Theoretical issues

Theoretical discussions of the history of the warlords mainly focused upon the following issues:

What is a warlord? What are the Northern Warlords?

For the former question, Li Xin explained that a warlord must have a private army, a territory and his military government, and the military rule is the most important criterion to distinguish warlords and non-warlords. As for the latter question, Li thought it has the following four features: (1) it adopted the foreign military system; (2) its finance did not completely rely on the feudal economy, but mainly on the revenue from the tariff, salt tax, the Railway Bureau, Steamboat Bureau and other government enterprises, as well as the government bonds and foreign loans; (3) it adopted the enlisting system, and its recruits were mainly from bankrupt farmers and other poor laboring people; (4) it had split unceasingly and even developed into different cliques which had their own territory and contended with each other endlessly.2 Lai Xinxia’s view on the features of the Northern Warlords was similar to that of Li Xin’s whereas Zhang Huateng had a different view. He proposed that we should use a neutral term “The Northern Group” to refer to the Beiyang Forces led by Yuan Shikai, so that we could see its history of evolution more clearly: “The Northern Group grew up in the late Qing Dynasty and developed in the early years of the Republic. After Yuan Shikai claimed to be the emperor in 1915, the Northern Group evolved into the Northern Warlords. The Northern Group gave birth to the Northern Warlords, and the Northern Warlords were the last developmental stage of the Northern Group, in which the Northern Group was heading for its extinction”. Zhang held that “this statement may be more scientific”?

The origin, the time limit and the cause of the modern warlord politics

Luo Ergang thought that the modern warlord politics originated from Zeng Guofan’s Hu’nan Army (Xiang Jun), but Li Xinchi had different opinions and argued that the most basic criterion of the so-called warlord was that his army was private, so Zeng Guofan and others could not be regarded as the beginning of modern warlords in China. Even Yuan Shikai could not be called a warlord before the 1911 Revolution. Only after the Qing emperor abdicated and Yuan Shikai gained the national power was the Beiyang army completely owned by him. In this sense, the Wuchang Uprising had contributed to the formation of Yuan Shikai’s Northern Warlords.4 As for the upper and lower limits of the history of modern warlords, some scholars have concluded that from the 1980s the academics mainly have had the following views: (1) it started from Li Hongzhang and ended with Jiang Jieshi; (2) the typical warlord era was from 1916 to 1928; (3) After the beginning of the all-out War of Resistance against Japan in 1937, there were no warlords any longer in China. That is to say, the beginning of the all-out War of Resistance against Japan in 1937 was the lower limit of the history of modern warlords in China; (4) it started from the establishment of the Northern Warlords government ruled by Yuan Shikai and ended in 1949 when the new warlords of KMT fell from power.5 With regard to the causes of the formation of modern warlords politics, a heated discussion has been carried out in academic circles. Some scholars believed that it was caused by the different training systems of the Northern and Southern new armies in the late Qing Dynasty. Some scholars believed that it was caused by cultural reasons, and some other scholars believed that it was the product of localism and militarism. There were also scholars who argued that we should find the causes from the perspective of the political power, economic structure and cultural structure. There were even scholars who argued that it was caused by the split of the three-dimensional system of feudal society in modern times - the regime ruled by the emperor, the traditional culture dominated by the Confucian orthodoxy, and the society regulated by the clan system.6

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