The appearance of warlords, who wielded significant autonomous political power on the basis of their personal control of military force, was a unique feature of early-20th-century Chinese history. These warlords smashed hopes that the 1911 Revolution would replace China’s last imperial dynasty with a strong, unified, and reform-minded republic. In the early Republic, military commanders largely gained political power amid civil wars, which were fought to determine how political power was to be organized and who would wield it. This political devolution was initially slowed by the centralizing efforts of the first president of the Republic, Yuan Shikai. But his reliance on military force also emboldened military commanders to seize direct political power in the civil wars that followed his death. The fragmented nature of Chinese military organization inherited from the Qing dynasty provided an initial basis for factional warlord alignments. Thus, Yuan Shikai’s original Beiyang Army produced a broad “Beiyang” faction of warlords who dominated North China in the early Republic. In contrast, the original provincial organization of late Qing military forces in South China encouraged provincial warlord groupings, such as the Yunnan or Guangxi factions. Such factions were inherently unstable, though, as individual warlords competed to gain control over civil administrations that provided access to the financial resources the warlords needed to support their armies, making constant warfare one of the main features of the warlord era. The high tide of warlord power lasted only from the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916 to the nominal “reunification” of the country by the Nationalist Party’s Northern Expedition in 1926–1928. The Nationalist Party’s reliance on military force to establish its power, including the direct absorption of warlord armies, actually reinforced the political power of many military commanders. These residual or party warlords continued to wield a considerable degree of political power autonomous of the central Nationalist government in Nanjing for at least another decade. Chinese warlord studies in the West largely started with the publication of two major warlord biographies that have remained classics in the field, Sheridan 1966 and Gillin 1967 (both cited under Biographies). The high point of Western warlord scholarship was the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, with the publication of a dozen major works and many significant articles. After this, Western warlord studies declined to only sporadic publication, while the focus of China’s modern military history shifted almost entirely to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945. In contrast, there was an explosion of interest in the warlord era in China in the early 1980s that has largely continued unabated, with a steady stream of publications in both scholarly and popular formats. To the extent that there has been some difference between the West and China, Western scholars of warlordism have generally moved away from biography to more topical approaches, while biographical approaches, as well as the history of warlord factions and military campaigns, have remained central to Chinese scholarship.
There is no single English-language book that provides a comprehensive overview of Chinese warlordism. A number of works can nonetheless serve readers seeking some introduction to the topic. Written for a popular audience, Bonavia 1995 provides anecdotal accounts of the main Chinese warlords and their factions. Ch’en 1979 approaches Chinese warlordism through topical chapters such as factional alliances, the patterns of civil war, and warlord finances. Although Ch’i 1976 focuses mainly on warlord politics, background chapters also provide a broader overview. In contrast to the paucity of general surveys on Chinese warlordism in English, there are many comprehensive and scholarly Chinese overviews. The best examples are the multivolume works Tao 1983 and Ding 2013. Dreyer 1995, in English, and Jiang 2009, in Chinese, provide a stronger focus on warlord wars in relevant sections of their broader studies of China’s military history. Hatano 1973 is a classic Japanese compilation that still serves as a useful introduction to the field.
Bonavia, David. China’s Warlords. Hong Kong and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Already out of date at the time of publication, but remains a good introduction for the general reader.
Ch’en, Jerome. The Military-Gentry Coalition: China under the Warlords. Toronto: University of Toronto-York University Joint Centre on Modern East Asia, 1979.
Useful topical overview. Provides little analysis to support the idea of the military-gentry coalition cited in the title.
Ch’i, Hsi-sheng. Warlord Politics in China, 1916–1928. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976.
Looks at the development of warlordism, warlord resources, and the nature of warlord politics.
Ding Zhongjiang 丁中江. Beiyang junfa shihua 北洋軍閥史話. 4 vols. Taibei: Chunqiu zazhi, 2013.
Original 1972 publication, reprinted numerous times in Taiwan and the PRC. Starts with Yuan Shikai and the founding of the Beiyang Army, and ends with the Northern Expedition. Despite title, provides wide coverage of warlord conflicts in the north and south.
Dreyer, Edward L. China at War, 1901–1949. London and New York: Longman, 1995.
General Chinese military history focused on the early 20th century. Fails to incorporate some key scholarship of the preceding decade.
Hatano Yoshihiro 波多野善大. Chūgoku kindai gunbatsu no kenkyū 中国近代軍閥の研究. Tokyo: Kawade shobō shinsha, 1973.
This work is actually a collection of articles related to the subject of Chinese warlordism by the author, who was the leading expert in the early development of warlord studies in Japan.
Jiang Kefu 姜克夫. Minguo junshi shi民国军事史. 4 vols. Chongqing, China: Chongqing chubanshe, 2009.
The first volume of this four-volume military history covers the period from the founding of the Beiyang Army to the conclusion of the Northern Expedition.
Tao Juyin 陶菊隐. Beiyang junfa tongzhi shiqi shihua 北洋军阀统治时期史话. 3 vols. Beijing: Shenghuo-dushu-xinzhi sanlian shudian, 1983.
Three-volume revision of original eight-volume set first published in 1957–1961, both with many editions. Comprehensive examination of warlord politics and conflicts in the “Beiyang” period from 1895–1928.
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