It’s April 1921, and in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, Sun Yat-sen has proclaimed a new government separate from Beijing. In reality, Sun is only one of dozens of autonomous leaders competing for power in the age of the Chinese Warlords: https://youtu.be/Wj26bInVrHk
In the early 1920s, China was in the throes of a chaotic, violent period dominated by regional warlords. The old empire was gone, replaced by rival factions and military leaders attempting to both unify China, and protect their independence at the same time. Some Chinese contemporaries compared the period to the turbulent and romanticized era of ancient Chinese history known as the Three Kingdoms. 1700 years later, China was in the grips of warlords once again, and in this episode, we’ll take a look at how that came to be, who were the major players, and the first major war between them. And it all happened exactly 100 years ago .
At the start of the 20th century, Chinese society was searching for answers for problems the country had not been able to solve for decades. China had not been fully colonized by the European Powers, but they had taken control of several important coastal cities , and forced the Imperial Government to accept humiliating trade deals. To add to China’s misery, the country suffered defeat in a war against Japan in 1895.
The humiliation of this defeat accelerated the process of change and the promotion of new ideas about how to restore China’s full sovereignty. A Western-inspired free press was questioning traditional Confucian values, while military officers and intellectuals, many educated in European academies, brought back republican sentiments. Many now called for the overthrow of the Imperial Qing dynasty, which had ruled for more than 250 years.
Chief among the critics was Sun Yat-sen. Sun was born in southern China but spent much of his early life in Hawaii, where he received a western education. After returning to China as a teenager, he established the revolutionary Kuomintang Party in 1894, which called for a US-style republic. According to Sun, the lack of a united Chinese national identity was a source of its backwardness:
“The Chinese people have shown the greatest loyalty to family and clan with the result that in China there have been family-ism and clannism but no real nationalism. Foreign observers say that the Chinese are like a sheet of loose sand.” (Muhlhahn 222)
The volatile situation in China came to a head in October 1911. A local army revolt in Wuhan quickly grew into a full-on rebellion, and one-by-one strongmen in China’s provinces declared their independence. The national Beiyang army under General Yuan Shikai proved unable or unwilling to put a stop to the disintegration of the empire . In February 1912, the boy emperor Puyi abdicated, and Sun Yat-sen was provisionally declared the first President of the Chinese Republic.
So after centuries of kingdom and empire, China was now a republic. But President Sun had little power. Many of the provinces were de facto independent, and General Yuan was an influential figure in Beijing. Sun was unable to form a stable government, and so he handed over control to General Yuan in April 1912.
The transfer of power from Sun to Yuan had been planned, but republican revolutionaries were concerned their new leader might not share their principles – and they had good reason to worry. Yuan took personal control in the capital, in part by requiring army generals to be personally loyal to him. He even tried to get Japanese loans to pay for an expansion of the army. But Yuan caused even more controversy in December 1915, when he took the extraordinary step of declaring himself Emperor.
The decision caused an uproar. Leaders in major provinces like Yunnan declared their independence, and even Yuan’s beloved army turned against him. As one historian explained:
“It would be difficult to find a parallel case of reversal of popular opinion so swift and so complete.” (Gray 148)
Yuan was forced to renounce the throne in March 1916, and his fall of grace was only interrupted by his own unexpected death in June. Power now rested in the hands of Prime Minister Duan Qirui, who immediately tried to gain favour with army. Another priority for Prime Minister Duan was to convince his countrymen that China should join the First World War.
The war had arrived early in China as Japanese troops allied with Britain besieged the German colony of Qingdao in September 1914. China also sent around 140,000 workers to France, but by 1917 it was still officially neutral.
Duan now called for a full declaration of war. His supporters claimed if China could be part of an Allied victory, they might be able to recover the German colonies and prevent Japan from seizing them instead. Sun Yat-sen and his republican supporters in the South were opposed to the plan. Sun broke from Beijing and consolidated his power in the south, which severely weakened the republic.
Duan finally got his declaration of war in August 1917, and quickly began developing the Chinese War Participation Army for service in Europe. The Japanese agreed in secret to loan money, arm, and train China’s expeditionary force, but Duan knew it would likely never be sent to France. What he was actually doing was creating a powerful army for his own purposes – and he used it for the first time to suppress yet another revolt in Hunan in early 1918.
The end of the Great War brought disappointment for the Duan and his government, since the Allies gave the Japanese the former German colonies in China. When Duan accepted the Versailles Treaty in spite of Japan’s gains, mass student protests erupted in May 1919. These became known as the May 4th movement, which would last for several years and have an important political and cultural impact on the country. For the moment though, Duan used his new army, which he renamed the Frontier Defence Army, to retain power.
So by 1919 Prime Minister Duan held a tenuous grip on power, but was struggling with breakaway provinces and the May 4th student movement. He also had problems within the army, as Duan’s attempts at autocratic rule had caused disgruntled officers to form dissident groups known as Cliques.
As time passed and the situation remained unstable, officers and politicians began to make common cause and created numerous Cliques. These were loosely organized groups of influential Chinese. In theory, the army officers and politicians in the cliques were under orders from the central government in Beijing. But in practice, they exercised territorial control, often by having one of their leaders appointed as governor of a particular province. Many different Cliques rose and fell during the warlord period, including the famous Anhui, Zhili, and Fengtian cliques.
In 1919, the Anhui clique was by far the strongest. It was led by Duan himself and controlled much of costal China and the provinces around Beijing, but some of its provinces were only accessible via railways that ran through rival territory. Anhui enjoyed the support of key army officers and the Japanese, who provided Duan with 120 million Chinese dollars in funding, and sent advisors to train his troops. This meant the Frontier Defence Army’s four division formed the Anhui Clique’s supposedly elite formation.
The Zhili clique centered on Beiyang national army officers Cao Kun and Wu Peifu, and dominated several provinces in east-central China. Wu eventually became the most prominent member of the Zhili Clique. Wu was known for his interest in traditional arts, which earned him the nicknames “The Scholar Warlord” or “The Jade Marshall.” Zhili’s military power centered on the 3rd Division – and it also had foreign backers, as Italy provided arms and ammunition.
The third major clique, Fengtian, was based around bandit-turned-warlord Zhang Zuolin and controlled most of the provinces in northeastern Manchuria. Known as ‘The Tiger of the North,’ Zhang had originally fought against the revolution but now acted to balance the power of the other cliques. Proximity to Japan meant that the Japanese took an interest in Fengtian and hoped to influence Zhang through gifts of cash and weapons.
It’s important to note that there were many more cliques and warlords besides these three. For example, Sun Yat-sen’s clique controlled two provinces in the south, Yunnan province was essentially independent, and Sichuan was divided up into even smaller fiefdoms.
So Republican China was split between Cliques under rival warlords. This was a process that took several years to develop, but by 1919, the period of High Warlordism had definitively arrived.
Now the term Warlord has come to define this era of Chinese history, but not all warlords were alike. Some warlords were hardly known outside their local area, while others rose to national fame - or infamy. An important part of warlord culture was nicknames. Some were flattering, like the “Model Governor.” Others were just descriptive, like the “Christian Warlord,” and some were comical, like Zhang Zongchang, who was sometimes known as the “Dogmeat General. ” Zhang’s other nickname was ‘The Three Don’t Knows’ – because he reportedly didn’t know how much money, troops or concubines he had. Other notable warlord nicknames included ‘Two-Headed Snake’ and ‘Rotten Pig’.
These names actually had several important functions. They were a clue for civilians about the governing style of a new warlord, and they also improved identification. There were lots of warlords, who were often changing, and many of them had several names in line with Chinese tradition. Nicknames meant that people could be sure who was who.
In general, warlords gained and kept political power by controlling armies that were loyal to them personally, not to the state. Betrayal was common, and a good warlord made sure only his most trusted supporters were close to him.
Some warlords did also try to govern in the public interest. The Model Governor I mentioned earlier brought in extensive social reform, and Wu Peifu of the Zhili Clique sought to promote cultural enlightenment. Wu often showed off his poetry and calligraphy skills, and some other warlords competed in philosophical writings.
Even The Dogmeat General wrote poetry. And one of the poems attributed to him might give us an indication of his artistic style:
‘A Poem About Bastards’
"You tell me to do this,
He tells me to do that.
You're all bastards,
Go fuck your mother."
(The News Lens)
So the warlords running most of China could span the range from incompetent poets to effective governors. But, ultimately, warlords were expected to fight. Between 1912 and 1933, there were 700 separate conflicts in China, with 500 in Sichuan alone. Most conflicts were too small to even make the Chinese press, but warlords spent much of their time preparing for war.
Although Chinese warlord armies were organized along 20th century Western lines on paper, in practice they more closely resembled peasant levies of centuries past. Most soldiers were landless peasants who enlisted for food and steady pay, though some criminals also joined. Pay was a constant problem, men who weren’t paid often defected, including in the middle of a battle. Local civilians were usually forced to pay taxes to support their warlord’s troops, sometimes paying years in advance. Another source of income for soldiers’ pay and weapons was the sale of opium.
In 1916, around 500,000 men served in warlord armies, with this number rising to 1.2 million in 1922. But only a fraction of this number were reliable troops. Before any given battle or campaign, a warlord could perhaps expect only about 25% of his men to actually fight.
The remainder of the men were often left to their own devices, and frequently abused civilians. Extortion, arson, and murder were common, particularly in newly occupied villages. This was said to be especially true of the Fengtian clique. One anti-Fengtian newspaper made its frustration with the so-called army clear:
“The nation establishes an army to protect its people. Today, because of the army, the people have no way to protect themselves. Therefore the original purpose in establishing an army has indeed been completely lost. ” (McCord, Scars of War 42)
The weapons of Warlord China were quite diverse. Despite an official arms embargo, many European companies sold weapons to Chinese warlords regardless of political considerations. Older patterns of Great War rifles like the Mauser, Mosin-Nagant, Arisaka were the most common, and the 1896 broomhandle Mauser pistol became the iconic weapon of the period.
Machine guns and artillery were relatively rare, with only 1 of each for every 1,000 men under arms. The German army in 1913, for example, had 16 times as many machine guns and more than 6 times as much artillery per man . British Stokes trench mortars were much more common, and Chinese factories even produced homemade copies . There were also a few Armoured vehicles, airplanes and armoured trains, but since they were too expensive to lose in battle they mostly served to enhance the owner’s prestige.
When combat occurred, it was usually short and sharp. Since desertion was so common, many commanders didn’t trust their men on long campaigns away from home unless they had enough money to bribe them – a practice known as the “silver bullet.”
During fighting, which was sometimes under the watchful eye of an exiled White Russian advisor, the lack of machine guns and artillery was key. Infantry and cavalry charges could change the course of a battle – if the men could be persuaded to carry them out. Victory in battle often led to the defeated forces joining with the winning side.
So, by 1920, cliques all across China had been arming themselves for several years. For the most part, the warlords avoided the risk and expense of battle but this could not last forever. Early in 1920, tensions between the three biggest cliques boiled over.
Duan’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles and renewed violence in Hunan province helped make him more and more unpopular. He also understood this, and again renamed his army, this time as the ironically named National Pacification Army. War seemed sure to come, as historian Edward Dreyer explained:
“Whatever their Westernized educations, the warlords remained disciples of Sun Tzu rather than Clausewitz, and may be forgiven for imagining that ‘those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle’. Unfortunately Clausewitz’s famous analogy remains the last word: like cash settlement in business, battle cannot be entirely avoided. ” (Dreyer 83)
Duan made the first move by expressing his intention to move the forces of his Anhui Clique against those of the Zhili Clique. But the Zhilis had gained a new ally. The Fengtian clique agreed to join the Zhilis against the Anhui, despite both Fengtian and Anhui both enjoying Japanese support. That is how the short but decisive Anhui-Zhili war began.
Fighting broke out on July 14th 1920. The Zhili’s 3rd Division converged at Baoding and moved to attack Beijing from the south. Meanwhile, 70,000 Fengtian troops moved into the northern Anhui territories through the Shanhai Pass of the Great Wall. The fact that the Zhilis controlled Jiangsu province meant that the Anhuis couldn’t use the railway to move badly needed reinforcements north from its southern provinces. The large but untested Anhui army marched to secure the capital against the Zhilis, while other troops were sent to deal with the Fengtians in the far north.
Within four days, the war was over. Zhili forces performed a daring flanking manoeuvre and defeated the Anhui army at Zhuozhou, which made a defence of Beijing for Prime Minister Duan untenable. The Anhui’s National Pacification Army, supposedly the most elite in China, had failed to perform. Instead, Duan resigned and took refuge with the Japanese. Much of his defeated army went over to the Fengtian clique which took control of Anhui’s former northern provinces. Meanwhile, Zhili clique members now ruled the most of China’s central provinces. Anhui held on to a sliver of territory on the coast, but the once-powerful clique was politically destroyed.
Victory, however did not bring stability, since the only thing that brought Zhili and Fengtian together was their war with Anhui. After their victory, a common border and Zhili leader Wu’s feeling that Fengtian had benefitted from Zhili’s victory promised further tensions.
So Fengtian and Zhili Cliques were now the most powerful groups in China after their victory over Anhui. The Zhilis headed up a new national government which accepted that central control wasn’t possible. Regional autonomy was now the status quo.
The fragmentation of China was further reinforced in April 1921 with Sun Yat-sen’s election as the ‘extraordinary president’ of a self-proclaimed military government in Guangzhou. He believed, like many other warlords, that a unified China could only result from military success over all other cliques and factions. He therefore announced plans for a great Northern Expedition to reunite the country in 1922. However, he wasn’t even able to form a strong government in the south because of resistance from other local warlords.
As historian James Sheriden explained, the nature of the warlord era meant such ambitious goals were all but impossible:
“The leader of a clique might hope to unify the country, but he stood alone, on quicksand. Not only did each clique leader have a simplistic notion of unity, but the attainment of his goal threatened his supporters as much as their enemies, for the fulfilment of his power-dreams would entail the loss of their independence, the very essence of their position as warlords.” (Sheriden 303)
One of the only certainties in China in 1921, was there would be much more fighting before the Age of the Warlord would come to an end.
- Dreyer, Edward L. China at War 1901-1949, (New York : Longman Publishing, 1995)
- Gray, Jack, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000, (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002)
- Jowett, Philip, Chinese Warlord Armies 1911-30, (Oxford : Osprey Publishing, 2010)
- Mackinnon, Stephen R. “The Peiyang Army, Yuan Shih-k`ai, and the Origins of Modern Chinese Warlordism” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3 (May, 1973)
- McCord, Edward A. “Burn, Kill, Rape, and Rob: Military Atrocities, Warlordism, and Anti-Warlordism in Republican China” in Lary, Diana & MacKinnon, Stephen (eds.) Scars of War: The Impact of Warfare on Modern China, (Toronto : UBC Press, 2001)
- McCord, Edward A. The Power of the Gun, The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism, (Berkeley : University of California Press)
- Mühlhahn, Klaus, Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping, (Cambridge, MA : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019)
- "民國時期最狂軍閥，出版過詩集的草莽將軍張宗昌" [Trans: The most insane warlord during the Republic of China, the published poetry collection of the general Zhang Zongchang]. The News Lens, (10 August 2018) https://www.thenewslens.com/article/99950
- Sheridan, James E. The warlord era: politics and militarism under the Peking government, 1916-28 in Fairbank, John K. & Twitchett, Denis (eds.) The Cambridge History of China: Volume 12, Republican China 1912-1949, Part 1, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2005)