David D. BUCK

An undated early photograph of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, one of the founders of the Nationalist Party. Sun, as well as his successor Chiang Kai-shek, still remains an iconic figure of the party. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang), which began as a parliamentary party in 1912, has seen three major eras (from 1912 to 1927, 1927 to 1978, and 1978 to the present) in which the party leadership, its objectives, and its strategies have changed dramatically—in both China and Taiwan. It is currently in the unfamiliar position of opposition party to the Democratic Progressive Party.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang), which began as a parliamentary party in 1912, has lived through three major eras. The Nationalists’ role, as well as their strategy and goals, has shifted dramatically within each era.

During the first era (1912–1927) Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) led the party until his death. He made major adjustments in the Nationalists’ goals and structure because of domestic warlordism and competing foreign interests in China. Sun set forth the Nationalists’ philosophy, the Three Principles of the People, but had little success in the contest for political power. Sun’s loyal military commander, Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), assumed command of the party in 1927 and established the Republic of China in the Nationalists’ second era (1927–1978). His dominance lasted in spite of dramatic shifts in Nationalist fortunes until his death. Even though the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War (1946–1949) to the Chinese Communists, Chiang Kai-shek managed to reestablish a Nationalist Party–led Republic of China on Taiwan. Thus, the Nationalist Party completely dominated the Republic of China both in China and on Taiwan from 1927 until 2000, when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in the Republic of China on Taiwan well into the third era of party history, which began in 1978).

After establishing the Republic of China at Nanjing in 1927 the Nationalists enjoyed a decade of relative peace. Then, in spite of Nationalist efforts to postpone a war, the Japanese invaded China and began a long, debilitating struggle from 1937 to 1945. Following Japan’s defeat, the weakened Nationalist Party lost control to the Chinese Communists in a civil war ending in 1949. The Communists, under the leadership of Mao Zedong (1893–1976), established a new People’s Republic of China (PRC). With Chiang Kai-shek still in command, the Nationalist Party and the Republic of China, still inseparable, withdrew to Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek established a dictatorial state ruling under martial law and pledged to retake the Chinese mainland After his death the Nationalists entered their third era. Leadership passed to Chiang’s son, Jian Jingguo (Chiang Ching-kuo) (1910–1988). Beginning in 1975 the party slowly moved away from its revanchist (relating to a political policy designed to recover lost territory or status) goals to emphasize economic development and popular democracy in Taiwan. The Nationalists as a party and the people of Taiwan all prospered during these years. However, in 2000 the Nationalists lost political control of the government to a Taiwanese party, the Democratic Progressive Party. The Nationalists thus became the chief opposition party in a two-party political system on Taiwan. Since then the party has pinned its hopes on regaining control through regular democratic elections.

First Era, 1912–1927

After the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in 1912, Sun Yat-sen envisioned China as a modern national state governed through a parliament and representative government. To that end Sun advocated that his umbrella anti-Manchu coalition known as the Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance) be transformed into a parliamentary party, the Nationalists. The heart of the Tongmenghui was its opposition to the rule of the Manchus and the advocacy of a new government that would be led by Chinese. The Tongmenghui involved garnering support from various groups: radical revolutionaries who wanted to assassinate the Manchu leaders, simple patriots, businessmen hoping for a modern economic system, advocates of parliamentary democracy, promoters of provincial self-rule, champions of militarized China, and non-Marxist socialists and anarchists. This dream quickly faded because Sun had no real office in the new government, and General Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), the first president, had the Nationalist parliamentary leader Song Jiaoren (1882–1913) assassinated. Beginning in 1913 Sun tried a number of means to gain power including armed revolution; creation of the secret Revolutionary Party (Gemindang), in which members signed a loyalty oath to Sun himself; alignment with progressive warlords; and courting of Japan, England, and the United States for aid. In 1917 Sun established Guangzhou (Canton) as his base and revived the Nationalist Party as an organization. The warlord Chen Jiongming (1878–1933), distrustful of Sun, expelled the Nationalists from Guangzhou in 1922. After a decade of the Republic of China, Sun and the Nationalist Party seemed doomed to more failures.

This prospect changed in January 1923 with a formal alliance between the Nationalists and the Soviet Communist International. Behind the scenes Sun Yat-sen had courted Soviet interest and support from 1920 as the newly victorious Bolshevik Revolution in Russia began reaching out for allies in the colonialist world. Sun began borrowing from the Marxist-Leninist program. He adopted Marxist anti-Western, anti-Japanese rhetoric as well as efforts to organize Chinese workers and peasants. Sun also accepted members of the fledgling Chinese Communist Party into the Nationalist Party. The Soviets sent military advisors and equipment. Sun made an impressive and loyal military officer, Chiang Kai-shek, head of a new military academy just outside Guangzhou. As the Nationalists’ prospects brightened Sun promoted the Northern Expedition, in which armed forces would combine with workers and peasant uprisings to rid China of warlordism. The Nationalist Party would then establish a genuine Republic of China at Nanjing.

In these same years Sun made a number of modifications in his famous Three Principles of the People—nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood. Sun’s ideas about nationalism initially had focused on the Han Chinese majority in the former Qing empire but evolved into a concept of a multinational polity filling all the territory ruled by the Manchus, including Mongolia and Tibet. For Sun democracy originally meant a representative government elected by popular vote and operating under a constitution. He always believed that the Nationalists would need to exercise tutelage for years during which the party educated the Chinese people about democracy. His experience in the decade after 1912 led him to extend this period of tutelage indefinitely. The concept of tutelage opened the door for the Nationalists to assume authoritarian powers. People’s livelihood always seemed an amorphous principle linked most closely to traditional Chinese concepts that the state should foster the well-being of its subjects. As a consequence of Soviet influence, people’s livelihood in the early 1920s came more clearly to reflect Marxist socialism and to be modeled on the Soviet state-managed economic order.

Pancreatic cancer took Sun Yat-sen’s life in March 1925 before the Northern Expedition could be launched. A period of disorder in the party leadership followed his death. Wang Jingwei (1883–1944), a confidant of Sun who embraced Sun’s anti-impe
rialist, class warfare views, was a contender. At the time, most people believed that Chiang Kai-shek, the loyal commander of the Nationalist military, also supported this leftist, pro-Soviet position. More conservative Nationalist Party members created their own rump party in Beijing and denounced the Communist influence at Guangzhou. However, Chiang Kai-shek, who had visited the USSR and had not liked what he had seen, began revealing his distrust of the Soviets in March 1926, a few months before launching the Northern Expedition.

The Northern Expedition, led by Chiang Kai-shek, began in July 1926 with full support of the Soviet advisors and the leftist elements in the Nationalist Party. It won impressive early victories even while fracturing into left and right wings. The leftists, including the Soviet advisors, the Chinese Communist leadership, and Wang Jingwei, based themselves in Wuhan, while Chiang Kai-shek took Nanjing and then Shanghai. On 12 April 1927 Chiang Kai-shek, with assistance from Shanghai underworld gangs, attacked the Communists and the Shanghai labor movement, decisively severing his previous association with the pro-Soviet elements in the Nationalist Party.

Within months Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) recalled the Soviet advisors to Moscow, the Communist Party carried out abortive peasant uprisings, and the leftist headquarters at Wuhan collapsed. Chiang Kai-shek made opportunistic alliances with northern warlords and set up a Nationalist Party state at Nanjing that won international diplomatic recognition. China appeared to have ended the warlord disorder, to have turned away from the Soviet Union, and to have taken a path friendly to capitalism.

Second Era, 1927–1978

The year 1927 ushered in an era of peace and economic construction in Nationalist history called the “Nanjing Decade.” The Nationalists maintained firm control of policy under the rubric of Sun Yat-sen’s principle of tutelage. All hints of radical Soviet-style land reform and other Marxist socialist policies disappeared. Chiang Kai-shek and his advisors favored state capitalism in which government-owned enterprises controlled the manufacture of major capital and military goods, while other state-sponsored corporations dominated trade in the chief commodities. Private businesses continued to operate, but the Nanjing bureaucracy determined much of their destinies.

In fact, Chiang Kai-shek’s rule rested on his ability to manage a number of factional elements within the Nationalist Party. He proved adept at this game while organizing loyal young followers in a “Blue Shirt” organization while trumpeting the New Life Movement to improve public behavior and morals. Chiang Kai-shek himself was presented as a remote but concerned father/ruler in the Confucian mode. The Nationalists were copying qualities of Italian, Spanish, and German fascism.

The Nationalist government in Nanjing worked for two major domestic goals. First, Chiang Kai-shek wanted to destroy the Chinese Communists once and for all. Second, he wanted to reduce the autonomy and military capacity of the remaining warlords in China. To do this Chiang Kai-shek needed to build up his military strength with larger, better-equipped armies. He turned to Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States for military supplies and advice.

Chiang Kai-shek, who had received his military education in Japan, understood that the Japanese presented the greatest challenge to the Nationalist government through their policies of military expansion in China. Expansionist and aggressive Japanese policies rested on a conviction that Japan’s own success at modernization entitled it to leadership throughout Asia. Japanese ruling circles rejected the Anglo-U.S. view that Chiang Kai-shek was the new leader of a united China. Instead they saw him as a regional warlord who wrapped himself in Sun Yat-sen’s impractical political ideas.

Beginning with the takeover of Manchuria in 1931, waves of Japanese military aggression against China heightened nationalistic resistance in the Chinese public. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government placed their struggle against domestic enemies first. This policy led to the Chinese Communist–supported kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek at Xi’an in December 1936 in hopes of turning attention to Japan’s aggression. This so-called Xi’an Incident produced a temporary revival. Undeclared war broke out in June 1937, and the Japanese drove the Nationalist government out of its strongest regional base in the lower Yangzi (Chang) River valley and into isolation in the Sichuan basin. Chiang Kai-shek remained in control, but the Nationalist Party splintered with Wang Jingwei breaking away in 1940 to set up a rump Nationalist government in Nanjing under Japanese auspices.

The United States stepped up its support for the Nationalist government even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but the twin effects of fighting against the Japanese and suffering runaway inflation ate away at the Nationalists in the early 1940s. When World War II ended in August 1945 Chiang Kai-shek attempted to assert Nationalist control throughout China, but even with U.S. assistance he failed. A civil war broke out between the Nationalist government and the Chinese Communists. The Nationalists’ apparent advantages evaporated quickly, and their government collapsed in the autumn of 1949.

A sizable remnant of the Nationalist armed forces, including much of the air force and navy, withdrew to Taiwan. Taiwan had become a Chinese colony in 1895 but was returned to Chinese control after World War II. The first occupying Nationalist army had carried out a repressive occupation, and thus there was no real welcome for the fleeing Nationalists when they arrived 1949–1950. Loss of the Chinese mainland obviously is a critical turning point in Nationalist Party history, but the continuation of Chiang Kai-shek and Nationalist Party domination of the Republic of China makes these years all one era.

The future of Chiang and the Nationalists as rulers of Taiwan appeared bleak until the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. From that point on the Nationalist government received generous economic and military support from the United States as part of U.S. strategy in the Cold War. Chiang himself continued to dream of returning to the Chinese mainland and expelling the Communists. The Nationalist government and military on Taiwan lived by that dream but never received sufficient support from the United States to attempt a full-scale invasion.

On Taiwan the Nationalists ruled through martial law but maintained a façade of representative government through a 1947 constitution and an elected parliament. It still paid homage to Sun Yat-sen and his Three Principles of the People as its guiding philosophy. A major land reform was undertaken with impressive results in increased production and diversification. The Republic of China remained the internationally recognized government of China until 1973, when, after U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing, the People’s Republic of China replaced the Republic of China in the United Nations. Chiang Kai-shek’s dreams for the party came to an end with his death in April 1975.

Third Era, 1978 to Present

Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Jiang Jingguo (1910–1988), had been appointed premier in 1972 and became president in 1978. He began the third era of the Nationalist Party with the appearance of continuing his father’s policies. It seemed that Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian style would continue to prevail. In fact, a major economic transformation had already begun through efforts to promote medium- and small-scale production for export to U.S. and Japanese markets. The Taiwan economy prospered. Individual households became wealthier, and
the Nationalist Party itself became rich through its ownership of many businesses. The party used its wealth to buy support for its regime. During the decade of Jiang Jingguo’s leadership he loosened the Nationalists’ grip on political power. A key indicator was the election of representatives to the Taiwan provincial legislature who did not follow the Nationalist Party line.

Upon Jiang Jingguo’s death leadership of the party passed to Li Donghui (Lee Teng-hui, b. 1923), a native Taiwanese educated in Japan and the United States. Under his control the long period of Nationalist Party tutelage finally ended. Li proclaimed a goal of full democracy in 1990. Martial law was rescinded in 1991. A popularly elected national legislature replaced a body dominated by a 1947 election on the Chinese mainland. Politics became much more open, but the influence of money and corruption increased. Li Donghui became the first popularly elected president of the Republic of China in 1996. In this period the Democratic Progressive Party, a Taiwanese-based party advocating a Taiwanese identity separate from China, became a real rival to the Nationalists.

Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People remained enshrined as the official ideology in the Republic of China. No one is sure if “nationalism” refers to a pan-Chinese notion or should be a Taiwanese notion. Democracy has proven to be a messy but still enormously absorbing means of political rule. People’s livelihood seems to have been achieved but through a much more capitalistic form than Sun Yat-sen advocated.

In the elections of 2000 the DPP won control of the legislature, and its candidate, Chen Shuibian (b. 1950), won the presidency. This election put Nationalists in the role of an opposition party for the first time since 1927. Stung by the defeat and fearful that the DPP would openly declare independence from China and bring about a military confrontation with the People’s Republic of China, the Nationalist Party turned on Li Donghui and expelled him for what they considered to be his underhanded advancement of Taiwanese independence.

In the unfamiliar role of an opposition political party the Nationalists advocated less-confrontational policies with Beijing. Chen Shuibian and the DPP became strident advocates of Taiwanese independence from China and claim the Nationalists are inclined to compromise and accept eventual unification with the People’s Republic of China. In March 2008 the electorate in Taiwan, unhappy with the DPP leadership and policies, turned back to the Nationalist Party. Ma Yingjiu (Ma Ying-jeou) (b. 1950) defeated Chen Shuibian in the Presidential race, thus returning the leadership of the Republic of China to the Nationalist Party.

Further Reading

Hsü, I. C. Y. (2000). The rise of modern China (6th ed.). Oxford, U.K: Oxford University Press.

Eastman, L. (1974). The abortive revolution: China under Nationalist rule, 1927–1949. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fenby, J. (2004). Chiang Kai-shek: China’s generalissimo and the nation he lost. New York: Avalon Publishers.

Friedman, E. (1974). Backward toward revolution: The Chinese revolutionary party. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Roy, D. (2003). Taiwan: A political history. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Wright, M. C. (Ed.). (1968). China in revolution: The first phase, 1900–1913. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

You will never lose a battle if you know your own situation as well as that of the enemy.


Zhī bǐ zhī jǐ, bǎi zhàn bú dài

Source: Buck, David D. (2009). Chinese Nationalist Party. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 362–367. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chiang, Kai-shek, and Winston Churchill in Cairo, Egypt, 25 November 1943. Chiang assumed command of the Nationalist Party in 1927. Despite dramatic shifts in Nationalist fortunes throughout the various contexts of war with Japan, and after defeat in the civil war by the Communists, Chiang’s dominance in the party lasted until his death. NATIONAL ARCHIVES.

Chinese Nationalist Party (Guómíndǎng 国民党)|Guómíndǎng 国民党 (Chinese Nationalist Party)

Download the PDF of this article