Xavier Paulès and David Serfass are the guest editors of this January 2022 special issue devoted to challenging the pervasive view that, in the Republican period, political fragmentation posed an obstacle to modernization and state building. In fact, they argue, political disunity did not hinder state building, as local power-holders often pursued parallel reform trajectories, thus contributing to, and often stimulating, the wider state-building effort at the national level.
This issue is organized as a roundtable, collecting short conceptual interventions in order to allow for the inclusion of multiple perspectives. Its main objectives are to renew our understanding of "the regional/national tensions inherent in a huge state"—as an anonymous reviewer aptly phrased it—and go beyond the restrictive label of "warlordism." Even if recent studies have cast new light on individual local power-holders, revealing the inadequacy of simply identifying them with regional militarism, this term still holds negative connotations and contributes to flattening the complexity of this important period in Chinese history.
The roundtable includes the guest editors' introduction and seven interventions. Paulès and Emily M. Hill debate theoretical approaches for the study of this period of division. Paulès introduces four dynamics––the "cunning of reason," a common set of values, zeitgeist, and emulation––to explain how the local power-holders' interests in state building tended to converge, ultimately contributing to state building at the national level. Hill's intervention tests the validity of applying Charles Tilly's idea of war as a catalyst for state building to the "warlord" era. After discussing common historical narratives of this period, Hill concludes by advocating a "greater precision in the conceptualization of centralization and continuity in Chinese state-building processes."
[Margherita Zanasi, Editorial]