Chapter 8

Unification: Chiang Kai-shek 1887-1975

As leader of the Nationalist Party after Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek both unified and lost China. Chiang proved unable to defeat Mao's Communist revolution, and fled to Taiwan, where seeds of democracy sprouted after his death in 1975.


1887-1911  Chiang Kai-shek’s Early Life

Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) was born into a salt merchant family in Xikou, a town in the coastal province of Zhejiang.

Chiang studied the classics early in life but never took an imperial examination. Instead, in 1905, Chiang cut off his Manchu-style queue and departed for Japan.

Unlike other Chinese reformers in Japan at the time, Chiang’s goal was to study military strategy and tactics. In Japan, Chiang became acquainted with Sun Yat-sen and his republican Revolutionary Alliance.

A young Chiang Kai-shek

1913-1924  Joins Sun’s Army

Returning from Japan, Chiang put his training to work fighting against the forces of warlord Yuan Shikai. First in Shanghai, then in Guangdong, Chiang gradually rose through the ranks of the Republican Army. Chiang draws closer to Sun Yat-sen when he rescues Sun from a hostage situation in Guangzhou. His faith in Chiang growing, Sun sends Chiang to Moscow for further military training and then appoints him to lead the new Whampoa Military Academy alongside Zhou Enlai.

1927  Rising to Leadership

By the time Sun died in 1925, Chiang had maneuvered himself to inherit the leadership of Nationalist party. With his well-trained army and modern tactics, Chiang set about reunifying China, conquering warlords one by one. In 1927, having brought most of China under control, Chiang suddenly turned his sights on his own allies in the First United Front, launching a White Terror campaign to round up and execute communists. Beginning in Shanghai, communists were driven from the cities into the countryside, effectively launching a civil war.

1927  Chiang Marries Song Meiling

At a Christmas party at Sun Yat-sen’s residence in 1921, Chiang met Song Meiling, the younger sister of Sun’s wife Song Qingling, and fell in love. Chiang’s weren’t welcomed at first by the Song family, but he persisted, and after converting to Christianity, received the family’s blessing to marry Meiling in 1927. Chiang later brought his Harvard-educated brother-in-law, T.V. Song into the Nationalist political fold, putting him in charge of desperately needed investments in infrastructure.

Chiang Kai-shek and his bride, Song Meiling

1928  Becoming China’s Leader

Chiang continued to consolidate power and in January of 1928 was sworn in as China’s Nationalist leader. Maintaining his crackdown on the communists and his investments in infrastructure, Chiang decided to move China’s capital to Nanjing, to build a new capital of awe-inspiring grandeur.

Headquarters of the Nationalist Party, Nanjing

1936  Facing a War on Two Fronts

With the Communist Party continuing to foment insurrection internally, the Japanese in Manchuria became increasingly aggressive. Echoing Feng Guifen’s predicament during the Taiping Rebellion, Chiang was forced to choose where to allocate his forces, and he chose the communists.

A patriotic warlord in the western city of Xian took issue with Chiang’s decision and decided to take matters into his own hands. Zhang Xueliang kidnapped Chiang, refusing to release him unless he resumed cooperation with the Communists under a Second United Front in order to deal with the Japanese aggression. When Chiang agreed and was released, he received a hero’s welcome back in Nanjing.

Just when it seemed like momentum was turning in China’s favor, with Chiang unifying the country and starting to put economic affairs in order, the Japanese aggression brought progress screeching to a halt.

Patriotic warlord Zhang Xueliang

1938  The Rape of Nanjing

Despite a renewed focus on the Japanese, the war did not go well. Chiang’s forces proved unable to displace the Japanese from the northeast, and Japan began pushing southward with impunity. In late 1937, they reached the capital in Nanjing. The Chinese attempted to resist, holding their ground for several weeks, but eventually were forced to flee by a superior Japanese force.

The Japanese army committed atrocities across northern China, raping and pillaging as they moved south, culminating in the Rape of Nanjing, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were massacred.

Chinese prisoners being buried alive by Japanese

For Chiang, the deeply humiliating loss of his new national capital was a bitter reminder that, whatever its progress, China was still unable to protect itself from marauding foreigners.
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1939  World War II

Forced to flee to the southwestern city of Chongqing by the Japanese advance, Chiang spent the next seven and a half years of the war ineffectively resisting the Japanese and worrying about the communists. Chiang received military aid from the British and Americans, and even had an American Chief of Staff, General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. Stilwell became increasingly frustrated with Chiang’s reluctance to commit troops to battle against the Chinese, suspecting that he was withholding his strength in order to be ready to resume fighting with the communists after an Allied victory.

Joseph Stilwell kept meticulous diaries throughout the war, which are transcribed and available online.

Chiang Kai-shek, Song Meiling and Joseph Stilwell

1943  Chiang’s Personality and Politics

As a person and a politician, Chiang could be violent, erratic, domineering and full of contradiction. According to American journalist Theodore White, he was prone to sudden rages, leading to casual beatings, even killings. Politically, Chiang preached Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles, but also hawked traditional Confucianism,  a strong dictatorship, and a blend of neo-Confucianism and Christianity known as the New Life Movement that he attempted to spread with the help of his wife. Chiang even dabbled in fascism and Nazism. Like Chen, he was willing to consider any system that worked for China, regardless of the means necessary for its implementation.

Chiang’s one major publication, a book entitled China’s Destiny, was so full of xenophobic vitriol that his advisors had to pull it from the presses for fear of offending their American and British allies. John Service, an American on Stilwell’s staff, referred to the book as China’s ”Mein Kampf.”

Chiang, Kai-Shek – China’s Destiny and Chinese Economic Theory (1947)

It was his interest in big-leader kultur, as well as his obsession with control, obedience, and party discipline, that had first drawn him to Leninism and now to fascism...he was attracted to all aspects of those totalitarian systems that fit in with his own nostalgic version of Confucian traditionalism.
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1949  Defeat

As Chiang expected, the end of World War II led to the outbreak of open civil war in China. Any strength Chiang conserved during the war availed him little, as the communists sent the remnants of his government fleeing to Taiwan in 1949. At first, the Taiwanese held out hope of a massive counterattack against the mainland, but reality set in with time. Chiang was labeled “the man who lost China,” and the republican period in China seemed like just another failed experiment.

Chiang Kai-shek with U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960

It was hardly surprising, then, that during his years in Taipei such an air of disappointment, even tragedy, hung over his studied efforts to keep up appearances.
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1949-1975  Death and Democracy

Chiang ruled Taiwan as an autocratic generalissimo until death in 1975. His son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, then surprised the world by lifting martial law, allowing opposition parties to emerge, and eventually abdicating in favor of the first free elections in China since 1913.  Countries around the world began to look at the Taiwanese model in the 1980s, as Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy grew to include the first Chinese state to embark successfully on the road to democracy and wealth, if not power.

Economic growth in Asia, 1980-2017 (via The Economist)

As a functioning democracy actually came to life on Taiwan, it provided proof that Chinese were not somehow congenitally incapable of sustaining democratic governance.
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