The origins of the armies and leaders which dominated politics after 1912 lie in the military reforms of the late Qing dynasty. These did not establish a national army but utilized regional armies and militias which lacked standardization or consistency. During the later phrase of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), provincial governors were allowed to raise their own armies to fight against the Taipings, which were not disbanded when the war finally ended in 1864 with the sack of Nanking. The most powerful regional army was the northern-based Beiyang Army under Yuan Shikai, which received the best in training and modern weaponry. Officers were loyal to their superiors and formed cliques based upon geography and shared academy experiences. Units were composed of men from the same province. This policy was meant to reduce dialectal miscommunication and encourage regionalistic tendencies.
The Xinhai Revolution in 1911 brought widespread mutiny across southern China. The revolution had begun in October 1911 with the mutiny of the troops based in Wuhan. Soldiers once loyal to the Qing government began to defect to revolutionary forces. Rebel troops established a provisional government in Nanjing the following year under Dr. Sun Yatsen, who had returned from his long exile to lead the revolution. The revolutionaries were not strong enough to defeat the Beiyang army and continued fighting would almost certainly lead to defeat. Instead, Sun negotiated with Beiyang commander Yuan Shikai to bring an end to the Qing and reunify China. In return, Yuan would become president. Yuan refused to move to Nanjing and set the capital in Beijing, where his power base was secure.
Reacting to Yuan's growing authoritarianism, the southern provinces rebelled in 1913 but were effectively crushed by Beiyang forces. Civil governors were replaced by military ones. In December 1915 Yuan made clear his intentions to become emperor of China and found a new dynasty. The southern provinces rebelled again in the National Protection War, only this time it was more serious because most Beiyang commanders abandoned Yuan. He renounced his plans for restoring the monarchy to woo back his lieutenants, but by the time he died in June 1916, China was fractured politically. The North-South split would remain during the course of the Warlord Era.
Warlordism as a social system
The warlords were noted for wearing elaborate, gaudy uniforms with ostrich-plumed hats, golden-braided epaulettes, dozens of medals and flashy ceremonial swords. As a generalization, the warlords were as a group in the words of the American historian Lucian Pye, "instinctively suspicious, quick to suspect that their interests might be threatened . . . hard-headed, devoted to the short run and impervious to idealistic abstractions". For the warlords, the desire to possess power in and of itself was their main motivation and they were devoid of any sort of ideas, principles, values or ideals alongside the corollary that human life counted for nothing. As a reflection of this, the warlords treated both their own soldiers and the Chinese people with considerable brutality. In 1921 the North China Daily News reported that in Shaanxi province, "violence and robbery stalk abroad. Farmers are afraid to venture out of doors with even a donkey, lest both man and beast be pressed into the service of some warring faction." An American reporter in Henan province in 1924 wrote, "Unimportant cities are loaded with parasite soldiers well fed and well clad whose hardest piece of work is marching daily through the streets singing. Each general is a despot in his own sphere".Despite his often proclaimed Christian humanism, the Methodist convert Feng Yuxiang, "the Christian General", waged a brutal war against Muslim rebels that took about 100,000 lives, with much cruelty on both sides. The Muslims had proclaimed a jihad against Gen. Feng, who responded by proclaiming a Christian holy war against Islam, thus bringing the traditional Muslim-Christian antagonism to China. Gen. Wu Peifu professed himself to be an admirer of George Washington, but he was well known for his brutality in breaking strikes by railroad workers, with the heads of the strike leaders hung in public as an example to the rest. A British diplomat in Sichuan province witnessed the aftermath of a failed mutiny with two of the mutineers being publicly hacked to death with their hearts and livers hung out; another two mutineers being publicly burned to death; while others had slits cut into their bodies into which were inserted burning candles before they were hacked to pieces.
In the treacherous world of warlord politics where it was common for subordinate officers to betray their commanders in exchange for bribes known as "silver bullets" and for one warlord to betray his allies, the warlords placed great stress on personal loyalty. Promotion within the warlord armies had little to do with competence, and instead warlords attempted to create an interlocking network of familial, institutional, regional and master-pupil relationships together with membership in sworn brotherhoods and secret societies within the officer corps to create and strengthen loyalty. Subordinates who betrayed their commanders could suffer harshly. In November 1925 Guo Songling, the leading general loyal to Marshal Zhang Zuolin--the "Old Marshal" of Manchuria--made a deal with Feng Yuxiang, the "Christian General", to revolt, which nearly toppled the "Old Marshal", who had to promise his rebel soldiers a pay increase, which together with signs that the Japanese still supported Zhang caused them to go back on their loyalty to him. Guo and his wife were both publicly shot and their bodies left to hang out for three days in a marketplace in Mukden as an example of the fate that awaited those who betrayed Marshal Zhang. After Gen. Feng betrayed his ally Gen. Wu to seize Beijing for himself, Wu complained that China was "a country without a system, anarchy and treason prevail everywhere. Betraying one's leader has become as natural as eating one's breakfast . . . Underlings think of nothing but getting rid of their leaders in order to take their place, so disorder keeps spreading without end." In such a system, loyalty counted far more than did military competence.
Regarding relationships between the warlords, when one warlord started to become too powerful, the rest would ally together to stop him, and once that was achieved the allies would turn on each other. In the early years the warlords were much concerned about "alignment politics". in which warlords sought to maneuver themselves into a position of strength against their rivals. War meant not just the opportunity to inflict damage on one's rivals but also the risk that one's rivals might inflict damage on one's own forces, so generally the violence in the first years was limited and restrained, as neither side wanted to engage in too much serious fighting. For example, when Gen. Wu Peifu defeated the army of Marshal Zhang Zuolin, the "Old Marshal" of Manchuria, he provided two trains to take his defeated enemies home, knowing that if in the future Zhang were to defeat him, he would count on the same courtesy, which happened when Zhang defeated Wu in their next war. Furthermore, none of the warlords had the economic capacity or the logistical strength to inflict a decisive knockout blow to their rivals; the most they could hope for was to gain some territory at their rivals' expense. None of them possessed the power to conquer all of China. However, as the 1920s went on, the violence in the struggles between them become increasingly more intense and savage as the "alignment politics" changed emphasis and the focus was more on attempting to inflict as much damage as possible on the rival army to improve one's bargaining power within the "alignment politics". As China had poor roads, railroads were the key to warlord conflicts; possession of the railroads and of rolling stock determined the outcome of campaigns, as the railroads were the fastest and cheapest way of moving around large bodies of troops and most battles were fought within a short distance of railheads, so control of the railheads were the key to winning a campaign. In 1925 it was estimated that 70% of the locomotives on the railroad line connecting Wuhan and Beijing and 50% of the locomotives on the line connecting Beijing and Mukden were being used for military purposes, bringing up troops and supplies. Armored trains, full of machine guns and artillery, offered up fire support for troops going into battle. The constant fighting around the railroads caused much economic harm. In 1925 at least 50% of the locomotives being used on the line connecting Nanjing and Shanghai had been destroyed during the fighting, with the soldiers of one warlord using 300 freight cars as sleeping quarters, all inconveniently parked right on the rail line. To hinder pursuit, defeated warlords tore up the railroads as they retreated, causing in 1924 alone damage worth 100 million silver Mexican dollars to the railroads of China (the Mexican silver dollar was the main currency used in China at the time). Between 1925-27 fighting in eastern and southern China caused non-military railroad traffic to decline by 25%, raising the prices of goods and causing inventory to build up at warehouses.
Only a few of the warlords had any sort of ideology. Gen. Yan Xishan, the "Model Governor" of Shanxi, professed to be a follower of a syncretic creed that merged elements of democracy, militarism, individualism, capitalism, socialism, communism, imperialism, universalism, anarchism and Confucian paternalism into one. One who knew Gen. Yan described him as "a dark-skinned, moustached man of medium height who rarely laughed and maintained an attitude of great reserve . . . At first sight I knew him to be an artful man . . . Yan never showed his inner feelings." Yan kept Shanxi on a different railroad gauge from the rest of China to made it difficult for the other warlords to invade his province, though that tactic also hindered the export of coal and iron, the main source of Shanxi's wealth. Gen. Feng, the "Christian General", promoted Methodism together with a vague sort of left-leaning Chinese nationalism, which led the Soviets to support him for a time. Feng banned alcohol, lived simply and unusually for a warlord and wore the common uniform of an infantryman to show his concern for his men. Gen. Wu, the "Philosopher General", was a mandarin who passed the Imperial Civil Service exam, billing himself as the protector of Confucian values, usually appearing in photographs with the scholar's brush in his hand (in China, the scholar's brush is a Confucian symbol showing one's commitment to learning). It was noted, however, that the quality of Wu's calligraphy markedly declined when his secretary died. Wu liked to appear in photos taken in his office with a portrait of his hero George Washington in the background to reflect the supposed democratic militarism he was attempting to bring to China. An alcoholic, Wu was famous for his capacity to absorb vast quantities of alcohol and still keep drinking. When he sent Feng a gift of a bottle of brandy, Feng replied by sending him a bottle of water as a gift, a message that Wu missed. An intense Chinese nationalist, Wu refused to step inside of any of the foreign concessions in China, a stance that was to cost him his life when he refused to go to the International Settlement or the French Concession in Shanghai for medical treatment. More typical of the warlords was Marshal Zhang Zuolin, a graduate of the "University of the Green Forest" (i.e., a bandit), an illiterate man who believed only in power and was quite happy to work for the Japanese, as he was devoid of any Chinese nationalism or any sort of belief system at all. Zhang had a forceful, ambitious personality that allowed him to rise up from the leader of a bandit gang, hired by the Japanese to attack the Russians during the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-05, to become the warlord of Manchuria by 1916, working openly for the Japanese. In ruling Manchuria, a region as large as France and Germany combined, Marshal Zhang controlled only 3% of China's population but 90% of its heavy industry. The wealth of Manchuria, the support of the Japanese and Zhang's hard-hitting, swift-moving cavalry were to make him the most powerful warlord of them all. As Manchuria was very much in the Japanese sphere of influence both economically and politically, Marshal Zhang's Japanese paymasters insisted that he ensure a stable economic climate in Manchuria to facilitate Japanese investment, making the "Old Marshal" one of the few warlords who sought to pursue a policy of economic growth in the region that he ruled, instead of just plundering it. Gen. Zhang Zongchang, the "Dogmeat General", was described as having "the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger". Writer Lin Yutang called Zhang "the most colorful, legendary, medieval and unashamed ruler of modern China". The former Emperor Puyi remembered Zhang as "a universally detested monster" whose ugly, bloated face was "tinged with the livid hue induced by opium smoking". A brutal man, Zhang was notorious for his hobby of "opening melons", as he called smashing in the heads of prisoners with his sword. Zhang loved to boost about the size of his penis, which become part of his legend as he was widely believed to be the most well endowed man in China, nicknamed "General Eighty-six" as his penis when erect was said to measure up to a pile of 86 Mexican silver dollars. Zhang was so stupid that he gave the women in his harem--which consisted of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Russian women together with two Frenchwomen and "one bedraggled female who said she was an American"--numbers, as he could never remember their names, and even then usually forgot the numbers.
Many of the soldiers in the warlord armies were bandits who took up service with some warlord for a campaign and then reverted to banditry when the campaign was over. One Chinese politician remarked that when the warlords went to war with each other, the bandits become soldiers and when the war ended, the soldiers became bandits. A letter to the editor of a newspaper in Sichuan complained, "Soldiers come and bandits follow them, then the bandits withdraw and the soldiers come back--and what's more, it is the armies who maintain the scourge of banditry here. All discharged soldiers become bandits; and when the army needs one more soldier, it enlists a bandit . . . soldiers and bandits are two names for the same thing." Given this background, the soldiers in the warlord armies were notorious for their tendency to loot everything and to rape all the women whenever they advanced into a new district. Additionally, it was common for the warlord armies to not only rape all the women, but also to take many women into sexual slavery. with the captured girls treated as chattels that were carried along with the armies on the campaigns as sexual toys for the troops. The system of looting was institutionalized. as many warlords lacked the money to pay their troops, who were instead permitted to loot and kidnap in lieu of pay. A Japanese reporter in 1924 stated that in Shandong province, "not only have arson, theft and rape occurred everywhere, as if wild beasts were on the prowl, but murder and kidnappings are performed in broad daylight . . . peasants in the same locale are pillaged two or three times by outsiders . . . they are without houses, without food and their plight has become extremely miserable". Victims of kidnapping were known as "tickets", with the poor being called "pawn tickets" and the rich "lottery tickets". It was a common practice for the kidnappers to send one of their hostage's severed fingers along with the ransom demand as a way of encouraging prompt and full payment. To defend themselves from the attacks of the warlord armies, a number of peasant secret societies emerged that practiced martial arts like the Red Spear Society, which performed secret ceremonies to confer invulnerability from bullets to channel the power of the Qi and went into battle naked with supposedly bulletproof red clay smeared all over their bodies. and the all-female Iron Gate Society, who dressed entirely in white (the color of death in China) and waved around fans that they professed to believe would deflect bullets. Despite their lack of guns, the Red Spear Society was big enough to storm cities. One bandit leader, Bai Lang the "White Wolf". declared himself loyal to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and formed a "Citizen's Punitive Army" to rid China of all the warlords, which ended with him defeated and dying of his wounds.
Besides bandits, the rank-and-file of the warlord armies tended to be miserable peasant conscripts who floated like grains of sand shifted by the waves, taking up service in one army, then being captured and joining the opposing army before switching sides after being captured yet again. Warlords usually incorporated their prisoners into their armies; at least 200,000 men who were serving in the army of Gen. Wu were prisoners he had incorporated into his own army. A survey of one warlord garrison in 1924 revealed that 90% of the soldiers were illiterate. In 1926 U.S Army officer Joseph Stilwell inspected a warlord unit and observed that 20% were less than 4.5 feet tall, the average age was 14 and most walked barefoot. Stilwell wrote that this "scarecrow company" was worthless as a military unit, concluding that "the wildest stretch of the imagination could not imagine this rabble in action except running away". There were some units in the warlord armies that were of high quality. Gen. Wu's elite Third Division began practicing for war every day at 6:30 a.m., regardless of the weather. Gen. Feng had his men drill relentlessly with trench-digging in frozen ground, perform gymnastics and daily 45-mile marches with 65-pound packs on their backs, all being the highlights of a routine to harden them for war. Brig. Gen. C.D. Bruce of the British army visited China and commented that, provided they had proper leadership, the men of northern China were "the finest Oriental raw material with a physique second to none, and an iron constitution". However, such units were the exception rather than the rule.
In 1916 there were about a half-million soldiers in China. By 1922 the numbers of men under arms had trebled and trebled again by 1924. The costs of maintaining such huge armies were beyond the means of the warlords. For example, Marshal Zhang, the ruler of wealthy and industrialised Manchuria, took in $23 million in tax revenues in 1925 while spending some $51 million in military expenditure. Warlords ruling more impoverished provinces were even more hard-pressed than Zhang to fund their campaigns. One way of raising funds was taxes called lijin that were often confiscatory and inflicted much economic harm. For example, in Sichuan province there were 27 different taxes on salt, while one shipload of paper that was sent down the Yangtze River to Shanghai was taxed 11 different times by various warlords to the sum total of 160% of its value. In the city of Xiamen, there were 70 different sales taxes covering everything from night soil to the services of prostitutes. One warlord imposed a tax of 100% on railroad freight, including food at a time of famine in his province. Taxes owed to the central government in Beijing on stamp and salt were usually diverted to the coffers of the warlords. One study in 1925 found that there 673 different land taxes in China. Despite all of the wealth of Manchuria and the support of his Japanese paymasters, Marshal Zhang had to raise land taxes by 12% between 1922-28 to pay for his wars.To fund their campaigns, the warlords were constantly demanding--often literally at the point of a gun--loans from the banks. The other major revenue source besides taxes, loans and looting was the selling of opium, with the warlords selling the rights to grow and sell opium within their provinces to consortiums of gangsters. Despite his ostensible anti-opium stance, Gen. Feng Yuxiang, "the Christian General", took in some $20 million/per annum from opium sales. Inflation was another means of paying for their soldiers. Some warlords simply ran the printing presses, issuing new Chinese dollars non-stop, and some resorted to duplicating machines to issue new Chinese dollars. The warlord who ruled Hunan province printed 22 million Chinese dollars on a silver reserve worth only 1 million Chinese dollars in the course of a single year, while Zhang in Shandong province printed 55 million Chinese dollars on a silver reserve of 1.5 million Chinese dollars during the same year. The illiterate Marshal Zhang, who engaged in reckless printing of Chinese dollars, did not understand it was he who was causing the inflation in Manchuria, and his remedy was simply to summon the leading merchants of Mukden, accuse them of greed because they were always raising their prices, had five of them selected at random publicly shot, and told the rest to behave better. Despite their constant need for money, the warlords lived in luxury. Marshal Zhang owned the world's biggest pearl while Gen. Wu owned the world's biggest diamond. Marshal Zhang, the "Old Marshal", lived in a lavish palace in Mukden with his five wives, old Confucian texts and a cellar full of fine French wines, and needed 70 cooks in his kitchen to make enough food for him, his wives and his guests. Gen. Zhang, the "Dogmeat General", ate his meals off a 40-piece Belgian dinner service, and an American journalist described dinner with him: "He gave a dinner for me where sinful quantities of costly foods were served. There was French champagne and sound brandy".
The warlords spent generously on arms from the West and Japan to fight their conflicts, but the educational level of their soldiers was so low that most could not operate or service the machine guns or artillery purchased from aboard. A British mercenary working for Gen. Wu complained in 1923 that Wu had about 45 artillery pieces imported from Europe that were all now inoperable due to poor maintenance. At the Battle of Urga, the army of Gen. Xu Shuzheng, which had seized Outer Mongolia, was attacked by a Russian-Mongol army under the command of the insane sadist Gen. Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. The Chinese might have stopped Ungern had they been capable of firing their machine guns properly, to adjust for the inevitable upward jerk caused by the firing; they didn't, and this caused the bullets to overshoot their targets. The inability to use their machine guns properly proved costly; Ungern showed no mercy and after taking Urga in February 1921, he had his Cossacks and Mongol cavalry hunt down the remnants of Xu's troops as they attempted to flee south on the road back to China. Because of the inability of most of their soldiers to use or take proper care of modern weapons, the warlords often hired foreign mercenaries, who fought only for money and were always open to offers from the highest bidder. By far the largest contingent of foreigners fighting in China were Russian émigrés who fled to China after the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. The Russian mercenaries, who usually wore the uniforms of the Imperial Russian Army, had considerable military effectiveness and, according to one reporter, "they went through the Chinese troops like a knife through butter". The most highly paid of the Russian units was the one led by Gen. Konstantin Nechanev, who fought in the pay of Gen. Zhang Zongchang, the much hated "Dogmeat General" who ruled Shandong province. Nechanev and his men were much feared by the Chinese people for their ruthlessness, being especially infamous for an incident in 1926 when they drove three armored trains through the countryside, gunning down everyone they met while taking everything moveable with them. Nechanev's rampage was only stopped when the peasants pulled up the train tracks, which led him to sack the nearest town in an especially savage manner in retaliation.
Yuan's death split the Beiyang army into two factions: the Anhui clique led by Duan Qirui and the Zhili clique led by Feng Guozhang. The Northeast China-based Fengtian faction, led by Zhang Zuolin, was an amalgamation of Beiyang and local units. Diplomatic recognition was usually given to any government that ruled Beijing, so capturing this city was a high priority. In addition, they could collect the customs revenues and apply for foreign loans. All the northern factions recognized the Beijing government as legitimate, even if they opposed it. They would argue that while the government was legitimate, it lacked authority to dictate to provinces. The Beiyang government in Beijing would occasionally issue edicts to territory beyond their control to charge rival factions with treason, and when it was expectedly ignored used that to justify military action. This practice ended in 1923 when Cao Kun bought the presidency. The other northern factions were disgusted enough to refuse recognition.
President Li Yuanhong was effectively sidelined by the Beiyang generals. Premier Duan Qirui dominated politics but had to work with the Zhili clique in order to maintain stability. Many provinces refused to recognize their government and called for the removal of all Beiyang generals from politics. Duan's heavy-handed efforts to push China into World War I and his secret loans from Japan led to his dismissal by Li in May 1917. Knowing that Duan was plotting against him, Li asked influential Beiyang Gen. Zhang Xun to protect the government. Instead, Zhang restored the Qing dynasty in July. Duan toppled the monarchist regime and was hailed as the savior of the republic, giving him greater clout. He was able to declare war against Germany. His next task was to subdue the south, but differences with the Zhili clique, which preferred negotiating a treaty, led to his resignation to save the unity of the Beiyang. President Feng Guozhang, however, had to recall Duan due to pressure from the Anhui clique. The campaign in Hunan backfired, resulting in attrition, low morale and bitterness. Duan resigned again in October 1918 but made every effort to sabotage peace between north and south. His pro-Japanese policies weakened him during the May Fourth Movement. The Zhili clique made an alliance with the Fengtian clique of Zhang Zuolin and defeated Duan in the Zhili-Anhui War of July 1920.
After the death of Feng Guozhang in 1919, the Zhili clique was led by Cao Kun. The alliance with the Fengtian was only one of convenience and war broke out in 1922 (the First Zhili-Fengtian War), with Zhili driving Fengtian forces back to Manchuria. Next, they wanted to bolster their legitimacy and reunify the country by returning Li Yuanhong to the presidency and restoring the National Assembly. They proposed that Xu Shichang and Sun Yatsen resign their rival presidencies simultaneously in favor of Li. When Sun issued strict stipulations that the Zhili couldn't stomach, they caused the defection of KMT Gen. Chen Jiongming by recognizing him as governor of Guangdong. With Sun driven out of Guangzhou, the Zhili clique superficially restored the constitutional government that existed prior to Zhang Xun's coup. Cao bought the presidency in 1923 despite opposition by the KMT, Fengtian, Anhui remnants, some of his lieutenants and the public. In the autumn of 1924 the Zhili appeared to be on the verge of complete victory in the Second Zhili-Fengtian War until Feng Yuxiang betrayed the clique, seized Beijing and imprisoned Cao. Zhili forces were routed from the north but kept the center.
The alliance between Zhang Zuolin and Feng Yuxiang was tenuous. Feng had formed his own faction called the Guominjun (Nationalist Army, or KMC), which was ideologically sympathetic to the southern KMT government but not a part of it. As a compromise, they gave the northern government to Duan Qirui, whose Anhui clique was near extinct. Fengtian was far stronger in terms of manpower, as KMC troops were stretched thinly across a vast area. Negotiations on north-south reunification went nowhere, since Zhang and Duan had little in common with Sun Yatsen, who died in March 1925. Later that year fighting broke out after Fengtian Gen. Guo Songling defected to the KMC, sparking the Anti-Fengtian War. Zhili Gen. Wu Peifu decided to ally with Zhang against the traitor Feng. KMC forces were driven to the northwest but later joined the Northern Expedition of Chiang Kai-shek. Zhang took over the northern government in June 1927 as troops from the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) were flooding into his territory. On 2 June 1928 Zhang resigned after agreeing to hand over Beijing to the NRA. He was assassinated by a Japanese bomb while fleeing to Manchuria on 4 June. Five days later, NRA troops seized the capital and extinguished the Beiyang government. Zhang's son and successor, Zhang Xueliang, recognized the Nationalist government on 31 December.
The south was a hotbed of revolutionary activity where opposition to the Beiyang cliques was the strongest. The area revolted against the Qing in 1911 and against Yuan Shikai in 1913 and 1916. After the Qing restoration debacle in Beijing, several southern provinces led by Tang Jiyao and Lu Rongting refused to recognize the new Duan Qirui cabinet and parliament. Sun Yat-sen gathered notable politicians, KMT members of the dissolved National Assembly and southern militarists in late July 1917 to form a rival government in Guangzhou, known as the Constitutional Protection government. The southern factions recognized Guangzhou as the legitimate capital, even though it lacked international recognition. Like the north, southern militarists would occasionally rebel on the pretense of provincial rights, Guangxi especially. The southern provinces were Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Hunan, Guangxi and Guangdong (including Hainan).
In September Sun was named generalissimo of the military government with the purpose of protecting the provisional constitution of 1912. The southern warlords assisted his regime solely to legitimize their fiefdoms and challenge Beijing. In a bid for international recognition, they also declared war against the Central Powers but failed to garner any recognition. In July 1918 southern militarists thought Sun was given too much power and forced him to join a governing committee. Continual interference forced Sun into self-imposed exile. While away, he recreated the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. With the help of KMT Gen. Chen Jiongming, committee members Gen. Cen Chunxuan, Adm. Lin Baoyi and Gen. Lu Rongting were expelled in the 1920 Guangdong-Guangxi War. In May 1921 Sun was elected "extraordinary president" by a rump parliament despite protests by Chen and Tang Shaoyi, who complained of its unconstitutionality. Tang left while Chen plotted with the Zhili clique to overthrow Sun in June 1922 in return for recognition of his governorship over Guangdong.
Loyalists drove Chen out and Sun returned to power in March 1923. He reorganized the KMT along Leninist democratic centralism and made an alliance with the Communist Party of China, which would be known as the First United Front. The southern government abandoned protecting the 1912 constitution, since its rump parliament defected to the north to join Cao's puppet government. Instead, its new purpose was to create a revolutionary one-party state. The Whampoa Military Academy was formed to create a loyal officer corps to rid the KMT of its dependence on unreliable and opportunistic southern generals. With the ouster of the Zhili clique in 1924, Sun traveled to Beijing to negotiate reunification with Guominjun, Fengtian and Anhui leaders. He died of cancer in March 1925, which ended the talks but also initiated a power struggle within the KMT. Tang Jiyao, claiming to be Sun's chosen successor, tried to seize control of the southern government during the Yunnan-Guangxi War but was routed. In the north the Anti–Fengtian War was waged from November 1925 to April 1926 by the Guominjun against the Fengtian clique and their Zhili clique allies. The war ended with the defeat of the Guominjun and the end of the provisional executive government.
KMT Gen. Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the leader of the NRA, following the Zhongshan Warship Incident. He set out on the long-delayed Northern Expedition in the summer of 1926. NRA forces easily defeated the Zhili armies of Wu Peifu and Sun Chuanfang in central and eastern China. The Guominjun and Shanxi warlord Yan Xishan joined forces with the KMT against the Fengtian. In 1927 the KMT-CCP alliance ruptured with the Communists being brutally purged, which initiated the Chinese Civil War. Chiang established his capital in Nanjing but still needed to take Beijing to get international recognition. Yan Xishan, now a KMT general, occupied Beijing after the death of Zhang Zuolin. Zhang Xueliang, the new leader of Fengtian, submitted himself under the condition he would continue to rule over Manchuria, but the Japanese would occupy Manchuria in 1931.
By moving the capital to Nanjing, Chiang was secure in his power base, completing the Northeast Flag Replacement of Chinese reunification in 1928. Many warlords were not defeated but co-opted into the new national government, which would trouble Chiang. Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan rebelled in 1930 in the Central Plains War. The northwest erupted into the Xinjiang Wars from 1931–37. Chiang had to put down the Fujian Rebellion in 1933–34. Zhang Xueliang took part in the 1936 Xi'an Incident. In addition, minor warlords, bandits, ethnic minority militias and the Communists were active in the countryside and peripheral regions. The KMT itself was plagued by factionalism with influential leaders like Wang Jingwei and Hu Hanmin rebelling against Chiang. Chiang's actual power was weaker beyond the provinces surrounding Jiangsu. In short, warlordism did not end but took on a different appearance. All cliques now wore the Zhongshan suit and had party membership, effectively becoming KMT franchisees. It was not until after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1950 that anything resembling a united, centralized government like that prior to 1915 re-emerged.