Zhang faced a daunting task by then. To realize his ambition
and protect his Manchurian regime, he had to unite the political and military
forces in Northern China, end the civil war, restore the Beijing Government,
provide viable solutions to the national political and socio-economic problems, legitimize his position in China Proper, and defend Manchuria against
Japanese and Soviet encroachment. Zhang’s fortune in China and his position
in Manchuria were interdependent.

Tsin Tsang-Woon, Michael, Nation, Governance, and Modernity in China: Canton, 1900-1927
(Stanford, 1999), 177.
Kaoru Sugihara, “Introduction,” in Kaoru Sugihara (ed.), Japan, China, and the Growth of
the Asian International Economy, 1850-1949 (Oxford, 2005), 1-3.

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


Zhang Zuolin’s decision to advance into Northern China between 1925 and
1928 resulted from his appreciation of the strategic situation. Pressured by
expansionist neighbours and left unprotected by an often-hostile central government, one solution for Zhang was to turn to either of the neighbouring
powers of Japan and the Soviet Union. However, Zhang could not and did not
take this course of action, as it would have deprived him of any authority in
Manchuria and delegitimised his cause. The Soviet and Japanese treatment for
their puppet rulers in Outer Mongolia and Manchukuo proved that Zhang had
made the right choice by not turning to either power. In a letter to the military
governors of Jilin and Heilongjiang in 1921, Zhang outlined his intention to
consolidate his power by building up the economy and strengthening the military, an idea that persisted throughout his career:
As the rebellion in Mongolia and South China has yet to be quelled, the
Beijing Government can neither attack its enemies nor defend itself…. If
we can reform the Three Provinces, maintain internal peace, achieve selfsufficiency in armaments and recruit soldiers to defend our borders
before disaster reaches our eyebrows, we can still be able to preserve the
Three Provinces even if Beijing (China) is lost (to the powers). If we can
retake South Manchuria and expel the foreigners, the Three Provinces
can still stand proudly in the world. We can float loans abroad for armament and recruiting soldiers using our land as security, and then repay
the loans after we have retaken South Manchuria….30
The Japanese, who obtained a copy of this letter, interpreted it as Zhang’s
intention to create an independent Manchuria.31 However, subsequent events
prove that Zhang’s scope was never confined to Manchuria and he did not seriously consider creating an independent nation. Zhang largely followed his
plan of securing his position through economic and military build-up, and
manouvered between the Japanese and the Russians.
When the central government in Beijing was overrun by Feng Yuxiang and
his KMT and Soviet allies in 1925, Zhang decided to launch a strategic offensive
into Northern China to regain strategic initiative in Northeast Asia and safeguard his southern flank by establishing a friendly government in Beijing,
which was seen as the seat of a legitimate Chinese national government until
1925 and was the diplomatic center of the country. The importance of Beijing

Sai Hōten sōryoji Akatsuka Shōsuke, “Tōsanshō dokuritsu no fūsetsu nikansuru ken,”
20/9/1921, GK, JACAR, Ref: B03050187500, slides 178-9.
Ibid. 178.



did not escape many contemporaries. The British Minister to China, Sir Miles
Lampson, had questioned the KMT’s decision to move the capital to Nanjing, as
he believed that such a move would endanger the Chinese position in
Manchuria. Yan Huiqing, the ex-Foreign Minister of the Beijing Government,
shared the same view.32
A myriad of Northeast Asia-related factors undermined Zhang’s scheme,
however. One was the ambiguous historical-political link between China and
Manchuria. Although there was a long history of Han presence in Manchuria,
its political bond with China was weak. This was the result of distance, climate,
the vastness of the area, and the prevalence of the non-Chinese regimes in the
area. Not until the Ming dynasty did the Chinese establish some control over
the area. As Arthur Waldron suggested, integrating the Chinese and the InnerNortheast Asian parts of the Ming and Qing empires was a major political,
administrative, and security challenge to their rulers.33 As the problem of the
lack of historical bonds resurfaced after the end of the Qing dynasty, the
Chinese continued to search for the historical root of Chinese presence in
Manchuria during the Republican period. This search highlighted rather than
alleviated the problem.
Incompatible security needs between Northern China and Manchuria
explained why Zhang never achieved the level of consensus at home necessary
to fight a prolonged war in China. Although the Chinese in Manchuria saw
Japan and Russia as immediate threats, political leaders in China Proper saw
internal strife as their paramount security concern after the Washington
Conference of 1921-1922 had made permanent foreign occupation of territory
in China Proper improbable. Though nationalistic, the Chinese in Manchuria
saw chaos in China as being irrelevant to them. Local elites such as Wang
Yongjiang were convinced that the best way to protect Manchuria was to stay
away from Chinese politics altogether. Wang’s military colleagues, such as
Zhang Zuoxiang and Wu Junsheng shared this view. Whereas the Prussians
were able to persuade a significant number of German states to join the
Prussia-led coalition by playing on the French threat during the Franco-
Prussian War of 1870, Zhang Zuolin could not reconcile the perceived security
priorities of the two components of his regime, Northern China and Manchuria,
in 1925-1928.


Yan Huiqing; Wu Jianyong, Li Baochen, Ye Fengmei (tr.), East-West Kaleidoscope, 1877-1944:
an Autobiography by W. W. Yen (Beijing, 2003), 216-7.
Arthur Waldron, “Chinese Strategy from the Fourteenth to the Seventeenth Centuries,” in
Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, Alvin Bernstein, The Making of Strategy, 94-6.

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


Zhang also found it difficult to integrate Manchuria with Northern China
institutionally and economically. As Christopher Clark suggests, although the
economic benefit of the German Customs Union (Zollverein) was limited, it
highlighted Prussia’s determination and ability to lead the German states. The
process of making the Zollverein also built consensus among the states and
boosted Prussia’s authority.34 Besides a lack of resources for carrying out a similar initiative, Zhang would have faced serious Japanese and Russian opposition
if he had launched such a plan. It was difficult to reorient Manchuria’s economy, which depended on commodity trade with industrialized countries.
Meanwhile, as Chapter 1 discusses in detail, Japan had an increasing economic
stake in Manchuria from the beginning of the 20th century. Ultimately, Zhang
lacked the time and resources to introduce reforms in the Beijing Government
and in Northern China in order to facilitate the integration of Manchuria and
Northern China, as he had to face constant warfare in China and attempts to
overthrow his position in Manchuria. Thus, although Zhang succeeded to a
certain extent in presenting himself as a qualified leader of North China during the Northern Expedition, partly owing to disappointment with regard to
the KMT, his action in China was not seen as beneficial to Manchuria.
Although one should not blame Zhang Zuolin’s failure entirely on outside
forces and geopolitics, it is difficult to exaggerate the geopolitical pressure
imposed on him by the Japanese and the Soviets during the 1920s. In contrast,
the KMT in Canton did not face any immediate threat of foreign invasion. In
fact, they were helped by Soviet ambitions, especially in undermining international collaboration toward China. Although Zhang’s resistance to the Japanese
and the Russians has been studied in detail, the relationship between the War
of 1925-1928 and the geopolitical design of Japan, Russia, and China in Northeast
Asia has yet to be studied in detail.35 The Soviets did not invade Manchuria
until 1929, but their presence along the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia
was always threatening. Allied with the KMT and Feng Yuxiang, the Soviet
Union almost succeeded in overrunning Northern China and Manchuria militarily in 1925-1926. By 1927, through his military counterstroke, Zhang had
checked the spread of Soviet influence in Northeast Asia, but he failed to eliminate Feng, who used Soviet-KMT aid in his bid for power.
Zhang’s grand-strategy also clashed with that of Japan, which aimed at
dominating Northeast Asia through formal and informal imperial control. As

Christopher Clark, The Iron Kingdom, 394.
Mizuno Akira, Zheng Liangsheng (tr.), Dongbei junfa zhengquan yanjiu: Zhang Zuolin,
Zhang Xueliang zhi kangwai yu xiezhu tongyi guonei de guiji (Taipei, 1998), 3-20; Sima
Sangdun, Zhang lao shuai yu Zhang shao shuai (Taibei, 1984).



they did not want a strong Chinese government uniting Northern China and
Manchuria, the Japanese never approved of Zhang’s venture and tried to sabotage it beginning in 1925. During the “Northern Expedition,” the Japanese
encouraged Chiang Kai-shek to ally with the smaller independent military factions in the North such as Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan in order to remove
Zhang from Northern China. The result was the rise of a number of these leaders in Northern China who were unable to defeat one another and challenge
the KMT’s control over China. This weakened China’s position in Northeast
Asia and contributed to the fall of Manchuria in 1931.
Regional factors helped to shape the war and its outcome. However, many of
the above-mentioned weaknesses would have been mitigated if Zhang had
been able to translate military victories into political ones as the Prussians had
done during the German Wars of Unification. This study therefore analyzes the
military campaigns he led, and lost, in considerable detail. Zhang’s failure on
the battlefield determined the outcome of his bid to construct a new polity
anchored at his base in Manchuria.
The Military Factor
The reason why the Anguojun failed during the Northern Expedition has seldom been asked because studies of the war have mainly focused on the KMT
and the CCP. Nationalist historiography saw the KMT’s “victory” as the proof of
the superiority of the party’s army and its nationalist and modernization program, whereas communist history argued that the importance of mass
mobilization superseded other factors. It has been suggested by Hans van de
Ven that the KMT was able to transform Canton as a base through successful
fiscal and modernization reforms.36 The alliance with the CCP has been seen as
important, as with Soviet help the KMT emerged from a loosely organized
group into one reliant on mass mobilization and ideology.37 The Soviets armed
the NRA during the early stage of the war and equipped it with organizational
skills, propaganda techniques, and an ideology.38 It has been argued that popu36

Hans van de Ven, War and Nationalism, 90-2.
Wang Qisheng, Guogong hezuo yu guomin geming, 1924-1927 (Nanjing, 2006).
Martin Wilbur, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
(Cambridge, Mass., 1989); Tony Saich, The Origins of the First United Front in China: the
Role of Sneevliet (Leiden, 1991); Alexander Pantsov, The Bolsheviks and the Chinese
Revolution, 1919-1927 (Richmond, 2000); Peter Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, 18951949 (London, 2005). KMT historiography saw the Three People’s Principle, rather than the
CCP’s program, as being to one that mattered. One of the examples of this view is Zhang

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


lar support and its propaganda campaign helped the KMT to advance rapidly.39
“Revolutionary diplomacy,” an attitude adopted by diplomats of the KMT such
as Eugene Chen that stressed a willingness to take unilateral action and to
challenge treaty rights, forced the powers, Britain in particular, to recognise the
Nationalist Government as the legitimate Chinese state.40 Military accounts
stressed on the importance of the battles against the “warlords,” but the parties
had different views on the importance of each battle. Success in winning the
support of “neutral” warlords in the North such as Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan
has also been seen as crucial.41
The standard narrative of the KMT’s success is a one-sided story, in which
the northern “warlords” passively waited for their preordained destruction by
historical force. This is one-sided, not only because it was generated by the victors—as Prasenjit Duara pointed out, unification of China under a centralized
state was deemed inevitable in narratives of modern China.42 The Linear
History of the nation state assumes there is a clearly defined “China,” justifies
wars that claimed to build a modern nation, and suppresses alternatives by
dismissing them as “halfway” or “transitional” in nature. Alternatives proposed
by the “warlords” such as unification through negotiation, constitutionalism,
and federalism were seen as their gambits to stay in power, deemed illegitimate and doomed to fail because they supposedly arose out of selfish motives
rather than a real commitment to the Chinese nation.
The KMT’s “success” was seen as proof of the superiority of the KMT’s political and socio-economic programs over the “reactionary” warlords who
understood neither nationalism nor modernity. A closer look at the events and
the north’s reception of KMT propaganda challenges this view. The party’s
“political works” (propaganda campaign) were much less successful than has
been claimed. Popular mobilization was limited.43 Although the KMT intro-



Zhaoran, “Beifa qianji guomin gemingjun yu zhixi jundui zhi zhanli bijiao,” in Beifa tongyi
liushi zhounian xueshu taolunji bianji weiyuanhui (ed.), Beifa tongyi liushi zhounian
xueshu yantaohui (Taibei, 1988), 55-81.
Martin Wilbur, op. cit; Peter Zarrow, 230; Zhang Zhaoran, “Beifa qianji guomin gemingjun
yu zhixi jundui zhi zhanli bijiao,” op cit; Chen Youshen, Chi bokeqiang de chuanjiaozhe:
Deng Yanda yu guomin gemingjun zhenggong zhidu (Taipei, 2009).
Li Enhan, Beifa qianhou de geming waijiao, 1925-1931 (Taibei, 1993).
Donald Jordan, The Northern Expedition: China’s National Revolution of 1926-8 (Honolulu,
Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China
(Chicago, 1995), 17-50, 177-204.
Donald Jordan, The Northern Expedition; Odoric Y.K. Wou, Mobilizing the Masses: Building
Revolution in Henan (Stanford, 1994), 51-162.



duced modernization reforms in Canton, these were not extended elsewhere
during the war; the KMT’s control of Canton was at best shaky. Crippled by
factionalism, the KMT was no longer a coherent organization by 1927. Besides
Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan who turned to the KMT, there were numerous
smaller warlords in Southeast and Central China who joined the Anguojun, the
most important of these being Sun Chuanfang. The “success” of persuading
Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan to join the NRA (partly the result of Soviet and
Japanese influence) and to destroy the Beijing Government under the control
of Zhang Zuolin and the Anguojun weakened China’s geostrategic position in
Northeast Asia.
The different approaches adopted by Zhang Zuolin (and his military and
civilian allies) and the KMT also revealed the change in Chinese warfare.
Whereas men like Zhang opted for negotiation and compromise, the KMT
insisted on destroying its opponents. This was because its leaders saw themselves fighting a war to eliminate their ideological opponents (the warlords
were seen as the henchmen of imperialism) and to restructure the political
order according to their doctrine. A similar view was long held by Sun Yat-sen,
who was uncompromising as a politician, but it was the Soviet influence that
reinforced this kind of uncompromising politics and held an ideological outlook in China. Under this influence, it was presumed that peaceful coexistence
with those who did not completely submit to the KMT would deprive the KMT
of its authority as it claimed leadership of a “national revolution,” and would
make it difficult for the party to contain internal dissent and external criticism.
Thus, the KMT allied with Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan, two manageable warlords, instead of reaching a compromise with the Beijing Government
controlled by Zhang, another contender of national power.
The international attitude towards Zhang Zuolin’s regime was also important and was the direct product of the military situation. The British government
first approved of the northern warlords’ moderation, but changed their minds
when the KMT threatened to destroy their economic position in Central and
South China and to dismantle the Maritime Customs Service, despite the
advice from some of the diplomats on the spot. Britain’s refusal to recognize
the Beijing Government in late 1926 dealt a severe blow to the latter’s legitimacy and tipped the north-south diplomatic balance to the KMT’s favour. As
will be discussed in detail, Beijing’s financial problem in 1926-8 was, to an
extent, the result of Britain’s insistence on keeping the autonomy of the
Customs Service. The Arms Embargo Agreement also posed much difficulty for
Beijing in unifying China after its introduction in 1919. However, when the
North briefly appeared to be winning and the KMT was seemingly slipping into
disintegration in the summer of 1927, British representatives in China were

“Northern Expedition,” or the War for Northeast Asia?


close to change their position once again. Only the North’s defeats in the battle
of Longtan and the subsequent Henan campaign prevented this.
This study is organized into five chapters. The first chapter historicises
“Northeast Asia” by reviewing the conflicting security and economic interests
among the regional powers and the impact of the transnational forces of
migration, imperialism, and globalization. Chapter 2 focuses on the foundations of Zhang Zuolin’s power, his relations with the central government, and
his struggle for legitimacy in both Manchuria and China Proper. Zhang’s success in exploiting military, economic, social, and democratic changes was more
important than the Japanese attitude in explaining his position in Manchuria.
However, some of his strengths in Manchuria became weaknesses when his
reach extended beyond his base. Much of his social support originated from
his ability to maintain peace and economic stability in Manchuria; when his
war in China was draining the resources of his own base, the Chinese in
Manchuria withdrew their support.
The third chapter analyses the grand-strategy adopted by Zhang Zuolin and
the Fengtian Clique from 1925 to 1931 and the reasons for its failure. The
Fengtian Clique’s repeated attempt to enter China was a strategic move that
aimed at freeing itself and Manchuria from perceived isolation and encirclement. This chapter explains why it adopted such a strategy by examining the
contexts, the available sources, and the actions taken. It argues that Fengtian’s
strategy was undermined by the moves of its opponents, domestic and external difficulties, and military failures. It also deals with the changes in the
Northeast Asian geopolitical situation as the result of the Northern Expedition,
and suggests that internal dissension of the Fengtian Clique after 1928, Zhang
Xueliang’s grand strategy, and the KMT’s policy of encouraging warlordism in
Northern China partly explained the fall of Manchuria in September of 1931.
Chapter 4 revisits the military history of the Northern Expedition from the
north’s perspective. It looks at the changing military situation throughout the
war and the major campaigns that were crucial to the defeat of the north. The
Northern army fought effectively despite unfavorable strategic, political, and
diplomatic circumstances, and even turned the tide in mid-1927. On the other
hand, Zhang and his allies made numerous strategic errors and missed many
opportunities. Although the KMT also made many mistakes, the North could
not afford to make them because of its geopolitical and international position.



The cause of many of these strategic errors was an overcautious attitude
induced by the North’s precarious external position.
The fifth chapter looks at the war from the economic and financial dimension. Manchuria’s position as part of a Japanese-centered economy helps
explain the difficulty Zhang had in uniting Manchuria and North China. The
collapse of Fengtian’s currency in Manchuria was caused by the unfavorable
political and military situation in China Proper and by Japanese intervention,
rather than financial incompetence. The changing British attitude towards the
political situation in China and its attempt to preserve the integrity of the
Customs Service deprived the Northern leaders of the money needed to restore
the government and fund their war effort. Although financial problems do not
fully explain the Anguojun’s military defeats, they helped undermine its

Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”


Chapter 1

Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”:
International Conflicts in Manchuria and Northeast
Asia, 1850-1920
An English study on Manchuria in 1932 called it the “cockpit of Asia,” where
“drama never dies.”1 It had other names such as “the Balkans in East Asia”2 and
“the storm-center of Asia.”3 From 1850 to 1945, the conflicting security, political,
and economic interests between several Chinese, Japanese, and Russian states,
as well as non-state actors led to prolonged rivalries and occasional wars in the
region.4 This period witnessed the rise and fall of once-prominent figures with
many different titles whose careers were inseparable from Manchuria, such as
Generalissimo Zhang Zuolin, his son Xueliang, General Roman Ungern von
Sternberg, Ataman Grigory Semenov, Governor Wang Yongjiang, General Yang
Yuting, Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi, and many others.
This chapter focuses on the developments of Northeast Asia in the 19th and
early 20th centuries that set the background of the war between 1925 and 1931.
During this period, Manchuria experienced rapid change as its orientation
moved from a Sino-centric world system to a Northeast Asian and global network. It became more integrated into “China” institutionally and socially, but
geopolitics, imperialism, and the international economy pulled the area in a
different direction. As the result of long-term forces, circumstances and individual actions, a “Chinese” regime emerged in Manchuria.


Hubert Hessell Tiltman, Manchuria: The Cockpit of Asia (London, 1932), 1.
Yu Juemin, Manzhou youhuan shi (Tianjin, 1929), 1.
Owen Lattimore, Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict (New York, 1932), 4.
The disputed boundary between China and Russia was not completely confirmed until 2005,
when the last section in dispute was settled. Jiang Changbin, Zhong-e dongduan bianjie de
yanbian (Beijing, 2007), 2.

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2017 | doi 10.1163/9789004340848_003


Chapter 1

Northeast Asia: Implications of Geography
Colin Gray suggests, “physical and political geography provide opportunities,
challenges, and dangers, and help condition the frame of reference for official
and public debate over national choices in policy and grand strategy.”5 The
physical and historical geographies of Northeast Asia were of vital importance
in Zhang’s strategy and its failure.
“Northeast Asia” roughly spanned from 100°-150° W and 30°-60° N. Several
components stood out from a topographic map of this vast region: in the center was the Manchurian Plain, an area of gentle flatland as large as the North
China Plain, surrounded on three sides by mountains. Southeast of the Plain
was the Changbai Mountain Range that divided Manchuria and the Korean
Peninsula. To the west, the Greater and Lesser Khingan Mountains stretched
from south to north, separating the Manchurian Plain from the Inner Mongolia
Plateau and Eastern Siberia. Across the Tsushima Strait south of the Korean
Peninsula was the Japanese Archipelago.6
Three major river systems run across the region. The Amur River (Hei­
longjiang), now the natural boundary of Russia and China; the Liao River
(Liaohe), its tributaries spreading across the Manchurian Plain and the eastern
part of Inner Mongolia (Rehe Province during the Republican period); and the
Songhua River (Songhuajiang), flowing through both Jilin and Heilongjiang
According to the South Manchuria Railway Company, the size of Manchuria
was 382,632 square miles, fifty-percent larger than modern France.7 Including
Rehe Province, it was as large as France and Germany combined. As Owen
Lattimore pointed out, it was necessary to distinguish the “historical geography of ancient Manchuria and the political geography of modern Manchuria.”8
Shaped by its environment, Manchuria was divided into three distinct components. South Manchuria, or Liaodong, was suitable for farming. Its northwestern
part was the more arid western steppe—the territory of the nomads—while
5 Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations, 137.
6 For Geography in Manchuria, see Owen Lattimore, Manchuria Cradle of Conflict, 13-17; Bank
of Chōsen, Economic History of Manchuria (Seoul, 1920), 8-9; Dudley Stamp, Asia: a Regional
and Economic Geography (London, 1967), 551-4.
7 Bank of Chōsen, 6.
8 Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China (New York, 1940), 103; Dudley Stamp, 551-4;
Michael Pillsbury, Environment and power warlord strategic behavior in Szechwan, Manchuria,
and the Yangtze Delta, Unpublished PhD. Thesis, Columbia University (1980), 249. Chinese
studies on the area saw the different people in pre-modern Manchuria as part of a “Zhonghua
nation.” See Li Deshan, Luan Fan, Zhongguo dongbei guminzu fazhan shi (Beijing, 2003), 1.

Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”


Map 1.1 A Manchukuo map showing the relief of Fengtian, Jilin, Heilongjiang
and Rehe. Map image courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal
Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

its eastern and northeastern parts were forest. Thus, although the river system
in the Manchurian Plain favoured political integration, the different environments favored three types of civilization.9

9 Michael Pillsbury, 253.


Map 1.2 Railway of Manchuria

Chapter 1

Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”


The more populous and accessible Liaodong area dominated the region
because other parts of Manchuria were too arid for farming.10 Although the
climate of Liaodong was similar to that of Northern China, it was sealed off
from the North China Plain by the mountains stretching from Inner Mongolia
to the coastline. The mountains between the two made it “possible politically
to cut off lower Manchuria from China.”11 This prevented the emergence of a
coherent Chinese-Manchurian polity until the Beijing-Mukden Railway had
overcome the problems of distance and terrain.12 As Duara suggested, whereas
Manchuria was the springboard for those who wanted to conquer China and
was constantly entangled with China, it was different to the provinces in China
Proper because of the presence of the non-Chinese elements.13
Manchuria was situated in two of the six major “boundary regions” of 
China as outlined by Peter Perdue: the coastal boundary from Shanghai to
Liaoning and the land frontier of Manchuria.14 Thus, Manchuria was vulnerable to threats from the steppe in the north and the sea in the east. This was
especially so from the 1880s, when both Japan and Russia became expansionist
powers in the area, with Japan a major maritime power. This presented a difficult strategic problem for anyone controlling Manchuria, including the
Japanese, who had to defend Manchuria against the Russians between 1931 and
Although all sides depicted it as such to justify their claims, in the late 19th
century Manchuria was not a virgin territory waiting to be “discovered” by
“advanced” civilizations.15 Chinese presence in Manchuria, which can be
traced back to before the Han dynasty, was limited to the area around Liaodong
because of the superiority of the steppe cavalry.16 From the 7th century AD, the
multi-ethnic (Sumo Mohe and Koreans) kingdom of Balhae controlled the
area, up until the Khitan Liao Empire conquered it two centuries later.17 In the



The South Manchuria Railway suggested that in 1916, the population density of the
Fengtian Province was 133 men per square mile, compared to 53 men per square mile
when taking Manchuria as a whole. See Bank of Chōsen, 6, 10.
Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, 107.
Ibid., 105.
Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity, 43-4.
Fang Dewan (Hans van de Ven), “Zhongguo junshi shi beijing xia de Zhongri zhanzheng,”
in Yang Tianshi, Zhang Yunku (eds.), Zhongri zhanzheng guoji gongtong yanjiu zhi er:
Zhanlue yu lici zhanyi (Beijing, 2009), 150.
Owen Lattimore, Manchuria Cradle of Conflict, 4.
Li, Xingsheng, Dongbei liuren shi (Harbin, 1990), 5.
Tang Sheng-hao, Peter, Russian and Soviet Policy in Manchuria and Outer Mongolia, 19111931 (Durham, N.C., 1959), 10; Li Deshan, Luan Fan, 48; Li, Xingsheng, 12-3.


Chapter 1

12th century, the Jurchens (a conglomeration of Tungus and Sumo tribes) dismantled the Liao Empire and seized Northern China, establishing the Jin
Dynasty, a polity that united both Manchuria and Northern China.18 In the
Ming Dynasty, Chinese political control was established mainly in the southern part of Manchuria, again near the Liaodong Peninsula. The area was known
among the Chinese as guanwai (outside the Pass) or guandong (east of the
Pass).19 The “Pass,” Shanhaiguan Pass, was part of a Ming fortification system
that marked the border of “China” throughout the Ming period.20 During the
last decades of the Ming dynasty, the area was occupied by a collection of ethnic groups and nomadic tribes, including the Manchu, which established
firmer control over the area during the first half of the 17th century. Under the
successive able rule of Nurhaci, Hong Taiji, and Dorgon, the Manchus created
a written language, a bureaucratic structure that was partly inspired by the
Chinese, and a formidable military based on the banner system.21
As Bernard Cohn suggests, manipulating knowledge of the area and people
was a major means for modern states to establish their power. Knowledge of
the region has long been, and still is, a contested ground between China, Japan,
and Russia. Since the 1930s, Chinese scholars have believed that the Japanese
and the Russians removed the centrality of China in the history of Manchuria
in order to justify their imperialism. The use of the term “Manchuria” was
resisted, as its use was seen as a Japanese and Russian attempt to separate
Manchuria from China. Chinese historiography emphasized the historical root
of Chinese domination over Manchuria and even Korea. It saw the history of
the region in terms of teleological processes of racial integration and shrinking
national boundaries resulting from imperialist encroachment that led to the
emergence of the “Chinese” nation.22


Peter Lorge, War, Politics, and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795 (New York, 2005),
50-73, 115-25.
Li Deshan, Luan Fan, 1.
For a comprehensive study of Shanhaiguan, see Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China:
from History to Myth (Cambridge, 1990).
Jonathan Porter, Imperial China, 1350-1900 (London: Rowan & Littlefield, 2016), 105-7.
See Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: the British in India (Princeton,
1996); Yeh Pi-ling, “The Chinese History Field’s Confutation on Japan’s ManchuriaMongolia Policy after the Mukden Incident-An Inquiry Based on the First Volume of
Manchuria in History,” in Bulletin of Academia Historica, Vol. 11 (Mar. 2007), 114-115; Jin
Yufu, Dongbei tong shi (1941) (Taibei, 1969), preface; Zhang Bibo, Zhongguo Dongbei
jiangyu yanjiu (Harbin, 2006), 1; Li Deshan, Luan Fan, 1-16; Jiang Xiusong, Zhu Zhaixian,
Dongbei minzu shigang (Shenyang, 1993), 1.

Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”


Arthur Waldron points out that the founders of the Ming dynasty were confronted by an unprecedented security problem as they ruled both “traditional
Chinese” lands and the northern territories that were geographically, ethnically, and culturally more oriented toward Inner and Northeast Asia. Eventually,
the Ming turned inwards and constructed “The Great Wall” as a means to
define and secure the border of “China.”23 Although Liaodong remained part
of the empire, the failure to secure it partly led to the collapse of the dynasty.24
The Qing Empire inherited the same strategic situation, but it was able to
maintain a strong presence in Inner Asia and Northeast Asia until the late 19th
century because of the dynasty’s military capability (its army’s ability to combine firepower and mobility was unmatched by the Ming forces) and its
flexibility as a “trans-cultural society” that combined components of different
cultures, religions, and civilizations.25 The new Chinese Republic had to confront a strategic problem similar to that faced by its predecessors (and
successors, Japan and Manchukuo) despite the differences in geopolitical,
demographic, economic, political, and technological conditions.
International Relations of Northeast Asia, 1600-1920
From the Sino-centric perspective, Manchuria was “incorporated” into China
when the Qing Dynasty was established.26 From the Manchu perspective,
Manchuria was their homeland (also known as the “longxing zhi di” - the land
where the dragon rises) and China Proper was part of a larger, multi-ethnic
empire in which ethnic identities, as William Rowe noted, were “flexible,
ambiguous, and negotiable.”27 The Qing was an expansionary empire well into
the 19th century; when Emperor Qianlong died in 1799, it controlled Mongolia,
Xinjiang, and Tibet through military conquests.28 A large campaign was
launched by the Qing to bring Xinjiang under control during the 1860s. Soon
after the Qing conquered China Proper, the Russians reached Eastern Siberia.

Arthur Waldron, “Chinese Strategy from the Fourteenth to the Seventeenth Centuries,” in
Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, Alvin Bernstein, The Making of Strategy, 94-6.
Li, Jiancai, Mingdai dongbei (Shenyang, 1983), 192-200.
Wang Hui, Yazhou shiye: Zhongguo lishi de lunshu (Hong Kong, 2010), xii.
Zhao Zhongfu, “1920-1930 niandai de dongsansheng yimin,” in Bulletin of the Institute of
Modern History, Academia Sinica, Vol. 2 (Jun, 1971), 325.
William Rowe, China’s Last Empire: the Great Qing (Cambridge, 2009), 11.
Bruce Elleman, Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989 (London, 2001), 57-68; Peter Lorge, War,
Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795, 158-74.


Chapter 1

The Treaty of Nerchinsk that settled the frontier zone between the two empires
was concluded in 1689 after a series of border skirmishes.29 As the Qing did not
see its boundaries as inviolable lines between “us” and the “Other,” it was
unwilling to delegate resources from its primary security concerns (Zunghar
and internal security) to fight against the Russians for a definitive boundary.
Since the Russians were increasingly involved in Europe because of the reform
of Peter the Great from the 18th century, Northeast Asia therefore remained
stable for the next 170 years.
The East Asian world order, with the Qing at its center, was challenged in the
mid-19th century.30 Russia resumed its eastward expansion from the 1840s,
especially after the Crimean War of 1854-6.31 Capitalizing on the Qing’s weakness in the Arrow War and the Taiping Rebellion, the Russians annexed the
territory north of the Amur River and the northern part of Jilin between 1858
and 1860.32 The Russian presence was strengthened by the Trans-Siberian
Railway, built between 1891 and 1896.33 To secure the shortest route to
Vladivostok, their only ice-free port on the Pacific Coast, the Russians persuaded the Chinese to enter a secret anti-Japanese alliance in 1896 and
obtained the right to construct the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER, Zhongdong
tielu) across Manchuria.34
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan strove to be an equal of the western powers through empire-building.35 Japan followed America’s gunboat
diplomacy and “opened” Korea, challenging the Qing’s tributary relations with
the latter. Concern over the Russian menace prompted the Japanese to gain a
continental foothold; Meiji leaders such as Yamagata Aritomo argued that
Korea was Japan’s first line of defense against the Russians.36 To frustrate the
Qing’s attempt to maintain the tributary system and suppress Russian


Yang Yulian et al., 107-10; Jiang Changbin, Zhonge guojie dongduan de yanbian (Beijing,
2007), 61-75.
Hamashita Takeshi, China, East Asia and the Global Economy (London, 2008), 90.
David R. Stone, A Military History of Russia from Ivan the Terrible to the Wars in Chechnya
(Westport, 2006), 135.
Hubert Hessell Tiltman, 4-6; Yang Yulian et al., 195; Jiang Changbin, 123-175; Gerard Friters,
Outer Mongolia and its International Position (Baltimore, 1949), 44.
Hubert Hessell Tiltman, 8-9.
Jiang Changbin, 177. The Chinese also paid for the railway, but they had no place in its
board of directors.
Prasenjit Duara, The Global and Regional in China’s National Formation, 26; Marius B.
Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 427; Zhang Yunku, Jindai
riben yatai zhengce de yanbian (Beijing, 2009), 35.
From Zhang Yunku, 41.

Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”


influence in the region, Japan fought against the Qing in the First Sino-Japanese
War in 1894-5.37 The defeated Qing Empire ceded Taiwan and the Liaodong
Peninsula to Japan, but Russia, Germany, and France pressured Japan to give
up the latter.38 This so-called “Triple Intervention” only strengthened Japan’s
determination to wrest the control of Northeast Asia from the Russians.
Before the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the Russians controlled the railways in Manchuria, the Liaodong Peninsula, and Port Arthur, a fortified naval
base. Manchuria was considered by the Powers as the sphere of influence of
Russia after it had established a military rule there during the Boxer Uprising
of 1900-1901. As latecomers, the Americans called for an “Open Door” policy in
China to prevent themselves from being shut out from the country. However,
even the Americans were ready to recognise Russian political domination in
Manchuria in exchange for business rights in 1901.39 The incorporation of
Manchuria into the Russian Empire was seemingly irreversible. In 1902, however, Japan became Britain’s junior ally to check Russian expansion in East
Asia. Unable to negotiate a share of power in Manchuria with the Russians, the
Japanese attacked their fleet in Port Arthur in 1904.40 The Japanese destroyed
the Russian fleets, captured Port Arthur and Mukden (Shenyang), and inflicted
heavy losses on the Russian army. Although the Japanese also suffered tremendous human and financial losses, the Russians gave in.
The war replaced Russian domination of south Manchuria with that of the
Japanese. The Japanese believed that they were entitled to a privileged position because of their sacrifice in driving away the Russians.41 They annexed
Korea, formed the South Manchuria Railway Company (SMR), and developed
Dairen (Dalian) as a trading and colonial center. The Qing government agreed
not to construct new lines parallel to the SMR or branch lines that might “prejudice” against it.42 This “agreement” caused much conflict between Zhang
Zuolin and the Japanese during the 1920s. The Japanese established informal



Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa Times to the Present (Oxford,
2003), 115-8; L.M. Cullen, A History of Japan, 1582-1941 Internal and External Worlds
(Cambridge, 2003), 232; Marius B. Jansen, 432.
For an international history of the Sino-Japanese War, see S.C.M. Paine, The Sino-Japanese
War of 1894-5: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy (New York, 2003).
Huang Dingtian, Dongbeiya guoji guanxi shi (Harbin, 1999), 211-212; Gorelik, S.B. (Sarra
Borisovna), Gao Zhixiong (tr.), 1898-1903 nian Meiguo dui Manzhou de zhengce yu Menhu
kaifang zhuyi (Heilongjiang, 1991), 68-77.
Marius B. Jansen, 438-9.
Hubert Hessell Tiltman, 142-3.
“A Review of the Past and Present of Japan in South Manchuria,” 21/2/1928, F 2348/7/10,
FOCP, Vol. 34, 337.


Chapter 1

imperial control over Manchuria but failed to colonise it, as life in the
Manchurian hinterland was, as one British observer put it, “too harsh” for
Japanese migrants.43 However, Korean migration to Manchuria after Japan
annexed the country in 1910 blurred the frontier between the Chinese territory
and the Japanese Empire. As the Lytton Report on the Manchurian Incident of
1931 suggested, the Chinese saw the Koreans as the vanguard of Japanese penetration.44 This explained the subsequent attempt made by the Chinese
authority in Fengtian to evict the Koreans from the province. Russia maintained its position in northern Manchuria, and cooperated with Japan in order
to keep out other powers such as the United States, which used the “Open
Door” policy as a weapon for economic penetration.45
When the 1911 Revolution started, the Japanese Government was ready to
divide Manchuria up with the Russians.46 However, the director of Mantetsu
Nakamura Yoshikoto contemplated creating a fait accompli of a Japanese occupation of the whole of Manchuria by encouraging the revolutionaries.47
Opposing Nakamura’s action, the Japanese Consul General in Mukden Koike
argued that a better way of extending Japanese control was to contrast the
chaotic “Eighteen Provinces” with a peaceful Manchuria under Japanese protection.48 A Russo-Japanese takeover was prevented only because Governor
Zhao Erxun and Zhang Zuolin maintained peace and order throughout the
revolution (see Chapter 2 for detail). In 1912, Zhang Zuolin cracked down on a



F 2348/7/10, FOCP, Vol. 34, 340-2; Owen Lattimore, Manchuria Cradle of Conflict, 18.
Shen Mo, Japan in Manchuria: An Analytical Study of Treaties and Documents (Manila,
1960), 279.
F 2348/7/10, FOCP, Vol. 34, 340; Jiang Changbin, 188-90; Hubert Hessell Tiltman, 22-3;
Huang Dingtian, 241-55.
“Benye zhu-e dashi (Japanese Minister to Russia Motono ichirō) yu e-guo zhongli dachen
(Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Nikolayevich Kokovtsov) guanyu qingguo shiju zhi
tanhua jiyao,” in Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo Zhonghua minguo shi
yanjiushi, Riben waijiao wenshu xuanyi: guanyu xinhai geming (Beijing, 1980), 107; “The
American chargé d’affaires at Tokyo to the Secretary of State,” 15/10/1911, No. 893.00/566,
United States Department of State: Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United
States with the annual message of the president transmitted to Congress December 3,
1912 (FRUS) (Washington, D.C., 1912), 50. <http://digital.library.wisc.ed u/1711.dl/FRUS.
Koike sōryōji, “dai san jū kyū hachi gō (telegram no. 398),” 12/11/1911, Shinkoku kakumei
dōran no sai ni a keru teikoku no tai shin seisaku nami ni taido kankei zassan (gokuhi), in
Gaimoshō kiroku (GK), JACAR, Ref: B03030264900, slide 10.
Koike sōryōji, “dai san yon kyū yon gō (telegram no. 494),” 12/11/1911, Shinkoku kakumei
dōran no sai ni a keru teikoku no tai shin seisaku nami ni taido kankei zassan (gokuhi),
GK, JACAR, Ref: B03030264900, slide 13.

Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”


plot to create an independent Manchuria by Japanese officers and Manchu
Russia and Japan engaged in a new round of money-lending and railway
construction to extend their control over Manchuria after the formation of the
Republic of China.50 When the First World War pre-occupied the European
powers, Tokyo presented the “Twenty-One Demands” and an ultimatum to
President Yuan Shikai, forcing him to accept many of Japan’s demands. With
regard to Manchuria, the Demands extended Japan’s lease of territory, allowed
its subjects to rent land for commercial use, and handed the control of the
Jilin-Changchun Railway to the Japanese (after the Japanese promised a loan
of 6,500,000 yen).51 In 1915, Japanese officers planned another coup, but the
plan was scrapped in the face of diplomatic opposition.52
Chinese resistance against the Twenty-One Demands forced the Japanese to
abandon openly aggressive moves, but they continued to exert influence
through loans to Beijing and Mukden.53 In 1918, the Japanese lent the Duan
Qirui government in Beijing 10 million yen for the Jilin-Huining Railway, 30
million for mining and forestry in Jilin and Heilongjiang, and another 20 million for three railways planned in 1913. This group of unsecured-loans was part
of the notorious Nishihara Loan, but Duan Qirui’s Beijing Government appropriated a large part of it for the North-South War of 1918-1920. Zhang Zuolin,
who controlled Fengtian after 1917, borrowed another three million yen for the
reorganization of the province’s finances.54
Although the “West” was divided as a result of the First World War, as
William Kirby pointed out, the international order in East Asia changed very
little: the extant treaty system remained.55 The Powers exerted immense influ49



Huang Dingtian, 270-2.
Hsü Shuhsi, China and Her Political Entity: A Study of China’s Foreign Relations with
Reference to Korea, Manchuria and Mongolia (New York, 1926), 349-343; Hsü Shuhsi, Essays
on the Manchurian Problem (Shanghai, 1932), 36.
F 2348/7/10, FOCP, Vol. 34, 342; Hsü Shuhsi, Essays on the Manchurian Problem, 37-41.
Hsü Shuhsi, Essays on the Manchurian Problem, 44; Huang Dingtian, 276-7.
He Weimin, “Japanese Policy towards Manchuria and Mongolia during Okuma Cabinet
and Hara Cabinet,” in The Journal of the study of Modern Society and Culture, Niigata
University (Dec., 2006), 135-9.
F 2348/7/10, FOCP, Vol. 34, 343; Hsü Shuhsi, Essays on the Manchurian Problem, 47.
William C. Kirby, “The Internationalization of China,” in China Quarterly, No. 150 (Jun,
1997), 442; David Scott, China and the International System, 1840-1949: Power, Presence, and
Perceptions in a Century of Humiliation (Albany, NY, 2008), 202-205; Luo Zhitian, “Diguo
zhuyi zhai zhongguo, wenhua shiye xia tiaoyue tixi de yanjin,” in Zhongguo shehui kexue,
No. 5 (2004), 194-8.


Chapter 1

ence over Chinese politics through the Customs Service, the diplomatic corps,
the Bank Consortium, and Arms Embargo. They saw Manchuria as Japan’s
informal possession. Although the powers, with the exception of the Soviet
Union professed to maintain the status quo and the Open Door policy, they
guarded against anyone being too influential. International war did not occur
in Northeast Asia until 1929, but East Asian international relations during the
period were hardly stable. While post-war financial difficulties and growing
Chinese nationalism after the Paris Peace Conference convinced the western
powers that open intervention was no longer feasible, the Soviets and the
Japanese were more active in China than ever.
Akira Iriye suggested that there were several attempts to change the international order in East Asia during this period.56 To prevent the Japanese from
controlling China after the Nishihara Loan, Britain and America imposed the
Arms Embargo on China in 1919, and established a Bank Consortium to prevent another Nishihara Loan two years later.57 The Washington Conference
was held in 1921 to discuss the future of East Asia, during which Manchuria’s
status as an integral part of China was questioned. The French Foreign Minister
Aristide Briand asked during the conference “What is China”?58 To secure
Japanese support for naval disarmament, Britain and America conceded that
China’s proposals on treaty revision and territorial integrity applied only in
“China Proper.” The Manchurian issue was nothing more than a bargaining
ploy to keep Japan in line.
The Conference pleased no one, however. Disappointed Chinese intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu turned to a more radical form of nationalism.59 Instead
of heralding an era of cooperation, the Conference aggravated mutual suspicion among the countries. Although Tokyo became conciliatory towards other
powers when Shidehara Kijūrō directed Japan’s foreign policy, the “Washington
System” frustrated many in Japan.60 For several reasons they felt that Japan
was isolated: because of its diplomatic experience at Versailles (when its proposal for racial equality was rejected); the United States and Australia’s



For a detailed discussion of the exceptional nature of international relations in East Asia
after the First World War, see Akira Iriye, After Imperialism, The Search for a New Order in
the Far East 1921–1931 (Cambridge, 1965).
Stephen J. Valone, A Policy Calculated to Benefit China: The United States and the China
Arms Embargo, 1919-1929 (New York, 1991), 41-2; Cui Pi, Jindai dongbeiya guojiguanxishi
yanjiu (Changchun, 1992), 370-1.
Yeh Pi-ling, 114-5.
Luo Zhitian, “Diguo zhuyi zhai zhongguo, wenhua shiye xia tiaoyue tixi de yanjin,” 199.
Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka, The making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932 (Cambridge,
Mass.; London, 2001), 227-8.

Becoming “The Eastern Three Provinces”


limitations on Japanese immigrants; and the termination of the AngloJapanese Alliance and the Ishii-Lansing Agreement of 1917 that acknowledged
Japan’s special position in China.61 Political leaders such as Tanaka Giichi saw
the “Washington System” as an Anglo-American straitjacket to limit Japanese
development in China, a view shared by the Army.62 After the Conference, the
British found Japan “uncooperative, if not obstructionist” towards the China
To secure their position in Manchuria, the Japanese turned to Zhang Zuolin,
the local strongman (his rise to power will be discussed in Chapter 2), but only
supported him so long as it was in their interest.64 This attitude was made
clear during the First Eastern Conference chaired by Hara Kei in 1921. It would
stay the same until 1928.65 As the British Ambassador to Japan Sir Charles
Eliot pointed out, “[the Japanese] …while anxious to keep on good terms with
Chang Tso-lin [Zhang Zuolin], thought it unwise to commit themselves unreservedly to the support of any one Chinese party…”66 As early as in 1922, the
Japanese told Zhang that they opposed his China campaigns. The Imperial
Japanese Army General Staff even went so far as to declare its willingness
to support any local leaders who would recognize Manchuria’s special
Excluded from the “Washington System,” the Soviets pursued their own East
Asian policy. The Soviets declared that they would give up Imperial Russia’s
rights in China in 1919 and 1920, an act welcomed with enthusiasm by politicians such as Sun Yat-sen and members of the intelligentsia, such as Li Dazhao
and Chen Duxiu. By 1924, the Soviets had secured Feng Yuxiang and the KMT as



In the Ishii-Lansing Agreement of 1917, the United States recognized Japan’s special
interest in China and Manchuria; Marius B. Jansen, 522-3; Cui Pi, 382.
“Mr. MacDonald to Sir C. Eliot,” 22/9/1924, FOCP, Vol. 28, 280; Cui Pi, 373; Sanbō honbu dai
roku ka (6th Bureau of the General Staff), “Ho-Jiki sensō go ni okeru Shina seikyoku ni tai
shi teikoku no to ruheki taido (The attitude the Empire of Japan should take toward the
political situation in China after the Fengtian-Zhili War),” 27/5/1922, GK, JACAR, Ref:
B03050252300, slide 351.
“Mr. MacDonald to Sir C. Eliot,” 22/9/1924, FOCP, Vol. 28, 280-1.
Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka, 228-9.
Gavan McCormack, 59.
“Sir C. Eliot to the Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, 8/1/1923,” FOCP, Vol. 5, 352-3.
“Nippon seifu no tai Chang Tso-lin saku (kakugi an utsushi),” 20/12/1922, GK, JACAR, Ref:
B03030293200, slide 31-3; “Sanbō honbu dai roku ka, “Ho-Jiki sensou go ni okeru Shina
seikyoku ni tai shi teikoku no to ruheki taido,” slide 348.


Chapter 1

local allies.68 As subsequent events show, Moscow was determined to recover
the Chinese Eastern Railway and make Outer Mongolia a Soviet satellite. These
arrangements, according to the Soviet agent to China, Adolph Joffe, made the
Soviets “no different from other imperialists.”69 Beginning in 1921, Moscow
pressured the Beijing Government to negotiate over the railway issue by threatening to recognise Sun Yat-sen and Zhang Zuolin’s rival regimes.70 Moscow
also tried to discuss with Zhang in 1920 and 1921 the future of the CER and
Mongolia, but Zhang remained determined to recover Outer Mongolia as soon
as China was stabilized.71 Still, after the Sino-Soviet Agreement was finally concluded in May, 1924, Moscow signed a separate agreement over the CER with
Zhang in September of that year.72 In exchange for Soviet promises to recognise China’s sovereignty over Outer Mongolia and withhold subversive
activities, China recognised the Soviet Union. The Soviets also regained actual
control of the Chinese Eastern Railway. As subsequent chapters will discuss,
despite all these “agreements,” Sino-Soviet relations remained in flux because
of the conflicts between Zhang Zuolin, Feng Yuxiang, the KMT, and the Soviets.




Shen Zhihua (ed.), Yang Kuisong et. al, Zhong-Su guanxi shigang, 1917