Xi’an (Sian) Incident (1936)

KMT members captured during the Xi’an Incident
KMT members captured during the Xi’an Incident

The Long March (1934–35) severely damaged the Chinese Communists, who continued to fight from their new base in northern Sha'anxi (Shensi) province in northwestern China.

Pursuing his policy of "first domestic pacification, then resisting Japan," Chiang Kaishek, leader of the Nationalist government, appointed Zhang Xueliang (Chang Hsueh-liang), the ousted warlord of Manchuria, and his Manchurian army units to complete the task of finishing off the Communists. But Zhang and his troops had been persuaded by rising popular sentiment that all Chinese should unite against Japan, and the campaign ground to a halt.

In December 1936, Chiang convened a military conference at Xi'an, a city in northern China, where he planned to fire Zhang and send in fresh troops willing to fight. Fearful that his plan to form an anti-Japanese united front would be thwarted, Zhang Xueliang, a recently recovered heroin addict, seized Chiang and his aides on the night of December 12. This was the Xi'an incident that shocked China and the world.

Zhang Xueliang presented Chiang with eight demands that included immediate cessation of the anti-Communist campaign and reforming of the Nationalist government to form a united front against Japan. Chiang refused to comply, choosing death if necessary.

He also allowed Zhang to read his diary, which revealed his plans to resist Japan. Zhang Xueliang was completely at a loss on what to do next. Across China popular support rallied around Chiang as the only leader capable of leading the nation against Japan.

At their headquarters at yan'an (Yenan) one faction of Communist leaders advocated killing their enemy Chiang. Another led by Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai) pushed for a peaceful settlement. The Soviet Union had also concluded that Chiang was the only Chinese leader capable of uniting China against Japan.

Zhang Xueliang
Zhang Xueliang

Under Nazi German pressure in Europe, Joseph Stalin supported a Chinese leader capable of resisting Japan. Zhou flew to Xi'an, as did Madame Chiang and a number of leaders from Nanjing (Nanking), and the parties negotiated and came to an unwritten agreement.

On December 25, Chiang and his party were released, flying back to Nanjing in triumph accompanied by Zhang. Chiang submitted his resignation, which was rejected. Zhang was tried for mutiny by a military court, received a 10-year sentence, was pardoned, but was put under house arrest; his Manchurian army was reorganized.

Importantly, a session of the Nationalist Party leadership convened in the spring of 1937 agreed to stop the anti-Communist campaign, reform and reorganize the government, and negotiate with the Chinese Communist Party to form a united front against Japan. Zhou Enlai arrived in Nanjing to conduct talks on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

Chinese moves toward unity propelled Japan's militarists to speed up their agenda of aggression, resulting in the Marco Polo Bridge incident on July 7, 1937. This attack developed into an all-out war, which pushed the two parties in China to conclude a second United Front against their common enemy. Thus, the Xi'an incident changed the course of Chinese history.