The Nationalist Party (国民党) Overview

The Chinese Nationalist Party or guomindang was officially founded by Sun Yat-sen, a highly educated doctor who formed revolutionary groups within Chinese diasporas throughout the world, utilising what Marie Claire-Bergere (1998:6) termed ‘extreme geographic mobility’. After the Xinhai revolution, which successfully overthrew the Qing Empire, Sun was inaugurated in Nanjing as the first president of the Republic of China on January 1st, 1912 (Source 1). Strand (2011) comments: ‘A capital in Nanjing would break with the Qing use of Beijing as imperial centre.’ The Republic of China also adopted the western calendar as a sign of modernisation, breaking with thousands of years of tradition. Subsequently, the Qing emperor Puyi abdicated on February 12th, 1912 just over a month after Sun became president. However, in an attempt to avoid civil war, Sun quickly passed over the presidency to Yuan Shikai, an army general who played an instrumental role in the Qing’s overthrow and the emperor’s peaceful abdication.

Song Jiaoren, another former revolutionary and follower of Sun, convened the first meeting of the Nationalist Party in Beijing on August 12th, 1912. Song followed Sun Yat-sen’s three principles, particularly the implementation of democracy, organising China’s first ever elections. Clearly, this posed a threat to Yuan Shikai’s position. The Nationalist Party won the most seats in parliament but as Strand (2011) notes ‘On March 20th 1913, Song was about to board a train in Shanghai for Beijing to reap the parliamentary fruits of the Nationalist election victory when assassins, acting on the orders of Yuan Shikai, shot him.’ Yuan outlawed the Nationalist Party and ruled as a dictator, even briefly declaring himself emperor. Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan but returned to Guangzhou in 1917 to revive the party. Yuan died in 1916 and the power vacuum gave rise to competing warlord factions.



Source 1 : Anon (1912) Sun Yat-Sen Inaugurated as president (Photograph)

In Guangzhou, Sun was approached by representatives of the Soviet Union to form an alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party which was founded in 1921. In return, the Soviets promised financial aid for Sun to overthrow the warlords. Sun entered into discussions in Shanghai with the Soviet ambassador to China Adolph Joffe and in January 1923 a formal agreement between the two was published (Source 2). Notably, the manifesto asserted that Communism and the Soviet system could not yet be implemented in China, but Communist Party members could join the Guomindang.

In 1924, with Soviet Aid, the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou opened where troops were trained by Soviet experts in the hope of producing an army capable of reunifying China. Sun passed away in 1925 to be succeeded by Chiang Kai-shek as Nationalist Party leader having been previously appointed by Sun as the commander in chief of Whampoa.

Chiang did not tolerate Sun’s policy of cooperation with the CCP and the Soviets.  He also worried the Communists were gaining too much power within the party and preparing to oust him. Matters came to a head in 1927 after the CCP dominated China’s largest city, Shanghai. Jonathan Fenby (2015:140) notes that upon Chiang’s arrival: ‘Radical students in Shanghai demanded his removal, and workers waved banners declaring ‘Overthrow Chiang Kai-shek’. His calls for calm towards foreigners at a mass rally at the West Gate were ignored by demonstrators who marched round the concessions denouncing imperialism.’  In this hostile atmosphere Chiang colluded with Shanghai mafia boss Du Yuesheng. Fenby (2015:141) states: ‘the deal was quite simple: the gangsters would throw their weight and men behind Chiang and, in return, would be assured of immunity, probably accompanied by an undertaking that they would enjoy a narcotics monopoly in the city.’ In turn, Du manipulated chiefs of both the French and foreign concessions to supply him with arms as both were concerned about the spread of Communism and Soviet influence in the city. Fenby states that a 2000 strong militia moved on Shanghai to massacre those in union branches. Historians have put the death toll at circa 10,000 people. Source 3 seems to suggest that the massacre was highly organised. Here, a police truck is taking away a suspected Communist for execution, possibly to the Longhua military camp.

During what became known as the ‘Northern Expedition’, Nationalist Party forces eventually defeated warlords whose forces were often subsumed into Chiang’s own army. In 1928, Chiang announced that China had been reunified at the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen.


Source 3: Anon (1927) Nationalist police take away suspected communist for execution

Whilst many businessmen clearly rejoiced at the Communist purge, their fate was often one of extortion under the Nationalists, the government often forcing them to loan money. There were cases of the Shanghai mafia kidnapping children for ransoms if businesspeople refused to cooperate.

Chiang did however attempt to develop the Chinese economy, in particular through the creation of China’s first reserve bank, the Bank of China in Shanghai (Source 4). Shanghai became renowned as an international centre for trade with 75% of the nation’s banks concentrated there, the Bank of China building emblematic of the city’s prosperity. The Nationalists heavily relied on the support of Shanghai’s elite such as bankers and industry magnets. Indeed, Shanghai was the most vital city in propping up the Chinese economy as Coble (1979:2) notes: ‘In 1933, for example, over one-half of China's foreign trade and one-fourth of all domestic shipping passed through the city.’  Amidst this economic development, of course, were mounting tensions with Japan which shifted the political focus of the Guomindang from domestic to international affairs. In 1931, the Japanese bombed their own railway line in Manchuria, blaming the Chinese as a pretext for invasion. Chiang’s response was recorded in his diary:

Arrived in the capital and met with cadres; I advocated first raising the Japanese occupation of the eastern provinces with the League of Nations and the parties to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, to seek victory through justice, uniting from within to save the country from crisis, with a corresponding degree of patience, and with self-defence as a last resort (Huang:2016:200).

A particular obstacle to securing the League of Nations help was England. Chiang was, like his predecessor Sun, ardently anti-imperialist. The Nationalists had challenged British interests in China on numerous occasions. Huang (2016:201) notes: ‘given the resentment for China’s “Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Treaty” policies, England sympathized with and even absolved Japan for its assault on Northeast China, particularly its claim in the early stages of the incident to be acting in defence of its railway interests in Manchuria.’ As such, the Japanese quickly colonised Manchuria with limited resistance from the Nationalist Army, leaving Chiang Kai-shek to be ridiculed by the press in what appeared to be, in some respects, a repeat of the May Fourth movement whereby the Chinese government allowed the former German concession of Shandong to be handed over to Japan.

Nevertheless, it would take another 6 years before fully-fledged war broke out. Chiang Kai-shek’s mantra at the time was “Resistance against foreign aggression first requires domestic pacification” (Huang: 2016:205), meaning Chiang perceived the Communist Party to pose the greatest threat to national unity. The Xi’an incident of 1936, initiated by members of his own party, concluded with the generalissimo being forced into a second united front with the Communists to curb the colonial designs of Japan.

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Source 4 : Bank of China Newspaper Advertisement (1928)

War finally broke out in 1937 and after a string of defeats in Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuhan the seat of the Nationalist Government moved to Chongqing, a city that would become a symbol of resistance against the Japanese, enduring the longest series of aerial bombardment in the whole of China. Indeed, in Source 5 American photographer Harrison Forman captures Chiang Kai-shek reading the last will of Sun Yat-sen to a political council in Chongqing, the nationalist and party flags surrounding Sun’s portrait.  

Many refugees fled to the new wartime capital and as Mitter (2011:255) notes ‘Chongqing itself saw the most startling increase in population: a city of 473,904 people in 1937 expanded to over 700,000 by 1941 and to 1.05 million by the end of the war.’ Mitter notes that the Nationalist Government created a nationwide organisation, the National Government Development and Relief Commission, the DRC, to deal with the needs of huge refugee populations. Mitter (2011:256) states:

Between 1937 and 1940, the DRC established a wide-ranging network of refugee evacuation transit stations under the most difficult conditions (by the time of Pearl Harbor, 38 general stations and 1,059 substations). Over the course of the period 1937-1941, the DRC assigned 214 million yuan to refugee relief; it also found employment for 90,000 refugees in welfare job-creation schemes; and by early 1941, 9.2 million refugees had made use of the DRC's transit system.

Whilst the Nationalist Government had put in place coherent policies for dealing with refugees, the crisis was undeniably exacerbated by the Nationalist Government’s own wartime strategy. As Muscolino (2011:291) notes: ‘the Chinese Nationalist military's blasting of the Yellow River dikes to block a Japanese military advance in June 1938 displaced millions, forcing them to seek livelihoods in areas away from their home villages […] According to available estimates, the 1938 flood killed over 800,000 people and made as many 4,000,000 into refugees.’  Muscolino estimates the total number of displaced refugees during the Second Sino Japanese War at 95 million. This loss of life severely impacted upon the image of national unity Chiang had been mustering. To make matters worse, the Japanese puppet government attempted to entice many refugees back to their home provinces, citing bumper harvests and so on. The Nationalist Party were now coerced into a propaganda battle with the Japanese to keep the refugees on side.

The tide of the war would eventually turn in the Nationalist Party’s favour as the US entered the conflict due to the pre-emptive strike by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour. The Japanese were ordered to surrender to the Guomindang instead of the CCP as the legitimate rulers of China after the war ended in 1945.


Source 5 : Harrison Forman (1941) Chiang Kai-Shek in Chongqing during the Sino-Japanese War

Interestingly, the Nationalist Government only promulgated a constitution in 1946, a year after the end of the war. Until that point, the party had operated under two provisional constitutions, one drawn up in 1912 under Sun Yat-sen and the other in 1931 under Chiang. The first provisional constitution could never be enforced due to the dictatorship of Yuan Shikai. Chiang’s second provisional constitution emphasised ‘political tutelage’, the idea that a dictatorship was necessary until citizens were ready for democracy. This was very much in keeping with ideals of Sun Yat-Sen as he stated in his 1918 work, The Three Stages of Revolution. According to Sun, the first was destruction i.e the overthrow of the qing dynasty, which had already been accomplished. The second stage was that of political tutelage as Sun outlines here:

China needs a republican government just as a boy needs school. As a schoolboy must have good teachers and helpful friends, so the Chinese people, being for the first time under republican rule, must have a farsighted revolutionary government for their training. This calls for the period of political tutelage, which is a necessary transitional stage from monarchy to republicanism. Without this, disorder will be unavoidable (Asia for Educators:2009)

After the Second Sino-Japanese war, the official constitution of the Nationalist Party was published, promising the third stage of revolution.  According to Sun:

‘The third phase is the completion of reconstruction. During this period, constitutional government is to be introduced, and the self‐governing body of a district will enable the people directly to exercise their political rights’ (Asia for Educators: 2009).

Indeed, article 17 of the official constitution of 1946 (Source 6) promises open and honest elections with representatives being elected to the ‘executive yuan’ or parliament. During the Civil War, the US stipulated as a condition of aid to the Nationalist Party, that they must rule in a democratic manner with elections. These were conditions that Chiang failed to comply with, ignoring his own party’s written constitution. Despite US aid, the tide of the Civil War turned against the Nationalists due to poor strategy and a lack of popular support. The party would, in 1948, begin to make plans to abandon the mainland and retreat to Taiwan.

The Nationalist regime in Taiwan ruled under martial law for fear of a Communist resurgence. In the wake of the Korean War, where the Chinese Communist Party’s volunteer army had demonstrated their military prowess, the Nationalists signed the Sino-Americam defence treaty in 1955. The treaty promised US military support in the event of an invasion. In effect, the treaty prevented invasion from the Communist mainland and helped the US stem the spread of Communism throughout East Asia. Five years after the agreement was signed, the US president Dwight Eisenhower visited Taiwan, the only US president to have done so (Source 7).  Martial law continued in Taiwan until 1987 after which opposition political parties were allowed to be formed on the island, meaning that Sun Yat-sen’s third stage of revolution was finally realised. The Nationalists are still a key party in Taiwanese politics, having won several elections, but the current presidency is held by a rival political party, the Democratic Progressive Party.

In sum, many founding members of the Chinese Nationalist Party had played a key role in the Xinhai Revolution, prompting the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. During the chaos of the warlord era, Sun Yat-sen’s only international ally was the Soviet Union who negotiated the acceptance of Communist Party members into the Guomindang. Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-shek, felt the Communists had completely infiltrated the party. After instigating the Shanghai massacre, Chiang bolstered the city as China’s core centre for trade, which yielded a certain amount of success. This capitalist profit was then be used to fund the party, voluntarily or otherwise. After the Mukden incident, Chiang’s honeymoon period was over and he was perceived as inept at dealing with the threat of Japan, even by members of his own party who forced him into a second united front with the Communists. The Nationalist Party showed a certain level of statecraft in their infrastructure provisions to deal with refugees during the Second Sino-Japanese War, but also demonstrated a brutal, supposedly utilitarian method of operation in their decision to breach the Yellow River dams, causing untold devastation. This somewhat tarnished image of the party persisted throughout the Civil War, compounded by their failing to implement democratic reform and conscripting of peasants into the army. Upon arrival in Taiwan, martial law was implemented with many innocent lives lost in order to suppress any potential Communist resurgence. With US backing, the Nationalists in Taiwan were able to stave off any threat of Communist invasion. When the threat from the mainland decreased, the country finally enacted democratic reform in 1987 in the manner of their founder Sun Yat-sen, 82 years after Sun first published his three principles of the people in 1905.


Asia for Educators (2009) ‘Sun Yat-Sen: The Three Stages of Revolution (1918) ’ Available online at:

Bergère, M. (1998) Sun Yat-Sen: Marie-Claire Bergère. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Coble, P. M. (1979) 'The Kuomintang Regime and the Shanghai Capitalists, 1927-29'. The China Quarterly (77), 1-24.

Fenby, J. (2015) Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He Lost [online] [].

MITTER, R. (2011) 'Classifying Citizens in Nationalist China during World War II, 1937–1941'. Modern Asian Studies 45 (2), 243-275.

MUSCOLINO, M. S. (2011) 'Violence Against People and the Land: The Environment and Refugee Migration from China's Henan Province, 1938-1945'. Environment and History 17 (2), 291-311.

Strand, D. (2011) An Unfinished Republic: Leading by Word and Deed in Modern China [online].

Tzu-chin, H. (2016) 'Embracing Mainstream International Society: Chiang Kai-shek’s Diplomatic Strategy Against Japan'. Chinese Studies in History 49 (4), 199-217.


Source 7: Anon (1960) Chiang Kai-Shek meets Dwight Eisenhower (US President) in Taipei

Nationalist Party Overview