Here’s a romantic footnote you might have missed in your China history lessons. Did you know that Countess Edda Ciano, Mussolini’s daughter, had an affair with Zhang Xueliang? He’s the warlord who helped unite China against Japanese forces after his bold kidnapping of Chiang Kaishek in Xi’an in 1936 (aka the “Xi’an Incident”).
Zhang Xueliang, a onetime warlord who in two turbulent weeks in 1936 helped turn the course of Chinese history — and then spent the next 55 years under house arrest, gradually and reluctantly becoming a national hero — died on Sunday in Honolulu, where he had been living in recent years. He was 100.
…His Northeastern Border Defense Army grew to 400,000 men, and in 1930 he was named deputy commander in chief of the Chinese armed forces. But he was distracted from military affairs by an active social life, including a dalliance with Countess Edda Ciano, daughter of Mussolini and wife of the Italian minister to China.
Here’s a more intimate look into their relationship from the book Zhang Xueliang: The General Who Never Fought:
Zhang and Edda Ciano first met in Beijing at a dinner for the League of Nations delegation headed by Lord Lytton. The delegation was there to investigate the roots of the Manchurian Incident and its developments. According to her testimony, Edda sat across from Zhang at the table and at the end of the evening he passed her a note inviting her to join him for a tour of the Imperial Summer Palace the next day, which she gladly accepted. The following day they spent a number of hours at the palace, with Zhang serving as Edda’s guide and giving her all his attention, while almost completely ignoring the other members of her entourage, including high-level personalities. The attention of the strongest man in China and ruler of its northern provinces, the daughter of the Italian dictator noted years later, ‘flattered my ego’. This indicated how Zhang had maintained his position in the kingdom, even at his lowest point after his defeat by the Japanese.
During the month following that tour of the Summer Palace, the friendship between the two deepened…. Edda managed to convince Zhang to purchase three Italian-made aircraft for the Chinese Air Force. The close relationship between the Italian and Chinese air forces, which developed during the 1930s, can be attributed to the personal friendship between Zhang and Edda. Years later, Zhang testified that Edda wrote many letters to him over a long period of time, but at some point asked him to return them to her. When he was asked if they were love letters, he refused to reply.
The two met frequently in Shanghai during Zhang’s drug rehabilitation process. [NOTE: Zhang was addicted to opium for a time.] One evening, Zhang held a festive dinner at his magnificent villa in honor of Edda and her husband ahead of their return to Italy, even though he and his entourage were about to sail on the same ship with their guests.
According to the book Mao: The Real Story, there’s a fascinating political backdrop to the love affair between Zhang and Edda:
The naive marshal, who was sympathetic toward the fascists, invested particular hope in Il Duce, believing that only an ironlike totalitarian dictatorship like Mussolini’s could rescue China from the crisis. He also counted on help from the Duce’s daughter, Edda, the wife of the Italian consul general in Shanghai and future Italian minister of foreign affairs, Count Ciano. Zhang was a ladies’ man. Good-looking, youthful and dark-haired with a bristling mustache, he adored nightclubs and cabarets, was a splendid dancer, and courted women elegantly. The passionate Italian lady could not resist the handsome marshal, whose personal fortune, incidentally, amounted to some $50 million. It is hard to blame her, particularly since Count Ciano slighted her and preferred to linger in Shanghai’s bars and houses of prostitution. Edda’s romance with Zhang Xueliang continued for only a short time. In 1932 Edda and her husband returned to Rome.
A suave China warlord (who eventually makes history) romances the daughter of Italy’s infamous fascist dictator during the 1930s. Wouldn’t this make for an incredible movie? If it ever hits the big screen, I’ll be there.