Wu P'ei-fu (1874-1939) was a Chinese warlord. As head of the Chihli clique, he controlled significant portions of central and northern China between 1918 and 1926.
Wu P'ei-fu was born into a merchant's household in the northeast province of Shantung. He received a classical education, but family and personal misfortunes drove him into the military, a calling traditionally held in low esteem but increasingly popular during the chaotic years of the late Ch'ing dynasty. In 1902 Wu entered Yüan Shih-k'ai's Paoting Military Academy and became associated with the Peiyang clique. He served as an intelligence officer for the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War. When Yüan Shih-k'ai emerged as the strongman of China after the Revolution of 1911, Wu became a brigade commander with the rank of colonel.
Under the wing of his division commander, Ts'ao K'un, Wu advanced rapidly during the early years of the republic. Yüan Shih-k'ai's death on June 6, 1916, initiated the warlord era (1916-1928), during which scores of military chieftains struggled for supremacy. After the Peiyang clique split into the Chihli and Anfu factions in 1918, Wu became a leading figure in the Chihli group. In 1920 he helped drive the Anfu leader Tuan Ch'i-jui from Peking. With a base of power in the central provinces of Hupei and Hunan, Wu next defeated Chang Tso-lin, the Manchurian warlord of the Fengtien clique, thereby becoming the most powerful figure in northern China.
During his climb to power, Wu had developed a reputation as a relatively progressive warlord. He persistently advocated the "peaceful unification" of China and generally expressed himself through telegrams before resorting to bullets. He supported student protest against Japanese encroachments and demonstrated sympathy with a civilian movement for good government. However, he was capable of ruthlessness when his vital interests were threatened. In February 1923 his troops killed some 80 striking workers who had halted traffic on the Peking-Hankow Railway, the principal source of Wu's economic and military sustenance.
Furthermore, though scrupulously honest and disdainful of high office, Wu was handicapped by an imperious personality that alienated subordinates. In 1924 one of these, Feng Yü-hsiang, betrayed him at a critical moment in a military campaign and drove him into a brief retirement. Wu quickly reemerged to defeat his treacherous lieutenant, only to fall victim to the forces of the Kuomintang's Northern Expedition. With a mere hundred followers remaining from his once formidable army, Wu found refuge in the province of Szechwan. There he studied Confucianism and Buddhism and wrote a short treatise in praise of loyalty, obedience, social stability, and other traditional virtues. In 1932 he moved to Peiping.
As the Japanese maneuvered for control of northern China, Wu spurned offers to head a puppet government. However Chiang Kai-shek's increasing receptivity to Communist proposals for a united front enhanced his enthusiasm for an anti-Red crusade in cooperation with the Japanese. After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War on July 7, 1937, Wu offered to cooperate if the Japanese would equip him with a half-million-man army and gradually withdraw their own troops. The Japanese refused to pay so high a price. On Dec. 4, 1939, he succumbed to blood poisoning from an infected tooth. Eulogies from the Nationalist government in Chungking accompanied his elaborate burial in Japanese-occupied Peiping.
Further Reading on Wu P'ei-fu
There is no biography of Wu P'ei-fu in English. James E. Sheridan's biography of Feng Yü-hsiang, Chinese Warlord (1966), provides a perspective on Wu from the viewpoint of his disloyal follower. Detailed accounts of the warlord era are in Li Chien-nung, The Political History of China, 1840-1928 (trans. 1956), and in O. Edmund Clubb, 20th Century China (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Wou, Odoric Y. K., Militarism in modern China: the career of Wu P'ei-Fu, 1916-39, Folkestone, Eng.: Dawson, 1978.