AskDefine | Define warlord

Dictionary Definition

warlord n : supreme military leader exercising civil power in a region especially one accountable to nobody when the central government is weak

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A high military officer in a warlike nation.
  2. A local ruler or bandit leader usually where the government is weak.

Related terms


high military officer in a warlike nation
local ruler or bandit leader where the government is weak

Extensive Definition

A warlord is a person with power who has military control over a subnational area due to armed forces loyal to the warlord and not to a central authority. The term can also mean one who espouses the ideal that war is necessary, and has the means and authority to engage in war. The word has a strong connotation that the person exercises far more power than his official title or rank (if any) legitimately permits him or her. Under feudalism, in contrast, the local military leader may enjoy great autonomy and a personal army, but still derives legitimacy from formal fealty to a central authority.
Warlordism was coined to describe chaos at the birth of the Republic of China, especially after the death of Yuan Shikai, as the warlord era. 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.

Historical warlordism in Europe

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.

Historical warlordism in Japan

During most of the 16th century, before the Tokugawa era, Japan was tormented by repeated wars among rival warlords (see Sengoku Era). Each warlord had several castles, neighbouring land with peasants and a private army of samurai.

Historical warlordism in China

Warlords exercised widespread rule in China several times in Chinese history — notably in the period from the Xinhai Revolution, when numerous provinces rebelled and declared their independence from the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and especially after Yuan Shikai's death, until the Northern Expedition in 1927. This was a period known as the Warlord era, and was the time when the term "warlord" first appeared. Despite the superficial unification of China in 1927 under the rule of the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, warlordism remained a problem until the victory of the Communist Party of China in 1949.
The Chinese warlords are depicted in the computer game "Hearts of Iron" and its sequel "Hearts of Iron 2", which are both banned in mainland China. Another popular game with a similar plot is the "Dynasty Warriors" series. These feature many real historic warlords as generals in or leaders of their respective dynasties. Some main characters include prominent Three Kingdoms figures.

Famous warlords during the Three Kingdoms (190-280)

Powerful warlords during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234)

Powerful warlords during the Republic of China

There were twelve warlords who served as Area Commanders officially:

Historical Warlordism in Korea

During the last years of the Kingdom of Silla, also known as the Later Three Kingdoms, various warlords rebelled against the government and were in de facto control of the Korean Peninsula. The warlordism in Korea plagued the nation until Goryeo Dynasty finally defeated and merged all the warlords and united the country once again.

Warlordism in the world today

Warlordism appears in so-called failed states: states in which central government and nationwide authorities have collapsed or exist merely formally without actual control over the state territory. They are usually defined by a high level of clientelism, low bureaucratic control and a high motivation in prolonging war for the maintenance of their economic system, mainly based on the extraction of natural resources.

Further reading

  • Sasha Lezhnev: Crafting Peace: Strategies to Deal with Warlords in Collapsing States. Plymouth 2005, ISBN 978-0-7391-1765-1.
warlord in Breton: Tiern a vrezel
warlord in German: Kriegsherr
warlord in Spanish: Señor de la guerra
warlord in Persian: جنگ‌سالاری
warlord in French: Seigneur de la guerre
warlord in Korean: 군벌
warlord in Indonesian: Raja perang
warlord in Italian: Signore della guerra
warlord in Dutch: Krijgsheer
warlord in Japanese: 軍閥
warlord in Portuguese: Chefe militar
warlord in Finnish: Sotaherra
warlord in Swedish: Krigsherre
warlord in Chinese: 军阀

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Simon Legree, absolute monarch, absolute ruler, all-powerful ruler, arrogator, autarch, autocrat, caesar, commissar, czar, despot, dictator, disciplinarian, driver, duce, hard master, martinet, oligarch, oppressor, pharaoh, slave driver, stickler, tyrant, usurper
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