In China, an independent military commander in the early 20th century. Warlords, supported by provincial military interests or foreign powers, ruled various parts of China following the death of Yuan Shikai, first president of the Republic of China. In southeastern China Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalist Party gained the backing of a warlord based in Guangzhou (Canton). In northern China three leading warlords emerged: Zhang Zuolin, a Japanese-backed bandit in Manchuria; Wu Peifu, a traditionally educated officer in central China; and Feng Yuxiang, who seized Beijing in 1924. The Nationalist Party consolidated its control in the south, and its forces swept northward, reuniting the country in 1928. Numerous local warlords continued to exert de facto power over their own domains until the Japanese invasion during what became World War II. Seealso Northern Expedition.
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Warlordism was coined to describe chaos at the end of the Qing Dynasty and the birth of the Republic of China, 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 China during the Three Kingdoms, or in Somalia or other failed states today (2006).
The word "warlord" arose as a calque from the German word "Kriegsherr" with the same meaning. Today the Germans often use the English word, which has overtaken "Kriegsherr" in their language.
Warlordism in Europe is usually connected to various mercenary companies and their chieftains, which often were de facto powerholders in the areas in which 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 also the leader of the legendary Arumer Black Heap. Donia's best known enemy and rival was a mercenary himself; the Count of Nychlenborch, a Burgundian-vassal. All these legendary warriors can be considered warlords.
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.