At the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Imperial China was larger than the United States, and filled to capacity with revolutionary sentiment. After a century of humiliation at the hands of international strongmen, the ineffectual and reluctant final Chinese dynasty was overthrown by widespread unrest that boiled in every province. Historically, Chinese history had been used to this cycle, where various strongmen would organize themselves and fight it out until one remained victor, and replace the dynasty with his own. But at this time of modernization and internationalization, that was no longer viable, and instead, the revolts gave definition to the modern concept of a warlord, or archaically, the tuchan.
Before the uprisings in China, there had never been a universal definition of what a warlord was. There had been strongmen and absolutists, but there was never a specific set of characteristics that made up the archetype. With the breakdown of the Qing government, the tuchan was able to create that definition. Out of the failed Qing state, regional governors and generals a were able to consolidate armies and groups that were focused on the men themselves rather than the continuation of a state, which while similar to the historical cycling of Chinese dynasties, was new to the international observers that resided in the many port cities and observation posts that dotted the country. While these tuchans would pledge nominal recognition to the ineffective governments that were established immediately after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the recognition would only be made because the international perspective of Chinese politics only recognized a single government.
In addition to giving the conceptual warlord a definition, the tuchan gave the warlord a specific flavor. Like warlord, the designation of tuchan was overwhelmingly negative. The international press that covered these individuals were surprised to find the internationalism within them. Many had been in contact with missionaries, received schooling abroad, and had intricate financial backgrounds. Stories were built of Zhang Zongchang’s “three don’t knows,” where he claimed he didn’t know how many men he had, how much money he had, or how many concubines he had at his disposal. In addition, rumors were spread about the Methodist general Feng Yuxiang, who was claimed to have baptized every man in his army by using fire hoses. Combinations of these stories by international observers gave the archetypal warlord a new eccentric face, cementing the warlord in the Western mythos as an orientalist caricature fit for a James Bond movie or a Nicolas Cage flick.
For the nation of China, the warlords wouldn’t be ousted until the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949. Until then, the nation experienced the Second World War, years of civil war, and a stillborn constitutional monarchy that only existed on paper for less than a hundred days.