Wu Peifu, the First Chinese National on the Cover of Time Magazine

Time magazine, Volume 4 Issue 16, September 8, 1924. The cover shows Chinese Warlord Era General Wu Peifu. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Born in 1874 in Penglai, Shandong Province (northeast China), Wu Peifu began life as a scholar before embarking upon a career as a professional soldier in his twenties. How did he rise from being the son of a tradesman, leading a simple life, to become one of China’s strongest warlords, heralded by Time magazine as the “Biggest Man in China”?

Wu Peifu led a scrupulously honest life

At the time of his birth, Wu Peifu’s father had a dream of Qi Jiguang entering the house. Qi was a military general during the Ming Dynasty. General Qi had also been born in Shandong Province, and is best remembered for protecting the country from Japanese pirates through a series of wars that lasted 10 years. Based on this dream, Wu’s father chose the name “Peifu” in memory of the great general’s nickname, “Peiyu.”

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By the time he reached his twenties, Wu had received a classical education and had become a scholar. He was good at writing. He composed poetry and painted. He was well-versed in the Book of Changes and the Spring and Autumn Annals, two of the “Five Classics” from Chinese literature. This earned him the title of Scholar-General.

Wu Peifu, circa 1915 (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)
Wu Peifu, circa 1915. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Wu Peifu’s life focused on self-cultivation, self-discipline, integrity, and compassion. He did not indulge in adultery and was known to go everywhere with his wife. He led a simple life, taking only a little wine with his meals. He was disdainful of corrupt officials, did not accumulate wealth, and would not accept a bribe. He likened himself to Guan Yu (a famous general during the Three Kingdoms period known for his bravery and fighting prowess) and Yue Fei (a famous general from the Southern Song Dynasty noted for his great loyalty to the country).

After he had become known for his capability as a commander and strategist, he wished to put an end to cronyism, so he issued a decree to the Wu family in his hometown letting it be known that they were forbidden to use his name for favors for five successive generations. He adhered to four principles: keep no concubine, accumulate no wealth, do not travel overseas, and do not enter into any concession (areas within China given over to foreign powers to govern).

Wu Peifu vowed not to surrender to the Japanese army

Perhaps because of his classical education, Wu had a much stronger sense of nationalism than many of his contemporaries. As China was reeling from revolution, natural disasters, and encroachment of colonial powers, it entered the Warlord Era (1916-1928). Many of the men who rose to power as warlords were preoccupied with preserving and expanding their influence so they could become wealthy, working with the Japanese in an effort to enrich themselves. In contrast, Wu Peifu’s concern was for his country. He hoped to unify China and to drive out the Japanese.

Wu Peifu with Gen. Ma Fuxiang. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)
Wu Peifu with General Ma Fuxiang. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

By 1924, Wu had led his men through two wars against groups who had openly collaborated with the Japanese or who had favored working with them, and his own group was now in control of Beijing and the government. It was at this time that Time magazine chose him to appear on the cover of the issue for September 8, 1924, calling him the “Biggest Man in China.”

Wu would not see a unified China in his lifetime. Though his faction had taken control of Beijing and held territory in central China, they were surrounded by other warlords and also had to contend with the Japanese. When Japan helped the last Qing emperor (who had been forced to abdicate his rule 20 years earlier) to create “Manchukuo” (literally means “state of Manchuria” in Japanese) in 1931 as a puppet state under their control, Wu angrily rebuked the warlord in control of northeast China for choosing not to fight against them. Wu asked: “Why didn’t you fight?” The warlord said: “My forces were not strong enough to defeat them.” Wu replied: “I was bringing my forces to you, and together we would have had enough strength.”

Map of the Northern Expedition; Wu Peifu's territory is shown in purple. (Image: SY via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)
Map of the Northern Expedition; Wu Peifu’s territory is shown in purple. (Image: SY via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Then in 1935, the Japanese had extended their control from Manchuria into the five provinces of northern China forming an Autonomous Government. They approached Wu to head up the government, promising to make him “King of North China.” Despite their persistence in trying to persuade him, Wu never wavered in his refusal.

In 1939, in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Wu once again was approached by Japanese agents who tried to lure him out of retirement by promising his rule over the puppet government in northern China. He replied: “I am willing to come out to be the leader as soon as all the Japanese troops have withdrawn from China.”

He died later that same year in December 1939, and was regarded as a national hero for never compromising or surrendering to the forces that threatened his homeland.

Translated by Chua BC and edited by Mikel Davis

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