The History of the Ma Family Warlords of Gansu
The era of the warlords in China has been extensively covered by historians and scholars; however, the Muslim warlords have received little attention than their Han Chinese counterparts.
During the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic period, there were at least 14 Muslim Chinese belonging to the Hui ethnic group with the family name Ma who became warlords. “One group of religious leaders, the jiaozhang (the heads of Sufi orders or suborders) of the Jahriyya order of Naqshbandi Sufis, played an important role in leading the Gansu Muslims, though they never held military rank”.
The history of the Ma family warlords starts in 1781, when the Qing government intervened in a religious dispute between hostile camps of Muslims. The Hui saw the government as invaders and were increasingly hostile to them. However, there was another group of Hui who were willing to fight for the Imperial government.
The Muslim rebellions against the Han government (who weren’t Han Chinese but Manchu) escalated and reduced their numbers from one million to 50,000. “Ironically, this collective violence gave encouragement and legitimacy to the first Hui warlords by confirming and consolidating their alliance with the Qing against their militant co-religionaries”.
The first Muslim warlord was Ma Zhan’ao, an ahong of the Huasi menhuan (often called Khufiyya, or Old Teaching) who was a commander at Hezhou. Instead of killing the Han, he instead helped them escape the city. He then controlled the city until his death in 1871.
“Ma Zhan’ao managed to preserve his political independence by handling Zuo more adroitly than most rebels. Zuo prepared his campaign against Hezhou with his customary care after destroying Ma Hualong at Jinjipu, but he could not easily defeat Ma Zhan’ao’s seasoned fighters in the rough terrain of Taoxi, the only approach to Hezhou. A crucial battle was fought around Taizisi in late 1871, ending in defeat for Zuo. His advance halted; his men were thrown out of Taoxi altogether, forcing them to face yet another hazardous crossing of the swift, well-defended Tao River. Several high-ranking unit commanders were killed in the fighting”.
The Qing government declared his legitimacy and when he died, his son Anliang continued to run the city right into the Republican period where he too played an important role in the local politics. When he died in 1918, at least two of his sons became warlords as well.
However, those historians who have touched on Zhan’ao and Anliang paint them as traitors who sold out their ethnicities to the Qing government.
The Ma family warlords in Gansu were able to maintain their power for a long period of time due to their relationship with the Qing and, later, Republican government. The fact that they could sustain themselves economically and were willing to forgo separatism in favour of gradual political assimilation only strengthened this relationship, thus preserving their power.
Lipman, Jonathan N. (1984) Ethnicity and Politics in Republican China: The Ma Family Warlords of Gansu, Modern China, Sage Publications, Inc.