Yan Xishan

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jul 5, 2022

Table of Content


Yan Xishan or Yen Hsi-shan (Wutai County, October 8, 1883 - Taipei, July 22, 1960) was a Chinese general, politician and warlord who served in the government of the Republic of China and was also prime minister between 1949 and 1950 and minister of National Defense during the same period. He effectively controlled Shanxi Province from the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 to the end of the civil war with the Communist victory in 1949. As the leader of a relatively small, poor and remote province, he remained excluded from the great machinations of the Yuan Shikai era, the warlord period, the Nationalist era, the Second Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent final part of the civil war, remaining firmly in power until the Nationalist armies with which he was affiliated were no longer able to hold mainland China, which had been abandoned to the Communists, and forced him to flee along with Chiang Kai-shek's followers to Formosa Island (present-day Taiwan) where he died. He is regarded by Western biographers as an important transitional figure between the ancient Chinese thought and traditions to which he was particularly attached and the need to modernize the army and the country in general according to Western patterns.

Early years

Yan Xishan was born in Wutai County, Xinzhou, Shanxi, in 1883, during the late Qing Dynasty, to a family of bankers and merchants for generations. Having completed his early studies according to traditional Confucian education, a philosophy that would accompany him throughout his life, he went to work in his father's bank. After his father's business failed following a devastating economic crisis that hit China in the late 19th century, he entered a free military school run and financed by the Qing government in Taiyuan, the provincial capital. There he studied mathematics and philosophy according to modern patterns imported from the West. In 1904 he moved to Japan to train at the Tokyo Shinbu Gakko and later at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy where he graduated in 1909.

Experience in Japan

During Yan's five years studying in Japan, he was impressed by the efforts made by the Japanese nation to modernize. He observed the progress made by the Japanese (whom the Chinese had previously considered unsophisticated and backward) and began to worry about the consequences if China fell behind the rest of the world. This formative experience Yan later cited it as a time of great inspiration for his later efforts to modernize Shanxi.

Yan concluded that the Japanese had successfully modernized largely because of the government's ability to mobilize the population in support of political campaigns and the close relationship between the military and the civilian population. He attributed the surprising Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 to the enthusiastic mobilization of Japanese public opinion in support of the military. After returning to China in 1910, he wrote a pamphlet warning China that it was in danger of being overtaken by Japan unless it developed a local form of bushido.

While still studying in Japan, Yan became disgusted with the open corruption of Qing officials in Shanxi and became convinced that China's relative impotence in the 19th century was the result of the dynasty's generally hostile attitude toward modernization and industrial development, and a grossly inept foreign policy. In Japan Yan met Sun Yat-sen and joined his Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance), a semi-secret society that aimed to overthrow the Qing dynasty. He also attempted to spread Sun's ideas by organizing a "Blood and Iron Society" embedded among the ranks of Chinese students at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. The goal of this group of students was to organize a revolution that would lead to the creation of a strong and united China, similar to how Otto von Bismarck had done with Germany.

Return to China

When he returned to China in 1909, he was given command of the Shanxi New Army Division by the Qing government, but secretly worked to overthrow the imperial government. Only two years later during the Xinhai Yan Revolution he took command of local revolutionary troops against the Qing. He justified his actions by accusing the dynasty of being too incapable and decadent, particularly against foreign aggression, and promising a wide range of reforms for the people of the province.

Warlord period

When Yuan Shikai took office as president of the Republic of China in 1912, Yan antagonized him, so Yuan led an army that invaded Shanxi. Yan managed to survive only by retreating northward and aligning himself with a friendly rebel group in neighboring Shaanxi. Although he was friends with Sun Yat-sen, Yan denied him support in the "Second Revolution" of 1913 and instead ingratiated himself with Yuan, who allowed him to return as military governor of Shanxi. In 1917, shortly after Yuan's death, Yan consolidated his power over the province as a warlord, ruling there uncontested.

His defeat against a rival warlord in Henan in 1919 convinced him to stay out of the various civil wars of that period caused by the unstable Beiyang government, (despite being a member of the Beiyang Army and close to Duan Qirui) because of the weakness and backwardness of the province of which he found himself the leader, preferring to devote himself to decisively improving the war apparatus and provincial agricultural production. The success of his actions earned him the nickname "Model Governor" and Shanxi "Model Province" from the outside.

Involvement in the Northern Expedition

To maintain Shanxi's neutrality and spare it from serious military clashes with rival warlords, Yan developed a strategy of shifting alliances among various warring cliques, inevitably joining only the winning sides. Although he was much weaker than many warlords around him, he often maintained the balance of power among neighboring rivals, and even those he betrayed hesitated to retaliate against him should they need his forces in the future. At the start of the Northern Expedition in 1926 Yan initially opposed the Kuomintang National Revolutionary Army but changed sides the following year, swearing allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government to save himself from the threat of the Fengtian clique led by the powerful Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin. In May 1928 he had his army move against Peking, which he occupied the following month.

Yan's participation in the anti-communist crackdowns (Yan was an ardent anti-communist) along with the Nationalists during the Northern Expedition was noticed by Chiang, who therefore allowed him to extend his influence to Hebei as well.

He was a nationalist

His allegiance failed, however, in 1929 when he joined Li Zongren, Feng Yuxiang and Wang Jingwei in the coalition of senior Kuomintang officers and warlords hostile to Chiang's dictatorial rule.Following the Generalissimo's victory in the subsequent Central Plains War of 1930, however, he rejoined its ranks.

After a brief retirement in the early 1930s, he returned active in Shanxi to pursue social and military reforms to prevent communist infiltration.

In 1936 he supported Chiang's abduction by Zhang Xueliang as part of the Xi'an Incident.

Second Sino-Japanese War

During the Second Sino-Japanese War he fought hard against the Japanese invader to prevent it from conquering Shanxi as well. The Japanese tried at least five times to deal with Yan to join them in the collaborationist government as Wang Jingwei but he remained loyal to his homeland.

To fight the Japanese, Yan agreed to make a truce with the Communists, freeing them en masse from prisons and allowing them to circulate throughout Shanxi, including such important politicians and generals as Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, who took command of a section of the province's army. Yan established a Communist headquarters in Taiyuan for the occasion.

During the war, the Japanese were responsible for numerous massacres in Shanxi, and after the fall of Taiyuan in November 1937, Yan led the resistance in the mountains.

At that point, however, he began to have an ambiguous attitude. For while on the one hand he was praised by both nationalist and communist politicians and military personnel including Mao Zedong for his exceptional tenacity to resist the invader, on the other hand beginning in 1940 he began to enter into secret agreements with Japan, (to which he had always remained attached), to prevent his land from coming out of the war devastated and to remain in power there and fight the communists again.

Beginning in 1943 his reports became increasingly frequent, and by 1944 Yan actively resumed the anti-communist war with Japanese support.

Chinese Civil War

Despite his initial cooperation against the Japanese, Yan immediately took up arms again against the Communists in 1946 at the beginning of the second phase of the Chinese Civil War. At that time so many of his soldiers were none other than Japanese who had already been recruited during World War II and remained in Chinese territory under Nationalist command after the end of hostilities.

His forces fought strenuously to stop the enemy, as during the Shangdang Campaign.

With the war now in favor of the Communists, Yan told reporters that if even the capital Taiyuan fell, he and his supporters would commit suicide by swallowing cyanide capsules rather than see Shanxi fall into Communist hands. After the fall of Taiyuan in April 1949 at the end of the eponymous campaign many supporters actually committed suicide while Yan fled with the province's gold. He took refuge in Formosa (Taiwan), the last bastion chosen by Chiang Kai-shek against the Communist advance, with the entire Nationalist government.

In Taiwan Yan was prime minister and minister of national defense, but these were actually positions with little actual power.

The last few years

Yan's last years were marked by disappointment and sadness. After following Chiang to Taiwan, he enjoyed the title of "senior adviser" to the Generalissimo, but in reality it was a position completely without power. Chiang most likely held a great grudge against Yan for a long time because of his inactivity at the end of the civil war. On more than one occasion Yan asked to be allowed to go to Japan but was always prevented from leaving Taiwan.

Yan was abandoned by all but a handful of followers, and spent most of his last years writing books on philosophy, history and contemporary events, which he often translated into English. His late philosophical outlook has been described as "anti-communist and anti-capitalist Confucian utopianism." Several months before the Korean War, Yan published a book, Peace or World War, in which he predicted that North Korea would invade South Korea, that South Korea would be quickly overwhelmed and the United States would intervene in its support, and that Communist China would instead intervene in support of North Korea. All of these events actually occurred in the course of the Korean War.

Yan died in Taipei on May 24, 1960. He was buried in the Qixingjun section of Yangmingshan National Park. For decades Yan's residence and tomb were tended by a small number of former helpers, who had accompanied him from Shanxi. In 2011, when the last of his former helpers turned 81 and was no longer able to care for the residence, responsibility for maintaining the site was taken over by the Taipei City government.


  1. Yan Xishan
  2. Yan Xishan
  3. ^ a b Gillin The Journal of Asian Studies 289
  4. ^ a b c Gillin The Journal of Asian Studies 290
  5. ^ a b Gillin The Journal of Asian Studies 291
  6. ^ a b c d e Wang 399
  7. ^ Nell'onomastica cinese il cognome precede il nome. "Yan" è il cognome.
  8. a b Boorman (1967), p. 120
  9. Wou (1978), p. 143
  10. Wou (1978), p. 140
  11. a b c d e f g h Wang Ke-Wen: Yan Xishan. In: Leung, Pak-Wah (Hrsg.): Political leaders of modern China: a biographical dictionary. 1. Auflage. Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn. 2002, ISBN 0-313-30216-2, S. 182–184.
  12. a b c d e f Christopher R. Lew und Edwin Pak-wah Leung: Historical dictionary of the Chinese Civil War. 2. Auflage. Scarecrow Press, Lanham 2013, ISBN 978-0-8108-7874-7, S. 255–257.

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