|Chinese Warlord troops|
Although the warlord era in China officially lasted only a decade, its roots went back to the late Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty, and it persisted after 1927. A warlord, junfa (chun-fa) in Chinese, was a military leader with a personal army ruling autonomously over a region.
Warlords were a diverse group; some were well educated, while others were not, for example, Zhang Zolin (Chang Tsolin), who began as a bandit, and Feng Yuxiang (Feng Yu-hsiang), who enlisted as an illiterate boy. Some harbored national ambitions, while others were content to be "local emperors."
However, all warlords shared certain important characteristics: a personal army with close ties between the important officers; secure control over a territory and its revenues, which provided for independence; and alliances with other warlords to provide security or secure a balance of power.
Personal armies or militias can be traced to the mid-19th century, when large-scale rebellions raged and the Banner and Green Standard Armies of the Qing government proved inadequate. Stalwart defenders of the dynasty such as Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuo-fan) met the crisis by raising personal armies in their home provinces that defeated the rebels and restored order.
After its resounding defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), the Qing government commissioned a rising star, Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-k'ai), to train a New Army, also called the Beiyang (Pei-yang) Army.
The loyalty of this army to Yuan enabled him to secure the abdication of the Qing dynasty in 1912 and to force Sun Yat-sen, the father of the revolution, to concede to Yuan the presidency of the new Republic of China.
|The Beiyang Army in training|
This army retained its cohesiveness under Yuan but split apart after his death in 1916. Two factions emerged among Yuan's subordinates, the Chihli Clique under Feng Guozhang (Feng Kuo-chang) and the Anhui Clique under Duan Qirui (Tuan Chi-jui).
Another powerful warlord clique was headed by Zhang Zolin of Manchuria. Other lesser warlord groups included those headed by Yen Xishan (Yen Hsi-shan) of Shanxi (Shansi) province, Feng Yuxiang of the Northwestern Provinces, and an uncle and nephew duo surnamed Liu who controlled Sichuan (Szechuan) province.
There were literally hundreds of wars fought singly and in coalition among the warlords, ranging from local to national in scale. While most warlords accepted the ultimate reunification of China as inevitable, each wanted to enjoy and expand his power during the interim, form coalitions to postpone the eventual unification, and perhaps emerge finally as the unifier.
Thus, they formed alliances, usually unstable, and sought foreign loans and sometimes protection for which they were willing to sell out Chinese interests. The central government in Beijing (Peking) was unstable and powerless during this era: seven men served as head of state who were either the dominant warlord who controlled the capital region at the time or their proxies. The constitution of the early republic and the parliament became the toys of the clique in power.
The warlord era brought extreme chaos to China. Military men replaced civilian officials, and fixed taxation was replaced by forced levies to satisfy the neverending demands for revenue.
|A glimpse at some of te key warlords and protagonists in that era.|
Paradoxically, this bitter period in Chinese history provided for the intellectual diversity and experimentation that led to the intellectual revolution, the revitalization of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, and the formation of the Chinese Communist Party. The era ended with the triumph of the Northern Expedition led by Chiang Kai-shek of the Kuomintang in 1928.