Superpower Empire: China 1912

Discussion in 'Finished Timelines and Scenarios' started by Hendryk, Mar 10, 2011.

  1. Hendryk Banned

    Aug 24, 2004
    (Link to the original thread)

    This is the story of a sleeping giant that shook itself awake.

    In 1911, China was called "the sick man of Asia". Its ruling dynasty was in a terminal state of deliquescence; its territory was being encroached on all sides by imperialist powers; it had lost critical elements of its sovereignty; long gone were the days when European powers respected its civilization, instead dismissing it as backwards and fossilized.

    And then something happened.




    Forgotten Achievements

    From “A Revisionist Assessment of China’s Modern Political Myths” by Geraldine Brandt, Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 55:3, 1995:

    That the instauration of the Qian dynasty had been a transformational moment in the history of China was conventional wisdom to such an extent that it wasn’t until the 1960s that academics would begin to challenge the claim. It was a neat, tidy, and above convenient interpretation, one that had been part of official Chinese historiography for over a half-century; that it went unquestioned in China itself was understandable enough, especially when one keeps in mind that the authoritarian nature of the regime would not be relaxed until several years into Wensheng’s reign. It is however more puzzling that even non-Chinese historians took it largely for granted all that time. The first serious revisionist attempt was that of French Sinologist Lucien Bianco in 1967, Revolution and Reform in China 1895-1947. (…)

    While politically useful to the regime, the idea that the advent of the Qian dynasty in 1912 had been a turning point, before which China had been in slow but inexorable decline, and after which it began to rise again, is one that was increasingly disputed by a new generation of historians who followed into Bianco’s footsteps. The truth turns out to be rather more complicated.

    The dominant interpretation is now that the Qian dynasty, to put it bluntly, got lucky; it took over at the right moment to benefit from a series of reforms that had been implemented over the past decade and a half, as well as a piecemeal modernization that, after a half-century, was finally beginning to bear tangible results. It may therefore be argued that the main achievement of the new regime was simply not to squander the fruits of its predecessor’s labor. In other words it is probable that, the alleged merits of the Qian dynasty notwithstanding, any other successor regime—including, probably, a Republican one under either Sun Yixian or Yuan Shikai—would by and large have met with a similar degree of success.

    A first example concerns the field of education. While Jianguo and his indispensable prime minister Liang Qichao received credit for the thorough overhaul of the Chinese education system after 1912, the truth is that the foundations had already been laid before that. In the previous 15 years a string of reforms, some of them initiated by Kang and Liang themselves in 1898, had already begun adapting to the modern era the obsolete education system, essentially inherited from the Song dynasty and in a state of advanced decay by the end of the 19th century: the old civil service exams had been abolished in 1905; modern universities had been opened (Beijing University in 1898, Fudan University in 1905, Qinghua in 1911, and the venerable Nanjing University, originally founded in 258 CE, was converted into a modern college in 1902); and most important, the system had been rationalized along Western lines between 1901 and 1905, with a primary, secondary and tertiary levels. As far as more specifically military education was concerned, the Baoding Military Academy was up and running from 1901, churning out class after class of army officers trained to Western standards.

    If one looks at industries, the facts tell the same story. It is often forgotten how close China had come in the 1860s from having a Meiji Era of its very own. That the Self-Strengthening Movement of the late Qing had ultimately foundered hardly means that its efforts were in vain: they laid the foundations of subsequent industrial development. Who, outside of a narrow circle of historians and weapons buffs, is today aware that the Jiangnan Arsenal, founded in 1865 by Li Hongzhang and Ding Richang, had within five years become the largest manufacturer of modern weapons in East Asia? Who remembers that, while Japan would not produce its first iron-hulled warship until 1887, the dockyards at Jiangnan were already churning out such ships as early as 1872? That until their destruction during the Sino-French War in 1884, the Fuzhou Shipyards were larger than any in Japan? That the steel foundries and arsenal set up by Zhang Zhidong in Wuchang and Hanyang respectively had by 1911 blossomed into a thriving industrial complex in Hubei province, with, among other factories, some 300 cotton-weaving mills employing a total of 12,000 workers?

    Then there is the transportation infrastructure. In 1912 China boasted a respectable 9,820 km of railroads, 30% of which were under direct government ownership; more were in the process of being laid down, and the regime change did not make a noticeable difference as far as the pace of building was concerned. It was thanks to the existence of railroads that the settlement of Inner Manchuria, mostly by peasants from Shandong, had been able to proceed so briskly in the last decades of Qing rule. After the railway from Beijing to Hankou was opened in 1905, commercial traffic in Hankou was multiplied by three in as many years. And while the intended purpose of foreign-built railroads was to make the Chinese hinterland accessible to overseas imports, they also enabled a steep rise in Chinese exports to foreign markets, with 80% growth between 1904 and 1912 (tea, cotton, soybeans, tin, etc.).

    These and more achievements of the late Qing were opportunistically minimized by official historians after 1912, the better to give the Qian dynasty credit for “reversing” China’s decline and “putting the country back on the path to greatness”. But perhaps said decline had in fact already been reversed by 1912…


    The Interregnum Republic

    If we were to adopt a democratic system of government now, it would be nothing less than committing national suicide… To put it in a word, the Chinese people of today can only be governed autocratically; they cannot enjoy freedom. I pray and yearn, I pray only that our country can have a Guanzi, a Shang Yang, a Lycurgus, a Cromwell alive today to carry out harsh rule, and with iron and fire to forge and temper our countrymen for twenty, thirty, even fifty years. After that we can give them the books of Rousseau and tell them about the deeds of Washington.
    — Liang Qichao, Notes from a Journey to the New Continent, 1903​

    Excerpts from The Accidental Revolution: The Collapse of the Qing Dynasty and its Aftermath by Jonathan Spence, 1979

    After Yuan’s death, it was obvious both for his former followers and for the Republicans under the leadership of Huang Xing and Sun Yixian that, unless an agreement was found for his successor, the two factions would come to blows in short order; and neither felt that it had enough of an advantage over the other to take such a chance. But who could be acceptable to both sides? Sun, who had briefly been the Republic of China’s first president, had already conceded to Yuan in the first place; Huang or any other Republican would be in no more favorable a position. The Beiyang faction, on the other hand, had only been held together by Yuan himself; with him gone, its various members seemed poised to become so many rivals, and the more lucid among them knew that if one of their number took over, he would likely turn against the others. For different reasons, the two sides therefore came to the same conclusion: a compromise figure had to be found in order to secure their respective gains.

    The list of potential candidates acceptable to Republicans and Beiyang officers alike was a short one; it had to be someone with credentials both as a reformer, to placate the actors of the recent revolution, and as a conservative, to guarantee that Yuan’s former supporters would retain their preeminence. Li Yuanhong, as former vice-president to both Sun and Yuan, and since February 24 the acting president, suggested himself, but his bid was rejected out of hand by the Beiyang faction and did not receive much support from the Republicans, for whom he had all along been an ad hoc military leader, and not one seen to have the requisite political skills. They had not forgotten that he had only taken command of the revolutionary armies literally at gunpoint, after being dragged out from under his concubine’s bed where he was hiding.

    Enter Liang Qichao, who, at a still-youthful 39 years of age, already boasted nearly two decades of political activism, first as Kang Youwei’s disciple, then as a co-founder of the Baohuanghui, and most recently as a journalist and pamphleteer. Liang, formerly an outspoken supporter of constitutional monarchy, had since the death of Emperor Guangxu in 1908 moved closer to the Republican ideals of the Tongmenghui, and enjoyed the trust and personal friendship of Sun Yixian—he had at one point been his son’s private tutor. Having arrived in China a week after Yuan’s death, he was put forward by Sun and Huang as their compromise candidate. The Beiyang faction, however, was lukewarm: from their perspective Liang’s closeness to the Republicans was, like Li’s, a liability.

    Statue of Liang Qichao.

    The impasse was resolved when Liang met with a delegation of the most senior Beiyang officers that included Duan Qirui, Zhang Xun and Cao Kun, as well as Yuan’s closest friend Xu Shichang. Together, after a long closed-doors negotiation, they came to an agreement: the next president would be Liang’s own former mentor Kang Youwei. The onetime architect of the Hundred Days reform movement, and leader of the Baohuanghui, Kang had unlike Liang remained a steadfast advocate of constitutional monarchy, and even though he was seen as a radical a decade and a half earlier, the evolution of the political situation since then had led to his becoming perceived as something of a conservative. Xu and Zhang in particular considered him a safe fallback choice, and Liang, for his part, felt confident that he could exert critical influence even as his former mentor was ostensibly put in charge. The final arrangement was therefore that, with Kang as president, Li Yuanhong would retain the mostly ceremonial position of vice-president, and Liang would be prime minister.

    That the cobbled-together arrangement failed to fully satisfy anyone is probably a reason why it worked out. (…)

    Xu Shichang.


    The fate of the Republic of China was strangely foreshadowed by that of the Republic of Formosa, which had lasted a mere five months between May 23 and October 21, 1895—though it that case the political experiment was terminated by Japanese annexation. Formally proclaimed on January 1, 1912, the Republic of China only lasted until July 16, and went down in Chinese history books as the Interregnum Republic. In those eventful seven months, it was led by three presidents, the last one of whom went on to become emperor.

    In hindsight, there never was any doubt as far as Kang Youwei was concerned that he had only accepted the position of president in order to steer the country towards imperial restoration. Certainly, however unreliable official historiography is on certain other sensitive topics, it can be trusted on the fact that Kang was not primarily motivated by personal ambition, and the disclosure of his private archives has confirmed what had been asserted by his heirs all along, namely that, had the Dowager Empress Longyu not formally abdicated on behalf of the infant emperor Puyi on February 12, he would have simply sworn allegiance to the latter and actually restored the Qing dynasty. But the abdication meant that such was not an option for this punctilious Confucian; so the only other logical choice for him was the creation of a new imperial dynasty.

    But if Kang’s behavior was unsurprising even without the benefit of hindsight, Liang’s remains a topic of speculation. He had known Kang for twenty-two years and had been his faithful disciple for eighteen, so he must have been aware that his master would, given the chance, overthrow the fledgling republic. That he nonetheless suggested him to succeed Yuan Shikai as president thus implies that his ideological loyalties were at the time more fluid than Sun and the other Republicans had been led to believe. We may conclude that he was not concerned about the formal type of regime that ruled China, so long as it was one, whether Republican or neo-Imperial, that got things done. Of course, as prime minister, he was in a very good position indeed to ensure that they did get done according to his own priorities, and that he would answer to a president or a constitutional emperor was a secondary concern. In all likelihood, he merely adapted his political convictions to the new circumstances.

    Sun Yixian would, in his memoirs, later claim that he was deliberately led along by Liang; a more likely hypothesis is that he had persuaded himself of Liang’s attachment to the Republican cause, and that Liang had considered opportune to not explicitly dispel the impression until the last moment. Certainly Liang does not seem to have made any openly deceitful statement, and in any case the respect he felt for Sun was genuine. (…)

    President Kang and prime minister Liang had to perform a delicate balancing act when they assembled the governmental cabinet and assigned the top positions of the new regime’s structure. Enough members of the two opposite factions had to be included so that both would have a vested interest in endorsing the government, and neither would feel cheated of its spoils. Several weeks were spent in confidential negotiations before the composition of the cabinet was finally disclosed. The Republicans were given several senior portfolios, with Lin Sen named finance minister, Hu Hanmin justice minister, Huang Xing home minister, Song Jiaoren navy minister, and Sun Yixian entrusted with the custom portfolio of transportation minister (he presently set to work on a pet project of his, a plan for a radical overhaul of China’s rail network that would prove wildly unrealistic). The Beiyang faction also got its share of sensitive portfolios: Tang Shaoyi was named foreign affairs minister, Liang Shiyi communications minister, and Xu Shichang received the critical position of defense minister, while Li Jingxi became speaker of the Senate, and Duan Qirui, Zhang Xun, Cao Kun and Wu Peifu all got positions in the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Positions not attributed to either faction went to members of the Xianyuhui (the successor organization to the Baohuanghui), unaffiliated monarchists and assorted apolitical officials; Tang Hualong, in particular, became Speaker of the House.

    Yang Du.

    With the cabinet assembled, attention turned to the Constitutional Convention, officially convened on May 19. Kang and Liang had attributed its chairmanship to renowned legal scholar Yang Du, whose monarchist convictions were a secret to none. Although the Republicans had been initially reassured to see an American legal scholar, Frank Johnson Goodnow, invited as special advisor and vice-chairman, their hopes for a wholly new foundational document were soon dashed when it surfaced that the Convention, rather than starting from scratch, would in fact be using as a basis the unfinished draft constitution begun in 1908, which heavily borrowed from the Japanese Constitution promulgated in 1889. This sent a clear signal that the ultimate goal of president Kang was constitutional monarchy rather than the preservation of the Republic, and the timing was calculated to precipitate a clash within the Republican faction. On the one hand, the pragmatists led by Hu Hanmin insisted that the two things that really mattered were the existence of a genuine parliamentary assembly with constitutionally guaranteed prerogatives, and the presence of Tongmenghui members—themselves—at the heart of the executive where they would have the most influence; on the other, the radicals led by Sun Yixian considered the imminent demise of the Republic an unacceptable betrayal of their ideals, and called for a second revolution. Meanwhile, Liang acted as liaison between Kang and the Republicans, and offered assurances that, even though the regime was going to become technically monarchic, the essential gains of the Xinhai revolution would be preserved. In the end Sun and Song Jiaoren resigned from their respective ministries, but the others accepted to stay on. This coincided with the start of a carefully orchestrated press campaign, in which Liang displayed his sharply-honed skills as an opinion journalist, to sell the idea of imperial restoration to the politically informed public.

    Frank Johnson Goodnow was invited by Kang to help draft the Chinese Constitution.
    He stayed in China from 1912 to 1914, first as vice-chairman of the Constitutional Convention,
    then as special advisor to its successor body the Constitutional Council.
    To Song Jiaoren who was praising Sun Yixian as "the Chinese Washington", Goodnow replied:
    "China doesn't need a Washington so much as a Bismarck.
    Give her a Washington now, and before long she will need a Lincoln."

    Sun, Song and other radical Republicans such as Wang Jingwei left Nanjing for Guangzhou where they were hoping to regroup faithful Tongmenghui elements and resume armed struggle, but upon arriving there realized that this was not a viable option: the two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi were under the control of military governor Lu Rongting*, with whom Liang had previously struck an agreement, exchanging his loyalty to Kang against his being granted his position for life. Lu now had enough of a vested interest in the success of Kang’s scheme to oppose any Republican attempt to use his provinces as insurrectionary rear bases. After a few desultory clashes between Tongmenghui forces and Lu’s army in Guangzhou, the rebellion petered out; at Liang’s urging, Kang then issued a blanket amnesty that resulted in Sun and Song losing most of their remaining followers. They both left for Japan where they created a successor organization to the Tongmenghui, the Guomindang or National People’s Party; in time, after the reconciliation with the Republican moderates, it would become the new regime’s main parliamentary opposition.

    Jianguo's Gaze pierces the Clouds, propaganda painting.

    By the end of June, there no longer remained any serious political obstacle to Kang’s neo-imperial restoration; few members of the Beiyang faction cared enough to make a fuss, most being content with the positions they had been granted, and those members of the Republican faction who hadn’t been placated had now marginalized themselves. In Chinese civil society at large, although the progressive elites criticized what they perceived as a step backward, and some of the more radicalized university students staged demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai, the general consensus was that Kang-Liang (as they were once again being referred to, in reference to the Hundred Days of 1898) deserved the benefit of the doubt. After the revolutionary fighting of 1911 and the uncertainty it brought, the country seemed stable enough. Millions of people waited for what would come next, some with misgivings, others with cautious. It would, for everyone, be something of an anticlimax.

    The Constitutional Convention had not yet finished its work when Kang formally declared the instauration of the Qian dynasty on July 16, 1912, having chosen for its name that of the first trigram of the Yijing’s divination system (☰), which symbolizes vital energy at its apex. As for his own dynastic name, Kang had decided on Jianguo, “Build the Country”—as clear a statement of intent as could be; though to the Western public he would be known, inaccurately, as Emperor Kang. He wanted a Confucian ceremony in full traditional regalia, intent of respecting ritual to the letter, but Liang managed to talk him into making a number of key concessions to modernity. After the pump and circumstance, the polite revelry and the symbolic trivia of regime change had taken place, business as usual resumed both for the political class and the country as a whole. For years afterwards, government officials assigned to the more remote rural areas would come across people who had never even heard that for seven months in 1912, they had lived under a republic.

    * Lu Rongting was a rather colorful figure of late Qing and early Qian China. He had started out as a highway robber who, after gathering a band of outlaws under his leadership, had become so notorious that the central government, rather than fight him, offered him a job as a military officer. By 1911, he had risen to the position of vice-governor of Guangxi, and took advantage of the revolution to set himself up as governor, and expand his de facto rule to neighboring Guangdong. Thanks to his opportunistic endorsement of Kang's imperial restoration, he became governor-for-life of both provinces.


    How high are the mountains?​

    “The mountains are high and the emperor far away.”
    – Chinese proverb​

    Statue of Emperor Jianguo.

    Excerpts from The Resurgence of China 1911-1945 by Lionel B. Gates, 2002

    If Kang’s neo-imperial scheme was allowed to proceed with relatively little opposition, it was mostly because the national stage was no longer, at that point, the only locus of political decision-making, or even, arguably, the most important one. An important consequence of the Xinhai revolution had been the de facto devolution of many of the central government’s prerogatives to the provincial level; and so long as both the revolutionaries and the moderates who had endorsed the overthrow of the Qing (whether sincerely or out of opportunism) were allowed to retain their control over the provincial governments, what happened in Nanjing was not a fundamental concern to them.

    One of the reforms implemented during the last years of Qing rule had been the creation of provincial assemblies, in response to increasingly pressing demands from progressive local elites to be given a voice in the political process. These assemblies were widely seen as inadequate, since their role was a purely advisory one, and they were deprived of genuine decision-making powers; nonetheless, they had provided a forum of expression for men eager to contribute input to the political management of their provinces. Their membership consisted, for the most part, in public officials, representatives of the landed gentry, and rich businessmen—the informal leadership of traditional Chinese society. Many of them either were Constitutionalists (in other words, they belonged to Kang Youwei’s organization) or had Constitutionalist leanings, or, out of frustration at the sclerosis of the Qing, had joined Sun Yixian’s Republican organization; and even the politically unaffiliated ones yearned for opportunities to enact badly-needed reforms. When, in October 1911, the revolution started in Hubei, and then spread to other central and southern provinces, the eviction of central rule had resulted in the provincial assemblies claiming the actual decision-making powers that they had previously been denied, including the organization and command of military forces, the collection and allocation of taxes, and the appointment of local and provincial bureaucrats. In fact, as revolutionary forces were taking over, they generally made sure to minimize administrative disruption by working together with local officials so that bureaucratic continuity was not endangered, but its control simply transferred from agents of the central government to the provincial assemblies. As Edward McCord writes,

    [T]here was no general collapse of civil administration at local or provincial levels. The cases of Hubei and Hunan in particular show how provincial revolutionary regimes often worked with local elites to minimize the disruption of local government. They also moved quickly to reorganize provincial administrations and to select civil bureaucrats to replace imperial appointees. Simply in terms of administration, the revolution caused some temporary disruption but certainly no general political vacuum… [T]he provincial governments explicitly called for the continuation of normal local administration and urged local officials who were willing to renounce their allegiance to the [Qing] dynasty to remain at their posts.

    By February 1912, the provincial assemblies had solidified their control over local government, and collectively represented a political force that could not be ignored by whoever would be in charge in Nanjing.

    The Xinhai Revolution, 1911-1912.

    The situation was a mixed blessing to Kang Youwei when he became the third President of the Republic. On the one hand, the fact that many provinces were now controlled by men either affiliated to his organization or sympathetic to its aims could be seen as a positive development. On the other, this spontaneous devolution meant that even after successfully sidelining the National Assembly, his nationwide rule was still constrained by the provincial assemblies, whose semi-autonomous status, even if largely informal, could act as a local check on the central government’s powers. Nor was post-revolutionary decentralization limited to civil administration: as will be explained below, the army was in much the same situation.

    Kang realized that he would have to curtail the powers that the provincial assemblies had granted themselves, but that was easier said than done. He had been able to replace Republican with Neo-imperial rule precisely with the proviso that the regime change would leave lower levels of governance unaffected; were he to frontally contest the legitimacy of provincial self-rule, he would almost certainly face the very rebellion he had so skillfully avoided when he had set himself up as Emperor Jianguo. As Liang had reportedly argued, paraphrasing Laozi, “China is a fragile vase; clench it too tightly, and you may break it.” He instead advised a policy of accommodation: in exchange for the formal—and constitutionally guaranteed—recognition of the decision-making powers of the provincial assemblies, the central government would retain the prerogative of appointing provincial governors of its choosing. In essence, this arrangement replicated at the provincial level the situation at the national level, in which a prime minister (theoretically) elected by the legislative assembly shares executive power with the unelected head of state. Kang and Liang’s assumption was that, over time, administrative and budgetary creep would tilt the balance of power in favor of the governor, who would become the equivalent of a departmental prefect in the French Third Republic.

    Whereas in theory, Nanjing had discretionary authority when choosing governors, in practice the choice tended to be determined by the bargaining strength of a given provincial assembly vis-à-vis the central government, which itself largely boiled down to budgetary issues: provinces in need of government help to finance local projects or to develop infrastructures—or, simply, to balance their books—were not in a position to contest a gubernatorial appointment, while those that ran surpluses or were able to operate without assistance from above got away with “suggesting” candidates that Nanjing then quietly endorsed. As a result the rule of avoidance, which until 1911 had required that governors be appointed in a different province than the one they were from in order to avoid the development of clientelist networks, was no longer consistently enforced—though it still was for public officials at the county level.

    Because the relative power of provincial assemblies ebbed and flowed, a governor was not appointed for a fixed term, but until such time as the central government decided or the provincial assembly felt confident enough to press the issue of his replacement. Some of the governors appointed in 1912 served a mere three years before being reassigned, such as Li Shengduo in Shanxi and Cheng Dequan in Sichuan. One obvious exception was Lu Rongting, governor of Guangdong and Guangxi, who had been appointed for life and ruled his provinces as a quasi-potentate, using enticements and threats in equal parts to preempt any challenge to his hegemony. In Tibet, there wasn’t even a pretense of consent: when Cen Chunxuan was sent to Lhasa as governor, he arrived in a province that the Qing dynasty, as one of its last initiatives before collapsing, had put under actual military occupation; and the new regime had no intention whatsoever of allowing it to escape Chinese suzerainty.

    General elections were scheduled for February 1913, based on the post-revolutionary expanded franchise (from 1% under the late Qing, the electoral body had been increased to about 8% of the population, which, while still restricted, compared favorably with the situation in Japan at the time). Ironically, while it was the Republicans who had insisted on elections since July of the previous year to strengthen their position against Kang by claiming democratic legitimacy, the timing played to their disadvantage, since the campaign took place as they were divided between the advocates of conciliation and the hard-liners. Unable to present a united front, they lost much of their political credibility with an electorate eager for order after the turmoil and uncertainty of revolutionary times. Although the Progressive Party was little more than the mouthpiece of Emperor Jianguo and his prime minister, it benefited from its perception as a cohesive force, its broad (if sometimes shallow) base of support among local elites, and most of all from the electorate’s sheer revolution fatigue: few people seriously wanted a third regime change coming on the heels of the previous two. And once again Liang Qichao proved to be a tireless, energetic campaigner. Although there is plentiful evidence that the ballot was tampered with by agents of the central government, that election paradoxically saw less resort to strong-arm tactics and intimidation than later ones in the following decades, since the apparatus of political control that the Qian would come to rely on wasn’t yet in place; despite numerous instances of ballot-stuffing and figure-cooking, the 1913 election was (if only by default) the most transparent one China would know for the next half-century. Here again, the exceptions were Guangdong and Guangxi, where cases of overt anti-Republican violence were reported, with opposition supporters beaten up by gangs of thugs or even by soldiers of the provincial army, and many voting precincts only carrying Progressive Party ballots. When the last votes were counted, only Fujian, Guizhou and Jiangxi had Republican parliamentary majorities.

    However, if Jianguo and Liang’s position was now stronger, their party’s electoral victory hardly implied a mandate to reverse the post-revolutionary devolution to the provincial level: however supportive of the Qian the new assemblies were, none of them cared to renounce their decision-making powers. (…)


    Jianguo and Liang were amenable to concessions with the provincial assemblies not from any sincere endorsement of political decentralization, but rather because they were not in a position to force the issue. The military option, tempting though it may have been, was not open to them, as the events of 1911 had considerably slackened the chain of command.

    One should keep in mind that the Xinhai revolution had first and foremost been a military uprising. In the last years of the Qing dynasty, the deliquescent central government no longer had the organizational or financial means to proceed with military modernization, and had instead entrusted provincial governments with setting up so-called New Armies, namely armed forces trained and equipped to Western standards. Unlike the virtually-defunct Eight Banners and Green Standard armies, these new armed forces mostly recruited literate young men drawn from the middle class, as the ability to understand complex orders and follow written instructions were prerequisites; and this very characteristic had made them susceptible to political infiltration, and eventually subversion, by revolutionary activists appealing to the recruits’ nationalism and desire for progress. Unlike the several previous attempts to overthrow Manchu rule, the Xinhai revolution was successful because it used as its primary instrument the country’s very military: in the days and weeks that followed the first uprising in Wuchang on October 10, province after province had seen its New Army join the revolutionary movement. Furthermore, in order to fight loyalist forces, these armies had swollen to considerable size by hiring as many new recruits as possible, so that, by the time the Qing were formally deposed, they counted in some cases three times as many soldiers as they had before the revolution—though the new recruits were mostly ill-trained and ill-disciplined. With, on the one hand, many provincial armies under the command of revolutionary officers, and on the other, their rapid transformation into heterogeneous, bloated masses of men of dubious allegiance, by 1912 China’s armed forces were in no condition to be used by the central government in any attempt to restore centralized rule over autonomy-minded provincial governments.

    Because the post-revolutionary state of the armed forces was as much a concern to the provinces as it was to the central government—overly large armies being both an unsustainable budgetary burden and a threat to social order—no time was lost in implementing a nationwide policy of disbandment, so that by the end of the year the provincial armies had shrunk back to their pre-revolutionary size, and had recovered an acceptable degree of internal discipline. Soldiers had been enticed to accept demobilization by being paid up to three months’ wages in one go upon quitting, and some of those that remained had been transferred into the newly-created national gendarmerie, and thus placed under the direct authority of the central government. The greatest resistance to disbandment came not from soldiers but from career-minded officers seeking to maintain their positions. The reduction of general troop strength prior to any elimination of military units was an adroit strategy to forestall such opposition: by decreasing the troop strength of each unit while temporarily preserving command structures, few officers' positions were immediately endangered. Those most suspect of pro-Republican sympathies were offered generous retirement bonuses, and the others were reassigned (with pay raise) to different units outside of their home provinces, in order to sever any parochial loyalties and make them more pliable to the central government’s authority.

    Along with disbandment, the reorganization of the New Armies was completed by terminating the policy of voluntary recruitment and instead implementing a nationwide draft. This had both a short-term advantage to the provinces and a long-term advantage to the central government: whereas veteran soldiers were paid a comparatively high salary of 10 yuan a month, draftees would be paid six yuan a month, making the maintenance of the armed forces easier on badly-strained provincial budgets. And with the draft being on a national scale, the central government could claim control over the assignment of draftees, making sure to shuffle them from province to province, thus weakening local loyalties and strengthening a sense of national belonging. The transition, overseen by Li Yuanhong, who from vice-president had become Chief of the Defense Staff, was complete by mid-1914. To his credit, although he lacked both the credentials and the support for high political office, Li proved to be a skilled organizer. He also turned out to be remarkably good at managing the large and easily ruffled egos of staff generals, most of whom were former Beiyang Army officers and clearly intended to trade their endorsement of the new regime for all manners of favors. Keeping rivalries borne of ambition from degenerating into factionalism, while simultaneously ensuring that they wouldn’t coalize into a politically autonomous junta, was a delicate balancing act in which Li, so frequently—and unfairly—dismissed as a bumbling nonentity both by his contemporaries and by posterity, gave evidence of his political acumen.

    Li Yuanhong.

    In the same spirit of incremental (some would have said creeping) military centralization, the defense ministry under Xu Shichang initiated in March 1913 a program of logistical standardization. Ever since the ad hoc creation of provincial militias by reform-minded officials during the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century, the procurement of weapons and equipment by Chinese armed forces had been a decentralized one, with little concern for operational compatibility at the national level. The decision was thus taken to adopt a national standard, based on the weapons already under production in China’s main modern arsenals, chiefly those of Jiangnan, Jinling and Hanyang. The standard rifle was henceforth the Hanyang 88 (license-made version of the Gewehr 88) and the standard military sidearm the Maosi (license-made version of the Mauser M1896). It logically followed that the two standard rounds for light weapons became the 7.92 mm Mauser on the one hand, and the 9 mm Parabellum on the other. Actual implementation, however, took several years, as some of the provincial armies, out of passive noncompliance or sheer bureaucratic inertia, continued for a while to use nonstandard weapons: for example Lu Rongting had in late 1912 ordered on his own authority a large shipment of US-made Winchester M1895 rifles, which would be in use by his army until the late 1920s (and were still occasionally seen in Chinese soldiers’ hands in the early years of the Second Sino-Japanese War), while the provincial armies of Tannu-Tuva and Heilongjiang were initially issued the Russian-made Mosin-Nagant M1891 rifles, and fair numbers of French-made Lebel Mle 1886M93 rifles found their way into the inventories of Yunnan’s provincial army.


    The Years of Salt and Rice​

    “The profits derived from the salt and iron monopolies serve to relieve the needs of the people in emergencies and to provide sufficient funds for the upkeep of military forces. These measures
    emphasize conservation and storing up in order to provide for times of scarcity and want. The beneficiaries are many; the State profits thereby and no harm is caused to the masses.”
    – Huan Kuan, Discourse on Salt and Iron, 81 BCE

    “You must know that a great quantity of salt is produced here… and I assure you that it is exported in many countries round about and is a great source of wealth to the inhabitants and of revenue to the Great Khan.”
    – Marco Polo

    From “Salt, Silver and Land: Tax Reform in early Qian China” by Park Sunghee, Journal of East Asian Studies, Sept-Dec 2003:

    Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei were aware, upon assuming power, that the financial situation of the Chinese government was dire indeed: both of them had wasted no opportunity in the previous 14 years to rail against budgetary mismanagement in general, and the tendency of the late Qing to pile on foreign debt to cover up budget shortfalls. The situation was, if anything, even more serious than they had expected.

    The Xinhai revolution had not taken place in a vacuum: the rest of the world, and in particular the imperialist powers with economic and strategic interests in China, were very much involved. They had allowed the overthrow of the Qing to proceed only after being given reassurance, among other things, that the new regime, whichever form it took, would assume the debts of the previous one. First the Interregnum Republic under Yuan Shikai, and then the Qian dynasty under Jianguo, had thus from their inception been saddled with the Qing’s potentially crushing debt. China had first contracted a foreign loan in 1865 in order to pay an indemnity to Russia, but its chronic reliance on borrowing had started in earnest in 1894 to finance defense spending for the forthcoming war against Japan. After 1895, the entirety of the proceeds from China’s customs services, which had been under de facto foreign control since 1854, were earmarked for the repayment of said loans. On top of that came the payment of war reparations to Japan (230 million silver taels) and indemnities to the Eight Allied Powers following their intervention against the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 (450 million silver taels, a tremendous sum to be paid over 39 years at 4% interest). Compounding the severity of these debts, even before 1911 the central government’s tax collection apparatus had become inefficient, and with the provincial governments claiming autonomy in the course of the revolution, by 1912 very little tax money found its way to the capital any more. China stood on the verge of a spiral of ever-growing spiral of indebtedness, in which it would have to borrow money in order to repay previous loans.

    On February 23, 1912, the very day before he died, president Yuan Shikai had requested a loan of seven million taels from the Four-Power Consortium in order to get the Nanjing provisional government to disband troops and to liquidate outstanding liabilities. Because of Yuan’s death, the Consortium only advanced 2 million taels on March 1st, and made it known through Tang Shaoyi, who had been Yuan’s provisional prime minister, that disbursement of the remaining amount would be conditional on a guarantee from the Chinese government that the Consortium would get preferential rights for further loans to China. This put the incoming Kang and Liang in a quandary: on the one hand, they were deeply wary of increasing yet further China’s debt to foreign lenders, who were liable to use it as a pretext to encroach some more on Chinese sovereignty; but on the other, they had no other credible option to put desperately-needed money in state coffers. Liang concluded that the money would have to be accepted to avoid complete government bankruptcy, but realized that, the decision being a politically controversial one, a backlash might result if they took it on their own—still rather uncertain—authority. So he submitted the issue to the provisional National Assembly, after arranging a meeting with Lin Sen, whom had just become finance minister, and Sun Yixian and Huang Xing, to share with them his assessment of the desperate straits of government finances. What he did not disclose, however, was that he had been privately approached by the Anglo-Belgian Syndicate (an alliance of the Eastern Bank and the Banque Belge), which had offered to make the Chinese government a secret loan if the Consortium’s offer was turned down [1]. Whether he would have taken up the Syndicate’s offer had the National Assembly voted against accepting the Consortium’s conditions remains a moot point, however, since, as he had expected, Lin, Sun and Huang convinced the Republican delegates to vote along with the Constitutionalists in favor of the loan. The National Assembly having given agreement, Liang had the legitimacy to work out the details with the Consortium. The customs revenue, completely hypothecated for the service of previous loans and the Boxer indemnity, for an undetermined time could only be a secondary guarantee; Liang therefore decided to pledge the proceeds of the salt revenue. As a central condition for floating the loan, the consortium insisted upon a measure of control over the Salt Administration, not merely advice and audit [2]. This was a stringent condition, which almost led Liang to break off negotiations despite the possible consequences. But after conferring with Kang, he understood how that particular requirement, while it outwardly constrained the central government, actually had the potential to strengthen its hand vis-à-vis the provincial governments.

    Accordingly, Article 5 of the agreement provided for the establishment, under the Ministry of Finance, of a Central Salt Administration to comprise a “Chief Inspectorate of Salt Revenue under a Chinese Chief Inspector and a foreign Associate Chief Inspector”. In each salt-producing district there was to be a branch office “under one Chinese and one foreign District Inspector who shall be jointly responsible for the collection and the deposit of the salt revenues”. According to John King Fairbank and Denis Crispin Twitchett,

    Patriotic sentiment was correct in seeing the insertion of an explicit foreign interest into the administration of China’s salt revenues as a derogation of sovereignty, and the juxtaposition of Chinese and foreign district inspectors in the provinces looked very much like the customs arrangement in which foreign commissioners and Chinese superintendents nominally shared power at the treaty ports. Perhaps, too, because the Salt Administration was a more intimate part of the Chinese polity, one with delicate internal balances and long-standing interests, any foreign role at all was especially galling. The Salt Inspectorate, however, unlike the customs organization, which was a new creation expanding in tandem with the growth of foreign trade, represented at first only the interpolation of a new echelon of administration into a perennial Chinese fiscal complex comprising the manufacture, transportation, taxation and sale of salt. Superimposed upon these traditional arrangements to ensure that the revenues collected were in fact made available to the central government for the service of the loan, the inspectorate did over time acquire substantial de facto control over salt manufacture and marketing. But this control was not linked to any continuing and especially foreign interest comparable to the growth and protection of international commerce—apart from meeting the instalments of principal and interest set forth in the amortization table of the loan. The benefits, such as they were, accrued mainly to the Nanjing government.*[3]

    What Liang had done, in essence, was to outsource to foreign agents the task of collecting the revenues of a tax that the central government would, given its weakness in relation to the provincial governments, have otherwise been unable to get hold of at all. He had played two potential foes of his, foreign imperialist interests and uncooperative provincial governments, against one another, and revitalized the fiscal solvency of the central government in the process. Even though a share of the salt tax revenue went to the reimbursement of the loan, the remainder provided state coffers with a welcome injection of hard cash. In fact, the reorganization of the salt tax collection system was a boon to all concerned: in just four years, the annual yield of the tax increased more than fourfold, from $17 million to $71 million [4]. This newfound financial clout gave Jianguo and Liang the breathing space they needed to proceed with their plans.

    Most of the loan had gone into clearing China’s outstanding liabilities to foreign lenders, but with the remainder, and especially with steady revenue accruing from the share of the salt tax not going into repayment, the central government was now in a much better bargaining position with the provincial ones. The provincial assemblies, it must be kept in mind, were largely controlled by reform-minded men who, although reluctant to surrender their new decision-making powers to Nanjing, shared Jianguo’s agenda of modernization. Their priorities were the construction of communication and transportation infrastructures, the development of modern industries, the spread of education, and other policies that were in tune with Nanjing’s. But in order to implement them, they needed capital, and even by retaining at their level the bulk of tax revenue instead of forwarding it to the central government, their financial capabilities were often too limited. Starting in October 1912, when the loan came through and the first effects of the new jointly-operated Salt Administration were felt, the central government was therefore able to come forward and offer to complement provincial budgets with loans of its own—which were offered with strings attached. As collateral, just as Nanjing had had to accept a degree of foreign control over the salt tax collection apparatus, it required from the provinces in need of capital that land tax collection be jointly administered between the provincial and central governments. The reasoning was that the Chinese economy, despite the embryonic industrialization undertaken since the 1860s, was still overwhelmingly agrarian; and even if agriculture generated little surplus, it was nonetheless, in aggregate terms, the main economic activity in China. To fail to adequately extract revenue from it would keep government finances dependent on comparatively marginal fiscal revenue, such as the lijin, a tax of commercial transactions introduced as a temporary emergency measure in 1853, which had since then become permanent (it would only be abolished in 1922 [5]).

    In every case, the agreement explicitly spelled out that the joint administration of land tax collection would still operate to the benefit of the provincial budget, since the amount of tax revenue remaining at the provincial level would remain unchanged from that of the previous fiscal year, or the average revenue for the five previous years, whichever was higher. The deal was ostensibly offered as an initiative to increase efficiency, which indeed it was; the immediate gain for the central government was that it would, from now on, receive the share of the tax that had up to then ended up embezzled by corrupt local officials taking advantage of lax oversight, or not been duly collected in the first place due to collusion between collectors and local landlords. To that gain was added a more long-term benefit, that of an extension of the central government’s fiscal authority into a tax collection apparatus it previously had no direct control over. A National Revenue Board was created to oversee the process. As Liang put it, “The reach of the bureaucracy determines the strength of the State. The authority of our government only extends as far as an official is in place who can say, ‘This is the will of the Emperor’, and expect to be obeyed.” Within a year, eleven provinces had contracted a loan from Nanjing on these terms; and within two years, all but five of them had done so.

    While this centralization of land tax collection was achieved through the back door, the idea itself was hardly a new one and had been championed as early as 1903 by no less a figure than Robert Hart, inspector-general of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service from 1863 to 1907 and one of the most influential Westerners in China:

    Among the several reforms urged by Hart after the Boxer Rebellion was the imposition of a nationwide land tax. In his letter of January 26, 1903, he reported that he had advised the Zungli Yamen [Chinese foreign office] “to rearrange the land tax. If China would follow this advice, all would be well.” After outlining the basis for this proposed tax, he stated that China could expect to collect an annual minimum of Tls. [taels] 360,000,000. “China would from that one source receive more than three times her present revenue and could forgo salt gabelle, Customs, and Likin, pay off indemnities and debts, salary officials, keep up respectable field force and navy, and have a balance to the good each year (letter 1263).”

    A year later he told [James D.] Campbell that his land tax proposals “are now in the hands of Viceroys and Governors”.**

    Despite his extensive experience with Chinese fiscal matters, Hart was overly optimistic in his estimate. The actual yield of the tax in 1913 was 180 million taels [6]. Nonetheless, it was, along with the salt tax, another steady source of fiscal revenue that Nanjing could henceforth count on: between 1913 and 1931, as agricultural prices, land value and farm wages rose, revenue from the land tax increased by 67% [7].

    In 1918, the young US-educated economist Huang Hanliang, who would later become director of the National Revenue Board, made in his book The Land Tax in China an assessment of the reformed system after five years of operation:

    One of the most obvious improvements introduced by the Republic was that which consolidated into one single payment all the various levies which had been added to the original tax in the course of the last dynasty. In the analysis of the nature of the tax it was shown that during the Tsing [Qing] dynasty the tax was assessed almost invariably in two parts, one in silver and the other in produce which may be of more than one kind, and that in the course of time various levies under all sorts of ingenious names were added to the original assessments… These various levies have been consolidated into one single payment in most of the provinces, and converted into dollars or copper cents which are the common daily currency of the people at rates established by the government. The taxpayers were thus saved much of the uncertainty and many of the vexatious exactions of the collectors of the old regime…

    In 1915, provisions were made allowing ten per cent of the total receipts to the provincial and local authorities as the expenses of collection. In the following year on account of the financial stringencies of the government this allowance was withdrawn, but the local authorities were, then, allowed to add ten per cent to the tax rate to cover the expenses of collection…

    A third important and interesting feature of tax reform introduced by the Tsien [Qian] was the confirmation of the title-deeds to land. During the Tsing [Qing] dynasty, as has been mentioned, every transfer of landed property by absoluteor irrevocable sale x was subject to a tax of three per cent of the face value of the sale. This rate, however, was only the nominal legal rate. In practice by virtue of the various extra charges it amounted in some cases to several times the legal rate. The result was that the tax was invariably evaded, either in whole or in part. In the third year of Hsuan-Tung [Xuantong, Puyi’s dynastic name] (1909) a new law was passed providing that the tax of registration of transfer of land was to be nine per cent on irrevocable sale and six per cent on mortgages or revocable sale of more than ten years duration. Outside of these rates the officials were prohibited from collecting any extra charges. But these rates were also prohibitory ; and evasion, either total or partial, continued to exist. After 1913 these rates were lowered from nine per cent on sale to four per cent and from six per cent on mortgages to two per cent…

    A fourth and more fundamental attempt at the reform of the land tax introduced by the Tsien dynasty was the creation of the Bureau of Land Measurement in 19 14. The purpose of the Bureau was to make a cadastral survey of the country. [8]

    As a result partly of the 1912 “Reorganization Loan”, but especially the reform of the salt and land taxes, by 1914 China was already on a much firmer financial ground than it had been for decades. But its fortunes would improve further in the following years thanks to two windfalls, the smaller one half-expected and the larger one quite serendipitous…

    * The Cambridge History of China (Volume 12)
    ** The I. G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907

    [1] This is OTL.
    [2] This too.
    [3] OTL quote.
    [4] OTL figures.
    [5] 1931 in OTL.
    [6] This is a lower figure than the most conservative estimates in OTL, and it’s still a lot of money.
    [7] OTL figure.
    [8] OTL quote, except for one or two words.


    Two Streams flowing down

    A large state is the lower reaches of a river:
    The place where all the streams of the world flow down to…
    Hence the large state, by taking the lower position, annexes the small state;
    The small state, by taking the lower position, affiliates itself to the large state.
    Thus the one, by taking the lower position, annexes;
    The other, by taking the lower position, is annexed.
    Daodejing , Ch. 61

    From Marches of Empire: Center and Periphery in Twentieth Century China by Gaurav D. Patel, 2001

    Even as they were consolidating their hold on the center, Liang and Kang were aware that they had to make sure that the periphery would not break away. The most pressing concerns were the centrifugal forces at work in Tibet on the one hand, and in Mongolia on the other. In both cases trouble came from the existence of pro-independence movements emboldened by the presence, over the border, of a potentially sympathetic foreign power—respectively Britain and Russia.

    In Tibet, the Interregnum Republic had inherited from the Qing dynasty a complex situation. While Tibet’s vassalization by China dated back from the Yuan dynasty, Chinese overlordship had not been uniformly enforced throughout the centuries, depending on the priorities and the sheer strength of the dynasty in charge. The Qing had first installed an amban (imperial resident) in Lhasa in 1727, but his authority was more symbolic than real; in 1751, the Qing, while retaining the position of amban, had formally entrusted temporal as well as spiritual rule over Tibet to the Dalai-Lama. From the 1860s, Britain began taking an interest in Tibet as part of its “Great Game” against Russia for geopolitical hegemony in Central Asia. As of the time of the Xinhai Revolution, the basis for British policy in the Himalayan region was the Convention signed in 1906 between Sir Ernest Satow and Tang Shaoyi, by which Britain recognized China’s suzerainty over Tibet:

    The Government of Great Britain engages not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Government of China also undertakes not to permit any other foreign State to interfere with the territory or internal administration of Tibet.

    The priority for Britain when signing this Convention was obviously to preempt any Russian expansion into Tibet, there being no other “foreign state” susceptible of interfering with “the territory or internal administration of Tibet”. The principle of Chinese suzerainty was reiterated by the 1907 Convention between Britain and Russia:

    In conformity with the admitted principle of the suzerainty of China over Thibet, Great Britain and Russia engage not to enter into negotiations with Thibet except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government.

    Endorsing China’s claim was thus seen as the easiest way to keep Russia out of Tibet, but the tacit assumption of British delegates was that China was, in any case, too weak by that point to prevent Tibet’s de facto evolution towards internal self-rule. In this they were mistaken: in 1908, Zhao Erfeng, formerly the acting viceroy of Sichuan, was appointed amban in Lhasa and proceeded to launch a brutal campaign of repression against Tibetans in Kangba (then known to Westerners as Kham), the multiethnic buffer region between Sichuan and Tibet proper. This campaign amounted to ethnic cleansing in all but name, and it soon became obvious that the Qing intended to turn Kangba, until then unofficially considered part of Tibet, into a full-fledged Chinese province—something that was nominally achieved by the Interregnum Republic when the new province of Xikang was created. Acts of violence against civilians and monks prompted Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai-Lama, to issue a protest, but Zhao’s response was to deploy troops throughout Tibet itself in February 1910; the small, ill-trained and ill-equipped Tibetan army was easily routed by Zhao’s modern forces, and a mere year and a half before the collapse of the Qing dynasty, China had reasserted direct control over Tibet. The Dalai-Lama escaped to Darjeeling via Sikkim with a small escort. As for Zhao, his attempt to quell the military uprisings that became the Xinhai Revolution resulted in his being executed by mutineers in December 1911.

    The 13th Dalai-Lama.

    The situation in Mongolia was even more volatile, largely as a consequence of a change in Chinese policy during the last years of Qing rule, itself a reaction to growing Russian encroachment in the region. Indeed, until the turn of the 20th century, the Qing dynasty had allowed Mongols a significant degree of self-rule. The Manchus had initially taken control of Inner Mongolia in 1636, prior to their conquest of Beijing in 1644. Between 1655 and 1691, they gradually absorbed Outer Mongolia, and in the 1750s, they conquered the Oirats, the Western Mongols of Dzhungaria. China treated North Mongolia as a militarized buffer area largely cut off from Han colonization. Outer Mongolia’s geographical isolation north of the Gobi desert gave it a certain amount of administrative autonomy, while Inner Mongolia, located on the southern side of the desert, became closely tied to the Qing administrative system. However, China’s traditional laissez-faire attitude toward Mongol internal administration had changed in 1902, when, in reaction to growing Russian interest in Mongolia following the completion of the Transsiberian railway, the Chinese government adopted a twofold policy of centralizing the Mongol administration under that of China proper, while at the same time encouraging the Han colonization of Mongol lands. In 1911, on the eve of the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese government had decided that Inner and Outer Mongolia should be formally incorporated into China. These policies were resented by the Mongols as a threat to their traditional way of life, and this concern was compounded by the rapid rise in the years after 1902 of recently-arrived Han Chinese merchants, traders and businessmen who had taken advantage of the economic opportunities offered by the opening of Mongolia to Han settlement:

    Mongol prohibitions prevented the rise of a native trading class, so most trade between Mongols ended up in the hands of Han middlemen. The Han merchants took advantage of the seasonal nature of Mongol produce to buy Mongol animal products at low prices, while selling Chinese merchandise on credit throughout the year. This soon led to the accumulation of enormous debts, thus impoverishing Mongols, who had little choice but to take on more debt.

    By 1911 the total debt in Outer Mongolia to Han traders amounted to 15 million taels or about 500 taels per household. The growing Mongol indebtedness to Han moneylenders fed ethnic tensions and hostility to Qing rule.*

    In July 1911, a group of Mongol noblemen and members of the Buddhist clergy had convened a secret meeting, and after consulting the Russian consul in the city of Ikh Khüree, had sent a delegation to Saint-Petersburg pleading for Russian assistance in restoring internal self-rule in Outer Mongolia. While some factions in the Russian government saw it as an opening for making Mongolia a Russian-aligned independent country, the prevailing view was one of moderation:

    The Russian government supported the Mongols in their 1911 independence movement to the extent of autonomy but not total independence, and only for Northern and not Southern Mongolia. The Japanese were reasonably satisfied with the occupation of Korea and the concessions they had obtained in Manchuria after their defeat of the Russians in the war of 1904-05.**

    The Russian government thus intervened as mediator between the Mongols and the Qing, but as the negotiations were underway in October 1911, the Wuchang Uprising broke out and, within weeks, the dynasty was collapsing. The sudden power vacuum made not just internal autonomy but outright independence a tantalizing possibility: in November, Qing officials in Urga were driven out; on December 1, the nobles and priests of Khalkha Mongolia declared their independence; and on December 29, the Jebtsundamba Khutagtu was declared Bogd Khan. Soon the control of the Khan’s government had spread from Khalkha Mongolia throughout the entirety of Outer Mongolia. Through early 1912 the Russian government continued to offer its services as mediator, but it was increasingly obvious to all concerned that it was tempted to recognize the secessionist Mongol government and would do so unless the Chinese government regained the initiative.

    A third territory that China looked set to lose to centrifugal forces as the Xinhai Revolution broke out was Tannu Tuva, then known as Tannu Uriankhai, an outlying region of Outer Mongolia proper. Formally included in the Chinese Empire by the Treaties of Kiakhta and Bura in 1727, it had been acknowledged as such by a 1869 border protocol with Russia. But in 1910 the border markers were unilaterally removed by Russia, a clear harbinger of annexationist ambitions. Russia coveted Tannu Tuva for several reasons: a growing plurality of Russian settlers; the presence of interesting natural resources, especially gold; and its location on a strategic plateau where the two sources of the Yenisei River originated, important for the defense of Siberia.

    Bogd Khan.

    In March 1912 the situation in both Tibet and Mongolia was thus very much in flux. Realizing that swift action was required, Liang set up the Bureau for Tibetan and Mongolian Affairs under his direct authority as prime minister, removing the question from the home ministry’s jurisdiction, much to the quiet relief of Huang Xing, who justifiably feared that the thorny issue would otherwise consume most of his attention. It is worth emphasizing that, whatever disagreements Republicans and Constitutionalists had in other regards, when it came to the preservation of central rule over China’s peripheral regions, they had exactly the same position, which explains why neither Huang nor any other Republican leader objected to Liang making Tibetan and Mongolian affairs the prime minister’s prerogative. The Bureau was the successor of the recently-disbanded Qing-era Board of National Minority Affairs, and Goingsang Norbu, a pro-Chinese native Tibetan official, was appointed as its director.

    Tang Shaoyi, Liang’s incoming foreign affairs minister, who as the negotiator of the aforementioned 1906 Sino-British Convention had retained an interest in the Tibetan issue, urged him to act rapidly lest pro-independence elements gained the upper hand in Lhasa, as they already had in Urga. Liang agreed and decided to resolve the Tibetan and Mongolian issues by linking them together. Aware of British concerns over Russian expansion in Central Asia, he approached the Australian reporter George Ernest Morrison, who had in the previous years become increasingly outspoken in his defense of Chinese interests, and was famous on the Chinese political scene as an extremely well-connected figure. Through Morrison’s mediation a draft agreement was elaborated between the Chinese government and the British Foreign Office: Britain would acknowledge China’s suzerainty over Tibet on the condition that China did not “interfere in the internal administration of Tibet or station an unlimited number of troops in Lhasa or other parts of Tibet” [1], and extended the same recognition to Mongolia (as well as Tannu Tuva) with similar conditions. At the initiative of British minister plenipotentiary in China Sir John Jordan, who rightly saw that China was in a weak negotiating position, the agreement required that Chinese renounce any claims of suzerainty over Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim (which the Qing dynasty had long claimed as vassals); that the Chinese side of the Sino-Indian border be demilitarized, with only a civilian constabulary force allowed for customs control; and that Chinese officials who had, at the time of the Younghusband intervention in Tibet, “mistreated” British officers, be demoted and sanctioned (these being Zhang Yingtang and Liang Yu). Morrison expressed reservations about the harshness of the terms, considering that the agreement would be as much in Britain’s own interest as it was in China’s, but Jordan’s calculations proved correct, and the Chinese government, in the person of its chief negotiator Wen Congyao, acquiesced to all conditions. The agreement was formalized on June 5 as the Sino-British Convention on the status of Tibet and Mongolia.

    Liang wasted no time in publicizing the document in order to display his acceptance of Tibetan and Mongolian internal autonomy, thus making it possible to mend fences with the Dalai-Lama, while emissaries were sent to Urga to negotiate a repeal of the secession. Kang appointed the experienced Cen Chunxuan as the new imperial resident for Tibet; Cen picked up a contingent of reliable troops in Sichuan (where he had previously served two terms as governor) on the way, and upon arriving in Lhasa oversaw the evacuation of the Chinese troops already present, imposing strict discipline on his soldiers to avoid a repeat of the depredations committed by Zhao’s army; the reinstated Dalai-Lama returned to Lhasa, and as per the agreement, Lieutenant-Colonel William Frederick O’Connor, who had been part of the Younghusband intervention, was sent to the Tibetan capital as a British observer. In Mongolia, as a further show of good faith, Liang’s envoys offered that the government assume the entirety of the debts contracted by Mongolian noblemen and commoners alike to Han Chinese traders, a shrewd move that deflated much of the pro-independence movement’s base of support, and, to Bogd Khan, offered to give him the same status in Outer Mongolia that the Dalai-Lama had in Tibet, that of spiritual ruler with full authority in religious matters, and temporal ruler acting under the suzerainty of the Chinese government, represented by a high commissioner (a title conspicuously chosen to avoid any mention of governorship), which was to be Zhu Jiabao. The Khan added a condition of his own: that any further Han settlement be subjected to his approval. The envoys accepted, although they obtained that settlers already present as of August 1911 be allowed to stay. The resolution of Mongolia’s bid for independence also resulted in Tannu Tuva agreeing to returning into the Chinese fold on the same terms. With China’s suzerainty over both territories explicitly endorsed by Britain, Russia decided that the wisest course of action consisted in officially calling its mediation between China and Mongolia unneeded, and quietly dropping its policy of satellization of Tannu Tuva, which it had never acknowledged in the first place.

    In the aftermath of Mongolia’s attempted secession, Inner Mongolia was abolished as a discrete territory and divided into the newly-created provinces of Rehe, Chahar and Suiyuan, with the remainder absorbed by Ningxia, completing the process of administrative normalization of the region begun under the late Qing. In order to tie Outer Mongolia more tightly to the rest of the country, and if need be facilitate military deployment, the Chinese government hired Zhan Tianyou a.k.a. Jeme Tien Yow, China’s most famous railway engineer, to build a railroad to Urga. A preliminary survey was conducted in early 1913, with construction beginning in October 1914. The railroad prolonged the Beijing-Baotou line to Wuyuan in Suiyuan, and from there went due north to Mandalgovi and Urga, which already had a rail link to the Siberian city of Verkhneudinsk (now Deede-Ude); it was completed by the end of 1916. A similar rail link to Lhasa was considered as well, but the project was shelved due to its unaffordable cost and its daunting technical challenges; Tibet would not be linked by rail to the rest of China until the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

    * Stephen Kotkin and Bruce A. Elleman, Mongolia in the Twentieth Century: Landlocked Cosmopolitan.
    ** Ibid.

    [1] This is the same offer that was made by Britain to China in OTL.


    A Canny Scot​

    From Gloved China Hands: Westerners in the Chinese Corridors of Power, 1845-1945, by Rogeria Quartim de Moraes, 2006

    If the nascent Qian dynasty benefited from a sizeable capital of goodwill on the international stage, it owed it in large part to one man in particular, the “Canny Scot” Dr. George Ernest “Chinese” Morrison. By far the most famous Western correspondent in China at the time, and certainly one of the most famous reporters worldwide, Morrison’s role in that politically volatile period cannot be overstated. Even though his role in China’s decision to align with Entente powers turns out to have been less decisive than was then widely believed, he was instrumental in tilting international opinion in favor of Emperor Jianguo’s rule against Sun Yixian’s Republican opposition, putting his impeccable credentials and his opinion-shaping skills to the service of the new regime’s public-relations campaign. Conveniently, the idea of a Western advisor for a latter-day Chinese emperor fed into the then-widespread pop-cultural cliché of the White Man using his inherent superiority to guide well-meaning but benighted nonwhite rulers down the path to modernity, and the Chinese government cleverly used the trope to its advantage, playing up Morrison’s influence on Jianguo even in decision-making areas where, in fact, he provided but little input. Whether a good sport or, as the more radical members of China’s Republican faction accused him to be, a useful idiot, Morrison duly went along with the ploy.


    So who was Morrison? To his newspaper-reading contemporaries the question would scarcely have needed an answer, as Morrison was already, in 1912, a well-known figure indeed on the international stage. Born in 1862 in Geelong, Victoria, Australia, George Ernest Morrison grew up to be a man of adventure: before beginning his superior studies at the University of Melbourne, he walked from Geelong to Adelaide, a trek of more than 950 km through largely unsettled country. Then, having completed his first year, he took a sabbatical to ride a canoe from Albury, New South Wales, all the way down the Murray River to the ocean—a trip of 2,640 km covered in 65 days. After failing his examinations, he shipped on a vessel trading the South Sea islands, and discovered his calling as a travel reporter when he started writing articles on human trafficking in the region, which earned him his first measure of fame at the ripe old age of 20 when they were published in the Melbourne daily The Age and contributed to banning the practice. Visiting New Guinea next, he had his first taste of China when he sailed on a Chinese junk on the way back; landing at Normanton, Queensland, he covered the 3,270-km journey to Melbourne entirely by foot. With sponsorship from The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, he led an exploratory party into New Guinea; an expedition he returned from with a spearhead stuck in his body. He was sent to Edinburgh to have it removed—the delicate operation being beyond the skill of any surgeon in Australia—and there completed his medical studies. After graduating M.B., Ch.M. in August 1887, Morrison travelled to North America and the West Indies. From May 1888 he worked in Spain for eighteen months as medical officer at a British-owned mine and then resumed his globe-trotting, returning to Australia at the end of 1890. The following April he was appointed resident surgeon at the Ballarat base hospital, but he quit after two years as his wanderlust once again got the better of him. He travelled through the Philippines then up the coast of China, dressed in Chinese clothing (complete with fake pigtail).

    In February 1894, he endeavored to travel from Shanghai to Rangoon, a 4,828-km journey he completed in three months; this formed the basis of his book An Australian in China: Being the Narrative of a Quiet Journey Across China to Burma, which was published to critical acclaim in Britain the following year. In the course of his trip Morrison became increasingly fond of Chinese culture and shed the remaining racial prejudice that, by his own admission, he had grown up with in Australia (although he retained a casual anti-Semitism that surfaces time and again in his private correspondence). He was however scathing in his criticism of the missionaries he encountered on the way, and commented with biting sarcasm on the wide chasm between their ambitions and the disappointing results of their evangelizing work:

    In Suifu there is a branch of the China Inland Mission under an enthusiastic young missionary, who was formerly a French polisher in Hereford. He is helped by an amiable wife and by a charming English girl scarcely out of her teens. The missionary's work has he tells me, been "abundantly blessed,"—he has baptised six converts in the last three years. A fine type of man is this missionary, brave and self-reliant, sympathetic and self-denying, hopeful and self-satisfied. His views as a missionary are well-defined. I give them in his own words :— "Those Chinese who have never heard the Gospel will be judged by the Almighty as He thinks fit"— a contention which does not admit of dispute— "but those Chinese who have heard the Christian doctrine, and still steel their hearts against the Holy Ghost, will assuredly go to hell; there is no help for them, they can believe and they won't; had they believed, their reward would be eternal; they refuse to believe and their punishment will be eternal." But the destruction that awaits the Chinese must be pointed out to them with becoming gentleness, in accordance with the teaching of the Rev. S. F. Woodin, of the American Baptist Mission, Foochow, who says :— "There are occasions when we must speak that awful word ' hell,' but this should always be done in a spirit of earnest love." (Records of the Shanghai Missionary Conference, 1877, p. 91.) It was a curious study to observe the equanimity with which this good-natured man contemplates the work he has done in China, when to obtain six dubious conversions he has on his own confession sent some thousands of unoffending Chinese en enfer bouillir éternellement.

    Capitalizing on his rising profile, in 1897 he became the permanent correspondent for The Times in East Asia, and soon became known to the Western public as “Chinese Morrison”, a recognized authority on Chinese politics and diplomacy. As his entry by J. S. Gregory in the Australian Dictionary of Biography states,

    Morrison was fortunate to arrive in Peking at a time when mounting tensions ensured the noteworthiness of his dispatches. As a representative of The Times he also enjoyed unusual authority and entrée. Nevertheless, his resourcefulness and the high level of detail and accuracy of his reports denote not just a lucky but a great newspaper correspondent.

    His first major scoop came in 1898 when he reported a Russian ultimatum to China demanding a lease on Port Arthur; at first little regarded by the British government, the report was soon shown to be wholly accurate. In 1900 Morrison wrote the last terse and reliable reports before the Boxer siege of the foreign legations and the first full account after it…

    [He] accompanied the Japanese forces on their triumphal entry into Port Arthur in January 1905. A few months later he was sent to report on the peace conference presided over by President Roosevelt at Portsmouth, United States of America… [T]he chief Russian negotiator, Count de Witte, sought him out for a lengthy discussion. Returning to China via England and Europe, Morrison exercised some influence on the choice of a new British minister to Beijing and in the development of British policy ending the opium trade from India. He had reached the apogee of his political and diplomatic influence…

    He was present in 1911… to report, once again more sharply and accurately than other correspondents, on the revolutionary events culminating in the end of Manchu rule.

    In March 1912, Morrison was approached by the Anglo-Belgian Syndicate to privately relay to incoming Prime Minister Liang Qichao an offer for a secret loan, should the negotiations with the Four-Power Consortium for the so-called Reorganization Loan fall through. Although the offer wasn’t taken up, Liang remained in touch with Morrison, and a few weeks later called on him to help broker an agreement between his government and the British Foreign Office about the status of Tibet and Mongolia. Morrison, who was firmly committed to the preservation of Chinese territorial integrity, did his utmost to ensure a mutually satisfactory outcome to the negotiations. The British agreed to recognize Chinese suzerainty over both territories, although not without exacting stringent concessions from China which he did his best to mitigate. After the agreement went into force on June 5, a grateful Liang recommended him to then-President Kang as a private advisor.

    This decision was not inspired by gratitude alone. In the months since the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, Morrison had overtly taken position for the imposition in China of a strong, centralized and if need be dictatorial government, which he considered indispensable for the modernization of the country; and like American legal expert Frank Johnson Goodnow, who had just arrived to assist in the drafting of the new constitution, he was firmly convinced that a monarchical regime was much better suited to China than a republican one. He therefore readily endorsed Kang’s project of neo-imperial restoration, and was instrumental in bringing international opinion in favor of the scheme. Morrison’s international reputation is best summarized in this article by James McPherson in the New York Times (June 11, 1912):


    It must be emphasized that Morrison never saw his loyalties as going to the Qian dynasty alone: he was firmly convinced all along that, in helping China restore its power, he was also serving the interests of the British Crown. As he told Charles William Campbell (a former official at the British consulate in Beijing) in a letter:

    My chief difficulty is the hostility of Sir John Jordan who seems to regard me as a Chinese… To suggest, however, that my actions impair British interests as shown by certain scurrilous attacks in the Peking Daily News seems to me quite cruelly unjust… I am convinced that I do what is right for British interests.*

    Because Morrison never learned to speak more than a smattering of Chinese, his conversations with Jianguo required an interpret; and in order to guarantee their confidentiality, the job was entrusted to 19-year-old He Zhanli, Jianguo’s third wife (out of six), who was born and had grown up in the US. About their first meeting, Morrison wrote to William Henry Donald (editor at the Far Eastern Review):

    I came perilously close to making an embarrassing faux pas… Before being ushered in Kang’s private study, I had been told that his second daughter and his third wife would be in attendance. When I entered the room, I indeed saw him in the company of two ladies, one a self-possessed adult woman and the other a demure girl obviously still in her teens. I almost greeted the former one as Kang Tai-tai when a detail caught my eye and saved me from the blunder: she was wearing on her finger the Barnard College signet ring—which allowed me to identify her not as Kang’s wife, but as his daughter Tung-pih, an alumnus of said institution. His wife was the young girl, who coyly introduced herself as Chan-li…**

    When, in 1913, China signed the treaties that formalized its rapprochement with Britain on the one hand and France on the other, ensuring that in case of war China would join the Entente, most of the credit went to Morrison—a perception that Chinese diplomacy did its best to foster. In fact China’s decision was determined by inescapable geopolitical factors that were beyond any one man to influence: it was surrounded on every side with Entente powers or their colonies—British India to its southwest, French Indochina to its south, Japan to its east and Russia to its north. The presence of German leased territories on its coast—Jiaozhou especially—virtually ensured that even if its chose a path of neutrality, some of the fighting would necessarily take place within its borders, reiterating the humiliating situation of 1904-1905. At the time China had helplessly seen the Russo-Japanese War spill over into its Manchurian provinces, and the same could be expected to happen in Shandong were war to break out between the Central Powers and the Entente: Qingdao would simply be too tempting a target for the Japanese. As for siding with Germany, there would be little to gain in a best-case scenario, and almost certainly plenty to lose in all other outcomes, since that would give Japan, Britain’s ally, a perfect pretext for expanding its sphere of influence at the expense of Chinese territorial integrity; the option was quickly discarded. The logical solution was to enter into actual alliance with Britain and France, so that when the fight did come to Chinese shores, it would at least be on Chinese terms—and any gains would be China’s rather than a foreign power’s. Morrison’s presence had little to do with such a calculation, no matter how convenient he was as the treaties’ ostensible architect. He did however plain an undeniably crucial role, after the beginning of the war, in the creation of the Chinese Auxiliary Corps. (…)

    Morrison would remain in Jianguo’s service until 1919, when he resigned for health reasons and moved to Britain.

    * The Correspondence of G.E. Morrison.
    ** Ibid. [TTL]


    Of Gods and Men

    What need is there for Heaven to speak?
    — Confucius, Analects 17:19

    From Building the Nation: Institutional Reform in Early Qian China 1912-1934 by Roderick McNeil, 2002

    In its first year of existence, the new Chinese regime had focused most of its attention on the resolution of impending crises: the factional infighting between various post-revolutionary political forces, the loss of central control over autonomy-minded home provinces and secessionist outer territories, the crippling budgetary shortfall. As those were satisfactorily dealt with, from mid-1913 Emperor Jianguo and his prime minister Liang Qichao could next implement reforms they both had given a great deal of thought about since the Hundred Days Movement. Coming first on the list was the repeal of the Unequal Treaties which had been infringing on Chinese sovereignty since 1843.

    There were two reasons for this choice of priorities. One was that both men, like the coalition government they had assembled out of moderate republicans, former supporters of Yuan Shikai and their own followers, were committed patriots who regarded the treaties as an insult to the Middle Kingdom and a formal admission of its semi-colonial status. The other was that they intended to play to the rising force of Chinese nationalism, reinforcing their popular legitimacy in the process. In the past two decades nationalism had proved to be a potent instrument of grassroots mobilization in Chinese society: it was by publicly protesting the Treaty of Shimonoseki that Kang Youwei had risen to national prominence in the first place; it was nationalism that had spurred the construction of the Sichuan railroad, whose botched government takeover had started the revolution; it was nationalism that had turned a ragtag secret society, the Fists of Harmony, into such a strong movement that a coalition of the eight most powerful countries in the world had been necessary to defeat it. Harnessing this groundswell of national self-awareness could make the difference between success and failure for the young Qian Dynasty, and both men knew it.

    They also knew that doing so required walking a fine line between Chinese popular sentiment and foreign wariness. The foundations of the regime were still too shaky to afford antagonizing the very imperialist powers whose tacit acquiescence had made its instauration possible: were countries like Britain, France and Japan to conclude that the Qian were dangerous firebrands whom one could not reliably do business with, Jianguo and Liang knew that yet another foreign intervention was a definite threat. Consequently, they decided to attack the treaty system in a roundabout way, starting with its most visible manifestation—the grating missionary presence—while giving assurances that the protection of foreign economic interests, which were the real point of the treaties, would be safeguarded. In this they found an unlikely ally in the person of a certain venerable, highly respected British businessman.

    On June 5, 1913, the visitor was welcomed with full pump as he stepped out of his train carriage in Nanjing station. The aged man, with failing hearing and fragile health, had travelled all the way from London in order to testify of his support for a controversial policy that the Chinese government was about to implement. Although a private individual, he received a statesman’s welcome, so great was his fame, and so opportune his visit. His name was Sir Hiram Maxim.

    Sir Hiram Maxim in 1913.

    For a half century the privileges granted to Christian missionaries by the treaties of Tianjin had been a thorn in the side of China’s patriotic consciousness. “The Christian religion,” the treaty with Britain stated in its Article VIII, “as professed by Protestants or Roman Catholics, inculcates the practice of virtue, and teaches man to do as he would be done by. Persons teaching or professing it, therefore, shall alike be entitled to the protection of the Chinese authorities, nor shall any such, peaceably pursuing their calling, and not offending against the law, be persecuted or interfered with.” The treaties signed with France and the United States contained a similar provision almost verbatim. A Chinese saying cynically summarized the situation: “When the missionaries show up, the soldiers aren’t far behind.” Indeed, foreign powers were all too eager to use the real or alleged molestation of missionaries as a pretext for gunboat diplomacy; as late as 1897, Germany had claimed rights over the Jiaozhou peninsula after the murder of two German missionaries in the region. Furthermore, missionary orders of whichever Christian denomination all claimed immunity from Chinese laws for both themselves and their local converts, and even exemption from taxes, making the Christian presence in China a point of contention and a lightning rod of patriotic indignation. It was therefore from this side that the new regime intended to undermine the treaty system.

    Maxim’s support had not come out of the blue. The inventor of the modern machine gun, whose name was celebrated in song and poem (“Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun, and they have not”) had for a long time been something of a Sinophile, as well as an outspoken opponent of religious proselytism. He had met Li Hongzhang, founding figure of the Self-Strengthening Movement, creator of the Western-trained Beiyang Army, and former Viceroy of Zhili, when the latter visited Britain in 1896. The two men had become friends and, in Li’s memory, Maxim had written a pamphlet, Li Hungchang’s Scrapbook, which had gone to press a mere few weeks before his visit to China. He left no doubt as to his position on what he called “a religion based on a belief in devils, ghosts, impossible miracles, and all the other absurdities and impossibilities peculiar to the religion taught by the missionaries”:

    The notion propagated by many missionaries, that the Christian Gospel must be spread in China in order to raise the moral tone of the population, is seen to be founded on ignorance or malice. To say the least, the average Chinese character compares favourably with the average character of any nation in Europe. (…)

    It would, therefore, appear very desirable to keep the missionaries out of China, where they have wrought incalculable harm; but if China does not arm and defend herself, still greater burdens will be heaped upon her, until the indemnities become so high that virtually every working man in China will be taxed to the utmost to earn the necessary money to satisfy the insatiable maw of foreign invaders; in other words, the Chinese will be reduced to a state of slavery.

    Most of the recent wars that have been forced upon China have been due to missionary enterprise. China is a vast empire, and it is absolutely impossible for the Government at Pekin to protect missionaries in every obscure hole and corner of so vast an empire, no matter how strong it may be. Great Britain has a very strong Government. Still, with its very small territory it would be quite impossible to protect Chinese missionaries throughout the British Isles; they would be sure to be murdered, not only in Ireland and Wales, but even in London itself, if they carried out the same propaganda against the superstitions of this country as the missionaries carry on against the religion and philosophy of the Chinese. (…)

    There have been cases in the United States of America where several hundreds of peaceable and law-abiding Chinese have been massacred for no other reason than race hatred and doing too much work for the pay they received. I believe that something of the same kind often takes place in Australia. (…)

    I repeat that, if China wishes to be treated like other nations, she must learn to fight. Force is the only power that is respected by Europeans and Americans.

    Once in Nanjing, Maxim joined forces with Jianguo’s high-profile Western adviser George Morrison—himself a vocal critic of Western missionaries in China [1]—and lent his considerable fame to the support of the new regime’s anti-missionary policies. He would spend the next ten months in China, a period during which the Western press took to calling Morrison, constitutional expert Frank Johnson Goodnow [2] and him “The Emperor’s Three Wise Men”.

    Hiram Maxim (right) demonstrates his machine gun to Li Hongzhang (second from the right) in 1896.

    Further weighing into the balance was the fact that Maxim had come along with representatives from the Vickers firm, who were promised important orders from the company’s weapons factories and shipyards in return for Vickers lending a hand to the lobbying effort: one cruiser was ordered up front with firm commitments for two more, along with four destroyers, ten torpedo boats, a submarine—China’s first—and 900 machine guns (to be chambered for the 7.92 Mauser round). This order made China Vicker’s primary customer in Asia and gave the firm a stake in the new regime’s success, all the more so as it had recently lost the bulk of its market share in Japan to German competitor Siemens and sought a way to compensate for the setback.

    The Qian government was aware that a general revocation of the missionaries’ privileges would be diplomatically reckless, so what it set to do instead was a piecemeal, incremental limitation, in the respect of the letter if not the spirit of the Treaties of Tianjin. The legislation being put forward specifically left out medical, educational and humanitarian activities from the new regulations, so long as they did not involve overt proselytizing, with the definition of “overt” vague enough that it left a fair amount of wriggle room, though their registration would be required. Existing houses of worship were grandfathered in but new ones would have to be subject to approval by the Bureau of Religions, a newly-created department of the Home Ministry, and Chinese converts could no longer claim exemption to local taxation or immunity from national laws. Since the Treaties gave Chinese authorities responsibility for the personal safety of foreign missionaries, they would now be required to give advance notice of their travels, and would when travelling be escorted by officers of the national gendarmerie—who would have power to prevent their going to “obviously insecure” areas and engaging in “predictably hazardous” activities for their own protection. Circulation, sale and distribution of printed (or cinematographic) material would have to be subjected to prior approval by the Bureau of Religions.

    This turn of event was all the more ironic as the missionaries in China had viewed the 1911 revolution with great hope and had had no small part in the speedy recognition of the new regime by their respective national governments. Typical of this optimistic attitude was John R. Mott, to whom the incoming Wilson administration offered the position of US ambassador to China on the strength of his credentials as a Christian activist (he was at the time foreign secretary of the International Committee of the YMCA); even though he turned down the offer, Mott strongly encouraged Wilson to recognize the Qian dynasty as rapidly as possible:

    Mott, in fact, was in China at the time, conferring with various Y.M.C.A. secretaries on the work of the association and meeting with Chinese and American officials. During his tour, he sent a cable to Wilson via Cleveland Dodge, Wilson's close friend and confidant, in which he made a strong and well- reasoned plea for prompt American recognition of the Qian Dynasty. Mott stressed not only China's "right to recognition by progress achieved in most difficult year," but also the benefits that the United States would amass from such a move. Quick recognition, Mott argued persuasively, would give the United States a position of unique influence in China and "would enormously enhance our prestige in the East." If Mott's suggestions did not actually influence Wilson's decisions regarding recognition, they at least must have helped to confirm the wisdom of policies already under consideration.*

    While many missionaries, especially American ones, were somewhat disappointed in the early demise of the Republic, they did consider that a stable constitutional monarchy was a lesser evil to the threat of governmental collapse and civil war, and were willing to give the Qian dynasty cautious support well into 1913:

    American missionaries, too, increasingly considered the maintenance of peace and order essential for China and for American activities there. Jianguo seemed not only to promise the desired stability but also appeared to have great respect and sympathy for the missionaries and their work. With the support that he commanded, not much friendly feeling could be expected for those who challenged his position and raised the specter of military activity to redress their grievances. (…)

    The missionaries adjusted their outlook to the realities that confronted them. They accepted Jianguo as probably the best ruler for China under the existing circumstances, oftentimes explaining away his methods and actions as necessary to meet extraordinary situations. Indicative was a report from Fletcher Brockman that described the emperor as ruthless in dealing with opponents and unscrupulous in his conduct of affairs. Nonetheless, Brockman continued, Jianguo was preeminently efficient, with sympathy for education and progress. Brockman also agreed with the many people who felt Jianguo was a patriot whose drastic measures were only temporary expedients to restore order. (…)

    Despite the occasional references to Jianguo, missionary concern over political affairs in China greatly diminished after 1913. Having thought in superlatives about China's future and the growth of Christianity there after the 1911 revolution, the missionaries were forced by the changed circumstances following the demise of the "Second Revolution" to scale down their optimistic beliefs. Predictions that China was ripe for evangelization and that the new leaders after 1911 would help pave the way for the widespread dissemination of the Christian message were seen in retrospect to have been unrealistic and even naive. The missionaries now realized and accepted the fact that no miraculous breakthrough would occur, and that in the future, as in the past, they would have to depend on their own efforts.*

    It is in this context of diminished expectations that the missionaries took in the new regime’s intention to curtail their evangelizing activities in China. Furthermore, the limited and mostly ineffectual resistance to the policy can be explained to a large extent by the fact that the more influential denominations were also those with the most at stake. The Congregationalist, Methodist, Presbyterian and other mainline Protestant Churches, had in the decades since the signing of the treaties set up many institutions on Chinese soil, the larger of which in terms of staff and non-fungible assets being those involved in charitable, educational and humanitarian works—in other words, outside of the scope of the new legislation. Their general reaction was that preserving these by accepting the Chinese government’s terms took priority over trying to preserve their evangelizing privileges, and in the process risk losing it all. Especially hard hit were the evangelical denominations such as the China Inland Mission, since their activities were essentially of the overtly proselyte kind.

    The Catholic Church was in a predicament of its own. It remembered all too well how intransigence against the secularizing policies of the French government had resulted in a severe backlash in 1905, going so far as the termination of diplomatic relations between France and the Vatican. Yet since the early 1840s its interests in China had been chiefly defended by France, and even after the tensions on domestic French soil this continued to be the case, as no other Catholic power had a meaningful presence in China. The Catholic Church was all the more unwilling to clash overtly with the Chinese government as the French foreign minister at the time (and therefore the de facto political authority in charge of defending its interests), Stephen Pichon, was a member of Georges Clemenceau’s radical anticlerical faction, and as such could not be counted on to oppose the Chinese legislation. Just to be on the safe side, China had timed a series of large orders from French companies shortly before the drafting of the sensitive legislation for optimal diplomatic effect: aircraft from Voisin and Caudron [3], locomotives from the Compagnie des Forges et Aciéries de la Marine et d’Homécourt, and artillery and heavy industrial equipment from Schneider.


    A Christian propaganda painting: The countries of Europe, led by Archangel Michael, watch with concern the progress of Asian religions.

    The flip side of the new regime’s anti-missionary legislation was a policy of revival of China’s traditional religious traditions, the “three teachings” (Sanjiao) of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism—especially the first, unsurprisingly so since Jianguo was an accomplished scholar of Confucianism and had given extensive thought about its application in a modern context. Even as he (sometimes grudgingly) respected Taoism and Buddhism as key elements of Chinese culture, Jianguo was deeply convinced that Confucianism could be shaken free of the dogmatic sclerosis inherited from the Qing dynasty and turned into a universal religion, which would not only strengthen Chinese civilization as it adapted to the modern world, but also spread beyond the Sinosphere to other civilizations, in the same way—the comparison was explicit—that Christianity had spread beyond Europe to become a global religion. Already in his 1895 Manifesto to the Emperor, he had written:

    It is urgent to found today an institution of Confucian learning where all the great Confucian scholars who comment the teachings and prove their dedication to follow the Way of Master Kong would be welcomed without concern of rank or seniority. They would be entrusted, according to their skills, teaching positions in the School of the Sons of the State, and they would hold themselves ready to become education inspectors. The Juren graduates who would enlist in this institution would receive teaching positions in the prefecture and district capitals. The Xiucai graduates who would enlist would become schoolteachers and would be sent to the towns and villages to teach the Way of Confucius. (…) All temples of heterodox cults would be forcibly turned into temples of Confucius. Charitable institutions and regional or professional societies will be ordered to worship only Confucius. One can thus hope to reform and guide the benighted populace, and restore the Holy Doctrine, while rolling back heterodox cults.

    The people displaying outstanding skills or scholarship in this Confucian studies institution, and desiring to spread the Way of Confucius in foreign countries, would be encouraged to by an enlightened Edict. They would be given tenure at the School of the Sons of the State and at the Hanlin Academy. They would be provided with financial support while our embassies and consulates would be instructed to give them protection. (…) With this policy, the Holy Doctrine will spread throughout the savage peoples and the barbarians will be changed by China.

    Apart from a trip to Hong Kong and a visit to the foreign concessions of Shanghai, the Kang Youwei who wrote these lines had not yet travelled abroad, as he would do in his 14 years of foreign exile, hence the cultural chauvinism he expresses matter-of-factly; his prejudices against foreigners would mellow in the years leading to 1912. Yet his vision of Confucianism as both the doctrinal basis of a reformed China and a universal religion remained unchanged, and his disciple Chen Huanzhang further refined the idea, especially during his years of study at Columbia University (where his PhD thesis, submitted in 1911, was The Economic Principles of Confucius and his School); upon returning to China in 1912, Chen was entrusted by his former master to oversee the foundation of a government-controlled apparatus intended to turn Confucianism into not just what it had been since the Han dynasty—the ideology of State—but the actual State religion of China, a task he embraced with gusto. This modern reinvention of an old teaching in light of, and in reaction to, exposure to Western civilization, is obviously reminiscent of the similar transformation in Meiji Japan of Shintoism from a folk religion into the official State religion, and in practice was implemented in much the same way. It was in 1913 that the anniversary of Confucius was made into a national holiday in China, as it would later be in Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia.

    Chen Huanzhang as Great Priest of Confucius.

    One cannot emphasize enough that this version of Confucianism, which is the one most people in the world have come across and are familiar with, bears little resemblance to the one which the Sinosphere had up to then been familiar with. It is to pre-Qian Confucianism what born-again evangelical Christianity is to the traditional version. Certainly, the Master himself would be puzzled to see his teachings turned into a religion, when he himself assumed a pointedly agnostic position on supernatural issues, but one could argue that Confucianism had already been given a transcendent dimension back in the Song dynasty, with the advent of neo-Confucianism especially as propagated by Zhu Xi (1130-1200); just as that earlier reform had been prompted by the penetration of Buddhism in the Chinese civilization, Chen’s later one was prompted by the penetration of Christianity. In fact, while the English language indifferently calls Confucianism both the pre-Qian and the contemporary versions, in Chinese they are referred to by different names: the former is known as Rujia (儒家)—the School of the Learned Ones—and the latter as Kongjiao (孔教)—the Religion of Confucius.

    The internal organization of Confucianism was self-consciously based on the centralized structure of Catholicism, with a hierarchical clergy headed by Chen as Great Priest, and provincial, prefectoral and municipal levels of responsibility; overseas Chinese communities were to receive priests as well, and a special institute was founded for the training of missionaries to non-Chinese lands. The importance of lay members was emphasized from the start, with special consideration given to starting up lay ancillary organizations wherever motivated individuals volunteered for such duties. However, Confucianism retains from its traditional version a condemnation of celibacy and a general disdain for monasticism (in contrast with Buddhism and Taoism), considering that the primary role of the faithful is to raise families and contribute by their work to the economic well-being of society; familial, academic and professional achievement are considered indispensable attributes of the virtuous person. The international expansion of Confucianism was, in its early years, helped to no small extent by its reliance on the world-spanning network of Jianguo’s supporters (founded by the future emperor and by Liang Qichao in 1899, it had by 1913 grown to some 150 chapters in 16 countries), as many chapter leaders became lay members of the organization. Though it is much less the case at present, back then the interests of Confucianism and those of the Chinese executive were very much intertwined.

    A modern temple of Confucius, built in the Northern Song revival style.

    * Michael V. Metallo , “American Missionaries and the Chinese Revolution”, The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 47, No. 2 (May, 1978), pp. 261-282. [Mostly unchanged quote from OTL]

    [1] See “A Canny Scot”.
    [2] See “The Interregnum Republic”.
    [3] See “History of Chinese Aviation”.


    Codename Fifty

    When the five kinds of spy are all at work, none can discover the secret system. This is called the divine manipulation of the threads. It is the sovereign’s most precious faculty.
    The Art of War, 13:8

    From The People Feel Not His Hand: Domestic Control and Law Enforcement in Twentieth-Century China by Nisha Kapoor, 2006.

    In the early years of the Qian dynasty, most of the attention, especially from foreign observers, understandably focused on the new regime’s head of state, Jianguo himself (improperly but much more frequently referred to in the Western press as Emperor Kang—the habit would only be dropped in the 1940s, when his son had long succeeded him). In fact, the more important figure was Liang Qichao, who as prime minister could claim credit for most key political decisions, but who deliberately avoided the limelight and preferred to work quietly, making arrangements behind the scenes and pulling all manner of strings, though he made for a fearsome public campaigner when the occasion called for it. Yet the contemporary historian’s temptation to fall in the other extreme and dismiss Jianguo as a passive figurehead while Liang did all the heavy lifting, noticeable in several scholarly works published in the last two decades, should be avoided as well. Jianguo did involve himself in policy-making, often in close cooperation with Liang, and in certain domains also acted on his own. One of these was the creation of China’s modern intelligence apparatus.

    Born of compromises and broken promises, the Qian dynasty in its early years was understandably short on trust between the factions whose power it delicately balanced against one another. This meant the inevitable politicization of law enforcement, and the creation of a multi-layered system that, while reasonably straightforward on paper, in practice resulted in a tangle of overlapping jurisdictions. Just before its collapse in 1911, the Qing dynasty had taken the first steps toward the creation of a modern Chinese constabulary, with the organization of civilian police forces at the provincial level, and this was retained with few changes by the new regime. Municipal militias were also set up, mostly staffed by recently demobilized soldiers who were thus provided with a steady income and could put their experience to lawful ends (it was until then all too frequent for demobilized soldiers to turn to banditry to sustain themselves). However, the central government was wary of leaving law enforcement matters entirely in the hands of local and provincial authorities, and, following the French model, a national gendarmerie had been set up in 1912 and placed under the control of the Defense Ministry. But with many high-ranking military officers either former revolutionaries or cronies of the late Yuan shikai, their political reliability was an open question. Jianguo therefore sought the ability to keep tabs on the military chain of command. Like all statesmen who had come to power thanks to revolutionary upheaval, he was also concerned about rooting out domestic subversion, and wanted to be able to do so without having to answer to the formal government structure, let alone pesky legislative oversight—after all, several ministers and members of parliament were to be on the watchlist. Having decided to organize what amounted to a secret police, he probably concluded that it made sense to extend its responsibilities to espionage and counter-espionage.

    The creation of this secret police, soon to be called the National Security Bureau (Guo’anju 國安局) took place with the utmost confidentiality; in the government, only Liang knew about it, and only because of his close personal ties with Jianguo. As its director, the emperor chose an official with impeccable monarchist credentials, former Gansu governor Zhao Weixi, who had come to his attention with his zealous crackdowns against men who cut their Qing-era pigtails even after the Republic had been formally proclaimed (he himself had only cut his pigtail upon the proclamation of the Qian dynasty, and like many supporters of the new regime, simply kept his hair entirely shaved off in imitation of Jianguo and Liang). In order to maintain secrecy, a calculated leak was arranged when Liang shared “in the strictest confidence” deliberately misleading information about the NSB to Chief of Staff Li Yuanhong and General Zhang Xun, telling them a counterintelligence agency had been created but was being kept secret from the civilian government out of concern about foreign spies who might have sources from inside the administration. Word eventually got out about this alleged counterintelligence agency, the existence of which was publicly denied even as Liang “admitted” to Huang Xing that the rumor was true and the Bureau did exist, but that for obvious security reasons the fact could not be acknowledged to anyone but the highest government officials. It would be years until the NSB’s true purpose was known, and even then all details of its size, funding and internal structure remained closely guarded secrets well into the post-World War 2 period. [1]

    The core of the NSB’s intelligence-gathering apparatus was the transnational organization which Kang and Liang had founded in 1899, and which is most widely known by its first of several names, the Imperial Protection Society (Baohuanghui 保皇會). After the failure of the Hundred Days reform movement, Kang and Liang had escaped Dowager Empress Cixi’s grasp by fleeing to Vancouver, Canada, where they had with the help of the local Chinese community’s richest businessman [2] set up the first chapter of what would become a global network of activists, fundraisers, lobbyists and sleeper agents, recruited from all walks of life. Although it had after Emperor Guangxu’s death in 1908 lost some membership and influence to its rival the United Allegiance Society (Tongmenghui 同盟會) set up by Sun Yixian and Song Jiaoren, by the time of Kang’s accession to power in 1912 it boasted some 150 chapters spread out in 16 countries on four continents. Fundraising ran the gamut from voluntary donations to decoy businesses, one of which was the largest Chinese restaurant in Chicago, and the organization had set up paramilitary training centers, several of them in California and Washington State. It also ran a number of schools, newspapers and community centers for members of the Chinese diaspora. Since this world-spanning network was personally managed by Kang even after he became Emperor Jianguo, he could easily use it for the new purpose of setting up overseas spy rings, and turn its more committed members into NSB operatives.

    The NSB, Jianguo had decided, was also to comprise a women’s branch, at the head of which he appointed Xue Jinqin (referred to in Western sources as Sieh King King). Such a choice was hardly random. The daughter of a liberal-minded merchant from Guangdong, Xue had attended missionary schools in Shanghai and Tianjin, where she had developed fiercely progressive ideas about the status of women. She had first earned fame when speaking at a public meeting in Shanghai when she was all of 16, voicing her protest against the government’s decision to grant Russia special rights in Manchuria in the wake of the Boxer rebellion. In 1902, at the ripe old age of 18, she travelled to San Francisco, where her reputation as an orator had preceded her; a banquet was held in her honor and she was invited by the Baohuanghui to deliver a speech in a Chinatown theater hall. Before a rapt audience of Chinese men and women, and a number of Western reporters, she spoke about social reform in China, and in particular about the urgent need for equal rights for women. Excerpts of her speech were quoted in the Chung Sai Yat Po and the San Francisco Examiner.

    In fact, although the date of her joining is not known for certain, she was probably already a member of Kang Youwei’s organization at that point, which explains the support she received from it. After spending three years at the University of Berkeley, she moved to Los Angeles, where she stayed with Tom Leung, a rich businessman and one of the core members of the Baohuanghui in the United States. Through his mediation, she was personally introduced to Kang, and recently declassified Chinese government archives confirm that Kang, impressed by her driven personality, entrusted her with a highly sensitive secret mission: nothing less than the assassination of Dowager Empress Cixi. The details of the operation were not recorded but presumably involved the infiltration of the Empress’s personal retinue, which only a woman could do. She was given the codename “Fifty” in reference to a poem by Li Shangyin (812-858):

    For no reason the gorgeous zither has fifty strings,
    Each string, each fret, recalls a youthful year.
    Master Zhuang woke from a dream puzzled by a butterfly,
    Emperor Wang reposed his amorous heart to the cuckoo.
    The moon shines on the sea, pearls look like tears,
    The sun is warm at Lantian, the jade emits mist.
    This feeling might have become a memory to recall,
    But, even then, it was already suggestive of sorrows.

    The plot was years in the making but, as it turned out, Cixi died of natural causes before it could be carried out. Xue Jinqin then returned to the United States and enrolled at the University of Chicago.

    Xue Jinqin.

    When Kang Youwei declared himself Emperor and set up his intelligence service, he decided that Xue Jinqin, with her intelligence, dedication and loyalty, was the best choice as head of its women’s branch. Secretly contacted by the Chicago chapter of Kang’s organization, she came back to China, where she was given a cover position as director of an educational foundation for women in Nanjing.

    Early female NSB agents were of two very different backgrounds. On the one hand, well-educated, fiercely patriotic young women such as Xue Jinqin herself, who joined in order to contribute to the restoration of their country’s power while at the same time pursuing a career customarily viewed as masculine. On the other hand, young women from poor families who had found themselves sold into prostitution, and who found in their involvement in secret police work a way to use their unfortunate circumstances for the good of the country. Many early recruits thus came from the Women’s Espionage Training Institute, which had been set up by prostitutes in Shanghai during the 1911 revolution; its manifesto read:

    We were unhappily born as women and have unhappily been forced into prostitution. Our lives have been very sad, but though we have ended up in brothels, if we look back to find the root cause of our situation, it is not because we are not descendants of the Yellow Emperor. Because we have not been given the advantages accorded others from birth, we must not die without having gained those advantages. Thus, we have chosen the kind of work that women in China’s better family either cannot possibly do or would never consent to doing, and we have thus created a women’s spying brigade. We pray that in some small way we may fulfill an obligation as one element of our nation’s people… What difference does occupation make when it is a question of duty?

    After 1912, the women’s branch of the NSB, which in honor of the pioneers of the Women’s Espionage Training Institute was informally renamed the Society of the Daughters of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi Nü’er Hui 黄帝女兒會), began systematically seeking recruits from the world of prostitution, especially in treaty ports and extraterritorial foreign concessions. According to Gail Hershatter’s findings (see Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai), by 1914 virtually all of the houses of pleasure catering to wealthier Westerners in Shanghai had been secretly put under NSB management in order to gather intelligence in the form of pillow talk, and to induce prominent individuals into honey traps for blackmail purposes. The same policy was conducted wherever a large enough foreign presence warranted.

    But the most mysterious member of the Society of the Daughters of the Yellow Emperor in those early years came from neither background, at least as far as can be ascertained. Very little is known about her, not even her real name. When she joined the NSB, she went by the moniker of Azure Cloud, and that is how all declassified government records refer to her. She claimed to be 29 years old, and most tantalizingly, hinted at a past career as a member of the Red Lanterns, a corps of teenage girls who had fought alongside the Boxers in the 1900 rebellion. The Red Lanterns (who later became the topic of several films as well as a famous 1960s-era wanhua series) were believed to have supernatural powers such as healing, flight, and control over the wind with their magical fans; more mundane descriptions have them maintaining public order in Boxer-controlled areas, tending to the wounded, gathering intelligence, and engaging in arson. There indeed was a Red Lantern member named Azure Cloud, who was about 17 at the time and said to be both very beautiful and skilled in martial arts; no conclusive evidence exists that said girl and the woman referred to by that name in NSB archives are the same person, but she apparently fit the depiction on both counts, being both quite good-looking and a highly proficient practitioner of the White Crane fighting style. She became a Buddhist nun in 1923, though she returned to secular life after the Japanese invasion to take command of a resistance cell, and was killed in action in 1937.

    [1] For a glimpse of how the NSB will turn out in later decades, see “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by carlton bach.
    [2] See “The Wheel of Eternity” by Doctor What.


    Our Gates to the Glorious and the Unknown

    In China the railway question is one of the most vital importance.
    — Edwin John Dingle, China’s Revolution 1911-1912: A Historical and Political Record of the Civil War, 1912

    From Iron Qi Lines and Fire Chariots: The Railways of China by Benjamin T. Dunn, 1993

    Advertisement for the North China Imperial Railways published in the December 1910 issue of the Far Eastern Review.

    The history of railways in China had begun—or rather, inauspiciously enough, not begun—in 1863, when a group of mostly British and American businessmen had petitioned Li Hongzhang (then the governor of Jiangsu) for the right to build a rail line between Shanghai and the ancient city, and major silk-producing center, of Suzhou. Although a co-founder of the Self-Strengthening Movement, Li was at that early stage unconvinced of China’s need for rail transportation and had turned down the request. Undeterred, the businessmen had invited the railroad engineer Sir Macdonald Stephenson (no relation to George Stephenson), who had already overseen the development of India’s first rail lines. The following year, Stephenson had submitted to the Chinese government a far-reaching project for a network radiating from Hankou in the middle Yangzi valley, with lines to Beijing and Tianjin in the North, Shanghai in the East, Canton and Hong Kong in the South, and going all the way across the Himalayas to Burma and Calcutta in the West. Too ambitious, and too obviously designed to serve British economic interests in China, the project had another critical shortcoming which turned even Sir Frederick Bruce, the British ambassador, against it: it failed to factor in the fact that Chinese law had few provisions for eminent domain, which would make the expropriation of the necessary tracts of land a slow and expensive affair. Bruce had warned Stephenson in the following terms:

    Do not reason about China according to your experience of India. The [Chinese] government does not concern itself with civil law and it is particularly mindful of land property rights, to which the people are highly attached. It will be a long time before it takes an expropriation decree on behalf of the public good.

    Stephenson had ignored Bruce’s warning and founded the China Railway Company in order to put forward various projects for regional rail lines, but none of them came to fruition and the company folded four years later.

    However, in the following decade, a number of progressive officials had gradually warmed to the idea of Chinese railways and were lobbying the central government in favor of it. Li Hongzhang, among others, was now a supporter of rail transportation, as he had in the meantime sponsored the development of a modern coal mine in Kaiping (in order to provide the nascent Chinese steam-powered commercial fleet and his own future Beiyang Navy with domestically-produced fuel) and reasoned that transporting the coal would be cheaper by rail; from there he had come to understand the advantages of rail as an instrument both of economic development and strategic defense. In a memoir to the imperial court in 1880, he wrote “Our country faces unprecedented challenges; we should therefore address them with unprecedented methods”. The cause of Chinese railways suffered a temporary setback when a 16-kilometer line was built by British businessmen between Shanghai and Wusong in 1876; intended as a practical example of the advantages of rail transportation, the initiative backfired since, a fait accompli of dubious legality, it was perceived as a unilateral encroachment on Chinese sovereignty, and operations had to be discontinued. But a symbolic watershed was crossed in 1881 when Claude W. Kinder, the British engineer hired by Kaiping mine manager Tang Jingxing, assembled with the latter’s connivance the first locomotive ever built in China, using a boiler and other parts from a portable steam winding engine borrowed from the colliery. This modest 2-4-0 machine, christened the Rocket of China and decorated with gilded dragons on its sides, would remain in operation until 1920, and enjoy a second lease on life at the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1934, when shortages in locomotives caused it to be brought out of retirement (its long career ended for good in 1945, and it is now displayed in the Nanjing Museum of Trains and Railroads) [1]. As for the workshop it was assembled in, it grew into Tangshan Locomotive and Rolling Stock Works (唐山机車車輛廠), China’s first such company.

    The Rocket of China.

    The Kaiping railroad was extended in two installments over the following years: it linked Tangshan and Tianjin in 1888, and Tangshan and Shanhaiguan in 1894; meanwhile, Taiwan governor Liu Mingchuan had built a line between Jilong and Xinzhu via Taibei, but on the eve of the First Sino-Japanese War the total length of railroads on Chinese territory was an unimpressive 502 km. The defeat against Japan removed all lingering domestic objections to the development of a Chinese railway network, and Kang Youwei had accurately captured the new national consensus when he wrote in his 1895 Manifesto to the Emperor:

    There is a way to shrink a journey of ten thousand li to a short distance and bring the decade and the month to the length of a night and a day, thus facilitating the transport of troops and weapons, also facilitating the deployment of relief in case of famine, river transport, contacts between administrations, the studies of scholars, the transport of freight for merchants, the work of those who carry loads for a living, and the unification of [regional] cultures. All these improvements, far from costing the country money, could in fact generate tens of millions of taels in profits. For all this, railroads are second to none. The advantages of railroads are known throughout the empire: some have been operating for a while beyond the Shanhai Pass [in Manchuria]. Today their effectiveness has been proven anew for troop transport. If they have not been built in other provinces yet, it is simply because of the huge amounts of capital required, which are difficult to gather.

    Even more importantly, Japan’s victory had given the signal for a “scramble for China” in which every imperialist power sought to expand its area of influence in that country, using railway concessions as the primary method of penetration into the inland provinces. In 1898, during the Hundred Days reform movement, Kang Youwei had set up a Central Board of Mines and Railroads to allow the Chinese government a degree of oversight on the fast-accelerating pace of railway construction (by then, foreign powers had obtained the rights on 6,750 km of lines, most of which would be operational by 1912), and its prerogatives survived Cixi’s crackdown on the reformists. The Boxer Rebellion in 1900 dampened foreign schemes about a possible carve-up of China, but the “soft imperialism” of leased railway development continued unhindered: Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria (linking Chita and Vladivostok, and branching off at Harbin to Port-Arthur) by Russia, Yunnan Railway (linking Haiphong and Kunming) by France, Shandong Railway (linking Qingdao to Jinan) by Germany, etc. , and after its victory against Russia, Japan started work on the South Manchuria Railway. Meanwhile, by 1905 the Chinese had developed enough local expertise to start building railways without relying on foreign engineers, and the Chinese business community was increasingly taking the initiative of gathering capital to invest in railway construction. Thomas Millard, New York Herald correspondent for China, wrote in his 1906 book The New Far East:

    I think it probable that during the next twenty years more miles of railways will be built in China than in any other part of the world; and while foreigners may assist in providing the capital to finance this tremendous industrial evolution, the prime movers will be the Chinese themselves, who will insist, as far as they are able, upon retaining substantial control. This disposition supplied one of the forces which led to the reclaiming of the Canton-Hankow road, and it is safe to say that hereafter no important commercial or industrial concession will be willingly granted by the Chinese government in which Chinese capitalists are not interested, or in which the government does not reserve the right to take it over under equitable conditions, especially if public utilities are involved. The chief reason is that the Chinese have discovered that railroads are convenient and valuable in the development of the country. (…) Wealthy Chinese in all parts of the Empire are now willing, even anxious to invest in railroads. In fact, a disposition to exclude foreigners from these enterprises is growing, and would probably be put into effect did not internal conditions at present make the foreigners a practical necessity. (…)

    The Chinese are rapidly arriving at the point where they will practically be able to dispense with foreigners in the operations of their railroads. The entire northern division of the Imperial Railways of North China had not, the last time I travelled over it, a single white employé. Station agents, train despatchers, conductors, guards, locomotive drivers, road inspectors, etc., were all Chinese. It will be a revelation to many Westerners to make a stop at Tong-shan [Tangshan], where are the principal work-shops of this railroad, and where with Chinese workmen the company is building many of its own locomotives, all its own rolling stock, pump machineries and similar necessities. (…) The impulse acquired by modern industries in China within the past ten years is really remarkable.

    The first major railroad designed, financed and built entirely by the Chinese was the Beijing-Kalgan line. Kalgan (now Zhangjiakou) is a city 200 km northwest of Beijing, at the gate to Mongolia, and was a regional trading emporium where products from Central Asia arrived on camelback to be sold on the Chinese market. Britain had intended to build the railroad in 1902, but Russia had opposed such a move into its own area of influence in China, and in 1905 the Chinese decided to build it themselves. The chief engineer of the project was Zhan Tianyou (1861-1919), known to Westerners as Jeme Tien Yow, who would go down in history as “the father of Chinese railways”. Zhan had been sent as a twelve-year-old kid on a government program to the United States to receive a Western education, and by 1881 had received a degree in civil engineering from Yale University. He later interned with Kinder, honed his skills participating to the construction of the Beijing-Mukden line, and in 1902 was appointed by Yuan Shikai (then Viceroy of Zhili) to build a 32-km line to be used by the Dowager Empress when visiting the imperial ancestors’ tombs, an assignment he completed within budget and ahead of schedule. The Beijing-Kalgan line would be a technical challenge, as its route took it across the rugged Yanshan mountains (on the crest of which runs a section of the Great Wall), but even though Zhan had to build a switchback system and dig a tunnel, he still managed to complete the project in 1909, fully two years ahead of schedule and with funding to spare.

    Zhan Tianyou.

    Aside from starting to build its own railways, China in the last years of the Qing dynasty was also conducting a policy of repurchase of the ones built by foreigners, as well of renegotiation of earlier agreements, using increasingly fired-up domestic public opinion as a lever against foreign interests. When work on the Beijing-Hankou line, leased to a French-Belgian consortium, had begun in 1898, the Chinese government had inserted a clause in the agreement that would allow it to buy the railroad after ten years, and when the line was inaugurated in 1905, it notified its intention to do so. The line had proved highly profitable, generating a net profit of 5,047 million taels in its first year of operation, and increasing from there (all the more so as, in the perspective of the repurchase, the consortium had cynically slashed all expenses on maintenance). The transfer of ownership was completed in January 1909, although the loan taken up by the Chinese government for the transaction did not do its financial situation any good. As for the policy of renegotiation, it was spelled out by the Chinese vice-minister of foreign affairs, Liang Dunyan, in 1906:

    This government does not consider itself bound by agreements concluded under duress prior to 1900, and the definitive contracts shall be established on modified bases in order to give satisfaction to public opinion in China.

    This was the first instance of a practice that the following dynasty would resort to much more systematically, that of invoking patriotic public opinion in its dealings with foreign interests; but one must admit that it was not a question of choice, as the Chinese population was, in this formative period of modern Chinese nationalism, more and more hostile to real and perceived imperialist encroachments on Chinese sovereignty, and the government ignored such sentiment at its peril. The first agreement to be renegotiated concerned the construction of the Beijing-Pukou line by a British-German consortium in 1908: both the British and the German delegates yielded to Chinese pressure, resulting in the construction to be done under Chinese supervision and by engineers chosen by China, with ulterior control of the line going to the Chinese government. This set a precedent for later renegotiations. Another change at the end of the decade was the relative decline of purely national projects, with multinational banking consortia becoming the dominant players in the Chinese railway game, a shift welcome by the Chinese government as it removed the risk of any one country using new rail lines to expand further its area of influence, although it further increased China’s budgetary woes.

    In the meantime Chinese civil society, which as we have seen was becoming increasingly vocal in its nationalism, was seeing a number of local initiatives take place to develop rail lines at the provincial level. Led by businessmen and provincial officials, and relying on locally raised capital rather than on foreign loans, those met with mixed success due to mismanagement and a series of corruption scandals, but they resulted in the population, especially in the southern provinces, opposing the Chinese government’s decision to take on more loans of its own. Such borrowing, no matter its justifications, was widely unpopular, as it led to tax increases and led the population to conclude that China’s assets were being taken over by Western banking consortia. In the process, railways became a volatile political issue, one that pitted both provincial governments against Beijing, and Chinese civil society against foreigners; riots were beginning to break out, to the cries of “No foreign control on Chinese railways!” Things came to a boil in January 1911, when Sheng Shuanhuai was appointed Minister of Communications and put in charge of straightening out the financially murky situation of China’s domestically-managed railways: Sheng was notoriously corrupt and, worse still, was seen (not altogether inaccurately) as overly friendly with foreign interests. The last straw was when he announced his intention to nationalize the provincial railways and, simultaneously, agreed to yet another loan: together, the two decisions were perceived as evidence that Sheng was going to sell the railways to foreign bankers. Provincial associations sprang up to defend the railways, especially in Sichuan, where the movement was placed under the leadership of two members of Kang’s organization, and received the support of anti-Manchu secret societies. When the central government tried to crush the movement, protests flared up throughout the province and snowballed into a general uprising. Military reinforcements were brought in from neighboring Hubei, where a local Tongmenghui cell took advantage of the situation to spark a mutiny in the Wuchang garrison and seize control of the city; the revolution that would bring down the Qing dynasty had begun, and it was over railways.

    The railway network in North China, 1912.

    The collapse of the Qing dynasty did not result in the pace of railway construction slowing down: lines in the process of being laid down by foreign interests were completed without hindrance even as the revolution was taking place, and likewise the political horse-trading of the Interregnum Republic had little short-term impact on railways. Indeed, it was one of the issues the republicans and neo-monarchists saw eye to eye on; Sun Yixian, for one, was such a railway enthusiast that after he had requested the portfolio of transportation in the Kang-Liang provisional government, and although he had resigned in May 1912 when Kang began the preparations for imperial restoration, he had in his three months as transportation minister designed a highly ambitious project for laying some 160,000 km of railroads throughout China. While this project, in its utter lack of realism, shows that Sun was seriously out of touch with basic facts of Chinese geography (note, in particular, the density of rail lines in virtually uninhabited parts of Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet, including some that would have been running at altitudes of over 6,000 meters), it shows how committed the republicans were to improving the country’s rail network, which as of 1912 comprised 9,820 km of lines—comparing favorably in absolute if not relative numbers with Japan, whose own rail network at the time had a total length of 7,840 km—with more in the process of being laid down. It is, incidentally, ironic that Sun’s project inadvertently bore the same name (Build the Nation) that Kang would choose for himself when he proclaimed himself emperor.

    Sun Yixian’s project.

    Because the previous dynasty’s reckless policy of loan-taking had been a significant factor in its overthrow, the new one was more careful in its approach to capital acquisition. Having successfully negotiated the emergency “reorganization loan” in March 1912, which gave it some breathing room, the provisional republican government and its neo-imperial successor were in a more confident position to borrow funds on less disadvantageous terms than had usually been the case until then [2]. In September 1912, this policy shift was concretized by the signing of the Longhai Contract with a Franco-Belgian consortium, the Compagnie Générale des Chemins de fer et Tramways en Chine, for a loan of 250 million francs (at 5% interest) for the prolongation to the East and West of the Luoyang-Kaifeng line, which the firm had obtained in 1903 and built between 1906 and 1909 to Yinghao. The agreement included the absorption of the existing line into this new one, which would link Lanzhou (Gansu) to Lianyungang (Jiangsu) via Xi’an, Zhengzhou (where it would intersect the Beijing-Hankou line), Kaifeng, and Xuzhou (where it would intersect the Tianjin-Pukou line); this made it, at 1,800 km, the longest line in China. As Jean Ullens de Schooten wrote in The Railways of China in 1928,

    The Lung-hai Contract was the first one signed between a foreign firm and the government of the Tsien [Qian] dynasty. It constituted a brand new procedure which has since then become the norm. A single document deals with issues of borrowing, construction and exploitation. It is, compared with its predecessors, much more streamlined and transparent.

    This was largely the work of Robert de Vos, former Belgian consul in Tianjin and Kobe, who after leaving the diplomatic corps, had become a freelance lobbyist and middleman for Western banking consortia in China. He met with further success by negotiating on behalf of the Société Belge des Chemins de fer en Chine and the Société Française de Construction et d’Exploitation des Chemins de fer en Chine a loan of 10 million pounds (an identical amount as the previous agreement) for the construction of a North-South line going from Datong to Chengdu.

    However, the new Chinese regime had as little control as the previous one over the extension of railways under respective Japanese and Russian ownership in the Manchurian provinces, having no meaningful leverage over either power, and both the (Japanese-owned) South Manchurian Railway and the (Russian-owned) China Eastern Railway continued adding new lines with only cursory acknowledgements to Chinese national sovereignty. This was an especially acute concern for China, as both countries had common borders with it, and their respective national networks were linked with the lines they kept building on Chinese soil, blurring the distinction between “soft” and “hard” imperialism. When, in late 1913, Russia started work on a rail line between Verkhneudinsk on the Trans-Siberian and Urga in Mongolia, the initiative was universally perceived in Chinese political circles as the first step towards Russian satellization of the territory in the same manner as Manchuria, where Harbin had become a Russian city in all but name; but diplomatic protestations notwithstanding, there was nothing China could do to oppose the move, all the more so as Russia and France were then in the friendliest of terms, and the Qian dynasty could not afford to antagonize the latter, being dependent on its continued goodwill in too many ways.

    This concern was one of the reasons the new regime embarked on an ambitious policy of railway construction, using the profits generated by existing lines under central government management to finance the building of new ones, in a self-reinforcing cycle of capital investment and generation, and completing the shortfall with the emission of national bonds. Already, in the wake of the narrowly averted Mongolian secession in the spring of 1912, the decision had been taken to establish a rail link between the territory and the Chinese home provinces in order to tie it more closely to the rest of the empire and, if necessary, make troop deployment in the region easier. This priority assignment was entrusted to Zhan Tianyou in person, with the line starting in Kalgan (already linked to Beijing thanks to Zhan’s earlier work), following a westerly route through Datong, Hohhot, Baotou and Wuyuan, and from there going due North to Urga. Preliminary work started in early 1913 and the line was completed at the end of 1917. In the South, the construction of the Chengyu line between Chengdu and Chongqing, begun in 1909 but interrupted in 1911, was completed in 1914; and Changsha was linked to Shaoguan on the one hand (thus making train travel between Canton and Beijing possible) and with Nanning via Guilin and Liuzhou on the other; both lines were inaugurated in 1916. The nationalization of the provincial lines, which as seen above had proved an explosive issue in the last year of Qing rule, was postponed until tempers had cooled and, more importantly, until capital was available to fund the operation, as relying on a foreign loan to that purpose would be politically imprudent. A new emission of bonds was considered in 1914, but the outbreak of World War 1 resulted in the project being shelved until further notice. However, communications minister Liang Shiyi (whose portfolio included railways after the Transportation Ministry was merged with his own following Sun’s resignation) did set up a Railroad Standardization Board in April 1913, in order to address the issue of wildly varying standards throughout China’s rail network. Indeed, rail lines had up to now been run with no consideration for any coherent nationwide norm, each country using its own on the lines it operated, and even the provincial governments unilaterally choosing their own standards, interoperability be damned. About the only constant was the use of the standard gauge, and even that came with exceptions, namely the Yunnan and Shanxi lines (which used narrow gauge) and the Russian lines in Manchuria and Mongolia (which used broad gauge). Some 40 different types of freight cars were in use when, by Kinder’s estimate, six would have been enough; signalization was non-uniform; rolling stock from certain countries could not even be attached to that of others without modifications; and the rates and accounting methods varied from line to line. Liang Shiyi appointed Yale graduate Wang Jingjun as Board director, and hired as a technical advisor Charles Francis Adams, former Pacific Union Railroad president (and grandson of John Quincy Adams), who had dealt with a similar problem in his home country [3]. Although the complete standardization of China’s railways would not be achieved until 1945, by 1916 the more glaring interoperability problems on domestically-managed lines had been satisfactorily addressed, and a relatively coherent national rate and accounting system was in place.

    The development of railways, as Millard had observed in 1906, had the added bonus of encouraging the growth of the domestic industrial base, whether primary industries (coal and iron mines, iron foundries) and transformation ones (manufacturing plants for locomotives, rolling stock and other equipment): even though China kept importing much of its railroad supplies, through no choice of its own in the case of foreign-controlled rail lines, it was increasingly relying on domestic suppliers. A company like Tangshan Locomotive and Rolling Stock Works, which had started out humbly enough with the assembly of the aforementioned Rocket of China, was already employing some 3,000 workers in 1905, and by 1915 its size had more than doubled to respond to increasing demand from the rapidly-expanding domestic train transportation network. This growing manufacturing capability would soon come in handy.


    [1] See Doctor What’s “The Road to Yakutia”.
    [2] See “The Years of Salt and Rice”.
    [3] Misidentified as his younger brother Henry Adams in Joseph Marchisio’s otherwise excellent Les Chemins de fer chinois: Finance et diplomatie (1860-1914).
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2011
  2. Hendryk Banned

    Aug 24, 2004

    The Liu Automatic Rifle

    From The Encyclopedia of Modern Firearms, by Craig Endicott and Neil Gannon, 1998

    Liu Qing'en was born on October 10, 1869. He graduated from the Quangdong Provincial Army Navy Academy and, in 1896, fought in Taiwan against the Japanese. He served under the “Black Flag General” Liu Yongfu, suffering a leg injury. After returning to the mainland, he joined the Hanyang Arsenal and worked in the factory as a technician. He later participated in the program indented to select students to be sent abroad to study. Chosen by the Hubei provincial government, he was sent to Japan.

    After graduating from high school in Japan, he enrolled in Tokyo Imperial University and majored in Mechanics and Ordnance, then returned to Hanyang after obtaining his degree. In 1909, he visited Krupp in Germany on behalf of the Hanyang Arsenal.

    Liu joined the Tongmenghui while in Japan. He was appointed the first Superintendent of Hanyang Arsenal by Sun Yixian during the latter's brief tenure as president of the Chinese Republic. He developed an interest in self-loading weapons and set to design a semi-automatic rifle, using as a basis a prototype submitted in 1911 by Danish engineer Soren Hansen Bang, which itself used a muzzle cap design patented in 1885 by Hiram Maxim.


    Liu Qing'en in June 1912.

    Although the machine tools available at the Hanyang arsenal were not intended for the manufacture of semi-automatic rifles, Liu successfully assembled a prototype model chambered for the standard 7.92 mm round, and got in touch with the American firm Pratt & Whitney in January 1914 for further development of the gun. The contract was signed on April 11, and Liu, his family and other seven subordinates arrived in Hartford, Connecticut in September, 1914. The trip was to inspect and get familiarization with the machinery being produced by Pratt & Whitney.

    A first batch of 150 rifles was delivered in August 1916, and the following month, the Ordnance office of the Army Department began testing the semi-automatic rifle designed by General Liu. The weapon proved satisfactory overall, but the barrel turned out to be too light and as a result prone to overheating in case of sustained fire. It was also decided to enlarge the magazine from six to ten rounds, making it protrude on the underside of the rifle; later on, a 15-round magazine was developed as well. The revised model passed the testing phase in February 1917, but mass production, which was scheduled to begin in April, was delayed by the entry of the US in World War One. About 120 of the 1916 batch were retrofitted with a new barrel and magazine, and were issued in December 1918 to a company of the elite Wan Long corps being sent to the Siberian campaign.


    The Liu Mk. I.

    In the harsh Siberian field conditions, the guns proved serviceable but more difficult to clean and maintain than bolt-action rifles; their delicate self-loading mechanisms were prone to jamming when exposed to mud or dust, though the soldiers using them appreciated their high rate of fire. This limited experience convinced the Chinese military brass that, while semi-automatic rifles made good weapons in the right hands, they were to be kept a specialty weapon for elite troops with the training and discipline to use them “properly”; the ostensible reason was the complexity of maintenance, but the real concern was that regular troops armed with self-loaders would end up wasting ammunition. As a result, a recommandation was made to reserve the Liu rifle to the Wan Long and the Gendarmerie, while the bulk of China's armed forces were to continue being issued the rugged bolt-action Hanyang 88.

    The contract for further production of the Liu Mk. II by Pratt & Whitney was cancelled in September 1918, and instead an order was placed for the machine tools themselves, so that manufacture could be done domestically at Hanyang. Those were only delivered in October 1919. In the meantime Liu Qing'en had suffered a stroke which, although non-fatal, had forced him into retirement, and the new management at Hanyang decided not to give his rifle priority in order to focus on the production of the 88, which was in high demand due to attrition on the Siberian front and the ongoing standardization of China's military equipment. Production of the Liu Mk. II only began in November 1921, at a slow pace of some 60 a week, and by then the Siberian campaign was winding down.

    As decided in 1918, the rifles were only issued to the Wan Long and to Gendarmerie officers, though the former tended to be equipped with Czech-made ZH-29 rifles from 1929, those being considered superior to the Liu. It was only the bitter experience of the early years of the Second Sino-Japanese War that successfully changed the mindset of the Chinese military brass regarding the superiority of semi-automatic rifles as opposed to bolt-action ones, but by then the priority was equipping the troops with whatever long arm could be produced in greatest quantity, prolonging the operational life of the 88 despite its obsolescence (the more modern 99, based on the Mauser 98k, was also produced alongside the 88, though in smaller amounts).

    By 1938, five years into the war, light weapon production had finally caught up with the military's needs, and the expanded production capability at Hanyang meant that mass manufacture of the Liu could at long last begin in earnest. By then, further improvements to the design had led to the development of the Mk. III, though an attempt to develop a variant with selective semi-automatic and full automatic fire was abandoned when it turned out that the rifle was almost impossible to fire with any degree of accuracy in full automatic mode. In any case, it had become standard practice for every section to have one rifleman equipped with a light machine gun, generally the Neuhausen KE-7, which was being produced under license in China since 1935.

    In the latter stages of the war, the aborted full automatic Liu Mk. IV was redesigned to accommodate a less powerful round, the 7.92 x 33 “short” in order to remedy its controllability issues, at the cost of reduced range--one lesson of the war being that a higher rate of fire was an acceptable trade-off for range. Designated the Hanyang 31, it came with a 30-round magazine and was, along with the Sturmgewehr 44, one of the world's earliest assault rifles. It was first deployed in May 1944 and, by the time of the Japanese surrender in January 1945, had proved a highly promising infantryman's weapon.
  3. Hendryk Banned

    Aug 24, 2004

    History of Chinese Aviation

    Part I: 1909-1922
    The Dragon takes Flight

    1. The dawn of Chinese aviation

    Aviation came to China and the Chinese came to aviation in 1909.

    René Vallon.

    Even as the very airplane to cross the skies of China, piloted by French aviator René Vallon (1885-1911), flew above Shanghai, a Chinese was taking to the air half a world away. That pioneer was Feng Ru 馮如 a.k.a. Joe Fong, a native of Guangdong who had moved to the United States in 1894 at age 12. The Wright Brothers’ maiden flight in 1903 made a deep impression on him, and he decided to emulate them. With funds obtained from wealthy Californian Chinese, he set up his own workshop in Oakland, the Guangdong Air Vehicle Company, and in 1909 successfully designed his first of many airplanes; his first test flight took place in September of that year and made headlines in the San Francisco Observer.

    Feng Ru.

    When the Qing dynasty was deposed in 1911, he moved back to China with two airplanes with the intent of starting a new company there, and offered his services to the Guangdong Revolutionary Government. In June 1912, Kang Youwei, then the provisional president of the Republic of China, invited him to Nanjing for a flight demonstration (by the time it took place in September, Kang had become Emperor Jianguo). The event is considered the official date of the birth of Chinese aviation, and led to Feng being put in charge of the creation of the aviation wing of the Chinese military, embryo of the future Chinese Air Force.

    Feng Ru's airplane.


    But Feng was no isolated case, merely the first of a number of Chinese to take an interest in the nascent field of aviation. One element that bears comment is the fact that most such pioneers were members of the Chinese diaspora, and all of them, because of the technological edge that the West then had over China, acquired their expertise in Western countries. The one attempt that was made in China proper, in the penultimate year of the Qing dynasty, remained unsuccessful: the deliquescent regime had hired two engineers returning from Japan, Luo Zuocheng and Li Baojun, to start an aircraft manufacturing plant at Nanyuan, near Beijing. They flew their first and only prototype in April 1911, but engine failure caused the machine to crash, and nothing else came out of it. A few months later, the Qing dynasty was deposed; the regime that would go down in history as the Interregnum Republic was proclaimed, and the Three Presidents followed each other: Sun Yixian, Yuan Shikai and eventually Kang Youwei, founder of the current Qian dynasty.


    1911 was also the year when an airplane flew over the then-British colony of Hong Kong for the first time; as in Shanghai, the pioneering pilot was a Frenchman (though of half-Belgian descent), Charles Van den Born.

    Charles Van den Born.

    Touring East Asia with his Farman, he had seen his request to fly over Singapore turned down, but had been warmly received in French Indochina, and after Hong Kong would proceed to the Philippines. On the occasion of his flight over Hong Kong on March 18, 1911, he renamed his plane the Spirit of Sha Tin. The flight was reenacted on the day of its 80th anniversary in 1991 with a specially assembled replica of Van den Born’s plane.


    While Luo and Li were starting up on what would prove a fruitless endeavor in Beijing, another Huaqiao apart from Feng was about to make history in the USA: Tan Gen 譚根 (1885-1936). Mostly known to Westerners by his pseudonym of Tom Gunn, he was born in the Chinese community of San Francisco. He built his own flying boat in 1910 and competed in the Chicago hydroplane contest the same year under Chinese colors. He then went to Honolulu, where a Chinese businessman had set up the Zhonghua Air Vehicle Company, and was hired as designer; in the following two years he would fly his planes in numerous demonstrations in Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines, setting a record when he flew a seaplane over a 2,416-meter high volcano. In 1912 he flew the first de facto air passenger service in Hawaii, as he took as a paying passenger a woman tourist.

    Tan Gen and his passenger.

    The first air passenger service in Hawaii, 1912.

    In May 1913, he left for China, where he started his own hydroplane-making company, Shangshan Aircraft Corporation, in Ningbo with the financial backing of the new government.


    Feng Ru, following his groundbreaking demonstration, was meanwhile incorporated in the Army and given the rank of colonel (his subordinates would take to calling him Feng Qishi, the Windrider, as a pun on his family name). Well aware that China still lacked the engineering and manufacturing capability necessary to build aircraft in meaningful amounts, a situation that could only be remedied in the medium term once the requisite technological base was built up, Feng turned to French manufacturers to cover immediate needs. He purchased a batch of 20 G-3 from the French company Caudron. This order proved particularly serendipitous, as the older Caudron brother, Gaston, decided to sail along with the crated aircraft in spring 1913, and to deliver them in person to the Chinese government. Once in China, he flew one of the planes from Nanjing to Shanghai with a passenger as a publicity stunt, and offered his services as flight instructor. He was gratefully appointed vice-director of the recently-opened Pukou Flight School.

    Gaston Caudron at the Pukou Flight School, 1913.

    The director of the school was Lin Fuyuan 林福元 (1890-1925) a.k.a. Art Lym. Born in the Chinese community of San Francisco, he had just been awarded his pilot’s license by Glenn Curtiss and invited by the Chinese government to oversee the training of the country’s student pilots. A mere 23 at the time, Lin’s appointment to this critical position was due not only to his undeniable talent as a pilot (effusively confirmed by Curtiss himself), but also and especially to the fact that he had been a member of Jianguo’s organization—known as the Baohuanghui at the time of his joining—since his teenage years, and was therefore considered by the new regime as politically reliable, unlike Feng who had previously associated with Sun Yixian. As the head of the Pukou school, he would be able to ensure the loyalty to the Qian dynasty of the men accepted into the training program. He would later go on to become director of the Aviation Board of the Ministry of War (Qin Guoyong succeeded him as director of the Pukou school, which became the Air Force Academy in 1917) and, in 1921, China’s first Minister of Air. His political rise was cut short by his premature death in a flight accident in 1925.

    Lin Fuyuan as a Curtiss student.

    Apart from Lin and Caudron themselves, the Pukou Flight School was staffed by Qin Guoyong and Pei Sizong, who had both learned to fly in France in 1911. They were joined in early 1914 by three more graduates of the Aéro-Club de France, Bao Bingchen, Yao Sijiu and Rong Zhen. By the time World War One broke out, the school had trained some 82 pilots; and Feng, Lin, Qin, Pei, Bao, Yao and Rong, together with Tan Gen, had become known as the Eight Immortals of Chinese Aviation.

    Thanks to Gaston Caudron’s efficient lobbying, his company received a further order of 30 G3 in January 1914, complemented a few months later with the purchase of 12 Voisin III. This was the extent of the Chinese Army Flying Corps as it went to war in September of that year.

    2. Baptism of fire: from Qingdao to Siberia

    The Chinese aviation corps received its baptism of fire at the Battle of Qingdao in 1914, when Kang’s new regime, which had declared itself an ally of the Entente, attacked the German-held territory in the Shandong peninsula. While the well-defended German positions could only be taken after a siege and a series of bitter land assaults, as well as a naval blockade, the Germans had but a single unarmed observation plane to defend their airspace, making the aerial bombardment of the city little more than an advanced training session.

    Günther Pluschow, the only pilot the Germans had to defend Qingdao's airspace, and his unarmed Rumpler Taube.

    The easily achieved air supremacy at Qingdao, compounded by further easy aerial victories in the Siberian Campaign, would in the following years lead to a dangerous overestimation of the strategic capabilities of aircraft.


    In January 1915, the Chinese Air Force was formally set up as an independent wing of China’s military alongside the Army and Navy. Thanks to the war then raging in Europe, aviation progressed by leaps and bounds, and Feng realized that even though the CAF’s aircraft were just a couple of years old, they were already becoming obsolete. Newer models were ordered: the FE-2 from Royal Aircraft Factory and FB-5 from Vickers in 1915, and with those in turn facing obsolescence, the Nieuport 17 and SPAD S-XIII in 1917. Another Vickers model ordered in early 1918 was the Vimy. However, from the moment of its creation, Feng had the CAF acquire its seaplanes and reconnaissance aircraft from Shangshan, having predictably decided to favor domestic manufacturers over foreign ones whenever possible.

    3. Three men’s homecoming

    1919 was a momentous year in the history of Chinese aviation: the Siberian Campaign prompted the return to China of three key figures, respectively Zhu Binhou, Yang Xianyi and Wang Zhu.

    Zhu Binhou 朱斌侯 a.k.a. Etienne Tsu (1885-1956) had an interesting ancestry, as his forefathers were among the very first Chinese converts to Catholicism in the days of the Ming dynasty. In the 19th century, the Zhu family had relocated to the booming city of Shanghai and made a fortune in banking, shipbuilding, industry and real estate. Devoutly Catholic and enthusiastically Francophile, his father had him enroll at the Jesuit secondary school Saint-Ignace in the French concession and then sent him to France for his higher studies. He earned a degree in engineering from the Ecole de mécanique in Lille and went back to Shanghai in 1903, where he involved himself in research on shipbuilding and automobile manufacturing. René Vallon’s demonstrations between 1909 and 1911 (when he died in a plane crash) had given Zhu a passion for aviation, which he acted on by going back to Europe in 1913 to get a pilot’s license from the Aéro-Club de France. Being in France when war broke out, he missed out on the Battle of Qingdao, so he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He was sent to the front as a fighter pilot in 1915, where his confirmed kills against German airplanes earned him the Croix de guerre avec palmes.

    Zhu Binhou as a French Légionnaire fighter pilot, 1915.

    Demobilized in 1919, he went back to China where he joined the CAF with the rank of colonel and participated in the Siberian Campaign. With the end of the campaign in 1922, Zhu returned to civilian life and invested his family’s sizeable assets into the Huanlong Aircraft Corporation, thus named in homage to Vallon’s Chinese name. Initially based in Shanghai, in 1929 the company was relocated to Chongqing, where the Chinese Air Force Academy had been installed as part of a governmental policy of hinterland development.

    The second figure was Yang Xianyi 楊仙逸 a.k.a. Sen Yat Young (1891-1969). Born in the large Chinese community of Hawaii, he had joined Sun Zhongshan’s Tongmenghui at age 19 while a student at Iolani University. After graduating, he developed a passion for aviation and enrolled at the Curtiss Aviation School in New York, becoming the first Hawaii resident to obtain a pilot’s licence. In 1919, like Zhu, he went to China—in his case for the first time—and joined the CAF to fight in the Siberian Campaign.

    Yang Xianyi.

    A wound sustained by shrapnel in 1921 left him with a permanent limp, but by the end of the war in 1922 he had risen to the rank of colonel. Soon afterwards, with Feng Ru returning to civilian life, Yang was promoted as the head of the CAF and the youngest member of the General Chiefs of Staff, a position he would keep for the next 38 years.

    The third figure, Wang Zhu 王助 a.k.a. Wong Tsu (1893-1965), was born in Beijing and joined the Chinese Naval Academy at age 12. At 16, he was among the first group of Chinese naval cadets sent to Britain to learn Western technology; he studied at the Armstrong Academy and got a degree in shipbuilding. Moving on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1914, he studied aeronautical engineering; this was the first such program in the US, having been set up at MIT by Jerome Hunsacker that very year. Wang graduated in June 1916 and learned to fly at the Flying Boat School of the Curtiss Company in Buffalo, NY. At that point two enterprising aircraft designers, George Conrad Westervelt and William Boeing, asked Hunsacker to find them a skilled engineer for their fledgling company, which they had tentatively named Pacific Aero Products; he recommended Wang. The latter thus went to Seattle and was hired by Westervelt and Boeing, and started work on a design that would become the Model C, the company’s first commercially successful airplane; two weeks after its maiden flight in April 1917, Pacific Aero Products was renamed the Boeing Airplane Company. Wang was paid all of $50.77 for his work. He returned to China where he was hired by Tan Gen.

    The Boeing Model C, designed by Wang Zhu.

    Wang Zhu.

    4. The CAF in Siberia

    The beginning of the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 brought China’s focus to the north, and the new regime understood that the civil war that was engulfing Russia provided the perfect opportunity to redress old wrongs, and perhaps more as events allowed. The first Chinese troops were sent by train to the Siberian theatre in March 1918, and the CAF went with them.

    The Campaign, which lasted until February 1922, put to the test the CAF’s operational efficiency as an organizationally independent military body. In fact the challenge turned out not to come so much from enemy pilots as from the extreme conditions faced by the Chinese armed forces in the wastelands of Eastern Siberia; what little the Bolsheviks had by way of air force was mostly deployed in the Russian heartland, where it was used to the utmost of its capability supporting counterattacks against White Russian armies, Allied expeditionary corps, Ukrainian Anarchists and, by 1920, peasant uprisings such as the Tambov rebellion. As a result, few planes and pilots could be spared for the Siberian front, and in a matter of months most of those were shot down, though not without a fight; in 1918 and 1919 the skies of Eastern Siberia would see their share of dogfights, in which sheer numbers ultimately decided the outcome just as they did between the two sides’ ground forces. Some of the air duels turned out to involve two identical aircraft, as both the Russians and the Chinese relied heavily on the French-made Nieuport 17, and in those cases, with neither side enjoying a material edge, the fight boiled down to a contest of sheer piloting skills in which the Russians often held their own.

    A Nieuport 17 used by the Bolsheviks.

    However, the Chinese, unlike the Russians, had access to the then-cutting edge SPAD S-XIII, and when those were brought to bear, they outmatched any opposition. By late 1919 the skies had been cleared of Bolshevik presence and the CAF was mostly called in for ground support operations. It was found out that otherwise obsolete pusher-propeller models like the RAF FE-2 and the Vickers FB-5 were well-suited for that role, thanks to the front gunner’s wide arc of fire, and those planes belatedly got to see action as ground attack aircraft in the last two years of the campaign. Another plane that saw widespread use was the SEA IV, a French observation two-seater designed by Louis Coroller, Henri Potez and Marcel Bloch. The SEA IV had gone into production in the last months of the Great War, but when the armistice was signed in November 1918, the French government cancelled the bulk of its order, leaving the company with large unsold stocks; those were purchased at bargain prices by China and swiftly deployed in the Siberian theatre.

    The SEA IV.

    But if the Chinese enjoyed air superiority over the Russians, they nonetheless had to contend with the bitterly cold climate of Eastern Siberia, which wore on men and machines alike. Except from the short warm spell from May to September, during which mosquitoes were an annoying but manageable problem, the region was plunged in a long icy winter, during which the aviation could remain grounded for weeks at a time in case of snowstorm. When the weather did clear, snow and ice would require wheels to be traded for skis, and even those were no use when the rasputitza—the springtime thaw—came. The severe cold also led to increased mechanical breakdowns, and hypothermia and frostbite were common occurrences for pilots in flight. All in all, the CAF lost more than double the number of men to environmental conditions than to enemy action—a ratio not markedly different from that of the Chinese ground forces.

    When the Campaign drew to an end with the creation of Yakutia as a formally independent country, its fledgling air force was equipped with secondhand Chinese aircraft, and in the following decade, most of the planes seen in Yakutian skies were either donated by the Chinese government or purchased from Chinese manufacturers.


    Part 2: 1922-1934
    Before the Storm

    1. The Chinese aeronautical industry grows up

    In 1922, with the return to peace and the creation of the formally independent kingdom of Yakutia in formerly Russian Eastern Siberia, Feng Ru ceded the commandment of the CAF to Yang Xianyi and returned to civilian life in order to start a new aircraft manufacturing company. At that point, a pressing concern for Prime Minister Liang Qichao's government was how best to remedy one of China's structural problems, the underdevelopment of the inner provinces: indeed, the bulk of the country's infrastructure and industrial base were concentrated in Manchuria on the one hand, and the coastal provinces on the other, leaving the rest of the country, apart from those regions traversed by railways, stuck in the 19th century in both economic and social terms. The decision was therefore taken to experiment with the relocation in the hinterland of certain suitable industries; aircraft manufacturing was one of them, as it was considered that it did not necessitate to a critical extent geographical proximity with China's coal mines and iron smelting plants, but on the contrary could go hand in hand with the development of inner China's hydroelectric potential. It was hoped that those factories would become local poles of development, attracting further economic activity and jump-starting the economic and social modernization of the interior. That same policy led to the Chinese Air Force Academy, which had opened in Nanjing in 1917 under the direction of Qin Guoyong, to be moved up the Yangzi to Chongqing.

    This cartoon, published in an English-language Shanghai newspaper,
    purports to ridicule the new regime's ambitions to implant an aeronautical industry in the inner provinces.
    The camel, the sheep and the horse stand for the Chinese hinterland's backwardness
    (they respectively bear the names of Lanzhou, Xi'an and Ningxia),
    staring with bemusement at a soaring modern airplane.


    This policy, forward-thinking as it was, only gave disappointing results, and the poles of local development failed to manifest; the industrialization of China's inner provinces would only become a reality more than a decade later in the context of forced wartime relocation. But Feng did go along: in 1922, he set up his new company in Liuzhou, a railway nexus in Guangxi province, and named it Luoyun Aircraft Corporation after the neighboring town of Luoyun (reportedly after making a forced landing there while making an aerial reconnaissance of the region).

    From Windrider: A Biography of Feng Ru by Geraldine Brandt:
    It may have seemed a counterintuitive decision at the time to choose a sleepy provincial backwater like Liuzhou as the headquarters of a new aviation manufacturing company, even in the context of a policy of development of the Chinese hinterland through implantation of new industries. In fact recent developments had put Liuzhou on the map: the town was where the recently completed Nanning-Changsha railway branched off to Guiyang, making it comparatively accessible. But part of the reason for the choice of Guangxi itself, rather than Sichuan where China's Air Force Academy had just been relocated and where Wang Zhu would presently start an aircraft manufacturing company of his own, must be found in the relation between the province's governor Lu Rongting and the Qian central government.

    Lu, like many political and military leaders from China's interior, was a colourful figure: he had started out as a highway robber before joining the military, and earned the praise of the decaying Qing dynasty by suppressing a revolutionary uprising at the Sino-Indochinese border masterminded by Sun Yixian and Huang Xing. But when the dynasty fell in 1911, Lu wasted no time in setting himself up as Guangxi's military governor, and installed his trusted comrades-in-arms in key administrative positions. By the time Kang Youwei had founded the Qian dynasty the following year, Guangxi had become a quasi-independent state under Lu's rule. Fortunately the new prime minister, Liang Qichao, was acquainted with two key allies of Lu's, namely Cen Chunxuan and Cai E (the latter was one of his former students), and was able to negotiate with him a mutually beneficial arrangement; Lu would remain governor of Guangxi for life and would, in exchange, endorse the new regime. Surprisingly given his unsavoury background, Lu was a genuine patriot who used his power as governor to modernize the province he ruled; he is credited with the eradication of the local opium trade, and eagerly supported the building of railway lines to link Guangxi with the rest of China and the outside world. When the central government decided to modernize the hinterland, Lu used his leverage for Feng Ru to implant his company in Guangxi.

    Several stories have long circulated about the reason Feng named his company Luoyun, after a village east of Liuzhou. In fact, Feng found out about that place while flying around Liuzhou in his personal airplane in May 1922, while the building of the factory was underway. His engine broke down as he was above Luoyun and he had to make a forced landing in a nearby field. None of the villagers had yet seen an airplane up close, and Feng made quite an impression when he climbed down from his machine and asked for help—as a native of Guangdong, he spoke Cantonese, close enough from the local dialect for him to be understood—and he was treated as an honoured guest. Having to stay overnight while a messenger went to town to bring help, he was served at dinner by the most beautiful girl in the village, one Fang Mei. By the time he left back to Liuzhou he was smitten with the shy young girl, an attraction that wasn't lost on his guests. A few weeks later, he had the surprise to see Fang brought over to his house in a bridal palanquin, with a representative from every household in Luoyun forming the escort. This was all the more unexpected as Feng was actually already married, though his wife had stayed behind in Nanjing, and having spent his formative years in the United States, considered modern monogamous marriage preferable to the traditional kind. Yet the villagers insisted and Feng found himself forced to accept in order to avoid a collective loss of face (the versions according to which Lu Rongting had to intervene personally to convince him are probably apocryphal). So Feng found himself with a concubine, a situation that his wife apparently reconciled herself with when she was informed of it. Be that as it may, when he had to choose a name for his company, he found Luoyun, which literally means Cloud-catcher, to be an auspicious one. As for Fang Mei, who was born in 1906, she is alive at the time of writing [This was in 1997; Fang Mei died of old age in 2002—editor's note].
    Another aircraft manufacturer apart from Feng took the jump from the coastline to the hinterland: Wang Zhu. After working as a designer for Shangshan from 1919 to 1925, he moved to Sichuan and founded the Chongqing Aviation Company.


    By 1921, the situation of the Chinese aircraft production sector had markedly improved: in less than a decade, it had gone from a couple of small workshops to a rapidly growing industry with Western-standard factories. However, Feng realized that China was still lagging behind Western countries in terms of research and development, and decided to address the problem by seeking a foreign manufacturer that would agree to a licensing agreement allowing its models to be assembled in China. Feng left for Europe and approached several companies in France, Britain and Germany, but the most advantageous terms were offered by a young company, Nederlandse Vliegtuigenfabriek (Dutch Aircraft Factory), founded a mere two years earlier by Anthony Fokker. The latter considered that such an agreement would give him a head start in the penetration of the potentially promising Chinese market. Feng, it turned out, was acting in his own interest as well as that of China's, since he would shortly start his own company and used his influence to obtain the production rights after leaving the CAF. In September 1922, the first of many Fokker-designed airplanes was assembled at the Luoyun factory, a D-X fighter, which was designated by the transliterated version of Fokker's name, Fouke (however, while this initial model received the same designation number as the Dutch-made originals, the convention would lapse in the following years, leading to a fair amount of confusion among aircraft buffs).

    The Fokker D-X a.k.a. the Fouke 10.

    Fokker's example was emulated in the following years by other Western manufacturers, although no significant deal would be made until the end of the decade, when Zhu Binhou's company Huanlong, as part of China's program of rearmament, signed a similar agreement with Bloch on the one hand and Dewoitine on the other. However, one Chinese company did produce original designs from the start, seaplane manufacturer Shangshan.

    2. « Aviation will unite China »: the development of civilian air transport

    This was the headline of the October 16, 1920 edition of the New China Herald, Kang Tongbi's newspaper. Two days earlier, the first Chinese commercial flight had taken place, taking eight paying passengers from Shanghai to Nanjing, and Kang expressed a widely shared opinion that the development of civilian air transport would be the next step after the building of railways in the previous decades to spread modernity throughout the Chinese territory. Indeed, in those regions that neither canals nor railways reached, the only transportation infrastructure tended to be narrow, badly-maintained dirt roads, and it was hoped that the advent of the age of aviation would enable the linking of such places to the outside world.

    The Vimy Commercial.

    This flight from Shanghai to Nanjing was the maiden route of the Shen Air Transport Company, founded in August of that year by Sir Victor Sassoon, one of Shanghai's wealthiest businessmen, who had served in World War 1 in the Royal Flying Corps and had seen his fondness for aviation rekindled by the development of an indigenous Chinese aeronautical industry. He ordered three Vimy Commercial airliners from the eponymous company, an order that was followed by another one of 12 other planes in January 1921, the Shanghai-Nanjing route having proved profitable enough to expand operations.

    Sir Victor Sassoon (1881-1961) was a member of one of the British empire's most famous business dynasties,
    the Sassoons, a family of Sephardic Jews who had moved from Baghdad to Bombay,
    and from there to Shanghai. He became a convert to Buddhism in his old age.


    In 1922, Wang Fengge 王凤阁, a veteran pilot of the Siberian Campaign from Jilin, decided to emulate Sassoon's initiative and founded Liao Air Transport Company. His first airliners were two F-61 Goliath ordered from Farman, and his maiden route, inaugurated in September 1922, was the Beijing-Tianjin one.

    The Farman F-61 Goliath.

    Five more Goliaths were purchased at the end of the year, and in 1923 Liao expanded its operations to Dairen, Shenyang and Jinan. At that point it began purchasing Fokker models produced by LAC, starting with the F-III.

    The Fokker F-III a.k.a. the Fouke 3.

    By 1925 Liao covered air transport between all the larger cities in North-East China from Dongwang to Taiyuan, and also had regular flights from Beijing to Nanjing; its fleet was upgraded with the Fokker F-VII, which remained its workhorse until the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War suspended its operations, and its aircraft were given over to the CAF.

    The Fokker F-VII a.k.a. the Fouke 7.


    In 1923, the Chinese Postal Service inaugurated its cross-country air mail service with a Beijing-Guangzhou route. Using SEA, Nieuport and other CAF surplus planes, ex-military pilots flying in shifts crossed the country in just 30 hours, compared to four days for the fastest trains. Although at first uneconomical, within a few years the operation turned a profit. Night flying began in 1926 when the route between Shanghai and Chengdu was completely lighted, and by 1932 China had over 16,000 kilometers of marked airways. On the eve of the war, China's airway system consisted of 46 major airfields, located roughly 400 kilometers apart, each lit by two floodlights of a half-billion candlepower each, one lighting the field while the other swept the horizon every 20 seconds. Small emergency fields were located every 30-50 kilometers, lit by smaller electric beacons. Small acetylene beacons were placed every five kilometers along the routes to help guide pilots. There were three major routes. The longest one, along a north-south axis, was S-shaped: it started in Boli (formerly Khabarovsk) and linked Harbin (where it branched off to Dongwang), Changchun, Shenyang, Beijing (where it branched off to Shijiazhuang and then Taiyuan), Tianjin, Jinan, Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanchang, Guangzhou, Nanning and Kunming. A second one started in Nanjing and was oriented to the north-west to Kaifeng, Zhengzhou, Xi'an and Lanzhou. A third one, also starting in Nanjing, went due west to Wuhan, Chongqing and Chengdu. After establishing the system, the Chinese Post Office sold its air mail routes to nine private contractors, although several merged in the late 1920s and early 1930s until only five companies remained, including Shen and Liao. A handful of wealthy or adventurous individuals also purchased airplanes for private use. The growth of air transport as a business led to the implementation of the Commercial Aviation Act in 1928, inspired by the Air Commerce Act passed two years earlier in the USA.

    The young country of Yakutia, like China, was hampered by a dearth of communication infrastructure, and likewise saw in aviation a way to overcome that problem; thus the development of civilian air transport in Yakutia closely followed Chinese precedent. Airports were built in the country's larger cities (Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Chita, Yakutsk and Okhotsk) and even small towns made sure they had an airstrip and the essential amenities of basic airplane maintenance. Yakutia's air postal service was set up in 1925, using surplus SEA aircraft donated or sold off by the CAF after the end of the Siberian Campaign. The founder of Yakutia's first—and for the next four decades, only—air transport company was David bar-Natayam (1896-1935), a member of the large Yakutian Jewish community who, in 1927, bought five Fokker F-VIIs from LAC and put them to use to link the country's main cities by air. The fleet of his company, Boreal Airlines, was increased to seven airplanes after a few months of operation. As a personal quirk, bar-Natayam named each of the aircraft after a Biblical angel, his fleet's flagship being the Gabriel.


    In the last years of the 1920s, aviation had progressed to the point where long-distance international flights were no longer the privilege of record-breaking pilots, and were accessible to ordinary (if wealthy) passengers. Already in 1926 regular flights had started between Guangzhou and Hanoi, and between Shanghai and Tokyo via Seoul and Osaka. In 1927 a flight between Beijing and Yakutsk via Chita was inaugurated, and in 1928 Nanjing became the terminus of a flight that started in London and went across Europe, the Middle East, India and South-East Asia. China Imperial Airlines, founded in 1926 with lavish government subsidies, specialized from the start in international flights and was considered a showcase by the new regime. Paradoxically, this led to the company purchasing at one point two high-end aircraft from a foreign manufacturer rather than a domestic one: Handley-Page received an order in October 1929 for two HP-42s, which were delivered in March 1930 and became China Imperial Airlines' flagships.

    The Handley-Page HP-42.

    Yet their lives as civilian airliners would turn out to be a short one: both were pressed into service as military transports for the CAF in 1934. One crashed during a flight to Rangoon in 1941; the other remained in military use until 1945, when it was retroceded to its civilian owner. It was put to use one last time in 1947 to fly on a nostalgia tour around China, a souvenir of an earlier age of aviation that drew crowds wherever it landed, and was donated in 1948 to the National Aviation Museum in Nanjing. It can be seen to this day in the museum's entrance hall, where it never fails to awe visitors with its classic elegance.

    3. An idea whose time would come: airships

    While lighter-than-air flight would only begin to play a noticeable part in Chinese aviation after the 1970s, it too can boast of a long history. A very long one in fact, since China can rightfully claim to have invented the concept to begin with: the first recorded instances of what one may call proto-hot air balloons date from the Three Kingdoms period. In that troubled era that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in the third century CE, military strongman Zhuge Liang is credited with using paper lanterns filled with hot air as a signaling device, and those are known to this day as Kongming lanterns after Zhuge's courtesy name (although Sinologist Joseph Needham claims that such lanterns may in fact have been in use as early as the third century BCE, which would make them contemporary with the invention of paper itself). Regrettably, no indigenous attempt was ever made to apply the principle to human flight, and the breakthrough was left for a Frenchman to make, a millennium and a half later. The first time a manned balloon flew in China was in 1885, when Hua Hengfang, a mathematician and scientist, built his own hydrogen blimp based on Western experiments. Then in 1905, Zhang Zhidong, a reform-minded official, bought two reconnaissance balloons from Japan for his provincial army.

    Song Ziwen a.k.a. T.V. Soong (1894-1956).

    But the next stage in the history of lighter-than-air transport in China only came in 1928 when Song Ziwen 宋子文 a.k.a. T. V. Soong, a prominent Shanghai businessman, decided to invest in a dirigible airline. He ordered two airships from the Goodyear Zeppelin company in Akron, Ohio; the first one was delivered in December 1928, the second in April 1929.

    The Peregrine on its maiden flight.

    Song named his company Tianzhou and inaugurated two lines, one from Shanghai to San Francisco via Tokyo and Honolulu, and the other from Shanghai to London via Singapore, Karachi and Cairo. The second line was terminated when the dirigible, the Peregrine, was caught in a storm over the Arabian desert on February 16, 1934, and crashed, causing the death of all passengers and crew (two of the passengers were the noted Indian poet Muhammad Iqbal and political activist Muhammad Ali Jinnah; Iqbal had just convinced Jinnah to end his self-imposed exile in London, and the two were returning to India together). The first line was likewise suspended three months later (the stopover at Tokyo had been discontinued in 1932), when the Japanese invasion of China prompted Song to put his other dirigible, the Xanadu, at the service of the Chinese war effort, transporting strategic supplies. It flew a transpolar route across Yakutia, the Arctic Ocean and Canada to the USA for five years, but was destroyed in its hangar during a Japanese bombing raid in 1939.

    4. Early experimentations with aircraft carriers

    The early history of Chinese aeronaval forces is, at best, a checkered one. Since 1894 and the defeat at the Battle of the Yalu River against the Japanese, the Qing dynasty had abandoned its earlier ambitions to build up a powerful Navy, and when the Qian took over, political considerations caused that state of affair to remain largely unchanged. Paradoxically, the Navy's decent performance at the Battle of Qingdao in 1914 (largely due to the presence of British reinforcements) further convinced the new regime that a radical overhaul of the Chinese military fleet wasn't a priority, a miscalculation that would have costly long-term consequences. But the more influential figures at the Chinese Chiefs of Staff, whether Li Yuanhong, Wu Peifu or others were former Beiyang officers and as such Army men who made sure that the bulk of China's military spending went to their corps; as for Feng Ru or Yang Xianyi, they were busy enough developing the Air Force.

    The next war would demonstrate the importance of the aircraft carrier as a weapon—if used correctly. But the Qian dynasty's interest in aircraft carriers stemmed from their sheer novelty value, and little thought was actually put into developing a coherent doctrine of aeronaval warfare. In such a context, the decision to build aircraft carriers turned out to be a counterproductive one, as the Navy was already on a overly tight budget, and the cost of the operation was taken from funds earmarked for the purchase of new submarines (decommissioned submarines had already been bought from Britain and the USA in the immediate post-war years, but the order for new ones, passed in 1922, was cancelled). By 1923 China was building its first carrier, converted from a civilian freighter. It was named the Kun, in reference to the opening sentence of first chapter of the Zhuangzi: "In the northern ocean there is a fish called Kun, I do not know how many thousand li in size. Kun changes into a bird called Peng. Its back is I do not know how many thousand li in breadth. When it is moved, it flies, its wings obscuring the sky like clouds." Three more followed in 1924, 1925 and 1927 (the last two ones purpose-designed as carriers rather than converted from pre-existing ships), but all four, at under 12,000 tons, were of comparatively modest size. Two seaplane tenders were purchased as well (one of them a decommissioned British ship, the Raven II).

    The aircraft on the four carriers were supposed to be Fokker D-X, but attempts to navalize the fighters proved unsatisfactory, and Fairy Flycatchers were instead bought from Britain. In 1928, Huanlong designed a single-seat, parasol-wing naval fighter, the Type 2, which was adopted as the Navy's standard fighter, leading to the Flycatchers being phased out. But the seaplanes were from the start domestically designed, as they were Shangshan SS-9.

    5. The coming storm

    When 1930 began, it was obvious to the Chinese that Japan, badly shaken by the Depression that had begun the previous year, was embarking on a warlike course. With the earlier plans for military modernization having been for the most part put on hold after the end of the Siberian Campaign, China once again found itself in need of updating its arsenal. As far as its aeronautical sector was concerned, that meant, on the one hand, reprioritizing the production of military aircraft over civilian ones, and on the other completing the unfinished relocation of factories away from the vulnerable coastal provinces. China's largest aircraft manufacturer, Feng Ru's LAC, was out of harm's way in Guangxi, and Wang Zhu's CAC had been based from the start in Sichuan, but Huanlong and Shangshan's factories were both within range of a naval attack, and their relocation was ordered: Huanlong to Chongqing, and Shangshan to Changde. The reassembly of the facilities was over by early 1931, but solving the logistical issues involved took several more months, during which production fell behind schedule.

    Compounding the problem was the fact that Guoxing, who had succeeded his father on the Dragon Throne in 1927, tried to take advantage of Tan Yankai's replacement as prime minister by Yan Xishan in 1930 to reclaim decision-making powers that Jianguo had gradually delegated to his ministers and top civil servants. Guoxing's micromanagement extended to military issues and in particular to the aeronautical sector; he was eventually talked out of nationalizing the entire sector outright, but his decision to appoint imperial commissars to the board of administrators of strategic industries, while useful in the medium term as it facilitated the rationalization of China's wartime economy after 1934, led to serious management problems in the short term, worsening the disruption of the Chinese aeronautical sector among others. Its reorganization would only be over by mid-1933, at which point the war had begun. The fact that the fighting was initially limited to the Sino-Korean border bought Chinese aircraft manufacturers some time to catch up with the backlog, but in May 1934 Japan launched Operation Toryu.


    Part III: 1934-1945
    The Crucible of War

    1. Hard-learned lessons

    The Second Sino-Japanese War began on April 4, 1933 when the last one of a long series of border incidents on the Yalu River, staged by elements of the IJA seeking a casus belli, snowballed into an exchange of artillery fire, and then into overt conflict. Ironically, the very first aircraft to be involved in what would become a decade-long total war, a brand-new CAC Type 20 observation plane, was destroyed on the ground when an artillery shell hit the hangar it was in. The Japanese launched a ground offensive across the Yalu river the next day, but were stopped by well-prepared Chinese forces, who had taken advantage of the difficult terrain to entrench themselves in defensive positions. A counteroffensive then successfully pushed back the Japanese to the border, though at high cost, the Japanese artillery proving deadly against troops in the open. However, when a new Japanese attempt at breakthrough didn’t materialize, the Chinese high command concluded that the “Three Island Devils” had been taught a lesson, and that the conflict could now be expected to de-escalate.

    The CAC Type 20 was based on a French prototype, the Loire 30, whose unusual design was intended to optimize loitering capabilities.
    Deliberately intended to have a slow cruising speed, this feature turned out to make it unsuitable for frontline deployment,
    and it was relegated to rear missions such as patrolling the Sino-Soviet and Soviet-Yakutian borders after spring 1934.

    The mood of self-congratulation could not have been more mistaken. Stung by what they saw as a humiliating failure, the Japanese military, by that point almost wholly independent from civilian oversight, began planning their next move. While keeping the pretence of having been cowed by their failed attempt, they elaborated an ambitious multi-front combined land and amphibious offensive, codenamed Operation Toryu (Dragon Slayer). The operation was fully a year in the making and required complex logistical preparations. It would consist of an initial strike against the Chinese Navy, immediately followed by troop landings in Dongwang, Dairen, Tianjin, Qingdao, Shanghai and Xiamen, while a two-pronged attack cut off the defenders of the Sino-Korean border from their rear and a lightning move along the Manchurian railway secured the strategic Shenyang-Changchun-Harbin axis.

    D-Day was May 11, 1934. The carefully laid plan paid off for the Japanese; while the Chinese were able to repulse the beachheads in Xiamen and Shanghai after several days of heavy fighting, thus preserving the Yangzi heartland and the southern provinces from invasion, in the North the Japanese successfully encircled the bulk of the forces deployed along the Korean border, and within a mere few weeks were in control of most of Manchuria. Victory at sea was just as sweeping, and on those fateful days the Chinese paid the price of underfunding their Navy, and especially of misallocating what funds were granted to medium aircraft carriers without developing a coherent doctrine for areonaval warfare. Slower than Japanese carriers, and with an inadequate escort fleet, the Chinese carriers were sunk one after the other despite the skill of individual pilots; further, while the Huanlong Type 19 could (barely) match the Nakajima A2N one-on-one, it couldn’t hope to prevail in lopsided fights, with Japanese planes outnumbering Chinese ones three or four to one. An even more egregious mistake was the disastrous use of an objectively well-suited weapon, the submarine, but this falls outside of the scope of our work. Let us just observe that it took the IJN less than two weeks to sink over 80% of Chinese ships, whether aircraft carriers, surface warships or submarines; of the six carriers then in China’s arsenal, none, including the venerable Kun, made it to the end of May 1934. With its mastery of the seas undisputed, Japan was able to exploit the beachheads of Dongwang, Dairen, Tianjin and Qingdao, and also to secure the Yakutian coastline.

    The Huanlong Type 19 was a parasol-wing fighter.

    However, if the areonaval battles of the early Second Sino-Japanese War were a one-sided affair, even in the unfavorable circumstances, the CAF managed to prove a tough adversary for the Japanese air force over land. While the role of the CAF in the overall strategic developments was less than one would expect due to organizational deficiencies in coordination between the Air Force and the Army, Japan failed to achieve control of China’s air space in that critical early phase of the war, and would never achieve it until its eventual surrender. Against Japan’s Kawasaki Type 92, a plane actually designed by German engineer Richard Vogt, China had the Huanlong Type 21, based on the D-560, a Dewoitine prototype. Another fighter plane widely used by the CAF at the time was the Luoyun Model 5 (sometimes inaccurately referred to as the Fouke-17), a copy of the Fokker DXVII.

    The Huanlong Type 21 was appreciated for its exceptional maneuverability, though some pilots disliked the gull-shaped wing, which impaired visibility.

    The Luoyun Model 5.

    On an anecdotal note, the commander of the IJAAF China Air Regiment at the time of Operation Toryu was Gen. Shigeno Kiyotake, a former comrade-in-arms of Zhu Binhou’s: both had served as fighter pilots under French colors during the Great War. He died in 1939, killed by Chinese partisans while stationed in Shandong.

    Shigeno Kiyotake as a pilot on the European front during World War 1.


    The second half of the 1930s saw aviation progressing by leaps and bounds, and both China and Japan struggled to keep up, each trying to gain an edge on the other. Japan had the advantage in terms of domestic R&D, and China made up for it by courting Western manufacturers for licensing rights to their latest designs more aggressively than ever. The two countries' air forces were locked in a death struggle for aerial supremacy in East Asia's skies, and each new model deployed by one side was countered within months by the other.

    For the CAF, the war came as a realization that despite the conclusions drawn in the previous two decades, air power alone was unable to turn the tide of war. The idea of bringing an enemy to surrender by crushing its industries under a rain of bombs, originally developed by Giulio Douhet and enthusiastically adopted both by the Chinese high command and Western strategists, failed to meet the test of reality. In accordance with the latest French and British military theories, China had equipped itself with a fleet of strategic bombers, initially Vicker Vimys, then Boulton/Paul P-75 Sidestrands, and when the war began those had been further upgraded to Overstrands; and just as the Japanese offensive was smashing through Chinese lines in the summer of 1934, more aircraft were being ordered from French company Potez, the first P-543 being delivered in January 1935. Squadron after squadron was, for the following year, sent to destroy factories in Korea, and also in Manchuria, where most of the industrial infrastructure had fallen intact in Japanese hands, there having been no time to blow them up. But by mid-1935 the conclusion was inescapable: a few dozen tons of bombs at a time, with most of them missing their targets altogether, amounted to little more than pin pricks to the Japanese war machine; even when the targeted factory or railway station was actually hit, often it would be back in operation in a matter of days. And before long anti-aircraft guns were protecting them, requiring bombing runs to be done at higher altitudes, further decreasing accuracy.

    The Potez P-543 in Chinese use.

    The military mind is by training and inclination stubborn, and follows the Confucian dictum: if at first you don't succeed, try again. If strategic bombing failed to make the expected impact when conducted with current aircraft, newer ones were needed. Up to then China took the easy road of importing its bombers from Western manufacturers, but with the orders increasingly exceeding the latter’s peacetime production capabilities, more and more license agreements for domestic production were signed for that type of aircraft as well—significantly adding to the demands placed on Chinese manufacturers. License-produced bombers would include the Bristol Bombay from July 1936, the Handley-Page HP-54 Harrow from March 1937, the Vickers Wellington from June 1938, and the Farman C-222 from October 1939; in some cases the airplanes thus produced would be deployed even earlier than in their respective home countries.

    The Luoyun LY-10, Chinese version of the Bristol Bombay.

    However, due to the American government’s reluctance at allowing a foreign company to assemble what was then considered the US Air Force’s most advanced bomber, no such agreement was signed for the Martin B-10, and China had to wait until the export version was cleared for overseas sale in February 1937. Yet none of these bombers, advanced though they were, proved to be the eagerly awaited breakthrough, and with aeronautical technology progressing at such a fast pace, they typically tended to face obsolescence within a couple of years at best of getting their baptism of fire. Worse still, the advent of the next generation of Japanese fighters, faster and more heavily armed, meant that daytime bombing raids faced increasingly effective interception over enemy territory. Finally, in 1940, the breakthrough came in an unlikely form.


    The momentum of Japan’s advance into Chinese territory did not stall until the Battle of Kaifeng, which raged from August to November 1935[1]. Even though it was at best a Pyrrhic victory for China, it did break the pace of the Japanese army’s progression, and turned the war from one of movement into one of attrition. China’s infantry bore the brunt of the fighting and suffered most of the casualties, but the CAF played an important role by successfully, if at great cost, denying Japan control over the battlefield’s airspace. In prevision of the battle, Gen. Yang had assigned to the defense of Kaifeng N°6 Group (a.k.a. Central Group) of the CAF. N°6, under the leadership of Col. Gao Zhihang, would soon become famous under the name of Shen Feng 神風, the Spirit Winds. At first a self-attributed informal nickname, by the time the battle was over, the survivors were reorganized into a formal unit. During the vicious three-month battle, the Japanese vainly tried to take the city from Chinese defenders who kept receiving reinforcements from the South, and control of the city’s air space was vital to the protection of Chinese supply lines as well as point defense against ground attack planes and tactical bombers. The Shen Feng flew on the Huanlong Type 21, then the most advanced fighter in the CAF’s arsenal (the Type 22 wouldn’t be deployed until the very end of the year, too late for the battle).

    While the fierce air battles took place in Northeastern China, and the Japanese advance inexorably progressed towards the Yellow River heartlands, China’s entire military apparatus scrambled to meet the challenge. Just as new conscripts were rushed to the front and weapons factories churned out small arms by the millions (and what few heavy industries remained in Chinese control were hastily commandeered to produce war material), Chinese aircraft manufacturers kept their facilities running round the clock to meet the insatiable demands of modern war, under the watchful gaze of imperial commissars. Those provided a useful, if often overbearing, interface with the central government, and though their presence in previous years had been a hindrance rather than a help, they did now facilitate the shift to a war economy. The production of civilian aircraft was cancelled overnight in order to focus on military models, and representatives from Chinese aircraft manufacturers scoured Western trade partners for newer models to license-produce, alongside delegates of the Chinese governments who seeked export agreements for foreign-made ones.

    The war in Asia, in that regard, was a godsend for Western companies struggling with a depressed domestic market. Luoyun purchased licensing rights for Fokker models barely at the prototype level, Huanlong expanded its business deals with Dewoitine in order to acquire the rights to the forthcoming D-510 (which it would produce as the Type 22), and CAC signed a contract with the Douglas Aircraft Company for the licensing rights of the DC-2 (soon to be followed by those of the C-47). Meanwhile, seaplane manufacturer Shangshan kept developing its own designs, such as the SS-7, a Chinese analog to the Loire 130 and the Supermarine Walrus.

    The Huanlong Type 22.

    Luoyun released the LY-9 Puji 普及 (i.e. the Fokker Universal) in 1935 in the hope of getting government contracts for transport planes, but those mostly went to CAC, whose Feima 飛馬 “Flying Horse” 1 and 2, as its DC-2 and C-47 were known, turned out to be much better suited to the CAF’s needs. A few LY-9s were ordered, but the unremarkable plane remained a fairly rare sight compared to the ubiquitous Feima. After the war, decommissioned Feima’s would become the workhorse of civilian Chinese airlines alongside the KNAW Tieniu 鐵牛 “Iron Ox” (i.e. the Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando), another wildly successful transport plane in the later years of the war who would enjoy a long and fruitful second career in the civilian sector for decades to come.

    The KNAW Tieniu.

    A third such plane was the unprepossessing but indispensable KNAW Beifangren 北方人, the local version of the Noorduyn Norseman—a rugged light transport and utility aircraft, ideally suited to providing an air link with remote garrisons and partisan cells operating behind enemy lines, which would remain in military use well into the 1960s, and which could still be seen operating in the backwaters of the Chinese and Yakutian hinterlands as late as the 1990s.
    Luoyun would have more luck in the fighter plane department; although it had suffered from Huanlong’s competition after the beginning of the war, it scored a major success with the release of the Model 6, the Chinese version of the Fokker D-XXI, in 1936. The airplane wasn’t exactly cutting-edge, with its mixed construction of metal, wood and canvas, let alone its non-retractable landing gear, but it came cheap and could be churned out in large numbers; and it was every bit as good as the newest Japanese fighter of the time, the Nakajima Ki-27. It formed the backbone of the CAF’s fighter force from 1937 to 1940, until being outclassed for good by newer Japanese aircraft such as the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa and especially the Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, better known as the Zero.

    The Luoyun Model 6.

    The Zero proved a serious challenge to the Chinese air force, but one that it was able to meet thanks to the latest model out of Huanlong’s assembly lines, the Type 29, namely the Chinese version of the Dewoitine D-520. The first ones were available for deployment in December 1939, and immediately showed their potential. While not quite a match for the Zero in terms of speed, it could meet it as an equal in terms of maneuverability and armament, and was somewhat better at taking punishment than its Japanese counterpart. Upgraded versions based on the D-550 prototype would be available from late 1941, but it would within months of its initial deployment be joined in the CAF’s inventory by the Bake-15, and the two planes would turn out to be perfect complements for each other: where one was agile but on the light side, the other was tough and hard-hitting, but wanting in sheer dogfighting abilities.

    [1] See Flocculencio's story "Bloody Kaifeng".

    2. Crawling back from oblivion: Chinese aeronaval forces after 1934

    In a mere couple of weeks in May 1934, the Chinese Navy had ceased to exist as a fighting force, paying the price for two decades of underfunding and misplaced priorities. History had repeated itself, and the naval part of the Second Sino-Japanese War had played out much like the first time around forty years earlier. The decision in the 1920s to deploy aircraft carriers rather than upgrade the brownwater surface fleet and acquire more submarines, had turned out to be an ill-thought-out investment in instruments of power projection, and a counterproductive one absent a coherent doctrine for using them. By early June 1934, what few aircraft remained from China's aeronaval forces were operating from landside bases.

    China's carrier-based aircraft then consisted of Huanlong Type 2 parasol-wing fighters, Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers, Hawker Hart light bombers and some Fairey III spotter planes. Apart from the Huanlong, which was produced in domestic factories, the other planes were imported from Britain; this difference in policy from the CAF, which generally preferred to acquire domestic license-made versions of foreign aircraft rather than import them outright, wasn't a deliberate decision, but the result of the Navy being so neglected that hardly any of the aircraft it needed had had requests submitted for Chinese production under license--so they were simply bought from the original manufacturers themselves.

    Only a handful of fighers had survived the Japanese onslaught, and the losses of carrier-based torpedo bombers were barely less catastrophic: at that point only 16 were still operational. However, if China's amphibious aircraft had also suffered serious losses, a higher proportion had survived the first phase of Operation Toryu. Those consisted of Shangshan patrol flying boats, and a few Latécoère 290 torpedo bomber floatplanes imported from France that had entered service just a few months earlier.

    Reconstituting the Chinese aeronaval forces would be a long process. The short-term priority was obviously put on land-based and amphibious planes, carrier-based ones being a moot point for the time being. Even China's seaplane tenders were just a memory; all of two were left, one having been in dry dock at the beginning of the offensive, and the other having miraculously evaded every attempt to sink it. With the Japanese in control of both the seas and the skies over them, the most that could realistically be achieved was hit-and-run harrassment of isolated naval targets. For that purpose new torpedo and light bombers were necessary.


    The Ouchao (鷗巢), formerly the Raven II, one of only two Chinese seaplane tenders to survive Operation Toryu.
    It became a floating museum after the war.

    One plane that had proved its mettle throughout those catastrophic weeks was the Hart. Although it had initially been deployed as a level bomber, its pilots had discovered that it could be used as an ad hoc dive bomber in a pinch--just after discovering that level bombing is so inaccurate as to be of little use against maritime targets. So the British plane was at the top of the list of emergency orders. Another lesson that was learned the hard way was the vulnerability of torpedo bombers when attacking well-defended military vessels, or when confronted to enemy interception: such planes were comparatively slow and unwieldy, and in order to launch their torpedo had to fly in a straight line at low speed and altitude. Nevertheless, in the absence of a suitable alternative, more were ordered: Fairey Seals from Britain (orders of the newer Swordfish would follow starting in 1936) and Latécoère 290 from France.

    After May 1934, having achieved mastery of the seas, the Japanese Navy moved on to blockading the Chinese coastline and providing close-up support to the struggling beachheads at Shanghai and Xiamen. Both were ultimately pushed back by the Chinese after heavy fighting, but the blockade itself was successful: Chinese ports were submitted to shelling and bombardments that destroyed their facilities, and any vessel whether military or civilian was sunk on sight. Only Hong Kong was spared, but it was submitted to a partial interdiction, the Japanese claiming the right to search foreign ships at will and impound them if found carrying military supplies. Although this violation of international law predictably caused an outcry, Western powers decided not to press the issue and by mid-1934, importations of military materiel via Hong Kong had almost completely stopped (the odd smuggling ring notwithstanding), and China had to get its supplies via French Indochina and Yakutia.

    The escalation of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1934 was one of the factors leading the US Congress to pass the first of several Neutrality Acts at the end of that year. American policy makers, backed up by public opinion, wished to avoid the kind of entanglement that had resulted in US involvement in the Great War in 1917, and sales of "weapons, ammunitions and implements of war" to either party were henceforth prohibited. However, the definition of what constitutes an "implement of war" remained vague enough that export of such materials as iron and oil were still allowed--a situation that in practice disproportionately benefited Japan. What China needed most was weapons, and it was now unable to import them from American sources. Neither country initially declared war, precisely out of concern for the threat of trade embargoes, but the fact that the US already applied the Neutrality Act to both in acknowledgement of the de facto state of war in East Asia, was one of the reasons China eventually decided to formally do it in January 1935.

    China had previously ascertained that its European partners would remain willing to sell it war materiel even in a situation of formally declared war: the advantages of exporting strategic equipment to a belligerent were considered to outweigh any moral objection whether in France, Britain, the Netherlands or more junior trading partners. As regards naval matters, this meant that for the following five years, the bulk of the new ships purchased by China to reconstitute its decimated Navy were assembled in the shipyards of Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire and Vickers-Armstrongs. This time around, the emphasis was put on light cruisers, submarines and torpedo boats, in other words the essential elements of a bare-bones brownwater navy; no new aicraft carrier would sail under Chinese colors until 1945.

    Scrambling to replenish its flying stock as fast as possible, the Chinese Navy gave little consideration to standardization and just bought whatever was available. This resulted in its aeronaval forces being equipped with a hodgepodge of aircraft and endless logistical nightmares for the hapless repair crews; many planes would end up with jury-rigged quick fixes in the absence of the required spare parts. This situation wasn't as disruptive as it might have been since China's aeronaval forces operated until late in the war as relatively small units dispersed among a number of coastal bases. A measure of rationalization was gradually introduced and a habit was made of issuing aircraft from a single given manufacturer to a given base; thus, for example, Quanzhou Base in Fujian mostly used Fairey aircraft (initially Seals, then Swordfishes, then an assortment of Albacores and Barracudas), while Wusong Base near Shanghai mostly used Shangshan aircraft (from the SS-9 in 1934 to the SS-12 in 1943) although in the last two years of the war its torpedo bomber fleet was largely made of Grumman Avengers, reflecting the growing reliance on American Lend-Lease materiel after the US entered the war.

    3. The more you KNAW

    Yao Sijiu 姚思久 a.k.a. Yao Si Kiou was one of Zhu Binhou’s fellow graduates of the Aéro-Club de France, and had been hired by Feng Ru as a flight instructor upon his return to China in February 1914. After eight years in the Air Force, he had followed Feng in the private sector and become a manager at Luoyun. In July 1936, he was approached by the Ministry of Aviation to take the direction of a newly-created state-owned aircraft manufacturing company, as the demand for military planes exceeded the manufacturing capabilities of the so-called “Big Four”, namely Luoyun, Huanlong, CAC and Shangshan. This new company was based in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, and appropriately named Guiyang National Aeronautical Works (Guiyang Guoli Hankong Gongchang 貴陽國立航空工廠), and began operating in April 1937. Fortunately for its English-language acronym, Guiyang was then spelled Kweiyang.

    The company initially produced Luoyun and Huanlong aircraft, but Yao had remained in touch with French graduates of the Aéro-Club, one of whom had become an employee of Marcel Bloch, and took advantage of the privileged access it gave him to sign an agreement with the newly-founded Société Anonyme des Avions Marcel Bloch or SAAMB. In 1939 KNAW acquired the license to manufacture MB-152 fighters, though only a handful had been assembled when, in February 1940, the company began manufacturing the more advanced MB-155 instead. Unusually, the local version was named after the transliterated version of the original designer’s name, a practice that had fallen in disuse by the mid-1920s; so the aircraft rolling off KNAW’s assembly lines at Guiyang were known as Bake-15.

    The KNAW Bake-15.

    Then, in April 1940, only weeks before SAAMB’s factories were captured by the invading Wehrmacht, KNAW was sold the blueprints of the experimental MB-157, then under development. A prototype was assembled in China, and after some fine-tuning turned out to be an exceptional plane; production began in December 1940 and by the following March, the Bake-17 flew its first combat sorties. It would be one of the best fighters used in the Asian theater, the Chinese analog to the P-47 Thunderbolt, in marked contrast, as seen above, with the Huanlong Type 29, which was rather a Chinese analog to the Supermarine Spitfire.

    The KNAW Bake-17. The Mk. II version displayed here, which was deployed in 1942, had replaced the original razorback layout inherited from the Bake-15 by a bubbletop one, giving the pilot better rear visibility. Powered by a Gnôme-Rhône 14R engine, it could reach a top speed of 620 km/h, though like its predecessors was hampered by a comparatively limited range of 1095 km without drop tanks. Like the Bake-15, it relied on sheer speed and raw firepower rather than manoeuverability, and came with a heavier armament of four 20 mm cannons and up to 12 rockets (those being the air-to-air version of the aforementioned Baobao). It could also carry two 450 kg bombs when used as a fighter-bomber or ground attack plane.

    One pet project of Yao Sijiu was a prototype he had come across during his 1937 business trip to France, an experimental helicopter developed by aviation pioneer Louis Bréguet in partnership with René Dorand, the Gyroplane Laboratoire. Yao became interested in the concept and, back in China, set up a research department at KNAW to develop the idea further. A copy of the Gyroplane was assembled and used as a test bed for rotor sustentation. Most further helicopter models designed by Yao’s team would use a similar configuration, namely contra-rotating co-axial rotors, though later on the twin rotor design would also be used. The department initially received little funding, as developing helicopter prototypes wasn’t considered a priority by the Chinese government, and KNAW was expected to focus on fighter aircraft production rather than what was perceived as useless R&D; as a result progress was slow. But the expertise acquired by the department’s engineers came in handy in 1940 when Luoyun began work on a prototype inspired by the Fokker DXXIII and struggled to come up with a workable dual coaxial propeller system: KNAW lent its helicopter team to Feng’s company, and for the next two years they would provide invaluable help to the development of the LY-66 Fuchou 復仇 (Vengeance), China’s most remarkable domestically designed plane of the war, and a superb heavy fighter who would certainly have become the workhorse of the CAF had not an even better plane come up in the meantime—the Wen 蚊, a.k.a. the Mosquito.

    The concept of the Fuchou was originally inspired by a Fokker airplane, the D-XXIII, but rather than copying it, the Chinese went back to the drawing board and completely re-designed it from the ground up. The idea was to exploit to the fullest the pusher propeller design by using the available space in the nose to cram as heavy an armament as possible: four cal. 50 machine guns and two 20 mm cannons. However, the finicky twin propellers required lengthy adjustments, and the two engines' configuration made them prone to overheating. With all the glitches that had to be addressed, the aircraft wasn't ready for deployment until early 1942.

    The LY-66 Fuchou Mk.II, developed in late 1943, featured a number of improvements over the initial version, notably an all-cannon armament of four 20-mm cannons and wing-mounted radiators.

    The research on helicopters had in the meantime been brought to a standstill, but it resumed with a vengeance in 1942. By that time the sense of urgency of the previous phase of the war had gone, replaced by confidence that the conflict would eventually be won, and that technological innovation could help end it sooner. KNAW’s helicopter department finally started to receive decent funding, and in June 1943, an operational prototype went to field-testing. It entered production by January 1944 and was deployed on the front lines as the Ying 蠅 or Fly, a single-seat observation helicopter. It was followed shortly after the end of the war by the Qingting 蜻蜓 or Dragonfly, a two-seater twin-rotor model.

    The KNAW Ying.

    The KNAW Qingting.

    4. Rocket Men

    Like the Russians before them, the Bolsheviks took to using short-range solid-fuel rockets as air-to-ground weapons, and some were used against Chinese forces during the Siberian campaign. When Zhu De’s forces seized a stock of such rockets in late 1918, the officer had them examined. Zhu Binhou, who had used similar rockets as a French pilot on the Western front a few years before (though against Zeppelins rather than in any air-to-ground capacity), mentioned that they might make promising weapons if their inaccuracy could be remedied. Some small-scale experimentation was done on the spot, but the results were inconclusive. However, Zhu De retained an interest in rocketry, having further experiments conducted in the following years. In 1922, after the Siberian campaign had wound down, Zhu De, by then a colonel, lobbied the Ministry of Defense to set up a research laboratory on rocketry. Formally named the Fire Dragon Institute (after the Huolongjing, of a compendium of Ming dynasty weapons that included ground-to-ground rockets), it began operating the following year under the direction of a graduate engineer from Nanjing University, Wu Youxun, who hired two former classmates of his, Cai Qiao and Tang Zhongming. Under the ongoing patronage of Zhu De, who would become a general in 1931, the Institute grew in size and attracted promising young researchers such as Zhao Zhongyao.

    Actual use of rockets by the Chinese military remained marginal until 1936. Persistent problems with accuracy thwarted their use as an air-to-ground weapon, and conventional wisdom in the Army was that rockets were inferior to conventional artillery. The situation changed dramatically in the first two years of the Second Sino-Japanese War, when Operation Toryu enabled Japan to conquer Manchuria and the North-Central home provinces, thus taking control of the bulk of China’s industrial base. This had serious consequences for China’s response to the invasion. A large-scale land war required artillery, and what was left of China did not have the iron resources or industrial potential required to manufacture artillery at anything like the the rate at which they were lost, destroyed or simply in need of spare parts (ammunition supply could keep up, if just barely). After the three-month-long battle of Kaifeng, which, despite being a tactical victory for China, came at too high a cost in lives and equipment to exploit the halt of the Japanese advance that resulted from it, the Chinese arsenal was severely depleted by way of artillery.

    Zhu De convinced his fellow chiefs of staff that rockets had now become a suitable alternative, and boosted funding and staff for the Fire Dragon Institute. A new batch of young graduate engineers, among them Zhao Jiuzhang, Wang Ganchang and Cai Jintao, joined in 1935, but it was with the joining of Lin Tonghua and Liang Shuquan in 1936 that the final breakthroughs allowing rockets to become effective tactical weapons were made.

    Liang Shuquan was a chemist who, after graduating from Yanjing University in 1933, had gone to MIT for his Ph.D. While there, he had befriended a fellow Chinese postgraduate student, Qian Xuesen, who pursued a degree in aeronautical engineering. By their last year at MIT, Liang had come to share Qian’s budding interest for rocket propulsion, which the latter would study further at the California Institute of Technology; but while Qian’s dream was to build space rockets, Liang had a more pragmatic focus: helping their country win the war. After Liang’s return to China in 1936 to join the war effort as a military researcher, he was assigned to the rocket program. With fellow chemist Lin’s help, he started work on a stable enough fuel for the missiles; and though several months of trial and error were necessary, the two men eventually found a suitable formula.

    In late 1937, the first field trials began, using launchers made of multiple parallel tubes. The weapon system was named the Hongliu 紅榴 (“red pomegranate”) after the name given to rockets in the Huolongjing, but before long it was famously if informally known as the Baobao 雹暴 (“hailstorm”). Large-scale deployment began in spring 1938.

    The Baobao had several advantages over conventional artillery: both the rockets and the launchers were very inexpensive to produce and could be assembled in small factories and even workshops. While the rockets themselves were somewhat fragile, the launchers were simple contraptions that required little maintenance and few spare parts. And while the Baobao was significantly less accurate than a cannon, it was very useful both for hit-and-run attacks and saturation fire. By 1939, it had superseded conventional artillery in the Chinese Army’s arsenal.

    The launchers were initially put on artillery chassis and towed by whichever means were available; when no truck was at hand, a team of coolies would do the job. However, in 1940, Xu Lei, an Army captain, had the idea of putting his launchers on the back of WAW (Wuhan Automobile Works) Model 8 trucks, a license-produced version of the Austin K-3 truck that was then becoming the Chinese military’s all-purpose workhorse. The idea caught on and, while many Baobao remained affixed to artillery chassis in order to be deployed in areas where no vehicles were available or where terrain was too poor for trucks, most launchers were found on the back of Model 8 trucks after 1940. By 1942, with the Lend-Lease program in full swing, China was the recipient of thousands of Studebaker 6-Ton trucks, and the newer trucks soon replaced the Model 8s as the standard Baobao carriers. Coincidentally, the Soviets were at the same time putting their own Studebaker trucks to a similar role as carriers of Katyusha rocket launchers.

    The truck-mounted version of the Baobao. The truck in this case is a WAW Model 10, an unofficial knock-off of the Studebaker developed in the closing months of the war.

    There was a psychological aspect to the Baobao as well. The weapon proved a morale-booster to the Chinese troops, and the phrase "We've sent them a hailstorm" was soldiers' slang for "We've blown them to bits". Conversely, the Baobao was greatly feared on the receiving end, and the Japanese learned to duck for cover whenever they heard the telltale high-pitched screaming sounds of the rockets; many a Japanese veteran would have aural flashbacks for years afterwards, to the point of necessitating a ban on fireworks in many Japanese cities after the end of the war.

    5. Women pilots in the war

    The first woman pilot in China wasn’t, surprisingly, Chinese—nor was she a Westerner. Her name was Kwon Ki-ok 權基玉 [1], and she was Korean. Born in Pyongyang in 1901, she was inspired to learn to fly after seeing a 1917 aerobatics demonstration by American stunt pilot Art Smith. The following year, she participated in the March 1 movement, for which she spent three weeks in jail; after her release, she assisted with fundraising activities for the Korean Patriotic Women's Association, as a result of which she was arrested and imprisoned for six months. Upon her release, she went into exile in China, where she enrolled in the Hongdao Women's School in Nanjing, operated by American missionary Ellen Peterson, in order to learn Chinese and English. She completed a four-year course of study in just two years.

    Kwon Ki-ok in 1925.

    In 1923, at the recommendation of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai, she entered the Air Force Academy in Chongqing, graduating in 1925. She was the only woman in her class. In the following years, as the Japanese were using another female Korean pilot, Park Jyong-won, as a willing propaganda tool, China retaliated by putting Kwon to similar use.

    Park Jyong-won.

    While Park promoted the idea of Korea as a Japanese province, Kwon embodied the spirit of national independence (under Chinese aegis, of course). The two women became each other’s nemeses, although they would only meet for the first and last time in 1938, at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Park had been assigned patrol duty in a disputed sector of the Chinese front, and was intercepted by a lone Chinese plane piloted by Kwon; the resulting dogfight sent Park crashing to the ground [2]. After that symbolically-charged victory, Kwon was removed from the front lines and employed as an instructor at the Chongqing Air Force Academy. She returned to Korea in 1945, where she was elevated to the status of national heroine.


    Zhang Ruifen 張瑞芬 a.k.a. Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was born on December 12, 1904, in Canton. From an early age, Zhang had an affinity for music, and thought playing the piano would be her calling. At just 17, she travelled across the Pacific Ocean to California where she attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. She was about to further her studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and the University of Southern California, but her life took another turn. Before graduating from USC, her father’s business partner, George B. Young, asked for her hand in marriage.

    After she settled in, her father took her for driving lessons at Dycer Airfield in Gardena, Ca. It was a trip that would change her life. It was during one of these driving lessons that Zhang fell out of love with music and became infatuated with aviation. Unexpectedly, this burgeoning passion was encouraged by her father, who, having lost his only son in an accident, seemed determined to help his daughter make the most of her own life. Zhang’s dream to fly was put on hold for a time when she had her daughters, but was rekindled with a vengeance when a cousin of hers, himself a pilot, gave her her maiden flight. Soon afterwards, Zhang signed up for flight lessons at the Chinese Aeronautical Association; she turned out to be so gifted that her instructor, one Bert Eckstein, allowed her to fly solo after a mere 12 hours of instruction. She graduated from flight school in 1932.

    Zhang Ruifen.

    Revealing once more her adventuring nature, Zhang decided to specialize in acrobatic flight, and for the following two years would awe crowds at county fairs, engaging in the recklessly unsafe stunts that barnstormers routinely performed at the time. She occasionally also treated her two young daughters to flights, though she gave up on it when, on a dare, they took off their seatbelts and stood up out of the open cockpit. In 1934, she caught the attention of early film legend Huang Liushang a.k.a. Anna May Wong, who helped her purchase a $2,000, 125-horsepower Fleet biplane. It was also a gift from the Chinese American community, which was beginning to perceive her as a role model.

    1934 was also the year Japan invaded China, and Zhang, like other prominent members of the American Chinese community, decided to use her talent for raising funds to help her native country’s war effort. She began touring the larger US cities, performing stunts in front of both Chinese and Western audiences. It was at that time that she caught the attention of the famous Ninety-Nines Club, founded by female air pioneer Amelia Earhart, and she was offered membership; Zhang would become a close friend of Earhart, against whom she competed in the Ruth Chatterton Derby in 1936. She also became a member of the American Aviation Association and met such aviators as Richard Byrd, Roscoe Turner and Pancho Barnes.

    Despite her involvement as fundraiser, Zhang became increasingly frustrated that she couldn’t do more to serve her country. In early 1937, she went back to China and applied to join the CAF; however, women pilots weren’t accepted in the military at that point, and she was turned down. Instead, she became a pilot for the Red Swastika Society, which had a small fleet of ambulance planes donated by the Chinese government. In 1938, she was approached by Kang Tongbi, Emperor Guoxing’s elder sister, who was then lobbying the Chinese armed forces to allow women to serve in military positions. The lobbying paid off, and by the end of the year China’s military was officially co-ed [3]. Zhang started flying combat missions on a Fouke 40, later upgraded to a Daweiting 20; by 1940, she had been given the rank of captain and put in charge of her own all-female squadron, which included Li Yueying and Li Xiaqing. Two years later, her plane was shot down during a dogfight and she crashed to her death in the rice paddies of western Hubei. Her remains were found by local farmers and secreted back to Chongqing, where her grave, in a military graveyard dedicated to the Thousand Iron Phoenixes, can be visited to this day.


    Li Yueying 李月英 a.k.a. Hazel Lee was born in a merchant family of the Chinese community of Portland, Oregon in 1912. She learned how to drive in her teenage years, graduated from high school in 1929 and worked for a time as an elevator operator in a department store, one of the few jobs then available to Chinese women in the US. She first took a plane in 1932 and discovered a passion for flying. She joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland and took flying lessons with famous aviator Al Greenwood, becoming, in the wake of Zhang Ruifen, one of the first Chinese American women to earn a pilot’s license.

    Li Yueying.

    When the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1933, Li went to China with the goal of joining the CAF, but found out, as Zhang herself would a few years later, that women weren’t allowed in combat positions in China’s military, let alone as pilots. Frustrated, she instead settled in Liuzhou and spent the next few years working as a test pilot for Luoyun, where she had no problem getting hired considering the shortage of civilian pilots. In 1937, she was approached by Xie Bingying, who introduced her to Kang Tongbi; when the two women began their lobbying campaign in favor of allowing women volunteers to serve in the military in a combat role, she joined their effort. When the request was granted in 1938, she joined the CAF alongside Zhang Ruifei and a handful of other women pilots; initially assigned to flying transport planes, she got to fly fighter aircraft from 1940.

    After the Japanese surrender in 1945, she remained in the CAF as an instructor and married civilian pilot Dai Anshi. Zhou Enlai integrated her in his shadow cabinet shortly after the 1959 general elections, and when the NPP unexpectedly won a majority of the votes in 1965, she was given the Air and Space portfolio. She gradually disengaged from politics in the 1970s, though she remained a godmother figure to the new generation of feminist activists, and did sponsor several feminist organizations. Her main interest remained flying, an activity she would pursue into her old age, until her failing eyesight no longer enabled her to be in the pilot’s seat.


    Li Xiaqing 李夏青 a.k.a. Ya-ching Lee was born in a wealthy family in 1912. At age 17, her parents arranged for her to be married to Cheng Paifeng, a young diplomat. When he was assigned to the staff of the Chinese representation at the Society of Nations in Geneva, she went with him to Switzerland, where she gave birth to their two children. In 1933, while visiting Paris, she got to watch an air show and, just like Zhang Ruifen across the ocean a couple of years earlier, fell in love with aviation, and decided to learn how to fly. She joined the Cointrain aero-club near Geneva and took flying lessons onboard an open-cockpit Tiger Moth; because of her tiny figure, she reportedly had to sit on two folded parachutes to see out of the cockpit. She was the first Chinese woman to earn a pilot’s licence in Switzerland, and one of the first ten women of any nationality to do so.

    Li Xiaqing as a student pilot in Switzerland.

    In 1935 her husband was assigned to the Chinese consulate of San Francisco and the family relocated in California. Li earned a US pilot’s licence at the Boeing School in Oakland. On one occasion, while learning acrobatics, she fell out of her plane above the San Francisco Bay, but parachuted to safety, thus joining the “Caterpillar Club” (those whose lives were saved by a parachute).

    She divorced her husband in 1937, and in order to participate in the Chinese war effort, followed in Zhang’s footsteps as a fundraising pilot. She flew from city to city with her own airplane, raising funds among Chinese communities and Western sympathizers. Her fame lead to her being cast in the Hollywood movie “Disputed Passage” by Frank Borzage, the story of the love affair between a young American expatriate doctor and a wounded Chinese woman pilot.

    Li Xiaqing as an actress.

    In 1940, after the movie was released, she went back to China and decided to join the CAF. She was assigned to Zhang Ruifen’s squadron alongside Li Yueying. In 1943, her plane was hit and its engine caught fire; though she managed to bail out in time, she did suffer severe burns that left her permanently scarred on the left arm and shoulder. After her hospitalization, she was discharged from the military and was hired as a technical advisor by CAC; she was awarded the National Liberation Medal in 1945.

    [1] Because this is written from a Chinese perspective, I provide the Sinicized version of the name rather than the Hangul one.

    [2] See Midgard's story "Valkyries".

    [3] See my story "The Thousand Iron Phoenixes".

    6. Flying Tigers

    Realizing the inadequacies of China’s air power doctrine, Gen. Yang looked for ways to overhaul it, and over the course of the years 1936 and 1937 reorganized the CAF’s coordination with the Chinese military’s two other arms. To that end he hired foreign advisers, the most notable of whom would turn out to be Lieutenant General Claire Chennault.


    Yang, who was born and had grown up in the United States, developed a close friendship with the blunt-speaking, no-nonsense former USAAF officer, who had just returned to civilian life, officially for health reasons—though it was an open secret that the real reason was his tendency to antagonize superiors. After working with Yang for a year on the reorganization of the CAF, he became chief training instructor at the Air Force Academy in Chongqing, and in 1940 requested from the Roosevelt administration the authorization to form a mercenary aviation corps to assist the Chinese in the war against Japan. The pilots would be demobilized American airmen with no formal connection with the US government, and officially on China’s payroll. The corps was called the American Volunteer Group, though it would go down in history as the Flying Tigers. It was issued Huanlong Type 29s by the CAF, the Brewster Buffalo having proved inadequate against Japan’s brand-new Zero fighters, and an attempt to commandeer a batch of Curtiss P-40 Warhawks ordered by Britain having fallen through. The corps did however manage to obtain a batch of Douglas A-20 strike bombers, also originally ordered by Britain.

    Based in Yunnan, the Flying Tigers provided a significant contribution to China’s defense against the 1940 Japanese offensive from occupied Indochina. Within weeks of Japan’s raid on Pearl Harbor and the resulting state of war against the US, Chennault and his men were formally reinstated as members of the USAAF, and their acquired experience against Japanese aviation proved invaluable to the American forces being deployed in the Pacific theater and in South-East Asia.

    This patch was issued to members of the AVG, in case they were shot down.
    It reads: "This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians,
    one and all, should rescue, protect, and provide him medical care".

    One of the several surprises the AVG pilots had upon arriving in China—some of them through a roundabout southern route by way of Australia and Burma, others through the arctic Yakutia Road—was to see women pilots flying combat missions alongside their male comrades. The news had been well-publicized in the Western world for propaganda and fund-raising purposes, thanks to the efforts of such people as Li Xiaqing and Kang Tongbi, but it was one thing to read about it in the press, and quite another to actually see the petite, exotic-looking women clad in flight suits and looking as comfortable at the commands of a fighter plane as any one of the American pilots. Those few of them who had even seen Chinese women at all until then, had usually met them as waitresses in Chinese restaurants, salesgirls in department stores, or even as prostitutes. Many a well-entrenched ethnic bias came crashing down when the new arrivals took their quarters and joined the fight in China’s skies; and as the war went on, many a tentative romance budded between a Flying Tiger and an Iron Phoenix.

    An iconic post-war scene: Flying Tigers coming home with wives and children.

    This also went on at the very top of the chain of command, as Chennault himself, though a married man and a father of six, began quietly dating a woman pilot less than half his age, Hu Jing a.k.a. Jenny Hu. The unlikely relationship turned out to be no short-lived tryst, but blossomed into a formal engagement in 1945 and a wedding the following year. After the war, Chennault became a high-profile advocate of the repeal of anti-Chinese legislation, and lobbied Congress to lift legal obstacles to Chinese immigration to the US.

    Chennault and Hu Jing.

    7. The Long-Awaited Breakthrough Bomber

    The airplane that would have the greatest overall impact on the Second Sino-Japanese War turned out to be one that would never have been developed had it not been for the obstinacy of its designer, the British engineer Geoffrey de Havilland. Indeed, the Mosquito was an odd, even counter-intuitive, idea. For one thing, it was an airplane made primarily of wood when all-metal construction was seen as the way of the future. For another, it was a bomber designed not as a bulky flying fortress, with four engines and defensive guns covering every angle of fire, but as a nimble two-engine, two-men bolid, that would rely on sheer speed rather than firepower to evade enemy interception. The concept was in fact not designed with any requirement but those of the RAF in mind, yet it was exactly what China needed after its chastening experience with the previous generation of long-range bombers. Like the rest of the Chinese military apparatus, the CAF was hampered by the chronic shortage of iron faced by the country following the Japanese occupation of its main mineral extraction basins in Manchuria and Shanxi; it also faced a chronic shortage of fuel thanks to the Japanese maritime blockade, insufficient British and American deliveries through the Burma road and rail link (augmented from 1941 with a pipeline) and the frustrating delays in the building of petrochemical facilities to allow the refining of crude oil extracted in Xinjiang; it further faced a worrying attrition of its pilots, who were lost to enemy action as fast as they graduated from the air force academies, the huge pool of volunteers being of little help without proper training. The Mosquito answered all these issues: made of wood, it was easy on strategic materials; with two engines, it consumed significantly less fuel per pound of ordnance than bigger aircraft; and with a crew of two, it required fewer precious airmen. Lastly and decisively, the CAF had learned from its bitter experience with earlier attempts at strategic bombing that Japanese fighters could be counted on to shoot down any bomber they were able to catch up with, but the Mosquito was faster than any other plane—whether Chinese or Japanese—then seen in the skies of East Asia.

    The concept had in fact been thought up by De Havilland as early as 1938, and when it was turned down by the British Air Ministry, the company nonetheless proceeded with its development, rightly convinced of its essential soundness. In July 1939, Chinese military attachés in Britain came across mention of the project and approached De Havilland with a request for licensing rights. Those having been readily granted with the British government’s approval, the assembly of the first Chinese-made prototypes could begin within weeks. They rapidly proved to be even more promising than expected, with a top speed of 630 km/h at 6,700 meters, almost 100 km/h faster than the CAF’s most advanced fighter at the time, the Huanlong Type 29, whose own production had barely begun (news of these performances prompted British Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman to place orders for the plane for the RAF in October 1939). Mass production was scheduled to begin in March 1940; however, CAC, the manufacturer put in charge of the Mosquito’s development by the Chinese government, found itself facing unexpected hurdles which delayed production by some three months. First, initial attempts to reproduce with locally available lumber the composite plywood used for the fuselage were unsatisfactory; second, the casein-based glue originally used turned out to be unsuited to the climate of southern China, where the heat and humidity caused the pieces to come apart—a problem that had not been immediately apparent as the first prototypes had been tested in Sichuan during the winter—and had to be replaced by a formaldehyde-based glue.

    Once the kinks were worked out, the Mosquito’s production swiftly became a textbook model of decentralized outsourcing: the bulk of its wooden parts could be produced in workshops throughout the greater Chongqing area, giving China’s skilled traditional craftsmen a chance to directly contribute to the war effort, and only the final assembly was done in CAC’s factories, along with the manufacturing of the engines and other precision parts. The government capitalized on this and official propaganda soon began presenting the airplane as the achievement of collective popular contribution, the Huaminfei or Chinese People’s Plane. (Incidentally, the furniture company Jili, internationally famous for its cheap, ready-to-assemble line of bamboo furniture, started out as a subcontractor for CAC).

    The Mosquito’s versatility also played right into the CAF’s operational principle of relying on a small number of aircraft types in order to simplify logistical issues, and instead develop specialized versions as needed from the basic template. The Mosquito was ideally suited to this approach; originally intended by the CAF to be used as a long-range bomber, it also came in such variants as fighter-bomber, interceptor, night fighter and reconnaissance airplane. It was, however, in its intended role that it played the most significant part.

    The CAC Wen.

    Its effectiveness was greatly increased in 1941 with the development of a serendipitous invention. Like many others, it came about as the result of an accident: a team of chemists was working at the Fire Dragon Institute—which had been relocated on the outskirts of Chongqing—on an experimental liquid fuel for Baobao rockets, using Robert Goddard’s pioneering work as a basis, while their colleagues were conducting research on existing solid fuels. One day, unnoticed by the scientists, a liquid oxygen tank started leaking its contents, and the highly flammable gas reacted with a sample of solid fuel stored in the same lab. The resulting explosion destroyed the entire floor, killed over a dozen members of the research staff and wounded several others. Lab manager Liang Shuquan, despite being two floors away, had his eardrums shattered by the blast and would remain permanently deaf. When the survivors investigated the cause of the accident, they realized that the spontaneous chemical reaction had resulted in what would later on be referred to as a thermobaric explosion—i.e. a high-pressure fireball. The decision was soon taken to explore the practical applications of this phenomenon, and after a few months of experimentation, the institute had developed the Huofengbao 火風暴 or Firestorm, a crude but devastatingly effective fuel-air bomb. In January 1942 the Huofengbao was first used as ordnance in Mosquito bombing raids over Japan, with such impressive results that the Chinese high command decided to make it the CAF’s primary weapon for strategic bombings. The bomb took the form of a two-ton cylinder, which in order to be carried by a Mosquito required an enlarged bomb bay, and the removal of all defensive armament in order to save weight. Such planes were officially named Wen Special Number Two, but their pilots and the general public tended to know them as Daduzi 大肚子, or Big Bellies.

    From January 1942 to December 1944 Huofengbao-laden Wen’s would fly regular sorties over the Japanese home islands, in raids involving hundreds of planes at a time. The primary targets were industrial and transport infrastructures, but civilian population centers were considered fair game as well, as retaliation against Japanese atrocities in China: the catastrophic Shandong flood caused by the deliberate destruction of the Yellow River’s dikes to stall the Chinese offensive on Jinan in October 1939 (casualties were estimated between 500,000 and a million people), use of germ and chemical warfare against partisans in Japanese-occupied territories, and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations in Beijing and Tianjin from December 1942 to February 1943. The Beijing-Tianjin massacres, in particular, prompted the Chinese high command to retaliate in March 1943 with a series of raids against Kyoto, which by tacit agreement had been spared up to then; codenamed Operation Baoying 報應 (Retribution), those involved over 400 aircraft conducting nonstop sorties over the city for three entire days, dumping thousands of tons of fuel-air explosives. By the end of the second day, the heat had become so intense that an actual firestorm was generated; the turbulences caused by the phenomenon were felt as high as 2,000 meters, requiring bombers to break formation over the city in order not to collide into one another, and upon returning to base the pilots claimed they could actually smell the stench of burning flesh from inside their aircraft. Several of them would suffer nervous breakdowns over the scale of death and destruction they had contributed to inflicting; and as for Kyoto itself, it was entirely burned to the ground, historical buildings and lowly houses alike. The operation remains to this day a controversial element in the history of the Second Sino-Japanese War, with many scholars arguing that it was militarily unnecessary and tantamount to a war crime.

    8. Unleash the Thunder: The CAF's Next Bomber

    The Wen was in turn superseded by another plane, this one the fruit of a joint Sino-American project. The plane that would become known as the Mixmaster to Americans and the Taotie 饕餮 to the Chinese started when Douglas Company engineer Edward F. Burton was sent to China on a field mission in early 1942, to assess the efficiency of the DC line of transports (for which he had technical responsibility) in actual combat conditions, in order to anticipate the needs of the American military which was then scrambling to face the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific. At that time the CAF was beginning to deploy operationally its first LY-66 heavy fighters, and Burton developed an interest for the aircraft’s contrarotative pusher propeller system. While still in China, he began a feasibility study for a bomber using a similar configuration, with a maximum speed in excess of 400 mph and capable of carrying a bombload of 2000 pounds to targets within a 2000-mile radius. However, Burton rejected the twin-boom design of the LY-66 and instead came up with the idea of taking advantage of fuselage-mounted engines to give the plane a completely clean wing.

    Burton convinced Douglas to develop the project in cooperation with Luoyun, and brought back with him an engineering team from the Chinese company. Further work took place with Burton’s own team at the Douglas Santa Monica plant, and by September 1942 an unsolicited proposal was submitted to the USAAF. The proposal attracted the attention of the Bombardment Branch of the Engineering Division of the Air Technical Service Command, and on November 26, 1942, a contract was issued for two flying prototypes and one static test airframe. The project was designated XB-42, and almost immediately the USAAF began to consider the Douglas proposal as a possible high speed bomber which could match the range of the B-29 then at the development stage, at only a fraction of the cost. The CAF had come to a similar conclusion and hoped to make the XB-42 the successor to the Wen.

    Progress was quite rapid under the supervision of Ed Burton, Carlos C. Wood, Chief of the Preliminary Design Division, and Zhao Yi, Chief of the Luoyun delegation, and the mockup was inspected and approved in January 1943.

    The aircraft that finally emerged was, like the LY-66, powered by a pair of engines installed completely inside the fuselage immediately aft of the pilot's cabin; but while the LY-66’s powerplants were 1480 HP Rolls-Royce Merlin 21 V-12, in the case of the XB-42 it was decided to take advantage of the larger frame to use the bigger and more powerful Griffon 61 V-12, which came with a two-stage supercharger and developed a whopping 1820 HP at 6,400 m. Air for the cooling radiators was provided by narrow slots cut into the leading edges of the inner wings. The centerline of each engine was about 20 degrees to the vertical and the engines were toed in a few degrees to the vertical. The power was transmitted via five lengths of shafting to a pair of contra-rotating propellers installed in the extreme tail cone. Each of the three-bladed contra-rotating propellers was driven by its own engines, the left powerplant driving the forward propeller and the right the aft. A lower fin and rudder was fitted underneath the tail to prevent the propellers from striking the ground during nose-high takeoffs and landings.


    The Taotie was named after a mythological creature depicted on ancient bronze vessels, whose most striking features were big staring eyes. Archaeologists interpret it as a totemic symbol of strength.

    The canopy used a “twin-eye” layout, and the tricycle undercarriage had main members which retracted aft into large wells in the fuselage sides. The extremely-clean laminar-flow wing was mounted at middle fuselage. It had double-slotted flaps on the inboard trailing edge, with ailerons on the outboard trailing edge. However, the American and Chinese designs differed when it came to defensive armament: whereas Douglas wanted to equip the plane with two forward-firing and four rear-firing .50 machine guns, the Luoyun team instead chose not to install any defensive armament whatsoever, the Chinese experience with the Wen having convinced them that a fast enough bomber wouldn’t need it. The latter’s opinion, backed up by years of wartime experience, eventually prevailed.

    The first XB-42 aircraft was completed in August 1943. The performance was outstanding: speed, range and rate of climb all exceeded expectations. With a maximum speed of 690 km/h, the XB-42 was even faster than the Wen and carried twice the maximum bomb load. However, the aircraft suffered from yaw, excessive propeller vibration (especially when the bomb-bay doors were open), poor harmonization of control forces, and from engine overheating, the latter problem having already plagued the early versions of the LY-66. These issues were satisfactorily addressed with the second prototype, which flew the following month, and production began in earnest in December at both the Douglas Santa Monica plant and the Luoyun Liuzhou one. By February 1944 the plane, now officially named Douglas B-42 Mixmaster by the Americans and Luoyun 77 Taotie by the Chinese, was flying its first combat sorties.


    A Taotie on its way to a day bombing raid.

    The Taotie would first make history in March 1944, within weeks of its deployment, by breaking a speed record. On 9 March, General Sun Liren, who was in Guiyang, found his presence on the Manchurian front urgently required, but no long-range transport plane was available. A Taotie was, however, and it was suggested he ride in the bomber's seat. The plane took off with its passenger, and flying with an empty bomb bay, was able to reach Shenyang in three and a half hours, covering the distance of 2,280 km at an average speed of 680 km/h!

    Although intended to be used as a strategic bomber, the Taotie proved such a well-designed aircraft that the CAF decided to order an assault bomber version. To that end the Luoyun engineers replaced the transparent nose by a hefty weapon array of four Cal. 50 machine guns and four 20 mm cannons. The bomb load was reduced to a still-respectable 2,800 kg in order to compensate for the extra ammunition weight and increased armor to protect the pilot and copilot's cockpits. This version, which would be known as the LY-77/2 in China, was likewise produced by Douglas as the B-42B; it was deployed in May 1944 in China and in June on the European theater, just in time to take part in Operation Overlord. It quickly superseded the Wen as an assault bomber, just as it had superseded it as a strategic bomber (the Wen however remained peerless as a fighter-bomber and as a night fighter).


    This picture provides a good view of the Taotie's twin contrarotative pusher propellers.

    The first attempts to convert the powerplant from piston to turboprop took place in early 1946, alongside similar experimentation with the LY-66. While in the case of the LY-66 the engines were a locally designed variant of the Rolls-Royce Derwent II--essentially an unofficial knock-off of the Trent--the LY-77 was fitted with US-made General Electric T31, in order to retain engineering conformity with the Douglas version which was being tested with that engine. It turned out to be for the better, as the Chinese design suffered from flaws that eventually required a change to the newer Rolls-Royce Dart; only then did the turboprop version of the LY-66 give its full potential.

    Meanwhile jet technology was progressing by leaps and bounds, and jet-powered prototypes of both aircraft were also developed in 1946, using Rolls-Royce Nene powerplants (the Douglas team had chosen the Allison J33, and from that point on the designs of the Chinese and American versions of the plane became increasingly different). While the LY-66 would eventually evolve into the LY-67, the first domestically designed Chinese jet fighter, the LY-77 evolved into the LY-78, which was deployed operationally in 1948. Although its performances were quite satisfactory, it found itself outmatched within a year of its deployment by a breakthrough British design, that of the English Electric Canberra, which had the decisive advantage of having been designed from the get go as a jet aircraft, while the LY-78 retained many structural elements of its piston-powered ascendant. Even when upgraded to Avon engines the LY-78 remained inferior to its British competitor, but by then hundreds had already been deployed, and although China wasted no time in purchasing the license for domestic production of the Canberra, the LY-78 would remain the CAF's primary jet-powered tactical bomber and reconnaissance plane for several more years: the first Chinese-made Canberras were deployed in 1954 and the replacement was only complete in 1958.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 28, 2011
  4. Hendryk Banned

    Aug 24, 2004

    The Spark of Electric Shadows: Birth of Chinese Cinema​

    From A Centennial Review of Chinese cinema by Tang Yufei, University of California, San Diego Press, 2005:

    Only those who view late Qing China as a stagnant, backward place would be surprised to learn that the first ever cinema show in China took place within months of the new medium’s world premiere in Paris on December 28, 1895. On August 11 of the following year, some short features by the Lumière brothers were shown in Xu Yuan, a popular entertainment quarter in Shanghai. Then in 1897 American showman James Ricalton showed several Edison films in Shanghai and other large cities in China. The new medium was known as xiyang yingxi (西洋影戏), literally "Western shadow play", by analogy with the traditional Chinese performance art of puppet shadow play or pi yingxi (皮影戏). As in the Western world it was initially shown in pre-existing places of entertainment, whether teahouses, opera houses, pleasure houses or restaurants; and it was considered a show among others rather than an art form in its own right. Audiences treated cinema as they did live performance, enjoying it over a snack or a cup of tea, and chatting, coming and going throughout the show.

    The first venue exclusively intended for film exhibition was built in Beijing in 1907, and in 1908 Spaniard Antonio Ramos built the 250-seat Hongkew Cinema in Shanghai; the following years would see the mushrooming of movie theatres in China’s larger cities (Shanghai alone would boast some 50 by 1920). Perhaps not coincidentally, it wasn’t much later that the name xiyang yingxi fell into disuse, to be replaced by dianying (電影), or "electric shadow": cinema was from then on a separate form of entertainment.

    The Chinese did not long remain passive consumers of Western-made movies. In 1905, the enterprising owner of a photography studio named Ren Jingfeng (1850-1932), who had studied in Japan, bought film equipment from a German store in Beijing and set out to shoot his own moving pictures. With his photographer Liu Zhonglun, Ren directed the three-reel film "Dingjun Shan", which featured episodes from a popular Beijing Opera play (itself adapted from Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and starred Tan Xinpei (1846-1917), one of the most famous Beijing Opera actors of his time. Filmed in the yard of the studio in order to use natural light, the actor performed some famous acrobatic actions and poses in front of a stationary camera operated by Liu. The screening of the film was very successful in Beijing, encouraging Ren to make several more adaptations of Beijing Opera; these films were in turn shown in increasingly distant places, all the way to the southern province of Fujian.


    A modern reenactment of the shooting of "Dingjun Shan".

    The circumstances of the birth of Chinese cinema will have a defining impact on the medium, which can be felt to this day. Because the first Chinese film was an opera, for decades afterwards Chinese cinema would borrow from opera its narrative and acting conventions, and notably its taste for stylization over realism, especially when it comes to combat scenes. Much has been written about the "ballet-like", "choreographed" scenes ubiquitous in modern Chinese action movies; little thought is given to the fact that this aesthetic choice is no accident, but the distant legacy of "Dingjun Shan".


    Tan Xinpei in "Dingjun Shan"

    If "Dingjun Shan" was the first-ever Chinese movie, the first Chinese movie featuring an original screenplay was "The Difficult Couple", directed in 1913 by Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu. In 1909, Zhang and Zheng had set up their own movie studio, Asia Film Company, a Shanghai-based joint venture funded by American assets. Indeed, Shanghai would from then on become the de facto capital of Chinese cinema; in those early years it benefited from the easy access to foreign funding and imported equipment, and from the technical input of resident Westerners. "The Difficult Couple", a comedy which criticized the practice of arranged marriage, was the forerunner of later socially conscious films, which used either comedy or drama to bring attention to social issues, usually with a progressive perspective. The authorities briefly considered censoring it when it was released outside of the foreign-controlled Shanghai settlements, but all obstacles were cleared when it received the support of Kang Tongbi, Emperor Jianguo’s favorite daughter (who, not coincidentally, had been allowed to choose her own husband). Zhang and Zheng went on to found the Mingxing company and became key players of the prewar Chinese cinematic scene.


    Zheng Zhengqiu.

    However, already at that time, Hong Kong was asserting itself as a challenger to Shanghai’s dominance of the domestic moviemaking business; while the southern city would remain a perennial also-ran, and eventually be absorbed by Shanghainese interests in the 1970s, it displayed a promising creativity even in 1913: a mere few months after the release of "The Difficult Couple", Li Minwei directed "Zhuangzi Tests His Wife" in Hong Kong, a comedy inspired by the life of Zhuangzi, one of the most important philosophers in the Springs and Autumns Period and considered one of the founders of Taoism along with Laozi. "Zhuangzi Tests His Wife" also followed the conventions of Chinese opera by having the main female role played by a cross-dressing male actor, in this case Li himself. Yet the convention was not fully respected, as the role of the maid was entrusted to Li’s wife, Yan Shanshan, who thus became the first Chinese film actress in history.


    Li Minwei.

    Due to the sizzling local cultural scene, fed both by the concentration of Chinese talent and Western expatriates, and the urban demand for cinematic entertainment, there was from the beginning a thriving private market for Chinese-made movies. But the government also got into the act early on, sponsoring a steady stream of propaganda movies--initially to instill loyalty in the new regime, and later on to feed patriotic fervor against the Japanese invasion. So from the 1910s to the 1940s, three kinds of movies were made in Shanghai: commercial flicks intended for the mass market and usually exploiting romantic themes; stirring works of propaganda; and art-house movies appealing to the discriminating self-styled cultural vanguard.

    In the mid-1920s lowbrow commercial cinema began adapting wuxia stories onscreen, and the result was a decade-long craze that only ended with the beginning of the war. Film after film depicted the epic tales of gongfu masters and swashbuckling knights errant, the most famous being "The Burning of Red Lotus Temple" in 1928, which spawned no fewer than 17 sequels (and untold numbers of spin-offs and imitations) over a three-year period. Wuxia movies, although dismissed by the literati of the time as shallow exploitation flicks just good enough for the uncultured rabble, were in fact a complex phenomenon that played to conservative sensibilities (much like the Western genre in the US) even as it explored progressive themes such as female empowerment (the main character of "Red Lotus Temple" was Red Swallow, a legendary female knight) and sneaked in socio-political commentary (the corruption of institutions). Soon enough 女俠 nüxia (woman-knight) emerged as a distinct subgenre of wuxia.


    A fight scene in "The Burning of Red Lotus Temple".

    The testimony of Shen Yangling, a left-wing journalist, was typical of the low esteem wuxia was held in by progressive intellectuals:

    The minute you arrive in a cinema hall, you witness the fascination of the urban populace for "Burning of Red Lotus Temple". As shouting and cheering is allowed in those cinemas, you are from beginning to end surrounded with a hysterical mob. Every time the swashbucklers on screen begin to fight with their flying swords, the howls of the audience almost turn into war cries. They cheer when Red Swallow comes flying in, not so much because she’s played by the famous Hu Die as because she’s a woman knight and the film’s protagonist. For them, shadow theater is no show, it is reality!


    Hu Die.

    Red Swallow was indeed played by 21-year-old Hu Die (known to Western audiences as Butterfly Woo), and as a character defined many of the customary features of action girls in Chinese cinema: proficiency with the sword and assortments of martial weapons, supernatural combat abilities (depicted onscreen with liberal use of special effects, including the analog version of what a later age will call wire-fu), and an independence of spirit that was starkly at odds with China’s patriarchal culture. But the most famous actress from that period was Ruan Lingyu (known to Western audiences as Lily Yuen), who starred in many of the Shanghai movie industry’s most successful releases, some of which even saw limited distribution in the Western world. She later pulled a Marlene Dietrich by leaving the movie industry at the height of her fame in 1954, and became a godmother figure to a whole generation of actresses. Conversely, the most famous actor was Mei Lanfang, who came from a family of opera performers and had been trained from an early age to play female roles; while the bulk of his career took place on the stage, he also starred in a number of films, mostly period dramas and adaptations of classical novels.


    Mei Lanfang.

    Two other successful genres of early Chinese commercial cinema were the fantastic and family drama ones. The former was known as 神鬼 shengui ("gods and ghosts") and was largely popularized by Tianyi, a company founded in 1925 by the Shao brothers, one of whom was a former stage manager. Tianyi developed its brand name by adapting Chinese folk tales, myths, and legends already popular among audiences, and from the beginning looked beyond China’s borders towards the large and wealthy overseas Chinese communities scattered throughout Southeast Asia, signing deals with exhibitors and building its own theater chain--an investment that paid off immediately. In 1926, their two-part "White Snake", based on the famous folk tale of a snake-spirit who transforms into a beautiful maiden, broke all records of Chinese films in Southeast Asia.

    As for family drama, it was known as 蝴蝶 hudie ("butterfly"), a type of story about the tribulations of life in a changing society that tended to glorify Confucian virtues such as female chastity and filial piety, and a staple of Mingxing, Zhang and Zheng’s company. Whereas their first film had explored a social theme from a progressive perspective, from the early 1920s Zhang and Zheng shifted their emphasis to a more traditional endorsement of Confucian morality, and thus situated the studio closer to "butterfly literature"--a genre of popular urban fiction steeped in conservatism—than to progressive cultural production. Many of their screenplays were authored by butterfly writers such as Bao Tianxiao.

    Mingxing also had a lucrative side business in the production of Western cinematic knock-offs: at a time when Charlot films were in high demand in China, and the real things came too slowly to satisfy local expectations, the company simply produced counterfeit ones. Although it would have been poetic justice to use a Chinese actor in whiteface for the part, considering that in Hollywood the rule at the time was to cast white actors for Asian roles, Mingxing actually employed an expatriate Englishman, Richard Bell, who made a comfortable living playing a Charlot clone, starting with "The King of Comedy visits Shanghai" in 1922.


    Richard Bell in "The King of Comedy visits Shanghai".

    News of the phenomenon eventually reached Chaplin, who turned out to be a good sport about the imposture; he went to Shanghai in person and embarked on a high-profile tour of China, attracting fawning crowds of admirers at every stop. While in Shanghai, he gamely watched an opera to its end (a feat seldom achieved by Westerners) and became acquainted with every big name in the Chinese movie scene--some say very well acquainted indeed with certain actresses, though the rumor that he chatted up an attractive actress in stage makeup only to find out he was talking to Mei Lanfang is almost certainly apocryphal.