A war leader's story hidden by history and muffled by Mao


December 3, 2004

When war ends, the writing begins. Politicians, diplomats and generals come first with diaries and memoirs. Literary accounts follow somewhat later.

Historians usually arrive last, because it takes a while for archives to open and for documents to be sifted through. They also tend to stick around, as new sources suggest new topics or new approaches lead to revisionist versions. If true for war in general, the fascination with the Second World War shows no sign of abating. In recent years, lucrative publishing contracts have gone to historians writing about the Nazis, Stalingrad, Churchill, wartime intelligence and so on.

Few, however, have taken much notice of China and its wartime leader, Chiang Kai-shek. The belief that China played no role in the defeat of Japan, the judgement that the Sino-Japanese War made little difference to the demise of Chiang's regime at the hands of the Chinese Communists and the fact that most relevant archives remain closed, explain the paucity of studies about China during the Second World War. As well, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists replaced Chiang and the Nationalists as the main "China" story. The death last year of Madame Chiang came as a surprise to many because it was a reminder that the Chiang era happened only recently.

Jonathan Fenby's biography of Chiang Kai-shek is the first in English for a quarter of a century. The biography opens dramatically with the Xi'an incident of December 1936, when Chiang was taken prisoner by a somewhat unlikely group of conspirators who included the Chinese Communists and Zhang Xueliang, a warlord who fled from Manchuria with his army in 1931 when the Japanese seized it. Chiang was released partly because of pressure from Moscow on the Chinese Communists, but also because he promised to fight the Japanese, and Zhang seems to have undergone a change of heart.

The event, which led to a CCP-KMT (Kuomintang) United Front, was important because it saved the battered Chinese Communists from likely elimination after their Long March.

From then on, the biography follows a chronological narrative that leads us through the main events of Chiang's career. We are told about Chiang's youth in a backwater village, where he was brought up by a strict mother, and his military education in Japan. We then follow Chiang as he became involved with Nationalist revolutionaries, sowed his wild oats in Shanghai, and, with stunning rapidity, claimed national power when he led an army between 1926 and 1928 all the way from Canton to Beijing. Fenby devotes a large part of the biography to the 1930s, when Chiang prevailed in a series of tough civil wars with warlord rivals, but also confronted the gathering speed of the Communist rural revolution. We see him grappling with the enormous problems of creating a modern nation-state in a country that remained largely rural, that had no financial resources and that was beset by hostile enemies, including the Japanese.

In his discussion of China's war of resistance against Japan, which began in 1937, Fenby brings to life the enormous suffering that China went through. He makes a real contribution by drawing attention to Japan's horrendous bombing campaigns after 1939. In contrast to the Nanking massacre or Japan's germ warfare programmes, scholarly as well as popular accounts have ignored this aspect of Japanese brutality.

Fenby does not know Chinese, but builds his account from reports and memoirs of Western journalists, English-language China newspapers such as The North China Herald and the English-language secondary literature. There were some very good reporters in China during the war, including Hallett Abend, and their books and memoirs help to make Fenby's biography vivid. At the same time, dependence on their works makes the account seem dated, including the main question it poses: whether Chiang was culpable for "the loss of China" to the Chinese Communists; Fenby argues that he was.

Although important archives remain closed in China, in Taiwan the Chiang Kai-shek archives are now open to historians, and have begun to produce important reassessments of Chiang. It would be surprising, therefore, if in good time we do not see another biographer write a new account of his life.

The question that kept cropping up in my mind while reading Fenby's biography is how we assess the whole period between the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and the Communist victory in 1949. It was one of brutal violence, uninterrupted civil war, horrendous famines, enormous cultural changes, a variety of rebellions and, of course, foreign invasion. And yet China emerged from all this as a united country, even if it might yet have to give up its claims to Taiwan. Some Chinese compared it with the Six Dynasties (AD222-589), when China was also divided.

To a Western mind, it recalls the Thirty Years' War, which was equally savage and complex, but which ended not with European unity but with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and the resulting system of European nation-states. From such a wider historical perspective, the context in which the Chiang era must be placed is not just that of the war against Japan or the war against Communism, but the even larger issue of China's struggle for unity.

Hans van de Ven is reader in modern Chinese history, Cambridge University.

Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost

Author - Jonathan Fenby
Publisher - Free Press
Pages - 562
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7432 3144 9

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