06 March 1916 – Warlords

China has spiraled towards disaster for a long time, and the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 only accelerated the process. Mongolians sought and won independence under the Bogd Khaan, even conquering the southern verge known as Inner Mongolia until lack of weapons forced their retreat in 1914. During 1915, the Khaan concluded a treaty with the Russian Tsar and the Chinese government that recognized his virtual independence from Beijing, with a second ‘Tripartite treaty’ securing his telegraph communications in January. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate his power, or responding to Russian incitements, the Khaan briefly sent 2,000 troops over the Great Wall to occupy the city of Tatung-fu, withdrawing in early February.

The Great War has also brought faraway conflict to China’s shores. Lacking the means to attack the German colony at Tsingtao, Britain invited Japan into the war during August of 1914, and in less than three months the Imperial Japanese Army defeated the well-defended garrison with a modern combined arms campaign. In January of 1915, after the Chinese government formally requested the withdrawal of Japanese troops, the expansionist foreign minister Kato Takaaki pressed President Yuan Shikai (see above, center) to place China under Tokyo’s economic domination — a worrisome sign that the Rising Sun has expansionist ambitions on the Asian mainland.

Perhaps it was these difficulties which drove Yuan Shikai to declare a new imperial dynasty last year in hopes that his military government would command more respect and obedience. But the opposite has happened, and his ham-handed methods of promoting the change — first through a ‘popular’ committee, which fooled no one, and then via fraudulent plebiscites in December — have sparked open rebellion. Until now, ‘President-Emperor’ Yuan has depended on the loyalty of his generals to maintain control of the country through the Beiyang system, but his unique double title has incurred the wrath of Nationalist and Progressive alike. As a result, Yuan postponed his coronation indefinitely before the end of January, but that hasn’t stopped the rebellion.

General Cai E

General Cai E, rebellious leader in Yunnan

Immediately after Yuan’s dubious balloting results in December, General Cai E and Governor Tsai Ao demanded Yuan Shikai cancel his plans. When he refused, they declared an open rebellion in Yunnan province hoping to unite the southern and Yangtze river provinces against Beijing. Joined shortly thereafter by General Li Liejun and others, the group formed a National Protection Army, marching on Szechuan, then Hunan and Guangdong. Mutiny spread to Nanking and Fukien. Military leaders in Guizhou, Guangxi, and Guangdong soon joined their cause.

It is a great mistake to consider this rebellion a liberal triumph. Szechuan and Yunnan are chief producers of opium in 1916, which the central government in Beijing has prohibited, threatening to destroy the trade of growers and merchants; all of the rebellion’s principal leaders are military figures, and their army of between 100,000 and 150,000 troops is supported with Japanese money and munitions.

Indeed, Yuan Shikai’s exiled rival Sun Yat-sen has been fomenting disloyalty and encouraging further acts of rebellion from the safety of Tokyo, which vehemently opposes a restoration of Chinese imperium. They like having China divided into military fiefdoms, as it is much easier to exploit and dominate that way.

Although the rebellion is serious, it has not directly threatened Beijing, which is more than 1,500 miles away. And in fact Yuan has claimed several victories lately through his military governors in Szechuan and Kweichau, who control strong forces of their own. Crossing a tributary of the Yangtse, General Lung Jing Kwang took the railroad junction at Poyai in a fight that lasted for the first three days of March. Today, another army from Kwang-si province crosses into Yunnan from Guangxi and seizes Jiangnan while General Lung takes the rebel stronghold at the walled city of Yunnan-fu. Within 48 hours, the world’s wire services have shared the news that Yuan Shikai is breaking the back of the rebellion, but appearances are once again deceiving.

Public opinion of Yuan is still plummeting, and the rebellion is spreading all the time. During March, it becomes increasingly clear that he cannot win a military victory, and on the 22nd he announces that he will no longer pursue his monarchical ambitions. Five days later, a special session of the Council of State repeals all of his imperial legislation and restores the Chinese republic. In April, he agrees to give up all civilian authority to a Republican cabinet headed by Tuan Chi-jui as premier and war minister. Yet these measures still do not pacify the rebellious generals, who enlarge their insurrection into May until most of south and central China is opposed to Yuan’s continued presidency, however nominal.

The immediate crisis only ends on June 6th, when Yuan suddenly dies of natural causes. Yet even with him gone, the southern provinces are not ready for peace. Five years of intermittent warfare have taught the generals who rule China to fight out their problems rather than seek political solutions. Squabbling for preeminence, they have learned the wrong lessons from Yuan Shikai, such as relying on foreign debt to finance military power and dissolving civilian institutions which check their power. A republic in name once again, China is in fact ruled by warlords.


A map of the shifting local alliances which define China by 1925. The southern Nationalists, or Kuomintang, are in blue; they will be victorious and consolidate their power in 1929, but a new communist revolution will be rising in the countryside