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Mutiny in Hunan: Writing and Rewriting the “Warlord Era” in Early Republican Chinese History

  • Author(s): Tang, Jonathan
  • Advisor(s): Yeh, Wen-hsin
  • et al.

This dissertation examines a 1920 mutiny in Pingjiang County, Hunan Province, as a way of challenging the dominant narrative of the early republican period of Chinese history, often called the “Warlord Era.” The mutiny precipitated a change of power from Tan Yankai, a classically trained elite of the pre-imperial era, to Zhao Hengti, who had undergone military training in Japan. Conventional histories interpret this transition as Zhao having betrayed his erstwhile superior Tan, epitomizing the rise of warlordism and the disintegration of traditional civilian administration; this dissertation challenges these claims by showing that Tan and Zhao were not enemies in 1920, and that no such betrayal occurred.

These same histories also claim that local governance during this period was fundamentally broken, necessitating the revolutionary party-state of the KMT and CCP to centralize power and restore order. Though this was undeniably a period of political turmoil, with endemic low-level armed conflict, this dissertation juxtaposes unpublished material with two of the more influential histories of the era to show how this narrative has been exaggerated to serve political aims. Gradual reform and innovations like federalism have been excluded from memories of the era in favor of a return to highly centralized, autocratic rule. Tan, Zhao, and their peers were unable to adapt to the emerging mass politics of their era, and thus did not achieve the necessary publicity to make their achievements more well-known.

Another dimension to the dissertation is its local character. At the turn of the twentieth century, Hunan was still an internal frontier, far from the more cosmopolitan coast. Moreover, it lay at the crossroads between north and south, making it geostrategically important for all those who wished to militarily conquer the whole of the former Qing empire. Those from the province, like Tan and Zhao, were convinced of their homeland’s importance, and, cognizant of the prominent political role that their predecessors played in nineteenth century, sought to emulate their example through good governance and innovative politics.

By redirecting our attention to these local successes, however limited, and reframing our interpretation of the 1920 mutiny, this dissertation argues against the revolutionary paradigm of Chinese history to highlight an alternative possibility for how local governance could have worked, demonstrates how elite culture enabled the success of Qing elites like Tan and Zhao while preventing their later success in the mass politics era, and suggests new possibilities for future research on the politics of early Republican China.

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