Having failed to persuade Chiang Kai-shek to abandon war with the communists and instead unite to fight Japan, Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng finally opted for force and captured Chiang in the Xi'an Incident, not releasing him until he had agreed to fight Japan alongside the CCP. In the aftermath, both were arrested by Chiang. Over a decade later, when the KMT retreated to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war, Zhang was taken along as well and continued in captivity for several more decades, while Yang was secretly executed.

What reasons have been given by historians to explain why they received different punishments? Did the KMT give any explanation of why they imprisoned one but executed the other?

4 Answers 4


tl;dr: There are multiple reasons for Chiang to treat them different. They differed in their culpability, their readiness to make amends, and their connections.


Chang Hsueh-liang had an extremely valuable connection in the person of Soong May-ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-shek. The two had met in Shanghai in 1925, and kept up a life long relationship illustrated by their many correspondences over the years. During the incident, Madame Chiang flew to Xi'an to take part in the negotiations, guaranteeing Chang's safety in the process.

In an interview where Chang was exploring publishing a memoirs, the Young Marshal noted that:


The key reason I didn't die after the Sian Incident is that Madame Chiang helped me.

In contrast, Yang Hucheng's connections were mostly of the Communists variety. Obviously, this did him no favours with the ardent anti-Communist Chiang Kai-shek. The striking difference in their associations sufficiently explains the Generalissimo's attitudes without resorting to whimsically concocting "bandit" or "family" connections.


First off, although the rebellion was carried out under Chang Hsueh-liang's name, the idea in fact originated with Yang Hu-cheng. Chang was adamant about keeping Chiang alive, ordering his soldiers not to shoot unless absolutely necessary (though they pretty much ignored this). Once Chiang had been captured, the Young Marshal professed his purity of intentions and promised no harm would come to the Generalissimo.

Chang was eager to negotiate for Chiang's safe release, unlike Yang Hu-cheng who wanted an execution (with support from many of their subordinates, not to mention the Communists).

Zhou Enlai ... arrived to find that Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng disagreed about the future course of action concerning Chiang Kai-shek. Whereas Zhang was ready to negotiate Chiang's release, Yang was in favor of executing him.

- Barnouin, Barbara, and Changgen Yu. Zhou Enlai: A Political Life. Chinese University Press, 2006.

When finally the Nationalist leader compromised and verbally agreed to end the civil war, Chang was willing to take his word for it. Yang however sided with the Communists and insisted that Chiang should sign a written promise, and called for him to be held captive longer.

Given these turns of events, it is no surprise who Chiang bears a stronger grudge towards.

Making Amends

After the crisis was resolved, Chang willingly took the rather incredible step of accompanying Chiang back to Nanking. He threw himself at the mercy of the central government, knowing how treason is typically punished. Decades later he himself asserted that had their positions been swapped he wouldn't hesitate to order the execution of an insubordinate rebel.


A soldier rebelling is a capital crime, but I was allowed to live. 40 years of house arrest is fair.

Whether he was sincere or not, Chang affirmed his support for Chiang as the leader of China. By his submission he sought to help repair the blow to Nationalist authority he himself delivered.

Yang was much less willing to ingratiate himself with the Generalissimo. Even though he technically received an even more lenient punishment ("sent" to Europe on a government tour for research), the deposed general continued to be highly critical of the Nationalist Government in general and Chiang personally in particular. Once the Japanese invasion began, he snuck back to China with some designs on acquiring a military command again, and was promptly seized.

His hawkish attitude during the crisis, and subsequent failure to behave, probably doomed him and his family. His death wasn't so much a punishment as it was an assassination, marked by a strong element of vengeance.


There were a couple reasons. The first was that Yan Hucheng was a "bandit" with no real family connections, while Zhang Xueliang was from a well-connected family, and included among his connections, Mrs Chiang Kai Shek. The second and related reason was that Zhang's father, Zhang Cuolin had been killed resisting the Japanese in Manchuria. Thus, Zhang Xueliang's actions against Chiang Kaishek to force him to fight Japan could be explained as an act of "filial piety," while Yan Hucheng had no such excuse.

Zhang had on several prominent occasions expressed his loyalty and support of Chiang Kai Shek and his Kuomintang, so his one "insubordinate" act could be explained as a "one off." On the other hand, Yan had a number of "suspect" connections, including Feng Yuxiang, known as the "betrayal general." Also, Yan had allied with Yan Shi Shan and Li Zong Ren against Chiang in the "Central Plains War" of 1930.

  • 1
    Can you cite sources? I'm a bit skeptical that Zhang's connections would have spoken up for him over a decade after he lost power. Is there evidence of any who pled his case? Or is it more to do with Chiang fearing repercussions from these connections should Zhang be executed?
    – lins314159
    Commented Dec 10, 2011 at 0:00
  • @lins314159: I know from this source that Yang hu cheng was regarded as "bandit." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yang_Hucheng. I also know that Zhang Xue Liang inherited his position from his father. As a Chinese-American, I know that many Chinese pay a lot of attention to family background. This appears to be particularly true of Chiang Kai Shek who "married well" and through his life, shunned people of "humble" background.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 18:53
  • his wife and children killed too?
    – user4951
    Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 9:09
  • @JimThio: Would not surprise me. Chinese kings often killed whole families so that no one would take revenge on them. And Chiang Kai Shek was a "king."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 15:49

Here's the thing. They made plans to kill Zhang too, if the communists came close to getting him. Yang was only killed after the president at the time, Li, ordered his release.

So we can conclude Chiang was willing to keep them under guard, but will not tolerate letting them go alive.


It's probably because Yang could have found to have Communist sympathies more so than Zhang Xueliang.

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    Welcome to History SE! Do you have any sources for this statement?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Nov 8, 2012 at 13:18

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