GUANGZHOU, China — It was 1926, not long after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and much of China had been divided among warlords. In the south, leaders of the young Kuomintang political party mustered an army. At its head rode Chiang Kai-shek, who called to his side officers he had helped train, and together they marched north to take down the warlords, one by one.
The Northern Expedition was one of the first major tests for graduates of the Whampoa Military Academy, founded just two years earlier on sleepy Changzhou Island, about 10 miles east of central Guangzhou, then known to the West as Canton. Mr. Chiang was its academy’s first commandant, appointed by Sun Yat-sen, the idealistic firebrand who had established the academy to build an army that would unite China.
The academy, now a collection of two-story white buildings near an active naval yard, stands as one of the most potent symbols of the nationalist movement led by Mr. Sun, which has strong contemporary echoes in Xi Jinping’s rallying cry to his fellow Chinese after taking over in November as general secretary of the Communist Party.
Mr. Xi has spoken of a “great revival of the Chinese nation,” apparently to be accomplished through further opening the economy, tackling official corruption and building up the military. Earlier this month, on his first trip outside Beijing, Mr. Xi traveled to several cities here in Guangdong Province; the tour included visits with senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army and a photo opportunity on a naval destroyer. Though he did not visit the Whampoa academy, the message Mr. Xi was telegraphing was the same one Mr. Sun had relayed a century ago.
“When Sun Yat-sen founded the Whampoa Academy, his goal was to unite China and to revive China as a nation, which is exactly the same mission that Secretary Xi is on,” said Zeng Qingliu, a historian with the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences who wrote a television script for a drama series on Whampoa. “Under that goal and that mission, Chinese people from all over the world and across the country were attracted to Whampoa.”
In fits and starts since the Mao Zedong era, the Communists and the Kuomintang, who decamped to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949, have been engaging in rapprochement. The Whampoa academy represents an era when the two sides cooperated for a greater good, and recent history exhibitions organized by a museum on the site of the academy portray the Kuomintang in a relatively conciliatory light. That too has resonance with Mr. Xi’s clarion call, which is meant to inspire all Chinese outside the mainland, including those in Taiwan, to take part in the Communist-led project of reviving the motherland.
The first class at Whampoa had 600 students, 100 Communists among them, Mr. Zeng said. Prominent Russian advisers worked at the school. Zhou Enlai was the political director, and other famous Communists held posts or trained there. But the school was never under the party’s control.
The Kuomintang moved it to the city of Nanjing in 1927, after a split between the Kuomintang and Communists, and then to Chengdu in western China after the Japanese occupied Nanjing. After the Kuomintang occupied Taiwan, they established a military academy that they called the successor to Whampoa. But when historians speak of Whampoa, they mean the original incarnation of the school, before it moved from Guangzhou, Mr. Zeng said.
Japanese bombs decimated the campus in 1938; it was not rebuilt until after 1984, when plans were made to establish a museum. The white buildings interlaced with thick wooden beams are recreations of the originals. A statue of Mr. Sun overlooks the site from a hill. Military enthusiasts, history buffs and other tourists reach the museum by a ten-minute ferry ride from a quiet pier on the east side of Guangzhou.
On a recent afternoon, a young woman guided a handful of soldiers. They walked along a balcony on the second floor and peered into recreated rooms, including a dormitory with dozens of simple beds on wooden floorboards, a dining room and the office of Mr. Sun.
Outside the main gate, not far from a black wall inscribed with names of fallen soldiers, tour groups posed for photographs. Then they walked slowly through the gallery rooms to gaze at the black-and-white photos and portrait paintings that showed, from a party-approved perspective, the history of China’s 20th-century wars.
This year, there was a special exhibition on Chinese soldiers who had fought the Japanese in southwest China, along the Burma Road. The exhibition included photographs of Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, the American aviator who led the “Flying Tigers” unit in that theater. One showed him with Mr. Chiang.
Depictions of Mr. Chiang and senior Kuomintang cohorts seemed to draw the most attention, especially from visitors who had spent decades listening to the Communists demonize them. Texts praised Mr. Chiang for leading the Northern Expedition and the earlier Eastern Expedition, which in 1925 wrested territory from warlords in Guangdong.
“In my time, the Communists called him Bandit Chiang,” said Yook Kearn Wong, 80, a former Communist soldier visiting from the United States (and a relative of this reporter). “Now he’s known as Mr. Chiang.”
Mr. Wong and two high school classmates from Guangzhou who were touring the museum pointed at various figures in the photos.
“There are even portraits of officers who fought the Communists,” said Chen Guorong. “We’ve read about all this on the Internet and watched documentaries online. Before, we didn’t know our history. Now it’s slowly returning.”
The third man, Zhou Jianhui, nodded. “The Communists never revealed the true history of the Kuomintang,” he said.
The museum took the unusual step this year of organizing an exhibition of 240 historic photographs that traveled to two cities in Taiwan in early December, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency. More than 100 Whampoa alumni attended the opening in Kaohsiung on Dec. 1, Xinhua reported; it added that there are more than 200 living alumni in mainland China and Taiwan.
“The photos really bring history to life, and what glorious history it was,” said Liu Ding-Pang, 55, a graduate of the Kaohsiung academy descended from Whampoa. But Mr. Liu, who viewed the exhibition in Taiwan, added that he did not see as many images of famous Kuomintang graduates of Whampoa as he had expected. “I wish the mainland would have a more open attitude towards history,” he said.
An agency under the Chinese Ministry of Culture and an alumni club on the mainland helped organize the exhibition. Lin Shangyuan, 88, chairman of the Whampoa Alumni Association, a national umbrella group, said the aim of the regional alumni clubs is to “keep the Whampoa spirit alive.” Sounding a bit like Mr. Xi and other party leaders today, Mr. Lin said those like him who attended Whampoa had the “same goal, the same dream, the same belief, which is to make the Chinese nation an independent, democratic and prosperous one.”