Zhang Xueliang, a onetime warlord who in two turbulent weeks in 1936 helped turn the course of Chinese history — and then spent the next 55 years under house arrest, gradually and reluctantly becoming a national hero — died on Sunday in Honolulu, where he had been living in recent years. He was 100.…His Northeastern Border Defense Army grew to 400,000 men, and in 1930 he was named deputy commander in chief of the Chinese armed forces. But he was distracted from military affairs by an active social life, including a dalliance with Countess Edda Ciano, daughter of Mussolini and wife of the Italian minister to China.
Zhang and Edda Ciano first met in Beijing at a dinner for the League of Nations delegation headed by Lord Lytton. The delegation was there to investigate the roots of the Manchurian Incident and its developments. According to her testimony, Edda sat across from Zhang at the table and at the end of the evening he passed her a note inviting her to join him for a tour of the Imperial Summer Palace the next day, which she gladly accepted. The following day they spent a number of hours at the palace, with Zhang serving as Edda’s guide and giving her all his attention, while almost completely ignoring the other members of her entourage, including high-level personalities. The attention of the strongest man in China and ruler of its northern provinces, the daughter of the Italian dictator noted years later, ‘flattered my ego’. This indicated how Zhang had maintained his position in the kingdom, even at his lowest point after his defeat by the Japanese.During the month following that tour of the Summer Palace, the friendship between the two deepened…. Edda managed to convince Zhang to purchase three Italian-made aircraft for the Chinese Air Force. The close relationship between the Italian and Chinese air forces, which developed during the 1930s, can be attributed to the personal friendship between Zhang and Edda. Years later, Zhang testified that Edda wrote many letters to him over a long period of time, but at some point asked him to return them to her. When he was asked if they were love letters, he refused to reply.The two met frequently in Shanghai during Zhang’s drug rehabilitation process. [NOTE: Zhang was addicted to opium for a time.] One evening, Zhang held a festive dinner at his magnificent villa in honor of Edda and her husband ahead of their return to Italy, even though he and his entourage were about to sail on the same ship with their guests.
The naive marshal, who was sympathetic toward the fascists, invested particular hope in Il Duce, believing that only an ironlike totalitarian dictatorship like Mussolini’s could rescue China from the crisis. He also counted on help from the Duce’s daughter, Edda, the wife of the Italian consul general in Shanghai and future Italian minister of foreign affairs, Count Ciano. Zhang was a ladies’ man. Good-looking, youthful and dark-haired with a bristling mustache, he adored nightclubs and cabarets, was a splendid dancer, and courted women elegantly. The passionate Italian lady could not resist the handsome marshal, whose personal fortune, incidentally, amounted to some $50 million. It is hard to blame her, particularly since Count Ciano slighted her and preferred to linger in Shanghai’s bars and houses of prostitution. Edda’s romance with Zhang Xueliang continued for only a short time. In 1932 Edda and her husband returned to Rome.
Zhang Xueliang, a onetime warlord who in two turbulent weeks in 1936 helped turn the course of Chinese history — and then spent the next 55 years under house arrest, gradually and reluctantly becoming a national hero — died on Sunday in Honolulu, where he had been living in recent years. He was 100.
It was a measure of Mr. Zhang’s standing that the presidents of both China and Taiwan, who can agree on little else, both sent condolences. President Jiang Zemin of China called Mr. Zhang a ”great patriot.”
Until those two weeks in which he leaned against history, Mr. Zhang seemed an unlikely candidate for greatness. Known as ”the Young Marshal,” Mr. Zhang commanded 200,000 troops but wrestled with a drug addiction and a reputation as a playboy.
But in December 1936, Mr. Zhang sent his troops to seize Chiang Kai-shek, the paramount national leader. In the brief gun battle, Chiang escaped barefoot through a window and up a hill. He was soon found shivering behind a nearby rock.
At a time when leading Chinese figures seemed motivated just by greed and ambition, Mr. Zhang’s aim was stunningly selfless. He wanted China’s army to stop fighting against the Communists and instead to focus on the Japanese invaders.
The kidnapping, in Xian, became known as ”the Xian incident.” It transfixed the world. Two weeks later, it ended when Chiang was freed after promising to work with the Communists in battling the Japanese.
A result was nearly a decade of uneasy quasicooperation between Chiang’s Nationalists and the Communists, until the end of World War II. The long reprieve helped the Communists recover their strength and positioned them to conquer the entire Chinese mainland in 1949.
If Mr. Zhang had joined the Communists after the kidnapping, he might have been treated as a national hero. Instead, feeling that he should do penance for having challenged his superior, he surrendered to Chiang — and was promptly placed under house arrest, vanishing from public view for more than half a century.
Chiang took him to Taiwan when the Nationalists fled there in 1949, and Mr. Zhang remained hidden from view, his name never mentioned, as he whiled away the decades reading the Bible and studying history.
”It was a rebellion, and I had to take responsibility for it,” Mr. Zhang said in an interview in 1991, the first he gave in his home after recovering his freedom.
His late wife, Zhao Yidi, said at the time: ”It’s simple. He was against the civil war. He didn’t want to see his people killed.”
That seemed to be why admiration for Mr. Zhang steadily grew over the years. In a nation eager for heroes and disappointed by a long series of preening and vainglorious rulers, Mr. Zhang was regarded as a man who sacrificed himself to confront a foreign enemy. Even many who deplored the Communist revolution admired his patriotic fervor.
”To people of my generation, he’s a semi-god,” a Chinese university lecturer said in 1991. ”He’s a symbol of chivalry and righteousness, an example of someone who looked after the weak and fought for justice.”
Zhang Xueliang, whose name was also rendered Chang Hsueh-liang, was born in 1901 in Manchuria. His father, Zhang Zuolin, a leading warlord known as ”the Old Marshal,” was assassinated in 1928 by the Japanese. ”The Young Marshal” emerged in his place as one of the most powerful military figures in China.
His Northeastern Border Defense Army grew to 400,000 men, and in 1930 he was named deputy commander in chief of the Chinese armed forces. But he was distracted from military affairs by an active social life, including a dalliance with Countess Edda Ciano, daughter of Mussolini and wife of the Italian minister to China.
In 1933, Mr. Zhang kicked his opium and morphine habits and sailed to Europe. He returned the next year healthier, more focused and deeply patriotic. Zhou Enlai, a top Communist and a natural-born diplomat who could charm even his enemies, went to work on Mr. Zhang and convinced him of the need for a united front between the Nationalists and Communists against the Japanese.
On Dec. 4, 1936, Chiang visited Xian to discuss with Mr. Zhang a campaign against the Communists that was supposed to begin on Dec. 12. Instead, on Dec. 12, Mr. Zhang seized Chiang.
As kidnappers go, he and his men were remarkably chivalrous. Edgar Snow in ”Red Star Over China” recounts that when Mr. Zhang’s aide found Chiang cowering barefoot behind the rock, he volunteered to carry Chiang on his back down the hill. By Chiang’s later account, the first thing that Mr. Zhang said was, ”I wish to lay my views before your excellency, the generalissimo.”
Chiang rebuked Mr. Zhang, who replied humbly: ”I believe I have not in any way disobeyed your teachings. Please, don’t be angry, and consider the matter carefully.”
When Chiang agreed to work with the Communists against the Japanese, Mr. Zhang released him and let him fly back to the Nationalist capital, Nanjing. But then, to everyone’s astonishment, Mr. Zhang boarded the plane and surrendered to Chiang.
”I realize my wickedness and my sin against you and the nation,” Mr. Zhang said. He begged for punishment.
The Nationalists sentenced Mr. Zhang to 10 years in prison, and then quickly granted him an amnesty. The popularity of the united front against the Japanese may have dictated that outcome. But the reality was that Mr. Zhang was effectively to remain a prisoner, first on the mainland and then, after the revolution, on Taiwan.
Still, Mr. Zhang lived a comfortable life on Taiwan, in a house personally selected by Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo. Even in 1991, when Chiang Kai-shek was dead and regarded by many Taiwanese as a dictator, Mr. Zhang’s house was filled with paintings and calligraphy honoring the Chiang family.
Mr. Zhang’s children and first wife, Yu Feng-chih, were allowed to travel to the United States and settle there. In 1964, he formally married Ms. Zhao, daughter of a senior official, who left her family in her teens to become his companion and later followed him into exile. Ms. Yu said she was so moved by Ms. Zhao’s devotion that she released her husband from his vows.
As democracy arrived on Taiwan in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, Mr. Zhang was given increasing freedom. He began spending more time in the United States with his descendants — they could not be located yesterday, and it is not clear just how many there are — and in 1995 settled in Hawaii with Ms. Zhao. She died there last year.
Mr. Zhang seemed delighted to escape the pressure cooker of life as a presumed hero in the Chinese-speaking world. When greeted respectfully and asked about his soaring reputation, he protested with a vehemence that seemed out of character.
”Even this name, Zhang Xueliang — I don’t want it,” he declared earnestly. ”I don’t want to be Zhang Xueliang. I just want to be an ordinary person, free to do as I wish.”