With his kind smile, it would be easy to confuse Bai Chongxi with a Buddhist cleric, detached from the worries of this world. That was one of the first thoughts that occurred to German war correspondent Wolf Schenke when he met with Bai, the 45-year-old deputy chief of staff of the Chinese Army, at the height of the Sino-Japanese struggle in 1938.
In fact, Bai was not Buddhist, but Muslim. He was also known as Omar Baderludin. A legendary figure in China’s long war with Japan from 1937 to 1945, he was credited with playing a big part in getting the nation’s Muslim minority, the Huis, to join in the fight against the Japanese aggressors. In this way, he epitomized one of the central themes of the war: The fact that the Chinese, after decades of civil strife, had united in opposition to the external enemy – most of the time, at least.
Bai was born into a venerable Muslim family in south China’s Guangxi province. But the significance of his faith was a matter of some dispute. Like other members of the Hui group, he was virtually indistinguishable from China’s Han majority. His behavior, too, was not very different from the average Chinese compatriot. A British intelligence report referred to him as “a Moslem who drinks wine and eats pork.”
During a military campaign against north Chinese warlords several years before the Japanese invasion, he was reported to have ordered a large number of Buddhist temples closed down and transformed into public schools. But it’s doubtful that this was a campaign directed specifically against Buddhism. It might be more correct to see it as a secular phase in Bai’s career, when he, along with other members of the Nationalist movement, was seeking to turn China into a modern country.
All sources indicate that Bai was an impressive physical presence. “Tall, well-built, with a high intellectual forehead,” was the way a British intelligence report described him. “A thinker and planner in the realms of both politics and strategy. A strict disciplinarian. Possessed of both physical and mental energy of a high order. A sense of humour.”
Bai was widely respected for his skills as a commander. Even the American General Joseph Stilwell – “Vinegar Joe”– was impressed. His finest hour might have come in 1938, when he was instrumental in inflicting a resounding defeat on the Japanese at the city of Taierzhuang. In addition to its military value, the battle was also of psychological significance, as it showed that the Japanese Army was not invincible.
Bai Chongxi was a soldier to the core. This became clear when he explained to German correspondent Schenke’s group that they were the first journalists he had ever talked to. “This is because all my time is taken up by the war,” he said through an interpreter. “You should keep in mind that there are times when the rifle is more important than the pen.”
To Schenke, it was the most un-Chinese remark he heard during his entire stay in China. And it was all the more surprising, given Bai’s scholarly mannerisms: “Bai Chongxi has the air more of a scholar than a soldier. Behind slender metal glasses is a pair of wise eyes full of life, in a face whose features appear almost soft… The basic materialism which is so obvious with most Chinese the moment we meet them seemed to be completely lacking in Bai Chongxi. As the general started speaking in Chinese, with a constant smile on his lips, the unmilitary impression became even stronger, and I constantly had the feeling of listening to a university professor.”
But even Bai could make mistakes. During the 1937 battle of Shanghai he planned an ambitious counterattack against the flank of the advancing Japanese. It was a disaster that decimated several divisions that had recently arrived in the Shanghai area. It even gave the Japanese momentum which helped them launch the final push for control of China’s largest city.
On balance, however, Bai’s victories seemed to outweigh the debacles. This continued after the war with the Japan, when he soon found himself facing communist armies in the civil war that had broken out. But even his skills could not change the outcome of that conflict. In 1949, when the communists finally prevailed all across China, he fled to Taiwan along with a large part of the defeated Nationalist Army.