Feng Yü-hsiang

Feng Yü-hsiang (1882-1948) was a Chinese warlord. Commanding the Kuominchün, or National People's Army, Feng controlled major parts of North China during the 1920s. He was known as the "Christian general."

Son of a low-ranking army officer, Feng Yü-hsiang was born in Hsingchi-chen, Chihli (Hopei). He grew up in military surroundings and received little formal schooling. He nonetheless taught himself to read works in the vernacular. From 1896 to 1911 Feng advanced through the ranks of the army of Li Hung-chang and his successor, Yüan Shih-k'ai. As a company commander in the northeast, Feng helped to organize an anti-Manchu military association, but he was exposed and imprisoned following the Wuchang uprising of October 1911. Released and readmitted to the army through the efforts of his protector, Lu Chien-chang, Feng gained increasing military power and independence.

Feng was one of the most colorful figures during the "warlord era," from 1916 to 1928. A man of imposing stature, he liked to dress in the clothes of the common soldier to demonstrate his identity with the masses. He became a Methodist in 1914 and eventually became known as the "Christian general." He was said to have baptized his troops with a fire hose. However, Feng was one of the more serious social reformers among the warlords. His troops were well trained, tightly disciplined, and indoctrinated with a Spartan ethic stressing duty and responsibility. The eclectic ideological basis for this included principles drawn from Confucius and Christ and shifted with Feng's attachments to a succession of allies, including the Soviet Union and the Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen.

Lacking a stable territorial base, Feng found it difficult to apply his ideals to society. Exigencies of war and politics also made him an unsteady friend, and he climbed to power over a series of betrayed allies, most notably Wu P'ei-fu. By late 1924 Feng had become one of the select group of powerful generals who fought and schemed for control of North China and access to the organs of the central government in Peking (now Beijing). However, he was soon forced to retreat into northwest China. He formed an uneasy relationship with the Kuomintang and its Soviet associates in April 1925, and from May to July 1926 he toured the Soviet Union.

During the Kuomintang's Northern Expedition, Feng moved into central China after declaring himself a Kuomintang member. When the Nationalists split into two camps, the Wuhan wing allied with the Chinese Communists and the Nanking faction under Chiang Kai-shek, Feng threw his support to Chiang, enabling him to eliminate his left-wing rivals. Feng also played a significant role in the second stage of the Northern Expedition that culminated in the capture of Peking in June 1928.

Feng was one of the military leaders who split with Chiang over the issue of troop disbandment. In February 1930 Feng formed a coalition with Yen Hsi-shan. The collapse of this venture cost Feng control of his troops, and he was thereafter reduced to the role of a minor political figure. Feng moved into the spotlight only briefly—as a supporter of the anti-Japanese movement during the mid-1930s and as an émigré critic of Chiang Kai-shek after the war. On Sept. 1, 1948, Feng died in an apparently accidental fire on board the Soviet ship Pobeda near Odessa.

Further Reading on Feng Yü-hsiang

A first-rate biography is James E. Sheridan, Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yü-hsiang (1966). For a detailed narrative of the warlord era see Li Chien-nung, The Political History of China, 1840-1928 (1956). Oliver Edmund Clubb, 20th Century China (1964), is another useful survey.