The Volunteer Armies of Northeast China

By Coogan, Anthony | History Today, July 1993 | Go to article overview

The Volunteer Armies of Northeast China


Coogan, Anthony, History Today


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. …

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