The Young Marshal
The most fascinating historic person I ever met.
Profile published in High Life magazine May 1998, then updated. Have used old spellings, still more familiar, apart from city of Xian, formerly Sian
An elderly Chinese gentleman and his wife, both in wheelchairs, are leaving the morning service at a Protestant church in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The woman is still beautiful and elegant. Her husband, behind his thick glasses, is alert and soldierly, his features a mask of dignity. The congregation watches reverently as he and his wife are wheeled into their waiting transport.
Later that day I catch sight of him again, in Honolulu, being wheeled out of a luxury apartment block. He passes a line of taxi drivers, waiting by their cabs: they stand to attention and bow.
He might have been a last emperor – and he once ruled a state. He was also once a playboy, a gambler and a drug addict. He is Chang Hsueh-Liang, also known as Peter Chang, or the Young Marshal, or the Dancing Despot – and one of the most fascinating people of the twentieth century.
In 1936 he changed the history of the world. He kidnapped China’s ruler, Chiang Kai-Shek and forced him to abandon his civil war against the Chinese Communists and form a united front with them against the invading Japanese. This event in December 1936, the Sian Incident, led to full-scale war between China and Japan: it opened World War II in the East.
The Young Marshal became the hero of China. But, in his moment of destiny, he sacrificed himself for the sake of his country and spent more than 53 years under house arrest, so becoming the longest-serving political prisoner in history.
At the age of 90 he was set free. He remains revered as a patriot both in mainland China and Taiwan. In his current home in Hawaii, he is visited by leading politicians from both governments, seeking his blessing.
Chang Hsueh-Liang was born in Mukden, capital of Manchuria, on 2 June 1900, the first son of a hunter-turned-bandit-turned-warlord, Chang Tsolin. Young Chang and his eight brothers went to school in Mukden. He learnt English with a Scots burr from his best friend, Jimmie Elder, son of the Mukden railway director.
At 16 he was married, at 17 a father, at 20 a general in his father’s Manchurian army. At 24, he captured two great cities, Peking and Tientsin, and helped to make his father the arbiter of China. But later his father retreated back to Manchuria from Chiang Kai-Shek’s advancing Nationalist army. He never made it. The Japanese had designs on Manchuria. Through their secret agent, Major Giga, planted on Chang Tsolin as his military adviser, they blew up his private train and killed him.
He left his son a fortune of $50 million (untaxed, in 1928 values) and a state the size of Western Europe, with 30 million people, and an army of half a million and huge, largely untapped mineral and agricultural wealth. At 28, Chang Hsueh-Liang, now the Young Marshal, was the youngest ruler in the world.
Sixty-two years later, on his release from house arrest, Chang told Japanese TV interviewers “My father loved me a lot. He had his first victory in a war on the day I was born and it was on my birthday that he was killed. Since then I have never had a happy birthday and I have changed my birthday. Still, every year I remember him.”
Under the ancient Chinese code, it is a supreme duty for a son to avenge a murdered father. It took ten years, but in 1938 a Manchurian hit squad, paid by Chang, finally caught up with Major Giga in Japan.
The Japanese, already pursuing their aggressive and ultimately catastrophic policy of military expansion, expected young Chang to become their puppet in Manchuria. They knew him already to be an opium user (like many Chinese generals he found it relaxing between battles). Another Japanese secret agent became his doctor and gave him a “cure” – morphine.
But Chang was determined to resist Japan. When he found two of his generals plotting with the Japanese he invited them to play mah-jong and then gunned them down over the tiles. The assassination made him massively popular with his subjects.
For the next three years, Chang struggled to modernize Manchuria and rid it of foreign influence. He donated most of his father’s fortune to found training schools. He used his army to suppress civil war and support anti-Communist Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek as sole ruler of China. It was the start of a long relationship as Chiang Kai-Shek’s disciple, brother-in-arms – and sacrificial victim.
Handsome, energetic and affable, Chang attracted admiring profiles in Western media. In his spare time he drove fast cars, danced, held all-night poker sessions for huge stakes, bought gadgets, wore excellent clothes, took up golf, collected beautiful works of art and calligraphy, loved many women and tried to give up drugs.
He also enjoyed his twin-engined silver monoplane, the Flying Palace, equipped with giant sofas, an ornate desk and an icebox. With a long Chinese robe tucked round his knees and his purple bell-boy cap askew on his head he would perform hair-raising stunts and drop messages to his prostrating troops.
But in September 1931 the Japanese carried out their long-prepared plot to conquer Manchuria. They replaced Chang with Pu Yi, the Last Emperor, as puppet ruler. Ironically, Chang himself had encouraged Pu Yi to return to politics. “I told him ‘when the time comes when China elects its President you have just the qualifications to run’”.
When the Japanese struck, most of his army was out of Manchuria, fighting for Chiang Kai-Shek: Chang himself was in hospital in Peking. He appealed to Chiang Kai-Shek for help, but Chiang order him not to resist. He was counting on the League of Nations to act and was in any case determined to fight the Chinese Communists in preference to the Japanese.
This non-resistance policy was deeply unpopular. To spare Chiang Kai-Shek’s reputation, Chang accepted the blame, as he did later when the Japanese pushed south in China and took Jehol and Peking. Chang announced his “retirement”, aged 36.
He went to Europe, met and admired Mussolini, and set up with his wife and family in London’s Dorchester hotel. He tried to enter Oxford University and had the same hope for his teenage sons, who were given the English names of Raymond and Martin and a tutor in Hove. Chang visited aircraft factories, bought Savile Row suits, went to nightclubs (earning the title of The Dancing Despot), watched Mickey Mouse films and turned up uninvited at the 1933 World Economic Conference. Asked if he expected any result from the Conference, he remarked that “it was a great benefit to hotels”.
Above all, during his British stay Chang finally cured himself of drug addiction.
In 1934 he returned to China, at the head of his exiled Manchurian army, fighting Mao Tse-Tung and the Communists on behalf of Chiang Kai-Shek. Observers noticed that he had dropped his playboy habits for a Spartan regime, and that he spent more and more time with young radical officers. They wanted to fight the Japanese and return to their homeland, not to fight fellow Chinese thousands of miles away. Many of his officers admired the discipline and apparent patriotism of their opponents. Under their influence, Chang opened contacts with the Reds, especially Chou En-Lai, whom he later described as “an intimate and trustworthy old friend.”
In October 1936 Chang appealed to Chiang Kai-Shek to reverse his anti-Communist policy and lead a united front of all Chinese against the Japanese invader.
Chiang Kai-Shek flew to the Manchurian army headquarters in the remote provincial capital of Xian (home of the Terracotta Warriors). He intended to give Chang a dressing down and order him into a final offensive against the Communists. But on 7 December 1936 Chang kidnapped him in his night shirt, and forced him to negotiate with Chou En-Lai and to agree to accept the Communists in an anti-Japanese coalition.
Chang then amazed China by releasing his prisoner. In his Japanese television interview he explained why. “If I had kept Chiang Kai-Shek there would have been a war between the civil government and us. We kidnapped him to avoid war, so I decided to take the responsibility of releasing him.” He also faced heavy pressure from the Communists: Stalin was anxious to preserve Chiang’s authority.
Still more amazingly, Chang left his army and accompanied Chiang Kai-Shek back to his capital in Nanking – as his prisoner. Like Stalin, he still believed that Chiang Kai-Shek alone could lead China, and sought to save his leader’s face as he had before over the Japanese invasions. He gave Chiang a public apology. The sophisticated ex-resident of the Dorchester said “I am naturally rustic, surly and unpolished. This has led me to commit an impudent and criminal act.” He offered to accept any punishment, even death, although he expected a nominal sentence.
Chiang Kai-Shek had him put under house arrest. A month later, Sam Goldwyn offered him a starring part in a film epic about Marco Polo. He was unable to accept the engagement. Although he did not know it, Chang had begun 53 years of imprisonment – comfortable, but still imprisonment. He was joined by his lover – Edith Chao. Eight years earlier, as the beautiful teenaged daughter of a privileged family, she fell instantly in love with him as his dancing partner at a ball in Shanghai. Two years later she caused a society scandal by running away to join him (a married man) in Manchuria. She chose to follow him into captivity and in 1964, after the death of his wife, they were able to marry.
Chang remained under house arrest during the war and the subsequent Chinese civil war. In 1948 the Americans and his own advisers urged Chiang Kai-Shek to release him, as the only man who could save Manchuria from the advancing Communists. But Chiang Kai-Shek refused, and instead sent Chang in an aeroplane to Taiwan, where he remained a state prisoner, never allowed to tell his story.
Chang occupied himself by writing poetry and taking up photography. He played a lot of bridge. Most important, he became a Christian, adopting the name of Peter. On Sundays he was sometimes seen worshipping at the church used by Chiang Kai-Shek. The two men were reported to have retained their staunch friendship, although each still claimed that he was right in the civil war.
In 1990, when Chiang Kai-Shek’s son died, his long captivity was ended. He went to Hawaii, where his younger brother Henry had settled. He moved with Edith into an exclusive apartment block.
When I met him, in 1997, his eyesight and hearing were failing and both he and his wife were wheelchair-bound. They worshipped regularly at their Protestant church in Honolulu but otherwise rarely appeared in public. Whenever he did so, he commanded instant attention and respect. His friend, Hawaii’s first senator Hiram Fong, told me “He is very popular and regarded as a great hero of modern China. When Chinese people see him they want to take his picture.”
He has refused all requests for interviews in Hawaii. In October 1996 he gave personal papers and a history of his life to Columbia University in New York, but at his request they are sealed until 2002. They are housed there in the Peter H L and Edith C Chang Reading Room, in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library where there is a small permanent exhibition of his life.
Mr Chang has spoken to his congregation and written about his discovery of Christianity. Their faith clearly meant much to him and his wife: he was a benefactor of his church and she wrote four books about Christianity and Bible reading.
It was at church that I met them both after the Chinese language service which they attended on the first Sunday in Advent. Mrs Edith Chang was still beautiful in her 80s, with dark hair and neat features. She had respiratory problems but appeared bright and composed. Her husband, in his 98th year, kept the soldierly air of the Young Marshal. A figure of great dignity, wearing a check shirt-jacket and a black skull cap, he followed the service attentively. One of the hymns (in Chinese) was Fight The Good Fight.
He shook my hand firmly and when I said slowly and loudly that I came from London, England, he broke into a radiant smile – perhaps recalling happy memories of the Dorchester. He had great personal magnetism, equal (in my experience) to Nelson Mandela. I also sensed a vigorous mind – an impression confirmed to me by his regular mah-jongg partner, Robert Woo: the pilot who flew him to Taiwan on Chiang Kai-Shek’s orders nearly 50 years earlier.
Apart from mah-johngg, I was told that he followed the news each day. His wife’s great-niece, Mrs Li, visited him each day and read him newspaper stories, especially ones about China, international affairs and American politics. She told me that his memories were still vivid and accurate and that he was still in touch with people he had known 70 years before, including Mussolini’s daughter.
But she also told me that he was constantly baffled by his reputation for being a dancer. “I never danced,” he would say, “I was always marching”.
At the end of May 2000, Chang Hseuh-Liang had an advance celebration of his 100th birthday, with his wife and family members, and many prominent visitors including representatives of the Chinese and Taiwan governments. A film crew recorded the celebrations and his thoughts on a long and crowded life, which he predicted to last another five years. (Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, widow of his captor, is still alive in New York, aged 103).
But a month later his wife Edith died of pneumonia, aged 88, ending a loving relationship of 72 years. Heartbroken, Chang Hseuh-Liang held her hands tightly as her life ebbed away. A few months later he died peacefully, aged 100.