Originally a revolutionary league working for the overthrow of the Chinese monarchy, the Nationalists became a political party in the first year of the Chinese republic (1912). The party participated in the first Chinese parliament, which was soon dissolved by a coup d’état (1913). This defeat moved its leader, Sun Yat-sen, to organize it more tightly, first (1914) on the model of a Chinese secret society and, later (1923–24), under Soviet guidance, on that of the Bolshevik party. The Nationalist Party owed its early successes largely to Soviet aid and advice and to close collaboration with the Chinese communists (1924–27).
After Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925, leadership of the party passed gradually to Chiang Kai-shek, who brought most of China under its control by ending or limiting regional warlord autonomy (1926–28). Nationalist rule, inseparable from Chiang’s, became increasingly conservative and dictatorial but never totalitarian. The party program rested on Sun’s Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood. Nationalism demanded that China regain equality with other countries, but the Nationalists’ resistance to the Japanese invasion of China (1931–45) was less rigorous than their determined attempts to suppress the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The realization of democracy through successive constitutions (1936, 1946) was also largely a myth. Equally ineffective were attempts to improve the people’s livelihood or eliminate corruption. The Nationalist Party’s failure to effect such changes itself derived partly from weaknesses in leadership and partly from its unwillingness to radically reform China’s age-old feudal social structure.
After the defeat of Japan in 1945, civil war with the communists was renewed with greater vigour. In 1949–50, following the victories of the Chinese communists on the mainland, a stream of Nationalist troops, government officials, and other refugees estimated at some two million persons, led by Chiang, poured into Taiwan; a branch of the Nationalist Party that was opposed to Chiang’s policies and aligned itself with the CCP still exists on the mainland. Taiwan became the effective territory, apart from a number of small islands off the mainland China coast, of the Republic of China (ROC). The Nationalists for many years constituted the only real political force, holding virtually all legislative, executive, and judicial posts. The first legal opposition to the Nationalist Party came in 1989, when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP; established 1986) won one-fifth of the seats in the Legislative Yuan.