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Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yu-hsiang

January 29, 2010

James E. Sheridan. Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yu-hsiang. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966.

Chris Hess (2000)

Using Feng’s personal writings and diaries as well as interviews of his former officers, Sheridan constructs the biography of one warlord’s political career. But in doing so he also creates an in depth narrative of the complex political situation in early twentieth century China, an arena which men like Feng strove to control. For Sheridan, Feng Yu-hsiang, “the Christian General” was a unique historical figure. Yet he finds that he also shared much in common with the other warlords of the period. They all followed similar routes to power, as the regional armies of the late Ch’ing gave them opportunities for advancement based on military skills (p.7-8). In addition Sheridan argues that Feng’s ultimate motivation was to preserve his military power and he sees this as key pattern of warlordism in general (p.19). From this he concludes that warlords like Feng do not represent true nationalism, nor can they. They have no interest beyond their immediate military power and they do not strive for unification “warlordism as a social phenomenon was the essence of anti-nationalism” (p.30). He continues by stating that “warlordism exists only at nationalism’s expense” (p.30).

In constructing the biography of Feng’s career Sheridan notes several important themes. He sees Feng as quite skilled in adapting his beliefs in Christianity and Confucianism into ways that concretely aided him in his military pursuits. Sheridan argues that Christianity’s emphasis on personal morals fit well with Feng’s own sensitivity to proper moral behavior (he banned gambling, smoking and drinking among his men) and that he also used Christianity to build solidarity among his troops and officers (p.83). But it was his Confucianism, according to Sheridan, that was most unique in his political rhetoric. Throughout his career, in both indoctrinating his troops and justifying his actions, Feng made use of popular Confucian concepts, particularly regarding the welfare of the people and the role of a virtuous leader (p.283-284). Many of his reforms and political slogans refer to the common people. “Feng’s nationalism derived largely from a sense of the unity and coherence of the Chinese people; he spoke more about the people than the nation” (p.123). When Feng took control of an area, he often did attempt to carry out reforms, and often built schools, libraries, roads, and improved sanitary conditions (p.105, 113, 151-153). But like most warlords his primary stress was maintaining his military force and this often had drastic consequences. During his control of Kansu, the horrible famine conditions there were blamed on his policies and taxation (p.252-253).

Sheridan sees Feng’s adaptation of this “nationalism” throughout his career as attempts to re-position himself in changing political climates rather than reflecting true shifts in consciousness. For example, following the May Thirtieth incident Feng placed more emphasis on anti-imperialism (p.175). But Sheridan argues that this position “coincided with the line taken by Russians and the KMT, and thus assured their support” (p.176). At the time such support was crucial to Feng, as the Soviets gave him weapons and technical advice (p.167). Even his views on Christianity seemed to change when the political climate dictated. His connections with the KMT made it necessary for him to adopt their ideology, in particular Sun’s Three Principles, which Sheridan sees as almost taking the place of god in Feng’s rhetoric (p.213-215). But such new concepts only went as far as Feng could control and use them. For example, as KMT and Communist political workers entered his organization they naturally emphasized mass movement organizations. Feng quickly felt that his authority was threatened by such groups, and although he had used much of their rhetoric to emphasize his “revolutionary past” he eventually broke with the Soviets and purged such political workers from his ranks (p.230).

This work represents one of the first serious attempts to deal with warlord politics by a Chinese history scholar. Sheridan is praised in reviews for his objective use of limited sources (Gillin, JAS, 26.3:469-474). He is quite sensitive to the dangers and deficiencies of using Feng’s own writings to create his narrative, and when possible he uses newspaper accounts, missionary accounts, and personal interviews to balance his narrative (p.59-60). Gillin’s only critique is that Sheridan takes some of his generalizations too far, and notes that there were indeed some warlords that had a significant interest in civil administration (JAS 26.3:473). But Sheridan’s conclusions are generally unchallenged. He does succeed in constructing a detailed history of this complex period.

This book does more than describe warlord politics; it also evaluates Feng’s consciousness and motivations. Scholars in the 1960s increasingly looked at such things as the rise of nationalism as a major force in modern Chinese history. Sheridan finds Feng’s greatest faults were not simply his warlord traits, but his lack of nationalism. He argues that warlords like Feng lacked the nationalism that developed among Chinese intellectuals at the time. “In short the trend was toward mass political organization, and Feng was not part of that trend”(p.289). Sheridan concludes that although Chiang Kai-shek displayed warlord qualities, it was his nationalism that made him different (p.292). Feng’s moralism, based on populist Confucian values and aspects of Christianity, was simply not compatible with the rising influence of mass politics and class consciousness. For Sheridan he is guilty of grafting new technology onto old politics (p.294). This point is well argued throughout the book. However as Gillin notes in his critique, many warlords were more diligent in their modernizing efforts, and it would be interesting to see if any of these men were able to better adapt their politics to be more in tune with nationalist sentiment.

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