The Generalissimo

Jay Taylor’s outstanding biography of China’s Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, paints a multidimensional picture of an ultimately tragic man who lost the civil war engulfing China only to begin to build a successful society on the island of Taiwan to which he retreated. Taylor’s scholarly advantage was his access to a multitude of freshly available sources, such as almost all of Chiang’s diaries and other archival material on Taiwan, as well as interviews with Chiang’s contemporaries. Sympathetic but critical, Taylor portrays a leader whose efforts to build a modern, non-Communist nation out of the ruins of Imperial China were defeated by warlords, Japanese invaders during World War II, and ruthless Communist opponents. In the end, Taylor offers a balanced picture of Chiang. Only a few questions remain to puzzle an inquisitive reader as to the qualities and the personality of the person whose vision represented the opposite of Communist dictatorship for the world’s most populous nation.

Taylor places Chiang’s birth (on October 31, 1887) and his youth in the context of China’s troubled history at the end of the nineteenth century. The issues of foot binding, arranged marriage, and anti-imperial struggle are all revealed to have touched the young Chiang. His mother married him at fourteen to a nineteen-year-old bride, Mao Fumei, who had partially bound feet. Chiang’s first revolutionary act was to cut off his queue, or coiled hair tail, in protest against imperial rule in 1906.

Taylor’s description of the young Chiang’s road to power illustrates the turmoil of China after the anti-imperial revolution of October 10, 1911. This revolution ended the Qing Dynasty but failed to establish a stable government. Chiang’s military studies in Japan during that time reflected the ambiguous relationship of revolutionary Chinese men with Japan, a nation whose modernization seemed to put it on par with the Western powers. Taylor also shows the personal side of Chiang, whose only biological son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was the subject of Taylor’s previous acclaimed biography, The Generalissimo’s Son (2002).

Taylor demonstrates well how, as Chiang became closer to China’s premier revolutionary leader, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang gradually gained political power as a trusted military leader. With rule in post-Imperial China fragmented among different warlords, Chiang stayed loyal to the beleaguered Sun. He also adopted the half-Japanese son of a friend in 1919, naming him Chiang Wei-kuo. In 1921, after his mother died, Chiang finally divorced his unloved wife to marry the young Chen Jieru, even though he later denied having officially married her. By providing these personal details, Taylor paints a complete picture of Chiang’s life.

In general, Taylor’s biography keeps a strong focus on Chiang’s political convictions and beliefs. Through his studies of Chiang’s diaries, Taylor is able to present Chiang’s own thinking. This presentation becomes especially interesting as Chiang becomes involved with the Soviet Union after his first trip to Moscow in 1923. Perhaps surprising to some readers, Taylor shows how closely Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist party, the Kuomintang (Guomindang in Pinyin), initially cooperated with the Soviet Communists. They valued the Soviet Union as a potential ally against the mistrusted West.

Along with other biographers of Chiang Kai-shek, Taylor places great significance on Chiang’s appointment as head of the new Whampoa Military Academy in June, 1924. Initially, Kuomintang members and Communist Party members worked there together. At the academy, Chiang met the relatively moderate Communist leader Zhou Enlai. As Taylor puts it, “an unusual relationship would develop between the two men, including a mutual respectduring times of bitter interparty conflict” that was absent from Chiang’s relationships both with Mao Zedong and, later, with many American generals.

The Generalissimo shows well how Chiang Kai-shek emerged victorious as leader of the Kuomintang after the death of Sun Yat-sen on March 12, 1925. One of the many well-chosen illustrations of Taylor’s book shows Chiang in 1926, at the height of his Northern Expedition against recalcitrant warlords. Indicative of the Soviet influence at this time over China, including the Kuomintang, a Soviet political commissar and a Soviet military adviser are visible in the picture. Chiang’s wife, or concubine, Chen, stands with him, as do his adopted son Wei-kuo and the boy’s biological father, Chiang’s friend Dai Jitao,...

(The entire section is 1918 words.)