Everyone who was anyone trained at China’s Whampoa Military Academy
Many of East Asia’s most influential political and military figures walked the halls of Whampoa Military Academy either as students or faculty — even though it was open from just 1924 to 1926.
With Soviet funds, Dr. Sun Yatsen, founder of the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang party, established the school on the island of Changzou just offshore from the historic Whampoa dock.
Today it’s a museum, as depicted in the above Chinese government photo.
Sun’s aim was to train a generation of leaders capable of uniting China. Whampoa’s six academic terms were tumultuous, to say the least. The warlord Chen Jiongming twice interrupted classes with incursions into nearby KMT-held territory. In both cases, faculty and cadets went to the front line to fight.
Kind of like a mid-term, except you could die.
Ironically, men who’d lived, studied and fought side-by-side in the name of unity would later fight on opposing sides in one of history’s bloodiest civil wars. Both the Chinese nationalists and communists would count Whampoa grads among their top leaders.
In the aftermath of the 1911 uprising that overthrew the imperial Qing Dynasty, China was in chaos. Former army officer Yuan Shikai strong-armed his way into being China’s first president before declaring himself emperor. His re-established monarchy was brief. He died of kidney failure on June 5, 1916.
After Yuan’s death, the army fragmented. Warlords claimed their own personal fiefdoms. Their armies were ruthless. Their soldiers looted, raped and killed with impunity. Their actions repulsed Sun, one of the architects of the 1911 Revolution. This was not the new China he’d hoped to build.
As the warlords fought each other with weapons from European, American and Japanese arms dealers, it became clear to Sun that the unification of China could not be won through words alone. Chinese warlords’ rifles quickly silenced anyone who threatened their hold on power.
The West ignored Sun’s calls for help. Western nations saw Chinese nationalism as a threat to their imperial interests. Foreign companies had become accustomed to operating above Chinese law.
Sun met with Soviet Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin to discuss the KMT’s military woes. The Russian suggested that the nationalists should start an academy to train professional soldiers loyal to the Chinese revolution.
Sun made Chiang Kai-Shek commandant of the academy. Chiang had spent years living in Japan, studying tactics at Japanese military academies. He returned to China to participate in the 1911 uprising. In 1923 gunboats under Chiang’s command rescued Sun and his wife from assassins during a KMT power struggle led by Chen Jiongming. Chiang and Sun became close friends.
Chiang had a checkered past. While living in Shanghai after the 1911 revolt, he spent a great deal of time networking with the city’s criminal underworld, particularly the powerful Green Gang. Chiang was known for being quick tempered, but also decisive.
It quickly became apparent that the nationalists’ biggest weakness was a lack of military specialists to train the cadets on modern military systems. Vasily Blyukher, the chief Soviet military adviser to the KMT, called his superiors in Moscow. Dozens of instructors arrived with specialties ranging from artillery to logistics.
The academy quickly attracted Chinese students interested in fighting the warlords and unifying China. Foreign students came from throughout East Asia, hoping to learn how to fight revolutionary wars in their homelands. Many Korean and Vietnamese students flocked to Whampoa.
Sun wasn’t interested merely in training soldiers. The men who’d carved up his country were soldiers who’d trained in their own academies. They were little more than thugs and mercenaries loyal to whatever warlord would pay them.
The nationalist army had to be different. Its leaders would have to be scholars and thinkers as well as soldiers. Politics were central to Whampoa’s curriculum. Ideological lectures were common. Classes on nationalism and unity were core.
Perhaps the most influential faculty member of Whampoa’s political department was future Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. The young communist had just returned from being an activist in Europe. He emphasized Chinese unity in his curriculum, and championed the deployment of political commissars in nationalist army units to instill patriotic fervor.
Several foreign instructors also left their marks. Galina Kolchugina, Blyuker’s wife, lectured on political agitation. Another prominent figure was Nguyen Ai Quoc, an energetic young Vietnamese patriot living nearby in Canton who often guest-lectured. Nguyen would later go by the name Ho Chi Minh.
While Zhou was promoting nationalism and loyalty to the KMT, he also was continuing to rise in the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party. With the backing of Soviet advisers like Borodin, he took many left-leaning students under his tutelage.
Chiang was suspicious. During a brief stint of training in the Soviet Union, he concluded that the Soviet system wasn’t an ideal fit for China. He also distrusted the Comintern. He suspected the Soviets had plans of their own for controlling China. As a result, he preached a more right-leaning approach. Many students were drawn to his way of thinking.
In January 1925, the turncoat Chen tried to retake Canton from the nationalists. Chiang took two training regiments, staffed by academy faculty and cadets, to reinforce KMT general Xu Chongzhi and his ragtag forces. The fighting lasted until May, when the nationalists beat back Chen’s forces.
Chen regrouped and tried again that September. The nationalists were ready for him. The academy had learned from the fighting. They were more experienced and knew how Chen fought. Additionally, the army had implemented the commissar system Zhou had long advocated. Chiang applauded Zhou’s work and personally promoted him. By the end of the year, the nationalists had routed Chen’s army, forcing him into exile in Hong Kong.
Sun wouldn’t live to see China reunified. He died of liver cancer on March 12, 1925 while the fighting raged.
On June 5, 1926 Chiang became commander-in-chief of the nationalist army. With thousands of fully trained officers, already tested in battle even before graduating — and bolstered by troops from sympathetic warlord armies such as the New Guangxi Clique — Chiang assembled a force capable of fulfilling Sun’s dream of a unified republic.
School was out. It was time for war.
It wouldn’t be easy. Many of the warlords had Western or Japanese backers. Imperial powers already feared a unified China would threaten their business interests. The presence of Soviet advisers made the revolutionaries all the more frightening to the West and Japan. The imperial powers were not going to make it easy for the nationalists.
Despite being outnumbered and often outgunned, the nationalists displayed better tactics and fighting spirit than the warlords and their armies. The revolutionaries quickly pushed north, claiming victory after victory. However, as they did, Chiang’s short temper and authoritarian tendencies began troubling fellow KMT members. He frequently clashed with Wang Jingwei, a senior KMT civilian leader who also had been close to Sun.
Chiang and his followers also believed that their communist advisers were trying to get communist officers assigned to positions of power to further the Comintern’s influence over the nationalists. On April 12, 1927, shortly after the Zhou had led nationalist troops and labor unions in ousting the Zhili Clique from Shanghai, Chiang ordered a purge of communist elements.
Enlisting associates from the Green Gang, Chiang mobilized Shanghai’s criminal underworld to root out communists all around the city. Not long after, Chiang told Blyuker, Borodin and the rest of the Soviet advisers to pack their bags.
The move shocked everyone. The Soviets were furious. They realized that they had severely underestimated Chiang. He wanted to show the world that his revolution was a Chinese revolution, and that he wouldn’t be a pawn in Moscow’s games. But the violent move had consequences.
The rift widened between Chiang and Wang. Zhou escaped Shanghai along with many of his former students from Whampoa. They fled the cities for the countryside. They joined with other communists including Mao Zedong and Zhu De to form the Chinese Red Army.
Chiang continued the Northern Expedition, which ended after Fengtian Army leader Grand Marshal Zhang Zuolin was assassinated by his Japanese backers in 1928. His son the Young Marshall Zhang Xueliang pledged himself and his soldiers to Chiang and the nationalists. Chiang became the Generalissimo, taking the reins from the KMT’s civilian leadership and assuming the role of China’s newest ruler. He established a new capital in Nanjing.
But there wasn’t peace. War now raged between the KMT and the CCP. After the Long March, in which communist rebels fled pursuing KMT troops to establish a base in Yanan, Zhou and other communist officers used Whampoa tactics and principles in training Chinese Red Army leaders.
Chiang closed down Whampoa, reorganizing and relocating it to Nanjing as the Central Military Academy, largely with German expertise. Chiang gave power mostly to former faculty and students who had been loyal to him at the academy. He and his select officers became known as the Whampoa Clique.
The fighting between the KMT and CCP occasionally was interrupted by Japanese incursions into the country. The Young Marshall, still bitter at the Japanese for his father’s death urged Chiang to put the civil war on hold and focus on Japan.
Instead, Chiang put Zhang in charge of anti-guerilla operations. The bitter warlord, believing it to be a waste of his soldiers’ lives, conspired with Zhou to kidnap Chiang and force him to agree to a truce. Chiang grudgingly accepted. The so-called “united front” formed. Zhou became the CCP’s representative to the KMT throughout the war against Japan.
Even before the Allies defeated Japan, the united front all but broke down by 1941, when the KMT and CCP clashed in the New Fourth Army incident. When Japan finally capitulated, the civil war resumed with even greater ferocity.
By this time, most of the Whampoa graduates were generals in the nationalist and communist armies. Meanwhile, Whampoa’s international students had returned to their homelands. As Mao and the Chinese communists wrapped up their war, wars in Korea and French Indochina were heating up. Asia was in revolution.
The lessons the Whampoa graduates learned would shape Asia’s wars and politics throughout the 20th century. Many graduates maintained high military and civilian posts in peace as well as in war. The academy’s legacy holds a special place in the histories of both the Chinese and Taiwanese militaries. Today, the Chinese government preserves the academy as a museum.