Homer Lea’s dreams of military glory led him to a starring role in the Chinese revolution
AS THE 19TH CENTURY NEARED AN END, THE POLITICAL SITUATION IN CHINA was deteriorating by the day. The Qing Dynasty, which had ruled China since the mid-17th century, was in rapid decline, burdened by systemic corruption and a growing inability to effectively govern its people. China’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) only added to the country’s suffering. For decades the two nations had argued over de facto control of Korea. Pro- and anti-Japanese factions in Korea had various violent clashes, and China intervened frequently, ultimately sending 2,500 troops into the country. Japan responded by landing 8,000 troops at Inchon and seizing the capital city of Seoul.
Full-scale war between China and Japan erupted on August 1, 1894, and the newly modernized Japanese forces won a virtually unbroken series of land and sea battles in Korea and Manchuria, massacring thousands of unarmed Chinese civilians at Port Arthur on November 21. The ensuing Treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895 ended all Chinese influence in Korea and gave Japan near-complete domination of the war-torn country.
Alarmed by Japan’s massive gains, Germany, Russia, and France forced the island kingdom to relinquish control of Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula in southeastern Manchuria. Russia took over control of the strategic peninsula and Chinese ports on the Yellow Sea, which in turn brought Great Britain into China to watch the Russians. Britain’s presence led to renewed unrest throughout China. It became increasingly clear that Guangxu, the 26-year-old Manchu emperor, would have to embrace reform and modernization (like Japan) or face ruin.
The man best suited to advise the emperor about such reforms was the brilliant scholar Kang Youwei. Dubbed the “Martin Luther of Confucianism,” Kang had a bold vision for a modern China and a natural ability to lead. “I believed that I alone could remake the world,” he would later write. “A man of great virtue can inspire other men.” Aiming to recast China as a constitutional monarchy, Kang convinced the emperor to initiate the “Hundred Days’ Reform”—a series of ambitious programs designed to modernize China’s military, upgrade its educational system, introduce railroads, encourage mining, and generally embrace a more open relationship with the West.
The aging and conservative Empress Dowager Cixi, however, vehemently opposed reforms of any kind. Having originally stepped aside to let her nephew rule, she had staged a coup in 1898, placed the emperor under house arrest, executed six of his top advisers, and put a hefty bounty on Kang’s head. Forced to flee into exile to avoid the fearsome “death by a thousand cuts,” the traditional punishment for high crimes in China, Kang contemplated the countless Chinese who had emigrated throughout the world. He dreamed of assembling “10 million soldiers in one great army”—a force that could stage a successful revolution, oust the dowager regent, and restore Guangxu to the throne.
To further that dream, Kang envisioned a network of military academies across North America, where Chinese volunteers could be trained for military service—long one of Kang’s prime objectives. “Today,” he wrote, “we should glorify and esteem valor, strengthen ourselves and deem militarism as our creed.” He saw China’s lack of a modern army and navy as a major cause of its recent defeat by Japan. Despite its hundreds of millions of people, Kang observed, China had only one military academy, with an enrollment of just 100 students. “One must have an army to be civilized,” Kang wrote. “Without an army, one is a barbarian and a slave.” Kang favored universal conscription to strengthen China’s military.
But Kang had more in mind for his struggling homeland than simply shoring up its military: He proposed to introduce China to the 20th century. Having traveled the world for years, he recognized the need to bring China into the modern age by exposing its citizens to Western science and industry, or as he put it, “material civilization.” Kang had the vision. All he needed now was a leader.
HOMER LEA HARDLY SEEMED CUT OUT TO BE A LEADER. At 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, Lea was afflicted with poor health, bad eyesight, and a bent frame. Born in Denver in 1876, Lea had been dropped on his head as a newborn and suffered irreversible spine and brain injuries that left him with chronic headaches and impaired vision. He also suffered from Bright’s disease, a degenerative kidney ailment. For Lea, every day was a painful struggle.
Yet Lea plunged fearlessly into life, partly thanks to his outsize ego. He hoped to attend Harvard University, but financial reverses made Occidental College in Los Angeles, where his family had relocated, the best choice. He went on to spend two years at Stanford University in Palo Alto but for health reasons had to leave before he graduated. Lea continued to read widely, however, especially works on military history. He idolized Napoleon, in part because of the French emperor’s reputedly small stature. (Claims that Lea attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are false; his physical condition would have disqualified him immediately.)
Through the Reverend Ng Poon Chew, a Chinese missionary and friend of his parents, Lea nurtured a growing interest in Chinese affairs. He saw in the giant country’s ongoing troubles a direct path to fulfilling his dreams of military glory. Lea familiarized himself with the situation in China and sympathized with the exiled emperor. He also learned some Cantonese and practiced speaking it with several Chinese in the Los Angeles area, including cooks and housekeepers working at Occidental. Despite a serious riding accident and a near-fatal bout of smallpox, he remained committed to restoring the emperor to his throne. Lea, of course, would be the power behind that throne.
Touting his military heritage (his paternal grandfather had been killed fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War), Lea made contact with leaders of the U.S. branch of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, a newly organized society dedicated to pursuing Kang Youwei’s vision of a modernized China. Lea, falsely claiming to be related to General Robert E. Lee, managed to convince them that he was an American Lafayette and Napoleon combined. “[Lea] is really a talented and rare person,” one of them wrote in a letter to the leader of a CERA chapter in Japan. “[He] not only understands military matters but has a mind to help us.” Lea promised to recruit American soldiers to help train Chinese volunteers.
At the same time, Lea confided to incredulous friends his intention of becoming a general in the Chinese revolution. “Wherever there is fighting,” he said, “there are opportunities for leadership.” Marco Newmark, one of Lea’s boyhood friends, later recalled that Lea was inspired by Lord Byron’s military adventures in Greece. “Lea believed that all great careers had been carved out by the sword and thought that somehow he would carve out such a career for himself,” Newmark wrote. When another friend warned Lea that he risked getting his head cut off, Lea wryly responded, “Fortunately, they’ll have a hard time finding my neck.”
IN 1900 A NEW REVOLT CONVULSED CHINA, ONE FOMENTED, OR AT LEAST SUPPORTED, by the empress dowager to divert attention from her misrule. Aided by a radical secret organization that branded itself the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, the empress set out to rid China of all foreigners. In the uprising, the Boxers, as the group came to be known, killed hundreds of European, American, and Japanese businessmen and missionaries. Chinese Christians in particular bore the brunt of the Boxers’ wrath; at least 20,000 were massacred for their newfound religious beliefs. Survivors fled to Beijing to seek protection inside the Western legations’ walled compound.
Lea made plans to rush to the war-torn country. Before leaving, he was feted at a banquet in San Francisco, where he unveiled his “secret strategy” for victory. Not surprisingly, his plans found their way into a local newspaper under the headline “Young Californian Is Plotting to Become Commander-in-Chief of Chinese Rebel Forces.” So much for secrecy.
Undeterred, Lea embarked for China on June 22, 1900, carrying with him $60,000 in cash that CERA had raised for the cause. He arrived in Hong Kong in late July and immediately traveled to Canton, where he met with Kang Youwei, who was organizing a new revolt in southern China. Kang had only known of Lea by name, but his first sight of the young American left him understandably skeptical. “Why have you come?” Kang asked.
“I have come to help you save China from the old tigress,” Lea replied.
“You are too young for that,” Kang told Lea.
“I am the same age as Napoleon was at Rivoli,” Lea replied.
Softened perhaps by the arrival of the cash, Kang indulged Lea, appointing him a provisional lieutenant general in the Chinese army and presenting him with the Star of the Order of the Emperor as a sign of his authority.
Other leaders did not embrace Kang’s acceptance of the young American firebrand. They had serious reservations about entrusting their forces to a self-promoting 23-year-old foreigner with no formal military experience. Perhaps as a test, they assigned Lea the minor task of enlisting and training volunteers. Lea failed miserably, having neither a workable command of the Chinese language nor a deep understanding of Chinese culture. Nonetheless, he retained Kang’s support—an American connection, however unimpressive, was worth something to Kang—and Lea was given a formal general’s commission and began marching his poorly trained men toward Beijing.
Meanwhile, another Chinese revolutionary was marshaling forces in southern China for his own attempt to unseat the dowager empress. Originally a nonviolent reformer, western-educated Sun Yat-sen had turned to revolution after more peaceful avenues of change had failed. Whereas Kang’s plan was to restore and transform the emperor’s constitutional monarchy, Sun’s goal was to establish a Chinese republic. Although Lea encouraged Kang to join forces with Sun, the two revolutionaries continued to pursue their own separate agendas.
Lea arrived in Beijing with his ragtag troops in time to witness the relief of the Legation Quarter on August 14 by an eight-nation coalition of U.S., European, and Japanese forces after a 55-day siege by the Boxers. Nearly 4,000 foreign soldiers and Chinese Christians had taken refuge in the two-square-mile area set aside for foreign legations, banks, and businesses. The combined Western and Japanese forces, including a 3,400-man U.S. Army contingent led by Lieutenant General Adna R. Chaffee, rushed to China to rescue their soldiers and diplomats (and incidentally the Chinese Christians sheltering with them). The overwhelming force easily broke the siege and scattered the Boxers and the empress dowager, who fled Beijing the next day.
Lea mounted a swift pursuit of Cixi, hoping to link up with Kang’s troops at Hankow, where the main imperial force was still holding out against the rebels. But one of Kang’s subordinate commanders, in a masterpiece of miscommunication, prematurely launched an attack on the imperial forces, and the uprising failed before it had really begun. When Lea reached Hankow, he found the heads of rebel leaders mounted on wooden poles on the city’s walls.
The separate revolt staged by Sun Yat-sen flickered and died as well. The two charismatic leaders fled China to conduct their respective movements from foreign shores. The international forces allowed the empress dowager to return to Beijing and resume her rule, sans the Boxers, many of whom were rounded up and executed in their failed bid to rid China of foreign influence.
Lea suddenly found himself a general without an army. Disguising himself as a French missionary, he escaped to Hong Kong with a $10,000 price on his head. He spent the next three months in Japan meeting with two former Japanese prime ministers, one of whom was the founder of the modern Japanese army, and developing a worldview that he soon would find helpful in his ongoing efforts to aid China’s reformers.
IN EARLY 1901, LEA RETURNED TO CALIFORNIA, MORE DETERMINED THAN EVER TO ACT effectively on Kang’s behalf. Local newspapers couldn’t get enough of the quixotic young American soldier of fortune, and Lea became an instant celebrity. He played the part for all it was worth, posing for photos in Chinese robes or in his crimson general’s uniform and cradling a dragon-hilted sword that he claimed to have taken from an enemy in battle. A gifted writer, he penned an article for a San Francisco newspaper titled “How I Was Made a General in the Chinese Army.” He spent the next two years touring and giving speeches, general’s baton in hand.
In late 1903, Kang and his advisers pressed ahead with plans to create a network of military centers in the United States to train volunteer soldiers drawn from the country’s enormous pool of Chinese immigrants. Tom Leung, a founder of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, set out to implement Kang’s military training plan. He contacted Lea, whom he had known for years, and the two worked together to establish the first of several training centers collectively known as the Western Military Academy. With funding from CERA, they opened chapters in Los Angeles and San Francisco and hired several U.S. Army veterans as instructors, including Ansel O’Banion, who had fought in the Philippine-American War.
With O’Banion’s help, Lea worked hard to organize and discipline the new recruits. He wrote an extensive set of rules for the cadets (“Special Report Transcribing and Translating the Draft Military Regulations and Announcements of Head Instructor General Lea”). The document, containing a set of 25 behavioral guidelines, was distributed to all the chapters in the country. In it, Lea demanded that the students maintain “dignity in appearance, a stern bearing, head held high and body straight” at all times, on duty or off. His introduction to the manual included the warning: “Instructors and students who do not follow the following specified regulations will be expelled immediately.” O’Banion stringently enforced the regulations.
Lea advised the cadets—mainly working-class laborers, laundrymen, and restaurant employees—to wear their uniforms and carry their weapons only when drilling or on parade. Initially, the cadets’ uniforms were standard U.S. Army issue, made distinctive by special-order gilt dragon buttons on the caps and jackets. In time, however, each chapter was allowed to design its own uniforms and select its own weapons. Cadets paid dues of 50 cents a month.
Wearing his own custom general’s uniform and carrying his fancy ceremonial sword, Lea spoke frequently with reporters, taking sole credit for creating the academy and touting his efforts to create a legitimate fighting force that he ambitiously dubbed the Chinese Reform Army. The cadets engaged in drilling and target practice two or three times a week and soon grew adept at both. And while some units drilled in private—the New York chapter, for instance, met inside the city’s armory—many trained in plain view of their communities.
Surprisingly, the initial reaction on the part of Americans was fairly positive. After the opening of the Chicago branch, the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune reported, “Rapid progress is being made by the Chinese Empire Reform Association in the organization of its new academy for the instruction of their countrymen in modern affairs.” A number of chapters marched in local parades, wearing their American-style uniforms and carrying their rifles. On January 2, 1905, through Lea’s machinations, the cadets of the Los Angeles academy were invited to march in Pasadena’s prestigious Tournament of Roses parade. Some observers, mistaking the cadets for Japanese, shouted, “Banzai!”
A few months later, the citizens of Butte were stunned to see a company of 30 armed Chinese men drilling on a Mercury Street rooftop, each wearing a U.S. Army surplus yellow canvas blouse, canvas leggings, and white campaign hat, banded in gold braid and set off with a crossed-arms company medallion. Every man carried a Mauser rifle and a sheathed bayonet. The Butte Daily Post described them as “wheeling and counter-marching with the precision of seasoned veterans.”
Communities across the nation soon grew accustomed to groups of armed and uniformed Chinese in their midst. Newspapers that previously had trumpeted blatantly racist editorials began treating the Chinese with a measure of respect. A full-page story in the April 30, 1905, edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, accompanied by a large photograph of dozens of armed and somber-looking cadets, reflected the change in perspective: “Chinese soldiers, now being drilled in America and armed and equipped with the latest American methods, trained to be quick, alert and courageous will undoubtedly prove an important factor in the reorganization and reformation of China and the freeing of its people from the grasp of a tyrannical government that now holds them tightly in the superstitions that were old five centuries ago.”
Kang, who was certainly aware that his countrymen had not always been welcomed warmly in the United States, visited Butte when he toured the country in 1905. Montana’s leading newspaper, the Anaconda Standard, reported the event in straightforward, objective prose, describing Kang as “one of the greatest scholars the [Chinese] Empire has ever known” and praising the reform movement he and “other influential and intelligent Chinamen have been nursing.”
BUT JUST AS AMERICAN NEWSPAPERS WERE FAVORABLY COVERING THE CADETS’ MARCHING AND DRILLING SKILLS, a shameless interloper suddenly appeared on the scene. Like Homer Lea before him, Richard A. Falkenberg portrayed himself as a military genius. Described politely by one historian as “a man of some evident psychological difficulties,” Falkenberg had a long history of fabricating astounding military accomplishments. Born in Louisiana, he professed to have served in the Prussian military, scouted for the U.S. Army, fought and been grievously wounded in Canada’s violent North-West Rebellion of 1885, and—the most grandiose claim of all—been the sole white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Officials at the War Department in Washington, D.C., considered Falkenberg a crank and dismissed his claims out of hand. Yet through his gifts of self-promotion and persuasion he had nonetheless ingratiated himself to the leaders of the Chinese Empire Reform Association. In exchange for a general’s commission, the con artist promised to donate $10 million from his bogus oil company, Standard Rock Oil, to the cause. CERA cofounder Liang Chi-Chao fell for the scam, naming Falkenberg a general in CERA’s reform army. But after Kang’s revolution in China failed, Falkenberg suddenly grew disinterested in the Chinese cause.
When the Western Military Academy began to thrive, Falkenberg saw another opportunity for advancement. In a blatant attempt to wrest control of the academy from Lea, Falkenberg proclaimed, through a reporter, “I am supreme in my authority over all the troops of the Chinese Imperial Reform Army.” Lea, undeterred, continued to take sole credit for creating, financing, and directing what he referred to as his army. The conflict between the two men became increasingly public. Kang, still touring the United States, declared Falkenberg a fraud. “I have appointed no one such as ‘General Commanding’ or any officer of the so-called Chinese Imperial Reform Army, which is not in existence,” he said, “and any person claiming such rank or position is considered an imposter.”
Despite Kang’s disavowal, the Lea-Falkenberg controversy continued to draw unwanted attention from the news media. Surprisingly, the San Francisco Chronicle took aim at Lea: “He has caused the Government of the United States to sit up and take notice of the fact that illegally armed bodies of foreigners are organizing and drilling for the purpose of engaging in a rebellion against the lawfully constituted authority of a power with which the United States is on terms of peace and amity.”
Other newspapers highlighted the rift. Under a headline inaccurately blaring, “15,000 Armed Chinese in the United States Preparing on American Soil for War of Conquest,” the June 25, 1905, edition of the Los Angeles Herald warned, “An organization of Chinese has for its purpose the overthrow of the present Chinese government, the breaking up of the exclusion laws of the United States and the evasion of other questions of vast importance to the world at large.”
It was only a matter of time before state and federal government officials began launching inquiries into the academy’s programs. The situation grew so dire that Lea and Kang made a special trip to Washington to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt. The two men admitted that the cadets were receiving military training, but Kang convinced Roosevelt that the exercises were essentially benign, and the president had his attorney general call off further investigations. Lea, ever an opportunist, then sought the president’s approval to become trade representative to China, but Roosevelt demurred. (Lea would later try—and fail—to convince Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, to appoint him U.S. Minister to China.)
Despite the fruitful meeting with Roosevelt, relations between Kang and Lea grew increasingly distant, exacerbated by Kang’s suspicious diversion of hundreds of thousands of dollars to a private bank account in Mexico. To preempt further investigations, Kang discontinued the training of cadets and relieved Lea of command on November 30, 1905, declaring that the “military schools are no longer in existence [and] your office as chief of such military schools in the United States is abolished.” The ambitious program that had trained and educated thousands of Chinese cadets was over.
The fickle American press once again subjected the Chinese to ridicule. An article in the Spokane Chronicle announced sarcastically: “For sale cheap. Pretty uniforms. Apply to Chinese reform army. Too bad. Another beautiful air castle has gone to smash. Kang Yu Wei’s mighty reform army has vanished—and the dowager empress is still the boss of the land of pigtails and flowers.”
WITH THE DEMISE OF THE WESTERN MILITARY ACADEMY, ALL EFFORTS TO REPLACE EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI with Guangxu came to an end. In 1908, the emperor suddenly and mysteriously died, probably of arsenic poisoning, followed a day or two later by the empress herself. (Many historians suspect that the empress dowager, knowing that she was dying, wanted to forestall any possibility of renewed reforms by the emperor.) Puyi, a two-year-old nephew of the dead emperor, was chosen as successor, with yet another empress dowager ruling as his regent.
For Sun Yat-sen, the timing could not have been better; support for his republican movement blossomed, while Kang’s insistence on a constitutional monarchy found fewer and fewer adherents. The ubiquitous Lea, having severed his ties with CERA, raised money for Sun Yat-sen’s revolution and hosted him in Los Angeles when he visited the United States in late 1909. Sun Yat-sen responded by appointing Lea his acting chief military adviser.
While the situation in China continued to simmer, Lea filled his time writing. In 1908, he published a well-received novel, The Vermilion Pencil, which was loosely based on his earlier experiences in China. The next year Lea published The Valor of Ignorance, a visionary work of geopolitical prophecy in which he predicted that the empire of Japan would one day launch a surprise attack on an unprepared United States. Lea went on to name the location of the sneak attack: the new U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Although most Americans ignored the work, it sold briskly in Britain, Germany, and Japan, where it became compulsory reading for military cadets and sold 84,000 copies in one month.
One of the greatest devotees of The Valor of Ignorance was an exiled Russian agitator named Vladimir Lenin, who kept the book on his desk in Zurich. Lenin went so far as to say that Lea “understood more about world politics than all the cabinet ministers now in office.” Other interested readers included Lord Frederick Roberts, the British field marshal and chief of the imperial general staff, and American generals Adna R. Chaffee (who had led the relief force at Beijing in 1901) and Douglas MacArthur, who as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point tried unsuccessfully to make the book compulsory reading for his cadets as well.
In October 1911, after a near-bloodless revolution, Sun Yat-sen became president-in-waiting of the newly minted Republic of China. Lea, disregarding dire warnings from his physicians that a lengthy journey would endanger his life, rushed to China at Sun’s side. During their 30-day sea voyage to Shanghai, Lea completed his third book, The Day of the Saxon, which repeated his prophecy of an American-Japanese war and extended his warnings to include the territorial ambitions of Germany and Russia. The book, which gloomily predicted the end of Great Britain and the death of Anglo-Saxon democracy, sold poorly and was largely ignored. One of its few purchasers, however, was German theorist Karl Haushofer, who later collaborated with a minor Austrian politician and street thug named Adolf Hitler on Hitler’s prison manifesto Mein Kampf, a virtual reiteration of Lea’s earlier predictions.
Arriving in Nanking in January 1912, Lea was the only white person to attend Sun Yat-sen’s installation as president. He looked forward to working closely with the new leader of China. But a month later, as Sun’s precarious hold on the nation was beginning to slip away, Lea suffered a near-fatal stroke that left him partially paralyzed and blind. He returned to California in hopes of regaining his health but died of a second stroke a few months later. He was 36 years old. Sun Yat-sen paid tribute to his friend’s passing, writing in the China Press: “Mr. Lea was physically deformed but he possessed a wonderful brain. Although not a military man, he was a great military philosopher. He was a thoroughly sincere man and devoted his whole energy to the Chinese Revolution.”
An article in his hometown Los Angeles Times put Lea’s rise from his luckless beginnings to international fame in fittingly mythic terms: “The story of his remarkable career sounds like a fairy tale. Were such things put into a novel, critics would tear it to pieces on the grounds of its absurd improbability.” MHQ
Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader (Atria Books, 2006).
This article appears in the Autumn 2019 issue (Vol. 32, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Soldier of Misfortune
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