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A Warlord by Any Other Name?

March 25, 2010

A Warlord by Any Other Name?: Writing Chiang Kai-shek in the Historiography of Republican China

Dahpon D. Ho (2005)

Chiang Kai-shek behaved like a madman the day his rivals in Hankou dared to call him a warlord. In her memoir, Chiang’s second wife Chen Jieru (Jennie) recounted the scene when an envoy from the newly formed Guomindang government in Hankou came to Chiang bearing news that the Central Executive Committee had voted him out, as well as a handbill that read: “The Revolution will never succeed without first striking down Chiang Kai-shek!” Once he heard that even his own protégés Xu Qian and Deng Yanda had denounced him as a new warlord, Chiang’s face turned an ugly white, and his alarmed wife secretly went to the bedroom and hid his gun lest he do something rash. As expected, Chiang went on a frustrating hunt for his revolver until “an intense hate and fury poured out of him, shattering all sense of proportion,” Jennie wrote. “‘Where is my revolver?’ he repeated desperately. I could see his face was livid and his hands were shaking – he ran amok. He swept things off the table and broke the furniture by smashing chairs and overturning tables. Then, like a baby, he broke down and wept bitterly. All that afternoon and evening, he refused to eat or talk” (Eastman, 1993: 226).

The year was 1927. Chiang would go on to outmaneuver and silence his left-wing opponents within the Nationalist Party, execute a bloody purge against the Communists, and dominate the national government of China. At the time, though, it must have seemed to him that his career and indeed the meaning of his whole life were on the line. Weeks after his initial burst of rage, Chiang was still fuming, “Why does Hankow slander me? I know that Borodin wants to see me overthrown! I feel like a horse with a spear stuck in its body, a tiger coming in front of me, and a wolf behind.” Then he shouted: “Oh, my master and the martyrs of our party in Heaven! Will you have pity on me and protect me? I’m doing what is right. My misery is indescribable. I can only say that I am suffering as much as the Buddha when he faced his adversaries in his great trial of strength.” (Eastman, 1993: 236). Even if we take Jennie Chen’s memoir with a healthy helping of salt, it is clear that the prospect of losing his “revolutionary” leadership and being reduced to a “warlord” ate at Chiang to the bone.

Was Chiang Kai-shek a warlord? At first glance, the fact that we have to ask the question makes it seem like a rhetorical one. No one seriously inquires, for instance, whether Wu Peifu or Zhang Zuolin were warlords; the term has likewise fallen easily on Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan, as shown clearly in the titles of two prominent biographies, James E. Sheridan’s Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yü-hsiang (1966) and Donald G. Gillin’s Warlord: Yen Hsi-shan in Shansi Province (1967). Nevertheless, the question is an important one, primarily because the term “warlord,” variously defined, carries with it no small amount of political baggage, and the ascription of such a label has implications not only for the periodization of republican history, but also for the legitimacy of the Chinese revolution. Staking out the years from 1916-1928 as the “warlord period,” for example, resonates well with Nationalist chronologies that reaffirm the successes of the Northern Expedition and a clearly demarcated “Nanjing decade.” The term has allowed commentators of diverse political persuasions to distinguish between villains and heroes, avaricious generals and selfless revolutionaries, naked militarism and national construction.

The term was, in short, a value judgment. No one called himself a warlord, though the word was used frequently to denounce one’s enemies. Unlike the ever-popular epithet “bandit,” however, “warlord” has been used to signify something historically specific in modern China. As historians, we too are implicated in the political uses of the word. This brief essay can make no claim to comprehensiveness in its attempt to chip away at the layers of warlordism. Eight decades of literature and big political changes in China and the rest of the world have produced an extensive bandying about of the term with varying degrees of precision. I aim in this paper to touch on some of the debates in the historiography concerning one man, Chiang Kai-shek, and the politics of what it means to call someone a warlord. Chiang Kai-shek’s personal reaction is as fine a place to start as any.

Self-representation is an essential issue for the discussion of warlordism. Chiang Kai-shek’s violent response to this term of opprobrium, as described above, was intimately linked to his self-image as a revolutionary. In his private letters, Chiang insistently described himself as a devoted follower of Sun Yat-sen, a true vanguard fighter of the revolution. One letter from his days of courting Chen Jieru, for example, went something like this:

Dear Ah Feng, the Chinese Revolution is yet to be completed. But I, a revolutionary, feel down-hearted and am unable to devote my full energy to our country. I only want you to promise me one thing and then I shall find strength again to work hard for the revolution. You have, I am sure, a deep love for China and will not want selfishly to deny one of her revolutionaries a little happiness. Your continued refusal to talk to me, or to see me, will diminish this revolutionary’s morale and spirit. Let me see you today! (Eastman, 1993: 19)

This sort of self-identification with the revolution was not confined to his private life. In his public role as military commander-in-chief, Chiang was fond of trumpeting the same message. In one speech at the Whampoa military academy in January 1926, he enjoined the audience: “If you believe that I am a true revolutionary, then, whether studying in the Academy or serving in the army, you must obey my decisions in the same way as I have accepted tsung-li‘s [Sun Yat-sen’s] thought as my thought, his will as my will” (Loh, 1966: 448, italics added).

Chiang stuck to his guns even in December 1936, when he was arrested by the “Young Marshal” Zhang Xueliang in the famous Xi’an Incident. Zhang publicly stated: “I said to General Chiang: ‘Your cruelty in dealing with the patriotic movement of the people is exactly the same as that of Yuan Shih-k’ai and Chang Tsung-chang.'” This was akin to saying that by refusing to unite with Communist forces to fight Japanese imperialism, Chiang was little more than an obstinate dictator and warlord. To this, Generalissimo Chiang was said to have answered, “That is merely your viewpoint. I am the Government. My action was that of a revolutionary” (Bertram, 1938: 130).

The avowed goal of the Nationalist revolution and its military phase, the Northern Expedition, was to overthrow imperialism and the warlords. In his self-proclaimed magnum opus China’s Destiny (1947), Chiang (or at least his ghostwriter) threw down the gauntlet and declared that the line between warlords and true revolutionaries was as clear as day. “There is not a single warlord that is not connected with the imperialists,” he wrote, blaming China’s civil wars on the foreign powers and their warlord lackeys (Chiang, 1947: 111). Moreover, as the living embodiment of revolutionary spirit, the “legitimate” heir to Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary legacy, Chiang took it upon himself to paint any who opposed his aim of territorial unification – especially the Communists – as warlords. The declared victory of the Northern Expedition notwithstanding, Chiang warned that the struggle against warlordism was far from over. Even members of revolutionary parties could be enemies in disguise, according to his standard:

Are those disguised warlords and new feudalists beneficial or harmful to the nation and to the Revolution? Everyone severely condemned those that formerly controlled armies and the territory-grabbing warlords as counter-revolutionary. Can we now call these disguised warlords and new feudalists genuine revolutionaries? How is it then that our own internal parties and groups are not willing to abandon their evil habits of partitioning territory by armed force and give up their attitude of feudal warlordism? How can they still be called Chinese citizens? (Chiang, 1947: 226, italics added)

Thus, Chiang showed that he was no stranger to mudslinging, and he consciously partook of the contemporary understanding of “warlord” as meaning feudal, evil, counterrevolutionary. Chiang’s rage at having the term flung back at him stemmed from his belief that he was the arbiter of China’s destiny, not some reactionary element to be cast off with the dregs of feudal society. He alone was supposed to have the final word on the subject.

But Chiang was not unique in his opposition to being called a warlord. What, if anything, made Chiang Kai-shek qualitatively different from those he excoriated? Like the “warlords” of his day, he was a military man, and he rose to power through military coups, expedient alliances and intrigue. He too relied on personal loyalty through patronage if institutional loyalty proved insufficient, and he made good use of “silver bullets” when it was expedient to do so. As Pichon P.Y. Loh wrote, Chiang, himself avowedly incorruptible, nonetheless capitalized on the corruption of others “in order to advance his own demand for political power. In view of the urgency of that demand and the extremely narrow margin of operation by which success might be attained, he had not been hesitant in the use of bribery and such extra-legal – ‘revolutionary,’ to use his word – inducements as would serve his own ends” (Loh, 1966: 447).

Although he was fond of quoting revolutionary ideology, there is no question that realpolitik was the order of the day. Chiang was unsentimental and pragmatic in his belief in force, as he confided in his diary on February 27, 1944: “Love and hate, separation and unity do not depend on sentiments but on power. Given a prolonged period of time and with power in one’s grasp, international maneuvering can all be in one’s hands. Joy and sorrow, love and hate all depend on me” (Tang, 1963: 103). Historian Tang Tsou commented that Chiang’s ardent nationalism essentially consisted of a “mystic sense of identification of his power interests with the interests of China” (Ibid.). In this respect, Chiang was similar to Feng Yuxiang, whom James Sheridan has described as having “equated his own power with the welfare of the lao-pai-hsing [the people]” (Sheridan, 1966: 293). It there any particular reason why it should be easier to identify Feng Yuxiang as a warlord rather than as a “revolutionary” like Chiang Kai-shek? One of the problems with asking whether or not Chiang is a warlord is that common definitions of warlordism may already rule out Chiang Kai-shek.

The term “warlord” (junfa), as Arthur Waldron (1991) has argued, may well have been an imported term that did not enter the Chinese vocabulary until the early twentieth century. When it gain common currency around the time of the May Fourth Movement, it was adapted as a term of direct condemnation of violence and military intervention in politics. Thus, Waldron points out the case of political scientist Gao Yihan, who asserted in 1926 that the revolution had to destroy the predatory warlords while creating a “new kind of military man: someone who was a master of the techniques of warfare but a revolutionary and not a junfa at heart” (Waldron, 1991: 1081). Gao saw the rising soldier Chiang Kai-shek as just such a man of the future: “a soldier but not a warlord” (jun er fei fa). This comment spurred a rebuttal from the activist Wu Zhihui, who argued that the junfa (warlords) were not all so bad, nor was Chiang so good (Ibid.).

This case suggests that in the early decades of the twentieth century, it was unclear who was a “warlord” and who was not, or if military men could be divided into “good” and “bad” warlords. For some, the proof was in actions, not words. Historians have also found it difficult to agree on the precise characteristics of a warlord. In his landmark study of Feng Yuxiang, James Sheridan succinctly defined a warlord as “a man who was lord of a particular area by virtue of his capacity to wage war. A warlord exercised effective governmental control over a fairly well-defined region by means of a military organization that obeyed no higher authority than himself” (Sheridan, 1966: 1). For Sheridan, a warlord army was a personal army in the sense that it had no commitment to “suprapersonal principles and goals” (1966: 8). Jerome Ch’en disagreed with such a limited definition, which overlooked legitimate regional interests, and instead characterized warlords in terms of a larger political phenomenon, the “military-gentry coalition” (Ch’en, 1979). Scholars like Donald S. Sutton (1980) and Diana Lary (1974) have eschewed the term warlord in favor of militarist, and Sutton has proposed “fragmented militarism” as a way to describe the multitude of autonomous military commanders (Sutton, 1980: 2-3).

More recently, Edward A. McCord (1993) has recommended the retention of the term warlordism because it most effectively conjures up the image of personal power and fragmented military rule. He argues that the failure to reach a consensus on the various civil political alternatives in the early years of the Republic and the inability to resolve conflicts without the use of force led to the militarization of politics, the essential prerequisite of warlordism. “Under these conditions, the gun soon became the most important political determinant. Political reliance on military force continued the politicization of the military and in turn politically empowered military commanders. Military men were thus given many opportunities to bend political conflicts to serve their own political ambitions. Military commanders who took advantage of these opportunities thus became ‘warlords'” (McCord, 1993: 11).

The debate over the scope and definition of terms like warlordism, militarism, and even praetorianism (see McCord, 1993: 3-4) will no doubt continue long into the future. As I see it, each term can claim a certain functionality because examples can be found which fit the description. There is even a possibility that one individual could fit the bill as a warlord, a militarist, and a praetorian – not to mention bully, dictator, tyrant, etc. – all bundled into one complex figure. One persistent problem is that of scope. In a certain sense, a person could be a “militarist,” in the sense of believing in military solutions to social conflicts, or coming to power by military means, without necessarily being a “warlord.” A civilian executive could, in certain situations, also hold personal military allegiance over an area without necessarily losing his or her nationalist credentials.

The question, it seems, revolves around the knotty problem of legitimacy. In the absence of a recognizable, “legitimate” central government, it is nigh impossible to judge the claims of local powerholders by objective or morality-free standards. As Henrietta Harrison has observed, “many of those whom the Nationalist Party considered to be warlords were regarded as statesmen by their supporters and some of those they ruled” (Harrison, 2000: 151). No regional powerholder conceded that he was a warlord, and virtually all were interested in achieving national unity on their own terms (Ch’i, 1976: 192). Therefore, a definition of warlordism based on pledges of unity or recognition of central government authority is inherently problematic. This can be seen in Emily Hahn’s biography of Chiang Kai-shek, in which she easily dismissed the idea of Chiang being a warlord. Hahn wrote: “It seems best to quote Hollington Tong: ‘a warlord was the governor or the military commander of a province, or group of provinces. He throve when the authority of the Central Government was lax, or uncertain. His role was sometimes predatory – at other times benevolent – but his distinguishing characteristic was his refusal to recognize the complete authority of the Central Government.’ Definitely, this doesn’t describe Chiang” (Hahn, 1955: 58). The problem here is that throughout the “warlord period” the internationally recognized government of China was the one in Beijing. From the perspective of that central government, and also the foreign powers who continued to hand over national customs revenues to the Beijing administration, an agitator like Sun Yat-sen may have appeared to be nothing more than a self-serving renegade who anointed himself Generalissimo and relied on military force to stay in power. In that case, Sun would be the “warlord” for refusing to recognize the complete authority of the parliament in Beijing. It is also hard to hear even a nominal allegiance to civil authority in Chiang Kai-shek’s declaration, “I am the Government.”

Instead of carving out a checklist of warlord criteria to evaluate Chiang Kai-shek’s qualifications as a warlord or revolutionary, I believe a more realistic and helpful approach would be to examine some of the historiography on Republican China and the assumptions contained therein. James Sheridan has been one of the few historians to directly raise the question of whether or not Chiang Kai-shek was a warlord. In Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yü-hsiang, and he offers the following answer: “A simple affirmative reply would be as misleading as a simple negative reply, but it is certainly true that Chiang’s rule of the party and the government resembled warlord rule in many respects” (Sheridan, 1966: 291). Sheridan mentions how Chiang’s power was based on regional control, how he headed an armed force and a Whampoa clique that was personally loyal to him, and how he ruled primarily through warfare and factional manipulation rather than republican civil institutions. Moreover, both Chiang and Feng (the protagonist of Sheridan’s Chinese Warlord) viewed themselves as moral leaders destined to unite and lead China. The crucial difference, however, was that after 1928, “the Kuomintang, having ostensibly unified the country, more than ever represented Chinese nationalism. Chiang’s position in the nationalist movement was not that of a warlord” (Sheridan, 1966: 292).

Sheridan’s explanation is insightful, but it still seems rather vague. What does it mean to say that Chiang’s position was “not that of a warlord”? By contrasting Chiang’s “role” in the nationalist movement with Feng Yuxiang’s carefully plotted efforts at “making his maneuvers for greater personal power seem to be in the national interest,” Sheridan seems to imply that Chiang’s nationalism was genuine. However, he immediately counters by saying that “Feng’s [ulterior] motives acquired an aura of purity because Chiang actually did pursue policies inconsistent with republicanism, with the rules of the Kuomintang, and with the quest of nationalistic Chinese for reform and progress” (Ibid.). If Chiang Kai-shek was so unconvincing as a revolutionary leader, and in Sheridan’s words just as much of an “anachronism” as Feng in his futile attempt to “graft a new technology onto the old politics” (1966: 294), was Chiang not in fact (if not in name) as much of a warlord as Feng Yuxiang? Or to put it another way, can it be said that Feng Yuxiang was just as much (or as little) of a “revolutionary” as Chiang?

One important mitigating factor, Sheridan suggests, was that Feng had “no real chance” to seize leadership of the Guomindang away from Chiang – he was a latecomer to the party, a northerner, an outsider, and a warlord to boot. However, the basic assumption again seems to be that Feng was already a warlord and outsider, so he could not become a revolutionary; in contrast, Chiang was already an insider and leader of the revolutionary party, so he could not be a warlord. To break out of this cyclical logic, perhaps we should consider the mutability of the terms and the individuals in question. Individual careers are complex, and it is unrealistic to assume “once a thief, always a thief.” I would argue that neither “warlord” nor “revolutionary” is an unshakeable identity, just as a cross-section is insufficient to identify the whole. Is the essential identity of Wang Jingwei, for example, that of a traitor, revolutionary, or puppet?

Furthermore, these concluding points by Sheridan nudge us in another direction, that of timing and power. If being a latecomer and an outsider contributed to Feng’s relatively weak status in the party and forever consigned him to warlord instead of potential revolutionary status, are we to infer that party insiders are insulated from the warlord label regardless of their political means? Let us take a look at Chiang Kai-shek’s rise to power. As Pichon P.Y. Loh put it, Chiang Kai-shek was hardly a serious power player until the death of Sun Yat-sen on March 25, 1925: “Chiang was not, at this time, represented in the higher party or government councils; he was not even listed in the Who’s Who of the China Year Book for 1925-26” (Loh, 1966: 433). Harold Isaacs also stated that “Chiang was still some distance from power” in 1925 and carefully machinated back and forth between the Communists, the Russians, and the higher-rung Guomindang leaders “like Cerberus, the three-headed guardian at the gates of Hell” (Isaacs, 1951 [1938]: 83, 89). Isaacs, who sympathized with Trotsky and ideas of world revolution, was obviously scathing in his criticism of Chiang in The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, but his judgment was fairly accurate. Within the party hierarchy Liao Zhongkai, Hu Hanmin, and Wang Jingwei had all been closer to Sun Yat-sen and could make stronger cases than Chiang for being “legitimate” successors of the revolutionary leadership.

Chiang began to work his wiles. His wife Chen Jieru’s memoir recounts what happened, in June 1925, when Chiang staged a coup d’état in Canton and declared martial law. “Many members of the Kuomintang, especially the veterans, were indignant and expressed their opposition to Kai-shek’s dictatorial powers. The slogans they created were: A new warlord is born; A Ningpo Napoleon has risen.” (Eastman, 1993: 180). On August 20, 1925 Liao Zhongkai was assassinated, and Chiang personally led a hunt for the culprits that conveniently led to Hu Hanmin’s house and the headquarters of Xu Chongzhi. Hu Hanmin’s brother was imprisoned for the assassination, and Hu himself was charged with complicity and temporarily exiled to the Soviet Union on a “mission of investigation”; meanwhile, Xu Chongzhi (Chiang’s military superior) was charged with neglect and dismissed (Eastman, 1993: 180-181; Loh, 1966: 434). In one stroke, Chiang rose to number two, second only to Wang Jingwei.

It is well known that Chiang, as military leader of the Northern Expedition, split with the left wing of the Guomindang after the capture of Shanghai and ordered the bloody suppression of his former Communist allies on April 12, 1927, in cooperation with local hoodlums and the Green Gang. It was in the context, as Arthur Waldron notes, that “his adversaries began to attach the label junfa to him and his regime as well, leading to division within the ranks of he triumphant revolution.” Small wonder that in October 1928, Mao Zedong excoriated Chiang’s regime as “the new warlords of the Guomindang” (Waldron, 1991: 1082). While the Guomindang was thus torn in half, on April 18, 1927 Hu Hanmin also made a public statement defining the warlord: “A soldier who ignores the interests of the nation and the people’s demand for salvation and depends on the support of bureaucrats, corrupt politicians, local ruffians, bad gentry, and imperialists is a warlord” (Ch’en, 1968: 578). One wonders if Hu was implicitly referring to Chiang Kai-shek or not, as such a characterization would unequivocally put Chiang in the warlord camp.

The Guomindang left wing and the Chinese Communists labeled Chiang as the new warlord because, in their eyes, he had betrayed the revolution. Chiang’s rise to power and his suppression of Communist revolutionaries smacked of warlord behavior. However, neither the denunciations of his contemporaries, nor the act of coming to power by mastering warlord politics, consigned Chiang to the pits of warlordship in later historiography. After all, the balance of power was in his hands, not those of his left wing critics. Moreover, unlike Duan Qirui and previous contenders who had shuffled back and forth for control of the Beijing government, Chiang did not play musical chairs. Chiang gained international recognition for his Nanjing government and stayed in power for over two decades. The Nanjing regime was the closest thing to a stable central government that China had seen since Yuan Shikai’s presidency. Durability or the duration of recognized rule, then, stands out as a major criterion for legitimacy.

We know all this from hindsight, of course. In the late 1920s and the 1930s, it was unclear just how long Chiang would last. Skeptics at the time likely thought there was every possibility that he could turn out to be another Duan Qirui or a Cao Kun, a temporary player usurping the central government for a few months to a year before being replaced or backstabbed by another warlord. Thus, we can find books written at the time criticizing Chiang in similar language as that used to condemn the warlords. One example is T.C. Woo’s The Kuomintang and the Future of the Chinese Revolution (1928), in which the author excoriated the “Judases” of the Chinese revolution who only pay “lip-service” to the revolutionary vision of Sun Yat-sen. “Large numbers of people,” Woo asserted, “are doubting whether the ship of the Chinese Revolution will not be steered to the rocks by these mutinous oarsmen of the Kuomintang” (Woo, 1928: 10-11). Apparently, Woo was squarely pointing to Chiang Kai-shek as one of the “Judases” of the revolution, for he went on to criticize military power for “dominat[ing] party authority in the appearance of the person of Chiang Kai-shek.” The resulting party split was such a disaster that “the corpse of the movement was indeed retained, but its spirit is gone,” Woo wrote. “The present regime that is now functioning at Nanking is an unstable Government. Its only reliance is the army. But, as experience has time and again proved, the army without a purpose is the least reliable thing in the world. The leadership of the Right Wing of the Kuomintang is bankrupt” (Woo, 1928: 178, 248-249). Another example from the period was T’ang Leang-Li’s The Inner History of the Chinese Revolution (1930), which predicted bluntly that Chiang Kai-shek’s government, “politically discredited and military disunited, attempting to maintain its power by means of a military dictatorship, is bound sooner or later to be overthrown” (T’ang, 1930: 360). As we might expect, both of these authors identified with the left wing of the Guomindang.

In contrast to the above, Robert Berkov’s Strong Man of China: The Story of Chiang Kai-shek (1938) described Chiang much more positively as “no obscure Oriental war-lord, no chief of a comic-opera principality. Here is a chief of state and ruler, one who stands with the Hitlers and Mussolinis and Stalins of the western world – however much he may dislike the comparison” (Berkov, 1938: 2). However, Berkov also noted that “a few years ago Chiang was generally classified as a military opportunist. And the terror that was periodically instituted in his name filled liberals with distaste, if not disgust” (Berkov, 1938: 280-281). Around the same time, journalist Edgar Snow noted this swing to the Guomindang right-wing in his classic Red Star over China and called it “the new militarism” (Snow, 1968 [1938]: 99).

With the initiation of the united front against Japan in 1936, the warlord issue was largely dropped from public discussion. His critics may have continued to privately mouth denigrations of Chiang and his dictatorial style of government, but in the crisis at hand public attention was clearly directed at opposing Japanese aggression. The war brought its own urgent legitimacy. Whether or not Chiang was a warlord or his government was illegitimate was a moot point, since an internationally recognized central government and united front were essential to the war effort. As Arthur Waldron writes, “Chiang Kai-shek became the unquestioned national leader whom no one, not even the Communists, was willing to denounce as a ‘new warlord'” (Waldron, 1991: 1096). Still, little pieces can still be found here and there. In Lin Mousheng’s wartime book Chungking Dialogues (1945), the character Ku Kung-shan represents the voice of revolution. Tense, radical, restless and impetuous, he argues heatedly with his older, more moderate peers. At one point, he bursts out, “The trouble with the present regime is that it has conveniently forgotten the revolutionary principles which Sun Yat-sen formulated. Sun himself was a true revolutionary, but those in power now – those professed disciples of the great revolutionary – have become die-hard reactionaries.” When he is told that the government will inaugurate a new “constitutional period” one year after the end of the war, Ku replies: “I doubt if the fate of the next constitution will be radically different from the provisional constitution of 1912. There might be another Yuan Shih-kai who would make himself emperor, or another Tsao Kun who would bribe himself into the presidency” (Lin, 1945: 13, 59). The character Ku’s mistrust for the central government and his reference to the “warlord president” Cao Kun could easily have been read as a barb against Chiang by politically minded readers of the day.

Interestingly, World War II and the following civil war in China galvanized foreign observers at the same time that it resulted in a clampdown on the domestic press. Foreign accounts tended towards the extremes, either being highly laudatory or exceedingly disparaging. Of the former, a prime example is the fulsome praise (verging on hagiography) of missionary Basil Miller’s Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek: Christian Liberators of China (1943), which called on the free world to support Chiang as China’s only true (as well as greatest and most enlightened) leader. Miller wrote in exaltation: “Kai-shek and Mei-ling [Chiang’s third wife] hold in their hands the destiny of a fifth of the human race. They are the divine instruments for altering the fate of the sleeping giant which is China.” Moreover, the Generalissimo and his wife were “liberators who shall break the shackles from China’s body and soul. [They] are writing the Emancipation Proclamation in blood” (Miller, 1943: 7-8). In short, Chiang was no brute dictator like the warlords of the past.

And then we have Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World (1949). No more vitriolic denunciation of Chiang need be sought in the English language. Passionate, dramatic, and bitterly frank, Belden was, to say the least, not shy about where he stood on the warlord question. “Chiang was not a statesman. He was a despot, benevolent or otherwise, and he felt all the effects of one. In the field of political tactics, he was a master; in strategy – an opportunist; in government – a fumbler; in war – a fool.” Belden concluded that Guomindang leaders were suffering from “a mortal sickness of the soul. Sworn to end warlordism, they had ended up in the train of one of the biggest warlords in Chinese history” (Belden, 1949: 428, 439).

Finally, Time correspondent Theodore H. White, who traveled along the Sino-Japanese front and wartime Chongqing and was appalled by the corruption of Chiang’s government, published Thunder out of China in 1946 to foretell what he and co-author Annalee Jacoby saw as the inevitable collapse of Chiang Kai-shek. White and Belden came to similar conclusions, but it is noteworthy that White never once called Chiang Kai-shek a warlord. Dictator, tyrant, ringmaster, reactionary or counterrevolutionary, perhaps, but Chiang was portrayed as a master manipulator of warlords without being one himself: “Chiang thought of himself as a soldier, but his true genius lay in politics; he had no equal in the ancient art of hog-trading” (White and Jacoby, 1946: 125).

In his memoir, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure, White gave some clues as to why he did not use the term “warlord.” He had once been fascinated with collecting warlord folklore, but as he did his war coverage in the 1940s, he soon came to the conclusion that such an “exercise in political anthropology” was not useful. “The warlords were fascinating as individuals, more fascinating yet as an episode of government degenerating into brutality – but they were of the past, not of the present” (White, 1978: 136n). Warlord, as a term of the past, simply did not apply to a present-day national leader like Chiang. Nevertheless, White came close, remarking: “Rigid morality was locked in one compartment of Chiang’s mind; while other compartments concealed animal treachery, warlord cruelty and an ineffable ignorance of what a modern state requires.” White went on, “Of his personal treachery there could be no doubt. I had come to China believing him a national hero. Then, incident by incident, as I accumulated notes, the hero became to me first an unlovely character, then an evil one. Chiang tried to do good. He tried to do good in Honan when that [famine] story was brought to his attention; he tried to do good about the conscription system when Americans protested its cruelty. He was probably the last of the long chain of tyrants who believed a problem could be solved by shrieking: ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Ch’iang pi!'” (White, 1978: 212-213)

From this sampling of literature on the republican period, we can get some idea of the varying responses to the subject of Chiang Kai-shek as a warlord. Such characterizations were at times intended to satisfy specific political purposes, as the case of the left Guomindang anti-Chiang slogans, but others were not so clearly ideologically affiliated. Nor is it necessarily the case that those critical of Chiang Kai-shek unthinkingly branded him a warlord. Harold Isaacs (1951 [1938]) viewed Chiang in an extremely negative light, but he was content to describe Chiang’s betrayals and backstabbings without resorting to the term warlord. In The Abortive Revolution: China under Nationalist Rule (1974) and Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution (1984), Lloyd E. Eastman likewise avoids the term, even while he looks down on Chiang’s regime as essentially “a political and military structure without a social base,” and argues that Chiang only survived because his base was the army (Eastman, 1984: 2). Eastman sees Chiang as an anachronism, a master in the “game of warlord politics” who was out of his element once the rules changed (1974: 281), but an anachronism need not be a warlord.

Anachronism or not, Chiang’s attempts to ritually set himself apart from the warlords of his day present interesting prospects for future research. The much ballyhooed establishment of Nanjing as the national capital was not only an expedient measure to locate the center of government closer to Chiang’s bailiwick, but also a symbolic attempt to break away from the legacy of the northern warlords and their “sham government” in Beijing. Chiang demanded pomp and fanfare of imperial proportions for the transfer of Sun Yat-sen’s coffin from Beijing to Nanjing and its ritual re-interment in 1929. Henrietta Harrison contends that the ceremonies were painstakingly designed to “call to mind the trappings of the empire” in ways that could bolster Chiang Kai-shek’s personal claims to leadership. Having risen to power over the party by questionable military means, it was important for him to appear in this public ceremony as the chief sacrificant, flanked by Sun’s widow Song Qingling and with Chiang’s prime rival Wang Jingwei notably absent from the proceedings (Harrison, 2000: 230-232).

Another interesting practice showed up around the printing of Chiang Kai-shek’s name, according to S.I. Hsiung’s The Life of Chiang Kai-shek (1948). In referring to Chiang, Hsiung naturally omitted any “abusive titles hurled upon him by his political enemies,” including Dictator, Butcher, Murderer, Chinese Mussolini, and even the Chinese Mihailovitch. What is noteworthy is that Hsiung declared it his conscious policy to refer to his protagonist as simply “Chiang Kai-shek,” with no Generalissimo, President, Chairman, or the like. “In writing about Confucius or Washington, do we need to add anything else?” he asked (Hsiung, 1948: xiv). Thus, throughout Hsiung’s book we find references to “Commander-in-Chief War Lord” Zhang Zuolin and “the foremost War Lord” Duan Qirui being trounced by the forces of plain “Chiang Kai-shek” (p. 258). This practice clearly distinguished Chiang Kai-shek from any warlord and left no ambiguity as to who was the great man and who the losers. In addition, Hsiung gushed:

Chiang Kai-shek was an ideal idol for the common people. Since the death of Sun Yat-sen, people had been wondering whom they could now worship. Hu Han-min was a rather narrow-minded politician; Wang Ching-wei was much better but could not be compared with [Chiang Kai-shek, who was] a model general. He [Chiang] dressed very simply, wearing nothing ostentatious as the War Lords liked to do. And he always had nice things to say to the common people. That is why, wherever he went, thousands of people lined the streets, waiting hours for a glimpse of him and to cheer him. What a contrast to the War Lords, who had to clear the streets and place sentinels there to keep the people away hours before making their rare appearance (Hsiung, 1948: 256)

The fact that Chiang’s biographer tried so hard to distinguish him from the warlords he took on in battle is highly suggestive of how blurry the lines might have been to contemporary observers. Furthermore, to assure his readers that his use of plain “Chiang Kai-shek” was in no way a sign of disrespect, Hsiung reminded them that “in Chinese publications it is now the rule to leave an empty space before the name of Chiang Kai-shek. That is a traditional courtesy very much observed before the Revolution – [even] going outside the border a few spaces for the Emperor or Empress” (Hsiung, 1948: xiv). Imperial trappings, indeed! There is an ironic possibility that all of these attempts at legitimation for Chiang’s revolutionary status served instead to evoke comparisons with the recently departed Yuan Shikai in the minds of his contemporaries. A better understanding of the lengths to which Chiang would go to prove that he was not a warlord could contribute much to refining our definitions of the term.

In conclusion, the question of whether Chiang Kai-shek was a warlord or not, far from being rhetorical, is a serious historical debate that has quite a history of its own and remains unresolved. If the term “warlord” is to have any durable meaning beyond being bandied about as an implicit moral judgment, it is imperative that we be specific in describing what made “warlords” qualitatively different from “revolutionaries.” So-called warlords could promote progressive reform agendas, build roads, erect telegraph poles, found schools, open mines and industries, print currency, collect taxes, and donate to charity; self-proclaimed revolutionaries could be reactionary, unscrupulous, avaricious, and self-serving and provincial in outlook. Sheridan’s concise description of how Feng Yuxiang learned to play the warlord “rules of the game” applies equally well to Chiang Kai-shek and a host of other military commanders in the first few decades of the twentieth century: “One had to have connections; one had to develop independent military power; one had to make temporary alliances, and be ready to shift sides to maintain independence; and so forth. It was thus by mastering the ground rules of military advancement that Feng Yü-hsiang became a warlord” (Sheridan, 1966: 287). Clearly, in these decades military power was the sine qua non of political survival regardless of one’s ideology or lack thereof.

The idea of absolute identity is misleading because it presumes that historical actors are “stuck” in some role. Again, to paraphrase Sheridan’s insightful warlord biography (mentally substituting Chiang Kai-shek for Feng), Feng’s critics were liable to see only his warlord methods, while his supporters focused on his reformist visions – the two aspects were not only compatible, but Feng would be incomplete without both of them (Sheridan, 1966: 283). To reframe our questions and account for the possibility of mutable identities at historically specific times, we may begin by closely inquiring whose specific action or decision under what circumstances was described as that of a warlord. The fact that “warlord” (junfa) was a real, politically charged part of the vocabulary of the time should also not be lost on us. If, as Lucien Bianco once wrote, Chiang Kai-shek was “the man the Chinese press called ‘the super-warlord'” (Bianco, 1971 [1967]: 121), then the man’s warlord half is equally important as the standard account of Chiang the nationalist. If he came to power by warlord methods and ruled the country essentially in the same way that he had conquered it, then it is fair to call Chiang Kai-shek a warlord. Part of the historian’s craft is to investigate, recognize, and call a thing what it is, or otherwise explain why it is not. This can be done without quibbling over semantics along the lines of philosopher Gongsun Long (“A white horse is not a horse”).

As we engage in such inquiries in the future, we must also pay close attention to two factors. The first is the significance of the War of Resistance against Japan for Chiang Kai-shek’s status as a national leader, both at the time and in later historiography. Jerome Ch’en, for example, ascribes a singular importance to the war: “In the judgment of Chiang, one must always bear in one’s mind that he had led his country in a war of resistance against Japan for eight years – a feat unmatched by the performance of any other statesman in modern China. By any standard, this should qualify Chiang as a nationalist and therefore disqualify him as a warlord” (1968: 580).

The second is a reflexive look at the importance of “success” as the criteria for our historical periodization and labels like “warlord.” It is understandable that historians tend to sympathize with revolutionaries and want to see them as distinct from the warlords and oppressive forces with which they are locked in combat. The revolutionaries must be qualitatively different, or else historians are just validating the victors of a brute struggle between two indistinguishable players. It is worth speculating whether we would still find the question (about Chiang Kai-shek being a warlord) worth asking if Chiang had triumphed in the civil war and not been driven to Taiwan. I suspect not. Likely the question is intertwined with our concerns about why Chiang failed, or in Brian Crozier’s (1976) words, why he became the “man who lost China.” If Chiang had crushed the Communists and gone on to rule a united China for another two decades (however unlikely that would be), historians would have fewer opportunities to search for seeds of destruction, warlordism, and failure. All this, of course, is hindsight. In 1938, when everything was still up in the air, Robert Berkov made the following insightful observation:

The truth was that he saw his chance and he took it. The praise or blame must lie in the eventual success or failure of his effort. If China becomes a powerful united nation, blessed by peace and prosperity because of its strength and unity, Chiang will be hailed by his people as greater than Sun Yat-sen, and in the years to come his faults and weaknesses will be forgotten until resurrected by some “debunking” historian. If the structure which he has erected collapses and China emerges from the Chiang era to a period of chaos and conflict, he will be charged with the fault, and the people will look upon him as they now regard ambitious, unfortunate Yuan Shih-kai (Berkov, 1938: 281-282).

Berkov’s words were prescient, for Ernest P. Young, in The Presidency of Yuan Shih-k’ai: Liberalism and Dictatorship in Early Republican China (1977) has indeed compared Yuan Shikai and Chiang Kai-shek as failed reformers and centralists.

In present-day politics, the term “warlord” is depreciatively tossed about as a blanket pejorative term for de facto military rulers in places like Somalia and Afghanistan. Recently, even the late Yasser Arafat, former recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has been derided as a “Palestinian warlord” in a conservative publication called The California Review (2004: 16-17), where the heated claim is made that “there are few men so evil that their death ipso facto saves the lives of countless others.” I can only imagine that in Republican China, such terms of insult were hurled in just as angry and sometimes outrageous ways. Perhaps this consideration had some bearing on the Generalissimo’s demand that his body not be interred on Taiwan, which would be akin to accepting a satrapy and thus admitting ultimate defeat from the mainland. According to the most recent biography to date on Chiang (Fenby, 2003: 505), his corpse still lies in a marble casket at his country home outside Taipei, awaiting a triumphal return and eventual burial on the Chinese mainland. A small point, perhaps, but the nationalist symbolism surely cannot be missed by any who would dub him warlord.


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