Sun Li-jen (December 8, 1900–November 19, 1990) was a Kuomintang (KMT) General, best known for his leadership in the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. His achievements earned him the laudatory nickname “Rommel of the East”. His New 1st Army was reputed as the “1st [Best] Army under heaven” and credited with defeating the most Japanese troops. He was also known as Sun Chung-neng (孫仲能, Sūn Zhòngnéng) and had the courtesy name Sun Fu-min (孫撫民, Sūn Fǔmín).
Sun Li-jen was born in Jinnu, Lujiang, Chaohu, Anhui, with ancestry in Shucheng County. During the May Fourth Movement, he was part of the Scouts in the march at Tiananmen Square. In the same year (1919) he married Gong Xitao (龔夕濤) and was admitted in 1920 to Tsinghua University to study civil engineering. Sun played basketball at Tsinghua, becoming a star. He led the Chinese team to a gold medal at the 1921 Far Eastern Championship Games.
With a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, he transferred to Purdue University in the United States to complete his senior year in 1923, where he graduated in 1924. But in the United States, ideological zeal motivated him to dramatically change vocations and pursue a military career instead. China was in the middle of civil war, and Soviet and Japanese invaders seemed poised to devour China. Sun decided that he could better serve his divided nation as a soldier rather than an engineer.
He applied to the Virginia Military Institute, also in the United States, lying about his age by four years so that he would appear young enough to meet the school’s admissions requirements. He graduated from VMI in 1927 and joined Nationalist Army Finance Department army by Minister Sung. During the Second Sino-Japanese War and the latter war against the Chinese Communists in the Chinese Civil War in Northwest China, Sun Li-jen became a highly effective field officer and valued military general to KMT.
Second Sino-Japanese War
Sun was a colonel and led his troops, a Tax Police Regiment, fighting Japanese during the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. He was badly wounded by mine fragments. After recovery from his injury, Sun led his troops back to the front line. Later, the Nationalist government formed National Salt Gabelle Brigade with 8 regiments. These were the KMT best trained and equipped troops. Four of the regiments later became the New 38th Division, with Sun as the Commandering General. His training center was located in Duyun, in the province of Guizhou.
After two years training, Sun’s New 38th Division was part of the forces Chiang Kai-shek sent into Burma to protect the Burma Road under General Du Yuming. Sun led Chinese forces to the relief of 7,000 British forces trapped by the Japanese in the Battle of Yenangyaung. Although unable to stop the Japanese from cutting the Burma Road, Sun gained the respect of General William Slim, the Commander of the British 14th Army, for his competence. Sun and his division retreated into India and became a part of ‘X Force’, the Chinese forces under the command of Joseph Stilwell, the American commander of all American and Chinese forces deployed in the “China Burma India Theater”. Sun’s division spearheaded Stilwell’s 1943 drive to reconquer North Burma and re-establish the land route to China by the Ledo Road.
As the commander of the Army Training Command and deputy commander of the Republic of China Army in 1947, Sun moved one training facility to Taiwan, independent from the on-going civil war. Sun trained new officers and troops for the Nationalist government, hoping to change the tide of the civil war. The effort was too little too late in comparison with the massive numbers of troops defeated, but one of the division trained (201 Division of the 80th Army) was sent to Quemoy to help defend the communist invasion in 1949. It was the front line defense force against the invasion of the communist troops. Later in 1950, Sun was named the Commander in Chief of the Republic of China Army, while also the commander of the Taiwan Defense Command, and the Army Training Command. Because Sun was well respected by the Americans and rumors had it that the Americans would like to help him into power to replace Chiang Kai-Shek, Chiang and his son Chiang Ching-kuo were eager to remove him from power. Sun was assigned first as the ceremonial chief military adviser to President Chiang Kai-Shek in June 1954, preventing him from directly controlling any troops.
In 1950, Chiang Ching-kuo became director of the secret police, which he remained until 1965. Chiang Ching-kuo, educated in the Soviet Union, initiated Soviet style military organization in the Republic of China Military, reorganizing and Sovietizing the political officer corps, surveillance, and Kuomintang party activities were propagated throughout the military. Opposed to this was Sun Li-jen, who was educated at the American Virginia Military Institute. Chiang orchestrated the controversial court-martial and arrest of General Sun Li-jen in August 1955, allegedly for plotting a coup d’état with the American CIA against his father Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. The CIA allegedly wanted to help Sun take control of Taiwan and declare its independence. He remained under house arrest until exonerated March 20, 1988, shortly after Chiang Ching-kuo’s death. He died in his Taichung home at the age of 89 (91 according to the Chinese calendar). His funeral was in full military honor with the presence of the Secretary of Defense. His reputation was cleared in 2001 after a government investigation into the coup attempt. In January 2011, President Ma Ying-jeou formally apologized to Sun Li-jen’s family and Sun’s house in Taichung was opened as a memorial hall and museum. General Sun is survived by his two sons Sun Tien-ping (孫天平) and Sun An-ping （孫安平）, daughters Sun Chung-ping (孫中平)and Sun Tai-ping (孫太平), and sister Sun Pi-jen (孫璧人).