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Uesugi Kenshin was one of the most powerful lords of the Warring States period in Japan.

A warlord is a person with power who has both military and civil[1] 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. Today, the word has a strong connotation that the person exercises far more power than their official title or rank legitimately permits. Under feudalism, by contrast, the local military leader may enjoy great autonomy and a personal army, and still derive legitimacy from formal fealty to a central authority.

Warlordism is a term coined to describe chaos at the end of the Qing Dynasty and the birth of the Republic of China, from the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916 until 1928. This period is called 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 China during the Three Kingdoms, or in Somalia during the Somali Civil War.

The word "warlord" entered the English language as a translation from the German word "Kriegsherr", which was an official title of the German Emperor. Its use for Chinese military commanders who had a regional power base and ruled independently of the central government dates from the early 1920s, with Bertram Lenox Simpson being one source, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Modern usage

Warlordism frequently appears in 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 to prolong war for the maintenance of their economic system.


  • With the collapse of the Somali central government, groups of rival warlords constituted the only form of authority in some parts of the country.
  • Other countries and territories with warlords include Afghanistan,[2][3] Iraq, Burma (Wa State), Russia (Chechnya), Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Sudan, the Philippines, Pakistan (Pashtun Tribal Areas) and Tajikistan (Gorno-Badakhshan)


Warlords exercised widespread rule in China several times in Chinese history — notably in the period starting from the Xinhai Revolution, when numerous provinces rebelled and declared their independence from the Qing Dynasty 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.



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.

  • An Shi Rebellion




Republic of China

There were twelve warlords who served as Area Commanders officially:


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; and in the Kingdom of Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence.

Free company mercenary captains, such as Sir John Hawkwood, 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 cousin 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

Warlordism was widespread in Civil War-era Russia (1918–1922). Many territories weren't under control of either Red government in Petrograd (later in Moscow) or White governments in Omsk and Rostov. These territories were controlled by warlords of various political colors. Anarchist warlords Nestor Makhno, leader of Free Territory, and his ally Maria Nikiforova operated in Ukraine. The Cossack ataman Semyonov held territories in Transbaikalia region, and the Bloody Baron Ungern von Sternberg was the dictator of Mongolia for a short time.

Note that the White generals such as Kolchak or Denikin are not considered warlords, because they created a legitimate, though ramshackle government and military command.


During most of the 16th century, before the Tokugawa era, Japan 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.


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 Dynasty finally defeated and merged all the warlords and united the country once again.


Twelve warlords war

A historical era between 945 AD to 967 AD ended by Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, a retainer of the warlord Trần Lãm.

  • Ngô Xương Xí (吳昌熾) held Bình Kiều, now Khoái Châu, Hung Yen Province.
  • Đỗ Cảnh Thạc (杜景碩) referred himself as the Duke Đỗ Cảnh, held Đỗ Động Giang, now Thanh Oai, Ha Tay Province.
  • Trần Lãm (陳覽) referred himself as the Duke Trần Minh, held Bố Hải Khấu, Kỳ Bố, Thai Binh Province.
  • Kiều Công Hãn (矯公罕) referred himself as Kiều Tam Chế, held Phong Châu – Bạch Hạc, Phu Tho Province
  • Nguyễn Khoan (阮寬) referred himself as Nguyễn Thái Bình, held Tam Đái - Vĩnh Tường, Vinh Phuc Province
  • Ngô Nhật Khánh (吳日慶) referred himself as the Duke Ngô Lãm, held Đường Lâm, Ha Tay Province
  • Lý Khuê (李奎) referred himself as Lý Lãng, held Siêu Loại - Thuận Thành, Bac Ninh Province.
  • Nguyễn Thủ Tiệp (阮守捷) referred himself as Duke Nguyễn Lệnh, held Tiên Du, Bac Ninh Province
  • Lã Đường (呂唐) referred himself as the Duke Lã Tá, held Tế Giang - Văn Giang, Hung Yen Province
  • Nguyễn Siêu (阮超) referred himself as the Duke Nguyễn Hữu, held Tây Phù Liệt - Thanh Trì, Hà Nội
  • Kiều Thuận (矯順) referred himself as the Duke Kiều Lệnh, held Hồi Hồ - Cẩm Khê, Ha Tay Province
  • Phạm Bạch Hổ (範白虎) referred himself as Phạm Phòng Át, held Đằng Châu, Hung Yen Province.

Lý dynasty

Toward the end of the Lý dynasty, the central government failed to execute its legitimate authority, giving rise to many local warlords, later conquered by chancellor Trần Thủ Độ of the Trần clan.

Lê dynasty

Years of unrest and civil war between Lê and Mạc courts during the 16th century saw many warlords' rise and fall. The Vũ clan in Tuyên Quang enjoyed their autonomy for 200 years before subdued by Lê force. The Nguyễn clan took control of Thuan Hua, paved way for the Dang Trong entity.


After the fall of the Mongol Empire, Mongolia 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


  • Chupan
  • Hasan Buzurg
  • Hasan Kucek

Chagatai Khanate

  • Qazaghan
  • Amir Bulaji of the Dughlat, who raised Tughlugh Timur Khan.
  • Timur, who would become great Tamerlane

Northern Yuan Dynasty

  • Toghan of the Oirats
  • Arughtai, taishi of the Asud
  • Esyn Tayshi, the Oirat leader who enthrone himself the Khan of the Mongols and captured the Emperor of Ming China.
  • Iburai Taishi of the Kharchin or Ordos.[4]
  • Bekersen of the Monggoljin

Bogd Khanate Mongolia

  • Dambijaa
  • Baron Ungern von Sternberg

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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