Photograph of Chiang Kai-Shek taken during a visit to an Army Air Force base, March 1945. Chiang Kai-shek, along with Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong, is considered to be one of the three most important figures shaping Chinese history in the twentieth century. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
Chiang Kai-shek was the successor to Sun Yat-sen and political leader and military chief in China’s war against Japan; after his defeat by Mao Zedong in China’s Civil War (1945–1949) he escaped to Taiwan and established the Republic of China on Taiwan. As President of Taiwan, Chiang vowed to retake the mainland. With the help of the U.S. military and economic aid, Chiang did help to build Taiwan into a modern and prosperous nation.
Chiang Kai-shek is easily one of the three most important figures to shape modern Chinese history in the twentieth century, the other two figures being Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong. Sun led the revolution that overthrew the decaying Qing dynasty in 1911, Chiang became his successor as head of the Nationalist Party, and then fought a civil war against Mao’s Communist Party, which led to Mao’s victory on the mainland and Chiang’s establishment of the Republic of China on the island of Taiwan in 1950.
Chiang, also known as Chiang Chung-cheng in Chinese, was born in Fenghua, Zhejiang Province, on 30 October, 1887. He graduated from Paoting Military Academy in China in 1906 and then studied at the Tokyo Military Academy in Japan the next year. He joined Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary party, called Tung Meng Hui, in 1908 and participated in the formation of the Nationalist Party (known in English as the Guomindang or Kuomindang ???). He then supported the Nationalists’ revolts against the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, which lead to the dynasty’s overthrow in December of 1911.
Because of Chiang’s extensive military training, Sun Yat-sen appointed Chiang as President of the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton in 1923. The Academy was non-partisan in its politics; famed Communist Party member Zhou Enlai was named its political director and famous Communist General Lin Biao got his start as a cadet there.
After Sun Yat-sen’s death from cancer in 1925, Chiang assumed the role of Sun’s successor. He was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed Revolutionary Forces. Recruiting cadets from the Whampoa Military Academy, Chiang led them on the so-called Northern Expedition to attack various warlords in China in an effort to unite the country under the auspices of the Nationalist Party.
By 1926, Chiang’s forces had succeeded in reaching the outskirts of Shanghai, but unfortunately he was also out of money. Thus, Chiang made a pact with the devil, so-to-speak, that would ultimately come to haunt him as a leader for the rest of his life: He agreed to purge his forces of all Communist sympathizers and massacre Communist party members inside Shanghai in exchange for funding from Shanghai’s pro-Western industrialists and mafia-like gangs. The April 1927 Massacre, as it came to be known, was thus the first salvo in China’s ongoing Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists. However, this pact allowed Chiang to enter the city without a fight and established the Nationalists as a pro-Western capitalist party. The disillusioned left wing of the party, led by Sun Yat-sen’s widow, Soong Ching-ling, then set up a rival government in the city of Wuhan. The next year, Chiang married Ching-ling’s youngest sister, Soong Mei-ling, who had been educated by Western missionaries and studied at America’s Wellesley College. Chiang, who conveniently left his first wife for this auspicious union to the daughter of a family rife with money and Western ties, then converted publicly to Christianity himself.
To compete with the rival Wuhan government, Chiang made Nanking (Nanjing) the new capital of the Republic of China in 1928. He assumed various leadership positions in his government, including Chairman (Commander-in-Chief) of the National Military Council. He then personally negotiated with warlords across China, persuading them to join his government.
In one particularly bizarre episode, Chiang traveled to Xi’an in Shaanxi Province to meet with its military leader, the so-called “Young Marshal” Chang Hsueh-liang (Zhang Xueliang), on December 8, 1936. The Young Marshal took this opportunity to kidnap Chiang, refusing to release him unless Chiang agreed to stop his persecution of Chinese Communist Party members and instead to concentrate on fighting the Japanese military, which had already taken over Manchuria and established a puppet state known as Manchukuo there. Finally, Madame Chiang flew to Xi’an where she personally negotiated for her husband’s release with the aid of Communist leader Zhou Enlai. Chiang then agreed to stop fighting the Communists and form a “United Front” with them to fight the Japanese invasion. Young Marshal Chang then released Chiang and agreed to return as Chiang’s prisoner to Nanjing as a sign of his sincerity.
On July 7, 1937, full-scale war erupted between China and after Japanese troops attacked Chinese troops stationed near the Marco Polo Bridge outside Beijing. The better-equipped Japanese military quickly defeated the Chinese and gained control over the entirety of northern China. The Japanese Army then advanced southward. Chiang lost Shanghai in November and was forced to flee his capital of Nanjing, in December, which led to the massacre of civilians by Japanese troops in the infamous “Rape of Nanking.”
Chiang retreated to the interior of China and established a new capital in Chungking (Chongqing). His wife’s Western ties allowed him to gain American support, war material, and advisors after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor forced America to enter World War II. The Communists, after initially suffering defeats from Nationalist troops, began to take advantage of the Japanese advancement to expand their territories by initiating guerrilla warfare against the Japanese (and the Nationalists) in the countryside.
In politics, Chiang always made loyalty his most important criterion for support, rather than ability or devotion to any particular political program. Furthermore, Chiang allowed rival cliques to divide the Nationalist Party so that he could play these factions against each other to his own advantage. Personal rivalry and factionalism thus paralyzed the Nationalists in their struggle against both the Japanese and the Communists.
In his government in Chungking, Chiang assumed the most powerful positions. He was named Generalissimo of the Nationalist Party from 1938 to 1946. After the Americans defeated the Japanese military, Chiang was finally named President of the National Government of the Republic of China, as a result of elections held by a newly formed National Assembly, which also adopted a Constitution. However, in China, he was always referred to by one title, wei yuan zhang (???), which can be translated as the Chairman or the Generalissimo.
In terms of policies, Chiang Kai-shek made little effort to present to the Chinese people attractive political, social and economic policies. His officials were corrupt and amassed huge personal fortunes while the nation’s ordinary citizens suffered. He demanded political and ideological unification of all of China under Confucian virtues, as he interpreted them, despite his conversion to Christianity. He blamed all China’s ills on the imperialist policies of Western powers and refused to accept any person
al criticism. As a result he lost his earlier support of the United States for his government.
After he lost the Civil War against the Communists in 1949, he went into exile in Taiwan, which he declared to be the Republic of China. He was an authoritarian leader and imposed Martial Law, which had first been established on the mainland as “Emergency Provisions” during the Civil War and which limited many civil liberties, including free speech and the right to form opposition political parties. He continued to fight Communism relentlessly, vowing to take back the mainland from Mao. Chiang forbade any contact with the mainland by his citizens on Taiwan, including reading mainland newspapers, listening to mainland radio broadcasts or even receiving mail from relatives on the mainland.
Schools were not permitted to study subjects related to mainland China, including modern Chinese history. At the same time, Taiwanese were not allowed to talk about independence either.
After the Korean War broke out, the U.S. decided to support Chiang’s government as a bulwark against Communism’s spread in Asia and pledged military support as well as billions of dollars to build up Taiwan’s economy. The U.S. recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan as the sole legitimate government representing all of China until 1979, when President Carter normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China. By then, Chiang had already been dead for four years, never seeing his dream of “taking back the mainland” realized.
Chai, Ch’u, & Chai, Winberg. (1969). The changing society of China. NY: New American Library.
Chai, May-lee, & Chai, Winberg. (2007). China a to z. New York: Plume.
Chiang Kai-shek. Collected Works of Chiang Kai-shek. (2008). Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution.
Fenby, J. (2003). Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China he lost. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Hutchings, G. (2001). Modern China: A guide to a century of change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Source: Chai, Winberg. (2009). CHIANG Kai-shek. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 320–322. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
CHIANG Kai-shek (Ji?ng Jièshí ???)|Ji?ng Jièshí ??? (CHIANG Kai-shek)