The Xi'an Incident (西安事变) Overview

Source 1 Sapajou (1927) The Moscow Teacher: — ‘And what do you think of your father, Chiang Kai-shek, the traitor?’

Source 1 Sapajou (1927) The Moscow Teacher: — ‘And what do you think of your father, Chiang Kai-shek, the traitor?’

The Xi’an Incident – December 1936

The Xian incident refers to the kidnapping of General Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Nationalist Party, by two of his own generals Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng. The aim of the kidnapping on the 12th December 1936 was to force Chiang into a united front against Japan with the Communists.  Zhang had been in secret contact with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to stage this coup. As a condition of his release, after 13 days in captivity, Chiang verbally agreed to end hostilities against the CCP and instead counter Japanese belligerence.

Previously, Chiang Kai-Shek’s policy was termed an nei rang wai or ‘internal pacification against external aggression’ (Wu: 1984: 116) in reference to the fact that Chiang saw the internal threat of communism as something more urgent than that of Japanese imperialism. Furthermore, he adopted a ‘trading space to buy time’ approach believing the Japanese did not have the power to occupy China in its entirety. This policy, however, proved controversial even amongst his fellow nationalist party members. Indeed, in 1927, whilst studying in Moscow, Chiang Kai-Shek’s own son, Chiang Ching-Kuo, allegedly wrote an article criticising his own father’s stance towards the CCP (Source 1).  

Source 4: Anon (1936) Crowds celebrate the release of Chiang Kai-Shek Photograph: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall Taipei.

Source 4: Anon (1936) Crowds celebrate the release of Chiang Kai-Shek Photograph: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall Taipei.

The Xi’an incident was historically pivotal in that it exposed internal divisions within the Nationalist Party, allowing the CCP time to recoup and regrow in their new base in Yan’an following the Long March. The incident equally precipitated the war with Japan at a faster pace. Historians have also commended the realpolitik of the Chinese Communist Party in not killing their enemy at an opportune moment. For example, Wu (1984:116) notes: ‘From the outset, the CCP saw that any escalation of the military conflict between Xi'an and Nanjing, which could easily develop into a large-scale civil war, would profit no one save the enemy, Japan, and so insisted on a peaceful solution of the incident.’  Indeed, Zhou Enlai promptly arrived in Xi'an to represent the CCP in negotiations. According to Xu (1998:291): ‘For almost a year, beginning in late 1935, KMT and CCP negotiating teams headed by Chen Lifu and Zhou Enlai, respectively, had been conducting prolonged secret talks on the terms of an anti-Japan alliance. It was the failure of these negotiations to produce a mutually acceptable compromise which triggered Chiang's visit to Xi'an to initiate a renewed offensive against the Communists.’ As such, the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-Shek was viewed as a last resort by both the Communists and Nationalists to expedite the creation of a National Front.

In an interview with the American Edgar Snow before the incident in 1936, Mao Zedong firmly sticks to the notion of a National Front as vital in defeating Japan (Source 2 ) Notwithstanding, when the Xi’an incident occurred, Mao’s visceral reaction was to call for Chiang’s execution, however this demand was rapidly overturned when the Soviet’s drew attention to the benefits the Communists would enjoy by keeping Chiang in power.

Interestingly, nothing suggests that Mao Zedong himself played a major role in the Xi’an incident and he would only become aware of it after the fact.  There is, however, correspondence between Mao and Zhang from April 1936 in which they discuss a way to persuade Chiang Kai-Shek to cease hostilities towards the Communists. In March 1936, Stalin himself had proclaimed ‘Japan posed the greatest danger of war and that the peace-loving peoples of the region should further strengthen their unity’ (Garver: 1991:56-57).  Moreover, in July 1936, the CCP received a cable from the Executive Committee of the Comintern (international union of communist parties) which explicitly ordered them to ally in a national front with Chiang Kai-Shek. As such, the CCP changed their slogan from ‘Oppose Chiang, Resist Japan’ to ‘Force Chiang to Resist Japan.’  The Soviets, however, did not order or support undertaking the Xi’an incident, and Russian newspapers conveyed it as detrimental to the possibility of a united front against Japan (Source 3).

Steve Tsang (2015) has even posited that Chiang Kai-Shek made a ‘secret deal’ with Stalin during the Xi'an incident after receiving word that the Russian leader would provide weapons for him in a war against Japan. During the first four years of the Sino-Japanese war, the largest supplier of ammunition to China was, in fact, the Soviet Union. It's also important to note that just one month before the Xi’an incident, Germany, Italy and Japan had signed an ‘anti-comintern pact’. The pact was explicitly directed against the Soviet Union and Russia sought the allegiance of China to pacify this threat which necessitated a peaceful solution to the Xi’an incident lest the Nationalist Party join the pact.

Indeed, there was far from unanimous support for the actions of Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng in instigating the Xi’an incident. This led to an outpouring of Nationalist support with fervent protests taking place in Xi’an during Chiang Kai-Shek’s captivity alongside jubilant celebrations following his release (Source 4). According to Taylor (2009:135), especially given his change of heart vis-à-vis Japan, ‘Chiang had left for Xi’an a popular leader, but returned a national hero.’ Upon hearing of Chiang Kai-Sheks’s capture, the Nanjing government quickly drew up plans to bomb Xi'an and was only stopped by the pleas of Chiang’s wife. Notwithstanding, on the 16th December, both leaders of the rebellion Zhang and Yang spoke at Xian’s revolution park. According to Shai (2012:77) Zhang compared Chiang’s mistakes to those of Yuan Shikai who had capitulated to the Japanese government’s 21 demands, (1915) consolidating their power in Manchuria.

Source 6: Xi'an Incident Aftermath Sapajou (1937) ‘The Lesson of Sian’

Source 6: Xian Incident Aftermath Sapajou (1937) ‘The Lesson of Sian’

Importantly, Zhang Xueliang wrote his own list of eight demands for the conditional release of Chiang Kai-Shek. Whilst these conditions were broadly enacted by Chiang in the short term, no formal agreement was signed ( Source 5 ). 

Chiang Kai-shek was formally released by his captors on the afternoon of Christmas Day 1936, ostensibly a gesture towards his Christian beliefs. Whilst he had promised both Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng command of the Xi'an area, Zhang was in fact detained by Chiang on the 26th December. He would then be put on trial on December 31st and sentenced to ten years in prison. Chiang Kai-Shek would formally pardon Zhang but instead placed him under house arrest for the vast majority of his life in both China and Taiwan. It has recently transpired that Zhang had actually petitioned to become a member of the CCP but this request was refused by the Comintern (Shai: 2014: 102). Yang Hucheng would remain in prison for thirteen years and eventually be executed in 1949 before the Nationalists fled to Taiwan after losing the Civil War. It was also agreed that Chiang Kai-Shek’s son Chiang Ching-Kuo would be returned to China from Moscow as he was, in effect, being held hostage there for propaganda purposes with his Belarussian wife.

In short, although only lasting thirteen days in total, the legacy of the Xi’an incident had repercussions that would influence the following thirteen years of Chinese history until Mao Zedong’s assumption of power in 1949. The power relations between the key stakeholders in the Xi’an incident are highly important to delineate: The Nationalists were internally divided over Chiang’s policy of an nei rang wai, the CCP was hugely dependent on Stalin at the time, Russia needed China as an ally, whether or not it was governed by Nationalists or Communists. In terms of public opinion, Chiang had already cultivated an image of leadership and the kidnapping certainly did not gain public sympathy. However, upon Chiang’s release and the shift in Nationalist Party policy towards targeting Japanese imperialism, his mandate to lead was unquestionable.

The Communists also enjoyed a decisive propaganda coup. By not killing Chiang Kai-Shek, they could position themselves as the true nationalists putting country before party.  This was a smart move given that, at the time of the incident, the Communists only had circa 30,000 troops compared to Chiang’s 2 million. Chiang’s Nationalist Party itself came under scrutiny not only for its policy towards the Communists but also its internal composition, particularly its policy of ‘political tutelage’ which did not appear to show signs of progress into a democracy (Source 6). Ultimately though, the Xi’an incident boasted more winners than losers, Chiang Kai-Shek was received as a hero, the Communists enjoyed a respite from fighting the Nationalists and the Soviets had a vital new ally. Arguably, the only losers were the two men that originally organised the coup, Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng.



John Garver (1991) ‘The Soviet Union and the Xi’an Incident’ The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs No.26 p. 145-175.

Shai, A. (2012) Zhang Xueliang. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Snow, Edgar, East Asian research center (Cambridge, Mass.), (1974) Random Notes on Red China 1936-1945. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.

Steve Tsang (2015) 'Chiang Kai-shek’s “secret Deal” at Xian and the Start of the Sino-Japanese War'. Palgrave Communications 1.

Taylor, J.  (2011) The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.

Wu, T. (1984) 'New Materials on the Xi'an Incident: A Bibliographic Review'. Modern China 10 (1), 115-141.

Xu, Y. Billingsley, P. (1998) 'Behind the Scenes of the Xi'an Incident: The Case of the Lixingshe'. China Quarterly -London- (154), 283-307.

Xian Incident Overview