Household Armies

My curiosity was piqued by Zenpundit’s post on the psychology of the Warlord, since a lot of my interest in China centers on the Republican period, otherwise known as the Warlord Era. That nomenclature is not without justification – at one point in 1936 the Warlord Chang  Hsüeh-liang  felt empowered enough to arrest Republican President Chiang Kai Shek and order him to stop fighting the Communists and focus on the Japanese what became known to history as the Xi’an Incident. As an aside to the recent comments on this site about the length of historical memory and the importance of the Glorious Revolution to our Founders and the Civil War to our grandfathers, Chang (or more properly Zhang: 張學良)  Hsüeh-liang remained under house arrest in Taiwan until 1990. He was freed upon the death of Chiang Kai-Shek’s son and successor, and died in Hawaii in 2001. This period is indeed still vivid in the living memories of Taiwan’s and China’s elites. And, as I will get to later in this post, Chang’s living memory included encounters with major actors in the Taiping Rebellion. 

Certainly some of my interest in this time period is personal – my father-in-law was a teenage GMD soldier of that era. However, the rest of my interest centers on the post-nation-state character of Warlord conflicts. It is not out of the realm of possibility that China could degenerate once again into regionalism in our lifetimes. 

Before you read my ramblings, a perusal of Parameters essays here and here might be in order. 

Zenpundit’s post focused on the psychology of the individual, and that is very necessary in this context (and one in which I need to do some catch-up reading before I can have an intelligent conversation with Zenpundit), but I’d like to branch out a bit in the discussion and talk about the nurture that brings the nature of the “armed Bohemian” to center stage. I would postulate that, in the right milieu, a dominant personality such as Rockefeller, who sought his monopolies in order to bring some measure of stability to commerce, would have emerged as a Warlord. America is not immune from the personality type, it merely presents other, more socially valuable, avenues for the dominant personality to exert its dominance. 

The first necessary-but-not-sufficient criterion is social balkanization. Warlords require that their subject populations see themselves as distinct form their neighbors, and one of the main means of characterizing the “other” outside of America is by blood and ethnicity. One of Ralph Peters’ Seven Signs of a Failed State is a clan-based social system. And it is here that we first find the danger of using China as a case study to be extrapolated to non-Chopstick cultures: 

Oligarchies of landed families freeze the pattern in time. There is a preference for a dollar grabbed today over a thousand dollars accrued in the course of an extended business relationship. Blood-based societies operate under two sets of rules: one, generally honest, for the relative; and another, ruthless and amoral, for deals involving the outsider. The receipt of money now is more important than building a long-term relationship. Such societies fight well as tribes, but terribly as nations.


At its most successful, this is the system of the Chinese diaspora, but that is a unique case. The Darwinian selection that led to the establishment and perpetuation of the great Chinese merchant families (and village networks), coupled with the steely power of southern China’s culture, has made this example an exception to many rules. More typical examples of the Vetternwirtschaft system are Iranian businesses, Nigerian criminal organizations, Mexican political and drug cartels, and some American trade unions.


Where blood ties rule, you cannot trust the contract, let alone the handshake. Nor will you see the delegation of authority so necessary to compete in the modern military or economic spheres. Information and wealth are assessed from a zero-sum worldview. Corruption flourishes. Blood ties produce notable family successes, but they do not produce competitive societies.

There are a few reasons that the Overseas Chinese are an exception to this rule. First, the OC are not landed. Their wealth comes from being middlemen and traders, not from agricultural production. Trading families tend to be more forward looking and open top new ideas than family farmers.  

Second, as Seagrave noted in “The Lords of the Rim”, far back into ancient
China, the Emperors were treating merchants like the European Royalty treated Jewish bankers – deep pockets attached to heads that could be conveniently removed when debts got too high. It is not a totally backhanded compliment, but also a recognition of a similar social journey, that the Overseas Chinese call themselves the “Jews of Asia”. Thus the central authorities of ancient Ch’in forced talented Chinese people to the periphery of the Pac Rim. The OC are the best of the best in Chinese business, and the Pearl River Delta would still be a backwater without them. In modern China, suffering from a brain drain of its best thinkers, that clan system is still a huge brake on progress, and the OC experience can not be extrapolated back to the Mainland. 

Finally, all those talented Chinese running from the Man had room to run. Just as the West beckoned 19th century Americans chafing under the old-school East Coast elites, Cousin Jin could run along to Hawaii or San Francisco, or Vancouver to start his new business if Uncle Tho back in Borneo put the kibosh on his ideas. Once again, being kicked off of their ancestral lands worked in the favor of the OC. The OC were a stabilizing influence on China by providing a safety valve for social unrest. Eventually that backfired, of course: Sun-Yat Sen’s revolution would not have come to fruition without his Hawaiian and Vancouver backers. 

Following the events of 1911 OC money flowed back to local clan thugs in China during the Warlord period, just as assets flowed from Irish-Americans to the IRA in the 20th Century. Those family ties created social networks that the Warlords exploited mightily from 1911 – 1949. Prominent families tended to supply officers to local armies, increasing their prestige and profits. Warlords could maintain control over adversaries by pressuring social networks. 

Closely related to family ties in the environmental root system of a Warlord are ethnic ties, especially ethnic ties bound by a religion or a language not shared by other groups in the area or in the Central government. China has these in spades. 

China has historically allowed certain social forces to compete with loyalty to the state. Linguistic (and in the cases of the Hui and Uyghur, religious) groups have always retained a large amount of autonomy through the provincial governments, and in some cases provinces such as Guandong can almost be thought of as a separate country within China due to their linguistic (non-Mandarin) identity and economic self sufficiency. But Guandong gets little voice in Beijing relative to the economic might of the Pearl  River Delta. Cantonese don’t care, as long as the kleptocracy in Beijing leaves them alone (after they make their formal obeisance) most of the time, and does not attempt to steal too much wealth. That may change as peasants out West mobilize and force the central government to send more goodies their way. China never hit upon the Anglosphere’s solution of a Republican governmental federation of competing interests akin to either Great Britain or the competing American states – the Imperial authorities always wished to pretend that they were in complete control, while ceding a lot of practical authority to the provinces.  

Conflicts between the linguistic periphery and the Mandarin-speaking center have contributed to the ebb and flow of centralized power in China since even before the Ten kingdoms of the South broke away from the Five Dynasties that succeeded the Tang. The Chinese have historically seen history as cyclical, rather than linear. I think that this at least in part stems from the fact that since the fall of the Tang Dynasty, China has never bitten the bullet to reform itself by completely rethinking its social system. Systems have arisen as kludges to deal with a particular problem, but have never dealt with the fundamental flaws in society, only with their surface manifestations. As James Sheridan wrote in “Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yu-hsiang” :  

Indeed, regionalism always was latent in China, even when the central government operated at maximum effectiveness. Communication and transportation facilities never were adequate to the task of binding all parts of the vast country to its political center. There were strong local and regional variations in language, habits, and traditions. Although the Chinese traditionally took great pride in Chinese culture, incentives to national patriotism were few and weak, whereas provincial and local loyalties were powerful.  

These linguistic and religious ties certainly cemented some of the most powerful Warlord armies of the Republican Period in China. If you know a Chinese person with the surname “Ma” (Horse, ), there is a good likelihood that they are of Hui extraction, and one of the most famous Warlord coalitions bore this name: 

Mention the name Ma Jia Chun–“Ma Household Army”–and most people will bring to mind the incredibly successful running team built up by Ma Junren, the famous athletics coach. For many older Chinese–including the top leadership in Beijing’s Zhong Nan Hai–the name has a more political significance, however. During the long period of internecine conflict known as the Warlord Era, much of China’s vast north-west lay under the control of the Wu Ma (“Five Ma” 五馬) warlord group; their collective armies were also widely known–and feared–as the Ma Jia Chun (馬家軍). It was this group which, in 1937, halted the Chinese Communist advance into Central Asia, when it handed the fledgling PLA ‘the most cruel and punishing defeat they had suffered up to that time’.

The Chinese characters were added by me. It is interesting to Google them – the PLA is still smarting from their 1937 drubbing by the Ma armies, and very little about them appears on the Chinese language Web. 

The original republican forces were Cantonese, following the Cantonese Sun Yat Sen. Warlords built local power bases that were in part supported by the inability of Chinese peasants to converse with other farmers a few valleys away, to say nothing of someone from another province. This was also a prop that supported European Feudalism, which looks remarkably like a Warlord era to the modern eye. 

Finally, an inability of State actors to keep order is necessary in order for armed Bohemians to take control. In China, this actually started in the Late Qing Dynasty. The bloodiest conflict of the 19th Century was in fact the Taiping Rebellion. The Qing military was too weak to put down the pseudo-Christian and erstwhile Chinese Messiah Hong Xiuquan, relying on the locally-raised Anhui army and forces led first by the American mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward and then by the British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon to put down the uprising. 

The Taiping rebel army was bound by Warlord-like ethnic ties, being largely composed of  Hakka (客) and Zhuang (壯族), although its primary ties were religious and economic. The Anhui army that opposed it was a largely local affair organized by Li Hong Zhang. This army formed the nucleus of the only modern Army controlled by the Qing – the Beiyang Army.  Putting down the Taiping pretty much wiped out the Qing, and it survived its rival by only three and a half decades.  

Upon the death of Li in 1901, the XO of the forces, Yuan Shi Kai, took charge. At the time of the Revolution in 1911, Sun Yat Sen had to deal with Yuan as the leader of the only effective military force in China, and Yuan called the shots in the early Republic. Unfortunately Yuan had delusions of grandeur and proclaimed himself Emperor in 1915. Most historians agree that this precipitated the Warlord Period, as Yuan was opposed by regional military commanders (most of whom had trained under Yuan) in Yunnan, Zhili, and Anhui, setting up those generals as local power brokers and eventual Warlords. 

It is my semi-informed opinion that a new Warlord Era could emerge in Modern China. So, where are the cracks likely to show first? Most obviously, Xinjiang  has both a history of revolt and separate government, as well as a religious difference with the Communist Han. The Tibetans get the most press, but given the culture of that people, I doubt that they will gain independence unless handed that gift by a foreign invader or a revolution fomented in another province. The Uyghur are a fierce people, and it does not take much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine an Islamist fire igniting there, spread from Afghanistan or Chechnya. I am afraid that the PLA will show the same weakness there that the Russians did in Afghanistan – the lack of autonomy and training in the senior NCO and junior Officer corps would negate the advantage of superior technology, making for a protracted and bloody Civil War fueled by Saudi funding for the Islamists. 

The previous Warlords were generals of a specific place. Russian and American forces realize this danger and post most officers far away from their homes for the majority of their careers. Interestingly, despite the history of the Warlord Era in many cases, the PLA does not

General Guo, a native of Shaanxi, has spent the majority of his military career in his home province. He joined the PLA in 1961 and did a 2-year course at the Military Academy in Nanjing (the forerunner to the National Defense University) during 1981-1983. Guo rose through the ranks of the Lanzhou MR, serving successively as a squad leader, platoon leader, regimental propaganda cadre, headquarters staff officer, and eventually MR Deputy Chief of Staff. He spent a total of 24 years (1961-1985) in these positions with a single unit: the 55th Division of the 19th Army Corps. From 1985 to 1990, he served as deputy chief of staff of the Lanzhou MR. From 1990 to 1993, he was commander of the 47th Group Army, directly under Fu Quanyou’s command authority. In 1993, he was transferred to the Beijing MR and served as deputy MR commander until 1997, when he was transferred back to take over the Lanzhou MR command–capping his career in the region. He served in this capacity until 1999, when he was tapped for promotion to the CMC and returned to Beijing. Guo is considered a specialist in ground force operations and training; he was one of the first to experiment with large-scale force-on-force mechanized infantry exercises. 


Liao Xilong. General Liao is another example of an officer who has risen methodically through the ranks. Born into a poor farming family in a mountain village in poverty-stricken Guizhou Province, Liao joined the army at age 19. He has spent his entire career in the southwestern Kunming and (after 1987) Chengdu MR. He held command at the platoon, regiment, division, group army, and MR levels. 


During the border war with Vietnam in 1979, Liao commanded a regiment that captured the border village of Phong To–for which he received a commendation from the CMC.15 As a result, he was also promoted to division commander (31st) and again engaged Vietnamese forces at Lao Shan and Zheying Shan in 1984. The overall commander of PLA forces in this engagement was none other than Fu Quanyou. For his actions, Liao is said to have been personally decorated by Deng Xiaoping and was promoted to deputy army corps commander. Six months later, at the age of 44, Liao became the youngest group army commander in the PLA. Six months after that he was tapped to become deputy MR commander under Fu Quanyou (again the youngest in the country). He served in this position for 10 years, although General Fu was transferred to command the Lanzhou MR and eventually was promoted to the CMC. After Fu left, Liao continued to serve as deputy MR commander to Generals Zhang Taiheng, Liu Jiulong, and Kui Fulin. As noted above, he played an instrumental role in coordinating the 1989 crackdown in Tibet. Thereafter, he befriended Hu Jintao, who came to Chengdu due to his altitude sickness in Lhasa. In 1995, Liao was finally rewarded with the appointment as Chendu MR commander–a position that he served in for 7 years until he was brought to Beijing in 2002 and appointed director of the General Logistics Department and a CMC member. General Liao has very strong military credentials, but he also possesses important ties to a variety of other senior PLA officers with whom he has served. Being decorated by Deng Xiaoping and being close to Hu Jintao further burnishes his standing. At 62, Liao Xilong and Liang Guanglie will have the predominant impact on shaping PLA force modernization.

Bolds are mine. Those two examples look strikingly similar to the kinds of careers boasted by the Warlords of the 1920s. 

The most likely scenario for a Neo-Warlord era is probably economically based. Any kind of major financial crisis in China might precipitate the Cantonese, who contribute far beyond their size to China’s GDP, to strike off on their own. I’m not sure how much military influence the PLA could exert on the Cantonese militias without destroying that for which they would be fighting. 

However, it is also unwise to discount the increasingly imbalanced sex ratio in China as a factor in civil unrest. Thirty million young men without hope of marriage is big trouble for any society. Some historians count a 19th Century imbalance as one of the forces that drove men to the Taiping.

But in the spirit of Richard Feynman, what forces in modern China might counteract the historical cyclic tendency to disintegrate in the face of a weakening central regime? 

First, education. Despite its excesses, the Cultural Revolution destroyed a lot of “bad” old with the “good” old. Young Chinese now see themselves more than ever as Chinese first, and not, for example, as Hunanese first.  

Second is language. Even if it is a second language, Mandarin is now spoken by a larger percentage of Chinese than at any time in history, and this diminishes regional differences. I was in a conversation with a highly educated fool the other day. Well, that’s a little harsh. He’s literally a world expert in his field, but like most smart people, he thinks he knows everything. He was lamenting the loss of so many small languages, and I said that was not necessarily a bad thing. His almost non-sequitur response was that many whales are passing away, too, as if biodiversity were the same as linguistic diversity. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see the human race whittle itself down to a single common language, but most of these small languages are the languages of cultures that need to get with the program of the 21st century, and losing the language is one step towards getting rid of the Seven Signs of a Failed Culture. The same can be said in China – losing regional dialects that hold peasant culture to tradition is not necessarily an evil development. 

Third, prosperity. This one’s the tricky one. Poor people in China don’t control the military, so for now, as long as the ruling classes are prosperous, they’ll use the military to put down the peasants, and not for much else. If, however, the banking crisis or any of the other economic ills that Beijing continues to paper over erupt into a Depression, all bets are off. 

In balancing all these forces in my mental model, I come to the conclusion that I just don’t know enough about what’s happening on the ground over there to make a judgment about when or with what likelihood Warlords might once again arise in China. What puzzles me is that with a few exceptions (Ralph Peters), there is very little commentary on the subject of regional military power when China is discussed. 

16 thoughts on “Household Armies”

  1. Westerners tend to think of China as unified culture defined by empires yet a close reading of history shows that China more resembles Europe i.e. a collection of related regionalized ethnic groups. The periods of Chinese history in which a strong centralized empire controlled virtually all of what is now called China accounts for only about a third of Chinese history. Chinese empires tend to come apart like the Holy Roman empire of the domains of the Hapsburgs.

    The inability to organize efficiently beyond the family is definitely the Achilles heal of China. Authoritarian regimes might be the only stable form of large scale governance available to them.

  2. “… close reading of history shows that China more resembles Europe i.e. a collection of related regionalized ethnic groups”

    Query for John and Shannon, and anyone else:

    What are the top five best books on Chinese history — any period — in your opinion.

  3. Lex – anything by Johnathan Spence, most notably the three I’ve read:

    “The Search for Modern China”

    “God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan”


    Chinese Roundabout: Essays in History and Culture”

    I plan to read this one next:

    Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi

    I consider Spence ot be the closest we have today to Barbara Tuchman, in that he springs clear of the emphais on minutiae of the modern, Academic, largely useless study of History to ask the Big Questions. K’ang Hsi is especially important as he was at the forefront of the modernizing influence in the late Qing before the Taiping ruined everything. In that repsect he looks a lot like some of the less Orthodox Communist Chinese leaders today.

    Seagrave is also a good read, but you have to double-check him, as he is given to flights of hyperbole. The three I’d recommend from him are below, starting with his tome on the Overseas Chinese:

    “The Lords of the Rim”

    and the related book on the children of Charlie Soong who drove so much of the history of the Warlord Era:

    “The Soong Dynasty”

    I’d also recommend his portrait of the stongest woman in the Qing Dynasty, Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi:

    “Dragon Lady”.

    The classic on US / Chinese relations is Tuchman’s bio of the American commander of Chinese forces in WWII:

    “Stilwell and the American Experience in China”

    Although in later years Sheridan turned into a Maoist shill, the 1966 bio of the “Christian Warlord” is still worth a read:

    “Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yu-Hsiang”.

    That’s more than 5, I’ll stop there.

  4. A truly wonderful post John – a tour de force ! (Also nice to see someone use the old Wade-Giles transliteration). I think you captured much of what Westerners need to understand about what China is and what it is not.

    A set of unconnected reflections on your post.

    Agree with you on Xinjiang. Inhospitible terrain far from Beijing, long history of separtism – the era of “Kashgaria” under various foreign and local potentates, incompatible local religion. Even during the Cultural Revolution the Chinese let the Uighur herders keep their Ak-47’s. These people are just not Chinese in identity.

    English language fluency is also growing fast in China.

    Spence is great! I ‘d also recommend Lex read Two Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng, Jung Chang’s The Unknown Mao ( read skeptically – over the top in places but a useful corrective to Maoist hagiography) and selections from Confucian, Taoist and Legalist writings.

    Again, fantastic post!

  5. Nice history, but the discussion of current day odds of warlordism seems pretty speculative. What “weakening central regime?” China’s growth remains strong (“extraordinary” might be more accurate), although that could change (either way). The list of potential destabilizers (e.g., imbalance of gender ratios) seems pretty short. Every society at any time has weaknesses. How could they not?

  6. Fabius Maximus,

    The fear of China’s dissolution rest on the widespread perception that Chinese institutions lack any robust character. Any economic/political system can work well during boom times but what happens when the inevitable bust comes around?

    The Chinese are basically in a race to build institutions, such as a banking system, that can withstand a downturn before it occurs. Their economy is something like a leaky water tank kept filled to a useful level only by rapidly pumping in water as fast as it leaks out. If the water inflow gets disrupted, the tank will empty with great speed. You can see this effect in boom economies large and small all over the world and throughout history. Most places do not succeed in creating robust systems during boom times because the boom saps the political will needed to make the necessary hard decisions.

    So China may be a house of cards. One good blow and it may fall apart.

  7. Fabius – I also suggest “The Coming Collapse of China” and “The China Dream” for an idea of how Americans take a metastable state like the stability of the Communist regime in China, and assume that it is truly a stable one. The last time we did that was the USSR of the 1970s. If, in 1979, I had written a post like this about the USSR dissolving into the CIS, what would have been your reaction?

    More to the point, I have three forces for disintegration balanced against three forces for integration. Those forces are pretty much the same ones present in the late Qing. And as I noted, I just don’t have enough data to assign weights to those terms in my mental model. But Warlordism is not a non-existant threat in China. China’s history has been a cyclical swing between Central power and Warlordism for over 3000 years. When predicting the future, it’s unwise to think that modern man is so different from his ancestors that a powerful historical trend like that can be ignored.

  8. “If, in 1979, I had written a post like this about the USSR dissolving into the CIS, what would have been your reaction?”

    A tangential point: A case can be made that the EU will come apart. Thinking through those implications now would be a good exercise for various entities, both in government and in business.

  9. I have started to think that a depression is coming to China. I think it will happen for much of the same reasons the depression happened in the US, one of these being lost of a rival’s place of power in the world. Much like the British and France lost out to the USA.

    Another thought I have had is that China’s buildup of military might is mostly to control internal forces. It seems like most of the time a country can control things at the world level by controlling the internal forces first. China has many internal forces to control, which is being tested by the slow use of environmental protections and the never before seen increase in the middle class.

    Third if human rights and culture should be the goals of a society, there is just as much of a chance for good coming out of China as bad. The good being strong enforcement of rule-sets, a decentralized flow of resource from the center, and a benevolent leadership style. The bad being: the strong enforcement of rule-sets, with the totalitarian control of resources, and from the center brand name.

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