The Northern Expedition has spawned a sizeable literature, including some of the best writing on modern China, combining meticulous research with elegant prose and strong convictions about important issues. English accounts have written about the Northern Expedition as a revolutionary movement, which began with the May Thirtieth Movement of 1925, entered into a decisive phase when the NRA set off from Guangdong in July 1926, and reached a disastrous end in the spring of 1927 when two centres of power in the KMT competed for supremacy and when the Nationalists unleashed a White Terror in which many thousands of Communists and tens of thousands of others died. Who was to blame for this end to what many believed could have been a successful revolution became an important concern. 1
Martin Wilbur, who with Julie How compiled important collections of sources on the National Government, the Soviets, and the Northern Expedition from materials obtained in the famous raid on the Soviet Embassy by the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin on 6 April 1927, 2 described the events as a 'national revolution', which 'succeeded because of a remarkable mobilization of human energy and material resources in the service of patriotic and revolutionary goals'. According to Wilbur, the Northern Expedition 'combined military prowess, effective propaganda, and subversive activity in the enemy's rear', but ended in 'tragedy' when 'the leadership split over the issue of violent social revolution'. 3 Wilbur's work remains the most thorough study to date. 4
This chapter suggests that the Northern Expedition certainly was the product of a remarkable effort at mobilising Chinese nationalism but also that it is limiting to see the Northern Expedition as a second fall from revolutionary grace. There is no doubt that the hopes of revolution, its romantic élan, its templates for action, and its analytical terminologies were influential, and not just among the Communists. The Northern Expedition cannot be understood if one ignores the call of revolutionary imaginings of a new future. Yet, the Northern Expedition was also shaped by military developments elsewhere, financial and military stresses in Guangdong, and criss-crossing internal rivalries. The forces associated with the Northern Expedition were deeply divided amongst themselves and each tried to establish their dominion over events by accumulating military force, establishing new military and financial bases, and developing new sources of symbolic and social power. Many reached for increasingly unorthodox and brutally violent measures.