New Great War Episode: China's Game of Thrones - Chinese Warlord Era 1922-1928

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It’s March 1922, and in China tensions are building between the two most powerful warlords in the country. The resulting war will be just one of many in a swirling kaleidoscope of shifting alliances, betrayal, and battle. The chaos culminates in 1928 as Chiang Kai-shek leads the Northern Expedition to crush the Manchurian warlords once and for all – but his tense alliance with the Communist Party, Soviet and Japanese intervention all mean that China’s turbulent Warlord Era will not end quietly:

By 1916, China had entered a chaotic and violent Warlord Period that would last a dozen bloody years. The fragile republic established in 1912 all but collapsed after just a few years, and regional military governors backed by private armies competed for power, influence, and weapons. The toothless central government in Beijing served at the whim of whichever general happened to hold the city. Over time, warlords grouped together into shifting alliances known as cliques. By 1920, there were four major cliques: the Anhui, Zhili and Fengtian cliques dominated central and northern China, while the south was mostly controlled by a separate Canton government led by republican revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. In 1920, the Zhili and Fengtian Cliques destroyed the Anhui Clique, but as so often in 1920s China, it was an alliance based on a common enemy. In 1922 the 1st Fengtian-Zhili War broke out, which began a cascade of violence that would last – in this form at least – until 1928.

In 1922, the powerful Fengtian clique was led by Zhang Zuolin, also known as the ‘Tiger of the North’. Accounts of his early life vary, but most agree he originally ran with bandit gangs in Manchuria. During the Russo-Japanese War he worked for the Japanese, who then supported him when he became a warlord. By 1916, he was refusing orders from the weak government in Beijing and essentially running Manchuria as his personal fiefdom.

Victory in the 1920 Anhui-Zhili War benefitted Zhang greatly, even though his forces didn’t so much actual fighting. He gained extensive new territory in Inner Mongolia and northern Zhili, as well as stores of weaponry. He also developed Manchuria’s economy by building up industry and arsenals. By 1920, 71 percent of his income was going to the Fengtian Army, and in 1922 he had about 100,000 troops under arms. The quality and loyalty of the men varied, but compared to other warlord armies, Fengtian forces was fairly well-equipped, trained, modern. This was largely due to Japanese support. The Japanese had big plans for Manchuria, and they hoped that Zhang could help achieve them.

But Zhang himself had bigger aspirations, and he began to exert more influence over the weak central government in Beijing – which started rumors in the rest of the country that the government was nothing more than Fengtian puppets. All this worried Wu Peifu, the military leader of the Zhili clique and mastermind of the victory against Anhui. He felt that Zhang’s growing power and prestige hadn’t been earned.

So after fighting together in 1920, by 1922 the Fengtian and Zhili cliques had grown suspicious of each other, and their leaders began to denounce each other publicly. Zhang’s Japanese support gave him a military edge, but gave Wu political ammunition to accuse him of being a foreign stooge.

Japan, of course, was not the only foreign power that got involved in China’s warlord disputes. Foreign business and military influence in China was centred on ports and major cities in which western powers had forced the Chinese to grant them concessions. Britain, France and Italy all provided occasional support to local warlords, but Japan and the Soviet Union became the most important foreign players in 1920s China.

Generally speaking foreign support was not about ideology but about power politics. Japan supported Fengtian in 1922 but had previously offered to help Anhui and also offered Zhili assistance. Zhili refused though because they were working with the Italians.

So, Japan chose Zhang as its ally in Manchuria. Officially Tokyo had a policy of non-intervention, but in practice the Japanese army provided Fengtian arms, military advisors, and intelligence. The relationship though was rocky. Zhang depended on Japanese support to bolster his army, but Japan didn’t support his more ambitious goals for national prominence. They wanted him to just stay in Manchuria and help them extend their influence there. Japanese Consul-General in Mukden, Uchiyama Kiyoshi felt that anything beyond this was bad for Japan:

“[If] Zhang becomes [too] strong he might no longer rely on our support.” (Kwong 100)

Following the Russian Civil War, Soviet Russia also began to extend their influence into China. Emissaries like Mikhail Borodin contacted Chinese revolutionary nationalist groups, including

Yat-sen’s Canton regime. Sun Yat-Sen was eager for arms and expertise so he accepted Soviet help, which caused Japan and other foreign powers to worry about Bolshevik feelings in China.

Foreign powers also influenced events in China more indirectly. All states officially forbid gun-running, but many European arms dealers made a fortune selling surplus equipment to warlords following demobilisation after the Great War. European mercenaries were also a common sight in China, and Fengtian General Zhang Zongchang - the so-called Dog Meat General – regularly employed White Russian mercenaries, including 3,000 White Guards and a Cossack bodyguard unit.

Other foreign adventurers also made names for themselves in the turbulent world of warlord politics. Sun Yat-sen’s bodyguards included Abraham ‘Two Guns’ Cohen - a Polish-born British-Canadian with a penchant for dual wielding revolvers, while Frank ‘One-Armed’ Sutton was an Englishman who oversaw Zhang’s Mukden arsenal and produced copies of the British Stokes mortar.

So by April 1922 tensions between the Japanese-backed Fengtian clique and the Italian-backed Zhili clique were high. Zhang felt he had the military edge and used his influence to install a Prime Minister of his choice in Beijing. Wu accused both of being Japanese imperialists – and so the First Zhili-Fengtian War broke out.

Zhang had already been preparing for the conflict with Wu for some time. He had increased his forces to 120,000 men, 150 field guns and 200 machine guns, numbers few other Chinese armies could match. On paper, Zhili had 250,000 men after they absorbed the defeated Anhui forces, but in reality they had barely 100,000 troops, 100 guns, and 100 machine guns.

In March, the Fengtian Clique made an agreement with Sun Yat-sen to attack Zhili from both the north and south. Remnants of the Anhui clique - Fengtian’s former enemies - would also join in for the kill. Historian Edward Dreyer described the unusual coalition this way:

“[The alliance was] surely as strange an assortment of bedfellows as any nation’s politics has ever produced.” (Dreyer 99)

Fengtian moved its forces south in late April, but Zhang’s grand alliance lost one member as Sun Yat-sen’s troubles in the south prevented him from joining. Major clashes occurred near the Marco Polo bridge outside Beijing, and as was common in Chinese warlord conflicts, fighting raged up and down the north-south railway lines. The struggle lasted several days, until the forces of Zhili warlord Feng Yuxiang, aka the ‘Christian Warlord,’ outflanked Zhang’s on May 4th. Panic spread amongst the Fengtian ranks, and they fled back to the Shanhai Pass, while Wu occupied Beijing.

After barely a week of fighting, the First Zhili-Fengtian War was over. 3000 soldiers had been killed and 7000 wounded. Despite his victory, Wu was unable to pursue Zhang into Manchuria. Zhang declared his three provinces independent from Beijing, and began a series of extensive reforms: he created a General headquarters, and replaced his bandit leaders with Japanese-trained Chinese officers. By late 1923, he claimed to have 200,000 combat-ready troops.

The Zhili clique emerged victorious from the war against Fengtian, and it now dominated Beijing politics – but success did not bring stability.

The Zhili clique began to suffer from internal power struggles. The faction’s political leader Cao Kun bribed his way to the presidency, but competed for influence with Wu Peifu. Meanwhile, high-ranking officer Feng Yuxiang started to resent Wu’s restrictive leadership and control of the clique’s finances. These tensions came to a head in the next war, which wasn’t long in coming.

Despite becoming the most powerful faction in China, the Zhili clique was surrounded by enemies. In mid-1924, Wu planned to unite much of China in a decisive military campaign. In September, fighting broke out between Zhili forces and the remaining Anhui warlords around Shanghai. The Anhui Clique called for assistance, and Zhang Zuolin - eager to avenge his defeat against Zhili - accepted. The Second Zhili-Fengtian War was on.

Wu however, had planned for war on multiple fronts. He divided his 250,000 men into three armies. One of them was to march into Manchuria through the Shanhai Pass, a narrow passage through the Great Wall. Zhang concentrated his troops on the shortened front, and brought the Zhili advance to a standstill in October. Wu then realized he could strike at Zhang from behind, so he ordered Feng to attack Zhang in the west. But the Christian Warlord delayed. In fact, he was having second thoughts about helping Wu at all. For some time he had been distancing himself from Zhili by introducing progressive reforms and Christian doctrines in the provinces under his control. If Feng helped Wu now, his rival would only get stronger. When the Japanese offered him a bribe of 1,500,000 yen, Feng made his choice. On October 23, 1924, he pulled back his forces, sent them to Beijing and arrested President Cao Kun.

Wu’s position against the Fengtian-Anhui alliance was compromised, and he had no choice but to retreat and leave much of his weapons and equipment behind. He escaped to his stronghold in Henan-Hubei, but as a political force, the Zhili clique was destroyed. The month-long war was the most significant so far in the warlord period. There were 20-30,000 casualties, and European observers noted that although the fighting was still quite mobile, it also showed some hallmarks of intense warfare with industrial weapons.

As Zhang and Feng dished out the spoils of war and redistributed the Zhili provinces, the Soviet Union now began to pay attention to the Christian Warlord on their border. Despite their socialist atheism, they saw Feng as a useful tool against the seemingly pro-Japanese Zhang. Moscow sent support and weapons, which allowed Feng to become a full-fledged warlord and create his own faction, the Guominjun.

Soviet involvement with Feng weakened Feng’s ties with Zhang, who began to fear a Soviet attack. When labor groups began to agitate on Zhang’s territory, he sent in the Dog Meat general to crush them. By October 1925, the Guominjun and Fengtian Clique were locked in indecisive armed conflict.

For Chinese civilians, the situation of constant war, weak governments and marauding armies was becoming intolerable. Many saw Zhang was seen as an illegitimate ruler, while Feng’s betrayal had earned him a new nickname - ‘The Treacherous General’. Public attitude was turning decisively against the warlord system, as the Guowen Weekly reported in May 1925:

“[If] Zhang and Feng can abandon military build-up and concentrate on civilian endeavours... in a few years, the result will be apparent and they may win the approval of the people and become national leaders... If they act impetuously by [intervening in politics], all they can get is public condemnation...” (Kwong 97)

So Feng and Zhang had defeated Wu before fear and Soviet involved helped push them apart. Meanwhile in the south, former president Sun Yat-sen hoped to use anti-warlord public feelings to unite the fractured country.

In 1919, Sun re-established the nationalist Kuomintang Party in the French Shanghai concession, and by the early 1920s he positioned the KMT as a viable alternative to the warlord system. But as with many things in warlord China, the reality was somewhat more complex.

Sun Yat-sen felt only military victory over the northern warlords could revive the republic he had created in 1912. He consistently called for a Northern Expedition to expel the warlords and he sought international recognition. Neither of these efforts bore fruit.

Militarily speaking, the southern provinces were outnumbered and outgunned. In 1924, the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army had only 65,000 rifles for 100,000 men, and 20 percent of these were obsolete, there were even a few matchlocks. The KMT also relied on the military support of neighbouring warlords from the Yunnan and Guangxi cliques, who were less keen to risk their positions. A Chinese newspaper reported on the gap between intent and ability:

“[The KMT's two main agendas] are anti-imperialism and anti-warlordism. These two goals are indeed popular demands of the nation... One should certainly praise the KMT's ability to follow the trend... However, these two agendas are devoid of substance…” (Kwong 98)

Sun Yat-sen’s solution to these problems was to develop the one thing the northern warlords lacked: an ideology. By instilling his forces with nationalist revolutionary fervor, he hoped any Northern Expedition would win hearts and minds and become an unstoppable force. To achieve this he established a Military Academy to train a new breed of revolutionary officers less susceptible to the betrayal so common in warlord conflicts. He also asked for international support, and when the US and Japan showed no interest, Soviet Russia stepped in.

The KMT had been drifting closer to communist thinking, partly because of agitation from the young Chinese Communist Party. Anti-western and anti-Japanese sentiment had been increasing in Canton, while the First World War seemed to show the weakness of formerly revered Western culture. CCP co-founder Chen Duxiu didn’t mince words:

“In the West, men are lazy and profit-seeking while women are extravagant and licentious. Wars, strikes and all sorts of lamentable unrest, which of these is not caused by the moral decay of the system of private property?” (Ch’en 510)

In exchange for Soviet advisors and arms, the KMT and CCP cooperated in an uneasy ‘United Front’ in which they remained separate organizations. By the time of Sun Yat-sen’s death in March 1925, distinct right and left wing factions were developing in Canton. Sun was succeeded as KMT leader by the head of the Military Academy, Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang, with Soviet encouragement, renewed the call for a Northern Expedition within the party:

“Our army keeps alive the will of the late generalissimo [Sun] and hopes to carry out his revolutionary proposals. To protect the welfare of the people we must overthrow all warlords and wipe out reactionary power so that we may… complete the National Revolution.” (Jordan 73/74)

So by July 1926, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang movement was now ready to launch a campaign against the northern warlords – but the Fengtian Clique was stronger than ever after defeating the Guominjun.

The KMT’s northern expedition launched on July 1, 1926, and it was a military gamble given the strength of Fengtian and the fact that Beijing was 2000km away. Chiang planned to have his National Revolutionary Army (NRA) against one warlord at a time, to avoid provoking too much resistance at once. His first target was Wu Peifu’s forces in Henan and Hubei provinces.

Speed was key for the NRA. Wu’s army was facing north against Guominjun, but his ally Sun Chuanfang was a threat from Jiangsu province. Chiang hoped to capture Wu’s capital city of Wuhan before either could react.

The first clashes favoured the NRA. Many of Wu’s outnumbered and poorly motivated troops defected, and the NRA moved north along the railway. Wu managed to get units into position south of Wuhan in August, but his counterattacks were broken up by NRA artillery. These attacks compromised Wu’s defensive positions, and the NRA forced him north across the Yangtze river. Parts of Wuhan resisted the NRA for another month, but Chiang became master of the city.
Wu was desperate, and begged his ally Sun Chuanfang for help. But Sun’s troops only began to move in late August, a delay which allowed the NRA to reorganize and prepare. Chiang actually launched his attack first, but Sun recovered and fighting raged back and forth across Jiangsu province, and the capital of Nanchang changed hands several times.

Both sides threw their best units into the fight and losses were heavy. The NRA may have lost 20,000 just in the initial stages and Sun 40,000. Many of Chiang’s new officers from the academy had now been killed. Just as it seemed exhaustion and stalemate were about to set in, another defection swayed the balance. The local government of Chekiang province rose up against Sun and pledged its support to the Northern Expedition. Sun quickly crushed the uprising, but the diversion of troops allowed the NRA to push him across the Yangtze and take Nanchang and Fujian. Wu was now isolated and had lost most of his territory, so Sun was forced to ask the Fengtian Clique for assistance. Sun was sober about his defeat:

“[The people] do not necessarily love the KMT, but they surely hate us.” (Kwong 116)

In December 1926, Zhang announced the creation of the National Pacification Army. The army rallied other warlords to come together to resist the so-called “red disease” coming from the south. But for Sun, all this came too late, and in February 1927 the NRA moved on Shanghai and Najing. Both these cities had large foreign communities, and now the world powers took notice of the conflict. The Japanese, British and Americans sent troops to the cities to protect their citizens and interests – among the Americans was famous Marine Smedley Butler. When the NRA marched into both cities in March, Chiang tried to reassure his new foreign neighbors:

“The purpose of the military operations of the Northern Expedition is to establish a nation governed by the people and to get rid of the warlords. The Party Army’s success is the victory of the people…. In accordance with international morality we shall guard the lives and property of foreigners…. We request that consuls inform your nationals to carry on your activities as usual and order the marines not to misunderstand our motives and not to carry out means to obstruct our revolutionary cause.” (Jordan 133)

So by early 1927, Chiang Kai-shek’s National Revolutionary Army had gained some important victories in the Northern Expedition. But his United Front with the Communists now began to break down, threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

After Wuhan had been taken by the NRA, the CCP and the left wing of the KMT began to use it as a base for worker agitation. The city was home to an anti-Chiang movement which accused the KMT leader of being a right-wing reactionary and bourgeois dictator, accusations that seemed more substantial since Chiang had reduced the KMT’s revolutionary rhetoric to attract warlord defections and calm British and Japanese fears. Communist activity in Wuhan and attacks against foreigners there, plus labor unrest back in Canton now threatened to derail the entire Northern Expedition in spite of its military progress.

The situation was no better for the KMT in the countryside, where long-suffering peasants flocked to the CCP for help against the landowners and warlords – and the CCP grew to 50,000 members. The fragile alliance between the KMT and CCP began to crumble, as Communist Liu Chih-hsun explained:

“[We] were then in a quandary. On the one hand, we had to fight against the feudal forces of local bullies and bad gentry and the bourgeoisie; on the other, we had to cooperate with the KMT which represented them… We had to prevent workers and peasants from solving their problems by themselves. We told them to wait for orders from the headquarters of the KMT. But to wait was as endless as that for the waters of the Yellow River to become clear.” (Ch’en 523)

In March 1927, the CCP nullified Chiang’s authority over its units and it wasn’t long before attacks in the media, and between rival labor unions began. From April 12th, Chiang oversaw a massive purge of CCP members in Shanghai, as KMT forces executed Communist leaders. The CCP’s Soviet advisors urged restraint and encouraged them to complete the Northern Expedition, but Sun Yat-sen’s vision of uniting China was now largely two separate efforts: one KMT with its capital in Nanjing and one Communist based in Wuhan.

The KMT-CCP split came at a difficult time for the Northern Expedition. It was losing momentum, and the National Pacification Army pushed it back to the Yangtze. Chiang and the Communists managed to avoid a total break and turned their attention back to the warlords – for now.

Communist and NRA forces renewed their attacks to the north, and both tried to convince northern warlord Feng Yuxiang to join them. In June 1927, Feng sided with Chiang but Zhang was nonetheless able to capture Beijing and turned what was left of the powerless central government into a military dictatorship. Zhang also told the press that unlike Feng, he was not about to switch sides:

“I have my own principles, and I am not the type who keeps changing his allegiance.” (Kwong 124)

By July, Zhang had used his heavy railway artillery to push south through Shandong province. To make matters worse for the KMT, Communist uprisings in several cities tied up valuable troops behind the lines. To try to heal the split, Chiang resigned his command, but open fighting broke out between the KMT and CCP. The Communists were forced to go underground, but with Chiang gone the KMT’s military situation was fragile. Sun tried a do-or-die offensive to retake the lost capital of Nanjing, and pushed 40,000 troops across the Yangtze, but the National Pacification Army surrounded and destroyed them.

In spring 1928, Chiang returned to the head of the KMT to lead a renewed Northern Expedition. The NRA’s advances brought them dangerously close to Japanese-controlled Qingdao. In response, the Japanese sent 4000 troops to reinforce their small Kwangtung Army in April, and moved their forces further inland. Even Zhang complained, since he now wanted to shake off his pro-Japanese reputation, but to many Chinese he remained a “Japanese running dog.” On May 3 the first clashes between NRA and the Japanese occurred in what became known as the Jinan Incident. The Japanese claimed NRA soldiers had attacked Japanese civilians, and Major General Tatekawa Yoshiji made Tokyo’s intentions clear:

“It is necessary for Japan to chastise the lawless Chinese soldiers in order to maintain Japan’s national and military prestige.” (Jordan 182)

In the end, Japan’s intervention was not militarily decisive but it did weaken Zhang politically. Chiang ordered his forces to avoid conflict with the Japanese and continued his drive on Beijing, which Zhang abandoned without a fight on June 1. Japan now turned on its former client, and Zhang was killed two days later when a Japanese bomb exploded under the train taking him back to Manchuria. NRA troops marched into the national capital on June 6 against very light resistance.

The Japanese hoped to use Zhang’s death to extend their influence over Manchuria, and believed his drug-addicted son and successor would be even more pliable than his father. But the younger Zhang suspected the Japanese were behind his father’s death, so he rejected their offers and joined the KMT. On December 29, 1928, KMT troops hoisted their flag over the arsenal at Mukden. Chiang’s gamble had paid off, and the Northern Expedition was over.

The end of the Northern Expedition is generally considered the end of the warlord period in China, even though many of the warlords had simply joined the Northern Expedition rather than fight it. Chiang now ushered in the optimistic Nanjing or Golden Decade of the Republic of China. In reality though, peace and unity in China was an illusion: Japan would soon turn to force to return to Manchuria; and Communist guerrillas under a young leader named Mao Zedong were organizing. These three forces, spawned during the Warlord Era, would soon clash in a global war and revolution that changed the course of Chinese history.


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