The Generalissimo by Jay Taylor

Jason Buel

Chiang is often written off in the annals of history as an incompetent dictator, plagued by corruption and disloyalty within his administration and military, this book suggests otherwise.

The Generalissimo

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674033382
Author: Jay Taylor
Price: $35.00
Length: 736
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2009-04

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.