Only in a few other periods of human history have the affairs of a great nation been so hopelessly tangled and lacking in apparent purpose as in the time of the warlords of Republican China. Only confusion seemed to reign, and, at the time, Chinese and Westerners alike generally despaired of piecing together the details of warlord actions in the hope of finding some ultimate coherence. To the Chinese, the confusion was frightening and distressing, for it violated their basic craving for order and harmony. To Westerners, the scene was bizarre and could only make sense if treated as empty sound and fury. S. J. Perelman, writing in the New Yorker, in the early 1930's, expressed the sentiments of many observers when he confessed his nightmare confusion about who was doing and saying what to whom among such unlikely figures as the "Old Marshal" Chang, "Young" Chang, Yen the "Model Governor," the "Dog Meat General," and "Feng, who is called the Christian Marshal (as opposed to Feng, the Jewish Marshal, I guess)."
Confusing as the events were at the time, the details did add up to a pattern. The changing distribution of power in China followed a course that revealed the ambitions and the limitations of those who could realistically seek to rule. A warlord was the prisoner of: first, the conditions at the time of the imperial system's dissolution; second, the limits of his own abilities to mobilize resources and power; and, third, the competitive power of the other warlords.
The pattern began with the effort of the last dynasty to create a modern military machine. In the first phase of the Republican period, events dramatized the fatal gap between the impotence of civilian institutions and formal officeholders, on the one hand, and the realities of the sordid power of the individual military commanders, on the other. Gradually, the pattern took the form of individual warlords competing to emerge as the new authority of the nation. Soon, however, it became apparent that no single contender could hope to become the ruler of the country,