For a man who headed a country as huge as China for so long, Chiang Kai-shek has not been favoured with an abundance of English-language biographers. Before my own book on the Generalissimo and Republican China appeared in 2003, there had not been a full-length account of his life since 1976, a year after he died at the age of 87. But a re-evaluation of "the man who lost China" and of his epoch has been under way in academia, aiming to correct the one-dimensional picture of an incompetent, backward, corrupt militarist and of the period of Kuomintang Nationalist rule from 19 to 1949 as a time when the world's most populous nation stood still or went backwards, making inevitable (and desirable) the Communist assumption of power in 1949.
The case for the prosecution of Chiang was put by a number of leading (mainly American) historians while he was still alive in the haven of Taiwan, to which he fled at the end of 1949. The historian Lloyd Eastman, dean of Western studies of Nationalist China in his time, set out its failings in detail. The writer Barbara Tuchman won a Pulitzer prize for her laudatory biography of Chiang's US adviser in the Second World War against Japan, General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, which shows the Chinese leader in the worst possible light.
Critics could draw on memories of the Generalissimo's constant search for aid during the war (which won him the nickname "Cash My Cheque"), on the Communist myth that they had been the only ones who fought the Japanese, on the corruption endemic in his regime, and on the failure at effective nation-building. The malevolent activities of the right-wing Republican China lobby in the US, along with the violent tactics of the Nationalist secret police, added to the perception that Chiang was a man whom all correct-thinking people should be glad to see the back of. Western blindness to the horrors of Mao's regime did him no favours, either.
Now the judgment of historians such as Jay Taylor in his new biography of Chiang has swung the other way. The Generalissimo and his son and successor, Ching-kuo, of whom Taylor has written an excellent biography, are portrayed as having laid the foundations of the China of today. "If the Chiangs could see modern Shanghai and Beijing, they might well believe that their long-planned "counterattack" had succeeded and that their successors had recovered the mainland," Taylor concludes. "Truly, it is their vision of modern China, not Mao's, that guides the People's Republic in the 21st century."
That judgment leaves out the man who mattered most in the transformation, Deng Xiaoping. And Taylor's assertion of Taiwan's positive influence on the mainland and "the promise of eventual political liberalisation of the People's Republic" does not stand up to the harsh reality of the Communist Party's insistence on retaining monopoly power. To take another fundamental difference, the People's Republic has shied away from the land reform that was key to the island's progress. Deng may have looked at Taiwan's economic zones as a pointer to reforms, but Chinese scouting delegations also went as far afield as Ireland for ideas.
Taylor is on much firmer ground in his deeply researched account of the main events in Chiang's long life. He has explored the archives exhaustively and drawn on Chiang's diaries, which have been opened after being donated by the family to the Hoover Institution in California. Taylor, a former China desk officer at the US State Department, has also interviewed widely and drawn on Russian records.
Master of his material, he provides excellent in-depth accounts of episodes such as Chiang's kidnapping by Zhang Xueliang, the Manchurian exiled warlord, at Christmas 1936, the negotiations over the years between Nationalists and Communists and the old man's later years in Taiwan. The detail may be too much for general readers at times, but, from a scholarly point of view, this is the most thorough inquest on the Generalissimo so far.
That said, Taylor makes little attempt to put Chiang in the broader context (in this, the book resembles the biography of his arch-rival, Mao Zedong, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday). For example, Generalissimo contains almost nothing about the warlords who dominated China from 1916 to 19 and who formed the background against which Chiang emerged as a national figure. We learn little about the Kuomintang, its ideology, its internal evolution and the limitations on its state-building capacity. There is a chapter on "The Nanking decade" (after the city where the Nationalists established their capital) but precious little about the economic and social condition of China at this time. The focus of the Second World War chapters that take up a quarter of the biography is on the Stilwell story and relations with Washington, which means that the book contains only an incomplete account of the ever-growing national disintegration that played into Chiang's defeat in 1949.
The domestic players with whom Chiang had to deal, including the collaborationist leader Wang Jingwei, are left largely offstage. And Taylor seems not to have taken note of the persuasive account by Maochun Yu of the US Naval Academy, in The Dragon's War (2006), of the effect on the Nationalist regime of the extensive involvement of foreign powers, including the Soviet Union.
As for China's social, economic and intellectual evolution in the Chiang period, at least part of the gap is filled in typically lively fashion by Frank Dikotter, a tireless advocate for the rehabilitation of the period between the fall of the empire in 1912 and the Communist victory. In common with some other revisionist historians, he sometimes appears to build his case on rather fragile foundations, extrapolating from a few instances to a broader argument that may or may not be justified. But in The Age of Openness, Dikotter marshals a good case that China in this period was much more vibrant, innovative and open than has been generally supposed. The fact that Chiang, while wishing to see China modernised, stood aside from much of this process was an important element in his eventual failure on the mainland. He may have been too busy dealing with regional revolts and keeping the Nationalist ship afloat to deal with deeper issues, but his essentially traditional mindset and his extreme reluctance to delegate authority meant that he was unable to capitalise on the positive forces Dikotter identifies so trenchantly.
The potential the Generalissimo missed is also brought home in the chapter on the revolt against the Western imperial presence in China in Global Shanghai, 1850-2010, Jeffrey Wassertrom's captivating book on Shanghai's modern history. Had Chiang been able to work with the grain of the forces in China pressing for modernisation, democracy and intellectual freedom, many of them in the country's major commercial city, the outcome of his two-decade struggle to dominate his nation might have been different. But, for him, Shanghai was primarily a cash cow (and a source of political connections after he married into one of its leading families), and not a fount of ideas.
Chiang's tenacity and survival skills were never in any doubt; but, in the end, the Generalissimo was too limited in his ideas and in his material and political resources to carry out the revolution that he knew was needed but that he lacked the ability, or will, to launch. China's tragedy was that it was Mao who put his stamp on the nation and, for a time, persuaded many at home and abroad that he was the state-building icon of the future.
The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China
By Jay Taylor
Belknap Harvard, 736pp, £25.95
Published 14 May 2009