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Provincial Militarism and the Chinese Republic

January 30, 2010

Donald S. Sutton. Provincial Militarism and the Chinese Republic: The Yunnan Army, 1905-25. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1980.

Xiaowei Zheng (2005)

Published in 1980, Donald Sutton’s solid work on the Yunnan provincial army is a latecomer among the republican warlord studies that had prevailed in the 1970s. Still, Sutton contributes fresh approaches and exciting findings to this already highly contentious topic. As Sutton states, Provincial Militarism is a structural understanding of the phenomenon of warlordism, and he clearly departs from the previous generation of scholars in distinguishing the militarism during the first years of the Republic and the warlordism of the decade starting in 1916. Even though it is a case study, Sutton believes that the Yunnan provincial army can serve as a lens through which we understand this universal two-stage process of militarism; the transformation of all types of military forces into somewhat cohesive regional militarist clique during the first five years of the Republic; and their subsequent decay into the unstable and predatory warlord bands typical of the warlord period (1916-28). How did this initially cohesive modern army transform into the fragmented cliques? What were the “disintegrative pressures” on these militarists? What was result of this loss of cohesion? How did this shift interact with the larger political context and other contingencies? These are the key questions Sutton inquires.

In order to answer these questions, Sutton focuses on the organizational behavior of the Yunnan army. He believes that it was the army, its bureaucratic structure and its informal network of personal relations that determined the context of decisions. At the same time, brilliantly, Sutton closely investigates the individual decision making process, which allows him to situate his study in the context of both the current political reality and each officer’s social and intellectual background.

Parts one and two of the book deal with the formative and revolutionary phases of the Yunnan army. In contrast to Philip Kuhn who traces the origins of warlordism to the restoration leaders during the Taiping era, Sutton attributes the origins to the late Qing reform. The Yunnanese officer cadets came from lower gentry background; they were the product of the traditional examination system but took an interest in modern schooling after passing the first degree. These high quality students were selected to be trained in Japanese military schools, mainly in the Shikan Academy. Deeply influenced by nationalist politics after 1905 and juggling lives between military schools and Chinese expatriate political societies in Tokyo, the Yunnan cadets had certain shared characteristics – they had a deep and intense commitment to nationalism; while their commitment to revolution was vague. They had revolutionary and provincialist notions subordinated to nationalism, but were afraid that joining the revolution would destroy their profession. After graduation, they joined the Yunnan army. Their strong devotion to national strength, plus the support from the central government made the Yunnan army the largest and the best new army in South China. Stimulated by nationalist sentiment, the Yunnan army rose up in the 1911 Revolution, which ushered in the era of militarism.

Part three is the highpoint of both the Yunnan army and the book. After the 1911 Revolution, the army completely controlled the Yunnan politics; however, it did not take on Yuan Shikai during the Second Revolution. Sutton again attributes this decision to the professional militarists’ (such as Cai E) “conservative nationalism,” which gave precedence to national stability. Simultaneously, the Yunnan army practiced its own “centralization” attempt. The army increased recruitment, absorbed younger and better soldiers, and kept its professionalism and cohesion. However, this centralization process was cut short by Yuan’s 1915 disbandment of the army, which directly led to the antimonarchical movement of 1915 and 1916. When Yuan Shikai’s centralization was perceived as personal quest for power and when the 21 Demands led to an increased sense of national humiliation, local militarists rose up and ended Yuan’s rule. Even though Yuan was forced to abdicate, Sutton did not see this Hu-guo Movement as particularly successful. The lack of profound ideological commitment and the looseness of this anti-Yuan military alliance foreshadowed the political fragmentation soon to come.

Part four and five describe the downward spiral of the Yunnan army from militarism to warlordism. Without the central government’s support, the Yunnan army exported its militarism to the rich Sichuan province. However, as a guest army, the constant problem of lack of resources came up. With some Yunnanese soldiers swarming back to their hometowns and new Sichuan people recruited, the previous cohesion disappeared. Moreover, Sichuanese united and fought against the Yunnan invaders. In Guangdong, the exported Yunnan army could not battle against the strong Guangxi clique and lost its strength. Back in Yunnan, the proliferation of exclusive personal ties against large-scale cohesion and rational legal authority finally resulted in the disintegration of militarism. Sutton concludes that the Yunnan army could not achieve the unity most Chinese desired for they failed to adapt to the new political trends and ideology thus unable to mobilize the entire society.

Adroitly using the U.S. and British Archival sources and numerous published memoirs of Yunnanese officers, Donald Sutton does an excellent job in sorting out the history of the army. The best thing in this book is Sutton’s power in putting an institutional study in the historical context, catching the political contingencies, and incorporating various aspects of one event. Particularly, his emphasis on nationalist sentiment – its role in recruiting the officers in 1905 and in fermenting the 1911 revolution – is right on target. Moreover, his distinction between the commitments to revolution and to nationalism, and the distinction between nationalism and provincialism are all inspiring. However, toward the end, “nationalism” becomes extremely vague and fuzzy. In the case of Cai E’s anti-Yuan movement, with all the Cai E writings he provides, one is still unclear about the intention of Cai’s revolt. How much of Cai’s intention can still be called “nationalism” and what form did this nationalism take? What is the difference between Cai’s centralizationist and nationalist agenda? In addition, in the very end, Sutton again believes the Yunnan army’s “conservative nationalism” was responsible for the failure of unifying China for it did not take the ideological form of “nationalism” (which KMT used) that could mobilize all people of the society. In this manner, unification and nationalism was almost interchangeable. Similarly, another term, “republicanism” is also never defined.

Sutton obviously loves and in fact has a real bias for the Yunnanese cadets. In explaining the rise of warlordism, he argues that it was not due to “the ill will, covetousness or opportunism” of military men that warlordism arose, but rather “the disintegrative pressures.” However, to me, the invasion to Sichuan after the 1911 Revolution and during the second Revolution was already an earlier version of the later exports of militarism, and it can be arguably traced to “covetousness” or “opportunism.” In fact, his bias is best represented by his description of the army’s Sichuan activities. In order to justify the Yunnan army’s goodwill, Sichuan’s 1911 Revolution is portrayed as a rebellion of bandits in the countryside and an evil maneuver of Yin Changheng in Chengdu. However, Paoge societies were not equal to bandits; they had their own nationalist and revolutionary agenda. Similarly in Chengdu, the revolution was not some evil maneuver, but originated in widely spread mass protests; even Yin Changheng shared the nationalist and the anti-authoritarian sentiments with the railway protection crowd. Moreover, after the 1911 Revolution, the welcoming gesture of the Sichuanese to the Yunnan army was solely based on Yunnan sources, mainly the memoirs of the Yunnanese officers; no Sichuan records are used to illustrate the matter. Ironically, since Sichuan people supported Cai’s Hu-guo Movement, suddenly, the “goodwill of Sichuan people,” which again is never defined, appeared everywhere in Part three to underscore the righteousness of the Yunnan leaders.

Overall, Sutton indeed makes a contribution to our understandings of warlord history. His division of militarism and warlordism, though not carefully defined (for he only states that “warlordism was fragmented militarism”), pushes us to a new level of study. With this divide, a subtler understanding and reappraisal of the early republican period seems to just start. With more archival sources open to the public today, biases deriving from one-sided memoirs can certainly be examined.

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