These provincial military self-appointed rulers were one of the collateral results of the Taipan Revolt (q.v.). Their power base was a private army, which each lord raised and maintained. Government of China (a vast and over-populated nation) was therefore partially in the armoured hands of these gentlemen from the beginning of the 20th century until the advent of Chiang Kai-shek (Jeng Jieshi) in 1928. Until Jeng imposed restraint and a semblance of disciplined unity, dozens of zones were ruled by warlords, not always kindly, not always just, though there were exceptions.
Many warlords were ex-officers grown tired of serving in the Imperial army. Many more were merely ex-bandit chiefs.
Their soldiers were mostly deserters or scoundrels by nature or profession; peasants who had lost their lands, families and possessions, and the unemployable. As such they were a rough lot, merciless with civilians, ruthless with opponents.
Chinese communities could expect very little from these bands of undisciplined irregulars, who made a practice of ‘living off the land’ in the same way as Cromwell’s soldiers had done in thew English Civil War. What with the looting, rapìne and killing expected from the unauthorized soldiery, and the high ‘taxes’ extorted by the war lords, the Chinese population had an exceptionally difficult time during the epoch of these often mentally unstable warlords, as laws were neither debated nor defined, and the lords themselves fought each other for more territory.
But in 1928 the end for the warlords was in sight, as Jiang’s ‘Northern Expedition’ forced them to submit to the authority of the Guomindang or central government. Even then they were not crushed as many were permitted to keep their private armies – for invasion threats from Japan always loomed. Historians tell us that at least until 1940 many warlords maintained their powers, privileges and military strength.