Rising China's Forgotten Father

By Horner, Charles | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Rising China's Forgotten Father


Horner, Charles, Naval War College Review


RISING CHINA'S FORGOTTEN FATHER Taylor, Jay. The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Boston: Harvard Univ. Press, 2011. 736pp. $35

Jay Taylor's masterful biography of Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), first published in 2009, is now available in paperback, with a new postscript that assesses documentation unavailable when Taylor completed his manuscript in 2008. However, nothing that has appeared since then dilutes Taylor's original, powerful reassessment of Chiang's appropriate place in twentieth-century history.

Over the decades Chiang Kai-shek had become a textbook example of politically corrupted writing of biography and history. After the so-called "loss of China" in 1949, Chiang's well documented failings were conscripted to camouflage the many failings of American policy makers. Later, during the Vietnam War, the fate of the anti-Communist cause in China as led by Chiang Kai-shek became ametaphor for those who argued against American involvement.Thus a large and consequential figure was rendered irrelevant and a statesman of considerable acumen and foresight was unceremoniously dumped into History's dustbin.

Still, Chiang's dominance of China's politics from 1925 to 1949 did indeed end in his defeat in China's civil war and his subsequent flight to the island of Taiwan. What more do we need to know than this? Why accompany Jay Taylor on his long march through mountains of documentation and read the hefty book that resulted from it?

The appearance of The Generalissimo is for students of modern China another important milestone in an ongoing and thorough reevaluation of the achievements of "Republican China" (that is, the period between the collapse of the last dynasty in 1912 and the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949).A generation ago we were taught to regard this era as nothing but an exercise in futility, a series of false starts, an opera buffa, albeit with a cast of millions in misery. It was but an interlude on the way to the People's Republic, the best and final form of Modern China, which, presumably, would last forever. Over the past thirty years, however, as China has been remade and has reopened itself to the world,many scholars have come to see the years of 1913 through the 1930s as a fertile seedtime, with advances in politics, commerce, and culture that prefigure not only today's China but also Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Yet Taylor's magisterial book stands on its own as a well lighted pathway into China'smodern history, illuminating the connections between China's own violent and tumultuous situation and a larger world assaulted bymurderous ideologies. As Taylor explicates Chiang's complicated view of these things, we see the eclectic confusion that is the modern Chinese mind, and we are witnesses to China's still ongoing struggle to somehow marry its inherited tradition to the needs of contemporary life. Chiang Kai-shek was, at one and the same time, deeply Confucian, piously Christian, and thoroughly committed to China's modernization. His political creed derived from Sun Yat-sen's (1866-1925) "Three Principles," a racially based Han nationalism; a one-party and elitemanaged constitutionalism; and a vague amalgam of both state socialism and state capitalism that was meant to avoid any virulent variant of either.

Chiang's life and times also remind us that China was not, and still is not, isolated fromworld events. As a military cadet in Japan when China's final dynasty, the Qing, was collapsing, Chiang saw in Japan what his mentor Sun Yat-sen had seen-a model and a potential ally. Frustrated by theWest's dismissal of China's claims afterWorldWar I and staggered by the seeming collapse ofWestern civilization in Europe, Sun then led his part of the republican movement into a close alliance with the new Soviet Union-the "First United Front"with the Communists. Chiang followed him there, but as Sun's successor and as a partial unifier of the country. …

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