By: Paulina Mangubat
June 16, 1924 - First lessons begin at Whampoa Military Academy
In The Art of War, the famed ancient Chinese military treatise, Sun Tzu writes, “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.”
While contemporary Chinese politicians have not necessarily retained Sun Tzu’s original military strategy, there’s no denying that the above quote is evergreen. Conflict is the cornerstone of state-building. The careful maintenance of a well-trained army can only increase the might of a major world power.
On June 16, 1924, the Whampoa Military Academy, located near Canton, held its first class. To commemorate the occasion, Dr. Sun Yatsen delivered an opening address. He was the the leader of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), first president of the Republic of China, and “father of modern China.”
Although the Whampoa Military Academy and the nationalism it inspired were distinctly Chinese and had direct implications for years of Kuomintang or KMT (and later Chinese Communist) rule, they were both grounded in Russian military methods. In 1923, Chiang Kaishek, a KMT member and close associate of Sun, visited the Soviet Union to observe its Red Army. Eventually, Michael Borodin, a Russian Communist, encouraged Chiang to establish a Russian-style military academy in China.
The primary purpose of the Whampoa Military Academy was closely tied to Sun’s concerns about Chinese factionalism. At the time, China was not a unified state. The collapse of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty and the subsequent downfall of China’s new warlord leader, Yuan Shikai, had resulted in a highly fragmented China. While indigenous warlords agitated for control over slivers of Chinese land, Sun sought to reunify China under a single, nationalist flag. A well-trained army, Sun reasoned, would help the KMT finally quash the warlords.
The success of Chiang and Sun’s efforts was self-evident. The Whampoa Military Academy received 1,500 applicants once it opened (it planned to register only 300 students).
The Whampoa Military Academy is also notable because Sun’s opening remarks later became the national anthem of the Republic of China.
Today, the original site of the Whampoa Military Academy is a popular tourist destination. As Chinese Communist Party members maintain their position at the helm of Chinese leadership and the KMT is pushed deeper into the recesses of history, it’s worth remembering the Whampoa Military Academy as more than just a defunct KMT institution.
If Dr. Sun Yatsen is modern China’s father, then the Whampoa Military Academy is its schoolyard.
Paulina Mangubat is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. She is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and East Asian studies. She tweets @paulinaVEVO.