Yan Xishan

gigatos | December 11, 2021


Yan Xishan or Yen Hsi-shan (Wutai County, October 8, 1883 – Taipei, July 22, 1960) was a Chinese general, politician and warlord who served in the government of the Republic of China and was also Prime Minister between 1949 and 1950 and Minister of National Defense during the same period. He effectively controlled Shanxi province from the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 to the end of the civil war with the Communist victory in 1949. As the leader of a relatively small, poor, and remote province, he remained excluded from the great machinations of the Yuan Shikai era, the warlord period, the Nationalist era, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the subsequent final part of the Civil War, remaining firmly in power until the nationalist armies to which he was affiliated were no longer able to hold mainland China, abandoned to the Communists, and forced him to flee with the followers of Chiang Kai-shek to the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan) where he died. He is considered by Western biographers as an important transitional figure between the ancient Chinese thought and traditions to which he was particularly attached and the need to modernize the army and the country in general according to Western schemes.

Early Years

Yan Xishan was born in Wutai County, Xinzhou, Shanxi, in 1883, during the late Qing Dynasty, into a family of bankers and merchants for generations. Having completed his early studies according to traditional Confucian education, a philosophy that would accompany him throughout his life, he entered to work in his father”s bank. After his father”s business failed following a devastating economic crisis that hit China at the end of the 19th century, he entered a free military school run and financed by the Qing government in Taiyuan, the provincial capital. There he studied mathematics and philosophy according to modern patterns imported from the West. In 1904 he moved to Japan to train at the Tokyo Shinbu Gakko and later at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy where he graduated in 1909.

Experience in Japan

During Yan”s five years studying in Japan, he was impressed by the Japanese nation”s efforts to modernize. He observed the progress made by the Japanese (whom the Chinese had previously considered unsophisticated and backward) and began to worry about the consequences if China fell behind the rest of the world. This formative experience Yan later cited as a period of great inspiration for his later efforts to modernize Shanxi.

Yan concluded that the Japanese had successfully modernized largely because of the government”s ability to mobilize the population in support of political campaigns and the close relationship between the military and the civilian population. He attributed the surprising Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 to the enthusiastic mobilization of the Japanese public in support of the military. After returning to China in 1910, he wrote a pamphlet warning China that it was in danger of being overtaken by Japan unless it developed a local form of bushido.

While still studying in Japan, Yan became disgusted with the open corruption of Qing officials in Shanxi and became convinced that China”s relative impotence in the nineteenth century was the result of the dynasty”s generally hostile attitude toward modernization and industrial development, and a grossly inept foreign policy. In Japan Yan met Sun Yat-sen and joined his Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance), a semi-secret society that aimed to overthrow the Qing dynasty. He also attempted to spread Sun”s ideas by organizing a “Blood and Iron Society” embedded in the ranks of Chinese students at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. The goal of this group of students was to organize a revolution that would lead to the creation of a strong and united China, similar to what Otto von Bismarck had done with Germany.

Return to China

When he returned to China in 1909, he was assigned by the Qing government to command the division of the New Shanxi Army, but secretly worked to overthrow the imperial government. Only two years later during the Xinhai Yan revolution he took command of local revolutionary troops against the Qing. He justified his actions by accusing the dynasty of being too incompetent and decadent, particularly against foreign aggression, and by promising a wide range of reforms for the people of the province.

Warlord period

When Yuan Shikai took office as president of the Republic of China in 1912, Yan became antagonized by him, so Yuan led an army that invaded Shanxi. Yan could only survive by retreating northward and aligning himself with a group of friendly rebels in neighboring Shaanxi. Although he was a friend of Sun Yat-sen, Yan denied him support in the “Second Revolution” of 1913 and instead ingratiated himself with Yuan, who allowed him to return as military governor of Shanxi. In 1917, shortly after Yuan”s death, Yan consolidated his power over the province as a warlord, ruling there uncontested.

His defeat against a rival warlord in Henan in 1919 convinced him to stay out of the various civil wars of that period caused by the unstable Beiyang government, (despite being a member of the Beiyang Army and close to Duan Qirui) due to the weakness and backwardness of the province of which he found himself leader, preferring to dedicate himself to decisively improving the war apparatus and the provincial agricultural production. The success of his work earned him the nickname of “Model Governor” and Shanxi of “Model Province” from the outside.

Involvement in the Northern Expedition

To maintain Shanxi”s neutrality and spare it from serious military clashes with rival warlords, Yan developed a strategy of shifting alliances between various warring cliques, inevitably joining only the winning sides. Although he was much weaker than many warlords around him, he often maintained the balance of power between neighboring rivals, and even those he betrayed hesitated to retaliate against him should they need his forces in the future. At the start of the Northern Expedition in 1926 Yan initially opposed the Kuomintang”s National Revolutionary Army but changed sides the following year, swearing allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek”s nationalist government to save himself from the threat of the Fengtian clique led by the powerful Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin. In May 1928 he moved his army against Beijing, which he occupied the following month.

Yan”s participation in the anti-communist crackdowns (Yan was an ardent anti-communist) along with the Nationalists during the Northern Expedition, was noticed by Chiang who therefore allowed him to extend his influence to Hebei as well.

He was a nationalist

His allegiance failed, however, in 1929 when he joined Li Zongren, Feng Yuxiang, and Wang Jingwei in the coalition of senior Kuomintang officers and warlords hostile to Chiang”s dictatorial rule.Following the Generalissimo”s victory in the ensuing Central Plains War of 1930, however, he rejoined its ranks.

After a brief retirement in the early 1930s, he returned active in Shanxi to pursue social and military reforms to prevent communist infiltration.

In 1936 he supported Zhang Xueliang”s kidnapping of Chiang as part of the Xi”an Incident.

Second Sino-Japanese War

During the Second Sino-Japanese War he fought hard against the Japanese invader to prevent it from conquering Shanxi as well. The Japanese tried at least five times to deal with Yan to join them in the collaborationist government as Wang Jingwei but he remained loyal to his homeland.

In order to fight the Japanese, Yan agreed to make a truce with the Communists, releasing them en masse from prison and allowing them to circulate throughout Shanxi, including important politicians and generals such as Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, who took command of a section of the province”s army. Yan established a Communist headquarters in Taiyuan for the occasion.

During the war, the Japanese were responsible for numerous massacres in Shanxi, and after the fall of Taiyuan in November 1937, Yan led the resistance in the mountains.

At that point, however, he began to have an ambiguous attitude. In fact, if on the one hand he was praised by politicians and military, both nationalist and communist of which Mao Mao Zedong for his exceptional tenacity to resist the invader, on the other hand since 1940 he began to enter into secret agreements with Japan, (to which he had always been attached), to prevent his land was devastated by war and remain in power and fight the communists again.

Beginning in 1943, his reports became increasingly frequent, and by 1944 Yan actively resumed the anti-communist war with Japanese support.

Chinese Civil War

Despite his initial cooperation against the Japanese, Yan immediately took up arms again against the Communists in 1946 at the beginning of the second phase of the Chinese Civil War. At that time, many of his soldiers were none other than Japanese who had already been recruited during World War II and remained in Chinese territory under Nationalist command after the end of hostilities.

His forces fought hard to stop the enemy, as they did during the Shangdang Campaign.

With the war now in favor of the Communists, Yan told reporters that if even the capital Taiyuan fell, he and his supporters would commit suicide by swallowing cyanide capsules rather than see Shanxi fall into Communist hands. After the fall of Taiyuan in April 1949 at the end of the eponymous campaign many supporters actually committed suicide while Yan fled with the province”s gold. He took refuge in Formosa (Taiwan), the last bastion chosen by Chiang Kai-shek against the communist advance, with the whole nationalist government.

In Taiwan Yan served as prime minister and minister of national defense, but these were actually positions with little actual power.

The last years

Yan”s last years were marked by disappointment and sadness. After following Chiang to Taiwan, he enjoyed the title of “senior advisor” to the Generalissimo, but in reality it was a position completely without power. Chiang most likely harbored a great grudge against Yan for a long time because of his inactivity at the end of the civil war. On more than one occasion Yan asked to be allowed to go to Japan but was always prevented from leaving Taiwan.

Yan was abandoned by all but a handful of followers, and spent most of his later years writing books on philosophy, history, and contemporary events, which he often translated into English. His late philosophical outlook has been described as “anti-communist, anti-capitalist Confucian utopianism.” Several months before the Korean War, Yan published a book, World Peace or War, in which he predicted that North Korea would invade South Korea, that South Korea would be quickly overwhelmed and the United States would intervene in its support, and that Communist China would instead intervene in support of North Korea. All of these events actually occurred during the Korean War.

Yan died in Taipei on May 24, 1960. He was buried in the Qixingjun section of Yangmingshan National Park. For decades, Yan”s residence and tomb were cared for by a small number of former aides, who had accompanied him from Shanxi. In 2011, when the last of his former helpers turned 81 and was no longer able to take care of the residence, the responsibility of maintaining the site was taken over by the Taipei City government.


  1. Yan Xishan
  2. Yan Xishan
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