On September 18th, 1931, officers of the Japanese Army manufactured an 'incident' which was used as a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Northeast China (Manchuria). It began with an explosion on the Japanese-controlled South Manchurian Railway, just outside the city of Shenyang. Little damage was caused, but within hours Japanese troops mounted a preplanned attack on Chinese military installations. Using the efficient railway system, Japanese troops were able to seize many important cities within a few days. By the beginning of February 1932, their hold extended from Jinzhou in the south, to Harbin in the north.
The Japanese government sought to legitimise the conquest by establishing a nominally independent state called |Manzhouguo' (Manchukuo) in March 1932. Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, accepted the position of |Chief Executive' of the new regime and was subsequently crowned emperor in 1934. His ministers were mainly loyalists of the old imperial dynasty, such as his first prime minister, Zheng Xiaoxu, and members of the Fengtian clique which had dominated Northeast China during the 1920s, including the Minister of Defence, Zhang Jinghui. In reality, Japanese vice-ministers made all the serious political decisions and Pu Yi later described his reign as a |puppet show'.
The Chinese government protested at the invasion but took no steps to resist by armed force. On September 22nd, 1931, President Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) announced that the government would entrust the League of Nations with the task of resolving the conflict by peaceful means and that the army was under orders not to resist. Jiang believed that national unity was more important and China was far from united -- with some provinces controlled by warlords and a strong Communist presence in the south. Despite popular pressure to go to war, Zhang Xueliang, deputy commander of the National Army and commander-in-chief of the Northeast Army, obeyed the government and refused to deploy his troops against the invaders, becoming, as a result, the object of popular condemnation.
In many histories, the invasion of the Northeast is barely mentioned, except as a factor in international politics. It is assumed that Japan was soon able to establish complete control and that, after the League of Nations refused to do more than voice its disapproval, the |Manchurian Incident' was over. However, government inaction and international vacillation were not the whole story. Until 1933, large volunteer armies waged war against Japanese and Manzhouguo forces over wide areas of Northeast China. These volunteer armies were eventually defeated but only after their determined resistance had made support for them an important popular cause in China during the early 1930s.
Although some Chinese troops in the Northeast managed to retreat south, others were trapped by the advancing Japanese Army and were faced with the choice of resistance in defiance of orders, or surrender. A few commanders submitted, receiving high office in the puppet government, but others took up arms against the invader. The forces they commanded were the first of the volunteer armies.
The first leader of a volunteer army to attract widespread attention was General Ma Zhanshan. In November 1931, Ma chose to disobey the government's ban on resistance and attempted to prevent the invasion of Heilongjiang province by defending a strategic railway bridge across the Nenjiang River. Although eventually forced to withdraw his troops in the face of Japanese tanks and artillery, Ma became a national hero for his defiance which was reported in the Chinese and international press. One manufacturer even started selling |Ma Zhanshan' cigarettes so that smokers could show their patriotism. After the battle, Ma and his troops were feted by the people of Northeast China, with some providing supplies and others enlisting as volunteers.
Other senior commanders followed Ma's example. As the Japanese Army advanced north it threatened the industrial city of Harbin which stood at the centre of the most important railway system of Northeast China in the Jilin province. In November, a Jilin Provincial Anti-Japanese Government was founded and tried to coordinate military resistance. Despite the stubborn resistance of General Feng Zhanhai, the volunteer forces were driven back. Late in January 1932, as the enemy closed in on Harbin, General Li Du and other army officers organised a Jilin Self-Defence Army in order to prevent the fall and occupation of the city. This brought all their forces under a unified command and succeeded in repulsing the invaders for a time. But it was too late to be effective and, after its initial success, the army was forced out of Harbin. It continued to resist, occupying the towns along the eastern section of the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER), between Harbin and the Soviet border.
The army's determination to resist was matched by civilians. Within days of the invasion, patriotic Chinese were organising volunteer forces which were much more broadly based. Although they were often led by army officers and had numbers of former regular troops among their ranks, many volunteers had no military experience and came from a wide variety of social backgrounds. Most were peasants with workers, students, policemen, tradesman and the well-to-do also joining. The simple fact that so many ordinary Chinese were willing to take up arms or help others to do so meant that the volunteer armies were the main anti-Japanese force in Northeast China during 1932 and posed a serious obstacle to Japanese attempts to pacify the country.
Exiles from the Northeast founded a Northeast National Salvation Society in order to put pressure on the government to resist and to assist volunteer armies, especially in Liaoning. One of its chief supporters was Zhang Xueliang who, despite his obedience to the government, privately supported resistance. Zhang was not publicly associated with the Society and never held office in it, but provided funds and allowed it to use his name when communicating with volunteer armies.
An example of the success of the Northeast National Salvation Society was the creation of the Northeast People's Anti-Japanese Volunteer Army which was led by Tang Juwu, formerly the commander of an infantry regiment. The Northeast National Salvation Society appointed Tang as commander and helped him liaise with smaller forces which others were organising. Tang also made use of his extensive personal contacts with police chiefs, officials, local gentry and the leaders of a semi-clandestine body called the Big Swords Society. In this way, he was able to develop a sizeable force which threatened the region to the east of the important city of Shenyang (Mukden) and communications with Korea.
Volunteer armies were sometimes quite complex in organisation since they consisted of disparate units, each loyal to a different commander. Some units were semi-religious popular forces which had been seen earlier in the Northeast and elsewhere. These traditional peasant self-defence bodies, especially the Red Spears and Big Swords Societies, were widespread and were noted for their reckless courage, for example, in attacking armoured cars with axes and hammers. The Grand Masters of these societies claimed to make the members invulnerable to bullets by magic. Both societies had taken part in the Boxer Rebellion which reaped havoc over much of North China in 1900. During the first three decades of the century, many peasants emigrated to the Northeast from the Shandong and Hebei provinces where the Boxers had been most influential. The peasants revived the Big Swords Society as a measure of self-defence against the depredations of bandits. In 1927, the Fengtian government's harsh taxes and ill-treatment of local people in the Linjiang area, close to the Korean border, led to the Big Swords Society being organised there on a large scale. In January 1928, the Society rebelled against the Fengtian government, seizing the town of Tonghua for a short time.
In the face of the invasion in 1931, this traditional form of popular self-defence and militancy was revived. Wang Fengge, who had studied traditional martial arts as a young man and then served for a while as an officer in the Northeast Army, became involved in the Big Swords Society. After the invasion, he raised a force by liaising with other citizens in the Linjiang and Ji'an areas during late 1931 and announced the establishment of his army in March 1932. His teacher, who had taken part in the Boxer Rebellion and who was over seventy, also travelled the Linjiang area where his recruits became part of a force led by Sun Xiuyan. Liang Xifu, a peasant from Shandong and one of the leaders of the Tonghua rebellion of 1928, led 3,000 adherents until he died in action in 1936. These three units and other groups of Big Swords became part of Tang Juwu's force.
Northeast China was a weakly governed frontier area at the turn of the century and banditry was endemic. Some were hardened criminals who pillaged for a living; others were part-time bandits -- who robbed only to survive when they could not make a living on the land. Some professional bandits led their followers against Japan, such as 'Old North Wind' Zhang Haitian. The term shanlin mountain and forest) was frequently used to describe bandits and was apt for they knew the local terrain very well. Most operated in a fairly small district and took pains to maintain the goodwill of local peasants. As a result, government troops had great difficulty in suppressing them.
There was also a tradition of nationalistic semi-banditry, dating back to the Russian invasion in July 1900 when Tsarist forces were sent to Northeast China, ostensibly to protect the Russian-owned CER. One of the most successful volunteer armies was led by such a bandit. He was Wang Delin who declared his opposition to both the Russians and China's Qing dynasty, describing himself as |forced to become an outlaw to cast out the Russians and save the nation'. His band operated mainly along the eastern part of the CER, especially in the Muleng and Suifen areas. It attacked trains and also Russian shipping on the Songhua and Ussuri rivers and held better off captives for ransom.
Wang's career as an outlaw continued for many years, even after the fall of the Chinese empire in 1911. However, in 1917, he agreed that he and his followers should become part of the Jilin provincial forces and he became commander of the Third Battalion of the First Brigade of the Jilin Army. Becoming part of the regular army was quite common among bandits. It benefitted the government because a continuing threat to public order was thereby removed. When Wang took up his appointment, two companions who had been with him for many years, Wu Yicheng and Kong Xianrong, each commanded a company.
At the time of the Japanese invasion, Wang Delin still held the same command. His battalion was stationed near Yanji, a small town in the east of Jilin province, where the Japanese were constructing a new, strategic railway line. After Wang's troops fired on a party of Japanese surveyors, his commander attempted to persuade him to move his battalion with an offer of promotion. Wang refused to submit to the Manzhouguo regime and soon his defiance attracted others to his side. On February 8th, 1932, Wang Delin proclaimed the establishment of the Chinese People's National Salvation Army (NSA). His battalion had consisted of some 200 men but, by the time he formally declared the establishment of the NSA he was already in command of a force of over 1,000. Although little-known outside China, within a few months this army became one of the most successful of the volunteer armies.
Wang's patriotism was matched by military ability and this combination brought more recruits. His years as a a bandit had taught him how to use his wits and improvise in the face of a superior foe. One tactic used by the NSA was to appeal to the patriotism of Chinese soldiers in forces ostensibly loyal to pro-Japanese commanders. Slogans such as |Chinese do not fight Chinese' were widely used by volunteer armies in order to shame these soldiers into deserting and to persuade them to throw in their lot with the volunteers. The tactic succeeded, bringing large numbers of well-armed; trained recruits.
By recapturing the town of Dunhua on February 20th, the NSA reversed the Japanese advance which had seemed irrestistible. This brought still more support and, by the end of the month, the NSA was 4,600 strong. In March, a Japanese expeditionary force was defeated in a series of battles with the volunteers around the shore of Lake Jingbo sustaining hundreds of casualties. Most of these battles were quite small in scale, with the volunteers using their knowledge of the local terrain to set ambushes, but they eventually compelled the Japanese force to retreat to Harbin.
For the Japanese authorities the shame of a serious defeat by a motley collection of volunteers was combined with political embarrassment. The new state of Manzhouguo had been proclaimed on March 9th and they were anxious to present it to the world as a peaceful nation, especially as a delegation of the League of Nations was now investigating the situation in Northeast China. But news of the NSA's victories spread rapidly around East Jilin, enhancing its reputation. More troops, who had been reluctant members of the new puppet state's forces, joined the NSA and estimates of its total strength in April put it well above 10,000 and, possibly nearer 15,000 organised in five brigades.
At the same time, Ma Zhanshan, who had surrendered in January, rebelled again. In May, Tang Juwu judged that the time was ripe for his army to go on the offensive. Although all major cities had been lost, the volunteer armies seemed to gain a new lease of life during the summer of 1932 and reached their greatest strength. It is estimated that the NSA alone had 30,000 volunteers in July. Some estimates for the total strength of the volunteer armies exceed half a million men. However, despite frequent battles with Japanese and Manzhouguo troops and a number of victories, the volunteer armies were unable to halt the invasion. Numerical strength alone was not enough and the large volunteer armies of 1932 either split up into smaller forces or retreated to safety within the first few months of 1933.
One cause of the defeat of the larger volunteer armies was that they were dominated by army officers who had previously held senior rank in warlord armies. Feuding among them was widespread and the anti-Japanese cause sometimes took second place to these internal conflicts. Despite its earlier promise, the NSA also became embroiled in disputes with General Li Du's Jilin Self-Defence Army, with which it had entered into an alliance. Friction began When one of Li's subordinates, Ma Xianzhang, tried to persuade one of Wang Delin's commanders to put his force into the Self-Defence Army. In another instance, NSA troops were killed by the Self-Defence Army on the grounds that they had confiscated the weapons of a White Russian mine owner. Finally, Ma Xianzhang was put in a sack and thrown into a river, probably at the instigation of Wang Delin's deputy, Kong Xianrong. Thus, the split between these armies became very serious and morale undoubtedly suffered.
Another factor in the decline of the volunteer armies in the latter half of 1932 was their failure to unite or even co-operate effectively. The Chinese government refused to support them either by sending reinforcements and weapons, or by treating them as part of the national forces and appointing commanders. Jiang Jieshi did not want to go to war with Japan, or risk provoking a wider conflict while he pursued his aim of national unity, mainly by attacking Communist bases. This meant that army commanders were sometimes torn between obedience to orders not to fight, and the claims of rival administrations formed either by the Japanese or those who sought to resist. Joint operations and unified command structures needed planning and preparatory work and failure to organise earlier played a role in the fall of Harbin. Although the Northeast National Salvation Society tried to co-ordinate resistance, especially in the south where its emissaries could move around more easily, it was unable to persuade the various forces to accept an effective unified command. Poor communications undoubtedly hindered this effort and, as Japanese control of the larger towns tightened, travellers were subjected to rigorous checks on their identity.
Even within a single army, the most able commander could not easily make effective use of the Red Spears and Big Swords Societies together with former bandits, disciplined regular troops and other volunteers. The Red Spears and Big Swords, for example, had their own commanders and methods of fighting. Their courage was undeniable but their casualties were high as they discovered that magic was no defence against rifle fire. Some volunteers would readily defend their own district but were reluctant to move far away from home on a campaign. Nor could munitions and arms be easily replaced, especially since a wide variety of weapons were in use. Even when good rifles could be obtained, the right ammunition could prove difficult to obtain. In any case, rifles were in short supply. Some volunteers had to make do with primitive hunting rifles and others had to use spears. Feeding and clothing large armies on the basis of foraging and voluntary donations proved almost impossible, especially during winter.
The volunteers were mainly infantry and cavalry forces with few heavy weapons and no air force. Even light machine guns were rare and to capture one from the enemy was a considerable achievement. In contrast, once the well-armed Japanese troops had got over the shock of meeting resistance, they were able to deploy their superior weaponry with devastating effect. They also had air support and the threat of aerial bombardment of the town of Tonghua forced Tang Juwu to withdraw from it in order to save the civilian population. By the end of February 1933, most of the large volunteer armies had fled to the Soviet Union, from where they were eventually repatriated.
This was not the end of the volunteer armies. Some did not flee and fought on as small guerrilla units, frequently called shanlin. Survival was difficult and some resorted to banditry on occasion. But most were genuine anti-Japanese forces, and continued to harass the Japanese and Manzhouguo forces for many years. Of those mentioned above, Wang Fengge was only captured in 1937 and was then executed, along with his wife and child. The bandit experiences of some of the NSA'S commanders stood them in good stead for they were adept at surviving in the bleak Manchurian winters and could readily adapt to guerrilla warfare. Wu Yicheng fought on with a small band of followers until 1937. Although Kong Xianrong gave up the struggle, his wife and another of Wang Delin's subordinates, Yao Zhenshan, led a small band which fought on until the spring of 1941 when it was annihilated.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the history of the volunteer armies is the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party towards them. When the first volunteer armies were organised, it was completely hostile to them on the grounds that the leaders were bound to capitulate. In this, it was merely following the Communist International which, at the time, refused to countenance any alliance with non-Communist bodies. The Comintern paper Imprecor went so far as to claim that the leaders of the volunteer armies were the paid merely pretending to resist. In this way, it alleged, the Japanese Army would have a pretext for bringing its troops up to the Soviet border. Communists in Northeast China even issued an appeal for the volunteers to kill their officers and join the Communists in social revolution.
However, some Communists acted against this policy and held senior positions in the volunteer forces. They were particularly influential in the NSA, where Li Yanlu and Zhou Baozhong were made high-ranking officers. At first the Party severely criticised their conduct. However, the Communists eventually had to face the unpalatable fact that their current propaganda made them almost irrelevant to the anti-Japanese cause. The Communists regarded the Red Spears Society as a vehicle for superstition but could not deny that it had the support of industrial workers, the very people the Communist believed to have the greatest revolutionary potential. Why did railway workers join the Red Spears and turn their backs on the Communist Party with its calls for establishing soviets? The Communists raised some minuscule Red Armies' in the Northeast, dedicated to social revolution, but these were dwarfed by the volunteer armies which had been raised by their simple anti-Japanese, patriotic appeal. Men like Wang Delin and Tang Juwu both accepted any recruits who were willing to fight against the invaders.
As the international Communist movement moved towards its popular front policy of 1935, it came to accept that whole-hearted support for the anti-Japanese movement and the postponement of the revolutionary goals were essential if the Chinese Communists were to be a serious political force in the face of invasion. By abandoning social revolution and promoting national salvation the Communists were able to organise their own force in the Northeast -- the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. Open to all who wanted to resist the invasion and proclaiming its willingness to ally with all other anti-Japanese forces, this army won over some of the shanlin bands, including former NSA units, and conducted a protracted campaign which threatened the stability of the Manzhouguo regime, especially during 1936 and 1937.
After the invasion of the Northeast, Japanese forces proceeded to occupy areas of North China. Jiang Jieshi could no longer hope for the League of Nations to provide a solution, since it failed to do more than rebuke Japan for occupying the Northeast. But he stubbornly refused to resist Japanese encroachment, believing that the eradication of Communist forces was his first priority. Many Chinese saw the Japanese invasion as the more serious threat, demanding that Jiang should mobilise the army against it. However, he continued to pit his armies against Communist-controlled areas in the south. Despite being defeated, the volunteer armies remained popular heroes and the public did not forget Jiang's failure to go to their assistance. Much of the organised opposition to Jiang was centered around the national salvation movement, for example bodies such as the Chinese National Armed Self-Defence Society, and former volunteer army commanders took part in national salvation activity.
The Communists adopted national unity against Japan as the cornerstone of their policies and used the example of their united front against Japan in Northeast China to win support. They declared their willingness to enter an alliance with any other armed forces which would march with them against the Japanese. They won the support, amongst others, of Li Du who helped arrange negotiations with Zhang Xueliang, although Zhang was in charge of operations against the Communist base in Yan'an. At Xi'an, in 1936, Zhang and another general, Yang Hucheng, captured Jiang and forced him to agree to an alliance with the Communists against Japan. Zhang later described how the appeal of fighting the Japanese and liberating his old home in the Northeast had persuaded him to rebel against Jiang. The patriotism of the volunteers had become an important factor in Chinese national politics
After the Communists came to power, some of the surviving leaders of the volunteer armies were appointed to important positions in administration, for example Li Du became a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and Feng Zhanhai represented Jilin province in national politics. But although the Communist Party now regarded the volunteer armies and their leaders as heroes, little was published about them. Their resistance did not fit too well with the version of history produced by |official' historians which glorified the Communist Party, especially to Mao Zedong. It did not acknowledge uncongenial facts such as the Communist Party's initial opposition to the volunteer armies and its insignificant role in anti-Japanese resistance before 1933.
In the 1960s some interesting material (especially memoires) was published but only in restricted publications. Greater openness over the last decade has meant that detailed historical analysis and biographies have at last become available and the significance of the volunteer armies acknowledged, although some details of the Communist Party's role are still skated over.
FOR FURTHER READING
Cheng-sik Lee Revolutionary Struggle in Manchuria (University of California Press, 1983); Takehiko Yoshihashi, Conspiracy at Mukden (Yale, 1963, Greenwood, 1980); Christopher Thorne, The Limits of Foreign Policy: The West, the League and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931-1933 (Hamish Hamilton, 1972).
Anthony Coogan is a freelance translator, writer and researcher. His Ph.D. thesis was |Northeast China and the Development of the Anti-Japanese United Front, 1931-36'.…