Brief History of the Chinese Warlords, 1920-1937

In China’s long history the massive size of its empire both past and present creates many geographical, cultural, and chronological problems when dealing with the study of Chinese warfare in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This issue is prevalent in our Western understanding of China after the Revolution of 1911 which succeeded in the overthrow of the the Qing Empire. China’s first attempt at a more republican form of government was come to be a fragile coalition of Warlords who in 1912 signed a series of treaties and alliances to form the Beiyang government in what is today Beijing, China.

The Beiyang Star, a political and military symbol of the 
5 major regions (Warlord cliques) of China under Beiyang Rule

Two of the smaller warlord cliques in the earliest era, Kuomintang (Nationalist dominated, but nominally a Marxist-Leninist party as well) and the independent Chinese Communist Party, later struggled for control over all of China after 1928 and beyond, only interrupted officially from 1937-September 1945 after the War with the Japanese Empire ended with its capitulation.

Throughout 1912-1932 the independent Warlord cliques were by far the most powerful entities in China with the largest and most sophisticated armies, and therefore the most political power. Some armies were as small as 3,000-5,000 men, with some as large 50,000 or more. When many of these warlords sided with the National Revolutionary Army, the military wing of the Kuomintang, there forces were as large as 600-750,000.

The Warlord cliques are normally divided between the North and South including the Anhui, Zhili, Fengtian, Ma, Xinjiang, & Kuomintang, Guangxi, Guangdong, and the Yunnan cliques amongst the most prominent Warlord factions.

The "Jade Marshall" Wu Pei-fu (b.1874-1939), a Zhili clique Warlord and influential General

It was only into the late 30’s, interregnum with the World War, in later in the 40's that Generalissimo Chiang Kai shek and Mao Zedong clashed for control over a totally independent China, with Zedong’s communist winning in 1949, banishing Chiang kai-shek to Taiwan. In the era of Warlordism after the revolution  of 1911-1930-31, the armies and warlords of China fought for only regions and cities & their outlying provinces almost as if they were city-states.

The conflicts and campaigns of this era increased in size and intensity after a long period of Warlord conflict which only intensified after President Sun Yat-sen’s (b.1866-1925) death in 1925, when Chiang Kai shek looked to consolidate power and unite the country under his rule. For the Warlords their power would begin to wane rapidly in the 30's, a modernizing China (especially in the cities) were distrustful of these archaic Japanese-reared modern day imperialists, and their usefulness had turned to volatility.

Notable conflicts in the Warlord Era include the Zhili Wars, which lasted from 1920-1924, a series of campaigns that include the Second Zhili-Fengtian War, ending the Zhili cliques early political power in the Beiyang Government. The Northern Expedition 1926-1928 is critical as well, if not the most decisive campaign of this period because it all but extinguished the Warlords power and ended the Beiyang government’s rule in China, reuniting the nation except for some of China’s former imperial possessions like Mongolia, which went to the Soviet’s new empire in Far East. General Kai-shek used 250,000 men or more in the Northern Expedition to defeat the allied Zhili & Fengtian armies of 2 million or more men during the Northern Expedition campaigns.

Fengtian Clique's flag, 1924-1928

Instead of peace however the Kuomintang got civil war, rebellion, and a prolonged guerilla war marked by separate conflicts involving other nations and mercenary armies under the still influential warlords from China and Russia. The early portion of the Warlord Era from 1920-1923 was heavily influenced by the end of World War I in the East and the Russian revolution in particular, which was followed by a regime change in the former Russian Empire and its territories.

Though the Northern Expedition was a victory for General Kai-shek, he still needed to consolidate power through several other campaigns including the Central Plains Wars of 1930, a Warlord revolt against Kuomintang rule which proved unsuccessful for the rebels.

Chiang Kai-shek in the early 1920's

The next important conflicts would take place when the communists revolted against the reunited China in a brutal guerrilla war. However this conflict was still small in comparison to the 1931 aggression's of the Imperial Japanese Army who entered Manchuria, unofficially beginning World War II between China, Japan, and eventually Japan’s new puppet state Manchukuo (where warlord influence was strong), inadvertently bringing the Soviet Union into a proxy war, turned real war with the Japanese Empire from 1930-1939.

Warfare, Weapons,  and the Culture of Warlordism

Warfare during the Warlord Era was centered on infantry armies predominately; artillery, cavalry, and armored trains all were used to effect as well. Tanks and warplanes were used much later on a much smaller scale but still to great effect. The scattered conflicts of this era were between many different factions and warlords during several separate but interconnected conflicts, encompassing tens of thousands of miles involving massive, at times million-man armies clashing for mere rank and hegemony. Western weapons made a huge impact during the Warlord period and beyond into the second phase of the Civil War, interrupted by the War with Japan.

Arms and munitions were of scattered make, model, quality, and quantity during the Warlord Era since most of the leading and minor warlords had their own treasuries and revenues from which to purchase arms. Small arms countries of origin differed greatly during conflicts of the period, Russian and German made rifles (Mauser pistols seemingly inseparable from the conflict, see below) Japanese handguns and rifles, German & British made machine-guns, and French tanks.

From the Warlord era until well after 1949, Western and later Eastern (Soviet bloc) importers flooded China with small arms weapons such as rifles, pistols, and machine guns. Not until the Vietnam and the Indochina conflict from 1954 to circa 1973 had so many weapons of war been brought into an Asia country before.

'Big Sword' special forces unit of General Feng Yuxiang (b.1882-1948), known as the Christian General. He is armed well with a Mauser 'Broomhandle' automatic pistol and a traditional Chinese sword.

As mentioned previously the armies were large and diverse, with many different young men and grizzled veterans filling the ranks. Some armies employed European officers or other Asian mercenaries, Mongolian cavalrymen, & many ‘White’ Russian cavalry and armored train crews with experience fighting the Bolsheviks in the Civil War from 1918-1923.

Often when a Warlord was defeated and surrendered his forces, his officers, and even the warlord himself might be offered work fighting for their former enemy, a very common practice in the Warlord era. Armored trains were one the deadliest, and fear inspiring war technologies that was still amazingly crude and yet highly effective. They were loud and dirty leviathans of the tracks, large hulking machines built to unique specifications which were first used in the Russian Civil War. These trains were armored with thick steel and outfitted with naval guns, artillery pieces, machine guns, and filled with raiders who could spread death and destruction wherever their rail cars rumbled to next.

Another crude but important aspect of the military history of the Warlord era was the use of child soldiers ranging between the ages of 14-15 or even as young 10 or 12 who fought for the Warlords, some living long enough to win decoratins and minor promotions for their services. Repulsive by today’s standards the usage of young males for mere "cannon fodder" was a very common practice during the greater Warlord era of 1911-1939.
Boy Soldiers in Canton enlisted in Marshal Sun's Army

Two sources dealing with the Warlords of 1920's and 1930's China which I can recommend are Osprey's Chinese Warlord Armies 1911-1930, and Jay Taylor's The Generalissmo: Chiang Kai-shek and the struggle for Modern China.

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