Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), political and military leader of 20th-century China, a pivotal figure in the country’s modern history. Chiang served as leader of the Kuomintang (KMT; Nationalist Party) after the death of its founder, Sun Yat-sen, in 1925. Chiang Kai-shek led the efforts to defeat the Chinese Communists and unify China during a period of civil war and to resist the Japanese in World War II (1939-1945). After the Communists gained control of the Chinese mainland in 1949, Chiang retreated to Taiwan, where he established a government in exile. He is also known as Jiang Jieshi.
Chiang Kai-shek was born into a family of salt merchants near Fenghua in Zhejiang Province, in eastern China. At the time of Chiang’s youth, China was suffering from a series of defeats by foreign powers that had left the country in debt, politically destabilized, and vulnerable to foreign intervention. A desire to rescue his country from its precarious position led Chiang to pursue a career in the military. Following schooling in Ningbo and a brief trip to Japan in 1906, Chiang enrolled in a government military academy in Baoding. From 1908 until 1910 he attended military school in Tokyo.
While in Japan, Chiang became involved in the revolutionary movement to overthrow China’s ruling Qing dynasty, which he and others blamed for the country’s condition. In 1908 Chiang joined the T'ung-meng Hui (Revolutionary Alliance), founded by Sun Yat-sen. When revolution erupted in 1911, Chiang left Japan to serve under his friend and mentor Chen Qimei, who was leading the revolutionary forces in Shanghai (see Republican Revolution). The revolutionaries succeeded in overthrowing the imperial government and established a republican government in Nanjing in eastern China. In 1912 Chiang and other revolutionaries formed a new political party, the Kuomintang, under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen.
Meanwhile, in an effort to avoid civil war, the revolutionaries had agreed to make Yuan Shikai, a powerful northern military leader, president of the new republic. In 1913 Yuan turned against the KMT in the so-called Second Revolution, expelling many revolutionaries from the new government. Chiang joined Sun and others in exile in Japan. After Yuan’s death in 1916, the Chinese government fell into disorder, and for the next decade power devolved to warlords.
In 1917 Sun set up a revolutionary government in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, or Canton, to compete with the warlords. In 1918 he summoned Chiang because he valued Chiang’s military expertise. In the next few years, Chiang moved back and forth between Guangzhou and Shanghai, but his activities are unclear. It appears that he engaged in stock market speculation in Shanghai, perhaps to raise funds for Sun, and became connected with business and underworld leaders.
In 1923 Sun appointed Chiang military chief of staff of his government. Sun's new alliance with the Communist leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) opened the door to substantial economic and military aid for the fledgling KMT regime. Sun sent Chiang to Moscow, where he spent several months studying Soviet military and political organization. Soviet aid permitted Sun to establish a KMT military academy at Whampoa (near Guangzhou) in 1924. Chiang became director of the academy and personally trained nearly 2,000 cadets in three years. These officers, sometimes called the Whampoa Clique, became the core of a new KMT army and served as Chiang Kai-shek's political base.
Sun Yat-sen's death from cancer in 1925 created a power vacuum within the KMT. Chiang's position in the civilian hierarchy was relatively low, but he outflanked most of his rivals in a series of deft political moves. Chiang's key break came in July 1926 when he launched the Northern Expedition, a military campaign to defeat the warlords controlling northern China and unify the country under the KMT. Meanwhile, a growing split had developed between left and right factions within the KMT. In January 1927, allied with the Chinese Communists and with Moscow's representative, Michael Borodin, KMT leftists moved the civilian government from Guangzhou to Wuhan in central China. The move revealed the ideological power struggle between the factions. After conquering Shanghai and Nanjing in March, Chiang decided to break with the Wuhan group. On April 12 Chiang launched a swift and brutal attack on thousands of suspected Communists in the area he controlled. He then established his own KMT government in Nanjing, supported by many conservatives.
Due to continuing political and military rivalries, Chiang took many months to consolidate his power. In August 1927 he resigned his command of the Nanjing regime and the following month he traveled to Japan. Chiang had previously been married at least twice and had one son from his first marriage. On December 1, while in Japan, he married Soong Mei-ling, the third daughter of a prominent Christian leader in Shanghai. Mei-ling’s older sister, Soong Ching-ling, was the widow of Sun Yat-sen, and thus through the marriage Chiang tied himself to the legacy of the revered founder of the KMT. In the decades that followed, Madame Chiang, as she was known, would serve as a liaison to Western powers, particularly the United States.
Chiang resumed command of the Nanjing government in early 1928, and allied with regional warlords in northern China, he captured Beijing, China’s capital city, in June. Chiang moved the capital to Nanjing and changed Beijing’s name to Beiping, the name the city had held under the early Ming dynasty. When the northern warlord Zhang Xueliang joined the KMT coalition in December, China appeared to be more unified than any time since the death of Yuan Shikai. The KMT flag flew from Guangzhou in the south to Mukden in the north. However, appearances were somewhat deceiving, and the Nanjing government remained weak.
Over the next decade Chiang gradually consolidated his control of the KMT and the nation. Although he was commander in chief of the armed forces, only those units under the central command (led mostly by Whampoa graduates) were completely loyal to him. Chiang fought civil wars with nearly all of his original warlord allies, eventually weakening these rivals through a combination of military successes, financial inducements, and political maneuvering. Politically, he built up loyal factions within the KMT while undercutting the power of his rivals. This process was not easy. A civil war fought in 1930 with northern militarists produced nearly 250,000 casualties and almost bankrupted the Nanjing government. When Chiang broke with civilian ally Hu Han-min in 1931, Hu and his supporters formed a rival government in Guangzhou that threatened to topple Chiang.
Chiang's greatest domestic rivals, the Chinese Communists, were outside of his party. When the Communists regrouped in a remote area of Jiangxi Province in the early 1930s and created a Soviet-style government, Chiang became obsessed with destroying them. With the aid of German military advisers, he launched numerous campaigns to defeat the Communists. During the fifth campaign, in 1934, Chiang surrounded the Communists, but they broke out and began their famous Long March. The Communists eventually established a new base at Yan'an in the far northwest.
The most serious challenge Chiang faced was not his domestic enemies but the threat of Japanese imperialism. On September 18, 1931, Japanese militants engineered the Mukden Incident, bombing their own railroad tracks and blaming Chinese terrorists for the damage. Claiming self-defense, the Japanese then seized Manchuria, a region comprising China's three northeastern provinces and containing 30 million people. The Nanjing government was unable to resist Japan's military strength, and Chiang's credentials as a nationalist leader suffered a grave blow. As Japanese pressure continued in the following years, Chiang was reluctant to challenge his enemy directly. He adopted a slogan, 'first internal pacification, then external resistance'; in other words, first eliminate the Chinese Communists, then focus on Japan. This policy was widely unpopular and led to frequent demonstrations and calls for resistance to the Japanese.
Even one of Chiang's allied commanders, Zhang Xueliang, who had been expelled from Manchuria after the Mukden Incident, came to doubt the wisdom of Chiang's approach. In 1936 Zhang held Chiang prisoner in Xi'an until Chiang agreed to join the Communists in an allied front against Japan. Chiang later denied making any agreement. On July 7, 1937, near the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing, a Chinese patrol and Japanese troops on a training exercise clashed, and full-scale war broke out between the two countries (see Sino-Japanese Wars: Second Sino Japanese War (1937-1945)).
When the conflict spread to Shanghai in August 1937, Chiang made a fateful decision. He sent his best-trained and equipped troops, led by Whampoa Clique officers, into battle for the city. For three months, Chiang devoted 500,000 soldiers to a desperate fight to halt the Japanese. Ultimately the Japanese prevailed, and in early December Chiang abandoned Nanjing. Chinese losses were staggering, with perhaps 250,000 casualties, and Chiang's political and military position was shattered; he lost his best troops and his Whampoa-trained officers, the core of his political base. Chiang never recovered from this defeat. His government retreated inland, ultimately establishing itself in the city of Chongqing, but the Chinese interior lacked the economic and financial strength of eastern China. Underfunded and devoid of an industrial base, the KMT war effort could not mount a significant challenge to the Japanese. Despite this, Chiang held on; neither Japanese bombs nor assaults could induce him to surrender.
From July 1937 until December 1941, China fought the Japanese alone. However, when Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, commencing World War II in the Pacific, China became one of the Allied Powers. Even as Chiang's position within China weakened, his diplomatic stature grew. Recognized as one of the 'Big Four' Allied leaders along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, Chiang traveled to Cairo, Egypt, in November 1943 for a summit with Roosevelt and Churchill (see Cairo Conference).
Although China and Chiang appeared to have achieved great status, in reality the government was crumbling, and it was beset by corruption and inflation. The Japanese continued to inflict devastating blows on China as late as 1944, while the Chinese Communists took advantage of wartime condition to spread their guerrilla organizations throughout the north. When the war ended in August 1945, the Communists had solidified control over a vast area of rural China. Although the United States attempted to negotiate a settlement between the Communists and the KMT, civil war proved inevitable. At first Chiang's forces appeared to have the upper hand, but in late 1948 and early 1949 they suffered a series of crippling defeats. In the summer of 1949 the KMT resistance collapsed, and in October Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed a new People's Republic of China (PRC). Chiang, along with the remaining KMT forces, retreated to the island of Taiwan. There he established a government in exile that he claimed to be the legitimate government of China.
|IV||THE TAIWAN YEARS|
For the next quarter of a century Chiang presided over the Taiwanese government with some success. In the context of the Cold War (period of tension between the United States and its allies and the USSR and its allies), the United States extended military protection to Taiwan and recognized the government there as the only government of China. Taiwan controlled China's seat in the United Nations until the very end of Chiang's life.
Chiang governed Taiwan as a rigidly authoritarian ruler, suppressing dissent, maintaining one-party rule, and instituting martial law. Yet he also laid the foundation for Taiwan's later economic success, eliminating much of the corruption that had plagued the KMT in Nanjing and Chongqing. Taiwan enjoyed a sound infrastructure built by the Japanese, who had held the island as a colony from 1895 to 1945. Taiwan also benefited from massive U.S. aid.
Although Chiang lived out the remainder of his life on Taiwan, it was never home to him. He remained committed to the goal of liberating the Chinese mainland from Communist control. After Chiang’s death, his son Chiang Ching-kuo assumed leadership of the KMT and established the wealthy, democratic Taiwan of today.
Although Chiang Kai-shek is clearly one of the major figures of modern Chinese history, he never achieved the revered status of Sun Yat-sen nor the awe attending Mao Zedong. Appearing cold and remote in public, he also was saddled by the image of his great defeat of 1949. Still, in China and elsewhere there has been a growing sense of appreciation for the unity Chiang established in the chaos of the warlord era and for his leadership in World War II.