How air-minded was China?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:45 pm

    Airplanes and airpower were an important part of Chiang Kai-shek’s vision of a new China. In part I think this may have been connected to his disappointment with the generally poor state of the Chinese army. He was well-known for his disdain for the lack of spirit in the Chinese troops, and for his desire to improve their “spirit.” Part of this was moral education and training, but part of it was also technical training, the more high-tech the better. For me as a modern American technology and “spirit” seem to be contradictory goals. This was not the case in the Guomindang, however, as shown by Chiang’s subordinate Hu Zongnan. Hu was particularly obsessed with flight. In his speeches he emphasized that cadets should develop a “scientific mind” and a “steel body”( 科學頭腦﹐鋼鐵身體). As he put it in a 1939 speech.

If one has a scientific mind one can use machinery, one can use electrical power to fly into space. Fly, fly, ascend to 10,000 meters. Scout planes can travel 400 km in an hour, pursuit planes 500 km, bombers can fly 450 km and attack the enemy. Aircraft are our wings.1

This emphasis on aircraft in particular is interesting because it seems to have been an obsession that Hu shared with Chiang Kai-shek and because it seems similar to European doctrines of air-mindedness. Air-mindedness however was only partially about the actual use of technology in battle. It was also about the transformation of individuals and the nation. As Peter Fritzsche explains it in his study of air-mindedness in Germany

Better than anyone else, the aviator revealed Germany to be ambitious, politically self-reliant, and technically adept, a “nation of fliers” able to make its way in the rough modern era of empires and machines. It was a recognizable, derivative version of this patriotic, strong-armed, air-age Germany that went to war in 1939. 2

    Air-mindedness was not only for Germans, of course. Fascination with air-power and air transport was common all over in the interwar period. Chiang and his government were certainly part of this. I had always regarded Chiang’s fascination with airplanes as an example of his poor leadership. Warplanes certainly can be a pointless way of wasting money for poor countries, and it is hard to imagine China in the 1930’s building up an air force capable of taking on the Japanese. Still, as Xu Guangqiu points out in his study of Chinese military aviation, aircraft could serve a number of purposes.3 Having an air arm capable of taking on the Japanese was one thing, having one capable of taking on Chiang’s warlord rivals was another. Chiang made sure that he consistently had more and better aircraft than his rivals.4 These were useful not only for observation but also for what can best be called terror-bombing, dropping bombs on non-military targets to create fear. In China in the 1930s terror bombing was cheap and easy. Only a handful of bombs and the strafing of the Tianjin railway station were necessary to demoralize the troops of Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan. Apparently there is something deeply demoralizing about being bombed from the air with no hope of retaliation, especially in a world where aircraft were rare.

Airplanes also helped in nation-building without actually being used in combat. Chinese interest in purchasing airplanes created ready-made pro-China lobbies in America and Italy. Training fliers was seen as a way of training a new elite, and one that young men seem to have found attractive. The first class at the American-run Central Aviation School attracted some 88 cadets, 3/4 of whom knew some English and almost all of whom arrived with copies of Charles Lindbergh’s We. Even more interestingly, many of cadets washed out. Despite their high status they would not be automatically passed through. At least in this situation competence counted for more than guanxi which was not the usual situation in Guomindang China.5

Aircraft were also a wonderful modern symbol of the nation, and thus a way of attracting donations from patriotic Chinese both in China and outside. The Nationalists raised $ 300,000 from the public to purchase planes, including one paid for by the Tianchu glutamate factory that had the name of the company on the wings. I assume this was just for the publicity shot, and that it did not fly into battle with an advertisement on its wings, but it is still a rather remarkable example of commerce and nation-building going together. Of course the public should have been willing to pay money for anything that would make China stronger, but planes as a symbol of modernity were more likely to bring in donations than bayonets and tin hats.


  1. Speech to the 19th graduating class, 1939. From 宗南文存 p.13 []
  2. Fritzsche, Peter A Nation of Fliers: German Aviation and the Popular Imagination, Harvard U.P., 1992 p.217 []
  3. Guangqiu Xu War Wings: The United States and Chinese Military Aviation, 1929-1949. Greenwood, 2001 []
  4. Xu, p.47 []
  5. William M Leary “Wings for China: The Jouett Mission, 1932.1935” Pacific Affairs 38.4 Nov. 1969 []

6 responses to “How air-minded was China?”

  1. I assume this was just for the publicity shot, and that it did not fly into battle with an advertisement on its wings

    Oh, this could be a great fundraiser for some cash-strapped military….

    Nice post, too: I’ve never given all that much thought to military technology in the warlord era.

  2. Steve says:

    There is a similar phenomenon in Mussolini’s Italy of the 20’s and 30’s where aviation was a major idoelogical and progaganda showcase of the regime – of course Italy was more of an innovator in aviation than nationalist China, but its an interesting parraell considering the other similarities and affinites between the the two regimes in the inter-war decades.

  3. […] Here I learned about African mercenaries fighting alongside Ming troops during the Imjin Wars and Chinese airpower from Frog in a Well. I ended my visit by viewing a bound sketchbook containing a series of 36 […]

  4. […] via Military History Carnival 2, an interesting post by Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well: China on airmindedness in China in the 1930s. If I had to compare it to another country, it would probably be Russia, where aviation was also […]

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