The warlord Sun Hu-keng and his rival Li Zuo-Lin both courted the powerful governor of the strategic city of Shuzheng. The city was a vital rail junction and was also linked to the sea by a fine road; both Sun and Li hoped to import foreign artillery and rifles to increase their influence. The mayor, a man known as Xu, was a graduate of the “University of the Green Forest.” In other words, he was a former bandit who had worked his way into office through a combination of cunning, brutality, and opportunism. He had proven to be an excellent choice as mayor, having repulsed several assaults on the town and keeping its people well-fed.

Xu invited both men to visit him in Shuzheng to make their case, warning them to bring only a small detachment of bodyguards. Sun and Li were to have separate meetings with Xu, but both received notice beforehand Xu planned to betray them and to have his troops open fire across the negotiating table. Sensing an opportunity to kill Xu in close combat, and thus take Shuzheng for themselves, both made plans for ambushes of their own.

In the end, Xu inherited a room full of cordite smoke and bodies as Sun and Li, who had never met, killed each other–both thinking they had struck down Xu himself. Within a week, both of their warlord armies had pledged fealty to Xu, and he had begun a meteoric ascent that would not end until he was killed by his own troops on the battlefield in 1949.

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