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A warlord is a person with power who has both military and civil control over a subnational area due to armed forces loyal to the warlord and not to a central authority. The term can also mean one who espouses the ideal that war is necessary, and has the means and authority to engage in war. The word has a strong connotation that the person exercises far more power than his official title or rank (if any) legitimately permits him or her. Under feudalism, in contrast, the local military leader may enjoy great autonomy and a personal army, but still derives legitimacy from formal fealty to a central authority.

Warlordism was coined to describe chaos at the end of the Qing Dynastymarker and the birth of the Republic of Chinamarker, especially after the death of Yuan Shikai, as the warlord era of China. It can however be used to describe similar periods in other countries or epochs such as in Japan during the Sengoku period, or in Chinamarker during the Three Kingdoms, or in Somalia.

The word "warlord" arose as a calque from the German word "Kriegsherr" with a similar meaning. Today the Germans often use the English word, which has overtaken "Kriegsherr" in their language.

Warlordism in the world today

Warlordism appears in so-called failed states: states in which central government and nationwide authorities have collapsed or exist merely formally without actual control over the state territory. They are usually defined by a high level of clientelism, low bureaucratic control and a high motivation in prolonging war for the maintenance of their economic system, mainly based on the extraction of natural resources.


Historical warlordism in China

Warlords exercised widespread rule in Chinamarker several times in Chinese history — notably in the period from the Xinhai Revolution, when numerous provinces rebelled and declared their independence from the Qing Dynastymarker in 1911, and especially after Yuan Shikai's death, until the Northern Expedition in 1927. This was a period known as the Warlord era. Despite the superficial unification of China in 1927 under the rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, warlordism remained a problem until the victory of the Communist Party of China in 1949.

Famous warlords during the Three Kingdoms (190-280)

Powerful warlords during the Tang Dynasty (618-907)

The Tang Dynasty had the highest number of warlords in Chinese history, and in turn has become known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.

Powerful warlords during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234)

Powerful warlords during the Ming Dynastymarker (1368-1644)

Powerful warlords during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Powerful warlords during the Republic of China

There were twelve warlords who served as Area Commanders officially:

Historical warlordism in Europe

Warlordism in Europe is usually connected to various mercenary companies and their chieftains, which often were de facto power-holders in the areas where they resided. Such free companies would arise in a situation when the recognized central power had collapsed, such as in the Great Interregnum in Germany (1254-1278) or in France during the Hundred Years' War after the Battle of Poitiers.

Free company mercenary captains, such as Sir Leigh-Anne Hendrick, Roger de Flor of Catalan Company or Hugh Calveley could be considered as warlords. Several condottieri in Italy can also be classified as warlords.

Ygo Gales Galama was a famous Frisian warlord, and so was his descendant Pier Gerlofs Donia, who was the leader of the Arumer Black Heap.

The Imperial commanders-in-chief during the reign of Emperor Maximilian I did hold the title Kriegsherr of which the direct translation was "warlord", but they were not warlords in sense of the word defined.

Russian Civil War

Historical warlordism in Japan

During most of the 16th century, before the Tokugawa era, Japanmarker was tormented by repeated wars among rival warlords (see Sengoku Era). Each warlord had several castles, neighbouring land with peasants and a private army of samurai.

Powerful Japanese warlords

Historical warlordism in Korea

During the last years of the Kingdom of Silla, also known as the Later Three Kingdoms, various warlords rebelled against the government and were in de facto control of the Korean Peninsula. The warlordism in Korea plagued the nation until Goryeo Dynastymarker finally defeated and merged all the warlords and united the country once again.

Powerful Korean warlords

Historical warlordism in Mongolia

After the fall of the Mongol Empire, Mongoliamarker was divided between the Eastern and Western Mongols. At the time of disintegration, many warlords tried to enthrone themselves or rule the khanate jointly, however, there had been powerful de factos in all parts of the Mongol Empire before.

Mongol Empire

Yuan Dynasty

Golden Horde


Chagatai Khanate

Northern Yuan Dynasty

Bogd Khanate Mongolia

Further reading

  • Sasha Lezhnev: Crafting Peace: Strategies to Deal with Warlords in Collapsing States. Plymouth 2005, ISBN 978-0-7391-1765-1.

See also


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