The profound legacy of China’s Whampoa Military Academy

Society & Culture

On June 16, 1924, the Whampoa Military Academy was inaugurated. At Whampoa and elsewhere, Sun Yat-sen was uniquely able to keep the two strands of the revolutionary movement — the Communist left and the Republican right — together.

This Week in China’s History: June 16, 1924

On June 16, 1924, Sun Yat-sen (孙中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) stood up on an island off Guangzhou in the Pearl River Delta and addressed a crowd of several hundred cadets. The occasion was the founding of a military academy that would give the Nationalist Party the means to gain power.

It was no surprise that Sun was seeking military support. He had been the ideological driver of the 1911 revolution that had overthrown the Qing dynasty, and had been named the provisional president of the new Republic of China. But his title didn’t last. Yuán Shìkǎi 袁世凯, a former Qing general, turned on his dynastic compatriots and joined the rebellion. Yuan was a valuable ally for the Republicans because of the arms and armies at his command, but he was a dangerous one as well. His military power made him indispensable to the revolution, enabling him to demand the presidency from Sun, and later to undo the nascent democracy and declare himself emperor. When Yuan died in 1916, China was fully sliding into disarray.

Sun Yat-sen regrouped in Guangzhou. His work building the Revolutionary Alliance that had succeeded, for a time, in 1911 showed his political and fundraising abilities, but the rise of Yuan Shikai had demonstrated the need for a revolutionary party with military support. As the teens turned to the ’20s, Sun cast about for options.

One of those options was another group in China that was also seeking revolutionary change at the same time. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, and though its end goals were very different, its immediate goal of freeing China from warlordism and “feudalism” matched well with those of the Nationalists.

The Nationalists and the Communists each had something to bring to an alliance: the Nationalist Party was much larger and better organized; the Communists, though, had the support of the Soviet Union and its international arm, the Comintern (Communist International). Though new and small, the CCP could thus access advisors, money, and munitions. Combined with the KMT’s party organization and wide reach, the two could be a potent combination.

Not everyone was sold. Chén Dúxiù 陈独秀, the CCP leader, was skeptical of the alliance, but Comintern advisors, especially Mikhail Borodin, insisted, and pushed for a reorganization of the KMT along more Leninist lines. They wanted Sun appointed party leader for life and to implement “democratic centralism” to give party decisions additional weight. The KMT platform was also reoriented to endorse reforms like minimum wages, an eight-hour day, and land redistribution. These plans would be spread to peasants and workers across the country through a new Propaganda Department, deftly run by a young Hunanese named Máo Zédōng 毛泽东.

With all these parts in place, CCP members would automatically become KMT members, and in 1923, the First United Front was born.

The practical element to the United Front was a military academy, set up with Soviet money and officers. Vasily Blyukher, a veteran of the Russian Civil War and military commander of the Russian Far Eastern Republic, was the chief advisor at the academy. The academy’s staff was a combustible blend of Communist and Nationalist officers. Chiang Kai-shek, who would go on to lead the anti-Communist wing of the party, was the first commandant, but his presence was balanced by Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来, who headed the political department.

Money and materiel were vital Soviet contributions to the Whampoa Academy, but just as important was the academy’s role in shaping the relationship between the party and the army. The army trained at Whampoa would not be an army for the Chinese government, the Chinese people, or a vaguely defined “China.” It would be a party army: a KMT army, trained to support the political and ideological goals of the party. This was in keeping with the Soviet model, in which a Red Army supported the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary goals, and later, in a one-party state, the goals of the Soviet Union.

Most of the cadets at the academy were middle class: few workers or farmers could meet the formal education requirements for admission to Whampoa. There were some exceptions — future CCP defense minister Lín Biāo 林彪 was among the first graduates — but the majority of cadets were motivated more by nationalism than by Communism, reflecting the relative sizes of the two parties.

Crucially, for the Whampoa Academy as well as the United Front, the guiding ideology behind Sun Yat-sen’s party was ambiguous, as embodied in Sun’s Sanmin zhuyi, or Three People’s Principles, which placed nationalism, democracy, and “the livelihood of the people” at the center of China’s plans. The first two — nationalism and democracy — were vague enough. Some saw in Sun’s principles a path toward democratic republicanism; others saw just as clearly a path toward socialism and Soviet-style democratic centralism.

The formal inauguration ceremony of June 16 focused on the Three People’s Principles. Appropriately to the setting, the speech left the content of those principles vague, calling on the cadets to “follow the principles” and swear to be diligent, courageous, trustworthy, and loyal. The speech would later become the national anthem of the Republic of China, officially translated by Du Tingxiu as:

Our aim shall be:
To found a free land,
World peace, be our stand.
Lead on, comrades,
Vanguards ye are.
Hold fast your aim,
By sun and star.
Be earnest and brave,
Your country to save,
One heart, one soul,
One mind, one goal.

Sun Yat-sen was uniquely able to keep the two strands of the revolutionary movement — the Communist left and the Republican right — together. His personal charisma and extensive networks were able to overcome ideological differences. Those differences were nowhere as stark as at Whampoa, where right and left trained and served together, eying one another suspiciously, and in many cases expecting that they would one day use that training against one another.

Those suspicions proved correct.

When Sun Yat-sen died, unexpectedly and young, in 1925, the threads that held the First United Front together began to fray. Whampoa-trained troops became the core of the National Revolutionary Army, or NRA, that led the Northern Expedition that would unify China in 1927 under the leadership of the Kuomintang. By that time, the Whampoa Academy as such had ceased to be. Just as the academy was demonstrating its effectiveness, with the success of NRA troops in the Northern Expedition, the central tension at its core was finally rooted out. In April 1927, as part of the same purge that led to the massacre of thousands of Communists in Shanghai, allies of Chiang Kai-shek rooted out cadets who were found to have Communist sympathies and expelled them from the academy, imprisoning most of them.

The NRA that would later become the Army of the Republic of China traces its roots to Whampoa, but so does the Communist Red Army that was founded in August of 1927 and would go on to become the People’s Liberation Army in 1945. Civil Wars are often presented as “brother against brother,” and in the same way that West Point graduates led troops into battle on opposite sides of the American Civil War, so too in 1946-49 did Whampoa graduates face off in China.

The legacy of Whampoa was profound. The Republic of China Central Military Academy maintains the tradition that began in Whampoa, having relocated to Nanjing, Chengdu, and now to Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The “Spirit of Whampoa” defined generations of military leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and beyond, as Pang-yuan Chi and David Der-wei Wang described in their collection of memoirs, The Last of the Whampoa Breed. It is fitting, for an institution whose existence was defined by contradiction and division, that some of the first regular visits by (retired) Taiwanese military officials to the mainland came in the form of reunions of Whampoa graduates in the 1980s, a callback to the time when the forerunners of both Nationalist and Communist China shared meals, classes, and dormitories in an island off Guangzhou.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.