The Warlord Era (Chinese: 軍閥時代 Jūnfá shídài) was the period in the history of the Republic of China, from 1916 to 1928, when the country was divided among military cliques in the mainland China regions of Sichuan, Shanxi, Qinghai, Ningxia, Guangdong, Guangxi, Gansu, Yunnan, and Xinjiang.
The Warlord Era lasted from the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916 until 1928, when the conclusion of the Northern Expedition with the Northeast Flag Replacement began the "Nanjing decade"; however, when old warlords, such as Wu Peifu and Sun Chuanfang, were deposed, new minor warlords persisted into the 1930s and 1940s, as the central government struggled to keep its allies under rein, a great problem for the Kuomintang (KMT) through World War II and after the civil war. Some of the most notable warlord wars, post-1928, including the Central Plains War, involved nearly a million soldiers. The division of the country continued after the Warlord Era until the fall of the Nationalist government at the end of the Chinese Civil War.
The Qing Dynasty did not have a national army but utilized regional armies and militias which lacked standardization or consistency. The most powerful 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 geography and shared academy experiences. Units were composed of men from the same province. This policy was meant to reduce dialectal miscommunication but encouraged regionalist tendencies.
The Xinhai Revolution in 1911 brought widespread mutiny across southern China. Soldiers once loyal to the Qing government began to defect to revolutionary forces. Rebel troops established a provisional government in Nanjing the following year under Sun Yatsen. The revolutionaries were not strong enough to defeat the Beiyang army and continued fighting would almost certainly lead to defeat. Instead, Sun negotiated with the Beiyang commander, Yuan Shikai, to bring an end to the Qing and reunify China. In return, Yuan would become president. Yuan refused to move to Nanjing and set 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. The southern provinces rebelled again in the National Protection War only this time it was more serious because most Beiyang commanders abandoned Yuan. He renounced monarchy to woo back his lieutenants but by the time he died in June 1916, China was fractured politically. The North-South split would remain during the course of the Warlord Era.
Yuan's death split the Beiyang army into two factions: the Anhui clique led by Duan Qirui and the Zhili clique led by Feng Guozhang. The Northeast China-based Fengtian faction, led by Zhang Zuolin, was an amalgamation of Beiyang and local units. Diplomatic recognition was usually given to any government that ruled Beijing so capturing this city was a high priority. In addition, they could collect the customs revenue and apply for foreign loans. All the northern factions recognized the Beijing government as legitimate even if they opposed it. They would argue that while the government was legitimate, it lacked authority to dictate to provinces. The Beiyang government in Beijing would occasionally issue edicts to territory beyond their control to charge rival factions with treason when it was expectedly ignored and thus justify military action. This practice ended in 1923 when Cao Kun bought the presidency. The other northern factions were disgusted enough to refuse recognition.
Anhui hegemony (1916–1920) 
President Li Yuanhong was effectively sidelined by the Beiyang generals. Premier Duan Qirui dominated politics but had to work with the Zhili clique in order to maintain stability. Many provinces refused to recognize their government and called for the removal of all Beiyang generals from politics. Duan's heavy-handed efforts to push China into World War I and his secret loans from Japan led to his dismissal by Li in May 1917. Knowing that Duan was plotting against him, Li asked influential Beiyang general Zhang Xun to protect the government. Instead, Zhang restored the Qing dynasty in July. Duan toppled the monarchist putsch and was hailed as the saviour of the republic, giving him greater clout. He was able to declare war against Germany. His next task was to subdue the south but differences with the Zhili clique, which preferred negotiating a treaty, led to his resignation to save the unity of the Beiyang. President Feng Guozhang, however, had to recall Duan due to pressure from the Anhui clique. The campaign in Hunan backfired resulting in attrition, low morale, and bitterness. Duan resigned again in October 1918 but made every effort to sabotage peace between north and south. His pro-Japanese policies weakened him during the May Fourth Movement. The Zhili clique made an alliance with the Fengtian clique of Zhang Zuolin and defeated Duan in the Zhili-Anhui War of July 1920.
Zhili hegemony (1920–1924) 
After the death of Feng Guozhang in 1919, the Zhili clique was led by Cao Kun. The alliance with the Fengtian was only of convenience and war broke out in the 1922 First Zhili-Fengtian War with Zhili driving Fengtian forces back to Manchuria. Next, they wanted to bolster their legitimacy and reunify the country by bringing back Li Yuanhong to the presidency and restoring the National Assembly. They proposed that Xu Shichang and Sun Yatsen 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 general 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 Kuomintang, 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 they kept the center.
Fengtian hegemony (1924–1928) 
The alliance between Zhang Zuolin and Feng Yuxiang was tenuous. Feng had formed his own faction called the Guominjun (Nationalist Army, or KMC) which was ideologically sympathetic to the southern Kuomintang government but not a part of it. As a compromise, they gave the northern government to Duan Qirui whose Anhui clique was near extinct. Fengtian was far stronger in terms of manpower as KMC troops were stretched thinly across a vast area. Negotiations in north-south reunification went nowhere since Zhang and Duan had little in common with Sun Yatsen who died in March 1925. Later that year, fighting broke out after Fengtian general Guo Songling defected to the KMC, sparking the Anti-Fengtian War. Zhili general Wu Peifu decided to ally with Zhang against the traitor Feng. KMC forces were driven to the northwest but later joined the Northern Expedition of Chiang Kaishek. Zhang took over the northern government in June 1927 as troops from the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) were flooding into his territory. On 2 June 1928, Zhang resigned after agreeing to handover Beijing to the NRA. He was assassinated by a Japanese bomb while fleeing to Manchuria on 4 June. Five days later, NRA troops seized the capital and extinguished the Beiyang government. Zhang's son and successor, Zhang Xueliang, recognized the Nationalist government on 31 December.
The south was a hotbed of revolutionary activity where opposition to the Beiyang cliques was the strongest. They revolted against the Qing in 1911 and against Yuan Shikai in 1913 and 1916. After the Qing restoration debacle in Beijing, several southern provinces led by Tang Jiyao and Lu Rongting refused to recognize the new Duan Qirui cabinet and parliament. Sun Yat-sen gathered notable politicians, KMT members of the dissolved National Assembly, and southern militarists in late July 1917 to form a rival government in Guangzhou known as the Constitutional Protection government. The southern factions recognized Guangzhou as the legitimate capital even though it lacked international recognition. Like the north, southern militarists would occasionally rebel on the pretense of provincial rights, Guangxi especially. The southern provinces were: Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Hunan, Guangxi, and Guangdong (including Hainan).
Constitutional Protection (1917–1922) 
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 too 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, Sun recreated the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). With the help of KMT general Chen Jiongming, committee members General Cen Chunxuan, Admiral Lin Baoyi, and General Lu Rongting were expelled in the 1920 Guangdong-Guangxi War. On 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 (1923–1925) 
Loyalists drove Chen out and Sun returned to power in March 1923. He reorganized the KMT along Leninist democratic centralism and made an alliance with the Communist Party of China which would be known as the First United Front. The southern government abandoned protecting the 1912 constitution since its rump parliament defected to the north to join Cao's puppet government. Instead, its new purpose was to create a revolutionary single-party state. The Whampoa Military Academy was formed to create a loyal officer corps to rid the KMT of its dependence on unreliable and opportunistic southern generals. With the ouster of the Zhili clique in 1924, Sun traveled to Beijing to negotiate reunification with Guominjun, Fengtian, and Anhui leaders. He succumbed to cancer in March 1925 which ended the talks but also initiated a power struggle within the KMT. Tang Jiyao, claiming to be Sun's chosen successor, tried to seize control of the southern government during the Yunnan-Guangxi War but was routed. In the north the Anti–Fengtian War was waged from November 1925 to April 1926 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.
Northern Expedition (1926–1928) 
KMT general Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the leader of the National Revolutionary Army, following the Zhongshan Warship Incident. He set out on the long delayed Northern Expedition in the summer of 1926. NRA forces easily defeated the Zhili armies of Wu Peifu and Sun Chuanfang in central and east China. The Guominjun and Shanxi warlord Yan Xishan joined forces with the KMT against the Fengtian. In 1927, the KMT-CCP alliance ruptured with the communists being brutally purged, which initiated the Chinese Civil War. Chiang established his capital in Nanjing but still needed to take Beijing to get international recognition. Yan Xishan, now a KMT general, occupied Beijing after the death of Zhang Zuolin. Zhang Xueliang, the new leader of Fengtian, submitted himself under the condition he would continue to rule over Manchuria, but the Japanese would later occupy Manchuria in 1931.
By moving the capital to Nanjing, Chiang was secured in his power base, completing the Northeast Flag Replacement of Chinese reunification in 1928. Many warlords were not defeated but co-opted into the new national government which would trouble Chiang. Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan rebelled in 1930 in the Central Plains War. The northwest erupted into the Xinjiang Wars from 1931-37. Chiang had to put down the Fujian Rebellion in 1933-34. Zhang Xueliang took part in the 1936 Xi'an Incident. In addition minor warlords, bandits, ethnic minority militias, and the communists were active in the countryside and peripheral regions. The KMT itself was plagued by factionalism with influential leaders like Wang Jingwei and Hu Hanmin rebelling against Chiang. Chiang's actual power was weaker beyond the provinces surrounding Jiangsu. In short, warlordism did not end but took on a different appearance. All cliques now wore the Zhongshan suit and had party membership, effectively becoming KMT franchisees. It was not until after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1950 that anything resembling a united, centralized government like that prior to 1915 re-emerged.
Major factions 
Northern factions 
Major cliques 
Anhui clique 皖系
Zhili clique 直系
Minor cliques 
Ma clique 馬家軍
Newer factions 
Southern factions 
Kuomintang (KMT) 中國國民黨
Minor southern factions 
Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
See also 
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- National Revolutionary Army
- Whampoa Military Academy
- History of the Republic of China
- Sino-German cooperation
- Chinese Nationalism
- Military of the Republic of China
- Politics of the Republic of China
- List of warlords and military cliques in the Warlord Era
- 陈, 贤庆 (2007), "民国军阀派系谈" (The Republic of China warlord cliques discussed)
- McCord, Edward A. (1993), The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism, Berkeley, Calif: Cambridge University Press
- Waldron, Arthur (2003), From War to Nationalism: China's Turning Point, 1924-1925, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-52332-X