In military interventions in many other countries, the establishment of military rule has often been clearly marked by coups in which military commanders or juntas take direct control over national governments. The process by which warlordism emerged in modern China provides no similar defining point for the beginning of military rule. Instead, the steady militarization of politics allowed military men to exert their political influence over national, provincial, and local government in a variety of direct and indirect ways. Military governors with control over both provincial civil and military administrations provide the best examples of warlord rule. At the same time, lesser commanders who held no government posts but their military commands also exhibited a different facet of warlord "rule" when they thwarted government policies by refusing to obey orders or expropriated local taxes. Insofar as the power of military men at the top of provincial or national governments was limited by the political autonomy of their putative subordinates, they were also less able to consider any more radical reconstitution of their governments along the lines of direct military administration. Thus the formal structure of republican government remained intact even as it was put into the service of actual, if often informal, military rule.
The civilian provincialism that helped inspire anti-warlord movements against Zhang Jingyao and Wang Zhanyuan was largely an attempt to restore the reality of civilian rule to the formality of republican institutions. The failure of provincial self-government movements in Hunan and Hubei reflected in a microcosm the dilemma of civilian politics confronted with the reality of warlordism. The civilian political forces that could be marshaled by these movements through demonstrations, protests, and petitions were ultimately no match for the determined application of military power by the warlords they sought to overthrow. The civilian supporters of these movements therefore sought the aid of other military men to help them achieve their objectives. In doing so, they acknowledged and contributed to the continued subversion of civilian politics by military force that had caused the rise of warlordism in the first place. The military supporters of provincial self-government movements were largely commanders who found provincialist principles useful in legitimating their own political autonomy. Insofar as self-government movements led to military struggles, these commanders, not promoters of civilian provincialism, ultimately determined how self-government would be interpreted. The result was the continuation, not the defeat, of warlordism.