Provincial Military Organization in Hunan and Hubei on the Eve of the Revolution
One particular feature of the fragmentation of China's armed forces grew out of the imperial court's decision to rely on provincial initiative for the actual implementation of military reforms. Most newly created or reorganized military forces, including the New Armies, were under provincial control, and thus were in effect "provincial armies." To a certain extent, this decision simply recognized that the creation of a truly unified central army was beyond the existing organizational and financial means of the central government. The organization of New Armies on a provincial basis was therefore something of a concession to the superior ability of provincial governors to organize the necessary resources. At the same time, the division of the New Armies into separate provincial forces also served more traditional balance-of-power concerns. Efforts by the Commission for Army Reorganization to standardize the New Armies sought to facilitate their integration into a unified command in times of need, but maintained the fragmented organization that had always characterized the Qing military. As a consequence of this decision, allowances also had to be made for different conditions that would affect the pace of military reforms in each province. As seen in the cases of Hubei and Hunan, the exact composition of provincial forces varied widely depending on each
province's resources and the vigor and interests of its resident governor or governor-general.
Compared to most other provinces, Hubei had a very early start in the formation of its New Army. The main influence in the development of Hubei's New Army was Zhang Zhidong, who, except for two short interludes, held the post of Huguang (Hunan-Hubei) governor-general at Wuchang for the entire period from 1889 to 1907. As already noted, Zhang was one of the leading proponents of military modernization, and during a short tenure as governor-general at Nanjing in 1895 he had pioneered the introduction of Western military organization with the establishment of the Self-Strengthening Army. Upon his return to Hubei in early 1896, Zhang was only allowed to bring one battalion of the Self-Strengthening Army back with him. Once in Hubei, though, Zhang expanded this force with some of Hubei's better yongying soldiers to form a two-battalion "bodyguard" (hujun ) of one thousand men. This unit, organized primarily on Western principles, was the beginning of Hubei's New Army.
In subsequent years, Zhang continued to add new Western-trained battalions to Hubei's military forces. By 1902, the size of Hubei's New Army had grown to over seven thousand men. By 1904 it exceeded eleven thousand men. According to the 1906 plans of the Commission for Army Reorganization, Hubei was slated, on Zhang's recommendation, to support two New Army divisions. By this year, Hubei's New Army was already large enough to organize one of these divisions, designated the 8th Division, and to establish a mixed brigade, the 21st, which was meant to serve as the base for the second division. After Zhang's departure from Hubei in 1907, however, the expansion of the Hubei army stalled, and by the outbreak of the 1911 Revolution this second division was still not completed. Nonetheless, with over sixteen thousand men, Hubei's New Army was one of the largest and best trained of the provincial New Armies in south and central China.
Zhang Zhidong was generally pessimistic about the possibility of turning Hubei's old-style troops into effective soldiers. In 1897 he did establish a program that brought troops and officers from old-style forces to the provincial capital to receive further military training. In the end, though, Zhang favored the demobilization of these older forces, especially the less efficient Green Standard Army, to free funds for the recruitment of better-quality soldiers for the New Army. In the late nineteenth century, the Green Standard Army was Hubei's largest military force, numbering, according to one account, over
eighteen thousand men. As early as 1897 Zhang initiated a program for the staged disbandment of these troops. This program continued even after Zhang's departure. Although some seven thousand troops may have remained in Hubei's Green Standard Army as late as 1910, by mid 1911 they had all been disbanded. The size of Hubei's yongying forces fluctuated considerably over time, making an exact accounting of their number difficult. A rough estimate, however, would place them at half the size of the Green Standard Army. Because yongying soldiers were generally of higher quality than Green Standard troops, Zhang made more of an effort to salvage some of them. Thus, as noted above, some yongying soldiers were used in the initiation of Hubei's New Army in 1896. After the demobilization of the worst yongying troops, the remainder were eventually organized into Hubei's Patrol and Defense Forces. Sources vary in their accounting of the size of these forces, from several thousand to over seven thousand men.
Because provincial governors and governors-general had no supervisory powers over the Banner garrisons in their provinces, these forces were largely unaffected by provincial military reforms. In Hubei, though, nearly two thousand bannermen were recruited into newly trained military and police forces, including the New Army. After this, over seven thousand bannermen still remained in Hubei's Banner garrison at Jingzhou. As elsewhere in China, this garrison survived until the 1911 Revolution despite the 1907 imperial decree calling for the elimination of the Banner system.
Military reforms in Hunan were not carried out at the same pace or on the same scale as in Hubei. One reason for this was Hunan's smaller provincial revenue. Another contributing factor, though, may have been differences in administrative leadership. Despite his position as governor-general of Hunan and Hubei, Zhang Zhidong focused his military reform efforts almost entirely in Hubei Province. Hunan's military reforms were left primarily in the hands of its provincial governor. Here Hunan no doubt suffered from a fairly rapid turnover of governors: twelve different men held the governorship from 1895 to 1911, none of them for longer than four years, a lack of administrative continuity that may have slowed Hunan's implementation of military reforms.
In contrast to Hubei's early start, a Western-style New Army was not formed in Hunan until 1904. This force began with a core selected from the province's best yongying troops, which was then expanded through new recruitment. According to national plans, Hunan was
slated to support one New Army division. However, by 1907 it only had sufficient troops to organize one mixed brigade, designated the 25th Mixed Brigade. By 1911, Hunan's New Army was still limited to this one unit of approximately 4,500 men.
In comparison to Hubei, a far greater number of old-style troops also survived in Hunan to 1911, even considering the fact that Hunan had no Banner garrison. In the late nineteenth century, Hunan had a large Green Standard Army, numbering around 23,000 men. In 1902, in preparation for the formation of the province's New Army, a ten-year plan was issued for the staged demobilization of most of Hunan's Green Standard Army, excepting only eight specific units containing a total of about ten thousand men. By 1910, the Green Standard Army in Hunan was reduced to around sixteen thousand men, and perhaps as many as four thousand more were disbanded before the 1911 Revolution. Almost no effort was made to retrain Hunan's Green Standard units, and those that survived to 1911 were little changed from their original organization. At the end of the nineteenth century, there were only some five thousand yongying troops in Hunan. These forces doubled in size from 1897 to 1904 as new recruitment was carried out so that these troops could take over local defense duties from the debilitated Green Standard Army. In 1906 these troops were reorganized to meet new national standards for Patrol and Defense Forces. The actual size of Hunan's Patrol and Defense Forces varied considerably in the following years, and estimates of their total number range from twelve thousand to over fourteen thousand men. There was some attempt to provide modern training and arms for Hunan's Patrol and Defense Forces, but in the end they remained a semimodern force in contrast to the New Army.
The cases of Hunan and Hubei exemplify the variety of military forces that existed in the provinces on the eve of the 1911 Revolution, ranging from the relatively modernized New Armies to the anachronistic Banner and Green Standard forces. At the same time, these two cases also show the considerable differences in the composition of military forces that could exist from one province to another. (See Table 1 for a comparative listing of military forces in Hunan and Hubei in 1910.) This inconsistency reflects the basically decentralized manner in which military reforms were implemented. The overall result was to complicate further the fragmented state of China's military system.
The provincial variation in military forces illustrates the importance of individual governors and governors-general in determining the pace
of provincial military reforms and the composition of provincial military forces. Nonetheless, the provincial forces were far from being the "personal armies" of these officials. In Hunan, the rapid turnover of governors alone shows that these men were easily separated from the military forces they had helped mold. Even Zhang Zhidong, with his long tenure as governor-general and his preeminent role in military reforms, was unable to ensure that the military forces he had created would remain solely under his control. Thus, Zhang was forced to abandon nearly all the Self-Strengthening Army he had established at Nanjing when he was ordered back to Hubei in 1896. Likewise, during a temporary appointment to Nanjing from 1902 to 1903, he was allowed only a bodyguard to accompany him to his new post. On a number of occasions Zhang was forced to revise his own plans for the development of Hubei's New Army to comply with central orders. The court was even able to effect the permanent transfer of some of Zhang's best Hubei troops to other provinces. Therefore, even though it is true that the court gave governors and governors-general considerable leeway in implementing military reforms, these officials did not have absolute control over the forces they created. Likewise, the court's continued power of appointment, seen in its ability to shift important figures like Zhang from post to post, shows that the governors had not acquired political autonomy as a result of their authority over provincial military forces. Late Qing governors, with their
broad authority over civil and military administration, may have served as executive models for Republican warlords, but they were hardly proto-warlords.