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The Generalissimo

Jay Taylor

(Harvard University Press)

What’s the first word that comes to mind when someone mentions “China”?  It could be “ancient” or “vast” or even “panda”. For some of us, however, it may well be “communism”. 


The face of modern China that many Americans see is nothing more than the face of the Chinese Communist Party, complete with Chairman Mao’s giant visage solemnly overlooking the red buildings of Tiananmen Square. While some in the international community tend to associate serious human rights violations and violence with the communist leadership over the past decades, we also tend to credit the communists with modernizing China and building their nation into a major world power.


Though the traditional historical view of Mao Zedong is generally not a pretty one (at least in western nations), the view of Chiang Kai-shek tends to be even worse. As much as historians might object to many of Mao’s initiatives, he clearly had a great deal of power and influence in the world’s most populous nation over an extended period of time. On the other hand, Chiang is often written off as an incompetent dictator, plagued by corruption and disloyalty within his administration and military, who was often incapable of maintaining any degree of control over Chinese territory.


The Generalissimo argues that the traditional view of Chiang is off the mark completely and it attempts to show why Chiang deserves credit for China’s development into the nation we know today. The book follows Chiang from his rise to power in the Kuomintang military to his last days as President of Taiwan. It is structured around four key power struggles: the revolution against imperialist powers, the Japanese takeover of Manchuria proceeding into World War II, the civil war between the Kuomintang and Communist Party, and the government-in-exile in Taiwan. 


The book opens in 1945 with a scene of the Chinese people celebrating the end of their nation’s involvement in World War II and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek listening to Emperor Hirohito’s unconditional surrender via radio. Chiang is not in a celebratory mood, however, as he realizes that the end of Japanese occupation of China will quickly draw the Kuomintang and Communist Party back into civil war. The first few pages set up the two key conflicts of Chiang’s political career before segueing into his familial history and upbringing.


Author Jay Taylor is quick to interject his historical analyses into the biography of Chiang. He argues that Chiang’s rise to power is a story of “persistence, loyalty, physical courage, personal honesty.”  Taylor is also quick to point out that “much of the tragedy that befell him and China was outside his control.” Of course, if one is to accept Chiang as the benevolent elder statesman that Taylor paints him as throughout much of the book, one must presumably accept the premise that, generally speaking, the bad things that happened on his watch were actually inevitable or at least had nothing to do with his leadership.


Assuming one believes a given leader’s positive contributions to outweigh the negatives, it seems quite easy to ignore the negatives altogether. Such forgiving interpretations of influential leaders are not all that uncommon: most Americans have no problem dissociating George Washington from owning slaves or Franklin Roosevelt from building internment camps, two obvious and gross violations of human rights. If Chiang was essentially the father of modern China, as Taylor asserts throughout the text, then it might make sense that he encourages his readers to look the other way when it comes to the undesirable events that history has traditionally held him responsible for (namely the initial policy of appeasement toward the imperialist Japanese, failed campaigns during the ensuing war, purges of communists that led to sympathetic increases in their membership, the eventual communist takeover of China, and executions ordered by Kuomintang leadership both on the mainland and in Taiwan).


Most of Chiang’s actions and decisions over the course of the book are framed in the context of frequent dilemmas. He realizes that corruption is rampant among officials and military leaders in his party and that such corruption has turned public favor away from him, but a purge of those culpable would eliminate many of the most qualified and loyal members of the Kuomintang and cripple the government’s ability to deal with foreign threats. He believes that a heavy offensive push against the Japanese will fail without superior air power, but such an offensive is needed in order to maintain the support of the US military in the war effort.


Chiang is presented as rarely having the option to do anything but choose the lesser of two evils. While such framing of the events occasionally comes across as a heavy-handed way to favor Chiang, such a bias makes sense given that much of the research came from Chiang’s journals and interviews with his surviving family members—source material that is understandably biased.


One of the most interesting uses of a pro-Chiang bias comes in the discussion of World War II, where Taylor explores Sino-American relations during the war and how they shaped Chiang’s image among Americans. Though not overtly, Taylor provides an interesting study of the formulation of public identity. Using primary sources, he is able to formulate a reasonable approximation of Chiang’s view of himself. Taylor then contrasts Chiang’s view with the popular view of him among Chinese and among Americans. These three somewhat distinct identities are slightly different from the image of Chiang that Taylor has been building all along: one that is a paradoxical hybrid of all three.


Taylor’s portrayal of Chiang is nothing if not complex. Chiang is presented as a military mastermind, yet he is dependent on foreign military aid. He is a champion of the democratic process, yet he insists on instituting a period of essentially fascist “tutelage”. He favors land reform and socialist politics, yet the communists are his arch-enemies. He is stoic publicly, yet temperamental and emotional in private. He is the father of modern China, yet forced to flee his homeland.


As this book is the first comprehensive English-language biography of Chiang, anyone seriously interested in researching Chiang, the Kuomintang, or the development of modern China would certainly benefit from it. For the general audience, the level of detail may be too much and could become cumbersome as the writing, though it serves its purpose, doesn’t exactly make for a riveting page-turner. 


To those not already excited by the prospect of reading about Chiang Kai-shek, it has relatively little to offer. To those interested in learning more about Chiang, it could be an invaluable resource.  Taylor’s arguments are not always convincing, but the evidence he uses to support them and the details of Chiang’s life are intriguing and worth reading.

Rating:

Jason Buel is a student of film and popular culture. He edits poetry submissions for The Peel literary magazine and teaches classes in video production and film studies.


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