Despite its much-vaunted 5,000 years of continuous history, China has gone through long intermissions of disunity. The most marked period of discord in the 20th century was what became known as the Warlord Era.
Lasting from the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916 until the conclusion of the Northern Expedition in 1928, China had no effective national government. Instead, the country was a patchwork of fiefdoms claimed by regional strongmen who maintained their own standing armies and listened to Beijing only when it suited them.
Zhang Zongchang, The Dogmeat General
One of the era’s most colorful characters was, without a doubt, the 'Dogmeat General'. Zhang Zongchang, a failed bandit from Shandong who sought refuge with the warlord Zhang Zuolin in Manchuria after his band of mercenaries was defeated in Jiangsu. Zhang loved to lavish money on his family, friends and concubines, and commanded great loyalty by treating his men well.
The Dogmeat General got his unique moniker not because of his culinary tastes (sorry to disappoint) but because of his love of gambling, particularly the game paigow which was known colloquially as “eating dog meat”. Zhang was also known as the ‘Three Don’t Knows’, since he could never keep count of how much money, how many soldiers or how many concubines he had.
Zhang kept a veritable United Nations of ladies in waiting from Europe, North America and around Asia. Since he couldn’t recall their names nor speak their languages, Zhang simply referred to his concubines by number. Time magazine dubbed him: ‘China’s basest warlord.'
Nonetheless, even Time changed its tune by the time Zhang’s back was against the Great Wall, facing KMT forces under the Muslim General Bai Chongxi. The headline had changed from ‘Basest Warlord’ to ‘Potent Hero’, extolling: “Anemic Westerners can only admire Chang’s courage and verve... win or lose, that’s a brave Chinese.”
And lose he did. Zhang had a good mind for strategy and was respected as an innovator: He employed close to 5,000 experienced White Russian mercenaries in his ranks, manning armored trains in pseudo-Tsarist regalia. But Zhang would have needed a lot more Russians than that to beat back the forces of reunification. He was assassinated on a platform at Jinan Railway Station in Shandong in 1932.
Feng Yuxiang, The Christian General
Feng’s is perhaps the greatest rags-to-riches story of the Warlord Era. At age 11, he joined the Qing army at the lowest ranking, receiving nothing more than the uniform on his back and the occasional bellyful of food. From there, he went on to become Vice Premier of the Republic of China. A Methodist convert, Feng became known as the Christian General, owing to his penchant for converting his troops. Reportedly, he’d baptize them en masse before battle using a fire hose.
Feng founded his own Nationalist Army in the northwest, independent of political parties and warlord cliques, and supported Chiang Kai-shek in the Northern Expedition to reunite the country under KMT control. Not long thereafter, though, he turned on Chiang in the Central Plains War, teaming up with Li Zongren and the Shaanxi warlord Yan Xishan to declare their own government in Beijing before being beaten on the battlefield by Chiang’s forces.
In 1948, Feng accepted a CCP invitation to board a Soviet ship on his way back from America, a journey during which he died in a shipboard fire in the middle of the Black Sea. Whether Feng’s death was a KMT hit or an accident remains an unsettled question in Chinese history.
Chen Jiongming, The Thinking Man's Warlord
A lawyer by training, Chen was instrumental as a backer of Sun Yat-sen’s Constitution Protection Government based in Guangzhou. However, Chen found himself at loggerheads with his fellow Cantonese revolutionary when it came to the unification of China: whereas Sun wanted to unify the country swiftly by force and establish a strong central government with a single party at its core, Chen believed in peaceful reunification through voluntary association, with the different regions coming together around a smaller central government, gradually coalescing around the ‘model province’ of Guangdong – something not unlike a United States of China.
Sun saw federalist ideas, the self-government movement and regional leadership as a smokescreen for warlord shenanigans, and the two split dramatically in 1923 when Chen attempted to have Sun assassinated and shelled his residence. The ‘Father of the Nation’ and his wife Song Qingling were spirited away by gunboats under the protection of none other than future Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the incident earning him Sun’s ultimate trust.
Chen later died in Hong Kong, but was buried back in Guangdong near Huizhou. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards tried to blow up Chen’s grave, but local villagers succeeded in defending it. Branded a reactionary warlord for decades, Chen and the early revolutionary debates between federalism and centralism are now finally being reexamined and redressed by historians.