Xi'an Incident

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The three principals involved in the Xi'an Incident: Chang Hsüeh-liang, Yang Hucheng, and Chiang Kai-shek (photo taken 2 months before the incident)
Xi'an Incident
Traditional Chinese西安事變
Simplified Chinese西安事变

The Xi'an Incident[a] was a major Chinese political crisis from 12 to 26 December 1936. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist government of China, was placed under house arrest in the city of Xi'an by a Nationalist army he was there to review. Chiang's captors hoped to end the Chinese Civil War and confront Japanese imperial expansion into Chinese territory. After two weeks of intense negotiations between Chiang, his captors, and representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chiang was released with a verbal promise to end the civil war and put up a firmer resistance to Japan.

Before the incident, Chiang Kai-shek had followed a strategy of "first internal pacification, then external resistance" that entailed eliminating the CCP before confronting Japanese aggression. This strategy was deeply unpopular among many groups in China, including the Northeastern Army tasked with suppressing the main Communist base in Yan'an. The Northeastern Army was mainly composed of troops exiled from Manchuria after that region was invaded by Japan in 1931. Northeastern Army soldiers and officers had also begun to fraternize with the Communists and were convinced of the need for a united Nationalist-Communist front against Japan.

The commanders of the Northeastern Army, Generals Chang Hsüeh-liang and Yang Hucheng, decided to kidnap Chiang after the latter refused repeated entreaties to change his policies. Chang invited Chiang to come review the Northeastern Army, and after Chiang arrived, had him placed under house arrest at the Huaqing Pool complex. Some radical army officers wanted Chiang executed, but both Chang and the CCP strongly opposed such a move. They wanted to pressure Chiang into changing his policies instead. Zhou Enlai led the Communist negotiating team, which after two weeks agreed to release Chiang. Although Chiang publicly repudiated the verbal promises he made in Xi'an, a ceasefire was declared and talks with Zhou continued. The rapprochement between the Communists and Nationalists outraged the Japanese, and eventually helped lead to the Second Sino-Japanese War. The full-scale Japanese invasion hastened the formal joining of the two Chinese factions in the Second United Front.


Map showing the situation of China during the Xi'an Incident in December 1936

Japanese expansionism in China[edit]

In 1931, the Empire of Japan escalated its aggression against China through the Mukden Incident. Japanese troops then occupied Northeast China. General Chang Hsüeh-liang, who had succeeded his father as head of the Fengtian clique and Northeastern Army in that region, was widely criticized for this loss of territory. In response, Chang temporarily resigned from his position and went on a tour of Europe.[1]

Chang's father had been assassinated by Japan in 1928.[2]: 32  Over time, Chang came to view Chiang as ignoring the threat of Japan because of Chiang's focus on opposing the Communists.[2]: 32 

Chinese Civil War[edit]

Chang Hsüeh-liang and Yang Hucheng in 1936

In the aftermath of the Northern Expedition in 1928, China was nominally unified under the authority of the Nationalist government in Nanjing. Simultaneously, the Nationalist government enacted the Shanghai massacre and purged members of the CCP in the Kuomintang, effectively ending the alliance between the two parties.[3] Beginning in the 1930s, the Nationalist government launched a series of campaigns against the CCP. In the meanwhile, the impending war against Japan led to nationwide unrest and surge of Chinese nationalism.[4] Consequently, the campaigns against the Communist Party were becoming increasingly unpopular. Chiang, fearing the loss of Kuomintang leadership in China, continued the civil war against the CCP despite lacking popular support.[5]

By late 1935 the Communists had narrowly avoided destruction on their Long March and had begun to establish themselves in a new base area on the border between Gansu and Ningxia provinces. They were besieged by a number of nationalist armies, including the Northwestern Army under Yang and the Northeastern Army, to which Chang was re-assigned as commander after his return from a tour of Europe.[6][7] The Nationalist armies initially gave no notice to the Communist exhortations for war against Japan, but this began to change because of the Red Army's "eastern expedition" from February to April 1936. The Communists declared that they were sending a detachment through Shanxi to fight the Japanese in Rehe and Hubei. Letting the Red Army through would have broken the encirclement, so Yan Xishan stopped them by force. Although defeated militarily, the Red Army had convinced the Shanxi peasantry of their patriotism and gained 8,000 new recruits on their retreat. Chang was likewise impressed and began to see them as potential allies rather than foes. When Mao announced on March 14 that the Communists were willing to conclude a truce, Chang covertly agreed.[8] He proposed to Chiang Kai-shek that he reverse the Nationalist policy of prioritizing the purge of Communists, and instead focusing on military preparation against Japanese aggression.[9] After Chiang refused, Chang began to plot a coup in "great secrecy".[10] By June 1936, the secret agreement between Chang and the CCP had been successfully settled.[11]


Arrest of Chiang[edit]

Bullet hole made while Northeastern Army soldiers were storming the Huaqing Pool complex

In November 1936, Chang asked Chiang to come to Xi'an to raise the morale of troops unwilling to fight the Communists.[12] After Chiang agreed, Chang informed Mao Zedong, who called the plan "a masterpiece". At Xi'an, Chiang stayed in his resort headquarters at the Huaqing Pool complex.[13] On 12 December 1936, bodyguards of Chang and Yang stormed the cabin where Chiang was sleeping. Chiang was able to escape but suffered an injury in the process. He was eventually detained by Chang's troops in the morning.[12][14]

As conflicting reports of the events reached the capital, the Nationalist government was sent into disarray.[9] The response to the coup from high-level officials was divided. The Military Affairs Commission led by He Yingqin recommended a military campaign against Xi'an, and immediately send a regiment to capture Tongguan.[15] Soong Mei-ling and Kong Xiangxi were strongly in favor of negotiating a settlement to ensure the safety of Chiang.[16]

Negotiations and release[edit]

Negotiating room where Chiang Kai-shek met with Zhou Enlai and Lin Boqu

A faction of the army led by Yang Hucheng and the radical young officers of the "Anti-Japanese Comrade Society" wanted to execute Chiang, but Chang and the Communists insisted that he be kept alive in order to maintain the possibility of a united front.[17][18] They argued that an alliance with Chiang was their best chance to combat the Japanese, while killing him would only provoke retaliation from the Nanjing Government.[10] The Northeastern Army sent a telegram to Nanjing explaining to the Chinese public why they had arrested Chiang and the 8 demands they had for his release. These included an immediate end to civil war against the CCP, expulsion of pro-Japanese factions from the Nationalist government, and the adoption of an active anti-Japanese military stance. They attempted to broadcast these demands publicly, but Nationalist censorship prevented their publication outside the Communist-held areas.[19][20]

On 16 December, Zhou Enlai and Lin Boqu arrived in Xi'an to represent the CCP in negotiations. At first, Chiang was opposed to negotiating with a CCP delegate, but withdrew his opposition when it became clear that his life and freedom were largely dependent on Communist goodwill towards him.[19][20] Influencing his decision was also the arrival of Madame Chiang on 22 December, who had travelled to Xi'an hoping to secure his speedy release, fearing military intervention from factions within the Kuomintang. On 24 December, Chiang received Zhou for a meeting, the first time the two had seen each other since Zhou had left Whampoa Military Academy over ten years earlier. Zhou began the conversation by saying: "In the ten years since we have met, you seem to have aged very little." Chiang nodded and said: "Enlai, you were my subordinate. You should do what I say." Zhou replied that if Chiang would halt the civil war and resist the Japanese instead, the Red Army would willingly accept Chiang's command. By the end of the meeting, Chiang promised to end the civil war, to resist the Japanese together, and to invite Zhou to Nanjing for further talks.[19] Chiang was released on 26 December and returned to Nanjing with Chang Hsüeh-liang.[21]


Lin Sen receives Chiang Kai Shek at the Nanjing Airport after the Xi'an Incident.

After Chiang returned to Nanjing, he announced a cease fire in the civil war. However, he also repudiated any promises that he had made in Xi'an. He had Chang imprisoned and charged with treason.[22]: 53  Chiang then sent 37 army divisions north to surround the Northeastern Army and force them to stand down. The army was deeply divided on the appropriate response. Yang Hucheng and the Anti-Japanese Comrade Society wanted to stand and fight if the KMT army attacked, and refuse to negotiate until Chang was released. The Communist representatives strongly disagreed and cautioned that civil war would, in the words of Zhou Enlai, "make China into another Spain".[21] Negotiations between the CCP and Nanjing continued. However, when a conference of Northeastern officers in January 1937 overwhelmingly resolved not to surrender peacefully, the CCP reluctantly decided that they could not abandon their allies and pledged to fight alongside them if the KMT attacked. The situation was again reversed when the five most senior Northeastern generals met separately and decided to surrender. The radical officers were enraged and assassinated one of the generals on 2 February, but this only turned the majority of the soldiers against the plan to stand and fight.[23] The Northeastern Army peacefully surrendered to advancing KMT forces and was divided into new units, which were sent to Hebei, Hunan, and Anhui.[24] Yang Hucheng, however, was arrested and eventually executed,[25] while the leaders of the Anti-Japanese Comrade Society defected to the Red Army. Chang was kept under house arrest for over 50 years before emigrating to Hawaii in 1993.[26]

The rapprochement between the Communists and Nationalists outraged the Japanese, and eventually helped lead to the Second Sino-Japanese War.[27] This in turn hastened the two Chinese factions into formalizing their alliance as the Second United Front.[26]

The Xi'an Incident was a turning point for the CCP. Chiang's leadership over political and military affairs in China was affirmed, while the CCP was able to expand its own strength under the new united front, which played a role in the Chinese Communist Revolution.[28]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Also romanized as the Sian Incident


  1. ^ Taylor 2009, p. 100.
  2. ^ a b Hammond, Ken (2023). China's Revolution and the Quest for a Socialist Future. New York, NY: 1804 Books. ISBN 9781736850084.
  3. ^ Taylor 2009, p. 68.
  4. ^ Garver 1988, p. 5.
  5. ^ Taylor 2009, p. 125.
  6. ^ Ch'en 1991, p. 105.
  7. ^ Taylor 2009, p. 116.
  8. ^ Ch'en 1991, p. 109.
  9. ^ a b Worthing 2017, p. 168.
  10. ^ a b Ch'en 1991, p. 111.
  11. ^ Taylor 2009, p. 119.
  12. ^ a b Taylor 2009, p. 127.
  13. ^ Ray Huang, China: A Macro History (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), p. 4.
  14. ^ Bernstein, Richard (2014). China 1945 : Mao's revolution and America's fateful choice (First ed.). New York. p. 29. ISBN 9780307595881.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  15. ^ Taylor 2009, p. 128.
  16. ^ Worthing 2017, p. 169.
  17. ^ Itoh 2016, pp. 176–178.
  18. ^ Eastman 1991, p. 48.
  19. ^ a b c Barnouin & Yu 2006, p. 67.
  20. ^ a b Worthing 2016, p. 168.
  21. ^ a b Itoh 2016, pp. 176–180.
  22. ^ Coble, Parks M. (2023). The Collapse of Nationalist China: How Chiang Kai-shek Lost China's Civil War. Cambridge New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-009-29761-5.
  23. ^ Itoh 2016, pp. 180–185.
  24. ^ Itoh 2016, p. 191.
  25. ^ Wakeman 2003, p. 234.
  26. ^ a b Eastman 1991, p. 48-49.
  27. ^ Paine 2012, pp. 102–103.
  28. ^ Garver 1988, p. 78.


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