Here’s an interesting story related by Richard Baum in The Fall And Rise Of China. To me, it shows how world history can sometimes turn upon the actions of one man…
In the 1930s, China was fractured. The closest thing the country had to a national leader was Chiang Kai-shek. During this period, an extremely aggressive Japan was conquering territory long under Chinese dominion. Also at this time, Communist rebels (including forces under a man named Mao Zedong) were attempting to foment a general communist uprising. Thus, Baum tells us, Chiang Kai-shek was “caught between relentless Japanese pressure in the North and a growing Communist movement in the South.”
But Chiang Kai-shek had a plan. First, he would exterminate the Communists down in Yan’an Province, and, once they were down, turn to resist the Japanese up north in Manchuria. “The Japanese are a disease of the skin,” he explained. “The Communists are a disease of the heart.”
One of Chiang Kai-shek’s best military leaders, however, disagreed. Zhang Xueliang was a Manchurian whose father had been assassinated by the invading Japanese. Zhang Xueliang wanted nothing more than to drive the Japanese from his homeland. Needless to say, he was less than thrilled with Chiang Kai-shek’s plan to let Manchuria burn while the Chinese fought their fellow countryman down South.
As Baum relates the story… “In the fall of 1936, Chiang sent his best-trained army to destroy the Communists in Yan’an. But the officer Chiang chose to lead the campaign, Zhang Xueliang, had no interest in fighting fellow Chinese.” Instead of following orders, Zhang Xueliang mutinied in December of 1936 in what became known as “the Xi’an Incident,” and managed to kidnap Chiang Kai-shek. Confronting his valuable captive (and official superior), Zhang Xueliang demanded that instead of fighting the Communists, Chiang’s Nationalist forces should combine with the Communists and present a united front against the foreign invaders. Chiang Kai-shek, in no position to refuse, agreed.
What surprises me is that Chiang Kai-shek actually kept to his word, and really did form a united front (the second one) with the Communists. It is also a little unusual in history that Zhang Xueliang was content to release Chiang Kai-shek unharmed and go back to serving under him– and perhaps even more unusual that Chiang Kai-shek seems to have taken no reprisals against his mutinous general.
We can only wonder– if Zhang Xueliang had never rebelled– would Chiang Kai-shek have succeeded in holding back the rising the Communist tide, thus drastically changing the course of Chinese history. Seldom does history set so squarely on top of the shoulders of one man as it set for one pivotal moment upon the shoulders of the avenging son of a murdered Manchurian warlord.