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Meet The Generalissimo (Pt. II) — Hitting The Books

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Chiang Kai-ShekChiang Kai-Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost

Jonathan Fenby

Anywhere from 25 – 30 million. That’s the number of people who died in China from war, famine and natural disaster under Chiang Kai-Shek (1925 – 1950). Toss in the 20 – 30 million from the Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864) and the anywhere from 15 – 50 million who died in the Great Leap Forward & Cultural Revolution (1958 – 1976), and it quickly becomes evident that China has been most ravaged place on earth over the last 150 years. I think its safe to say that most people in the West don’t realize, or else can’t fully comprehend, the enormity of those numbers.

And since history is written by the winners, everyone knows Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the ‘Great Helmsman’ of the Communist Party of China, but no one really remembers Chiang (蔣介石 / 蔣中正) — President of the Republic of China, Chairman of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang — KMT), later dictator for life of Taiwan — Mao’s mortal enemy with whom he staged a power struggle for all of China that lasted for over two decades. That’s why Fenby’s book is so welcome.

I have to say I’m extremely embarrassed by my first attempt to discuss the life of Chiang (hence the new title of the post). I wasn’t even pronouncing Kuomintang correctly, and there was really no point in my going to C.K.S. Memorial Hall (which has now been officially renamed ‘National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall’) before I had finished Fenby’s book because I didn’t know the importance or relevance of everything I was looking at. I think a second trip there is in order.

Anyway — the book. Outstanding. Not only has it now become the definitive biography of Chiang, it also functions as a de facto history of China 1900 – 1950, giving the China-ignorant Western reader all the background information needed to understand the events of Chiang’s life. And what a life it was: a ruthless megalomaniac born to salt merchants in a small town in Zhejiang province, he rose through the ranks of the KMT to become its leader, uniting most of China in the 1920’s; became Generalissimo (a military rank of the highest degree, superior to a Field Marshal or Grand Admiral) of all of China in the 1930’s; and lead the country through the Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945 — now considered the actual beginning of WWII), and the Nationalists through the Civil War with the Communists (1946 – 1950). With that litany of events as the backdrop, Fenby regales us with stories from Chiang’s life, including tales of murder, betrayal, and political gamesmanship. Mixed in with these are the stories of the Chinese people that in some ways are more compelling for the sheer horror of them: gruesome details from the KMT’s communist purges of 1927, including public beheadings and disembowelments; the almost surreal behaviour of Japanese troops during their occupation of coastal China, including beheading contests (although there is debate whether or not this was a fabrication), using live Chinese prisoners for bayonet practice, and widespread rape of women during the Rape of Nanjing; and the lengths to which many Chinese went during the famines of the 30’s and 40’s, including many recorded cases of cannibalism such as eating each other’s children and human flesh being available for purchase in stores.

Again, it’s things like this that most Westerners just don’t know about, and what made this book so fascinating. If you’re at all interested in China or Chinese history then you have to read this book. Even if you’re simply interested in biography, this is probably one of the best ones you’ll ever read. 03971semaj

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, January 3, 2008 11:11 am

    Goodness. And then when Mao got into power, he carried on the tradition of subjecting the everyday Chinese citizens to a hellish existence.

    I seem to remember reading something about Mao and Chiang meeting at a house sometime after WWII, but before the Communist takeover of China. I’ll have to re-check my source tonight, but that would make a very interesting play, or short story.

  2. James17930 permalink
    Friday, January 4, 2008 1:05 am

    You should just read the book — all your questions will be answered! :)

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