The word “bromance” doesn’t get thrown around much by military commanders. But it’s definitely a recurring theme in military history. And no high-octane military power couple can match Bai Chongxi and Li Zongren—two warlords who became the Republic of China’s most able commanders.
The pair were sometimes called “Li Bai,” something like the Brangelina of early 20th-century internecine Chinese warfare.
Li and Bai were also classmates in their youth, and would emerge as a powerful duo in combat and politics, often fighting side by side during the country’s bloodiest conflicts.
“One of the most intelligent and efficient commanders boasted by any army in the world,” was how Edgar Snow—the infamously pro-Mao journalist and scribe of Red Star Over China—described Bai.
The German military adviser to China, Alexander von Falkenhausen, called Bai “the only general I can teach anything.”
Li had a reputation for being refined, magnanimous and exceptionally bookish. One of his favorite books was Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Their regard for efficiency over protocol, and tendency to make on-the-ground decisions without consulting superiors also made them powerful enemies. The nationalist generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek—in particular—hated them.
But their results are hard to ignore. They led some of the most effective operations during the unification of China against the warlords. They were also the masterminds of China’s first victory over Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese war, overseeing the defense of Taierzhuang during the battle of Xuzhou.
Bai and Li hailed from near the town of Guilin, in China’s southwestern Guangxi Province. Despite shared customs and culture, Guangxi province had traditionally been regarded as a separate—and backwater—region from the Middle Kingdom. In return, the people in Guangxi regarded themselves as somewhat autonomous.
Li was the son of a school teacher in a small farming village outside of the town. Bai was a member of China’s Muslim Hui minority—and traced his heritage to Persian merchants.
Both young men enrolled at the Guilin Military Cadre Training School. Li excelled in his studies, and became a platoon commander in the army of warlord leader Lu Rongting. Lu was a former bandit and crime boss who became governor of Guangxi, and led a group of prominent warlords called the Old Guangxi Clique.
The ambitious warlord sought to conquer neighboring Guangdong, and Li fought as a leader in these destructive wars, quickly rising up the ranks to become a battalion commander.
As Li was fighting in the war for Guangdong, Bai withdrew from military studies at his family’s request and enrolled at the Guangxi Schools of Law and Political Science. Their careers could have diverged here.
However, in the wake of the 1911 rebellion against the Chinese monarchy, Bai joined the revolt as a member of the “Dare to Die” student corps—student militias infamous for their fanatical suicide operations. Bai’s experiences fighting in the revolution led him to resume his military schooling, and upon becoming an officer, he returned to Guangxi.
In the meantime, Lu Rongting’s ambition had driven Guangxi to ruin. His second campaign against Guangdong ended in disaster. Li’s forces began disintegrating, and many soldiers turned to banditry—preying upon villages and carrying out acts of rape, kidnapping and looting.
Li was disgusted by the conduct of this rabble, believing soldiers should hold themselves to a higher standard. He raised a private army of his own professional soldiers in an attempt to restore order. He established a foothold on the border of Guangdong. Bai pledged his loyalty, and Li made him a leader in his new army.
They quickly forged a close bond.
In 1924, the team routed Lu’s army of the Old Guangxi Clique, forcing their former commander to flee to French Indochina. Shortly afterwards, Chinese Nationalist Party leader Sun Yat-sen, then operating out of Guangdong, recognized Li and Bai as the leaders of Guangxi, granting them the recognition of the fledgling Republic of China.
Li and Bai quickly became known as the New Guangxi Clique.
In 1926, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China’s nationalist forces, prepared to launch the Northern Expedition—a campaign to wipe out the warlord cliques who still held power. After the warlords were eliminated, Chiang planned to unify China.
But even with Chiang’s broad coalition—including republicans, communists and a handful of reformed warlords—the nationalist army didn’t have the strength or numbers to launch the campaign. It wasn’t until the New Guangxi Clique agreed to formally join Chiang that the Northern Expedition became a real possibility. Chiang promoted Bai to chief of staff.
The Northern Expedition made short work of the warlord armies they came across. The nationalists were able to strike deals with some of the shrewder warlords—provided they agreed to fight for the republic.
Meanwhile, Li commanded troops from Guangxi known as the Guangxi Pacification Army—some of the most effective troops of the campaign. It was known by some as “The Flying Army” for their rapid advance and quick successes against the warlords. Li often clashed with—and simultaneously impressed—Soviet advisers attached to the nationalist army.
The Soviets even approached Li and tried to convince him to join the Communist Party. But Li refused.
When the army reached Shanghai, Chiang ordered the purge of communists from the army, and placed Li and Bai in charge of many of these operations. In the press, Bai would become known as “The Hewer of Communist Heads.” However, in 1942, journalist John Gunther alleged that he allowed several communists, including later Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, to escape out of respect.
Li and Bai also led forces into Beijing against the last remnants of the Fengtian Clique. The remaining Fengtian troops fled to Manchuria. However, after members of the Japanese Kwantung Army assassinated Fengtian leader Zhang Zuolin, his son pledged loyalty to the nationalists—and the Fengtian army with him.
China was unified, at least on paper. But the country lacked political unity.
After the expedition, Chiang took power from the nationalist movement’s civilian leadership and declared himself the overall ruler of China. He quickly began centralizing power at a rate that disturbed his followers.
Li and Bai, in particular, clashed with Chiang. Though the pair supported unification, they wanted to maintain a degree of autonomy for Guangxi. They were not interested in Chiang’s meddling. They also refused to work with Chiang’s appointed officials.
By 1930, tensions broke out in open warfare. The New Guangxi Clique joined a faction led by fellow disgruntled commander Yan Xishan and his Shaanxi army. Chiang was able to hold them off by enlisting the aid of Zhang and his troops from Manchuria. Li withdrew, and quickly began plotting once again with other commanders, until the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 forced Zhang and his troops to flee their homeland.
China was under attack. The civil war would have to wait.
War with Japan
Full-scale war finally broke out between Japan and China in 1937. Li and Bai fought in the ill-fated defense of Shanghai. And though the Chinese army fought hard—much harder than the Japanese and Western observers expected—the Japanese routed them and advanced toward the capital, Nanjing.
At a meeting of the army’s general staff, Li and Bai—backed by German adviser Falkenhausen—advocated cutting their losses and declaring Nanjing an undefended city. In theory, this would prevent the Japanese from justifying an attack on the capital, and allow the nationalists time to regroup in a more strategically advantageous location.
Chiang refused, ordering his exhausted troops to make a doomed last stand. The Japanese made short work of them, and plundered Nanjing, killing and raping thousands in what is now known as the Nanjing massacre.
By the time Chiang had relocated to Xuzhou, it became clear that China needed a victory. The Chinese couldn’t just embarrass the Japanese as they’d done in Shanghai, they needed to humiliate them. They needed to prove they could fight.
In these dark moments, Chiang bitterly turned to Li and Bai.
As the Japanese closed in on them, the Japanese North China Area Army—which had taken Beijing—was to link up with the Central China Expeditionary Force, which had taken Nanjing. Some of the troops under under Isogai Rensuke’s 10th Division marching from the north were the young militarists who had participated in the taking of Manchuria. These troops were particularly highly motivated.
Li and Bai decided their forces would make their stand at the ancient walled city of Taierzhuang. The city sat along the grand canal and had a major rail line. It was a strategically important and enticing target. The pair were counting on that.
“I was certain,” wrote Li after the battle, “that a man as proud as General Isogai would not wait until the Japanese marching forwards from Bengbu had come within supporting distance, but would fall upon Taierzhuang immediately in the hope of taking Xuzhou with a single stroke and gaining the honor of being the first to clear the Tianjin-Nanjing railway line. My intention was to lay a trap for the enemy when he did so.”
When Japanese tanks approached Chinese lines, a Chinese armored car equipped with an anti-tank gun fired a few shots and quickly pulled back. Once the tanks reached Li and Bai’s trenches, Chinese troops leaped out and threw grenades at the tracks, disabling them. One of the fiercest battles of the campaign ensued.
Li and Bai made sure to keep their supply lines open, something that had doomed the Chinese in previous battles. At the same time, they encircled the Japanese to disrupt their supply lines. Li and Bai also recruited Chinese farmers in the countryside for guerrilla and sabotage operations. The farmers cut phone lines, diverted streams and wrecked rail lines.
Chinese infantry often moved at night, so to avoid being spotted by Japanese planes and artillery. The Chinese also used their own German-supplied howitzers to inflict deadly strikes on the Japanese. The Japanese army could not fall back on tanks and planes, and were forced into brutal house-to-house combat.
And brutal it was.
“Sometimes we faced each other with hand grenades — or we might even bite each other,” Gen. Chi Fengcheng remarked in an interview with Chinese journalist Sheng Cheng.
Li and Bai forced the Japanese to withdraw. The shock of a Japanese defeat caused a cabinet crisis in Tokyo. Li and Bai became heroes in the press, both in China and abroad. Their resourcefulness, and the creativity of Chinese troops in the city had won the day.
However, historian Rana Mitter, asserts that Li still displayed tendencies indicative of the warlord mentality. In his book Forgotten Ally, he points out that Li deflected much of the fighting to troops under the commander Tang Enbo, while holding many of his Guangxi troops in Xuzhou.
Also, after Chinese troops withdrew, Japanese forces razed Taierzhuang to the ground. It was a sour victory.
Still, Li and Bai had proven to be the star officers of the Chinese army. But Chiang was still wary of them, and when the Chinese government relocated to Chongqing, he sidelined both generals into staff positions. Li was made the “Director of the Generalissimo’s Headquarters,” a position of little influence where Chiang could keep tabs on him. Chiang made Bai his deputy chief-of-staff in charge of training.
After the fall of Burma to Japanese troops, Gen. Joseph Stilwell, the senior American officer in China—who himself had a deeply troubled relationship with Chiang—attended a dinner of senior officers hosted by the generalissimo. While Stilwell argued with Chiang, he observed that Bai and Li were “very quiet, thinking their own thoughts.”
Bai spent much of the war rallying Chinese Muslims to fight the Japanese in his capacity as head of the Chinese Muslim Association. He also began taking on the task of training new officers and troops, supporting the schools in Kunming with a focus on American tactics, which gained him the infamously hard-to-please Stilwell’s praise.
Chiang, seeing two men he distrusted so deeply shaping the minds of China’s next generation of leaders, regretted putting Bai in such a position.
The fall of the republic
In 1946, Chiang appointed Bai to the position of minister of defense. This was less impressive than it sounds, because Bai was constantly undercut by Chiang. The generalissimo would send countermanding orders to troops under Bai’s command, and Chiang hosted briefings in his home that deliberately excluded Bai.
Li was kept in a similarly impotent position at the Peiping Field Headquarters. Meanwhile, Chiang’s strategy of concentrating troops in provincial capitals, leaving the countryside to communist rebels, was proving disastrous.
In 1947, after the 2/28 Massacre in Taiwan—in which nationalist authorities killed thousands of native Taiwanese protesters—Bai was dispatched on a fact-finding mission. In a surprising move, he sided with Taiwanese students and harshly condemned the brutal crackdown, calling for the resignation of the provincial governor and the arrest of his chief of secret police.
On April 28, 1948, Li—with backing from Bai—was elected vice president by China’s National Assembly, five days after Chiang became president. Chiang was furious, having expected his handpicked candidate Sun Fo to prevail. After a series of military defeats against the communists, Chiang resigned. In less than a year after his election, Li became acting president.
Li hoped to come up with a compromise with the communists that could allow the nationalists to share power—and potentially maintain some hold. This drew harsh condemnation from Chiang. When Li then offered terms that countered Mao’s terms, Li was given an ultimatum, which he refused to take.
As the communists advanced, the rivalry between Li and Chiang grew even more bitter.
Li eventually fell ill, and had to be taken to the United States for treatment. In a meeting with U.S. Pres. Harry Truman, he called Chiang a “dictator” and an “usurper,” warning that he could not be trusted.
After the fall of Chongqing to the communists, Chiang and the rest of the nationalist government fled to Taiwan. Bai was among them. Chiang reestablished himself as president, and blacklisted Li from the government.
Bai continued to serve until 1952, but he and Chiang never reconciled. Bai retired, but remained involved with the Chinese Muslim Association as its head until 1958. He died in 1966.
Li remained in exile until 1965, when he returned to the mainland at the invitation of Chinese communist Premier Zhou Enlai. Li hoped he could promote some sort of reconciliation, but this act was used by opponents in Taiwan to once again brand him a traitor. He died of cancer in Beijing in 1969.
Li and Bai had one of the longest and strongest operational partnerships in military history. They depended on each other through decades of war, and in spite of—or perhaps because of—an environment of constant double crosses. Li and Bai were best bros forever.