Who Were the Kuomintang?

The Kuomintang, or KMT, was China’s dominant political party for over forty years. From the KMT’s founding in 1912 until the 1949 exile, the KMT cemented a place in China’s political history.

Jun 17, 2024By Matt Whittaker, BA History & Asian Studies

kuomintang chinese political party


Beginning in the mid-19th century, China signed unequal treaties, forced upon it following military defeats. The terms dictated that China give up territorial and sovereignty rights, allowing foreign countries, like Japan or the U.K., to exempt their citizens from Chinese law. Another part of the treaty established foreign enclaves in several Chinese cities. The 1901 Boxer Rebellion, the ensuing war, and the defeat of the Qing Dynasty led to the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. The revolt spread as the Qing couldn’t stop it. The last Qing emperor, Puyi, abdicated on February 12, 1912. The nucleus of the Kuomintang (KMT) would form soon after.


Sun Yat-sen: Revolutionary and Leader

Sun Yat-sen Source: Britannica.com


No mention of the Kuomintang can be made without looking at Sun Yat-sen, its founder and ideological center. Born in 1866 in Guangdong Province, Sun emigrated to Hawaii to live with his brother. He studied at a British and American school, quickly learning English. He moved to Hong Kong in 1883, became a Christian, and graduated medical school. Sun met anti-Qing revolutionaries in medical school and joined their plots. A planned but failed uprising he helped plot in 1895 sent him to exile to Japan, and the U.S. Sun’s core ideology stressed replacing the Qing Dynasty with a modern nation-state. Upon hearing of the 1911 Revolution, Sun returned to China. On January 1, 1912, he became the provisional President of the Republic of China for only three months.


In August 1912, Sun formed the Kuomintang, known as the Nationalist Party. The years 1916 to 1928 were dubbed “The Warlord Era.” Political infighting and regional military governments dominated that period, with KMT’s base only in southern China.


Banner showing Republic of China Flags c. 1916 Source: Wikimedia Commons


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Sun strengthened the KMT in southern China and, with the Chinese Communist Party’s help, slowly expanded. Sun asked and received help from the Soviet Union, too. In 1924, he published the Three Principles of the People. These were Nationalism, Democracy, and People’s Livelihood, which would set up China as a modern country. Sun became ruler of China after 1923 but passed away in 1925 before he could unify China. That came under his successor, Chiang Kai-shek. 


The Northern Expedition

Propaganda painting of the Long March from 1973. Source: Schools History


In 1926, KMT armies under Chiang attacked north to unify China. With some warlords and Soviet assistance, their armies reached Beijing, the capital. Capturing this city gained the KMT international recognition, so Chiang became the accepted leader of China. As the Expedition fought on, Chiang turned on the Communists and politically left KMT members. On April 12, 1927, his forces massacred the Communists. Survivors fled into rural areas, where their power base lay, especially in the future. The Communists began to regroup, uniting peasants against warlords and corrupt KMT officials. 


Stability And Crisis

Manchuria Invasion Source: Rochester University


By 1928, the Kuomintang had unified China and ended the Warlord Era. Wanting to modernize the country, Chiang promoted democratic reforms for voting, women’s rights, and universal education. The KMT, too, wanted to create a welfare state in their direction. These were all part of Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People. The situation wouldn’t remain peaceful for long.


The KMT made strides toward all these goals, but after 1930, the country faced continual crisis. 1931 began with Imperial Japan’s taking Manchuria and then more. The KMT’s German-trained troops proved to be no match. By 1937, vast parts of China had fallen, forcing the KMT to move their capital twice by the 1940s. The KMT battled the Communists, or Reds, and warlord rebellions. Corruption remained a constant problem despite many reforms. 


The Reds: Not Defeated

Mao Zedong in early revolutionary years. Source: The Times


The 1927 Communist massacre touched off a Civil War that grew worse in the 1930s and only ended with the KMT’s 1949 defeat. The KMT defeated the Reds in 1936, prompting the “Long March.” Mao Zedong led the march, becoming the Communist leader as they reorganized. The Communists did fight the Japanese in a successful guerilla war, tying down Japanese troops that could be used elsewhere. 


1940s: War and Exile

Mao Announces Victory Source: WELT


Nationalist China, a major Allied power, and Japan fought bitterly until Japan’s 1945 surrender. The American-backed KMT battled the Soviet-backed Communists in formerly occupied area. By 1948, the KMT had lost significant battles. Problems such as corruption, forced conscription of peasants, and massacres added to their problems. The KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949 permanently. The Kuomintang helped China modernize by breaking that dynastic cycle, stopping foreign domination, and uniting the country. Even the present Communist Chinese have acknowledged the KMT’s legacy, seeing Sun Yat-sen as a revolutionary.

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By Matt WhittakerBA History & Asian StudiesMatt Whittaker is an avid history reader, fascinated by the why, how and when. With a B.A. in History and Asian Studies from University of Massachusetts, he does deep dives into medieval, Asian and military history. Matt’s other passion besides family is the long-distance Zen-like runs.