Would he have been better?

John Gittings

  • Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost by Jonathan Fenby
    Free Press, 562 pp, £25.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 7432 3144 9

Chiang Kai-shek celebrated his 50th birthday (by the Chinese way of counting) in October 1936. To mark the occasion, every schoolchild in the country – or in those parts not already occupied by the Japanese army – was instructed to contribute 15 cents, and every teacher one dollar, to help purchase fighter planes from the US. A new spirit of patriotism was stirring as Japan continued its creeping aggression in the north. Army recruits were given lectures on ‘The Coming Sino-Japanese War’ and ‘How to Make Sacrifices’.

Not everyone shared the enthusiasm. Children at a school in Jiangsu who were too poor to buy their textbooks complained that they would have to ‘sell their bodies to the pawnshop’ to raise the cash. College students in Jiangxi ordered to volunteer for military service worried that they might end up ‘fighting against our own people’ – Mao Zedong’s Communists, whom Chiang was trying to wipe out before tackling the Japanese incursion.

Chiang celebrated his birthday at a lunch with candles on two large cakes; the orchestra of the Officers’ Moral Endeavour Association serenaded him. The national subscription campaign had raised enough to buy 55 planes from Germany and the US. Chiang flew off to Xi’an in north-west China to finalise plans for a new anti-Communist campaign; the planes would come in useful for bombing the remote cave dwellings at Yan’an where Mao and the Red Army had taken refuge after the Long March.

Such disjunctures, familiar to anyone who studies 20th-century China, whether Nationalist under Chiang or Communist under Mao, are characteristic of Chiang Kai-shek’s entire life. Right-hand man of Sun Yat-sen, the father of the first revolution in 1911, Chiang comprehensively betrayed Sun’s populist ideals. Trained in Moscow, he denounced Soviet imperialism – but only after accepting Russian aid in the fight against Japan. Asserting the Confucian virtues of benevolent government, he turned a blind eye to massive corruption and the exploitation of China’s peasantry. He was the unifier of China in the 1927 Northern Expedition, then destroyed the first united front with the Communists. He held China together in the war, then plunged it into civil war. In 1945 he was a world figure on equal terms with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin; four years later he had fled to Taiwan. He ruled China and – in the phrase of anguished Americans who backed the wrong horse – he lost China.

Jonathan Fenby starts his important new biography, the first of substance for a quarter of a century, in Xi’an in 1936 when Chiang, after his 50th birthday, was preparing to bash the Communists. Having ignored the local armed forces’ evident reluctance to fight, Chiang had a nasty shock early in the morning of 12 December. Visitors to the hot springs near the town, where he was surprised by the mutinous troops under Marshal Zhang Xueliang, are still shown the rock behind which he cowered after clambering out of his bedroom, falling into a moat and scrambling up a mountain. The guides make a point of mentioning that he fled in such a hurry that he was in his nightgown and without shoes. They would no doubt add the detail, if they knew it, that he was also without his false teeth; when the formidable Madame Chiang joined him a week later, Fenby records, she brought a pistol and his spare dentures.

The Xi’an Incident should have been a grave humiliation for Chiang, puncturing the myth of his invincibility. Held prisoner by Zhang, he was obliged to negotiate with the Communists (in the person of the wily Zhou Enlai) and to agree informally to end the internal war, paving the way for a new ‘united front’ against the Japanese. Yet, such is the mirror world of Chinese politics, Xi’an made him popular as never before. He flew back to a huge welcome in Nanjing, while his captor became his captive (Zhang remained in detention till after Chiang himself died in 1975). On the face of Tiger Rock, behind which Chiang had cowered, was carved a patriotic inscription: ‘From here our national salvation begins anew.’

The Generalissimo’s diary is still one of the main sources for the Xi’an Incident, though it is self-serving and was probably redrafted. One of the difficulties of writing about him is the paucity of new material: there has been nothing comparable to the publication of Mao’s secret speeches or the revelations of his doctor. Biographers have always had a difficult time with Chiang, which may explain why there have been so few of them; Madame Chiang was always much better copy, as we were reminded in her obituaries last year.

Early pictures of Chiang at Dr Sun’s side, and as commander of the Whampoa military academy where he built the Kuomintang’s first effective force, show a remote face gazing out somewhere beyond the photographer. Edgar Snow, author of Red Star over China, spoke of his messiah complex and noted his ‘sharp eyes looking out of the same austere mask’. Robert Payne (a profound observer of wartime China, whose books are now forgotten) described Chiang’s face as ‘always the same: calm, detached, unemotional’. The problem has always been how to penetrate the mask.

Early contemporaries speak of Chiang’s strong passions. One called him ‘extremely self-willed to an almost incorrigible extent’. Fenby describes the fierce wooing of his second wife, Chen Jieru, who was then aged 15. He won her over by threatening to cut off one of his fingers if she refused, and gave her the name Jieru, which meant ‘pure and unblemished’. After they married, she discovered he had infected her with gonorrhoea.

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