Military Wiki
Zhang Zuolin
During his rule of Manchuria
Generalissimo of the Military Government

In office
18 June 1927 – 4 June 1928
Preceded by Duan Qirui
Succeeded by Tan Yankai
Warlord of Manchuria

In office
1922 – 4 June 1928
Succeeded by Zhang Xueliang
Personal details
Born (1875-03-19)March 19, 1875[1]
Haicheng, Liaoning, Qing Dynasty
Died June 4, 1928(1928-06-04) (aged 53)
Shenyang, Liaoning, Republic of China
Nationality Chinese
Political party Fengtian clique
Spouse(s) Zhao Chungui
Lu Shouxuan
Children Zhang Guanying
Zhang Xueliang
Zhang Huaiying
Zhang Xueming
Zhang Huaitong
Zhang Xuezheng
Zhang Huaiqing
Zhang Huaixi
Zhang Xuesi
Zhang Xuesen
Zhang Xuejun
Zhang Xueyang
Zhang Huaimin
Zhang Xuequan

Zhang Zuolin (simplified Chinese: 张作霖; traditional Chinese: 張作霖; pinyin: Zhāng Zuòlín; Wade–Giles: Chang Tso-lin; (1875–1928) was the warlord of Manchuria from 1916 to 1928 (see Warlord Era in China). He successfully invaded China proper in October 1924 in the Second Zhili-Fengtian War. He gained control of Peking, including China's internationally recognized government, in April 1926. The economy of Manchuria, the basis of Zhang's power, was overtaxed by his adventurism and collapsed in the winter of 1927-1928. Zhang was defeated by the Nationalist Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek in May 1928. He was killed by a bomb planted by a Japanese Kwantung Army officer on 4 June 1928.[2] Although Zhang had been Japan's proxy in China, Japanese militarists were infuriated by his failure to stop the advance of the Nationalists.

Zhang was fiercely anti-Republican and supported the restoration of the Qing dynasty. His nicknames include the "Old Marshal" (大帥, P: Dàshuài, W: Ta-shuai), "Rain Marshal" (雨帥, P: Yǔshuài, W: Yü-shuai) and "Mukden Tiger". The American press referred to him as "Marshal Chang Tso-lin, Tuchun of Manchuria."[3]


Early life

Zhang was born in 1875 in Haicheng county in southern Fengtian province. He was born to poor parents. He received little formal education, and the only non-military trade that he learned in his lifetime was a small amount of veterinary science.[4] His grandfather had come to the northeast after fleeing a famine in Zhili (modern Hebei) in 1821. Asa child, Zhang was known by the nickname "pimple". He spent his early youth hunting, fishing, and brawling.[4] He hunted hares in the Manchurian countryside to help feed his family. In appearance he was thin and rather short.

When he became old enough to work, Zhang worked at a stable in an inn, where he became familiar with many bandit-gangs operating in Manchuria at the time. As early as 1896 Zhang himself was a member of a well-known bandit gang.[4] In one version of Zhang Zuolin's beginnings as a warlord, during a hunting trip he spotted a wounded bandit (Honghuzi) on horseback, killed him, took his horse and became a bandit himself. By his late 20s he had formed a small personal army, acquiring something of a Robin Hood reputation.[5]

In 1900 the Boxer Rebellion broke out, and Zhang's gang joined the imperial army. In peacetime, Zhang hired his men out as escorts for travelling merchants. In the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, the Japanese Army employed Zhang and his men as mercenaries. At the end of the Qing dynasty, Zhang managed to have his men recognised as a regiment of the regular Chinese army, patrolling the borders of Manchuria and suppressing other bandit gangs.[4] Dr. Louis Livingston Seaman met Zhang during the Russo-Japanese War, and took several photographs of him and his troops as well as writing an account of his journey.[6][7]

Growth of power in Manchuria

During the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, some military commanders wanted to declare independence for Manchuria, but the pro-Manchu governor used Zhang's regiment to set up a "Manchurian People's Peacekeeping Council", intimidating would-be rebels and revolutionaries. For his efforts in preventing civil disturbance and revolution, Zhang was named the Vice Minister of Military Affairs.[8]

On 1 January 1912, Sun Yat-sen became the first President of the Republic of China in Nanjing. Yuan Shikai, operating out of Beijing, sent other northern military commanders a series of telegrams, advising them to oppose Sun's administration. To gain Zhang's loyalty, Yuan sent Zhang a large shipment of military provisions; Zhang sent Yuan an enormous (and costly) ginseng root in return to symbolize their friendship. Zhang then murdered a number of leading figures in his base city of Shenyang (then known as "Mukden"), and was rewarded with a series of impressive-sounding titles by the nearly defunct Manchu court. When it became obvious to Zhang that Yuan would usurp control of the central government, Zhang endorsed Yuan's rule over that of either Sun or the Manchus. After Zhang put down a rebellion in June 1912, Yuan raised him to the rank of Lieutenant-General. In 1913 Yuan attempted to move Zhang away from Manchuria by having Zhang transferred to Mongolia, but Zhang reminded Yuan of his successful efforts to keep local order, and refused.[9]

In 1915, when it became clear that Yuan intended to declare himself emperor, Zhang was one of the few officials who supported Yuan. Besides political opportunism, Zhang probably recognizing that Yuan's monarchy would likely be short, and that it could always be attacked later. Because Zhang Zuolin's main rival for power in Manchuria, Zhang Xiluan, when asked about Yuan's ambitions, had told Yuan to "think about it a bit more", Zhang Xiluan was recalled to Beijing, while Zhang Zuolin was promoted.[10]

In March 1916, after many southern provinces revolted against Yuan Shikai's government, Zhang supported Yuan but expelled a local military governor sent by Duan Qirui to replace him, with some support from local Japanese officers in the Kwangtung Army. Beijing accepted Zhang's authority, and Yuan appointed Zhang superintendent of military affairs in Liaoning (known as "Fengtian" until 1929). After Yuan died, in June 1916, the new central government named Zhang both military and civil governor of Liaoning, the essential components of a successful warlord.[11]

Zhang, a monarchist, had always remained cordial with Puyi, the last Emperor of China, and had sent him a gift of £1,600 for his wedding as a token of loyalty. In 1917 he plotted with Zhang Xun, a Qing-loyalist general, to restore the abdicated Puyi to the throne.[12] After Zhang Xun rebelled, Zhang Zuolin remained neutral, and actually supported Duan Qirui in suppressing Zhang Xun after it became clear that Duan would win. Zhang was able to absorb soldiers of nearby commanders who had been linked to the rebellion, increasing his own power. Zhang intervened and took control of China's northernmost province, Heilongjiang, after a rebellion there forced the local governor to flee. Because the governor of Jilin had been linked to the attempt to restore the monarchy, Zhang had allies from Jilin successfully agitate for the governor's dismissal in Beijing. By 1918 Zhang's control of Manchuria was complete, except for the small areas held by the Japanese Empire.[13]

Fortress Manchuria

Zhang Zuolin, ruler of Manchuria and Chinese warlord.

In 1920, Zhang was the supreme ruler of Manchuria. The Central Government acknowledged this by appointing him to be Governor-General of the Three Eastern Provinces. He began to surround himself in luxury, built a chateau-style home near Shenyang, and had at least five wives (an accepted practice of any powerful or wealthy Chinese at the time). In 1925, his personal fortune was estimated at over 18 million yuan (roughly 2.6 million USD).

His power rested on the Fengtian Army, which was composed of about 100,000 men by 1922 and almost triple that number by the end of the decade. It had obtained large stocks of weapons left over from World War I, and included naval units, an air force and an armaments industry. Zhang integrated a large number of local militias in his Army, and thus prevented Manchuria from falling into the chaos which reigned in China proper at this time. Jilin province was ruled by a military governor, who was said to be a cousin of Zhang; Heilongjiang had its own regional warlord, who never displayed any ambitions outside the province.

Although Manchuria officially remained a part of the Republic of China, it became more or less an independent kingdom isolated from China by its geography and protected by the Fengtian Army. The only pass at Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea, could easily be closed. In a time when the Central Government was hardly able to pay the salaries of its civil servants, no more revenues were forwarded to Beijing. In 1922 Zhang took control of the only rail link, the Beijing-Shenyang Railway, north of the Great Wall and also kept these revenues. Only postal and customs revenues were continued to be sent to Beijing, because they had been pledged to the victorious foreign powers after the failed Boxer rebellion of 1900, and Zhang feared their intervention.

Japanese and Russian influences

Manchuria shared a long border with Russia, which had been weakened militarily after the October Revolution. The line of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which was under Russian control, ran through northern Manchuria, and the land immediately on either side of the tracks was considered to be Russian territory. From 1917 to about 1924 the new Communist government in Moscow was having such difficulties establishing itself in Siberia that often it was not clear who was in charge of operating the railway on the Russian side. Still, Zhang avoided a showdown, and after 1924 the Soviets re-established their dominance over the railroad.

The precariousness of the situation was demonstrated by an outbreak of pneumonic plague in Hailar, a town at the western end of the Chinese Eastern Railway, in October 1920. Chinese troops were present in great number and turned railway quarantine into a farce. The soldiers freed some of their comrades who had been imprisoned as contacts, and they escaped to the mining town of Dalainor on the Amur River, where a quarter of the population succumbed. In the other direction all the towns along the Chinese Eastern Railway as far as Vladivostok were infected. Around 9,000 died, whilst only a few contacts were able to reach south Manchuria.[14]

The Japanese posed more of a problem. After the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 they had gained two important outposts in south Manchuria: The Guandong (Kwantung) Leased Territory consisted of a 218-square-mile (560 km2) peninsula in the southernmost part of Manchuria. It included the ice-free port of Dairen (known as Dalian in Chinese), which became the main link to Japan. Reaching northward from the colony the South Manchurian Railway passed through Shenyang (referred to as Mukden by the Japanese) linking up with the Chinese Eastern Railway in Changchun. The land on either side of the railway tracks remained extraterritorial, now being controlled by the Japanese Kwantung Army. This army maintained from 7,000 to 14,000 men in Manchuria tolerating and being tolerated by the Fengtian Army although Zhang kept up a war of words, playing on anti-Japanese sentiments in the Chinese public.

Civil reform

At the beginning of the 1920s Zhang transformed Manchuria from an unimportant frontier region to one of the most prosperous parts of China. He had inherited a financially weak provincial government, e.g. in 1917 Fengtian faced ten outstanding loans from foreign-controlled consortia and banks totaling over 12 million yuan. Zhang chose Wang Yongjiang, who had served as head of a regional tax office, for the task of solving Fengtian's financial problems. He was appointed Director of the Bureau of Finance.

A number of currencies were circulating in the province, as was the custom in China, and the paper notes issued by the provincial government had experienced a steady depreciation in value. Wang decided to switch to a silver standard and set the initial value of the new silver yuan equal to the Japanese gold yen, which was accepted throughout Korea and Manchuria. Much to the surprise of the Chinese the new currency even gained in value against the gold yen, although Japanese businessmen claimed that it was not backed up by sufficient silver reserves. Wang then used the newly gained credibility to introduce another note, the Fengtian dollar, which was not convertible into silver anymore. But it was accepted by the government for the payment of taxes, a sign that the government had faith in its own currency.

Next, Wang turned to the chaotic tax collecting system. Because of his former job he was well acquainted with the abuses of the system and introduced a number of controls. The provincial government had also invested government funds in various enterprises, many of which were poorly managed. Wang ordered a review of government sponsored firms. Since 1918 the revenues rose steadily, by 1921 all outstanding loans had been repaid and there was even a budget surplus. Wang was rewarded by being appointed as Civil Governor of Fengtian province while remaining Director of the Bureau of Finance. Zhang retained the title of Military Governor of Fengtian. Still, more than two thirds of the budget were allocated to the military.

War in north China

In the summer of 1920 Zhang made a foray into north China on the other side of the Great Wall trying to topple Duan Qirui, the leading warlord of Beijing. He did this by supporting another warlord, Cao Kun, with troops, and they both successfully ousted Duan. As a reward Zhang was granted control over most of inner Mongolia to the west of Manchuria. Zhang had become a figure of national prominence. But he was confronted by Wu Peifu, a divisional commander of the North China Zhili clique, which was based in the province of Zhili that surrounded Beijing. In spring 1922 Zhang personally took the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Fengtian Army, and on 19 April his forces entered into China proper. Fighting started three days later, and on 4 May they were seriously defeated by the Zhili Army in what came to be known as the First Zhili-Fengtian War. 3,000 troops had been killed and 7,000 wounded, and Zhang's units retreated to Shanhaiguan Pass. Zhili forces were in control of Beijing, Zhang's image as a national leader had been destroyed, and he reacted by declaring Manchuria independent from Beijing in May 1922.

On 22 June Wang left Shenyang for Japanese controlled Dalian, allegedly for treatment of an eye infection. From there he challenged Zhang by demanding restrictions to military spending and a complete control over civil affairs. Zhang gave in, and lifted martial law and agreed to a separation of civil and military administration in all of the three provinces. Wang returned on 6 August thereby ensuring Manchuria's continued stability.

Regional development

In the following years Wang realised a far reaching development plan. He tried to bring more workers to the booming Manchurian economy. Most workers had come on a temporary basis, returning to their homes in North China in winter. The Manchurian government now encouraged them to bring women and children, and settle permanently. Asencouragement they were made eligible for reduced fares on all Chinese owned railways in Manchuria, received funds to build a dwelling and were promised total ownership after five years of continuous occupation. Rent for the land was canceled for the first years. Most were sent to the interior of Manchuria, where they reclaimed land for agriculture, or worked in forestry or mines. Between 1924 and 1929 the amount of land under tillage increased from 20 to 35 million acres (80,000 to 140,000 km²).

Manchuria's economy boomed while chaos and uncertainty reigned in the rest of China. An especially ambitious project was to break the Japanese monopoly on cotton textiles by creating a large mill, which, much to Japan's sorrow, succeeded. The government also invested in other enterprises, among them quite a number of Sino-Japanese companies. During this time the Fengtian Army successfully kept a lid on Manchuria's many bandits. Various railway lines were built, among them the Shenyang-Hailong line, which opened in 1925. In 1924 Wang amalgamated three regional banks into the Official Bank of the Three Eastern Provinces, and became its General Director. By this he tried to create a development bank and at the same time to keep accurate records of military spending.

The beginning of the end

After the disastrous defeat of 1922, Zhang had reorganized his Fengtian Army, started a training programme and had bought new equipment including mobile radios and machine guns. In the autumn of 1924, fighting broke out again in Central China and Zhang saw an opportunity to capture North China and Beijing and become head of the Central Government. While most other warlord armies fought along the Yangtze River, Zhang attacked North China. The Second Zhili-Fengtian War had begun. In a surprise move a Zhili commander, Feng Yuxiang, toppled Cao Kun and took control of Beijing. He shared power with Zhang and both appointed the same Duan Qirui he had ousted in 1920. By August 1925, the Fengtian Army controlled four large provinces within the Great Wall (Zhili, where Beijing was located, but not Beijing itself, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Anhui). One unit even marched as far south as the city of Shanghai. But the military situation was so unstable, that Sun Chuanfang, a Zhili clique warlord whose sphere of influence extended along the Yangtze, managed to push back the Fengtian Army again. By November, Zhang held only a small corner of North China including a corridor connecting Beijing with Manchuria. Attacks on Beijing continued into the spring of 1926.

Manchuria was placed under martial law again, while its economy disintegrated under the burden of the insatiable war machine. Old taxes were increased and new taxes invented. Zhang demanded that more paper money was being printed out of step with silver reserves. A most serious crisis erupted when in November 1925 Guo Songling revolted and ordered his troops to turn back and march on Shenyang. The Japanese brought in reinforcements to protect their interests in Manchuria, but Zhang managed to put down the revolt in December. Even more seriously, Manchuria's top civil official, Civil Governor Wang Yongjiang, realized that his work of nine years had been in vain. He left Shenyang in February 1926 and handed in his resignation. This time he did not react, when Zhang asked him to return. Wang died from kidney failure on 1 November 1927.

Manchuria's economy collapses

Zhang Zuolin at the office of the Generalissimo on May 24, 1928 before leaving Peking

File:Zhang zuolin car.jpg

The railroad car in which Zhang was killed.

In March 1926 a new civil governor was appointed. His only job was to supply the Fengtian Army with large amounts of money. He issued new provincial bonds, forcing business and local communities to purchase them. Early in 1927 he even entered into the opium trade by selling expensive licenses for the sale and use of opium. Bank reserves and railway revenues were plundered, while ever more paper notes were issued. The best indicator of Manchuria's economic decline was the value of the Fengtian dollar (yuan), which had started on parity with the Japanese gold yen. In February 1928 a yen was the equivalent of 40 yuan. In this winter Manchuria's economy collapsed. Workers went on strike, hungry immigrants flooded back into Shenyang because they could not find any work. Zhang Zuolin provided weapons to anti Guominjun Muslim rebels led by Ma Tingrang during the Muslim conflict in Gansu (1927–1930).

In June 1926 Zhang had managed to capture Beijing. A year later he proclaimed himself as Grand Marshal of the Republic of China, and thus led China's internationally recognized government. But the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek attacked his forces and in May 1928 the Fengtian Army had to retreat towards Beijing. In addition, Japan applied pressure on Zhang to leave Beijing and return to Manchuria, and underscored this by bringing reinforcements to Tianjin. Zhang left Beijing on 3 June 1928.

The next morning his train reached the outskirts of Shenyang. Here, the line passed through the Japanese operated South Manchuria Railroad. An officer of the Japanese Guandong (Kwantung) Army, Colonel Kōmoto Daisaku, had planted a bomb, which exploded when Zhang's train passed under the viaduct. At the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946, Okada Keisuke testified that Zhang was murdered because the Guandong (Kwantung) army was infuriated by his failure to stop Chiang's army, which was backed by Moscow, then Tokyo's strategic rival. For two weeks Zhang's death was kept secret, while the scramble for power was decided. That is why, according to an announcement issued by the Fengtian Army, he officially died on 21 June 1928. Zhang was succeeded by the eldest son of his official wife, Zhang Xueliang.

See also


  1. Xiao, Lin, and Li 118
  2. Hata 288
  3. "War?" Time Sept. 8, 1924
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Bonavia 63
  5. Behr 145
  6. Louis Livingston Seaman (1904). From Tokio through Manchuria with the Japanese. PRINTED AT THE APPLETON PRESS, NEW YORK, U.S.A.: S. Appleton. p. 150. Retrieved 18 March 2012. "THE HEAD OF THE NOBBEN BANDITS OF MANCHUNIA In the centre, with the author on his right and Capt. Boyd, U.S.A., on his left, is General Chung Tzor Lin, the Manchurian Bandit who is now an officer in the Chinese Army" LONDON SIDNEY APPLETON COPYRIGHT, 1904, BY D. APPLETON AND COMPANY Original from the University of California Digitized Nov 21, 2007
  7. Louis Livingston Seaman (1904). From Tokio through Manchuria with the Japanese. PRINTED AT THE APPLETON PRESS, NEW YORK, U.S.A.: S. Appleton. p. 158. Retrieved 18 March 2012. "GEN. CHUNG TZOR LIN, ONCE THE HEAD OF THE ROBBER BANDS OF MANCHURIA, IN FRONT OF HIS YAMEN Showing a portion of his cavalry guard, and the author standing at his left" LONDON SIDNEY APPLETON COPYRIGHT, 1904, BY D. APPLETON AND COMPANY Original from the University of California Digitized Nov 21, 2007
  8. Bonavia 63-64
  9. Bonavia 64-65
  10. Bonavia 66
  11. Bonavia 66-67
  12. Behr 105
  13. Bonavia 67-68
  14. Nathan, Carl F. (1967). Plague prevention and politics in Manchuria 1910-1931 Cambridge/Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 66.


  • Behr, Edward. The Last Emperor. Bantam. 1987. ISBN 0-553-34474-9.
  • Bonavia, David. China's Warlords. New York: Oxford University Press. 1995. ISBN 0-19-586179-5
  • Hata, Ikuhiro. "Continental Expansion: 1905-1941". In The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. 6. Cambridge University Press. 1988.
  • Suleski, Ronald. (2002). Civil Government in Warlord China: Tradition, Modernization and Manchuria New York: Peter Lang.
  • "War?" TIME Magazine September 8, 1924. Retrieved August 24 2011.
  • Xiao Xaioming, Lin Liangqi, Li Zhenguo, ed (2006). Liaoning, Home of the Manchus and Cradle of Qing Empire (First Edition ed.). Foreign Languages Press, Beijing. ISBN 7-119-04517-2. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Wellington Koo
as President of the Republic of China
Generalissimo of the Military Government
Succeeded by
Tan Yankai
as Chairman of the National Government

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