Wang Zhanyuan and the Beginning of Beiyang Warlordism
Yuan's inability to respond effectively to the anti-monarchical rebellion was owing in part to flaws in his organizational control of Beiyang and other northern forces he counted on for support. In the late Qing era, control over the Beiyang Army was enhanced by rotating the commanders and officers among its divisions. This not only prevented the development of close personal ties within specific units but created greater cohesion within the army as a whole. In the early Republic, Yuan sharply reduced this practice. Many of the divisions Yuan used as his main centralizing agents remained under the same commanders for the entire period of his presidency. Many of their subordinate officers were also permanently assigned to their commands. This practice allowed these forces to develop their individual corporate
identities and to strengthen the personal ties within their command structures, both of which were centered on the persons of their commanders. Beneath what seemed to be the extension of central military power, there was an insidious growth of personal military bases.
In the context of the early dictatorship, the dangers of these developments were not readily apparent. Indeed, they were to a certain extent incorporated into Yuan's techniques of military control. Although a variety of personal factors may have influenced the loyalty of different commanders to Yuan, it was basically a "clientalist" relationship. Yuan's ascension to the presidency enhanced the patronage he could bestow on his favored Beiyang commanders and allowed him to draw in other northern commanders as his clients. Granting these commanders a certain degree of personal aggrandizement over their forces was one reward Yuan could use to solidify this relationship. At the same time, Yuan retained punitive powers, because the insubordination of one commander could easily be dealt with by other commanders eager to retain Yuan's favor. The corporate fragmentation of the army thus worked here as a control mechanism. Certainly the total reorganization of the Chinese army along more strictly bureaucratic lines might have exerted stronger control. Given the size and preexisting organizational diversity of China's military forces, however, such a reorganization was clearly beyond Yuan's immediate means. The methods Yuan used for military control were probably the best available given the conditions he was forced to deal with. As seen in Chapter 5, Yuan's ability to shift military assignments to support his centralizing program in the provinces shows these methods were not without their effect.
The flaw in this control structure was that it only remained effective as long as Yuan's own political position remained secure. While Yuan was strong, his military commanders individually needed him more than he needed them. The threat of disorder growing out of the monarchist movement, and then the outbreak of war, reversed the poles in this dependent relationship. The war gave Yuan's commanders other political options. Even if they were unwilling to break openly with him, a lukewarm commitment could still have a detrimental effect on Yuan's cause. Individual commanders were therefore in a position to seek concessions from Yuan to enhance their own political powers.
One of the first commanders to take advantage of this situation was Wang Zhanyuan, commander of the Beiyang 2d Division in Hubei. The prize Wang sought and obtained from Yuan was the Hubei military governorship. Once having gained this position, though, Wang
was not willing to risk it by tying his fortunes to Yuan's, and he joined other northern commanders in seeking Yuan's retirement. With the establishment of his own power base in Hubei, and these initial steps toward political activism, Wang began the transition to warlordism.
Wang Zhanyuan's association with Yuan Shikai went back to the formative years of the Beiyang Army. In this early period, the efforts to change the low status of the military had only begun. Thus, like many early Beiyang officers, Wang came from a humble social background and had a lower educational level than many later New Army officers. At the age of twenty, Wang fled his home town in Shandong province, where he worked as a peddler, after coming under suspicion for petty thievery. A short time later, in the early 1880s, Wang enlisted as a common soldier in Li Hongchang's Huai Army. A crucial turning point in Wang's life came when he was selected from the ranks to attend the Tianjin Military Academy (the first military school founded by Li in 1885). After his graduation, Wang was assigned to a junior officer's position in Yuan Shikai's Newly Created Army. By 1911 he had been promoted to the post of brigade commander in the Beiyang 2d Division. During the 1911 Revolution, Wang's brigade was included in the Beiyang expeditionary force sent by Yuan, under the command of Feng Guozhang, to assault the revolutionary position at Wuhan. During this conflict, Yuan recommended Wang for promotion to the command of the 2d Division. For a man of fairly humble origins, the Beiyang Army offered Wang an extraordinary opportunity for advancement. Yuan might well have expected Wang's loyal service in return for his past patronage. Instead, Wang's ambitions brought him into conflict with the policies of Yuan's presidency that sought to keep the powers of military commanders within manageable limits.
As the commander of the main Beiyang force garrisoning Hubei at the end of the Second Revolution, Wang saw himself as the logical candidate to succeed Li Yuanhong as Hubei's military governor. Yuan was not, however, willing to give this post to the strongest military commander in the province. As noted in Chapter 5, after a brief transitional period in which the military governorship was held by Duan Qirui, Yuan appointed Duan Zhigui as Hubei's "high general." Almost from the beginning, Wang's resentment of Duan Zhigui was a source of tension between the two men. Yuan tried to mollify Wang by creating a special position for him as "assisting manager" (bangban ) of Hubei's military affairs. But this failed to satisfy Wang's ambitions. In August 1915, chafing at Wang's insubordinate attitude, Duan finally persuaded Yuan to let him change assignments. Again ignoring
Wang's obvious desire for the Hubei post, Yuan ordered the military governor of Fengtian, Zhang Xiluan, to exchange positions with Duan Zhigui.
The successive appointments of Duan Qirui, Duan Zhigui, and Zhang Xiluan to Hubei's top military post reflected Yuan's consistent policy of limiting the personal military power of the holders of this office. Although Duan Zhigui had been allowed to raise a "Hubei" brigade under his own authority, Wang's 2d Division remained the largest military force in the province. Zhang Xiluan was ordered to Hubei without accompanying troops, putting him in an even weaker military position in relation to Wang. At the same time, by withholding the military governorship from Wang, Yuan limited Wang's military authority to the troops under his own direct command. Yuan's obvious intention was to keep Wang as an agent of central military power in Hubei province, acting as a counterbalance to the administrative power of the military governor, without allowing Wang to extend his own influence over provincial government. Although Yuan's policies made sense in terms of his broader political goals, they could hardly please Wang. Even the popular press interpreted Yuan's appointment of Zhang over Wang as revealing a lack of confidence in Wang's abilities. In August 1915, Yuan was still confident enough of his own power to risk Wang's discontent.
Conditions in the fall of 1915 soon gave Wang a chance to change his fortunes. Duan Zhigui's departure from Hubei had come just as Yuan initiated the monarchist movement. As opposition to the monarchy grew. Yuan needed to be sure of Wang's support to suppress any opposition that might arise in Hubei. Meanwhile, realizing the situation he would face in Hubei in relation to Wang, Zhang Xiluan repeatedly delayed his departure for Hubei. This left Wang in actual control of the Hubei government as acting military governor. Wang was more than willing to take advantage of this situation. While publicly announcing his eagerness to "welcome" Zhang to Hubei, Wang sent word to Yuan of his intention to retire after Zhang's arrival. This proffered resignation was a subtle piece of political blackmail. With opposition to his monarchical plans brewing, Yuan could not risk disrupting a major component of the Beiyang Army by seeming to force the departure of its commander. Finally, on December 23, Yuan accepted Zhang's resignation. Temporarily Yuan left the issue of Zhang's successor unresolved, but he had little room left to maneuver. With Yunnan's declaration of independence on December 25, Wang's position in Hubei became crucial. Military supplies and troops head-
ing to the front, either south by rail or west along the Yangzi River, would all have to pass through Hubei. So, on January 8, 1916, Yuan finally appointed Wang "general" in charge of Hubei's military affairs. The only slight to Wang's ambition was that he was not granted the "high general" title given his predecessors.
Wang Zhanyuan's successful struggle for the Hubei military governorship marked an important shift in the balance of power between Yuan and his putative military supporters. By failing to keep this post from Wang, Yuan revealed his dependence on his military commanders exactly when he needed them most. One effect of this exposed vulnerability was to encourage other commanders to seek similar concessions. Equally important, it emboldened those commanders who questioned Yuan's attempt to make himself emperor to take a more independent political role in attempting to resolve the conflict. Indeed, Wang also made his first significant foray into the political arena in connection with the monarchical issue.
The Beiyang Army was far from united behind the reestablishment of the monarchy. Indeed, many of Yuan's top subordinates informed Yuan of their opposition before the monarchist movement was formally initiated. Feng Guozhang, the commander-in-chief of Beiyang forces at Nanjing, was particularly open in his opposition. When war broke out, and then became stalemated, Feng became the focal point for a movement inside the Beiyang Army seeking a political solution to the conflict. With the support of other generals, Feng sought an abrogation of the monarchy as a first step toward cessation of hostilities. Yuan's concern to prevent any further disaffection within his own camp was an important factor in his decision to abrogate the monarchy in March 1916. After this concession failed to placate Yuan's enemies, Feng organized a conference at Nanjing in May that brought together representatives of military commanders from fifteen provinces. Under Feng's leadership, the majority of the participants at this conference were prepared to urge Yuan to retire from the presidency. It may be that only Yuan's death saved him from being hounded from office by his own erstwhile supporters.
Wang Zhanyuan's political response to the monarchy largely followed Feng Guozhang's lead. Wang has sometimes been viewed as a die-hard supporter of the monarchist movement. This conclusion is easily drawn from Wang's public pronouncements, which expressed nothing but total support for Yuan, and his consistent suppression of all anti-monarchical political activity. A memoir by an intimate member of Wang's staff, Yang Wenkai, has revealed, however, that
underneath this public behavior, Wang had serious reservations about the monarchist movement and its political effects. At the first stirring of the movement in 1915, Wang sent Yang to discuss the situation with his old commander, Feng Guozhang. Feng reassured Wang by reporting that he had received Yuan's word that he had no intention of ascending the throne. When Yuan violated this understanding, Wang sent Yang back to Feng to "await Feng's orders." Wang then joined the ranks of Beiyang commanders who gathered around Feng in opposing the monarchy. In May 1916, Yang represented Wang at the Nanjing conference, declaring that Wang's primary aim was to achieve a peaceful resolution of the war. Acting on Wang's orders, Yang took Feng's side against those who wished to continue the war and supported the call for Yuan's retirement. Although he never made a public break with Yuan, Wang's actions were in effect a political declaration of his independence of Yuan's authority.
The contradiction between Wang's public professions of loyalty to Yuan and his private politicking for Yuan's removal can be explained by the problems Wang faced in trying to maintain his own position in Hubei. Hubei was far enough removed from the southwestern front to be under no immediate military pressure from National Protection forces. By the same token, as Hubei was surrounded by provinces occupied by other northern armies, Wang could be threatened by Beiyang commanders who continued to support Yuan's position. Thus, no matter what qualms he may have had about Yuan's monarchist venture, Wang sought to avoid a public confrontation with Yuan and his supporters.
Political concerns inside Hubei also influenced Wang's decision to avoid an open break with Yuan. According to one account, Wang refused to consider declaring independence because he believed it would result in the reappearance of factional political conflicts. Throughout his career, Wang showed an antipathy for the "disorder" of partisan politics not uncommon among military men and a preference for more "orderly" bureaucratic rule. The "disorder" of anti-Yuan political activities was sufficient reason for Wang to suppress them. Nonetheless, other more self-interested calculations were also at work. Wang no doubt sympathized with officials in his administration who reportedly worried that if Yuan fell, "assembly politics would certainly revive, and the province's gentry would arise again to contest for political power. No matter how one predicted the future, it would certainly not be a situation beneficial to present officials." Any open declaration against Yuan would risk legitimating anti-Yuan political forces in Hubei. Even if Wang broke with Yuan, Yuan had still been respon-
sible for Wang's presence in Hubei in the first place. Once unleashed, there was no assurance that indigenous political forces would not take Wang as their next target for elimination. This gave Wang another reason to suppress anti-monarchical activity in Hubei even while exerting his own influence behind the scenes to bring the monarchy down. Wang saw such activity not so much as a threat to Yuan as a threat to himself.
Wang's cooperation with Feng offered the best possible solution to these various political problems. Wang's careful consultation with Feng at every stage of the monarchist movement kept him from becoming politically isolated. By following Feng's lead, Wang could dissociate himself from Yuan's monarchical plans and still avoid the dangers of an open break with Yuan's remaining Beiyang supporters. At the same time, the alliance with Feng provided a way to mediate a resolution of the conflict with the southwest without requiring any accommodation with potentially dangerous political forces inside Hubei. Equally important, Wang's actions reflected the concern of many Beiyang commanders that the positions they had gained during Yuan's dictatorship survive Yuan's demise. In late May 1916, Wang reportedly acknowledged that although Yuan's position could no longer be maintained, "it was necessary to unite strongly to preserve the present power of northern military men and officials." His cooperation with Feng was one way to achieve this end.
The monarchist movement and the war it provoked were politicizing events for Beiyang commanders such as Wang Zhanyuan. On one hand, the crisis enabled Wang to strengthen his own political position in Hubei vis-à-vis Yuan by manipulating Yuan's need for military support. On the other hand, the conflict also allowed Wang to take his first steps toward the assertion of his own political influence. At stake were not only the issues raised by the war, but the survival of his own political interests. When Yuan's monarchist venture appeared to threaten the structure of Beiyang power as a whole, Wang joined his fellow generals in an exercise of political power directed against Yuan himself. In the context of war, Wang's ability to exert political influence was linked to his control of military power. In applying this military power, Wang began to emerge as a warlord.