Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Intriguing Life of Zhang Xueliang

Trivia time...Do you know the name of the person who founded your university?

Even if the answer is "yes," I'll bet your founder's life is nowhere near as interesting to the outside world as that of Zhang Xueliang, the founder (in 1923) of Northeastern University in Shenyang.

When I heard that we were going to take in an exhibit on the life of the founder of Northeastern University, my expectations, truth be told, were not very high. I mean, how compelling can the life of a university founder be?

Boy, was I in for a surprise!

As a child, Zhang Xueliang grew up as a kind of royalty. This was the period between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Zhang's father was a warlord in the northeastern part of the country, and they lived, shall we say, a rather privileged life. As a young man, Zhang succeeded his father as Manchuria's foremost warlord.

A few years later, at the height of China's internal turmoil, the Japanese controlled large swaths of the country, and the Nationalists and Communists were at war with one another for domestic supremacy. Zhang Xueliang was on the side of the Nationalists. In fact, he was one of Chiang Kai-shek's leading generals. It was at this point in his life that Zhang played a seminal role in changing the course of Chinese history.

In December 1936, Zhang Xueliang and another one of the Nationalists' leading generals kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek, in what is known as the "Xi'an Incident." (That's a picture of me next to one of the bullet holes where the events of that fateful morning unfolded. As an aside, it was not until my trip to Northeastern University that I actually put the pieces together and understood just what it was that had happened in Xi'an, even though it was last September when I visited the site where the incident occurred.)

Why, you ask, would Zhang Xueliang arrest his own party's leader at a critical moment in the struggle against the Japanese and the Communists? Chiang Kai-shek had recently announced his intention to focus first on suppressing the communist uprising, and then turning his attention to the occupying Japanese forces. For his part Zhang Xueliang preferred to do things the other way, that is, unite with the Communists in a joint effort to first expel the Japanese from Chinese soil, and then settle their internal struggle for power.

In the end, things did not turn out the way Zhang Xueliang imagined. After a series of complex negotiations, Chiang Kai-shek was granted his freedom, stopped attacking the Communists, and turned the tables on Zhang, kidnapping him in Nanjing. When the Nationalists eventually found themselves on the losing end of the civil war and were forced to flee the mainland, Chiang Kai-shek took Zhang along as a political prisoner. It was not, in fact, until more than fifty years later, in 1990, that Zhang was finally released from house arrest. At that point, Zhang, not wanting to choose between staying in the Taiwan of his Nationalist Party or returning to the China of his heritage, decided to emigrate to the United States. Zhang spent the last decade of his long life in Hawaii, where he is buried.

Now that is a twentieth century life. Who knew? For my part, the lesson I learned is not only that Zhang Xueliang played a crucial role in bringing about China's communist future, but also to suspend judgment about people I know little about until I actually find out more about them.

~Steve

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