The Warlord Era (simplified Chinese: 军阀时代; traditional Chinese: 軍閥時代; pinyin: Jūnfá shídài, 1916–1928) was a period in the history of the Republic of China when the control of the country was divided among former military cliques of the Beiyang Army and other regional factions, which was spread across in the mainland regions of Sichuan, Shanxi, Qinghai, Ningxia, Guangdong, Guangxi, Gansu, Yunnan, and Xinjiang. 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 both the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War.

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.[citation needed]


The historian Arthur Waldron shows that "warlord" is neither a Chinese word nor a Chinese concept. The Chinese term for "warlord" is junfa (軍閥), which was taken from the Japanese.[1]


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. These reforms did not establish a national army; instead, they mobilized regional armies and militias that had neither standardization nor consistency. During the later phase of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), provincial governors were allowed to raise their own armies to fight against the rebels; these forces were not disbanded even after the rebellion was over. The most powerful regional army was the northern-based Beiyang Army under Yuan Shikai, which received the best in training and modern weaponry. 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 unfortunate side effect of encouraging regionalistic tendencies.

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, only 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.

Warlords, their armies and their political system

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".[2] 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 out of doors".[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.[2]

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.[3] 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 ..."[3]

"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. [3] 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. [4] 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 all of China. 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".[5]

As the infrastructure in China was still poor at the time, 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). 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.[6]

Few of the warlords had any sort of ideology. Gen. 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, moustached 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.[7] 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.[8] 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 nationalist, Wu 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.[8]

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, a region as large as France and Germany combined. 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.[7] 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.[8]

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 opium smoking". A brutal man, Zhang was notorious for his hobby of "opening melons", as he called smashing in the heads of prisoners with his sword. 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 and Russian women together with two Frenchwomen and one who said she was an American. He gave them numbers, as he could not remember their names, then usually forgot the numbers.[8]

Many of the common soldiers were 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.[9] Warlord armies commonly raped or took many women into sexual slavery.[10] 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. To defend themselves from the attacks of the warlord armies, peasant secret societies emerged that practiced martial arts. 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. The all-female Iron Gate Society dressed entirely in white (the color of death in China) and waved fans that they believed would deflect bullets. One bandit leader, Bai Lang, the "White Wolf," declared himself loyal to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and formed a "Citizen's Punitive Army" to rid China of all the warlords.[11]

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. 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.[12]

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 industrialised 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.[5]

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 consortiums 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 printing presses, issuing new Chinese dollars non-stop, 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, who engaged in reckless printing of Chinese dollars, did not understand it was he 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.[13]

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. There was French champagne and sound brandy".[2]

The warlords bought machine guns and artillery from abroad, but their uneducated 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.[14] 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.[15]

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 Nechanev, 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.[16]


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 forms their own faction. International recognition were based on the presence in Beijing, and every Beiyang clique tries 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 results in Cao Kun being imprisoned. Feng soon broke off with 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 National Revolutionary Army forced Zhang out of power in June 1928.


The southern provinces 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.


Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the protege 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 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.

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 soon broke out into a full scale war in 1930. The Northwest China erupted into series of war in Xinjiang from 1931 to 1937. Following the Xi'an Incident in 1936, efforts began to shift toward preparation of war against Japanese Empire.

Major factions

Northern factions

Major cliques

Anhui clique 皖系

Zhili clique 直系

Fengtian clique 奉系

Minor cliques

Guominjun 國民軍

Shanxi clique 晉系

Xinjiang clique

Ma clique 馬家軍

Provincial factions







Southern factions

Yunnan clique 滇系

Old Guangxi clique 桂系

New Guangxi clique 新桂系

Kuomintang (KMT) 中國國民黨

Sichuan clique 川系

Sichuan / Xikang

Minor southern factions




Chinese Communist Party (CCP)




See also



  1. ^ Waldron (1995), p. 246.
  2. ^ a b c Fenby (2004), p. 104.
  3. ^ a b c Fenby (2004), p. 107.
  4. ^ Fenby (2004), pp. 107–108.
  5. ^ a b Fenby (2004), p. 108.
  6. ^ Fenby (2004), p. 112.
  7. ^ a b Fenby (2004), p. 103.
  8. ^ a b c d Fenby (2004), p. 102.
  9. ^ Fenby (2004), pp. 104–106, 110–111.
  10. ^ Fenby (2004), p. 106.
  11. ^ Fenby (2004), pp. 105–106.
  12. ^ Fenby (2004), pp. 110–111.
  13. ^ Fenby (2004), pp. 109–110.
  14. ^ Fenby (2004), p. 110.
  15. ^ Palmer, James The Bloody White Baron The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Become the Last Khan of Mongolia, New York: Basic Books, 2009 pages 149, 158.
  16. ^ Fenby (2004), p. 111.


These are general studies or works cited. For works on individuals, battles, or special topics, please see the pages on those topics.

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