W. H. Donald
1875 - 1946HomeDon Who?!World views DonA Chinese life ...Don - the BookPlay/MovieDeath in ShanghaiScholarlyChinese researchOn the AuthorPersonals 


The world's press views on W. H. Donald ...

... from hard-boiled to the sublime:


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"... In his hands, perhaps, lay the peace of Asia."

"... an Australian, Mr. William H. Donald, was in every sense news. Many years ago, the health of his wife made it best for her to return to Australia, and in China her increasingly polished rough-diamond husband, as the years rolled on, perhaps killed more ladies (in the complimentary, Edwardian sense of "ladykilling") than any other man in China's swift, hard, cheap, international Shanghai-Peiping set......"

The above comments (December 1936) appeared in the same issue of Time magazine, the world having discovered W. H. Donald in the aftermath of the "Xian Incident" (see below and refer to SCHOLARLY).

The Xian Incident would ultimately be considered the pivotal event in 20th century China next to the 1911 revolution. In terms of world attention, it was Donald's finest hour.


Briefly, in late 1936, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek went to Xian where Chang Hsueh-liang ("the Young Marshal") was technically in charge of the "Bandit Suppression" campaign - i.e., the elimination of Communists. Instead, Chang was actually talking to the "Reds" then based in Shensi province following their epic Long March from southern Kiangsi province in 1934/35.

In his classic work, Red Star Over China (1937), writer Edgar Snow describes the "Great March" as "an Odyssey unequalled in modern times". In late 1934, Nationalist troops had encircled most of the Red Army in Kiangsi where the Communists faced virtual extinction. The history of their escape, and of the horrific Long March to the north, appears in many accounts, including Snow's book.

Meanwhile (1936), Chiang aimed to stiffen his subordinate's anti-Communist resolve. Chang Hsueh-liang, who was China's second most important general after Chiang, wanted to co-operate the Communists in defending China against Japan and especially to recover Manchuria, his former domain. But Chiang would not listen: when the Communists were destroyed only then could the armies deal with Japan.

In the early hours of December 12, 1936, Chang and his commanders did the unthinkable: they kidnapped their leader after neutralising his military guards. Chiang would have to listen.

The government chose Donald to begin negotiations with the rebels since he was a long-time friend to both Chang and Chiang. He flew to the latter's stronghold in Xian evan as government hawks urged a full-scale bombing of Xian and a resumption of war with the Communists, even if it meant death to Chiang (and presumably to Donald).

Ultimately it was a Communist representative,, Zhou Enlai, who negotiated the terms of release for Chiang, including an end to their civil war, with a truce that hold, uneasily, until 1945/46.  Meantime, the "incident" made enemies for Donald in China.

However, it was a personal enemy from the West (wrote "Will" to sister Ruby) who had fed such lies about him to the press. Time observed that the story of "Sian" was "replete with curious characters" such as mystery man Donald. Who was this friend to both kidnapper and kidnappee, this foreigner who paved a way for a radically changed China?.

To Donald, the article

    "..." was nasty and as untrue as it was improper. But there have been lots of articles and when I read some of them I do not seem to recognise myself ... it is useless to correct anything, and what does it matter anway?' [April 10, 1938]

To friend Harold Hochschild, he exclaimed:

    "I never read such balderdash. After reading it, I am compelled to exclaim, like a better person, What a man? I wonder how they get hold of such material, and who gets paid for writing it. I could give them a much better tale at half the price and twice as accurate." [February 17, 1937]

    But generally there was little cause for complaint as these random clippings (mainly from the West) illustrate. CONTINUED .....

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Copyright, Frank Bren 2001. Photographs of Mr. Donald and friends are reproduced by kind permission of the Donald family (Australia) and Ansie Lee Sperry (USA). For all enquiries, please contact the Manager via frankmondial@lycos.com . Oh, and many thanks for visiting this site.