The Generalissimo speaks

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-25 19:40:03

The blown-up cover of a biography of Chiang Kai-shek is displayed at a book fair in Beijing on January 9, 2010. Photo: CFP
The blown-up cover of a biography of Chiang Kai-shek is displayed at a book fair in Beijing on January 9, 2010. Photo: CFP

For decades, Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) was demonized on the mainland. Chiang, who lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, establishing his own regime in Taipei, was branded a reactionary, traitor, and US puppet.

Until the 1980s, the dominant view on him was exemplified in a 1948 book by Chen Boda, one of Mao Zedong's secretaries, later to be put on trial for his own role in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which described Chiang as an "enemy of the people." Chiang's betrayal of Shanghai communists in 1927, when he massacred hundreds of his one-time allies, was depicted as the core of his corrupt character. But now views are changing.

For decades, ideology and politics came before an objective view of Chiang's historical role, scholars recall. Today, on the mainland, scholars are revisiting Chiang's legacy and trying to reevaluate him as a person. They attribute the growing interest and changing attitude to greater access to historical materials and a more relaxed academic environment.

Republican values

The past few years have seen a surge in general interest in Chiang and in the era of the Republic of China (1912-1949). Both popular and academic books about Chiang have flourished, and some have been bestsellers. In January 2010, a selection of Chiang's diaries and letters was published in Beijing, which may be the first time Chiang's own writing has been published in the mainland since 1949.

There are over 90 books about Chiang on sale at the Xinhua Wangfujing Book Store in Beijing, all but one of which were published between 2007 and 2012. A database search also shows that the number of academic papers published in China about Chiang has almost doubled in the past five years.

One example of the gradual shift is the changing view of Chiang and the role of Kuomintang during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45). The official story was once that Chiang was unpatriotic and the Kuomintang didn't fight the Japanese whole-heartedly but aggressively fought the communists.

In recent years, however, there's been growing recognition in the mainland of the Kuomintang's role in fighting the Japanese. This has been shown in movies, TV shows, and books, such as the recent Bloody Battle, the Vast Sky, a TV series about Chinese pilots fighting the Japanese air force which debuted in June.

Own voice

Another reason for the growing interest in revisiting Chiang has been the release of his diaries since 2006. The Chiang family has gradually made public almost all of Chiang's diaries covering the period between 1917 and 1972.

When Chiang's diaries were released, some Chinese scholars said that they would rewrite the history of modern China. While that may be an overstatement, the diaries certainly changed the landscape of academic research.

"In the past our studies of Chiang were based on other people's accounts; Chiang's voice was largely absent," said Wang Qisheng, a history professor at Peking University who has published several books on Chiang.

Wang spent two months in research at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University where the Chiang diaries are kept. No computers are allowed inside the library and no copies could be made of the diaries. Visitors could only copy the manuscripts with pens and papers provided by the institution.

Many scholars like Wang have said that their generation doesn't view Chiang as an anti-revolutionary villain as the older generations did. Wang, 49, said the diaries didn't really drastically change his views about Chiang.


A waiter dressed as Chiang Kai-shek and six waitresses post a photo in the front of their restaurant featuring dishes from the era of the Republic of China in Nanjing on August 6. Photo: CFP
A waiter dressed as Chiang Kai-shek and six waitresses post a photo in the front of their restaurant featuring dishes from the era of the Republic of China in Nanjing on August 6. Photo: CFP

The diaries provide rich details into historical events and Chiang's mind, Wang added. He has written an article tracing Chiang's reading habits.

Chen Hongmin, a history professor who heads the Center for Chiang Kai-shek and Modern Chinese History at Zhejiang University, has also visited the Hoover Institution to read the diaries. "For me the most striking thing after reading the diaries is that I feel I could get inside his head more, like how he handled a particular situation and why he made those choices," said Chen.

An important change brought by the diaries is that studies can be focused on Chiang as a person, rather than a symbol or a leader, scholars say. "We often equate Chiang with the Kuomintang, and blame him for many things that he may or may not have control over; but that's going to change," said Chen.

Fallen idol

Not only are mainland scholars revisiting Chiang, changes are also happening in Taiwan, though perhaps in a different direction.

Taiwanese textbooks once hailed Chiang as a national hero, but that has changed. The Democratic Progressive Party tried to remove traces of the Chiang regime after it took office in 2000. The Chiang family's dictatorial rule was heavily criticized, and the Taiwanese government apologized for the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians by Chiang's forces on February 28, 1947.

Yang Tianshi, a leading scholar on Chiang, commented that, in the mainland, the evaluation of Chiang is changing from a"devil" to human, while in Taiwan, Chiang used to be a god-like figure but has now shrunk to a "devil."

"Before the KMT lost power, Chiang's status couldn't be challenged, but after 2000, there's actually more room for us to study Chiang," said Huang Tzu-chin, a researcher at the Academia Sinica, Institute of Modern History in Taiwan.

Huang said that in Taiwan, the youngest scholars who specialize in Chiang studies are in their mid-40s. The younger generation grew up in a society where Chiang was criticized and there aren't as many opportunities or grants for Chiang studies as for other areas, he said.

In 2000, Huang and some of his colleagues started a research project on Chiang and Japan. In 2007, he formed a Chiang studies group within the Academia Sinica.

Exchange across the Straits have been essential, aided by closer relations betweeen the mainland and Taiwan in the last decade. Since the turn of the century, there have been more and more dialogues and seminars between scholars on both sides.

Over the years, scholars from the two sides are able to find more and more shared views. Any disagreements they might have are based on different interpretation of the materials rather than political positions or preset motives to praise or criticize Chiang. One can hardly tell the difference between mainland and Taiwan scholars today, Huang said.

The more relaxed academic atmosphere in the mainland in recent years has also helped scholars take a more objective view on Chiang. The Center for Chiang Kai-shek and Modern Chinese History at Zhejiang University, founded in 2007, was the first of its kind in the mainland.

Grace Huang, an assistant professor at St. Lawrence University, New York State said that Chiang's stature in mainland academia has been raised as the Communist Party has focused on the common ground of nationalism in the past two decades.

Huang co-authored an article published on the International Journal of Asian Studies in January, reviewing the changing academic assessment of Chiang. The article noted that the change represents a bigger picture. "It could hardly be coincidence, for example, that attempts to re-examine Chiang's credentials as a "unifier" of his country… is deemed a respectable academic line of enquiry in a post-1997, 'One-Country-Two-Systems' world," reads the article.

Despite the changes in academia, however, the official image of Chiang remains much the same. High school history textbooks, for instance, have barely changed for decades. "When students come to our university, the first thing we have to do is to correct some of the things they learned in high school," said Wang.

Sensitive topics

Scholars say that the research environment is much improved, but it's still far from ideal.

Although scholars have much better access to archives made public in Taiwan or the US, materials stored in mainland archives about the Kuomintang or the Republican period remain largely inaccessible to researchers, says Chen.

Xiao Ruping, a researcher at Zhejiang University, said that the relations between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party during the first half of the twentieth century remain a relatively sensitive area that some scholars choose to avoid.

All books and articles regarding Chiang and this part of history must go through the censorship process, and there's no telling which books may get blocked.

Many magazines are very cautious about publishing papers about Chiang for fear of touching a nerve, said Chen. Two years after the center held a seminar on Chiang studies with Taiwan, they still couldn't get the essay collection published.

On the other hand, Web users unhappy with modern life on the mainland are reminiscing about the "good old days" of the Republic of China. On October 10 many posted online to commemorate, the anniversary of the 1911 revolution and the founding of the Republic.

"I think the rosy picture some people paint of the past is not necessarily historically accurate, but only a projection of their discontent of today," said Wang.

Chen believes that Chiang will remain a hot topic in the near future. And if the Chiang diaries are published on the mainland, they will definitely introduce more shockwaves, as they challenge the mainstream view of Chiang.

Future studies on Chiang are likely to be diverse and cover a variety of aspects, scholars say. Chen is focusing on Chiang during his days in Taiwan, a period that scholars weren't able to previously examine in great detail due to limited access to materials. Xiao is interested in looking at Chiang's relationship with other historic figures. And Wang has focused his efforts on Chiang's personality and mindset.

Chen said he didn't see the textbooks as likely change any time soon, but as historians, their studies must continue.

Huang Tzu-chin also believes that a comprehensive study of Chiang is a must. "Studying Chiang and re-evaluate this historic figure is the basis of the reconciliation between mainland and Taiwan," he said.

Posted in: In-Depth

blog comments powered by Disqus