“Every Communist must grasp the truth, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,'” said Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong in a speech on November 6, 1938. “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”

War, revolution and violence are themes which run through Mao Zedong’s works and speeches, profoundly shaping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the regime it founded in 1949.

But Mao Zedong’s ideas did not develop in a vacuum. He grew up in an era in which the foundation of political power resided in military power. On the one hand, Mao viewed war as a Marxist-Leninist strategy:

“According to the Marxist theory of the state, the army is the chief component of state power,” Mao argued. “Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army. Some people ridicule us as advocates of the ‘omnipotence of war’. Yes, we are advocates of the omnipotence of revolutionary war; that is good, not bad, it is Marxist. The guns of the Russian Communist Party created socialism.”

Elite German-trained divisions of the Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army in 1938 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, Mao was well aware of the specific Chinese context. Since the 1911 revolution had overthrown the last imperial dynasty, there had been no truly civilian government in China. Only those who controlled a powerful army had political power. Mao articulated his vision for a warlike party to his Chinese audience by referring to their own experience of warlord politics:

“Since the Revolution of 1911, all the warlords have clung to their armies for dear life, setting great store by the principle, ‘Whoever has an army has power.'”

As Lucian Pye put it in the 1970s:

“In no country in the world have soldiers dominated politics as extensively or for so long as in China. Modern Chinese politics has revolved around armies and military figures” (Pye, L. W. (1971). Warlord Politics. Conflict and Coalition in the Modernization of Republican China, p. 3).

Historians and politicians in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) often downplay the importance of militarism and violence in Chinese history. In reality, military power has always been a fundamental part of the Chinese political system.

The first Chinese emperor Qin Shihuang (秦始皇) was a warrior who established a tyrannical military autocracy. His dynasty was overthrown by a rebellion in 206 BC, and each successive dynasty came to power through war or revolution. The empire expanded its original territory through war, and the PRC took over most of the area which imperial dynasties had conquered militarily.

Nevertheless, in imperial China the military usually enjoyed a lower status than civilian authority, at least in times of peace. The state apparatus rested on a bureaucracy that was made up of people who had to pass the Confucian civil service examinations. Degree holders obtained the most coveted and respected administrative positions.

A military career was seen as a second-rate path, reserved for those who did not have the ability to become Confucian scholar-officials. Ever since the Song dynasty (960–1279), soldiers were looked down upon, and civilian control of the military was institutionalized (Wang, Y. (2011). Harmony and War. Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics).

The division between civilian management and military administration dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC). Civil control of the military remained an ideal for centuries, and it was reinforced by events such as the An Lushan rebellion of 755-763 AD. Emperors thus established a system of subordination of the military to the sphere of civil administration (Filipiak, K. (ed.) (2014). Civil-Military Relations in Chinese History: From Ancient China to the Communist Takeover, Introduction).

There is controversy as to the extent of the military’s subordination to the civil administration and as to how much this narrative was a result of official “propaganda” (see ibid.). But it is important to note that it was the ideal to which the state aspired and that Chinese sources emphasized the preeminence of the civilian sphere.

But this balance of power began to change in the 19th century as a result of foreign aggression and internal instability. There were several factors at play in the decline of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), mainly socioeconomic difficulties, wars with Western powers, and traditional patterns of the dynastic cycle (for a comprehensive analysis of the decline of the Qing, see: Rowe W. T. (2009). China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing, chapter 6; or read a summary in a previous post).

One of the first manifestations of the impending decline of the Chinese imperial state was the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804), initiated by the White Lotus religious sect. The immediate cause of the uprising was the high tax burden imposed on some areas of North China by corrupt officials headed by the influential courtier Heshen. When the people of the region revolted, Heshen was put in charge of suppressing it.

Instead, he and his brother Helin kept the war going so that they could pocket the funds allocated to employ local militia units. The war devastated the empire’s finances, whose treasury reserves, which stood at around 60 million silver taels at the end of the 18th century, were wiped out by the 120 million silver taels that the suppression of the uprising cost (Rowe 2009, pp. 155-156). In 1813, an offshoot of the White Lotus sect known as the Eight Trigrams broke into the imperial palace in Beijing and threatened to kill emperor Jiaqing (ibid.).

The Qing state was aware of the crises it was facing. Both emperor Jiaqing and his successor, emperor Daoguang, resorted to the yanlu (“pathways of words”), a procedure that allowed scholar-officials throughout the empire to submit memorials. The yanlu was used whenever emperors felt that the court circles had become too complacent and that thinking on specific issues had stagnated. This era of political and intellectual ferment produced notable reformist literati such as Ruan Yuan (阮元), Yan Ruyi (嚴如熤), Tang Jian (唐鑒), Bao Shichen (包世臣), Gong Zizhen (龔自珍), and Wei Yuan (魏源) (ibid., pp. 42, 158-161).

However, attempts to reform and strengthen the Qing dynasty were thwarted by the unprecedented and humiliating defeat of the empire at the hands of British forces during the first Opium War (1839–42). The victory of the small Western nation, which the Chinese had looked down upon as inferior, compounded the domestic problems of the Qing state and began to delegitimize it in the eyes of its subjects.

Less than a decade after the Opium War, China was rocked by the Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864), a devastating 14-year-long civil war that caused an enormous amount of victims, estimated at between twenty and thirty million people. According to an American study, as late as 1913, nearly fifty years after the conflict, China’s population had not yet returned to its pre-1850 level (Platt, S. R. (2012). Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom : China, the West, and the epic story of the Taiping Civil War, Epilogue).

In the midst of the Taiping Rebellion, the Qing empire was again attacked by foreign powers in what became known as the second Opium War (1856–60). In 1860 British and French troops occupied Beijing, plundered and then burned the Yuanming Garden, the emperor’s summer palace. The Qing were forced to yield to Anglo-French demands and sign the Beijing Convention.

After this brief overview, we shall now examine the militarization of Chinese society during the Taiping Rebellion and in subsequent decades leading up to the fall of the Qing in 1911-1912.


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The Taiping Rebellion and the Emergence of Warlord-Officials

On October 16, 1860, General Zeng Guofan, the commander in chief of the Qing forces, was residing in his headquarters in Qimen, in Anhui province. After lunch, a courier brought him a message informing him that the French and British armies were marching towards Beijing, and that the emperor and his entourage had left for Manchuria. Zeng broke down in tears (Platt 2012, chapter 6).

Zeng Guofan (曾國藩) was born into a prominent landlord family in Xiangxiang district, Hunan province. In 1838 he passed the highest level civil service examinations and obtained the degree of jinshi. He was subsequently appointed to the prestigious Hanlin Academy, imperial China’s leading scholarly institution, established in the 8th century AD to perform secretarial, archival, and literary work for the imperial court and to codify the official interpretation of the Confucian Classics.

Battle of Anqing during the Taiping Rebellion (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A distinguished scholar-official, Zeng was a traditional Confucian intellectual and bureaucrat who was deeply influenced by the neo-Confucian School of Statecraft, the moral principles of the orthodox Song School, and the literary style of the Tongzheng School (Edwin Pak-wah Leung (ed.) (2002). Political leaders of modern China: a biographical dictionary, p. 197).

Nothing in his career suggested that he would become a powerful military leader who would pave the way for a deep transformation of the empire. It was indeed by chance that in early January 1853, as Qing armies were routed by the Taiping insurgents, the emperor appointed him as commander of the local militia units in Hunan to restore order to the province. He did not choose Zeng because he thought him a capable military leader, but because Zeng was believed to be loyal and he happened to be in Hunan at the time. Faced with the prospect of defeat, the emperor sent similar orders to other local officials. It was an implicit admission that the central government had lost control (Platt 2012, chapter 6).

Zeng Guofan (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Initially Zeng Guofan did not want to accept the appointment. As a scholar-official, he had no interest in military affairs. He drafted a memorial to the emperor in which he declined to take up the post. But on 12 January 1853 came the news that Taiping troops had seized Wuchang (present-day Wuhan), the capital of neighbouring Hubei province. The local elites were alarmed. For them, the Taiping rebels were an existential threat.

The Taiping’s ideology was inspired by Christianity. The rebels did not just want to defeat the ruling dynasty, they wanted to destroy Confucian civilization and the traditional gentry. Ironically, the leader of the Taiping, Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全), had become a revolutionary and a Christian after his repeated failure to pass the imperial civil service examinations had driven him to despair. While Zeng Guofan was a successful member of the Confucian imperial social order, Hong and his followers had been rejected by it.

Read: Sources of the Taiping Rebellion: The Deposition of Li Xiucheng

The Qing state had always been reluctant to grant local elites wide-ranging military powers for fear of revolts and of weakening its own central authority. But the hostility of Confucian officials towards the Taiping convinced the Beijing court that local military commanders would serve the emperor loyally.

Zeng Guofan’s father, brothers and a close friend pleaded with him to change his mind. He tore up the memorial and accepted the job (Platt 2012, chapter 6; Wakeman, F. (1975). The Fall of Imperial China, p. 165).

It soon became clear that Zeng was the right person for the mission. He proposed to create an entirely new kind of army, taking as his model Qi Jiguang (戚繼光), a 16th century general of the Ming dynasty who had formed local militias to fight Japanese pirates on the coast (Wakeman 1975, 169).

“We aim for excellence, not sheer numbers,” he wrote to the emperor in order to justify his plan. “And we want it to be truly effective, not just available quickly” (Platt 2012, chapter 6).

Zeng’s new army, known as the Xiang Army (after Hunan’s major river), had several characteristics that distinguished it from its imperial counterpart. First, the recruits were men from rural areas. “Those who want a strong army use soldiers from the mountain villages,” he explained in an 1855 memorial. Zeng was distrustful of the urban population, for he believed that those “who live their lives in the mountains and rural areas are tough, while the ones from the river villages are slippery”, and that the cities “are full of lazy and carefree wanderers, while the rural villages have men who are simple and sincere” (Platt 2012, chapter 6; Wakeman 1975, p. 169).

Second, Zeng used traditional Confucian family values to create an ideologically disciplined and motivated army. The emperors had for centuries used Confucian notions of subordination of sons to fathers to promote the patriarchal ideal of the emperor and government officials as fathers whom the people should obey and respect like children. Zeng insisted that recruitment should take place through personal channels. He encouraged recruitment among family members, and regarded personal loyalty between higher and lower ranking men as the foundation of the army. He himself chose his commanding officers among family members and trusted friends, and they in turn chose their subordinates in the same manner, as did their subordinates with those below them. The idea of modelling the army after the relationship between father and son, and between brothers, was a deeply Confucian way to create a strong sense of personal duty and of social cohesion.

In 1858, he instructed his commanders that they “should act towards their soldiers like a father acts toward his sons or an elder brother toward his younger brothers. When the elder is strict, the younger will be well disciplined, and the family will flourish. If he spoils them, they will be headstrong and arrogant, and the family will decay.”

Confucian order justified strict discipline and punishment. “Forgiveness cannot govern the people, indulgence cannot order a family, and generosity cannot control an army,” Zeng argued (Platt 2012, chapter 6).

Third, Zeng used Confucian ideological indoctrination to impress upon the soldiers a sense of duty. “We have enlisted you to become militiamen and to exert your strength on behalf of the dynasty,” new recruits were told. “The food and supplies with which we feed and nurture you every day all come from the coffers of the emperor” (ibid.). The reference to food and supplies reflected the Confucian idea of filial piety, which stresses the nourishment and care children receive from parents as one of the sources of filial moral obligation towards them.

Fourth, Zeng offered material incentives to complement ideology. A foot soldier in Zeng’s army received a salary that was triple the wage of soldiers of the emperor’s armies. Moreover, soldiers were rewarded for their performance in battle: they received 10 taels of silver for killing a bandit, 15 for capturing one, and 20 taels – equivalent to nearly five months’ wages – if they captured a Taiping (ibid.).

The weakened Qing dynasty was compelled to give more and more power to Zeng Guofan, who was appointed governor-general of three provinces: Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Anhui. Meanwhile, Zeng oversaw the creation of other armies led by his protégés. The most important of them were the army of Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠) in Zhejiang province, the army of Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), Zeng’s former student, in Anhui province, and the army of Zeng’s own brother, Zeng Guoquan (曾國荃) (Wakeman 1975, p. 173).

By the time Zeng Guofan and his troops had defeated the Taiping and captured their capital Nanjing in July 1864, he was the most powerful man in China. He directly controlled an army of about 120,000 men (Wakeman 1975, p. 170), and indirectly thousands of other soldiers under the leadership of his brother and his protégés. His associates urged him to overthrow the Qing dynasty and install himself as the new emperor. The court in Beijing increasingly viewed him as a potential rival (Platt 2012, Epilogue).

Zeng, however, remained loyal to the Qing. In August 1864 he began demobilizing his army. He retained his post as governor-general of Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Anhui, and had a new gubernatorial palace built on the ruins of the Taiping palace (ibid.).

Although Zeng Guofan aimed at restoring the authority of the empire and preserving the traditional Confucian social order, he inadvertently weakened the imperial government by initiating a transition towards the militarization of politics and the regionalization of power.

Militarism, Regionalism and the Beiyang Army

After 14 years of civil war, regional leaders controlled not only large armies that had proved more effective than those of the imperial state, but also local administration and finances. The balance of power between the central government and local authorities had shifted, and despite repeated attempts by Beijing to reassert itself, the trend was never reversed. Furthermore, foreign aggression compelled the dynasty to raise the profile of the military. While in the past a military career was held in contempt by Confucian scholar officials, and the imperial court restricted the military’s power in favour of the civilian bureaucracy, domestic and foreign conflicts had the effect of giving military leaders prestige and authority as the defenders of the empire.

Between 1861 and 1890, twenty of the forty-four governors-general were regional army commanders, and over half of the 117 governors had served as officers in the regional armies. The importance of the Confucian civil service examinations decreased, while that of military experience rose. During the same period, about one-fourth of the governors did not hold either of the two highest civil service degrees, but had instead pursued a military career. In 1905 the imperial court abolished the civil service examinations altogether, ending an institution that had been in place since the Song dynasty (960–1279) (Sheridan, F. J. (1966). Chinese Warlord. The Career of Feng Yü-hsiang, pp. 3-6; Sheridan, F. J. (1975). China in Disintegration: The Republican Era in Chinese History, 1912-1949, pp. 18-19).

In the second half of the 19th century, Zeng Guofan and his associates ruled over vast areas of China. As mentioned earlier, in 1860 Zeng was appointed governor-general of Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Anhui. In 1866 his brother Guoquan was made governor of Hubei. Zuo Zongtang became governor of Zhejiang in 1862 and governor-general of Shaanxi and Gansu in 1866. Li Hongzhang was acting governor of Jiangsu in 1861; he was appointed acting governor-general of Jiangsu and Jiangxi in 1865, governor-general of Hunan and Hubei in 1869, and in 1870 he was appointed governor-general of Zhili as well as High Commissioner of Trade for the Northern Ocean (北洋大臣, Beiyang Dachen). His brother Hanzhang served as governor-general of Hubei from 1870 to 1882 and Guangdong from 1889 to 1895. It is important to note that Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang never disbanded their armies after the Taiping rebellion (Rowe 2009, p. 205; Sheridan 1966, p. 22).

Li Hongzhang in 1896 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang led modernization efforts to strengthen the army for the purpose of defending the empire from foreign domination. In the 1860s, Zeng and Li built the Jiangnan Arsenal in Shanghai, the first Chinese factory that manufactured modern ships, guns and cannon. It was soon expanded with the creation of a branch in Nanjing, a shipyard in Fuzhou, and a machine factory in Tianjin. The Arsenal had a translation bureau to facilitate the adoption of Western technology.

Li Hongzhang also took a series of initiatives on his own. He established the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company in 1872, promoted the manufacture of steel warships, and organized a trip of students from Fuzhou to Europe in 1876 so that they could learn from the West. He sponsored the founding of the Tianjin Naval Academy in 1880 and of a military academy in Tianjin in 1885; he helped set up the Port Arthur shipyard and harbour facilities in 1882 and the Beiyang Fleet in 1888. In 1885, Li founded the most influential military academy of late imperial China: the Beiyang Military Academy. Many future warlords, such as Duan Qirui (段祺瑞) and Feng Guozhang (馮國璋), studied at the Beiyang Academy (Dillon, M. (2010). China: A Modern History, pp. 106-107, 159).

The difficulties of the Qing dynasty were compounded by its defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895, which particularly shocked Chinese elites because they used to look down on Japan as a small country of “barbarians” (Zachmann, U. M. (2010). China and Japan in the Late Meiji Period: China Policy and the Japanese Discourse on National Identity, 1895-1904. pp. 29-30).

Recognizing the need to modernize its military, the Qing government tasked Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), a protégé of Li Hongzhang, with building a new army. Yuan submitted a plan for the creation of an army organized and trained on the German pattern. The court approved, and in December 1895 he began training 5,000 troops at Xiaozhan, a small market town near Tianjin. While Yuan made use of Western equipment and training, he was also inspired by the organizational structure developed by Zeng Guofan and his followers, particularly the strong bond of personal loyalty between commander, officers and troops. Within a few years, Yuan had built China’s most powerful army, estimated at between 50,000 and 80,000 men, who were equipped with Western weapons, well-trained and loyal to him rather than to the imperial court (Pye 1971, p. 14; Sheridan 1966, pp. 4-5).

One example of the near-independence of regional officials and military commanders from the central government came during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), when Yuan Shikai and other local officials such as Zhang Zhidong (張之洞) and Liu Kunyi (劉坤一) refused to join the struggle on Beijing’s side and made their own agreements with foreign powers (Pye 1971, p. 14).


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The 1911 Revolution and Warlordism in Republican China

In 1911, a group of insurgents inspired by revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen overthrew the imperial government. The Beijing court appointed Yuan Shikai as Premier of the National Assembly in a last minute attempt to save the dynasty. Yuan held talks with a leader of the revolutionaries, the British-trained jurist Wu Tingfang (伍廷芳). Wu told Yuan Shikai that the emperor must abdicate and a republic must be established. The revolutionaries would not compromise on this issue. In December 1911, Sun Yat-sen was offered by a rival National Assembly convening in Nanjing the office of provisional president of the new government. In January 1912, Sun proclaimed the founding of the Republic of China (ROC).

Yuan Shikai, recognizing that the Qing dynasty was doomed, switched sides. He pressured the court to accept the demands of the revolutionaries and brokered a deal that allowed the imperial family to continue to reside in Beijing, keep its hereditary titles and property, and receive an allowance. On 12 February 1912 Empress Dowager Longyu issued the Abdication Edict on behalf of the infant emperor Puyi.

Read: The Chinese Revolution of 1911 – The Founding of the Republic of China

The revolutionaries had defeated the Qing dynasty. But Yuan Shikai was the most powerful man in China because he had behind him the country’s strongest army. Yuan managed to persuade both the Qing and the Republicans that he should lead the country in the aftermath of the revolution. The imperial Abdication Edict stated: “Yuan Shi-kai, having been elected some time ago president of the National Assembly at Peking, is … able at this time of change to unite the North and the South – let him then, with full powers so to do, organize a provisional Republican Government.”

Sun Yat-sen, for his part, accepted Yuan’s leadership role. According to the initial conditions of his appointment as provisional president, Sun resigned on February 14 and recommended Yuan Shikai as his successor: “The abdication of the Ch’ing [=Qing] Emperor and the union of the North and South are largely due to the great exertion of Mr. Yuan,” Sun said before the National Assembly. “Moreover, he [Yuan Shikai] has declared his unconditional adhesion to the national cause. Should he be elected to serve the Republic, he would surely prove himself a most loyal servant of the state.”

Yuan Shikai was declared president on 15 February 1912 and formally took office on 10 March. At the elections held on January 1913 – the first national democratic elections in Chinese history – Sun Yat-sen’s newly founded party, the Guomindang, obtained 269 seats out of 596 in the House of Representatives, and 123 seats out of 274 in the Senate (Dillon 2010, p. 148; Jonathan D. Spence (1999). The Search for Modern China, p. 276).

Yuan in turn was supposed to resign so that the new democratically elected Assembly could elect a new president. But Yuan had other plans. He betrayed the Republic just as he had betrayed the Qing dynasty.

On 20 March 1913, Song Jiaoren (宋敎仁), a prominent Guomindang leader, was assassinated at Shanghai railway station. In June, Yuan dismissed provincial governors who supported the Guomindang. The governments of Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Hunan declared their independence from Yuan’s government and tried to overthrow him, but they were defeated. In August, Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan. On 13 October 1913 Yuan ordered the arrest of members of the provincial assembly in Jiangxi who had opposed him.

Sun Yat-sen in 1912 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Yuan Shikai (centre left) with foreign dignitaries in 1913 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

On 4 November Yuan outlawed and dissolved the Guomindang and declared that its members could no longer serve in the National Assembly. Subsequently he changed the Constitution to grant himself sweeping powers, de facto establishing a military dictatorship. But that was not enough for him. Rumours of his ambitions to become emperor had been circulating for years. In September 1915, Yuan began to take steps to formally reintroduce the monarchy with himself as emperor, under the dynasty title Hongxian. But opposition to imperial restoration was widespread, and the secession of Guangxi province in May 1916 prompted him to give up his plan to avoid a civil war (Dillon 2010, pp. 150-152, 156-157).

When Yuan Shikai died in 1916, the central government collapsed and China was divided up among warlords, many of whom were Yuan’s protégés and Beiyang Army officers. Due to the preeminence of personal loyalty as the foundation of the Army, it was Yuan who held together not only the military but also the government, as long as he was in charge (Sheridan 1975, p. 57).

Soon after Yuan’s death, his two most important protégés, Feng Guochan and Duan Qirui, whom we mentioned earlier, rose to power. Both had begun their careers at the Tianjin Military Academy established by Li Hongzhang in 1885, and Yuan Shikai recruited them into his Beiyang Army after the Sino-Japanese war. After 1912, they were both given high positions in Yuan’s government. But after 1916, they fought one another for supremacy. Feng became the leader of the so-called Zhili Clique, while Duan was at the head of the Anhui Clique. Neither of them managed to unify the country under their leadership. In 1919, Feng died. His successors in the Zhili Clique, Wu Peifu (吳佩孚) and Cao Kun (曹錕), defeated Duan Qirui.

With the collapse of the central government, the Republic disintegrated. Dozens of warlords took power in different areas, constantly fighting wars against one another to expand their sphere of influence. They had different ideological convictions, different motivations, and different styles of governance. Among them were Confucian traditionalists, monarchists, reformists, as well as outright criminals.

For instance, Wu Peifu, born in a poor family in 1874, had received a traditional education and passed the civil service examinations in 1897. But he, like other men of his age, opted for a military career. He was assigned to the Beiyang Army’s Third Division under Cao Kun’s command. After he had defeated Duan Qirui in 1920, Wu occupied Beijing and was a leading warlord until he was betrayed by one of his commanders, Feng Yuxiang (馮玉祥), in 1924.

Zhang Xun (張勳) was a staunch Confucian and monarchist. He joined the army during the war between China and France in 1884-1885, and in the 1890s he became one of Yuan Shikai’s officers. Zhang never accepted the fall of the Qing. He displayed his loyalty by retaining the typical queue hairstyle (introduced by the Qing dynasty in the 17th century), which his soldiers were obliged to keep as well. He was therefore known as the “Pig-Tailed General”. Though he disagreed with Yuan’s plan to make himself emperor, he did not openly oppose him due to his Confucian sense of duty towards his mentor. In 1917, he attempted to restore the last Qing emperor, Puyi, to the throne, before being driven out of Beijing by other warlords.

Some warlords were reformers. For example, Yan Xishan (閻錫山) ruled over Shanxi for two decades and was known for his enlightened administration, at least by the standards of China in that period. Feng Yuxiang, though he never controlled a territory for a long time, saw himself as a modernizer willing to learn from the West, and he adopted Christianity. Feng had started his military career as a 16-year-old boy, joining the army of Li Hongzhang.

By contrast, Zhang Zongchang (張宗昌), known as the “Dog Meat General”, was little more than a criminal. Born in 1881 in a poor family, in his youth he had been a bandit and he had fought on the side of Russia against China. He joined the military after the 1911 revolution, and in 1925 he became military governor of Shandong. Zhang squeezed out of the province as much wealth as he could, and he was infamous for his brutality. For example, when a newspaper criticized him, he had the editor shot. His soldiers engaged in acts of violence, terrorizing those who dared to question Zhang’s authority (Sheridan 1966, pp. 57-77).

These are just a few of the dozens of warlords that dominated Chinese politics from 1916 to 1927.

One of the consequences of warlordism was that Sun Yat-sen became convinced that the only way to unify China and complete the 1911 revolution was for the Guomindang to build its own army. Due to Western and Japanese imperialism, which had resulted in the May 4th movement‘s outburst of patriotism and quest for Chinese independence from foreign aggression, China was squeezed diplomatically and economically between countries that either sought to dominate it or had no interest in helping it. But the 1917 Russian Revolution brought another player on the world stage: the Russian Soviet Republic under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin.

In 1917, Sun Yat-sen and his followers set up a military government in Guangdong province opposed to the government in Beijing. The Guomindang conferred upon Sun the title of “Grand Marshall” (大元帥, dàyuánshuài), which underscored his shift towards militarism (Lyon Sharman (1960). Sun Yat-Sen. His Life and Its Meaning. A Critical Biography, pp. 211-212; Bergère, M. (1998). Sun Yat-sen, p. 273).

In 1921, Sun Yat-sen met Maring, the representative of the Communist International. In 1923 he and Adolph Joffe, a Soviet diplomat, signed a joint declaration, known as the Sun-Joffe declaration. With the help from the Soviets, Sun reorganized the Guomindang along Leninist lines and established the Whampoa Military Academy, led by Sun’s protégé Chiang Kai-shek.

“The fault [of our revolution] was the failure to enforce the revolutionary fundamentals,” Sun declared that same year. “The revolutionary fundamentals … divide the course of revolution into three stages: first, military rule; second, political tutelage; third, constitutional government” (Leng, S., Palmer, N. D. (1960). Sun Yat-Sen and Communism, p. 37, my emphasis).

From left to right, warlord Zhang Xueliang (son of Manchuria’s warlord Zhang Zuolin), Song Meiling and Chiang Kai-shek in 1936 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
From left to right, Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, Qin Bangxian in 1937 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and was succeeded by Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang led the so-called Northern Expedition, during which he defeated some of the warlords and coopted those who were willing to join his cause. In 1927 he established a Guomindang military dictatorship over China, with the new capital in Nanjing. Nevertheless, Chiang’s government did not control the whole of China. Some warlords, like Yan Xishan in Shanxi, continued to rule over their territory so long as they pledged allegiance to the Guomindang (read also: Why Did Chiang Kai-shek Lose China? The Guomindang Regime And The Victory Of The Chinese Communist Party).

In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been founded in Shanghai, and as we have seen earlier, it was deeply influenced by militarism, too. The CCP depicted warlordism as a justification for its own militarization. As Mao Zedong put it:

After Sun Yat-sen came Chiang Kai-shek, who brought the Kuomintang’s military power to its zenith. He values the army as his very life and has had the experience of three wars, namely, the Northern Expedition, the Civil War and the War of Resistance Against Japan. For the last ten years Chiang Kai-shek has been a counter-revolutionary. He has created a huge “Central Army” for counter-revolutionary purposes. He has held firmly to the vital point that whoever has an army has power and that war decides everything. In this respect we ought to learn from him. In this respect both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek are our teachers.

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Conclusion – Warlordism and Its Impact on Chinese Politics

In this article we have briefly examined the origins of warlordism and militarism in China and how the preeminence of civil authority over the military was reversed in the 19th and 20th centuries due to the decline of the Qing dynasty and foreign aggression. It goes beyond the scope of the present piece to analyze in detail the development of these phenomena since the 1920s, but we can draw some broad conclusions that can be further elaborated in future articles.

First, China’s two major political parties, the CCP and the Guomindang, developed during the warlord era and were deeply influenced by it. Both came to view military power as the precondition for exercising civilian power. China has not experienced a purely civilian government since the brief parliamentary experiment of 1912-1913. In many respects, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong were nothing more than more powerful, better organized, ideologically more consistent warlords than those who had preceded them.

Second, warlordism in China had a deep impact on Taiwan, which was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, and was taken over by the Guomindang authorities after World War II. As a soldier, Chiang Kai-shek always put the military above everything else. When he lost the civil war to the Communists and retreated to Taiwan in 1949, he brought with him his system of military government.

In January 1950, Chiang signed an emergency decree declaring martial law in Taiwan, which put all civilian power in his own hands and restricted freedoms and civil liberties. Martial law was suspended only in 1986 under Chiang’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), initiating an era of democratization (Tien, H. (1992). Taiwan’s Evolution Toward Democracy: A Historical Perspective, in: Simon, D. F., Kav, M. Y. (1992). Taiwan: Beyond the Economic Miracle, pp. 7-13).

Third, in the PRC warlordism has cast an even longer shadow than in Taiwan. In the CCP one-party state, the military is an instrument of the party and must swear absolute loyalty to it. The idea of separating the party and the military has been described as “heresy” by the CCP mouthpiece Global Times.

PRC leader Xi Jinping is both general secretary of the CCP Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, making the army an instrument of Party supremacy and of Xi’s personal power. In typical warlord fashion, only he who commands the army can exercise civilian authority.

The CCP also attempts to imbue the population with a spirit of militarism and it glorifies the army through education. According to the PRC’s National Defense Education Law, university and high school students must undergo military training either before school starts in September or after National Day in October.

The CCP has thus perfected the methods of warlord politics by combining them with those of Leninist one-party dictatorship. As the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown demonstrated, the party needs the military to stay in power, and it will deploy it whenever it sees a challenge arising from opposition forces.



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