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 …

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