Military Wiki
Northern Expedition
Part of Warlord Era, Chinese Civil War
Northern Expedition collage.jpg
Clockwise from top-left: Chiang inspecting soldiers of the National Revolutionary Army; NRA troops marching northwards; an NRA artillery unit engaged in a battle with warlords; people showing support for the NRA; peasants volunteer to join the expedition; NRA soldiers preparing to launch an attack.
LocationNorthern China
Result Kuomintang (KMT) victory: Nominal unification of China
Beginning of Chinese Civil War
Naval Jack of the Republic of China.svg Kuomintang
Republic of China Army Flag.svg Guominjun
Communist Party (Until April 1927)
Republic of China (1912–1949) ROC Beiyang government
File:Flag of Manchuria autonomists (1922).png Fengtian clique
Beiyang star.svg Zhili clique
Commanders and leaders
Republic of China Army Flag.svg Chiang Kai-shek
Republic of China Army Flag.svg Feng Yuxiang
Republic of China Army Flag.svg Li Zongren
Republic of China Army Flag.svg Bai Chongxi
Republic of China Army Flag.svg He Yingqin
Republic of China Army Flag.svg Yan Xishan
Mao Zedong
Republic of China (1912–1949) Du Xigui
Republic of China (1912–1949) V.K. Wellington Koo
File:Flag of Manchuria autonomists (1922).png Zhang Zuolin
Beiyang star.svg Wu Peifu
Beiyang star.svg Sun Chuanfang
about 250,000 about 1,000,000

The National Revolutionary Army soldiers marched into the British concessions in Hankou during the Northern Expedition.

The Northern Expedition (Chinese: 北伐; pinyin: běi fá), was a military campaign led by the Kuomintang (KMT) against Beiyang Government from 1926 to 1928. Its main objective was to unify the Mainland China under the Kuomintang rule banner by ending the rule of Beiyang Government as well as the local warlords. It led to the demise of the Beiyang government and to the Chinese reunification of 1928.


Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Commander-in-Chief of the National Revolutionary Army, emerged from the Northern Expedition as the leader of China.

The Northern Expedition also known as Northern March began from the KMT's power base in Guangdong province. In 1925 the May 30th Movement announced plans for strike and protest against western imperialism and its warlord agents in China. At the same time, the First United Front between KMT and Communist Party of China (CPC) was questioned after the Zhongshan Warship Incident in March 1926, and the following events in effect made Chiang Kai-shek the paramount military leader of the KMT. Although Chiang doubted Sun Yat-sen's policy of alliance with the Soviet Union and CPC, he still needed aid from the Soviet Union, so he could not break up the alliance at that time.

Notable military leaders and well trained soldiers stemmed from the Whampoa Military Academy, which was set up by Sun Yat-sen in 1924. The Academy accepted all persons regardless of their party alignment. The success of The Northern Expedition can largely be attributed to both the KMT and CPC working together militarily. This unison, at the time, was strongly encouraged by the Soviet Union who wanted to see a unified China.

The main targets of this expedition were three notorious and powerful warlords: Zhang Zuolin who governed Manchuria, Wu Peifu in the Central Plain region and Sun Chuanfang on the east coast. Advised by the famous Russian general Vasily Blyukher under the pseudonym Galen, the HQ of the expedition decided to use all its power to defeat these warlords one by one: first Wu, then Sun, and finally Zhang.

First expedition

On July 9, 1926, Chiang gave his lecture to 100,000 soldiers of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA), which was set up by the students trained in the Whampoa Military Academy and equipped with Russian and German weapons in the opening ceremony, which was the official commencement of Northern Expedition. NRA soldiers were far better organized than the warlord armies which they faced due to their military advisers. In addition, the NRA was regarded as a progressive force on behalf of ordinary people persecuted by warlords, for which it received warm welcome and strong support from peasants and workers.[1] It was no surprise the NRA could march from Zhu River area to Yangtze River in less than half a year and annihilate the main force of Wu and Sun, and strengthen its force from 100,000 to 250,000.

The purge

Following the defeat of the Zhili clique, Chiang decided to purge all Communists from the Kuomintang. In the Shanghai massacre of April 12, thousands of Communists were executed or went missing, while others were arrested and imprisoned. The purge caused a split between the KMT's left and right wings. The leftists, led by Wang Jingwei in the KMT capital at Wuhan, condemned Chiang's purge. Chiang, however, subsequently established his own capital in Nanjing. As a result, the Nationalist party and its military forces were in a state of disarray during the summer of 1927.

Warlord counteroffensive

The purge gave the warlords an opportunity to rebuild their armies and counter the now weakened Kuomintang. Sun Chuanfang began to marshal his forces with his ally Xu Kun, one of China's best generals. At the same time, Sun was communicating with Zhang Zuolin of Manchuria, requesting assistance of any kind in the hopes of regaining his lost territory, including Nanking. He brought up an army of one hundred thousand men and arranged them around the Lower Yangtze River. His plan was to begin an all-out attack upon the Nationalist forces of Chiang, Li Zongren and Bai Chongxi, drive them away from the Yangtze and Nanking and pursue them southward back into Guangzhou, where the expedition had started.

Opposing the rejuvenated warlord armies were three Kuomintang Armies, referred to as the "Route Armies". The First Route Army, north of Nanking in Jiangsu Province; the Second Route, to the west of the First and centered around the city of Xuzhou, and the Third on the west of Xuzhou closer to Wuhan in the South, protecting against any intervention by the Leftist Wuhan forces. The Nationalists could afford to muster the same amount of manpower but was very divided by political tensions and leadership conflicts. Yet, it was the element of surprise that gave Sun and Xu Kun the advantage for their attack was not fully expected by Chiang or his military commanders. Finally, the Nationalists had stationed many of their troops on the northern side of the Yangtze in order to hold Xuzhou, leaving them exposed to the warlord armies and their impending counteroffensive. Thus, Chiang had sent a large number of troops into positions in which they could neither defend properly, without the combined support of the army, nor defend with any real purpose, setting the stage for the last great struggle of the Warlord Era.

Sun Chuanfang, on July 24, ordered the counterattack to begin. His army, including Xu Kun's forces, tore through the surprised Nationalist forces, resulting in the loss of Xuzhou in northern Jiangsu province. The Second Route Army, stationed in the area, was forced to withdraw south, using the Long-Hai railway as an escape route. The other Route Armies also began to retreat south toward the Yangtze as the warlord armies routed any remaining troops in their path. Chiang, who was astounded to hear that Xuzhou had fallen, sacked the army's commander, Wang Tianpei, and ordered that Xuzhou be retaken. Against the advice of Li Zongren, who thought it was better to withdraw south, Chiang, having exclaimed, "I will not return to Nanking until Xuzhou is back in our possession". He launched his attack with the Second Route Army in August, resulting in a terrible defeat for the Nationalists. This defeat led to Chiang's immediate resignation on Aug. 6th as head of the Nanking Government, prompting him to move to Shanghai, where his loyal supporters followed. Following this, Li Zongren and other military leaders evacuated the whole army to the Yangtze with the principal goal of defending Nanking.

Nationalist rapprochement

Li Zongren, the de facto leader of the Nanking Government, set out to negotiate the possible reconciliation between the Wuhan and Nanking Governments. The talks, however, were interrupted on Aug. 24th when Sun's troops, supported by Wuhan dissenters, attacked the Yangtze warship that Li was staying on. Yet, the talks had succeeded in getting Wuhan to cooperate with the Nanking Government. Wang Jingwei, upon the end of negotiations, ordered the purging of all Communists with Wuhan. This resulted in a military coup by Communist troops in Nanchang of Jiangxi Province, leaving eight thousand Nationalists dead while many others fled. As a result, chaos broke out in Wuhan, contributing to its destabilization and the strengthening of the Nanking Government.

Battle of Longtan

On August 25, Sun Chuanfang's army, now close to the Yangtze, launched an all-out attack upon the Nationalist Forces. The worst hit was the First Route Army, defending the strategically placed city of Longtan, vital to the supply of Nanking via Shanghai. The battle raged around Longtan, especially on Mt. Wulongshan, where Nationalist troops stubbornly held out far longer than any expected, assuring that Sun could not continue his advance to Nanking. Bai Chongxi, recognizing the importance of Longtan, ordered reinforcements to be brought up as quickly as possible. Units of the Seventh and Nineteenth Corps arrived on the scene on August 28 and pushed Sun's battered army back to Longtan, relieving Mt. Wulongshan's defenders and buying time for further troops to arrive. On August 30, the full might of the Second Route Army attacked Longtan and, by late afternoon, recaptured the city. Sun's army, with losses equal to two-thirds of their original strength, fled across the Yangtze in defeat.

Second expedition

The period between September and November were calm periods of time in which the Nationalists, once more led by the reinstated Chiang Kai-shek, reorganized themselves, though it was not until January 2 that it was formally announced. The Wuhan government, finally bowing to pressure, reconciled itself with Chiang and formally merged with the Nanking Government. On December 12, the Nationalist forces, after reoccupying most of the territory lost that summer, recaptured Xuzhou. In response, Zhang Zuolin ordered that all loyal troops join his Anguo-jun Army, which had formed in response to the losses incurred by Sun Chuanfang's counteroffensive. Yet, it was not until April 2, following the conclusion of the Fourth Meeting of the Congress of the Kuomintang that Chiang ordered the beginning of the Second Expedition.

The Nationalists swept across the remains of Sun Chuanfang's and Xu Kun's Zhili Clique forces and reached the Yellow River in mid-April, 1928. When Yan Xishan declared his intention to take Beijing, Zhang decided it was best to evacuate. On June 4, Zhang, who was heading north from Beijing by train, was assassinated by Japanese conspirators, operating from Japan's Kwantung Army. Yan's forces occupied Beijing and the city was renamed "Beiping" or "Northern Peace". Zhang's son, Zhang Xueliang, took over control of Manchuria and decided to cooperate with Chiang and the Kuomintang by replacing all banners of the Beiyang Government in Manchuria to the flag of the Nationalist Government, thus nominally uniting China under one state, due to his desire to drive out Japanese influence over Manchuria.


During the Nanjing Incident, the Kuomintang took on the western Imperialist powers in China, launching an all out attack against the Imperialist concessions in multiple Chinese cities. The Chinese forces stormed the consulates of America, Britain, and Japan, looting nearly every foreign property and almost assassinating the Japanese consul. An American, two British, one French, an Italian, and a Japanese were killed by Chinese Nationalist forces. Chinese snipers targeted the American consul and marines who were guarding him, Chinese bullets flew into Socony Hall where American citizens were hiding out, one Chinese soldier declared- "We don't want money, anyway, we want to kill."[2] The Chinese Kuomintang forces also stormed and seized millions of dollars worth of British concessions in Hankou, refusing to hand them back to Britain. Britain then decided to give them up.[3]


The Northern Expedition is viewed positively in China today because it ended a period of disorder and started the formation of an effective central government.[4] However, it did not fully solve the warlord problem, as many warlords still had large armies that served their needs, not those of China. The left wing at the time criticized Stalin for relying on Chiang, a "bourgeois" figure who betrayed the "proletariat." This view was presented in an influential narrative by Harold Isaacs in his book, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, whose 1938 edition included a preface by Leon Trotsky.

The only faction destroyed during the expedition was the Zhili clique. Local provincial warlords who seized or enhanced their power included Li Zongren of the New Guangxi Clique, Yan Xishan of the Shanxi clique, Feng Yuxiang and his Northwestern or Guominjun Clique, Tang Shengzhi in Hunan, Chiang Kuang-Nai in Fujian, Sheng Shicai of Xinjiang, Long Yun of Yunnan, Wang Jialie of Guizhou, Liu Xiang and Liu Wenhui of the Sichuan Clique, Han Fuqu of Shandong, Bie Tingfang (别廷芳) of Henan, the Ma Clique of Ma Bufang and his family in Qinghai, Ma Hongkui in Ningxia, and Ma Zhongying in Gansu, Chen Jitang and his Cantonese Clique, Lu Diping (鲁涤平) of Jiangxi and Jing Yuexiu (井岳秀) of Shaanxi.

This is because of their alliance with the Kuomintang. They acted as franchisees of the party, wore NRA uniforms, and espoused the party doctrine. With the exception of the Xinjiang and Fengtian cliques, the warlords that survived 1928 tended to have some background in revolutionary circles, some going back to the Tongmenghui era.

The wars between these new warlords claimed more lives than ever in the 1930s. This would prove to be a major problem for the KMT all the way through World War II and the following civil war.

Chiang gained the greatest benefit from the expedition, however, for the victory achieved his personal goal of becoming paramount leader. Furthermore, Chiang made the military command superior to KMT party leadership, which resulted in his dictatorship later.

It is worth noting that the Northern Expedition was one of only two times in Chinese history when China was united by a conquest from south to north. The other time was when the Ming Dynasty succeeded in expelling the Mongol-Yuan Dynasty from China.

The Northern Expedition opened the way for another war between the Kuomintang and Guominjun during the Kuomintang Jihad in Gansu (1927-1930).

Trotsky and Stalin

The Northern Expedition became a point of contention over foreign policy between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Stalin followed an opportunist policy, ignoring communist ideology. He told the CCP to stop complaining about the lower classes and follow the KMT's orders. Stalin believed that the KMT middle and upper classes would defeat the western imperialists in China and complete the revolution. Trotsky wanted the Communist party to complete an orthodox proletarian revolution and opposed the KMT. Stalin funded the KMT during the expedition. Stalin countered Trotskyist criticism by making a secret speech in which he said that Chiang's right wing Kuomintang were the only ones capable of defeating the imperialists, that Chiang Kai-shek had funding from the rich merchants, and that his forces were to be utilized until squeezed for all usefulness like a lemon before being discarded. However, Chiang quickly reversed the tables in the Shanghai massacre of 1927 by massacring the Communist party in Shanghai midway in the Northern Expedition.

See also


  1. 張玉法(1999年):《中華民國史稿》第三章:國 家由分裂走向統一,第152頁。(Chang Yu-fa (1999): History of the Republic of China "Chapter III: Country by the division to unity", p. 152)
  2. "Foreign News: NANKING". Monday, Apr. 04, 1927.,9171,722979,00.html. Retrieved April 11, 2011. 
  3. "CHINA: Japan & France". Monday, Apr. 11, 1927.,9171,730304,00.html. Retrieved April 11, 2011. 
  4. 陈祖怀:论“军事北伐,政治南伐—北伐战争时期的一种社会现象


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