The Warlord and His Gun Factory
Xan Xishan built his revolution one weapon at a time
“Armed force is the backing of justice.” That was Chinese warlord Yan Xishan’s motto.
For decades in the early- and mid-20th century, Yan ruled Shanxi province, fighting both for and against fellow warlords, the nationalists, the communists and the Japanese. His rule was characterized by his search for the perfect ideology, which he called “Yan Xishan Thought.”
Yan once boasted that he’d developed Yan Xishan Thought by picking and choosing the best features of “militarism, nationalism, anarchism, democracy, capitalism, communism, individualism, imperialism, universalism, paternalism and utopianism.”
But the real key to his quest to build Shanxi province into a modern society was the Taiyun Arsenal, a factory Yan built to equip his army and industrialize his homeland.
Yan first began developing his philosophy while attending military schools in Japan. He was impressed by its rapid modernization, and saw it in stark contrast to the provincialism and corruption of his own country.
After Yan returned to China, the Qing regime assigned him to the Shanxi New Army. There, Yan secretly plotted the regime’s destruction. In 1911, Yan drive out Manchu troops then established himself as military governor of Shanxi. He ruled from the city of Taiyuan.
In 1912, Yan began building the Taiyuan Arsenal, which he initially called the “Shanxi Machinery Bureau.” The factory initially produced a modest number of small arms. An invasion by warlord Yuan Shikai interrupted Yan’s plans for the province. Yan was eventually able to convince Yuan to reinstate him, and by Yuan’s death in 1917 Yan had managed to firmly consolidate his own power.
Yan wanted Shanxi to be able to properly defend itself. That meant seriously investing in the arsenal.
By 1920 Yan was importing machinery and hiring foreign staff to upgrade the Shanxi Machinery Bureau. The bulk of the equipment came from Germany. His staff was a mix of Chinese technicians trained in the United States and other technicians he’d managed to poach from the much older Hanyang Arsenal.
Soon the Shanxi Machinery Bureau was one of the few arms factories in China capable of producing artillery pieces, mostly copies of German models. Most Chinese arms factories were known for cheap but crude products, but Taiyuan cultivated a reputation for making high-quality arms.
In the mid-1920s, the arsenal produced a clone of the Thompson submachinegun that was popular with railway troops battling bandits in the countryside. However, the increasing popularity of Thompson guns — chambered for .45 ACP rounds — created a supply problem. The most popular pistol in China was the C-96 “broomhandle,” a heavy but sturdy pistol that could be configured as a short carbine and was chambered for 7.63-millimeter rounds.
Yan’s troops in 1925. Photo via Wikipedia
To streamline the ammunition inventory in Yan’s army, Taiyuan began making its own version of the C-96 called the Shanxi Type 17, chambered for .45 rounds. By some estimates, Taiyuan produced as many as 8,500 of the pistols.
Alongside the arms-production, Yan laid out an ambitious plan for civil industrialization. He had big plans for Shanxi, including public education — for boys and girls — plus land reform and a local steel industry. Some observers began to call him “The Model Governor.”
Yan was a shrewd negotiator and strategist. He avoided entering conflicts until he’d identified what he believed was the winning side and would then join at the moment he considered most advantageous. When Chiang Kaishek and the Nationalist Army launched the Northern Expedition in 1927, Yan provided troops for the campaign in order to fight against Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin.
Yan’s forces ultimately played a key role in seizing Beijing, handing the Nationalists a victory over Zhang and establishing Chiang as the head of China’s new central government. Not long after, the Japanese assassination of Zhang led to his son Zhang Xueliang taking over his army and pledging support for Chiang, as well.
However, during the Central Plains War, Yan sided with “The Christian General” Feng Yuxiang and the Guangxi Clique against Chiang as they fought to establish an alternative national government. Yan appeared on the cover of Time with the caption “China’s next president.”
But the revolt failed. In 1930, Yan went into exile in Dalian, a part of China then under the control of the Japanese Kwantung army. Through it all, the Taiyuan arsenal remained active. In 1930 it had as many as 15,000 employees.
Around that time, the Shanxi army began fielding the arsenals’s copy of the Japanese Arisaka Type 38 rifle, known locally as the Shanxi 6-5 Infantry Rifle. A U.S. intelligence report from 1930 estimated Taiyuan had produced 100,000 of the rifles.
The rifle was of such high quality—and duplicated the Japanese model so closely—that weapons-enthusiasts assume Taiyuan based it on Japanese equipment that Yan had purchased.
During his time in Dalian, Yan enjoyed regular contact with Japanese officials. But he was secretly in correspondence with Zhang, as well. The two believed Japan was planning an invasion. Yan returned from exile to Shanxi with Zhang’s help … and with Chiang’s reluctant permission.
In September 1931, Japanese troops invaded Manchuria and destroyed Zhang’s army. Students in Shanxi protested Chiang’s policy of avoiding confrontation with the Japanese. On Dec. 18, 1931, Kuomintang police fired on a crowd of protesters. Shortly after, officials loyal to Yan began expelling Kuomintang officials from Shanxi. Yan regained control of the province.
Photo via Wikipedia
Yan also reclaimed his arsenal and boosted production. He immediately began funneling weapons from Taiyuan to anti-Japanese partisans in Manchuria. Embattled Chiang made peace with Yan once again. During a visit to Shanxi in 1934, he praised Yan’s leadership, tacitly acknowledging the province’s autonomy. He also declared Yan a key leader in “pacification” operations against communist insurgents.
Yan continued to tweak his ideology and modify his approach to governance. He was an avid reader of international news. He wrote to friends about his admiration of U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. China should have its own New Deal, Yan asserted.
But in 1936 Mongolian Prince De led a force of Japanese-trained Mongolian troops in an attack on Yan’s territory. Yan’s forces won the battle, but the confrontation left Yan convinced that rival Chinese factions needed to prepare for an inevitable Japanese invasion. He made a secret truce with Chinese communist forces, allowing Zhou Enlai to establish a secret base in Shanxi.
Zhang and Zhou kidnapped Chiang in what became known as the Xi’an incident and forced him to agree to a truce with the communists. Yan wasn’t directly involved in planning the kidnapping, but due to his relationship with all factions he was able to help negotiate Chiang’s release and establish a national truce between the government and the communists.
In 1937 Japan finally launched its main invasion of China, pushing into the north from Manchuria and striking Shanghai from the sea. Once again, Yan’s forces fought Prince De’s Mongolian troops, quickly routing them.
Japanese regular troops proved a much greater challenge. Yan began executing commanders that demonstrated cowardice. He also sent a personal invitation to Zhu De of the 8th Route Army to come to Shanxi and join the fight.
Yan and De’s forces banded together at the battle for the Pingxingguan Mountain Pass, delivering the Japanese force an embarrassing defeat. But the Japanese army continued its onslaught, eventually driving the Chinese to Taiyuan.
Yan’s forces fought hard to protect the city, but eventually retreated. When Japanese troops seized the city, they also seized Yan’s beloved arsenal. The factory continued producing machine guns, but rechambered them for Japanese rounds. They equipped pro-Japanese Chinese puppet troops fighting Chinese partisans.
A Japanese study later found that the battles of Pingxingguan, Xinkou and Taiyuan caused over half of all Japanese army casualties in northern China. Even Mao Zedong praised Yan for his stubborn resistance. However, the relationship between Yan and the communists suffered.
The communists’ guerilla tactics relied on hit-and-run attacks. They largely avoided pitched battles, instead focusing their efforts on rallying and indoctrinating the local peasants. Yan believed communist indoctrination posed a long-term threat to his control of Shanxi.
Yan late in life. Photo via Wikipedia
Soon Yan was waging a guerilla war of his own against both the Japanese and the communists. Commanding his troops from the mountains, he established new arms factories. They were much small, crude operations that relied on scrap metal and other recycled material. They produced hundreds of weapons rather than thousands.
In 1940, Gen.l Ryūkichi Tanaka became the chief of staff of the Japanese First Army. Yan and Tanaka had been on friendly terms during Yan’s exile in Dalian. Tanaka thought he could exploit Yan’s rift with the communists.
But Yan wanted the Japanese to withdraw from Shanxi. Only then would he consent to fight with the Japanese against the communists. In 1943, Yan and Tanaka agreed to a loose, informal truce.
After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Yan returned once again to Taiyuan and re-re-established his rule over Shanxi province. One of his first priorities was to take back possession of the arsenal. But the Japanese had already looted and stripped much of the machinery.
Yan wasn’t ready to give up. He began aggressively recruiting former Japanese sympathizers—and even Japanese troops and technicians. They proved instrumental in rebuilding the province’s industrial base.
He managed to convince Japanese officer Hosaku Imamura to lead his “Japanese special forces.” American advisers and the Kuomintang frowned upon Yan’s use of Japanese mercenaries. Yan once went as far as to label a detachment of Japanese troops as “railway repair laborers” in official documents before sending them fully armed into battle against communist troops.
By 1948 the arsenal was back to producing thousands of small arms and artillery pieces per month. But Yan couldn’t hold on to Shanxi. Communist forces flooded into the province, easily recruiting local fighters. They encircled Taiyuan.
Planes air-dropped ingots of brass to maintain the arsenal’s production of ammunition casings. But it was a lost cause. In early 1949, two C-46 transports flown by American pilots landed on an improvised runway and dropped off explosives that, U.S. officials hoped, Yan would use to destroy the steel mills and arsenal.
When the communists finally captured Taiyun, Imamura committed suicide. Yan fled to the south.
Yan ultimately fled to Taiwan with the rest of the nationalists. He retired from public life, turning his attention to writing and the further development of Yan Xishan Thought. The last iterations of his philosophy were considered “anti-communist and anti-capitalist Confucian utopianism.” He died in 1960.
Yan’s arsenal lived on. Despite the Americans’ hope that Yan would destroy the factory, the communists actually found it in pretty good shape. Taiyuan weapons helped to arm the communist government Yan had fought.