Chinese Warlordism

views updated


The term junfa became part of the Chinese vocabulary in the 1910s and gained popularity in the 1920s to describe the phenomenon of militarism that dominated the Chinese political scene between 1916 and 1928. While both characters, jun (military) and fa (as in menfa, prominent lineage), are ancient Chinese words, it was in Japan that fa as a suffix was paired with other words to mean "a clique of" or "a faction of." Zaibatsu, for example, means financial combines (caifa in Chinese); and gunbatsu, meaning military clique, helped the Chinese define the emerging situation of militarism in China.

Before junfa, there were other Chinese terms to refer to individual military governors. Zongdu viceroy, for examplewas used in the Qing text. In the early twentieth century, the character du, "to supervise," appeared in such compounds as dudu, dujun, and duban all referring to a military governor.

Junfa, or its English equivalents warlords and warlordism, when used in the context of Chinese polity and society during the first part of the twentieth century, are pejorative expressions, evoking brutality, chaos, and the plundering of the civilian population. The warlord era was marked by constant warfare, thrusting China into perpetual economic and political instability. Typically, modern warlordism in China applies to the years between 1916 and 1928, but its impact and legacy, with its residual influence, lasted well into the 1940s. Official history in Beijing and Taipei denounces warlords and characterizes the era as reactionary to China's endeavor toward national unity and progress. Both Chinese and English scholarship describe the warlords as regional militarists, possessing personal armies that they constantly strove to expand and heavily relied on to advance their own interests in power and money. Backed by their military power, they maintained virtual territorial autonomy over the regions under their control. They relied heavily on taxes of the local population for revenue. While petty warlords depended more on local sources, including the domestic opium traffic, more significant ones had established ties with the foreign powers present in China from whom they gained financial and military support.

However, it would be a mistake to think of warlords as being under the thumb of the foreign powers. Between 1916 and 1928, when the warlords held sway in China, they numbered in the hundreds if not in the thousands. Their strengths varied tremendously, from a force composed of no more than a handful of men to well-armed troops of several hundred thousand strong. Numerous as they were, there were fewer than a dozen major factions, among which were three infamous cliques in North China. The Anhui clique (Wan) was headed by Duan Qirui, the premier of the Beijing government between 1912 and 1920. The Zhili (Zhi) faction was commanded by Feng Guozhang, who, after his death, was succeeded by Cao Kun. The Fengtian (Feng) clique was led by Zhang Zuolin. Members of all warlord coalitions, big and small, shifted their allegiance constantly as was the nature of the warlord alliances; but the three northern factions stood out and commanded more attention than the southern warlord groupings because they fought for national power represented by the Beijing government.

Warlordism in modern China had its origin in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when the Qing government was losing control of the empire under the pressure of domestic unrest and foreign intervention. Though not the hereditary descendants of the regionally originated Xiang and Huai armies that aided the imperial government in defeating the Taiping rebels in the mid-1800s, the later warlord troops were nourished by the same political crisis that had challenged the Qing's power. A more immediate model followed by the twentieth-century warlord system was the New Army that the Qing established in the 1890s as part of its attempt to revamp the imperial power. Unfortunately for the central government, the reform effort failed, and the New Army, comparatively modern in training and equipment, acquired the quality of a personal army loyal to its commander, Yuan Shikai.

With this army at his command, Yuan emerged as a power to be reckoned with at a time when China was undergoing its most fundamental historical transformation. Oscillating between the Qing and the anti-Qing forces, but finally leaning toward the latter, Yuan used his military power to gain the highest political position in the new government, becoming the first president of the Republic of China in 1912. During his reign, Yuan more than once resorted to force in implementing his policies. His opponents also turned to military power in their effort to block and defeat Yuan's political agenda, as in the anti-monarchical war in 1915, touched off by Yuan's scheme of putting himself on the dragon throne. Military force, thus politicized and empowered by political leaders, established its legitimate authority in political struggles.

China was well on the road toward rule by the gun during Yuan's presidency. But his regime was not a military regime; it represented a central authority supported by provincial leaders, a structure not fundamentally different from the Qing bureaucracy. However, more than the Qing monarchy, Yuan's government was plagued by the perennial tension between centralization and local autonomy. Yuan's death in 1916 left the weak and antiquated civil institutions in the hands of his less capable successors, plunging the country into complete fragmentation.

What also contributed to the rise of the system of warlords was the absence of an institutional passage to power. The civil service examination had long channeled the talented and ambitious to the service of the imperial bureaucracy. No longer in use, it left one with nothing to follow but one's own ability to survive. Consequently, military power became the assurance of success in a society without a clearly defined code of conduct.

Instead of an aberration, twentieth-century warlordism was a manifestation of a recurrent theme in Chinese historya history that alternated between political integration and fragmentation and a history filled with struggles of local powers challenging the central authority. During times of disintegration, soldiers dominated politics. The backgrounds of the modern warlords were diverse: some were bandits with little education; others had training in Confucianist classics. A few may even have received some Western education. While many deserved the reputation of being a breed of gross and unscrupulous men, there were also those who succeeded in presenting themselves as men of idealism and altruism, steeped in Confucianist morality and Christian benevolence. Provincial warlords such as those in Sichuan were notoriously corrupt and cruel; Yan Xishan, who overlorded Shanxi, was mostly noted for his effective control of the province. Nationally known figures such as Wu Peifu and Feng Yuxiang, on the other hand, maintained a façade of being honest and high-minded. Though some of them displayed modern attitudes and used rhetoric of patriotic nationalism, and in fact many of them adopted modern organization and technology to their forces, they were not men of ideology. Their political and military maneuvering at various levels, confusing and conflicting but ultimately in accordance with their own interests, only prolonged and deepened China's political crisis.

Though the warlords dominated Chinese politics during the early years of the Republic of China, they did not come to power suddenly in the wake of the fall of the Qing dynasty. The system evolved over a period of time. In contrast, the end of the warlords' rule came rather suddenly. After two years between 1926 and 1928, the Northern Expedition claimed victory over the warlords when its troops entered Beijing, signifying the reunification of the whole of China. The defeat of the warlords was more than a military victory. Built on the rising nationalistic desire for a strong and unified China and a strong antiwarlordist sentiment, the nationalist government was finally able to wage a successful war against the warlords.

However, this was not a complete victory, as political and military expediency forced the newly established nationalist government to negotiate with some of the warlords, allowing their troops to be absorbed en masse into its own army in exchange for their allegiance. These "residual warlords" continued to contest the central power and made China's unification only a nominal reality. The Communist victory in 1949 ultimately put an end to the influence of the warlords who had survived throughout the Republican era.

See also Bushido .


Ch'i, Hsi-sheng. Warlord Politics in China, 19161928. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. A classic, offering a comprehensive analysis of warlord politics.

Lary, Diana. Warlord Soldiers: Chinese Common Soldiers, 19111937. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985. An extraordinary study of common soldiers in warlord troops.

McCord, Edward A. The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. An in-depth study of the origins of warlords in two provinces of Hunan and Hubei.

Wou, Odoric Y. K. Militarism in Modern China: The Career of Wu P'ei-fu, 19161939. Folkestone, U.K.: Dawson, 1978. An example of many studies on individual warlords.

Yu Shen