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The Enigma of Chiang Kai-shek

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Jack Wilkes/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Chiang Kai-Shek And Mao Zedong

Back in 1975, when he died in Taiwan at the age of eighty-seven, it was easy to see Chiang Kai-shek as a failure, as a piece of Chinese flotsam left awkwardly drifting in the wake of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary victories. Now it is not easy to be so sure. In today’s China, the transformational political visions of Mao seem to have little resonance, as the country faces up to its new global responsibilities, including its potential financial leadership. What seems to be of far greater importance today is the vision that Chiang tenaciously espoused during his years as head of the Nationalist Party: of a China determined to keep its vast border regions firmly under centralized control, to build its military machine into one capable of preventing any repetition of its nineteenth- and twentieth-century humiliations at the hands of foreign powers, and to develop a convincing balance of nationalism tied to political stability.

From our current vantage point, also, Chiang Kai-shek whets our intellectual appetite more than Mao. Mao’s writings and road to power have been explored from so many angles that it is Chiang who now seems to be the true enigma: it is Chiang’s often evasive writings that still await clarification; it is Chiang who may give us clues to those elusive links between traditional Chinese culture and intellectual pressures from the West and from Japan that dominated so much of China’s history between the 1860s and the 1950s.

Yet the task of elucidating Chiang is a daunting one. Jay Taylor has already shown, in his detailed and revealing biography of Chiang’s eldest son, Chiang Ching-kuo,* that any study of Chiang Kai-shek has to be a family history, even though family sources are not easy to accumulate or interpret. Many readers, even those familiar with China’s modern history, will find it hard to come to grips with Chiang Kai-shek’s story as a whole. Contemporaries often found him aloof, standoffish, and cantankerous and his mannerisms and diction inscrutable. He was not only an enigma but a man who protected himself with overlapping layers of defenses. Chiang was not an easy man to like, and by emphasizing his political ruthlessness and tenacious antileftism a host of his contemporary observers and journalists ensured that he received a bad press within China and in the wider world, despite the power of the Time-Life and China-lobby spokesmen who tried to keep his image burnished.

Only late in Chiang’s life, after he had helped to bring financial prosperity to Taiwan—where he had ruled since his retreat from the mainland in late 1949—and had allowed his son Chiang Ching-kuo to begin exploring the possibilities of democratic government for the island, did a more benevolent view of him gain some currency. But this period of benevolent reappraisal was quashed in its turn by the highly negative anti-Chiang campaigns conducted by the Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party under the direction of its vociferous president Chen Shuibian between 2000 and 2008, in which emphasis was placed on the atrocities committed by Chiang and his followers against the Taiwanese in the uprising of 1947.

Jay Taylor seems to have sensibly decided that the most effective way to cut through this thicket of negative views was to probe the historical record in a more personal way, and to use diaries and any surviving reminiscences to show that Chiang Kai-shek was as capable of experiencing a tangled sensual and emotional life as other young men of his time and place. The records show that in accordance with local custom in rural areas of China, his mother arranged for him to be married when he was a fourteen-year-old to a local woman of nineteen. Even though this marriage was arranged with a neighboring family by Chiang’s own mother, Taylor guesses that it was not consummated for eight years, leading to the birth of their first and only child, Chiang Ching-kuo, in 1910. Chiang’s early sexual experiences, Taylor believes, came mainly from Chinese and Japanese bargirls and prostitutes to whom he was often attracted, and with whom he consorted both in the Chinese towns where he was in school and military academy, and in Tokyo, where he studied on at least three separate occasions and served in a field artillery regiment during 1910 and 1911.

Chiang subsequently rejected this first wife and the country ways she stood for, and the couple had no further children. But this irregular life and Chiang’s overlapping liaisons with other women apparently led him to fear that sexual excess or related diseases might have rendered him infertile. Certainly after his son Ching-kuo was born, though Chiang separated formally from his first wife and married a college student, he had no further children with any of his partners: his second “son,” Wei-kuo, was in fact the child of one of his political advisers, whom Chiang adopted.

Chiang’s celebrated third marriage, in 1927, to the fashionable, wealthy, Christian, and American-educated Soong Mayling was also childless, though Taylor cites a diary entry of 1930 that indicates that Mayling had a miscarriage, followed by a prolonged depression, that summer, close to three years after her marriage to Chiang. Though the two had an often difficult relationship, other family members referred to their marriage as a “love match,” and it lasted until Chiang’s death.

There is nothing really startling in such details, but they serve to give us a glimpse of a more flesh-and-blood Chiang, one who had been something, at least, of a young blade. More surprising to readers of modern Chinese history may be the details given by Taylor concerning Chiang’s religion. Unlike many earlier commentators who saw Chiang’s espousal of Christianity as a career maneuver that he had to make before Mayling’s mother—who was from a devoutly Christian family —would agree to the marriage, Taylor thinks Chiang was sincere in his Christian belief. Especially after 1934, Taylor tells us, Chiang read seriously, and often on a daily basis, not only from the Bible but also in such collections of Christian homiletic literature as Streams in the Desert, from which he often quoted in his diary.

This careful culling and quoting of Chiang’s diaries is a device Taylor uses effectively to show Chiang’s personal qualities. Taylor rejects the commonly held notion that these diaries deserve to be ignored, as being devoid of historical interest; instead, by juxtaposing quotations from Chiang’s diaries with vivid and detailed descriptions of the major political and military events unfolding in the wider world, he gives a kind of intimacy to what otherwise might be merely inchoate reflections. Thus, to some extent, Taylor has been able to construct a series of more emotional linkages between Chiang and the world within which he worked.

Probably no historian, however versatile or dogged, will ever be able to make complete sense of Chiang’s rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s, for the period as a whole seems to defy logical analysis. Taylor gives considerable space to Chiang’s education in China and Japan, and to his slow and erratic rise to prominence amid the turbulent military clashes that wracked China at the time. But he cannot quite capture the full intricacy of the political, financial, and military maneuvering, the shifting loyalties of rival “generals,” the tentative and sundered political alliances, the meaningless “treaties,” and the variant modes of military training and recruitment that were used.

Nor does Taylor add much to our still spotty knowledge of the formation of paramilitary groups loyal to Chiang himself, nor of the complex ways that Chiang elaborated on—and manipulated—the nationalist legacy inherited from his earlier mentor, the (also) erratic and ever-changeable revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, formulator of the “Three Principles of the People” that became the central mantra of the Nationalist Party. Before his death in 1925, Sun had essentially “adopted” Chiang as one of his chosen successors—or as the only one who really mattered, according to Chiang himself. And it did no harm to Chiang that the elder sister of his wife Soong Mayling had been Sun’s wife and was now his widow, making Chiang Sun’s brother-in-law, even if a posthumous one.

One of the intriguing aspects of Chiang’s rise to power is the paradoxical fact that it is almost impossible to imagine a more complex muddle and mishmash of military training and indoctrination than that which slowly, over the years, had congealed around Chiang’s receptive personality. To touch on only some of the more formative of these: in his early teens, he received military training at the celebrated central military academy in Baoding, south of Beijing. This academy had been at the forefront of the late-nineteenth-century restructuring of the Chinese military system, and here he encountered patriotic and nationalistic Chinese army officers, many of whom had also received their early training from Manchus, the descendants of the warrior military elite who had conquered China in the 1640s and ruled the country ever since.

Before the revolution of 1911 that overthrew the Manchus, Chiang studied in Japanese military academies, and even if his record was not distinguished—Taylor cites his standing in his Japanese academy class as being fifty-fourth out of the sixty-two Chinese students enrolled—Chiang received intensive field training in the Japanese 19th Field Artillery Regiment. Several Japanese officers from this regiment later recalled the young Chiang’s toughness and concentration.

In the early 1920s, Chiang was not only sent by Sun Yat-sen to study for a time in Moscow, but he also worked closely with Bolshevik military instructors in the Whampoa Military Academy near Canton. In the mid-1920s Chiang fought alongside these Soviet officers on campaigns against rival warlords and negotiated with Comintern (Third Communist International) advisers. As commandant of the academy he associated on a daily basis with several rising Chinese Communist military leaders like the Whampoa political commissar Zhou Enlai.

As if that were not enough variety, in the early 1930s Chiang retained a small nucleus of experienced German military officers, veteran commanders from the trenches in World War I, to serve as his technical advisers and chief training officers for the five successive “extermination campaigns” that he launched against the Communist Soviets in central China. And in the early 1940s, especially in the year after Pearl Harbor, Chiang had to coordinate his military strategy with American field commanders such as General Joseph Stilwell in the campaign against the Japanese in Burma, with the British and American staff officers in the training camps at Ramgarh in India, and with the United States Army Air Force commander Claire Lee Chennault, whose bold pilots—popularly known as the “Flying Tigers”—even well before Pearl Harbor were helping to defend Chiang’s wartime southwest capital of Chongqing from Japanese air attacks.

Taylor does not try to analyze how this remarkable montage could ever be integrated in the brain of one man—whether Chiang Kai-shek’s or anyone else’s—and indeed I don’t know of any attempt that has been made as yet to assess the possible impact on Chiang of this variety of military thinking, but surely the mix must have been as distracting as it was helpful. Perhaps it might have been this potentially deadly but also indigestible tangle of influences that led from the mid-1920s onward to Chiang Kai-shek being known by the grandiloquent title of “Generalissimo.” The Chinese characters for this term were the simple enough compound dashuai, or “supreme commander,” but in English it carried a somewhat mocking aura that stuck to Chiang in the West until his death and after. (General Stilwell’s insistence after late 1942 on referring to Chiang both in his own letters and diaries and in his dispatches to Washington by the belittling code name “Peanut” served only to underline the sharply clashing views that the Chinese and the Americans held of each other’s competency.)

Chiang Kai-shek’s early education had been spotty: it included attendance at a scattering of local schools near his birthplace in Zhejiang (a coastal province in central China, south of Shanghai), the various stints in military academies in north China and Japan I have referred to, and bouts of reading in traditional Chinese histories that also covered aspects of what could be broadly termed a “Confucian education.” Chiang did nothing to undercut the impression that he was deeply versed in the “great tradition” of Chinese thought, and earned the reputation in Nationalist circles of being especially attracted to the activist “scholar-official” as a model.

Certainly later in his career Chiang claimed—in reference to his anti- warlord, anti-Communist, and anti-Japanese campaigns—to be to some extent emulating two of China’s greatest commanders and intellectuals, one being Wang Yangming from the early sixteenth century and the other Zeng Guofan of the mid-nineteenth. Taylor gives a sympathetic rendering of what this training may have meant to Chiang:

The aspect of neo-Confucianism that most affected the young Chiang was its emphasis on character development, self-discipline, and the conscious cultivation of the self, along with a sense of duty, courage, honor, and activism rather than passive contemplation. The concept of the superior man emerged from the nurturing of these principles. At the same time the neo-Confucianists promulgated the traditional Confucian concepts regarding moral behavior and the hierarchy of obligations in society. The Confucian approach to morality was based on the political order and had a political objective—the creation of a harmonious, orderly society. It was an ethos shaped by millennia in which extended families lived in crowded, clan-based agricultural communities where survival depended on a combination of independent, household farming and communal maintenance of infrastructure and order.

Encouraging though this sounds as a depiction of Chinese reality, it does not get us very far unless we see Chiang acting in accord with, and in defense of, such principles in a consistent way. In Taylor’s account, though we are shown some of Chiang’s rhetorical Confucian flights, we do not get any detailed sense of exactly what it was that he believed in—besides, that is, a pursuit of power that might allow him at some unspecified future time to restructure Chinese society in what he considered a moral fashion. But many of these passages in his public statements, we can be sure, were prepared by his speechwriters or political followers, and need have had little or no relevance to real policies at verifiable times.

Chiang’s moralism was focused on his own advancement, just as the Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen was presented as the harbinger of some future but unspecified time in which the Chinese people would assert their liberation from a protracted period of “tutelage,” and enter into a zone that could more properly be termed a state of freedom. But when was that to be? Political power, in Chiang’s de facto definition, was directed mainly at the total destruction of the entire Communist experiment in China, and in that quest neo-Confucian thought was not given a definite or even tentative part to play.

In a different vein, but equally important to the attempt to define or interpret Chiang’s actions, is the relationship between his political rhetoric and the reality of his search for power. Here Taylor has to confront the often rather vaguely phrased charges—so prevalent in the early 1930s, during World War II, and again after he moved permanently to Taiwan in 1949—that Chiang’s basic political belief system deserved to be called “fascist.” Once again, Taylor offers a shorthand judgment, part explanation, part apologia:

The Prussian ideal intrigued Chiang; long before he ever heard of Hitler, he knew from his reading and his no-nonsense German advisers that Germany was disciplined and orderly. He especially admired the way that Germany, Japan, and Turkey had in recent years raised their respective “national spirits.” Before sending his adopted son [Chiang Wei-kuo] off to the Kriegsschule (military academy) in Munich, he told him, “Germany is the only country from which we can learn something. They can give us the base from which to develop our own style: firm and solid.”

But this affinity for German achievements was not a sign of craven Nazism. Unlike the Japanese, Chiang showed no interest in duplicating the key aspects of Nazi ideology: racial supremacy, territorial expansion, and hemispheric if not world conquest. In his diary he never mentioned, much less welcomed, any of the milestones of the rise of fascism in Germany such as Hitler’s elevation to chancellor, the Reichstag Fire, Germany as a one-party state, or the naming of Hitler as Führer. Chiang was fascist in neither ends nor means.

Chiang, in Taylor’s view, was a pragmatist, and ultimately a leader who saw himself aligned with “the rational or secular humanist strains of both the Western and Chinese enlightenments—the liberal democratic, the pragmatic authoritarian, and the Jacobean [ sic Jacobin] totalitarian.” It was for this reason that, in Taylor’s view, Chiang spent so many of the years in the 1930s not in craven appeasement of Japan as his many enemies (especially on the left) charged, but giving time for China to marshal its maximum resistance to drive Japan out of China and Manchuria. For in Chiang’s mind Japan and Germany together and perhaps Italy and Spain (though those latter two regimes are not discussed by Taylor) constituted equally dark examples of what he terms “the ultra-nationalism, racism, and absolutism of atavistic fascism.” In such a reading, Chiang’s harsh though erratic censorship, the mass political rallies held at his behest, the ruthless intelligence services, paramilitary and elitist secret societies, assassinations of political and human rights antagonists, and insistence on the cult of the leader appear to fit within the span of acceptable government techniques.

The history of modern China is a vast and complex tale, and Taylor does readers a real service by letting us see all this as much as possible through the eyes of Chiang himself: thus he links Chiang’s repeated failures to contain the Communists in the civil war of 1945 to 1949 down to his retreat to Taiwan, and through the Korean War. He goes on to consider the shelling of the offshore islands by the Communists, the period of violent repression in Taiwan and its follow-up period of reform, and finally the fast economic growth under Chiang’s leadership. In Taylor’s interpretation, Chiang usually knew what he was doing; he was not lacking in the skills of a grand strategist. For example, the Communist victories of the mid-1940s were, in Taylor’s account, as much a problem of American misunderstandings and interference as of Chiang’s faulty analysis and inept military leadership.

The attempt to portray Chiang as a major statesman seems to me flawed: surely he did have serious shortcomings as a leader, a limited vision of what constituted good government, a marked inability to manage an economy of China’s scale, and a lack of clarity on how to supervise loans of the size dangled by the Americans and often misappropriated by his cronies, his family, or their dependents. Chiang was never eager to delegate power, and stuck through thick and thin to a coterie of assistants and advisers who went back to his early days in school and military academy. He was pontifical in his pronouncements. Lacking conventional charm, he was often stubborn and inflexible, prodigal with his troops’ lives, and tolerant of fearful abuses in China’s rural areas.

Despite all the details assembled here by Taylor to portray a more human Chiang and show his statesmanlike qualities, to my mind the Generalissimo still emerges from this protracted account as wearing the mantle of failure. This is not to deny that the glimmers of Chiang’s humanity caringly assembled by Taylor from obscure sources may help us, in the longer run, draw together a convincing figure of Chiang as a whole person who tackled too much at once and was denied—by the fates and by himself—ever being able to bring to fruition anything he truly cared for. It may be an example of increasing readiness to accept these newer insights that inside China itself, the Chiang family’s old house in Zhejiang province is now refurbished as a shrine to his memory, and has become a major Chinese tourist site.

Taylor is generous in praising Chiang for insights and great achievements that others, less sympathetic, might define as having been predetermined or as just blind luck—the most salient of these, of course, being the fact that China did not fall permanently apart in these disastrous and tragic years of struggle. But Taylor also has a sharp eye for certain details that have an enduring resonance, and it is one of the smallest of these details that stays with this reader after all the grand dramas of Chiang’s life have been laid to rest. Chiang, Taylor learned from the testimony of the Generalissimo’s doctor in Taiwan, suffered for many years from a disease of the urinary tract; by 1960 this had become so serious that he was persuaded to allow a US Army urologist from Okinawa to conduct an operation. It was not successful, and a second attempt was made—this time by a more prominent surgeon, based in New York, who flew to Taiwan for a repeat operation. This one went better, but it left Chiang a prey to incontinence for the remainder of his life. “For this reason,” Taylor tells us, Chiang “began a routine of remaining seated at the conclusion of meetings until everyone—except his aides—had departed.”

I find that image both prosaic and curiously powerful. It is prosaic because it is so ordinary, a faint blip on the records of so many lives. But when the patient is a generalissimo, a certain special poignancy is evident: the man who survived the Northern Expedition and the kidnapping at Xian, who dreamed of routing the Japanese, crushing the Communists, and putting China permanently on the map as a great power, of reinvading the mainland, and finally of making Taiwan a little model of a better world, sitting quietly in his damp uniform as he waited for each session of business to end. The incident, reenacted in this case again and again across several years, reminds us of the cliché that extreme reliance on maintaining dignity is often likely to be bruising, and ultimately fruitless. It reminds us of another truism, that Chiang’s journey through life was often a lonely one. Maybe it is only now that we are becoming free to see it whole. It is early yet, but out of such small moments Chiang may one day earn his freedom from the self-appointed watchdogs who surrounded him while he lived.

  1. *

    The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan (Harvard University Press, 2000).

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