Chiang Kai-shek

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Chiang Kai-shek (Chinese 蔣介石, pinyin Jiǎng Jièshí, Cantonese Jyäng Kī-shĕk; his family name was Chiang) (1887–1975) was the leader of the Republic of China, 1927-1975. He headed the Kuomintang Party (KMT) (or "Guomindang Party" (GMD) or Nationalist Party). His KMT controlled mainland China after he defeated regional warlords in the 1920s. The Japanese took over Manchuria in 1931, and invaded the rest of China in 1937, quickly controlling the major cities and seacoast.

Chiang (in sunglasses), and Madame Chiang Kai-shek in 1943

Chiang was the Supreme Commander of the China-Burma-India (CBI)Theater for the Allies in 1941-45, but was ineffective in driving back the Japanese. After the defeat of Japan in 1945 the KMT battled the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong, who won in 1948, forcing Chiang and his KMT to the offshore island of Taiwan, which Chiang ruled until his death. A modernizer who embraced Christianity and built a strong and lucrative alliance with the United States, Chiang could not overcome the corruption which had been tolerated by the KMT in China. After relocating to Taiwan, he overcame the corruption there and made the island a model of economic prosperity and capitalism.

Early Career

Chiang Kai-shek, whose childhood name was Chiang Chungcheng was born in a village near Ningbo, in the coastal province of Zhejiang (Chekiang), October 31, 1887. His father was local manager of the government salt monopoly and a wine merchant, who died when Chiang was nine years old. Chiang was apprenticed to shop owners, but ran away and joined the provincial army. At the age of 18, he entered the prestigious Baoding Military Academy. Meanwhile, he had married a Miss Mao; they had one son.

After a year at Baoding, Chiang was sent to the even more prestigious Japanese Army Military State College in Tokyo. In Japan he joined with Sun Yat-sen, then in exile and organizing a revolution against the Manchu lead Qing Dynasty emperors China. After the revolutionary outbreak in 1911 he returned to China as commander of a brigade, fighting the Qing Emperor's army in the Shanghai area. Following Sun Yat-sen's disillusioned withdrawal from the first republican government, Chiang followed him to Japan. He returned to Shanghai in 1915, was unsuccessful in banking, and moved to Canton to join Sun Yat-sen's separatist republican government. In 1923, after Dr. Sun had formed an entente with Chinese communists and engaged Russian Soviet advisers and aid, Chiang went to Moscow for a year to study Soviet military methods and political institutions.

The establishment of the Huangpu Military Academy in 1924 gave birth to a new Nationalist army, which had a modernizing role that sharply contrasted with the traditionalism of the old imperial armies. As the president of Huangpu Military Academy, Chiang played a key role in its establishment, organization, and ideology.

From an early age, Chiang was influenced by Confucianism, especially the Daxue, or Great Learning, one of the four Confucian classics. Another influence was Wang Yangming (1472-1529), the Neo-Confucian intellectual who expounded on the notion of "unity of knowledge and action." Chiang believed that Wang's ideas were comparable to those of the Japanese samurai code and fascism as practiced by Germany and Italy in the 1930s. All of these notions influenced how Chiang interpreted and practiced Sun Yat-sen's "Three Principles of the People." His conversion to Christianity in 1927 was based on his desire to marry Song Meiling, but also to his political strategy of searching for support from Western countries, especially the United States. The political consequences of his conversion included increased government attention to the role of Christian associations. Chiang's attitude toward Christianity was also tied to his anticommunism, especially during the Taiwan years after 1949. Beyond mere political advantage, Chiang found in the Christian faith a moral element similar to that of the traditional Neo-Confucian ethics that were a part of his cultural background.

Rise to power

Following Sun's death in 1925, Chiang took charge of the southern revolutionary movement and in 1926 organized the successful Northern Expedition designed to unify all of China, which was largely controlled by regional warlords. He captured Hankou and established its seat of government there. Chiang broke the KMT party's alliance with the Communists and ordered the Shanghai massacre of March 1927. With the warlords defeated and the communists purged, Chiang established his government in Nanjing (Nanking) that was soon recognized as the national government of China.

Chiang created a dictatorial regime in Nanjing to consolidate his power and mobilize the nation. His followers formed the Lixingshe or Society for Vigorous Practice - popularly, the Blue Shirts - to carry out Sun Yat-sen's Three People's Principles for national reconstruction. The society carried out covert propaganda and was responsible for training and indoctrination of the military, civilians, and students. In the public perception the Blue Shirts were at least semi-fascist and bore a vague resemblance to European fascism. The Blue Shirts introduced programs to teach Confucian citizenship and create a strong Nationalist Party and military. This system of secret organizations run by the military helped Chiang rule China as a dictator.[1]


In 1927, the National Revolutionary Army entered Shanghai, China's main financial, industrial, and business center. The business leaders were greatly shaken because at first Chiang used strong-arm tactics to get funds. However Chiang reversed course. He quit his leadership roles and married Soong Meiling, the youngest of three sisters; the other two were married to Sun Yat-sen, and T.V. Soong who was a prominent financier. He soon became a Methodist. Madame Chiang Kai-shek would prove charismatic to American audiences and greatly boosted Chiang's status; the two were named "Man of the Year" for 1937 by Time magazine.[2] Without Chiang the KMT was financially bankrupt, so it invited him to return as military commander in chief; he became the strong man of the regime and put Soong, his new in-law, in charge of China's finances. Bankers from across the country rushed to make contact with the revolutionary forces. Shanghai became Chiang's primary financial base. Through such organizations as the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, the Jiangsu and Shanghai Finance Committee, and the Jianghai Customs 2.5% Surtax Treasury Bond Fund Custodial Committee, Chiang and Soong enlisted important industrial, business, and financial figures to take control of the finances in the lower Yangtze region and successfully raised 1.6 million yuan a week to maintain his army. Forming these relationships was also an important factor in Chiang's ability to establish himself in southeastern China and later unify the whole country. The Shanghai financial world supported Chiang because of his pro-business modernizing policies, his anticommunism, his close relations with Soong and other leaders he had known from earlier years when was employed as a broker in Shanghai, and the fact that many financial leaders of Shanghai were from Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

After leftists provoked British and American gunboats to fire on Nanjing, Chiang purged the KMT of Communists, massacring many in Shanghai on 12 April, 1927, and assured the foreign powers his party was loyal only to Sun Yat-sen's Three People's Principles. Britain, the United States, and Japan all switched their support from the Beijing warlords to the Nationalist revolutionary government at Nanjing.

Defeating the warlords

To take control of all of China, the KMT had to co-opt or defeat the regional warlords. Militarily, Chiang victory against the Gui clique (Guangxi warlords) in 1929 depended mainly on his successful military strategy. Before the war broke out he sought to settle the dispute peacefully, insisting on striking only after the enemy had struck first, leaving the impression that he was forced to accept a challenge. This bought him time to prepare for military action and won the support of the people. Just before the outbreak of hostilities he took well-thought-out steps to deploy troops, strengthen discipline, win over friendly forces, and split the enemy forces. After the war broke out he applied flexible strategy and tactics, effectively containing Feng Yuxiang's intended attack on Wuhan and thereby safeguarding the security of the city. These steps created favorable conditions for the armies from Hunan and Guangdong to eventually occupy the Gui clique's base in Guangxi.

Rural policies

Chiang took an instrumentalist view of rural cooperatives. He saw these rural institutions as mechanisms of political control on the one hand, and as social engineering instruments for mitigating class conflict in rural society on the other. Rooted in these views, the rural cooperative movement promoted by Chiang and the KMT government, from 1927 onward was aimed at countering the influence of the land reform policies implemented by the Chinese Communists in the areas under their control.

Relations with Japan

After the Mukden Incident of September 18, 1931 and Japan's rapid seizure of Manchuria, Chiang realized that the vast disparity in national strength and military power between China and Japan put China at great risk. Therefore he rejected advice to fight back by people who called him an appeaser and did his best to avoid all-out war, using "peace" as a way to postpone war. On the other hand, he gathered allies widely, adjusted policies, maintained domestic order, built "national defense strongholds," organized a southwestern base area, and prepared to fight against Japan. However, the Japanese began negotiating with regional Chinese leaders and promoted a "north China autonomy movement" for the five northern provinces that weakened Nationalist control. [3]

Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s the KMT was engaged in a Civil War with the Communist Party of China and its Red Army. Chiang Kai-shek used as system of repeated encirclement of the communists to try to eliminate them, only for the communists to outmaneuver and escape the snare each time. The continued civil war allowed outside powers, in particular Japan, to advance their interests in China with minimal opposition. In December 1936, Chiang was captured by General Chang Hsüeh-liang in what is now called the Xi'an Incident. The captors tried to force Chiang to stop fighting the Communists and to unite with them in fighting Japan. After lengthy negotiations, Chiang was released. The Second United Front between KMT and Communist leaders was formed soon afterwards. This tentative truce between to the two parties was always uneasy and actual cooperation on a united military front was rare. Full scale war — the Second Sino-Japanese War began at the Marco Polo bridge near Beijing in July 1937.


Chiang was in full charge of the KMT after 1927, with the title of "generalissimo"; he thus ruled that part of China controlled by the KMT. With the Japanese gaining more Chinese territory, the policy of "trading space for time" (Chinese: 以空間換取時間) was adopted. Chiang moved, not only his government, but much of China's industrial production, several hundred miles west to the interior city of Chongqing city, then in Sichuan province. In September 1943, Chiang Kai-shek formally became president of the central executive committee of the KMT, and was recognized as the head of state and head of government of free China. In November 1943 Chiang attended the Cairo Conference, where he, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill drafted the Cairo Declaration proclaiming Allied war objectives for the Far East. Chiang was elected tsung-tsai (director-general) of the Kuomintang on May 17, 1945.

U.S. policy

The U.S. policy was strongly supportive of China in its war against Japan. East Asia was made its own China-Burma-India theater (CBI), with Chiang as the Supreme Commander, but with an American chief of staff. Money was no obstacle, as Washington calculated the millions of Chinese troops that could be mobilized against the Japanese. Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau was an enthusiastic supporter, as was Roosevelt himself and most of Congress. The problem was that China was so poor that vast sums were needed to just feed the army, which was never very large or well equipped. Much of the money vanished in corruption, to the dismay of American General Joseph Warren Stilwell, his American chief of staff. There was little combat in China, and Japan won every encounter, down to the last days of the war. Chiang realized that the American fantasy of defeating Japan with hordes of Chinese soldiers was ridiculous, but it did mean money. Huge sums were spent to support Chinese soldiers fighting in Burma and constructing the Ledo Road that allowed supplies to be trucked into China from India. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell was a fighting soldier but a poor diplomat, and Chiang finally forced Roosevelt to recall him in late 1944. Meanwhile, Chiang worked well with the commander of the U.S. Air Force in China, General Claire Chennault. Chiang supported Chennault's fantasy of bombing Japan into submission using B-29 heavy bombers based in China, and supported by an airlift "over the Hump" (that is, flying supplies from India over the Himalayan mountains). It took 50 gallons of gasoline to deliver one gallon for the B-29 to use. As soon as Chennault's airfields became operational, the Japanese Army raced in and captured them. The B-29s were moved to the Pacific, where they were highly effective against Japan.

Soviet Union

Joseph Stalin was sympathetic to China's plight during Japan's aggression in the late 1930s, but he resisted taking any action that would have caused Japan to declare war against the USSR; he wanted to avoid having to fight a two-front war, with Japan on his eastern flank and Germany attacking from the west. Nevertheless, Stalin provided military assistance to Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government, but he was also sympathetic to the Communist Party of China and offered advice to its leaders, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. At the end of the war Stalin even advised Mao to establish friendly relations with Chiang, and he recommended that the Nationalist leader seek economic assistance from the United States, which, with its Open Door policy, was better able to help China financially than was the USSR.

Mao Zedong and the Second Chinese Civil War

When Japan suddenly surrendered in August, 1945, the KMT found itself isolated from China's economic and population centers, which had all been under Japanese control. Meanwhile Mao Zedong had increased Communist Party of China (CPC) members from 40,000 in 1937 to 1.2 million and built up his Red Army to nearly one million soldiers plus an additional two million militia. CPC cadres had been far more active during the war of resistance against Japan. Operating form within Japanese controlled areas and using guerrilla warfare and skillful propaganda, the communists had come out of the war in a strong position. They promised progressive reforms and Mao's vision of a "new China." The communists effectively mobilized public opinion against Chiang's old-fashioned regime.

Despite efforts of U.S. General George C. Marshall to bring about a coalition government uniting Chiang and Mao, negotiations broke down in the spring of 1946, and Chiang launched a full-scale military offensive to crush the Communist movement by force. He failed. Communist forces steadily drove the KMT armies from one strategic area after another, from north to south. In June 1948, Chiang took personal command of operations in central China, to no greater effect. As the Nationalist position became increasingly desperate, Chiang sought increased American aid, but the United States refused to intervene in the civil war. In May 1949 the Communists captured Hankou and Chiang and his government and army fled to the offshore island of Taiwan. Chiang had lost much of his business support when his postwar policies caused runaway inflation. Nevertheless, Mao's victory in the civil war was due more to success on the battlefield of arms than the battlefield of public opinion.[4]


The government promoted a personality cult focused on a heroic image of Chiang Kai-shek. The cult reflected a political culture that originated in the Nanjing decade and the subsequent war years yet adapted to the realities of postwar exile in Taiwan. While the Chiang personality cult was promoted by the central government (and by Chiang himself and his wife and son), it was quasi-official organizations and individuals who were primarily responsible for the production of its written, visual, and monumental texts.[5]

Chiang's government in Taiwan was constitutionally a democracy, but operated as a one party state and effective dictatorship. Dissidents supporting either the communists or Taiwanese independence were purged. Local Taiwanese culture and languages were suppressed. Chiang was successful in overcoming corruption within his government. With a stable government and aid form the USA in the 1950s, Chiang founded what was to become one of the four Asian Tiger Economies.

At the age of 87, at 23:50 on April 5 1975, Chiang Kai-shek passed away. A few months prior he had suffered a major heart attack and a bout of pneumonia. The eventual cause of death was renal failure aggravated by advanced heart disease. He was survived by his wife Soong May-ling and his two children: Chiang Ching-kuo, who succeed his father to become leader of the KMT party and President of the Republic of China; and Chiang Wei-kuo, his adopted son who also was a significant politician with the KMT party.

Chiang in 1949

Primary Sources

  • Chiang Kai-Shek. The Collected Wartime Messages of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, 1937-1945, (1946) online edition
  • Chiang Kai-Shek. All We Are and All We Have: Speeches and Messages since Pearl Harbor (1948) online edition
  • Marshall, George Catlett. The Papers of George Catlett Marshall. Vol. 5: "The Finest Soldier," January 1, 1945-January 7, 1947. ed. by Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens, (2003). 822 pp. online
  • Stilwell, Joseph Warren. The Stilwell papers edited by Theodore H. White, (1958).
  • United States Department of State. United States Relations with China: With Special Reference to the Period 1944-1949 (1949) online edition


  1. Frederic Wakeman, , Jr. "A Revisionist View of the Nanjing Decade: Confucian Fascism." China Quarterly 1997 (150): 395-432. Issn: 0305-7410 in Jstor
  2. See "Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek," Time Jan. 3, 1938
  3. Stephen G. Craft, "Opponents of Appeasement: Western-educated Chinese Diplomats and Intellectuals and Sino-Japanese Relations, 1932-37." Modern Asian Studies 2001 35(1): 195-216. Issn: 0026-749x in Jstor
  4. Odd Arne Westad, Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950.
  5. Jeremy E. Taylor, "The Production of the Chiang Kai-shek Personality Cult, 1929-1975." China Quarterly 2006 (185): 96-110.