Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s

By Jack Gray | Go to book overview

8
THE WAR-LORD ERA

The Origins of War-lordism

From 1916 to 1931 the political history of China as a united country virtually ceases. There was a shifting system of quasi-independent states concerned to maintain or improve their positions in a struggle to control the national government, whose authority these very rivalries prevented from being more than nugatory. It was a situation which called forth explanations inspired by disillusionment and despair, explanations which stressed the selfishness of the war-lords, their lack of political principle and their indifference to the national interest. Explanation in these terms, because it could serve as propaganda for the Nationalist Party by representing the conflict between the Nationalists and war-lords as a struggle between good and evil, has become the almost unchallenged interpretation. The truth, however, is much more interesting.

In the course of the revolution of 1911-12 government throughout the provinces had been militarized. The revolution itself had been carried out mainly by mutinous and despair, explanations which stressed the selfishness of the war-lords, their lack of political principle and their indifference to the national interest. Explanation in these terms, because it could serve as propaganda for the soldiers, who represented thereafter the only real authority. The disappearance of traditional forms of social control and the inability of the new republic to replace them had led to an almost total breakdown of law and order. The emergence of the 'war-lords', in the sense of military governors (dujuns) or senior commanders with de factc control of whole provinces, represented not disintegration but a partial reintegration, bearing the only immediate hope of restoration of order.

The reason this hope was not realized was mainly because of the bankruptcy of the central government. Since the Taiping crisis there had developed a vicious circle in which Beijing allowed the provincial authorities to use revenues normally passed to itself, the centre, thus financially weakened, was less and less able to provide for the maintenance of the provincial armed forces; and the provinces therefore alienated further sources of revenue in order to maintain these forces. Even the most honest dujun was forced to maintain his troops by collecting and spending the taxes of his garrison area, and in turn was forced to accept a similar financial relationship with his own subordinates, leaving them to find their means of survival in their own bailiwicks.

Each commander had to seek to control territory 66which yielded revenue in order to achieve political stability in it. The result was the feudalization of

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