The Chinese as a people are considered to have one of the richest histories in the world.  While the value of the assertion is open to debate, there is no doubt that the Chinese have a rich history (Lary 67).  One of the prominent aspects of the Chinese history is the warlord era.  The period which span the mid 1910s to the early 1930s was characterized by a Chinese nation divided among military cliques each of which controlled a considerable part of activities in the areas it controlled (Grasso and Corrin 54).  The era which ended with the death of the Yuan Shikai and the start of the Nanjing decade was characterized by differential approaches to leadership employed by warlords to ensure order in the areas that they controlled (Grasso and Corrin 54).  Leadership is one of the most important values in the management of social issues and its importance to the current society is a reflection of the role that leadership has always played ion ensuring social order.

It is worth noting that the approach used by leaders in any social setting affect the levels of cohesion that will be attained as it defined the interaction between the leaders and their subjects.  This paper analyses the different approaches used by warlords in China with the aim of determining the effect that their approach had on interaction with the society.  This understanding is important to modern leadership in economic and political arena for in understanding the weaknesses and strengths of the different approaches one can develop a good approach to leadership.

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Warlord Leadership

Warlord leadership is different from political leadership due to its over reliance on military power.  Warlord leadership is mainly concerned with control over a subnational area with the aid of forces that are loyal to a given personality.  It is worth noting that under this system of leadership allegiance or loyalty is important in determining the level of control that a warlords will have.  Moreover, the strength of a warlord was determined by the levels of loyalty he inspires in the forces, the levels of internal consistence within the force, the size of loyal forces and his ability to control the masses that are loyal to him.  It is in this context that warlord leadership bears close correlation to other forms of leadership.  The importance of trust in one’s ability as a leader is important in warlord leadership just as it is in other forms of democratic leadership.  Though they inclined so much on use of military power, warlords in fact sought to gain the trust and therefore support of a majority.  This is a manifestation of a democratic approach to leadership.  Understanding the values that the leaders used in their approach to controlling the subnations under their rule is important in analysis of the different approaches they used.

History and Approaches

The Qing dynasty which is one of the most important dynasties in the warlord era did not have a national army rather it used regional armies and militia groups in dealing with resistance and ensuring order.  It is worth noting that under this approach to leadership leaders were not elected rather they established themselves by gaining control and influence over others, suppressing mutinies and ensuring the prevalence of their belief and their relevance to the nature of the society were critical factors deterministic of the levels of success the leaders attained (Lawrance 90).  The approach used by the Qing dynasty was actually a subdivisions of the dynasty into areas controlled by the different militias and therefore lacked in consistency or common standard.  Loyalty to superiors was a value that defined the powerful armies which were mainly based in the north.  These armies which included the Beiyang and Yuan Shoihai armies were trained with the aid of most recent approaches to weaponry.  Cliques among the armies were developed in consideration of grade experience and geography.  In most cases, the units were made up of people from the same provinces an approach that was aimed at developing high cohesion within the groups.  By minimizing the risk of dialect miscommunication and encouraging regional tendencies, the cliques were assumed to be relevant in developing highly cohesive forces.  Southern China was involved in mutiny in 1911 due to the manifestation of the Xinhaio revolution (Grasso and Corrin 23).  The rebellious groups develop a provisional government under the leadership of Dun Yatsen.  However, the revolutionary groups were not as experience and strong enough to deal with the threats posed by the Beiyang and therefore considered reaching a consensus with Yuan Shakai who at that time was the commander of the Beiyang.  However, the implementation of the set term of truce was flawed by Yuan who set his base in Beijing so as to consolidate his leadership. Yuan’s authoritative approach to leadership played a critical role in the rebellions that were witnessed in South China in 1913 where the Beiyang forces were crushed considerably (Lawrance 101).  Though there was a clear rebellion by the south of the approaches that Yuan used in leadership and most of the civil governors had already been replaced by military leaders, Yuan made his intention of being the emperor of China in 1915 (Bulag 76).  The resultant was an uprising that saw the end of Yuan as many of his Commander abandoned his ranks for the opposite sides.  Though Yuan tried to develop a unified China by trying to woo back his lieutenants his efforts were in vain and by the time of his death China was a collection of regions controlled by military groups and not a single central political figure.

The death of Yuan led to the split of the Beiyang army into two factions: Anhui and Zhili Clique (Goldstein and Sherap 45).  Moreover, there were other factions in the north like the Fengtiona faction that were an amalgamation of local militia and supporters from either of the two breakaway cliques.  One of the most important feature in warlord period and even the dynasty period in China is that the diplomatic recognition was granted for groups that conquered Beijing.  Moreover, the resource ability of such groups would be greatly increased considering the large custom revenues collected in Beijing and the access that such group has to foreign loans.  Moreover, though the other factions in most cases tended to oppose the government that was in control of Beijing they acknowledged it as the legitimate government.  The argument that characterized the warlords’ arguments is that though the Beijing’s government was legitimate it did not have the mandate to control other provinces which were under their rule.  Warlords era therefore created a situation where China to the foreign nations was under the control of the faction that ruled Beijing while the Chinese only recognized the influence and power of their local warlords (Lezhnev and Prendergast 65).  A common feature of the Beiyang approach to leaderships is that it could issues deists to people not in their region with the aim of justifying the military actions that followed thereafter.  However, when Kun Cao bought the presidency in mid 1920s the practice slowly faded and other factions were disgusted by the move thereby creating a China governed by a group of warlords south and north (Goldstein and Sherap 19).

The north was characterized by an approach where the president was basically sidelined by a number of Beiyang generals.  It is worth noting that generals like Duan Qirui and Zhang Zun dominated the political arena in early years (Goldstein and Sherap 78).  Though many provinces refused to acknowledge the involvement of the generals in issues that relate to the politics of China there is no doubt that they played an important part in the policies that were adopted by the government.  One of the notable reasons that led to the initial failure of Duan is his one sided approach to issues that relating to security and foreign relations of China. A reason that led to his ousting is his continued lobbying for China to be involved in the First World War. Moreover, his underhand dealings with the Japanese government from whom he got loans from led to his dismissal by the president.  Though the north was dominant in politics that affected China, there were continuous efforts by the northern leaders to engage the south through approaches like negotiations and sometime even violent exchanges between the different groups.  Resources located between boundaries were volatile and were the main source of conflict between warlords.  Another important feature of the warlord period is that the government especially the presidents were aware of the activities of the warlords and even sought their support though in most cases the president had considerable power over the warlords.  A demonstration of the influence that warlords and cliques had on executive decision making is shown in the pressure that President Guongzhang was placed on by the Anhui clique that he had to recall Duan (Morton and Lewis 78).  Duan is blamed for the fragile peace that existed between the north and the south for he played a considerable role in sabotaging efforts that sought to develop a united China.

As much as the north is predominant in politics relating to the warlord era, the south played a critical role in the development and propagation of this era.  The failure of the Qing in 1911 is resultant of their activities and refusal to recognize some of the governments that were developed by the north are roles played by the south (Basu 23).  Moreover, the south refused to recognize Beijing as the capital and instead considered Guangzou as their capital though the city lacked the international recognition Beijing had.  Though the south and north were distinct in their approaches to subnational management rebellions against the key players were common in both regions.  Southern militarist in a number of occasions mobilized their forces to rebels against the predominant force in the south for instance Guangxi under the assumption that they were seeking social rights.


There are several known approaches to leadership each of which has considerable effects on the perception of the people being led and therefore the overall effect of the approach that has been chosen.  The warlord leadership was defined by a military like approach in that the needs of the society were either used by leaders to drive at their own selfish objectives or completely ignored.  The revolutions that led to an increases in the demand for different approaches to leaderships may have been propagated by the need to deal with the oppressive rule of the Qing dynasty (Morton and Lewis 78).  However, the approaches that it took on and the approaches that leaders especially in the north took to in driving to their objectives are a reflection of leadership where approaches are defined by the impact they would have on the leaders rather than social good.  Take the cooperative movement in Guangdon as an example; it was designed under the premise of ensuring that the needs of the less gifted in the society are addressed through collective lobbying; its development and expansion was however was a well orchestrated plan by the nationalists and military leaders to ensure that it grew at a rate that matched the expansion of the warlord states.  The implementation of the cooperative movement in Guangdong was aimed at dealing with the power and control that moneylenders, rural elites and merchants who the military leaders and warlords thought had received a commensurable share of power after the dissolution of the Qing dynasty.  It is worth noting that the expansion of the cooperative movement that was supposedly meeting the needs of the disabled in the community was met with considerable resistance (Slack 130).  This is a reflection of inefficiencies associated with the approach in addressing the needs of the people.  An approach that is effective in alleviating the suffering of the society is likely to be promoted and the manifestation of resistance to movement by members of the society points to the fact that its objectivity is questionable.  Moreover, resistance appeared to have been a positive pointer to the leaders who went ahead to implement strategies seeking to ensure the development of the cooperative movement.  Note, though the strategies had been rejected by the society leaders still deemed them fit in addressing the needs of the society.  This clearly shows that the warlords made all decisions and the society had to follow them.  The implementation of strategies that do not result to positive praise from the society that the warlords claimed to be representing clearly shows that the strategies were developed without considering the needs of the society.

Politics in the warlord era in China is another area that was widely used in ensuring the propagation of falsehood in the society   It is worth noting that thought the warlords played a considerable part in development of strategies there were mainly working in affiliation with people in known social institutions, political statements and issues mainly centered on the local bullies that had to be dealt with (Winchester 132).  To qualify to be a bully one had to just make a statement that is contrary to what the warlords made and have the potential to influence the social perception.  Maintenance of internal cohesion by ensuring that the society is only exposed to one view and minimizing the chance of enlightenment were therefore central to some being labeled bullies.  The landlords were especially targeted by the warlords for they posed a threat to the influence of military leader.  The question as to why a provisional warlord would want to eliminate local strongmen requires a proper look at the feudal system that defined the Chinese during the warlord era.  It is worth noting that the warlords, bullies and gentry were all considered feudal forces that acted together to reduce the chance of social reintegration.  Warlords in contemporary Chinese historiography were pictured as representative of social alliances made up of exploitative business men, local toughs and landlords.  This thus created a picture where the warlords were least expected to seek the elimination of the forces that the poor communist society perceived as being central to their woes.  Dealing with the landlords and developing a good name for one’s self while replacing the landlords with experienced tax collectors were deemed positive improvements by the society while the main motivation behind the move was to generate resources to support the expansion of military ability.  Most warlords were labeled revolutionaries and many considered them heroes when in fact they were a manifestation of all other forms of evil carefully concealed from the society.

Most warlords were not open to change and unless pushed to the wall they preferred violence rather than dialog.  The hunger for power explains their actions and this is cited as having played an important role in the low level of development that the Chinese experience during the warlords era (Slack 130).   While the political leadership remained fairly constant the internal conflicts and revolutions that existed within the ranks of armies and militias marshaled by the warlords made it impossible to implement well drafted policies.  Change was always in the air and thought strategies were developed those responsible for their formulation were rarely in power long enough to ensure their implementation.  As soon as an administration took control it took initiative to label ousted regime and strategies it implemented as being irrelevant and developed other strategies that drove to the same goals though they manifested differently on the society.  Social issues were rarely addressed for superficiality defined the approaches that the warlords took in addressing issues of social significance.  Problems that the society faced were either blamed on the government, the north or south depending on the location of the accusing party and the landlords while little was done to address these issues.  Poverty, poor perceptions, over reliance on agriculture and low levels of educational attainment which were the main causes of the problems that the society was faced with was rarely mentioned.

A key feature of approaches that the warlords used in gaining support is that their strategies were based on the perceived failure of the administration they were replacing.  Nothing was right or wrong depending on the ability to mold the special perception, develop a negative picture of resistance and take steps to deal with resistance.  Take Chen Jitang as an example, he supported the establishment of a party and government organs while proclaiming to be an ideal practisan of national ideals; the irony is that the same leader was central in driving an agenda that the south had no business dealing with the north since the central government has failed in addressing nationalistic ideals (Slack 139).  In essence, he was going against nationalistic ideals while making the majority believe that he was supporting them.  All these were driven by self motives and the need to keep the north at bay considering the resource ability and military prowess at their disposal.  Bigger subnations were useless to warlords if they were not at the helm of leadership thus other approaches to leadership and the idea of merging was portrayed as negative.

Fear as a tool was used by the leaders to keep the masses glued to their subversions and therefore develop a society that is least aware of what is really happening.  Fear of Japanese invasion is central to the expulsion of Duan after it was realized that he had been dealing with ‘communists’.  Overstatement of communist subversion by leaders was used to keep the effects of the government at bay.  The reality is that as much as communism was given emphasis and issues dealt with in a manner reflective of what the war lords developed as threats they offered little threat to the society rather they were threats to the warlords.  The provincial government which searched, captured and executed a number of individuals perceived to be communist was faced by little resistance.  The fear of communists made possible by the spread of mass hysteria made it possible for the warlords to establish and maintain large armies that were a tool they used in ensuring they benefited from the society while creating a positive image of themselves.

Success by war lords in meeting the needs of the society in the South was mainly determined by how the strategies played out in keeping the central government out of the region and how well they addressed the threat of communism.  As much as there was need to develop a fear of communist it was important that in whatever antics the warlords employed the attention of the central government not be pulled to the region they controlled.  This placed most warlords in precarious conditions in that as much as they were in need of developing fear for communism the fear of central government being involved in regional issues was a far much larger threat.   These goals were sough by employment of good public administration approaches and implementations of self sufficient economy.  Activists of corporate movement were made to constantly complain of non familial organization within peasant communities which would help mitigate the effects of over dependence on state authorities.  The strategies that the warlords pushed for surprisingly had considerable correlation to the communist approaches but developed in a manner that places members of the society in a position where they cannot even contemplate the relationship.  It is only natural to assume that a government that is unappreciative of communism will implement strategies that are different from communism.  The continual involvement of the state in issues relating to management of the cooperative was explained as resulting from the common interest that cooperatives and the government were pushing for.  By using the cooperative model adopted by USSR with some modification to address personal needs, the warlords made the public believe that the success attained by USSR awaited them.  Failure of the western economy was mainly due to the effects of the First World War and so was the success of the USSR; however the warlords used the ignorance of the public to infer a poor perceptions of free markets and therefore push for their agenda through cooperatives.

Critical Analysis

The basic ideology that the leaders used in seeking the support of societies they controlled involved separatism and developing picture of their being concerned with the development of the society.  Nearly all warlords were driving at their own leadership agenda and there were rarely concerned with the development of the society.  Seeking to understand the fear of the society; failures of outgoing regimes and areas that a society needs to be improved and developing strategies that appear to be addressing these areas while actually addressing individual goals were used by nearly all warlords in developing their influence.  Most leaders sought to develop their influence rather than track record for it was the main tool used in propagating their interest.  Keeping off the influence of other societies is a separatist approach that sought to reduce the influence of other societies.  Actual contact with other societies was not only reduced but the warlords took personal steps to reduce the levels of influence that other groups may have on members of the areas they controlled by labeling others’ approaches as lacking.  The differences in approaches used were mainly in response to the level of enlightenment that the societies gained with change in leadership.  To reduce the level of resistance that a warlord faced the preceding approaches had to be defaced and made to appear lacking (Grasso and Corrin 32).  The warlords detached themselves from the traditional understanding of their perceived roles of being the representatives of the oppressive and rich in the society.  They made the society believe that they were indeed against the oppression by developing a view of being in opposite sides with landlords; this further ensured they usurped funds that would have been directed to the property owners and in so doing gaining enough resources to develop their military which was a key concern for every warlord.

Supporting cooperative systems with examples that bore relationship to their model while hiding the fact as was the case in comparing USSR to western Europe; keeping members of the society in constant fear and therefore justifying their development of large armies for their own personal gains and spreading fear of communism while aware of the limited threat that communism has on their strategies and the risk that an integrated society will have on their agenda are some of the approaches that were used warlords (Slack 167).  The approaches and ideologies used by warlords were quite different depending on the perception they were seeking to develop and strategies that preceding leaders had developed.  It is important to note that leaders used strategies that were effective and provided them with the ability to correctly manage the areas they controlled so as to mitigate any resistance while always ensuring that their armies got the most resource allocation to ensure stability of their leadership.

Regionalism and nationalism were all driven at depending on which one best addressed the agenda of leaders.  There are cliques known to have pushed for both; pushing for cooperatives while admonishing communism is an example of how leader’s managed to confuse the society based on their mastery of social fear.  Though the main objective underlying the warlords approach to leadership was personal development, some communities developed as a result.  Warlords in an effort to increase security and control their regions developed social infrastructure that were later used by members of the society to aid their development (Grasso and Corrin 53).  Benefits that the society got from warlords are mainly byproducts of strategies that seek to address their personal agenda.  Moreover, the warlord era played an important role in transition between the age of dynasty and the modern day approaches to leadership in China.


No warlord employed strategies that were similar to another’s rather the effect of the strategies they employed drove to the same goal of personal gains while keeping the society in a state where it believed that the leaders were driving at its good.  The central and state governments were all controlled by warlords who had considerable influence on the strategies that would be employed in the regions they controlled.  Though their reign lasted for short period, the ability of leaders to use their skills and knowledge on the society to develop twisted perception of events was clearly brought out by each of the warlords.  Modern day leaders should learn from this experience and so should the society in developing a more objective approach to analysis of issues they are faced with and developing strategies that seek to address the said issues.

Work Cited

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            Grasso, June and Corrin, Jay. Modernization and revolution in China: from the Opium                 Wars to world power. Boston, MA:M.E. Sharpe, 2004

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            Slack, Edward. Opium, State, and Society: China’s Narco-economy and the                                  Guomindang, 1924-1937. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

            Winchester, Simon. The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze,                   and Back in Chinese Time. New York, MY: Picador, 2004


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