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Reflections on China’s Warlord Era

One of my distinguished co-bloggers at Chicago Boyz, John Jay, penned a truly outstanding post on China, incorporating history, culture, economics and linguistics, using the famous  Manchurian warlord and opium addict, ” the Young Marshal ” Chang Hsüeh-liang, as a springboard:

Household Armies

“….China has historically allowed certain social forces to compete with loyalty to the state. Linguistic (and in the cases of the Hui and Uyghur, religious) groups have always retained a large amount of autonomy through the provincial governments, and in some cases provinces such as Guandong can almost be thought of as a separate country within China due to their linguistic (non-Mandarin) identity and economic self sufficiency. But Guandong gets little voice in Beijing relative to the economic might of the Pearl  River Delta. Cantonese don’t care, as long as the kleptocracy in Beijing leaves them alone (after they make their formal obeisance) most of the time, and does not attempt to steal too much wealth. That may change as peasants out West mobilize and force the central government to send more goodies their way. China never hit upon the Anglosphere’s solution of a Republican governmental federation of competing interests akin to either Great Britain or the competing American states – the Imperial authorities always wished to pretend that they were in complete control, while ceding a lot of practical authority to the provinces.  

Conflicts between the linguistic periphery and the Mandarin-speaking center have contributed to the ebb and flow of centralized power in China since even before the Ten kingdoms of the South broke away from the Five Dynasties that succeeded the Tang. The Chinese have historically seen history as cyclical, rather than linear. I think that this at least in part stems from the fact that since the fall of the Tang Dynasty, China has never bitten the bullet to reform itself by completely rethinking its social system. Systems have arisen as kludges to deal with a particular problem, but have never dealt with the fundamental flaws in society, only with their surface manifestations. As James Sheridan wrote in “Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yu-hsiang” :  

Read in full here.

4 Responses to “Reflections on China’s Warlord Era”

  1. John Jay Says:

    Thanks for the shout out. Since I’m not formally educated in History, I always wonder how much of the obvious I’m stating. My schooling was in P. Chem., Russian Lit., and business (Marketing).

  2. zen Says:

    Hi John,

    An unusual combination of fields (which is a good basis for horizontal thinking) – though in my experience, a robust Russian Lit program sneaks in a lot of culture and history along the way

  3. joeseph hill Says:

    though I enjoyed the article when it was posted with the Boyz, the suggestion is that it –age of warlords–might return once more. I found that very silly idea and not much more likely to happen than that America might once again return to being a British colony. In fact, the tight control by the communists has loosened up considerably and now capitalism is infused, many people becoming wealthier, and the "war lords" will turn out to be financial lords. Note: the wealthiest person in China currently is a woman, not yet 30.

  4. John Jay Says:

    Joseph Hill – wealth is not as closely linked to power in China as it is in the rest of the world. Smart Old Money hides itself in China. The New Money is sticking its neck way out, and might live to regret it. The PLA has vast regional business interests, and could easily take out rivials via violence or political action if push comes to shove. Remember that the Warlords of the 1920s were also businessmen. Chiang owed a lot to the business interests of the Triads, and Mme. Chiang was once kidnapped by Chiang’s underworld financier "Big Eared" Du when she advised Chiang to stop paying off Du’s Green Gang.

    Warlords in the 21st century might not engage in the kind of internecine fighting of the 1920s, but Guandong could easily field its own army with the Reserves and Militias in the provence,  and that would give PLA units loyal to Beijing some pause in the event of a break-up a la the CIS.  The only way that Beijing will give up power in a CIS-type of arrangement is if the provinces can field enough military force to prevent the PLA from forcibly re-uniting the country. I wasn’t necessarily positing that it would be a total return to the 1920s, although that is on the extreme end of possibility, and I would not be so quick to dismiss it. What would you have said to the proposal that a Fascist state would arise in Byleorussia if I had proposed that in 1975?

    I could easily see a new Ma Jia Jun arising in Xinjiang, though.

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