Warlord Era

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Major Chinese warlord coalitions in 1925. The blue area was controlled by the Kuomintang, which later formed the Nationalist Government in Guangzhou. Warlords 1925.png
Major Chinese warlord coalitions in 1925. The blue area was controlled by the Kuomintang, which later formed the Nationalist Government in Guangzhou.

The Warlord Era (simplified Chinese :军阀时代; traditional Chinese :軍閥時代; pinyin :Jūnfá shídài, 19161928) was a period in the history of the Republic of China when control of the country was divided among former military cliques of the Beiyang Army and other regional factions, which were spread across the mainland regions of Sichuan, Shanxi, Qinghai, Ningxia, Guangdong, Guangxi, Gansu, Yunnan, and Xinjiang.

Simplified Chinese characters Standardized Chinese characters developed in mainland China

Simplified Chinese characters are standardized Chinese characters prescribed in the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters for use in mainland China. Along with traditional Chinese characters, they are one of the two standard character sets of the contemporary Chinese written language. The government of the People's Republic of China in mainland China has promoted them for use in printing since the 1950s and 1960s to encourage literacy. They are officially used in the People's Republic of China and Singapore.

Traditional Chinese characters Traditional Chinese characters

Traditional Chinese characters are Chinese characters in any character set that does not contain newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946. They are most commonly the characters in the standardized character sets of Taiwan, of Hong Kong and Macau, and in the Kangxi Dictionary. The modern shapes of traditional Chinese characters first appeared with the emergence of the clerical script during the Han Dynasty, and have been more or less stable since the 5th century.

Pinyin Chinese romanization scheme for Mandarin

Hanyu Pinyin, often abbreviated to pinyin, is the official romanization system for Standard Chinese in mainland China and to some extent in Taiwan. It is often used to teach Standard Mandarin Chinese, which is normally written using Chinese characters. The system includes four diacritics denoting tones. Pinyin without tone marks is used to spell Chinese names and words in languages written with the Latin alphabet, and also in certain computer input methods to enter Chinese characters.


In historiography, the era began when Yuan Shikai died in 1916, and lasted until 1928 when the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) officially unified China through the Northern Expedition, marking the beginning of the Nanjing decade. Several of the warlords continued to maintain their influence through the 1930s and the 1940s, which was problematic for the Nationalist government during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. Scholars discuss historiography by topic—such as the historiography of the United Kingdom, that of WWII, the British Empire, early Islam, and China—and different approaches and genres, such as political history and social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the development of academic history, there developed a body of historiographic literature. The extent to which historians are influenced by their own groups and loyalties—such as to their nation state—remains a debated question.

Yuan Shikai Chinese politician

Yuan Shikai was a Chinese military and government official who rose to power during the late Qing dynasty, and tried to save the dynasty with a number of modernization projects including bureaucratic, fiscal, judicial, educational, and other reforms. He established the first modern army and a more efficient provincial government in North China in the last years of the Qing dynasty before the abdication of the Xuantong Emperor, the last monarch of the Qing dynasty, in 1912. Through negotiation, he became the first official president of the Republic of China in 1912.

Kuomintang Political party in the Republic of China

The Kuomintang of China, also spelled as Guomindang and often alternatively translated as the Nationalist Party of China (NPC) or the Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP), is a major political party in the Republic of China based in Taipei that was founded in 1911. The KMT is currently an opposition political party in the Legislative Yuan.

This era was characterized by constant military conflicts between different factions, and the largest conflict was the Central Plains War which involved more than one million soldiers. [1]

Central Plains War China Central Plains war.

The Central Plains War was a series of military campaigns in 1929 and 1930 that constituted a Chinese civil war between the Nationalist Kuomintang government in Nanjing led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and several regional military commanders and warlords that were former allies of Chiang.


Early in the 20th century the term was adopted in China as "Jun Fa" (軍閥) to describe the aftermath of the 1911 Wuchang uprising and Xinhai Revolution, when regional commanders led their private militias to battle the state and competing commanders for control over territory, launching the period that would come to be known in China as the modern Warlord Era. [2] [3] The term "Jun Fa" is now applied retroactively to describe the leaders of regional private armies who, throughout China's history, threatened or used violence to expand their political rule over additional territories, including those who rose to lead and unify kingdoms.

Xinhai Revolution revolution in China that overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China

The Xinhai Revolution, also known as the Chinese Revolution or the Revolution of 1911, was a revolution that overthrew China's last imperial dynasty and established the Republic of China (ROC). The revolution was named Xinhai (Hsin-hai) because it occurred in 1911, the year of the Xinhai stem-branch in the sexagenary cycle of the Chinese calendar.


The Beiyang Army in training Beiyang Army.jpg
The Beiyang Army in training

The origins of the armies and leaders which dominated politics after 1912 lay in the military reforms of the late Qing dynasty. During the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), the Qing dynasty was forced to allow provincial governors to raise their own armies, the Yong Ying , to fight against the Taiping rebels; many of these provincial forces were not disbanded after the Taiping rebellion was over, like Li Hongzhang’s Huai Army.

Qing dynasty Former empire in Eastern Asia, last imperial regime of China

The Qing dynasty, officially the Great Qing, was the last imperial dynasty of China. It was established in 1636, and ruled China proper from 1644 to 1912. It was preceded by the Ming dynasty and succeeded by the Republic of China. The Qing multi-cultural empire lasted for almost three centuries and formed the territorial base for modern China. It was the fifth largest empire in world history. The dynasty was founded by the Manchu Aisin Gioro clan in Manchuria. In the late sixteenth century, Nurhaci, originally a Ming Jianzhou Guard vassal, began organizing "Banners", military-social units that included Manchu, Han, and Mongol elements. Nurhaci formed the Manchu clans into a unified entity and officially proclaimed the Later Jin in 1616. By 1636, his son Hong Taiji began driving Ming forces out of the Liaodong Peninsula and declared a new dynasty, the Qing.

Taiping Rebellion Rebellion in Qing dynasty China

The Taiping Rebellion, also known as the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, was a massive rebellion or civil war in China that was waged from 1850 to 1864 between the established Manchu-led Qing dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

Yong Ying

Yong Ying were a type of regional army that emerged in the 19th century in the Qing dynasty army, which fought in most of China's wars after the Opium War and numerous rebellions exposed the ineffectiveness of the Manchu Eight Banners and Green Standard Army. The Yong ying were created from the earlier tuanlian militias.

Strong bonding, family ties and respectful treatment of troops were emphasized. [4] The officers were never rotated, and the soldiers were handpicked by their commanders, and commanders by their generals, so personal bonds of loyalty formed between local officers and the troops, unlike Green Standard and Banner forces. [5] These late Qing reforms did not establish a national army but instead they mobilized regional armies and militias that had neither standardization nor consistency. Officers were loyal to their superiors and formed cliques based upon their place of origins and background. Units were composed of men from the same province. This policy was meant to reduce dialectal miscommunication, but had the side effect of encouraging regionalistic tendencies.

The Eight Banners were administrative/military divisions under the Qing dynasty into which all Manchu households were placed. In war, the Eight Banners functioned as armies, but the banner system was also the basic organizational framework of all of Manchu society. Created in the early 17th century by Nurhaci, the banner armies played an instrumental role in his unification of the fragmented Jurchen people and in the Qing dynasty's conquest of the Ming dynasty.

Militia generally refers to an army or other fighting force that is composed of non-professional fighters

A militia is generally an army or some other fighting organization of non-professional soldiers, citizens of a nation, or subjects of a state, who can be called upon for military service during a time of need, as opposed to a professional force of regular, full-time military personnel, or historically, members of a warrior nobility class. Generally unable to hold ground against regular forces, it is common for militias to be used for aiding regular troops by skirmishing, holding fortifications, or irregular warfare, instead of being used in offensive campaigns by themselves. Militia are often limited by local civilian laws to serve only in their home region, and to serve only for a limited time; this further reduces their use in long military campaigns.

The Confucian disdain for the military was swept aside by the rising necessity of military professionalism, with scholars becoming heavily militarized, and many officers from non-scholarly backgrounds rising to high command and even high office in civil bureaucracy. At this time, the military upstaged the civil service. [6] Influenced by German and Japanese ideas of military predominance over the nation, coupled with the absence of national unity amongst the various cliques in the officer class, led to the fragmentation of power in the warlord era. [7]

The most powerful regional army was the northern-based Beiyang Army under Yuan Shikai, which received the best in training and modern weaponry. The Xinhai Revolution in 1911 brought widespread mutiny across southern China. The revolution began in October 1911 with the mutiny of troops based in Wuhan. Soldiers once loyal to the Qing government began to defect to the opposition. These revolutionary forces established a provisional government in Nanjing the following year under Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who had returned from his long exile to lead the revolution. It became clear that the revolutionaries were not strong enough to defeat the Beiyang army and continued fighting would almost certainly lead to defeat. Instead, Sun negotiated with Beiyang commander Yuan Shikai to bring an end to the Qing and reunify China. In return, Sun would hand over his presidency and recommend Yuan to be the president of the new republic. Yuan refused to move to Nanjing and insisted on maintaining the capital in Beijing, where his power base was secure.

Reacting to Yuan's growing authoritarianism, the southern provinces rebelled in 1913 but were effectively crushed by Beiyang forces. Civil governors were replaced by military ones. In December 1915 Yuan made clear his intentions to become emperor of China and found a new dynasty. The southern provinces rebelled again in the National Protection War; but this time the situation was far more serious because most Beiyang commanders refused to recognize the monarchy. Yuan renounced his plans for restoring the monarchy to woo back his lieutenants, but by the time he died in June 1916 China was fractured politically. The North-South split would persist throughout the entire Warlord Era.

Warlord political system

Yuan Shikai cut back on many government institutions in the beginning of 1914 by suspending parliament, followed by the provincial assemblies. His cabinet soon resigned, effectively making Yuan dictator of China. [8] After Yuan Shikai curtailed many basic freedoms, the country quickly spiraled into chaos and entered a period of warlordism. "Warlordism did not substitute military force for the other elements of government; it merely balanced them differently. This shift in balance came partly from the disintegration of the sanctions and values of China's traditional civil government." [9] In other words, during the warlord era, there was a characteristic shift from a state-dominated civil bureaucracy held by a central authority to a military-dominated culture held by many groups, with power shifting from warlord to warlord. A notable theme of warlordism is identified by C. Martin Wilbur. "He pointed out that a great majority of regional militarists were 'static', that is to say that their principal aim was to secure and maintain control of a particular tract of territory." [10]

Warlords, in the words of American political scientist Lucian Pye, were "instinctively suspicious, quick to suspect that their interests might be threatened, hard-headed, devoted to the short run and impervious to idealistic abstractions". [11] These Chinese warlords usually came from strict military background, and were brutal in their treatment toward both their soldiers and the general population. In 1921, the North China Daily News reported that in the Shaanxi province, prevalence of robbery and violent crimes were serious to the extent that farmers were "afraid" to "venture outdoors".[ citation needed ] Wu Peifu of the Zhili clique was known for suppressing strikes by railroad workers by terrorizing them with execution. A British diplomat in Sichuan province witnessed two mutineers being publicly hacked to death with their hearts and livers hung out; another two being publicly burned to death; while others had slits cut into their bodies into which were inserted burning candles before they were hacked to pieces. [11]

Zhang Zuolin (left) and Wu Peifu (right), two of the most powerful strongmen of the Warlord Era Zhang Zuolin and Wu Peifu.jpg
Zhang Zuolin (left) and Wu Peifu (right), two of the most powerful strongmen of the Warlord Era

Warlords placed great stress on personal loyalty, yet subordinate officers often betrayed their commanders in exchange for bribes known as "silver bullets", and warlords often betrayed allies. Promotion had little to do with competence, and instead warlords attempted to create an interlocking network of familial, institutional, regional, and master-pupil relationships together with membership in sworn brotherhoods and secret societies. Subordinates who betrayed their commanders could suffer harshly. In November 1925 Guo Songling, the leading general loyal to Marshal Zhang Zuolin—the "Old Marshal" of Manchuria—made a deal with Feng Yuxiang to revolt, which nearly toppled the "Old Marshal", who had to promise his rebel soldiers a pay increase; that, together with signs that the Japanese still supported Zhang, caused them to go back on their loyalty to him. [12] Guo and his wife were both publicly shot and their bodies left to hang for three days in a marketplace in Mukden. After Feng betrayed his ally Wu to seize Beijing for himself, Wu complained that China was "a country without a system; anarchy and treason prevail everywhere. Betraying one's leader has become as natural as eating one's breakfast ..." [12]

"Alignment politics" prevented any one warlord from dominating the system. When one warlord started to become too powerful, the rest would ally to stop him, then turn on each other. [12] The level of violence in the first years was restrained, as no leader wanted to engage in too much serious fighting. War brought the risk of damage to one's own forces. [13] For example, when Wu Peifu defeated the army of Marshal Zhang Zuolin, the "Old Marshal" of Manchuria, he provided two trains to take his defeated enemies home, knowing that if in the future Zhang were to defeat him, he could count on the same courtesy. Furthermore, none of the warlords had the economic capacity or the logistical strength to inflict a decisive knockout blow; the most they could hope for was to gain some territory. None could conquer the whole country and impose a central authority. However, as the 1920s went on, the violence became increasingly intense and savage as the object was to damage the enemy and improve one's bargaining power within the "alignment politics". [14]

Control of railroads was of great importance to the warlords. Locomotives in Tangshan depot.jpg
Control of railroads was of great importance to the warlords.

As the infrastructure in China was very poor, control of the railway lines and rolling stock were crucial in maintaining the sphere of influence. Railroads were the fastest and cheapest way of moving large number of troops, and most battles during this era were fought within a short distance of railways. In 1925, it was estimated that 70% of the locomotives on the railway lines connecting Wuhan and Beijing, and 50% of the locomotives on the lines connecting Beijing and Mukden were being used for mobilizing troops and supplies.

Armored trains, full of machine guns and artillery, offered fire support for troops going into battle. The constant fighting around the railroads caused much economic harm. In 1925 at least 50% of the locomotives being used on the line connecting Nanjing and Shanghai had been destroyed, with the soldiers of one warlord using 300 freight cars as sleeping quarters, all inconveniently parked directly on the rail line. To hinder pursuit, defeated troops tore up the railroads as they retreated, causing in 1924 alone damage worth 100 million silver Mexican dollars (the Mexican silver dollar was the main currency used in China at the time).[ citation needed ] Between 1925 and 1927 fighting in eastern and southern China caused non-military railroad traffic to decline by 25%, raising the prices of goods and causing inventory to build up at warehouses. [15]

Warlord profiles

Few of the warlords had any sort of ideology. Yan Xishan, the "Model Governor" of Shanxi, professed a syncretic creed that merged elements of democracy, militarism, individualism, capitalism, socialism, communism, imperialism, universalism, anarchism, and Confucian paternalism into one. A friend described Yan as "a dark-skinned, mustached man of medium height who rarely laughed and maintained an attitude of great reserve  Yan never showed his inner feelings." He kept Shanxi on a different railroad gauge from the rest of China to make it difficult to invade his province, though that tactic also hindered the export of coal and iron; the main source of Shanxi's wealth. Feng Yuxiang, the "Christian General", promoted Methodism together with a vague sort of left-leaning Chinese nationalism, which led the Soviets to support him for a time. He banned alcohol, lived simply and wore the common uniform of an infantryman to show his concern for his men. [16]

Wu Peifu, the "Philosopher General", was a mandarin who passed the Imperial Civil Service exam, billing himself as the protector of Confucian values, usually appearing in photographs with the scholar's brush in his hand (the scholar's brush is a symbol of Confucian culture). Doubters noted, however, that the quality of Wu's calligraphy markedly declined when his secretary died. Wu liked to appear in photos taken in his office with a portrait of his hero George Washington in the background to reflect the supposed democratic militarism he was attempting to bring to China. Wu was famous for his capacity to absorb vast quantities of alcohol and still keep drinking. [17] When he sent Feng a bottle of brandy, Feng replied by sending him a bottle of water, a message that Wu failed to take in. An intense Chinese nationalist, Wu Peifu refused to enter the foreign concessions in China, a stance that was to cost him his life when he refused to go to the International Settlement or the French Concession in Shanghai for medical treatment. [17]

Zhang Zongchang, one of the most infamous Chinese warlords Zhang Zongchang5.jpg
Zhang Zongchang, one of the most infamous Chinese warlords

More typical was Marshal Zhang Zuolin, a graduate of the "University of the Green Forest" (i.e., a bandit), an illiterate who had a forceful, ambitious personality that allowed him to rise up from the leader of a bandit gang, be hired by the Japanese to attack the Russians during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and become the warlord of Manchuria by 1916. He worked openly for the Japanese in ruling Manchuria. Zhang controlled only 3% of China's population but 90% of its heavy industry. The wealth of Manchuria, the support of the Japanese and Zhang's hard-hitting, swift-moving cavalry made him the most powerful of the warlords. [16] His Japanese patrons insisted that he ensure a stable economic climate to facilitate Japanese investment, making him one of the few warlords who sought to pursue economic growth instead of just plundering. [17]

Zhang Zongchang, known as the "Dogmeat General" because of his love for the gambling game of that name, was described as having "the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger". Writer Lin Yutang called Zhang "the most colorful, legendary, medieval, and unashamed ruler of modern China". Former Emperor Puyi remembered Zhang as "a universally detested monster" whose ugly, bloated face was "tinged with the livid hue induced by heavy opium smoking". A brutal man, Zhang was notorious for his hobby of smashing in the heads of prisoners with his sword, which he called "smashing melons". He loved to boast about the size of his penis, which become part of his legend. He was widely believed to be the most well endowed man in China, nicknamed "General Eighty-Six" as his penis when erect was said to measure up to a pile of 86 Mexican silver dollars. His harem consisted of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian and two French women. He gave them numbers, as he could not remember their names, and then usually forgot the numbers. [17]

Other notable information on some of the above mentioned major warlords:

  1. Chang Tso-lin "Warlord of Manchuria" became Japan's ally against Russia during the Russo-Japanese war. He had also served as the military governor of Mukden since 1911.
  2. Wu P'ei-fu was originally trained as a Confucian scholar, but later received Japanese military training at the Paoting military academy. He was thought by many Chinese and British observers to be a stabilizing force in Central China.
  3. Feng Yü-hsiang was a soldier since childhood and like Wu, was a graduate of Paoting. He was baptized by a Y.M.C.A leading in 1913; He was known as the "Christian General" as he encouraged his troops pursue Christianity. He seized Peking in 1924 and demonstrated how easily a major Chinese city could be overthrown. [18]
Bandits in northwestern China, around 1915 Muslim Bandits, Xinjiang, China (c1915) Marc Aurel Stein (RESTORED) (4073631151).jpg
Bandits in northwestern China, around 1915

The great ideological flexibility of warlords and politicians during this era can be well exemplified in the activities of Bai Lang, an important bandit leader. Even though he initially fought in support of the Qing dynasty with ultraconservative monarchists as well as warlords, Bai Lang later formed an alliance with republicans, [19] declared himself loyal to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and formed a "Citizen's Punitive Army" to rid China of all the warlords. [20]

Warlord armies

Many of the common soldiers in warlord armies were also bandits who took up service for a campaign and then reverted to banditry when the campaign was over. One politician remarked that when the warlords went to war with each other, the bandits become soldiers and when the war ended, the soldiers became bandits. [21] Warlord armies commonly raped or took many women into sexual slavery. [22] The system of looting was institutionalized, as many warlords lacked the money to pay their troops. Some took to kidnapping, and might send a hostage's severed fingers along with the ransom demand as a way of encouraging prompt payment. [20]

Warlord soldiers train with dao swords sometime in the 1920s. Some warlord armies, especially those in southern China, were badly armed, paid and supplied, and often lacked even basic necessities, such as guns, ammunition, and food. Chinese warlord soldiers training with swords 1.png
Warlord soldiers train with dao swords sometime in the 1920s. Some warlord armies, especially those in southern China, were badly armed, paid and supplied, and often lacked even basic necessities, such as guns, ammunition, and food.

Besides bandits, the rank-and-file of the warlord armies tended to be village conscripts. They might take service in one army, get captured, then join the army of their captors before being captured yet again. Warlords usually incorporated their prisoners into their armies; at least 200,000 men who were serving in the army of Gen. Wu were prisoners he had incorporated into his own army.[ citation needed ] A survey of one warlord garrison in 1924 revealed that 90% of the soldiers were illiterate. In 1926 U.S. Army officer Joseph Stilwell inspected a warlord unit and observed that 20% were less than 4.5 feet tall, the average age was 14 and most walked barefoot. Stilwell wrote that this "scarecrow company" was worthless as a military unit. A British army visitor commented that, provided they had proper leadership, the men of northern China were "the finest Oriental raw material with a physique second to none, and an iron constitution". However, such units were the exception rather than the rule. [24]


Zhang Zuolin with two of his sons, both wearing expensive miniature uniforms Zhang Zuolin with two sons.jpg
Zhang Zuolin with two of his sons, both wearing expensive miniature uniforms

In 1916 there were about a half-million soldiers in China. By 1922 the numbers had tripled, then tripled again by 1924; more than the warlords could support. For example, Marshal Zhang, the ruler of industrialized Manchuria, took in $23 million in tax revenues in 1925 while spending some $51 million. Warlords in other provinces were even more hard-pressed. One way of raising funds were taxes called lijin that were often confiscatory and inflicted much economic harm. For example, in Sichuan province there were 27 different taxes on salt, and one shipload of paper that was sent down the Yangtze River to Shanghai was taxed 11 different times by various warlords to the sum total of 160% of its value. One warlord imposed a tax of 100% on railroad freight, including food, even though there was a famine in his province. Taxes owed to the central government in Beijing on stamp and salt were usually taken by regional authorities. Despite all of the wealth of Manchuria and the support of the Japanese army, Marshal Zhang had to raise land taxes by 12% between 1922 and 1928 to pay for his wars. [14]

The warlords demanded loans from the banks. The other major revenue source besides taxes, loans and looting was the selling of opium, with the warlords selling the rights to grow and sell opium within their provinces to consortia of gangsters. Despite his ostensible anti-opium stance, Gen. Feng Yuxiang, "the Christian General", took in some $20 million per annum from opium sales. Inflation was another means of paying for their soldiers. Some warlords simply ran the money printing presses, and some resorted to duplicating machines to issue new Chinese dollars. The warlord who ruled Hunan province printed 22 million Chinese dollars on a silver reserve worth only one million Chinese dollars in the course of a single year, while Zhang in Shandong province printed 55 million Chinese dollars on a silver reserve of 1.5 million Chinese dollars during the same year. The illiterate Marshal Zhang Zuolin, who engaged in reckless printing of Chinese dollars, did not understand it was him who was causing the inflation in Manchuria, and his remedy was simply to summon the leading merchants of Mukden, accuse them of greed because they were always raising their prices, had five of them selected at random publicly shot and told the rest to behave better. [25]

Renault FT of the Fengtian clique during Northern Expedition Feng Xi Jun Fa De FT-17.jpg
Renault FT of the Fengtian clique during Northern Expedition

Despite their constant need for money, the warlords lived in luxury. Marshal Zhang owned the world's biggest pearl, while Gen. Wu owned the world's biggest diamond. Marshal Zhang, the "Old Marshal", lived in a lavish palace in Mukden with his five wives, old Confucian texts and a cellar full of fine French wines, and needed 70 cooks in his kitchen to make enough food for him, his wives and his guests. Gen. Zhang, the "Dogmeat General", ate his meals off a 40-piece Belgian dinner service, and an American journalist described dinner with him: "He gave a dinner for me where sinful quantities of costly foods were served in a starving country. There was French champagne and sound brandy". [11]


The warlords bought machine guns and artillery from abroad, but their uneducated and illiterate soldiers could not operate or service them. A British mercenary complained in 1923 that Wu Peifu had about 45 European artillery pieces that were inoperable because they had not been properly maintained. [26] At the Battle of Urga, the army of Gen. Xu Shuzheng, which had seized Outer Mongolia, was attacked by a Russian-Mongol army under the command of Gen. Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. The Chinese might have stopped Ungern had they been capable of firing their machine guns properly, to adjust for the inevitable upward jerk caused by the firing; they did not, and this caused the bullets to overshoot their targets. The inability to use their machine guns properly proved costly: after taking Urga in February 1921, Ungern had his Cossacks and Mongol cavalry hunt down the remnants of Xu's troops as they attempted to flee south on the road back to China. [27]

Other forces

Because their soldiers were not able to use or take proper care of modern weapons, the warlords often hired foreign mercenaries, who were effective but always open to other offers. Russian émigrés who fled to China after the victory of the Bolsheviks were widely employed. The Russian mercenaries, according to one reporter, went through the Chinese troops like a knife through butter. The most highly paid of the Russian units was led by Gen. Konstantin Nechaev, who fought for Zhang Zongchang, the "Dogmeat General" who ruled Shandong province. Nechanev and his men were much feared. In 1926 they drove three armored trains through the countryside, gunning down everyone they met and taking everything moveable. The rampage was stopped only when the peasants pulled up the train tracks, which led Nechanev to sack the nearest town. [28]

To defend themselves from the attacks of the warlord factions and armies, peasants organized themselves into militant secret societies and village associations which served as self-defense militias as well as vigilante groups. As the peasants usually had neither money for guns nor military training, these secret societies relied on martial arts, self-made weapons such as swords and spears, as well as the staunch belief in protective magic. [29] [30] The latter was especially important, as the conviction of invulnerability was "a powerful weapon for bolstering the resolve of people who possessed few alternative resources with which to defend their meager holdings". [31] Magical rituals practiced by the peasants ranged from rather simple ones, such as swallowing charms, [32] to much more elaborate practices. For example, elements of the Red Spear Society performed secret ceremonies to confer invulnerability from bullets to channel the power of Qi and went into battle naked with supposedly bulletproof red clay smeared over their bodies. [20] The Mourning Clothes Society would perform three kowtows and weep loudly before each battle. [32] There were also all-female self-defense groups, such as the Iron Gate Society [20] or the Flower Basket Society. [32] The former would dress entirely in white (the color of death in China) and waved fans that they believed would deflect gunfire, [20] while the latter fought with a sword and a magical basket to catch their opponents bullets. [32] Disappointed with the Republic of China and despairing due to the warlords deprivations, many peasant secret societies adopted millenarian beliefs, [31] and advocated the restoration of the monarchy, led by the old Ming dynasty. The past was widely romanticized, and many believed that a Ming emperor would bring a "reign of happiness and justice for all". [33] [34]


Northern factions

Southern factions


This military symbol was based on the Five Races Under One Union flag. Beiyang star.svg
This military symbol was based on the Five Races Under One Union flag.

The death of Yuan Shikai split the Beiyang Army into two main factions. The Zhili and Fengtian clique were in alliance with one another, while the Anhui clique formed their own faction. International recognition was based on the presence in Beijing, and every Beiyang clique tried to assert their dominance over the capital to claim legitimacy.

Duan Qirui and Anhui dominance (1916–20)

While Li Yuanhong replaced Yuan Shikai as the President after his death, the political power was in the hands of Premier Duan Qirui. The government worked closely with the Zhili clique, led by Vice President Feng Guozhang, to maintain stability in the capital. Continuing military influence over the Beiyang government led to provinces around the country refusing to declare their allegiance. The debate between the President and the Premier on whether or not China should participate in the First World War was followed by political unrest in Beijing. Both Li and Duan asked Beiyang general Zhang Xun, stationed in Anhui, to militarily intervene in Beijing. As Zhang marched into Beijing on 1 July, he quickly dissolved the parliament and proclaimed a Manchu Restoration. The new government quickly fell to Duan after he returned to Beijing with reinforcements from Tianjin. As another government formed in Beijing, Duan's fundamental disagreements over national issues with the new President Feng Guozhang led to Duan's resignation in 1918. The Zhili clique forged an alliance with the Fengtian clique, led by Zhang Zuolin, and defeated Duan in the critical Zhili-Anhui War in July 1920.

Cao Kun and Zhili dominance (1920–24)

After the death of Feng Guozhang in 1919, the Zhili clique was led by Cao Kun. The alliance with the Fengtian was only one of convenience and war broke out in 1922 (the First Zhili–Fengtian War), with Zhili driving Fengtian forces back to Manchuria. Next, they wanted to bolster their legitimacy and reunify the country by returning Li Yuanhong to the presidency and restoring the National Assembly. They proposed that Xu Shichang and Sun Yat-sen resign their rival presidencies simultaneously in favor of Li. When Sun issued strict stipulations that the Zhili couldn't stomach, they caused the defection of KMT Gen. Chen Jiongming by recognizing him as governor of Guangdong. With Sun driven out of Guangzhou, the Zhili clique superficially restored the constitutional government that existed prior to Zhang Xun's coup. Cao bought the presidency in 1923 despite opposition by the KMT, Fengtian, Anhui remnants, some of his lieutenants and the public. In the autumn of 1924 the Zhili appeared to be on the verge of complete victory in the Second Zhili–Fengtian War until Feng Yuxiang betrayed the clique, seized Beijing and imprisoned Cao. Zhili forces were routed from the north but kept the center.

Zhang Zuolin and Fengtian (1924–28)

During the Second Zhili–Fengtian War, Feng Yuxiang changed his support from Zhili to Fengtian and forced the Beijing Coup which resulted in Cao Kun being imprisoned. Feng soon broke off from the Zhili clique again and formed Guominjun and allied himself with Duan Qirui. In 1926, Wu Peifu from the Zhili clique launched the Anti-Fengtian War. Zhang Zuolin took advantage of the situation, and entered Shanhai Pass from the Northeast and captured Beijing. The Fengtian clique remained in control of the capital until the Northern Expedition led by Chiang Kai-shek's National Revolutionary Army forced Zhang out of power in June 1928.


The party emblem of the Kuomintang Emblem of the Kuomintang.svg
The party emblem of the Kuomintang

The southern provinces of China were notably against the Beiyang government in the north, having resisted the restoration of monarchy by Yuan Shikai and the subsequent government in Peking after his death. Sun Yat-sen along with other southern leaders have formed a government in Guangzhou to resist the rule of the Beiyang warlords, and the Guangzhou government came to be known as part of the Constitutional Protection War.

Sun Yat-sen and "Constitutional protection" military junta in Guangzhou (1917–22)

In September Sun was named generalissimo of the military government with the purpose of protecting the provisional constitution of 1912. The southern warlords assisted his regime solely to legitimize their fiefdoms and challenge Beijing. In a bid for international recognition, they also declared war against the Central Powers but failed to garner any recognition. In July 1918 southern militarists thought Sun was given too much power and forced him to join a governing committee. Continual interference forced Sun into self-imposed exile. While away, he recreated the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. With the help of KMT Gen. Chen Jiongming, committee members Gen. Cen Chunxuan, Adm. Lin Baoyi and Gen. Lu Rongting were expelled in the 1920 Guangdong–Guangxi War. In May 1921 Sun was elected "extraordinary president" by a rump parliament despite protests by Chen and Tang Shaoyi, who complained of its unconstitutionality. Tang left while Chen plotted with the Zhili clique to overthrow Sun in June 1922 in return for recognition of his governorship over Guangdong.

Reorganization of military junta in Guangzhou (1923–25)

After Chen was driven out of Guangzhou, Sun returned again to assume leadership in March 1923. The party was reorganized along Leninist democratic centralism, and the alliance with the Communist Party of China came to be known as First United Front. The Guangzhou government focused on training new officers through the newly created Whampoa Military Academy. In 1924, the Zhilii clique fell out of power, and Sun travelled to Beiping to negotiate terms of reunification with leaders from Guominjun, Fengtian and Anhui clique. He was unable to secure the terms as he died in March 1925 from illness. Power struggles within the KMT ensued after the death of Sun. The Yunnan–Guangxi War broke out as Tang Jiyao tries to claim party leadership. In the north, there were struggles led by Guominjun against Fengtian-Zhili alliance from November 1925 to April 1926. The defeat of Guominjun ended their reign in Beiping.


Map of the campaigns of the Northern expedition of the Kuomintang Map of Northern Expedition.png
Map of the campaigns of the Northern expedition of the Kuomintang

Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the protégé of Sun Yat-sen following the Zhongshan Warship Incident. In the summer of 1926, Chiang and the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) began the Northern Expedition with the hopes to reunify China. Wu Peifu and Sun Chuanfang of the Chili clique were subsequently defeated in central and eastern China. In response to the situation, the Guominjun and Yan Xishan of Shanxi formed an alliance with Chiang to attack the Fengtian clique together. In 1927, Chiang initiated a violent purge of Communists in the Kuomintang, which marked the end of the First United Front. Though Chiang had consolidated the power of the KMT in Nanking, it was still necessary to capture Beiping (Beijing) to claim the legitimacy needed for international recognition. Yan Xishan moved in and captured Beiping on behalf of his new allegiance after the death of Zhang Zuolin in 1928. His successor, Zhang Xueliang, accepted the authority of the KMT leadership, and the Northern Expedition officially concluded.

In course of the Central Plains War, several warlords attempted to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek's newly formed Nationalist government. Despite the defeat of the anti-Kuomintang forces, warlords continued to remain in power in much of China until the 1940s. Central Plains War.png
In course of the Central Plains War, several warlords attempted to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek's newly formed Nationalist government. Despite the defeat of the anti-Kuomintang forces, warlords continued to remain in power in much of China until the 1940s.

Despite the reunification, there were still ongoing conflicts across the country. Remaining regional warlords across China chose to cooperate with the Nationalist government, but disagreements with the Nationalist government and regional warlords soon broke out into the Central Plains War in 1930. Northwest China erupted into a series of wars in Xinjiang from 1931 to 1937. Following the Xi'an Incident in 1936, efforts began to shift toward preparation of war against the Japanese Empire.

See also

Related Research Articles

Feng Yuxiang Chinese general and politician

Feng Yuxiang was a warlord and leader in Republican China from Chaohu, Anhui. He served as Vice Premier of the Republic of China from 1928-30. He was also known as the Christian General for his zeal to convert his troops and the Betrayal General for his penchant to break with the establishment. In 1911 he was an officer in the ranks of Yuan Shikai's Beiyang Army but joined forces with revolutionaries against the Qing Dynasty. He rose to high rank within Wu Peifu's Zhili warlord faction but launched the Beijing coup in 1924 that knocked Zhili out of power and brought Sun Yat-sen to Beijing. He joined the Nationalist Party (KMT), supported the Northern Expedition and became blood brothers with Chiang Kai-shek, but resisted Chiang's consolidation of power in the Central Plains War and broke with him again in resisting Japanese incursions in 1933. He spent his later years supporting the Revolutionary Committee of the Kuomintang.

Cao Kun Chinese general

General Cao Kun was a Chinese warlord and politician, who served the President of the Republic of China from 1923 to 1924, as well as the military leader of the Zhili clique in the Beiyang Army; he also served as a trustee of the Catholic University of Peking.

Beiyang Army Military faction dominating much of Republic of China and Warlord Era politics, originally established to modernize the Qing dynasty army

The Beiyang Army was a powerful, Western-style Imperial Chinese Army established by the Qing Dynasty government in the late 19th century. It was the centerpiece of a general reconstruction of Qing China's military system. The Beiyang Army played a major role in Chinese politics for at least three decades and arguably right up to 1949. It made the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 possible, and, by dividing into warlord factions known as the Beiyang Clique, ushered in a period of regional division.

Wu Peifu Chinese general

Wu Peifu or Wu P'ei-fu, was a major figure in the struggles between the warlords who dominated Republican China from 1916-27.

Sun Chuanfang Chinese politician

Sun Chuanfang a.k.a. the "Nanking Warlord" or leader of the "League of Five Provinces" was a Zhili clique warlord and protégé of the "Jade Marshal" Wu Peifu (1874–1939).

Beiyang government Government of the Republic of China heavily influenced by warlords and military factions

The Beiyang government, also sometimes spelled Peiyang Government or the First Republic of China, refers to the government of the Republic of China which sat in its capital Peking between 1912 and 1928. It was internationally recognized as the legitimate Chinese government. The name derives from the Beiyang Army, which dominated its politics with the rise of Yuan Shikai, who was a general of the Qing dynasty. After his death, the army split into various factions competing for power, in a period called the Warlord Era. Although the government and the state were nominally under civilian control under a constitution, the Beiyang generals were effectively in charge of it. Nevertheless, the government enjoyed legitimacy abroad along with diplomatic recognition, had access to tax and customs revenue, and could apply for foreign financial loans.

Zhang Shaozeng Chinese general

Zhang Shaozeng was a Beiyang Army general in charge of the 20th Division.

Zhili clique

The Zhili clique was one of several mutually hostile cliques or factions that split from the Beiyang clique during the Republic of China's warlord era. This fragmentation followed the death of Yuan Shikai, who was the only person capable of keeping the Beiyang Army together. It was named for the general region of the clique's base of power, Zhili Province, now Hebei, and during its height also controlled Jiangsu, Jiangxi, and Hubei.

Fengtian clique political faction

The Fengtian Clique was one of several mutually hostile cliques or factions that split from the Beiyang Clique in the Republic of China's Warlord Era. It was named for Fengtian Province and operated from a territorial base comprising the three northeastern provinces that made up Manchuria. Warlord Zhang Zuolin, known as the "Grand Marshal," led the clique with support from Japan. Between 1920 and 1921 the Fengtian Clique exercised control of Beijing jointly with the Zhili Clique. Tensions soon began building between the two, resulting in clashes for control of Beijing known as the First (1922) and Second (1924) Zhili–Fengtian Wars. The power of the Fengtian Clique began to decrease in the midst of the Kuomintang's Northern Expedition. In 1928, while he was retreating North, Zhang Zuolin's Japanese sponsors blew up his train, killing him. After the assassination, his son, Zhang Xueliang, took over the leadership of the clique, later pledging himself and his army to the Kuomintang government in Nanking. The Northeastern Army was built after unification.

The Zhili–Anhui War was a 1920 conflict in the Republic of China's Warlord Era between the Zhili and Anhui cliques for control of the Beiyang government.

The First Zhili–Fengtian War was a 1922 conflict in the Republic of China's Warlord Era between the Zhili and Fengtian cliques for control of Beijing. The war led to the defeat of the Fengtian clique and the fall of its leader, Zhang Zuolin, from the coalition Zhili-Fengtian government in Beijing. Wu Peifu was credited as the strategist behind Zhili's victory.

The Second Zhili–Fengtian War of 1924 was a conflict between the Japanese-backed Fengtian clique based in Manchuria, and the more liberal Zhili clique controlling Beijing and backed by Anglo-American business interests. The war is considered the most significant in China's Warlord era, with the Beijing coup by Christian warlord Feng Yuxiang leading to the overall defeat of the Zhili clique. During the war the two cliques fought one large battle near Tianjin in October 1924, as well as a number of smaller skirmishes and sieges. Afterwards, both Feng and Zhang Zuolin, the latter being ruler of the Fengtian clique, appointed Duan Qirui as a figurehead prime minister. In south and central China, more liberal Chinese were dismayed by the Fengtian's advance and by the resulting power vacuum. A wave of protests followed. The war also distracted the northern warlords from the Soviet-backed Nationalists based in the southern province of Guangdong, allowing unhampered preparation for the Northern Expedition (1926–1928), which united China under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek.

Huanggutun incident assassination

The Huanggutun Incident, or Zhang Zuolin Explosion Death Incident, was an assassination plotted and committed on June 4, 1928, by the Japanese Kwantung Army that targeted Fengtian warlord Zhang Zuolin. It took place at the Huanggutun Railway Station near Shenyang, where Zhang's personal train was destroyed by a railside explosion. This incident was concealed in Japan at the time and was referred only as "A Certain Important Incident in Manchuria".

The Beijing Coup refers to the October 1924 coup d'état by Feng Yuxiang against Chinese President Cao Kun, leader of the Zhili warlord faction. Feng called it the Capital Revolution. The coup occurred at a crucial moment in the Second Zhili–Fengtian War and allowed the pro-Japanese Fengtian clique to defeat the previously dominant Zhili clique. Followed by a brief period of liberalization under Huang Fu, on November 23 this government was replaced by a conservative, pro-Japanese government led by Duan Qirui. The coup alienated many liberal Chinese from the Beijing government.

Liang Shiyi Chinese politician

Liang Shiyi was a Chinese minister who served as premier of China during the Beiyang government from 1921 to 1922.

The Communications Clique was a powerful interest group of politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, businessmen, engineers, and labour unionists in China's Beiyang government (1912-1928). It is also known as the Cantonese Clique because many of its leaders hailed from Guangdong. They were named after the Ministry of Posts and Communications which was responsible for railways, postal delivery, shipping, and telephones as well as the Bank of Communications. This ministry earned five times more revenue for the government than all the other ministries combined.

Anti-Fengtian War

The Anti-Fengtian War was the last major civil war within the Republic of China's northern Beiyang government prior to the Northern Expedition. It lasted from November 1925 to April 1926 and was waged by the Guominjun against the Fengtian clique and their Zhili clique allies. The war ended with the defeat of the Guominjun and the end of the provisional executive government. The war is also known as either Guominjun-Fengtian War, or the Third Zhili-Fengtian War.

Duan Qirui Chinese warlord and politician

Duan Qirui was a Chinese warlord and politician, a commander of the Beiyang Army and the acting Chief Executive of the Republic of China from 1924 to 1926. He was also the Premier of the Republic of China on four occasions between 1913 and 1918. He was arguably the most powerful man in China from 1916 to 1920.

Chu Yupu Chinese general

Chu Yupu was a Chinese general who served under Yuan Shikai and later Zhang Zongchang. In 1921 he entered the service of Fengtian Province warlord Zhang Zuolin. He first fought against Sun Yat-sen's Kuomintang forces in August 1913. He became leader of the Fengtian clique's Zhili Army and military governor of Zhili province in 1926. During the Northern Expedition he fought against the Guominjun forces of Feng Yuxiang and the National Revolutionary Army of Chiang Kai-shek. In March 1929, he was captured by his former subordinate Liu Zhennian and executed by firing squad on September 4, 1929.

The Fengtian clique's Zhili Army was a Chinese Warlord Era fighting force that controlled the Republic of China's Zhili province from 1924 until 1928, with the exception of a few months in 1925/26. Not related to the Zhili clique, it instead originated as Fengtian Second Army and operated as part of the Fengtian clique's armed forces. It was led by two successive Fengtian warlords, Li Jinglin and Chu Yupu, who always followed the orders of Zhang Zuolin, the Fengtian clique's overall leader. Although the Zhili Army's quality declined after 1925, it distinguished itself in numerous battles until it was disbanded in 1928 after being defeated by the National Revolutionary Army in the Northern Expedition.



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