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Central Plains War
Part of Chinese Civil War, Warlord Era
Map showing the province of Henan and two definitions of the Central Plain (中原) or Zhōngyuán
Map showing the province of Henan and two definitions of the Central Plain (中原) or Zhōngyuán
DateMay 1930 – November 4, 1930
LocationCentral Plains of China
Result Chiang victory, Yan and Feng resigned.
Forces of Chiang Kai-shek Forces of the coalition of Yan Xishan, Feng Yuxiang and Li Zongren
Commanders and leaders
Han Fuqu,
Liu Zhi
Hu Zongnan
Chen Cheng
Tang Enbo
Ma Hongkui
Ma Bufang
Yan Xishan
Feng Yuxiang
Li Zongren
Bai Chongxi
Fu Zuoyi
600,000 800,000
Casualties and losses
95,000+ 200,000+

Central Plains War (simplified Chinese: 中原大战; traditional Chinese: 中原大戰; pinyin: Zhōngyúan Dàzhàn) was a civil war within the factionalised Kuomintang (KMT) that broke out in 1930. It was fought between the forces of Chiang Kai-shek and the coalition of three military commanders who were previously allied with Chiang: Yan Xishan, Feng Yuxiang, and Li Zongren. The war was fought across the Central Plains, a core region of China on the lower reaches of the Yellow River and the cradle of Chinese civilization.

In consolidating power for the Kuomintang in the Northern Expedition of 1927–1928, Chiang had forged alliances with the warlord armies of Yan, Feng, and Li, but relations soon soured, resulting in the war. The war almost bankrupted Chiang's Nationalist Government and cost over 300,000 total combined casualties, but allowed the victorious Chiang to further consolidate power as the undisputed leader of most of China.


Rise of Chiang Kai-shek

Compared to other senior party officials like Hu Hanmin and Wang Jingwei, Chiang Kai-shek in contrast was rather a junior official in the Kuomintang (KMT) . He began to rise to prominence in 1917 in the Guangzhou government with his military talent. In 1923, Chiang reached the turning point of his life when Chen Jiongming launched a rebellion against Sun Yat-sen in Guangzhou. Chiang helped Sun to retreat out of Guangzhou which gained Sun's ultimate trust.

After Sun's death in 1925, the cliques in the Kuomintang began to surface. A power struggle between Chiang and Wang Jingwei split the KMT. Chiang was able to use his influence as the commandant of Whampoa Academy to assist his eventual victory, and Wang was forced to leave the country for a couple years. In 1926, Chiang was chosen[Clarification needed] as the commander of the National Revolutionary Army and launched the Northern Expedition. The legitimacy of Chiang's government was thus seemingly decided.

By the end of the expedition, the National Revolutionary Army was organized into four Army Groups: the First was Chiang's Whampoa Clique or Central Army, the Second was Feng Yuxiang's Guominjun (the largest of the four), the Third was Yan Xishan's Shanxi clique, and the Fourth was Li Zongren's New Guangxi clique. In October 1928, Chiang was elected President of the National Government by the KMT central executive committee.


In December 1928 Zhang Xueliang of Manchuria declared his unification with the Nationalist government, completing the Northeast Flag Replacement. The objective of the Northern Expedition—unifying China—was proclaimed[Clarification needed] to be a full success. This nominal unification was soon challenged however. When the topic of reorganizing the army was brought up at a military conference in 1929, the fact that it would alter the existing territorial influences among the cliques in the party quickly aggravated the relationships between the central government and the regional powers.


The flag of the Kuomintang and the flag of the Republic of China crested on a building in Harbin, Manchuria.

Li Zongren, Bai Chongxi and Huang Shaohong of the Guangxi clique broke off relations with Chiang in March 1929, which effectively started the confrontation. In May Feng Yuxiang of the Northwest clashed with Chiang. In November Li Zongren issued an anti-Chiang declaration, along with Wang Jingwei, who headed the leftist faction of the Kuomintang and was a rival of the right-wing Chiang. In December Tang Shengzhi and Zhang Fakui announced their support of the anti-Chiang coalition. The Nationalist government in Nanjing expelled Wang Jingwei from the party in March as a response to the anti-Chiang coalition. The anti-Chiang opposition moved to Beijing to set up a rival KMT government.

In February 1930 Yan Xishan of the Shanxi clique demanded Chiang's resignation, which Chiang refused. Later that month Yan was chosen to be commander-in-chief of the coalition while Feng, Li and Zhang Xueliang were chosen as his seconds in command. In April all of them were sworn into their positions except Zhang, who was not committed to either side at the time

Muslim Revolt in Gansu

In 1928 a revolt led by Ma T'ing-hsiang broke out among the Hui people in Gansu province against the Guominjun of Feng Yuxiang. Ma Zhongying, a Hui commander, led three separate attacks against Feng's forces in Hezhou, and the following year traveled to Nanjing and pledged his allegiance to the Kuomintang, attended the Whampoa Military Academy and was promoted to General.[1] The Kuomintang incited anti-Yan Xishan and Feng Yuxiang sentiments among Chinese Muslims and Mongols, encouraging the population to throw off their rule.[2]

The revolt ended with all the Muslim generals and warlords, like Ma Qi, Ma Lin and Ma Bufang, reaffirming their allegiance to the Kuomintang government after defeating the Guominjun.


The anti-Chiang coalition divided its offensive into various routes. Li Zongren led the Guangxi Army and deployed his forces from Guangxi into Hunan province and struck Wuhan. Feng Yuxiang led the Northwest Army, deploying it from Henan into Shandong province to assault Xuzhou and Wuhan. Yan Xishan led the Shanxi Army and cooperated with the Northwest Army from Shandong to strike Xuzhou, and planned to march to Nanjing via railway. On Chiang's side, Gen. Han Fuqu was assigned to defend the southern shore of the Yellow River to halt the Shanxi Army. The Central Army, commanded by Gen. Liu Zhi, was stationed in Xuzhou for defensive purposes.


The Northwest Army

The confrontation erupted in mid May. Battles in the north were generally in Henan and Shandong and battles in the south were mainly in the area of Yuezhou, Changsha and Hunan province.

With the assistance of its air force, Chiang's Central Army struck first with several major offensives. The Northwest Army, being the strongest in the coalition, crushed Gen. Chen Cheng and Chiang's forces in Gansu at the end of May, and Chiang was almost captured as he was inspecting the front line, but the Northwest Army could not capitalize on its victory as the Shanxi Army was unable to support it in time. This led the Northwest Army to go on the defensive. Later, in Kaifeng, the Northwest Army repulsed Chiang's attack and nearly surrounded his forces. In August the Shanxi and Northwest armies had a major clash with Chiang's forces while attacking Xuzhou. Losses for both sides exceeded 200,000. Again, however, the Northwest Army did not receive support from the Shanxi Army in time and fell short of complete success. The Shanxi Army retreated from Jinan and took heavy casualties while crossing the Yellow River.

Meanwhile on the southern battlefields, the Guangxi Army captured Yueyang, but Chiang's forces cut them off from behind, eventually forcing them to withdraw back to Guangxi. In Shandong the Shanxi Army captured Jinan on June 25. After defeating the Guangxi Army in Hunan, the Nanjing government decided to launch a major counteroffensive on Shandong. Landed in Qingdao, Chiang's forces re-took Jinan on August 15. Chiang's army then gathered in Gansu and Shaanxi province and launched the final offensive against the Northwest Army between the end of August and the beginning of September.

On September 18 Gen. Zhang Xueliang declared his support for Chiang Kai-shek. Two days later Zhang's Northeast Army entered the Shanhai Pass. These turn of events resulted in coalition of Yan and Feng collapsing almost immediately. The Shanxi Army withdrew to the north of the Yellow River, while the Northwest Army was totally defeated. On November 4 Yan Xishan and Feng Yuxiang announced their retirement. Yan fled to Dalian and Feng's troops were annexed by Zhang. The conflict was now over.


The Central Plains War was the biggest armed conflict inside the Kuomintang party since the 1926-27 Northern Expedition. Many provinces were affected, and the sides committed over 1,300,000 troops combined, suffering over 300,000 casualties combined. As a result, the Nanjing government was nearly bankrupt. The troops that were originally tasked with destroying the Red Army were pulled away, which prevented Chiang from carrying out his plan to exterminate the Chinese Communist Party. After the Northeast Army's entrance to Central China, Manchuria's defense was considerably weakened. It indirectly led to Japan's aggression in the Mukden Incident. In a wider view, this battle reflects the weakness behind the Nationalist government's unification. The Kuomintang was unable to resolve the internal dispute between the central government and the regional powers through political methods, and had to resort to military measures. Even though Chiang Kai-shek, who represented the central government, managed to achieve victory in the Central Plains War, the methods he used, including bribery of subordinates of the opposition, were not consistently effective. It did nothing to cement unity among the cliques in the party. The Xi'an Incident in 1936 and the collapse of the Kuomintang force in the Chinese Civil War are to an extent due the recurrence of this internal conflict.


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