2. The Nanjing decade (1927 - 1937)

The Nanjing Decade was a relatively stable period during which China was ruled by Jiang Jieshi, Sun Yixian's successor. However, many challenges remained and there was only limited success in creating a unified, modern state. Indeed, the seeds were sown during this period for the tumultuous events that were to follow in the next decade.

This page focuses on the nature of Jiang's government and the progress made towards achieving Sun's Three Principles. The military actions of Jiang against the Communists and the Japanese during this period are covered in the next section.

Guiding questions

What was the legacy of Sun Yixian?

Why did Jiang Jieshi take over as leader of the Nationalist Party?

What was the nature of Jiang Jieshi's government?

How successful was Jiang Jieshi's government in dealing with the problems facing China between 1927 and 1937?

1. What was the legacy of Sun Yixian ?

As you read in the last section, the leading politician at the time of the overthrow of the Manchus in 1911 was Sun Yixian. He had established a nationalist political party, the Guomindang (GMD). He had also developed his political philosophy based on the 'Three People's Principles':

a. Nationalism: the need for a strong, united China and the end of its exploitation by foreigners

b. Democracy: China should become a democratic republic after an unspecified time of 'tutelage' under the GMD

c. People's Livelihood: This was a vague principle which suggested that the GMD would seek to improve the economic welfare of the mass of the people, possibly by some kind of land reform.

However, although he had a party and a philosophy, he lacked an army and in China after 1912, military force was needed for power. Thus although he initially had been elected President of the new Chinese Republic, Sun had stepped down in favour of Yuan Shikai in 1912. Even then, Sun still had difficulty in keeping control of his base at Guangzhou (Canton) and had to flee when he fell out with local warlords.

It was not until 1923 that Sun Yixian saw the possibility of being able to achieve his aims. He came to an agreement with the Soviet Union that the GMD would establish a 'United Front' with the small and recently established Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They would receive aid from the Soviet Union and the aim of the  United Front would be to defeat the warlords and establish a strong national government. This agreement, and the resulting Soviet aid, considerably improved the political prospects of the GMD. The alliance with the CCP provided the GMD with valuable links to Chinese workers and peasants. The Russians also supplied military aid. On the basis of this improved position, the aim of the GMD was to launch a 'Northern Expedition' which would move north, defeat the warlords and thus unite China. However Sun died of cancer in 1925 before the Northern Expedition had got under way.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the following video on the life and ideas of Sun Yixian.

Make further notes on the life of Sun and his ideas - in particular his three principles.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Read this article from The Economist magazine on the legacy of Sun for both Taiwan and China

  1. Why is Sun Yixian 'an unlikely hero'?
  2. Why, despite his failures, is he to be admired?
  3. What does The Economist see as the legacy of Sun for (a) Taiwan and (b) mainland China?
  4. Which of Sun's ideas have not been realised?

2. Why did Jiang Jieshi take over as leader of the Nationalist Party?

Jiang Jieshi was the top contender for leader of the GMD after the death of Sun Yixian.

Task One

ATL: Research skills

Research the career of Jiang Jieshi.

Write notes on the significance of the following in explaining Jiang Jieshi's rise to power:

  • Position as head of the Whampoa Military Academy
  • Visit to the Soviet Union
  • Views about the left-wing of the party
  • The Canton conspiracy
  • The Northern Expedition
  • The Shanghai Massacre

3. What was the nature of Jiang Jieshi's government?

Soong May-ling stitching uniform for National Revolutionary Army soldiers.

Following the Northern Expedition and the Shanghai Massacre, Jiang was able to establish his leadership of the party. Wang Jingwei and the left of the party, based in Guangzhou, condemned Jiang’s actions. However, Jiang went ahead and established a nationalist government under his leadership in Nanjing which became the new capital of China.  The Wuhan government was crushed and Wang Jingwei fled abroad.  Jiang had turned on the CCP and the ‘left’ within the GMD and had destroyed the United Front.  The outcome was a victory for the GMD’s ‘right wing’.

Jiang had some key strengths: he had the support of the GMD’s main military forces, significant economic support from bankers and business in Shanghai and the backing of several warlords, including Feng Yuxiang.  Foreign governments subsequently recognized the new GMD regime in Nanjing as the official government. 

Sun Yixian had envisaged the unification of China followed by a period of 'tutelage' in which the GMD would instruct the people in the process of democracy. The Nanjing Government duly declared a period tutelage but no steps were taken to move towards democracy.

A five-power government was established. Efficiency however was limited by excessive bureaucracy and frequent changes of officials. In any case, many provinces were outside its control; central government rarely operated at local level.

The government also functioned through personal relationships rather than through the institutions of government; indeed Jiang preferred to operate through 'cliques'. His power base was the army. His time as commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy in the early 1920s had helped to create a network of supporters and the officer corps were the new mandarins. Jiang's  marriage into the Soong family also provided vital links to the richest sectors of Chinese commerce and banking and it was from the urban middle and upper classes, symbolised by the Soong family, that the elite of the GMD was drawn. As only 4.5 % of the population lived in cities the GMD came to represent only a small proportion of the country, and the deprived peasant masses became resentful of the rural elite who also supported the GMD.

The government became increasingly repressive and less popular. A former Whampoa cadet, Dai Li, headed the much feared Military Bureau of Statistics or secret police. Assassinations and illegal arrests increased and censorship was very heavy.

The basic ideology of the regime was Sun's 'Three People's Principles'. However, Jiang gave the ideology a more conservative flavour. He supported some Confucian principles and in the 1930s a 'Read the Classics' movement was launched. Jiang had some sympathy with Fascism, believing in 'leadership' rather than democracy. In 1934, Jiang launched the 'New Life' movement (see below).

An organisation known as the Blueshirts was also established; it was headed by Whampoa cadets, of whom the most important was Dai Li. It was intended to set an example of selfless and ascetic dedication to national service.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Read the speech below (click on the eye) which Jiang made in 1934 to introduce the new unifying ideology known as the New Life Movement.

  1. What does Jiang see as the problem with China?
  2. How does he think that this can be remedied?
  3. Do you that this movement can be classed as a modernising/forward looking movement or a return to traditional ideas?

“The general psychology of our people today can be described as spiritless. What manifests itself in behaviour is this: lack of discrimination between good and evil, between what is public and what is private… Because there is no discrimination between good and evil, right and wrong are confused; because there is no discrimination between public and private, improper taking and giving [of public funds] occur… As a result, officials tend to be dishonest and avaricious, the masses are undisciplined and calloused, youth become degraded and intemperate, adults are corrupt and ignorant, the rich become extravagant and luxurious, and the poor become mean and disorderly. Naturally it has resulted in disorganisation of the social order and national life, and we are in no position either to prevent or to remedy natural calamities, disasters caused from within, or invasions from without. The individual, society, and the whole country are now suffering…

In order to develop the life of our nation, protect the existence of our society and improve the livelihood of our people, it is absolutely necessary to wipe out these unwholesome conditions and to start to lead a new and rational life…

In short, the main object of the New Life Movement is to substitute a rational life for the irrational… By the observance of these virtues, it is hoped that rudeness and vulgarity will be got rid of and that the life of our people will conform to the standard of art. By art we are not referring to the special enjoyment of the gentry. We mean the cultural standard of all the people, irrespective of sex, age, wealth, and class. It is the boundary line between civilised life and barbarism…

By the observance of these virtues, it is hoped that social disorder and individual weakness will be remedied and that people will become more military minded. If a country cannot defend itself, it has every chance of losing its existence… Therefore our people must have military training. As a preliminary, we must acquire the habits of orderliness, cleanliness, simplicity, frugality, promptness, and exactness. We must preserve order, emphasise organisation, responsibility and discipline, and be ready to die for the country at any moment.”

Task Two

ATL: Research skills

Research further the New Life Movement.

  1. What was Jiang trying to achieve with this movement?
  2. From where did he get his inspiration? What different ideologies made up this movement?
  3. What actions were taken to try to enforce it?
  4. How successful was it?
  5. What was the role of the organisation called the Blueshirts?

    4. How successful was Jiang Jieshi's government in dealing with the problems facing China between 1927 and 1937?

    By SY - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60740934

    'From its inception in 1928 to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Nationalist government at Nanking hardly enjoyed a day of peace from domestic squabbles and foreign aggression'

    Immanuel Hsü The Rise of Modern China, pg 540, 4th Ed

    When assessing the achievements of the GMD in this period, it has to be taken into account that there were substantial limitations upon what it could do.

    Warlordism in fact continued; despite the Northern Expedition many warlords remained outside effective control which meant threats to the authority of the GMD; it also affected their income because a good proportion, and in some cases all, of provincial taxes were kept in the provinces. This lack of money limited the GMD's capacity for reform.

    The threat from the CCP remained and the Japanese threat continued to grow; this dual threat was a distraction from dealing with domestic problems and it also meant that a high proportion of GMD resources had to go to the armed forces; it also meant the military element remained predominant in the GMD.

    Task One

    ATL: Thinking skills

    1. What, according to this speech by Jiang Jieshi, are the problems holding back democracy and economic reconstruction in China?
    2. With reference to origin, purpose and content how valuable is this source for understanding the aims of Jiang with regard to China?

    For many centuries Chinese society has been free of class distinctions such as are found even in advanced democracies. At the core of our political thought is our traditional maxim: 'The people form the foundation of the country.' We Chinese are instinctively democratic, and Dr Sun's objective of universal suffrage evokes from all Chinese a ready and unhesitating response. But the processes and forms by which the will of the people is made manifest, and the complex machinery of modern democratic government cannot, I know to my cost, be created overnight, especially under the constant menace and attack of Japanese militarism..

    The absence of a strong central government capable of directing economic development, the bondage of unequal treaties trying to keep China a semi-colony for others, and above all, the jealous machinations of Japan, all these greatly retarded the economic reconstruction to which the National Revolution of China is dedicated.

    A speech by Jiang Jieshi, 17 November 1942

    Task Two

    ATL: Research and thinking skills

    Divide into three groups. Each group should investigate one of the threats faced by Jiang (Warlords, CCP and Japan) under the following questions:

    • What was the nature of the threat? How did it threaten the unity of China?
    • How did Jiang tackle the threat?
    • How effective were his actions? What was the situation by 1938?
    • How did the threat limit Jiang's authority in this period?

    Each group should prepare a PPT presentation to the rest of the class to address these questions.

    Note that this overlaps with the next two sections to this topic: 3. Rise of Communism in China (ATL) and 4. China at war 1931 to 1949 (ATL) 

    Jiang's government did have some real successes but China remained a country of appalling poverty with many problems, and the threats that have been discussed above increasingly diverted resources away from reforms.

    Here are some key points regarding developments in this decade:

    • The government established an effective banking system with four national banks.
    • For the first time foreign exchanges were controlled by government banks.
    • The currency was reformed; inflation was not a significant problem in 1937.
    • The GMD obtained control over China's tariffs; by May 1929 the major foreign powers had recognised China's tariff autonomy.
    • Three thousand miles of railway were built; steamer transport was expanded on the rivers and along the coast. However, half of the railway mileage had been built in Manchuria which was under Japanese control.
    • The first airlines started up and 15,000 miles of roads had been built by 1936; this created work and investment and helped to integrate regions. However conscripts were used to make the roads, and peasants were often not allowed to use them because they had been built for the military.
    • In cities like Shanghai, there were the beginnings of a consumer society; cinemas, shopping malls and electric power became more common.
    • For revenue, the government relied on customs revenue, the salt tax and commodity taxes but this was not enough and the government had to obtain 20 - 25% of its money by borrowing. The middle class who lent the government money did well from this.
    • Taxation was regressive. The poor paid the most. Income tax was not introduced until 1936 and was then ineffective.
    • Because much of the government expenditure went to payment of debts and military costs this limited the amount available for productive investment.
    • The government did little to help the peasants. It levied high taxes. A land law of 1930 stated that rents should be limited to 37 and a half percent of the harvest but this was not enforced. Local administrators were often tyrannical or corrupt and many peasants lived in dire poverty. The global depression brought disaster to many peasants who relied on cash crops.
    • The GMD failed to build mass support in the countryside and lacked control over the countryside. The historian John Roberts writes that 'the commitment of the Guomindang to a transformation of the countryside is suspect'. (A History of China).
    • The government encouraged industrial development and there was some progress especially in new industries such as electricity and also in old industries such as coal where growth was at 7%, but this affected only a tiny proportion of China's population as it was based in the treaty ports and in Manchuria. Foreigners were still very involved with industrial development.
    • The education system was reorganised; secondary education increased considerably and in 1935 the government launched a crash programme of primary education. But there were still only 3,000 secondary schools serving half a million out of a population of 500 million. In 1932, only 15% of students enrolled in primary schools were girls.
    • Education in the countryside was neglected.
    • The number of foreign concessions was reduced from 33 to 13 through negotiation.

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking skills

    In pairs, consider the list of the reforms above carried about by Jiang's government. (You may want to research these further)

    1.  Group the government reforms/actions under the following headings:
    • Financial reforms
    • Developments in communications and industry
    • Education reforms
    • Anti-Imperialism reforms
    • Rural development
    • Urban development
    1. Highlight which reforms can be seen as successful and which a failure
    2. Overall, how successful do you consider Jiang's government to have been in this decade (also bear in mind the problems highlighted above)

    There is debate among historians as to the extent of progress that took place in this decade. In the 1970s, many assessments of the Nanjing Decade, such as that by James Sheridan, were generally negative. More recently, however, this assessment has been challenged by historians such as Richard E Bedeski who have stressed the creation of new state institutions and China's renewed international image as significant developments.

    Task Four

    ATL: Thinking Skills

    In pairs, read these assessments of the Nanjing Decade.

    Identify the positive and negative points being made by each historian.

    Source A

    'On balance, at the end of its first decade the National government appeared stronger than it really was. On the surface, it looked as though it were forging a new order out of chaos...Yet beneath the veneer of progress lay the serious fundamental problems of social and economic injustices and the chronic ill of deficit spending....'

    Immanuel Hsü The Rise of Modern China, pg 573, 4th Ed.

    Source B

    '..there was in almost every aspect of Chinese life a slow but certain movement until war broke out in 1937....Bureaucratic inertia, arbitrary imposition of taxes, indifference of poverty, nepotism, disruptive unpredictable corruption...all these evils were beginning to give way. Many branches of the public service were by 1937 capable of providing competent, honest and just administration...The whole vast, unwieldy bureaucratic mass was beginning to move'.

    Jack Grey, Rebellions and Revolutions, OUP, 1990, pg 247

    Source C

    Not only did the [GMD] prove unable to liquidate the vestiges of independent military power in the provinces, but in political, economic, and intellectual terms as well, the Kuomintang (Guomindang) failed to create the new unity that the nation so desperately required.....Some growth in the modern sector of the economy did occur and it did contribute slightly to territorial integration, but the traditional rural economy continued unchanged and Chinese society remained divided between a vast traditionalistic peasantry and a small Westernized urban elite, itself fragmented by philosophical and political difference'.

    James E. Sheridan, China in Disintegration, Free Press, 1977, pg 220

    Source D

    The Republican years are seen by researchers increasingly as part of a continuous transition during which China modified its traditional society and adapted to new roles in world affairs - sometimes with considerable success.

    Richard Louis Edmonds, Reappraising Republican China, OUP, 1999

    Task Five

    ATL: Thinking and communication skills

    Using the information above, discuss in pairs or small groups the following questions.

    How far did did Jiang Jieshi's government succeed in achieving the aims of Sun Yixian's principles? (Nationalism, Democracy and People's Livelihood - see the top of this page for a discussion of what these meant)

    How far did Jiang Jieshi's government become a totalitarian, one party state? (For this question consider the extent to which the government had control over political life, thought, social life, economy)

    Task Six

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Select which of the following you think best describes the Nanjing decade. Make sure you can justify your decision.

    a. Jiang Jieshi tried to fulfill the Three People's Principles in this period and had some success in doing so.

    b. Jiang Jieshi did not really attempt to carry out the Three People's Principles. Although some significant reforms were passed, they were very limited in scope and the fundamental economic, social and political problems of China were not tackled.

    c. Jiang Jieshi's government was increasingly inefficient and corrupt and managed few significant achievements in this period.

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