Yen Hsi-shan

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Yen Hsi-shan

The Chinese warlord Yen Hsi-shan (1883-1960) ruled Shansi Province in northwest China from 1911 to 1949. Because of his program of reforms, Shansi was dubbed the "model province."

Yen Hsi-shan was born in the village of Ho-pien not far from the provincial capital of Taiyüan. His father was a small banker, an occupation in which Shansiers had traditionally been famous, and Yen served as apprentice while studying the classics. In 1901 the bank's failure forced Yen to leave home and enroll in the government-supported military college in Taiyüan. He continued his military education in Japan under a government scholarship; there he joined the revolutionary T'ung-meng hui, of which Sun Yat-sen was a prominent leader. Following his return home, Yen rose to the rank of colonel in the New Shansi Army.

Hearing of the Wuchang revolt in October 1911, Yen declared Shansi independent of the Manchu government, but only the abdication of the Manchu emperor saved Yen's outnumbered troops from a crushing defeat. President Yüan Shih-k'ai appointed Yen military governor of the province. In July 1917 Yen seized full powers and became Shansi's one-man ruler.

During the next decade, Yen proved himself a master of the complicated game of warlord politics. Dealing from a position of weakness, he maximized his leverage to determine the balance of power. On June 5, 1927, he threw in his lot with the Nationalist forces and was appointed commander in chief of the revolutionary armies in the North. On June 8, 1928, he occupied Peking. The new government at Nanking appointed him governor of Shansi and rewarded him with other high posts in the Kuomintang military and party structure.

Estranged from Chiang Kai-shek over the issue of troop disbandment, Yen refused to help Chiang put down a rebellion by Feng Yü-hsiang in 1929. In February 1930 he joined Fang in the "northern coalition" against Chiang, a movement that received military support from the Kwangsi clique and political encouragement from Wang Ching-wei's Reorganizationist faction. However, Chiang's offensive of August 1930, followed by the intervention on Chiang's side by Manchurian warlord Chang Hsüeh-liang, forced Yen to send his army back to Shansi and retire to Dairen.

Japan's attack on Manchuria on Sept. 18, 1931, led to Yen's return to Shansi. In 1932 he was appointed pacification commissioner of Shansi and Suiyuan. In 1934 he initiated a 10-year development plan to fortify the province against Japanese and Communist threats. He curtailed the power of the local gentry; fostered woman's rights, and encouraged public education. However, at the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War, most of Shansi was occupied either by Japanese or by Communists. Yen finally cooperated with the foreign invader against his domestic foes and, after the Japanese surrender of August 1945, used Japanese troops against the Communists.

Yen could not prevail against the Communist tide. In March 1949 he fled to Nanking, and on April 24 his army surrendered. In June, Yen became president of the Executive Yüan and minister of national defense. On December 8 he fled to Taiwan, where he served briefly as premier of the exiled Nationalist government. But Yen was nothing without Shansi. During the last decade of his life his political role was an advisory one only. He died on May 24, 1960.

Further Reading

A good, up-to-date biography of Yen Hsi-shan is Donald G. Gillin, Warlord: Yen Hsi-shan in Shansi Province, 1911-1949 (1967). Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist Takeover (1961), deals with the period and the causes leading up to the takeover and includes extensive information on Yen as well as a short biography. Also useful is F.F. Liu, A Military History of Modern China (1956). □