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-by Ernie Diaz
One of many sayings attributed to the Chinese which you never actually hear them say, is “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse, you see, for interesting times lack harmony, and promise suffering aplenty. However, there are always types who thrive in a given environment, whose characters match the times, interesting or otherwise.
In these times of distraction and instant communication, the tech-savvy schmoozer thrives. You may call these times interesting, what with all the digital entertainment to soak up, but from a historic, Discovery-Channel-documentary standpoint,, today will never compare to China from the fall of the Qing Dynasty to the founding of the PRC.
The Chinese can tolerate much, but chaos least of all. Easier to ask Americans to refrain from applauding themselves. And that interregnum between emperor and chairman was China at its most chaotic, the era of the Warlord. These characters thrived on chaos, life or death stakes, Russian roulette. In these prosperous Chinese times, you find erstwhile warlords running KTV parlors, or the odd rural police force. Back then, for the few, the vainglorious, the completely amoral, China was their oyster. Let us learn to recognize their type, so that we may check them in their rise to power, no matter how good their connections with the IMF or Goldman Sachs.
Which is not to say that warlords are born rather than made. However, as the son of an officer, Feng Yuxiang came mighty close. He had to earn his way in, nonetheless, starting out as a non-salaried junior soldier at fourteen, who passed muster by sixteen. A serious youth, Feng saved his meager salary, and used it to help friends who still got no pay, and needed it for their families. Warlords were complicated characters, as a rule, and it was unchecked power which turned them to the dark side, as it does to all. It does, after all, take great heart to come close to that kind of power, and Feng displayed his with all sorts of idealistic stands against non-populist military orders, losing stripes for insubordination over and over, only to gain more as times got more desperate, and higher-ups recognized his mettle.
Feng was idealistic, or let’s say crazy enough to convert to Christianity, famed for baptizing his troops with a fire hose, and forbidding prostitution, gambling, and opium in the territories he ruled after the collapse of Yuan Shikai’s government. In and out of favor with warlord-supreme Chiang Kai-shek, he later spoke out against his regime, going so far as Berkeley California to do so. No wonder the communists commemorated him as “the good warlord”.
“The basest warlord,” on the other hand, so dubbed by Time, was Zhang Zongchang, who saw little use in wielding so much absolute power if he couldn’t enjoy it. Those who knew him better than Time called him “the Dog-meat General” and “72-Cannon Zhang”, which suggests more closely his larger-than-life appetites. The ‘dog-meat’ actually refers to the card-game he loved, which also kept his international harem in constant rotation: Koreans, Russians, Americans, so long as there were new ones for his bed after a hard night’s gambling, Zhang asked little more from life, humble soul, besides the usual warlord hustle, of course.
Zhang impressed not with brains but that other biological component seen as critical to worldly success, and a super-canny feel for the workings of paranoid minds. None more paranoid than Zhang Zuolin, who raised Zhang Zongchang in the ranks after a birthday party. All the sycophant generals outdid themselves in gold and jade gifts for Zuolin. Zongchang only sent two empty coolie baskets. The message: here’s a man who can shoulder the dirty work.
In truth, though, Zhang Zongchang was much more given to grand gestures than modest drudgery. He took his aged mother along with him on campaigns to reassure quailing troops; he incorporated Russian nurses into his corps. Once, after promising to come home from a battle victorious or in a coffin, and having lost, he was paraded through the streets in the promised pine-box, bemusedly puffing a stogie. To be sure, his whims were often cruel, and life was cheap to him, but for an age almost entirely ignorant of PR, Zhang was a natural.
Feng Yuxiang and Zhang Zongchang were all-star warlords notwithstanding their idiosyncratic approaches to raping and pillaging. A warlord in the purest sense of the term, the roadside brigand who takes his career to national levels, was one Zhang Zuolin. He made his bones as a teenager, murdering a local bandit for his horse, then taking over his gang in the bargain. He worked his long tail like a CEO, though, renting his men out as mercenaries to the Japanese against Russia, as escorts during rare spells of uneasy peace, and protection against lesser bandit gangs on the Manchurian border.
He was as coy and fickle in his relationships as a head cheerleader, one day throwing his weight behind Yuan Shi-kai for emperor, the next planning to restore the deposed child-king Puyi. All to the end of power, becoming governor of Liaoning Province in time for the zenith of the warlord era. By 1920 he was supreme ruler of Manchuria, commanding from his chateau, his night job wrangling five wives. He used his fortune of some $18 million to acquire the Fengtian army, with which he turned Manchuria into a de facto independent kingdom, part of the Chinese Republic only nominally.
It’s only fair to mention that Zhang Zuolin set about transforming his fief from one of China’s most backward provinces into its most prosperous. His main step in doing so was to banish all the worthless scrip circulating about Manchuria and put it on the silver standard. It raises interesting questions about the fine line between dictators and national saviors, if one holds up Che Guevara’s or Chairman Mao’s economic policies for comparison. May interesting times bring us warlords who at least have a practical man’s sense for business.