Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975)

Photograph of Chiang Kai-shek during the war

U.S. Air Force

Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) was the nominal leader of China throughout the Pacific War and in the years leading up to it. The Western view of Chiang has been heavily influenced by such works as Barbara Tuchman's bestselling Stilwell and the American Experience in China, based largely on the diary of Joseph Stilwell, whose antagonism towards Chiang was visceral and almost unbounded. The Chinese Communists conducted a brilliant propaganda campaign against Chiang, aided by sympathetic left-leaning Western journalists, that cemented his reputation, in Stilwell's words, as "an ignorant, illiterate, superstitious, peasant son of a bitch."

The release of Chiang's diaries and of other archival material held by the government of Taiwan, and the partial rehabilitation of Chiang by the mainland government, has made possible a more balanced view. Chiang had serious flaws as a leader, but he also had remarkable accomplishments, particularly during the so-called "Nanking Decade." During this time, the illiteracy rate in the Chinese Army dropped from 70% to 30%; a stable national currency, the fabi, was established; taxes on farmers actually decreased, by 50 million fabi a year. China scholar Franz Michael has concluded that the Nanking Decade was "a time of great progress in many fields — in economic development, in social and educational transformation, in political unification, and in the elevation of China's standing in international relations" (quoted in Taylor 2009). This would be swept aside with the Japanese invasion.

Chiang's diaries suggest that both his practice of Christianity and his marriage to Soong Mei-ling were more than nominal, and a realistic assessment of his military activities suggests he accomplished as much as anyone could reasonable expect, considering his almost impossible situation. There was more genuine political freedom in Chungking than anywhere else in China during the war years, and the immense suffering in China during the war should be laid where it belongs, at the feet of the invading Japanese. Though Chiang was unsuccessfully in eliminating corruption from the Nationalist government, even his critics generally acknowledge his personal integrity.

Chiang was born to the third wife of a salt merchant in the village of Hsikou (Xikou; 121.241E 29.638N), Chekiang province, China. His father died when Chiang was three years old and the boy was raised in genteel poverty. Given a classical Chinese education in preparation for the Imperial civil service examination, Chiang was a rather moody and solitary child who sought from an early age to dominate his fellow students. When the civil service examination system was abolished in 1905, Chiang chose to become a soldier. He sought admission to a Japanese military school but was rejected because he had not been recommended by the Chinese government. However, Chiang remained in Japan long enough to learn something of the language before returning to China to attend the Paoting Military Academy in 1906. On the strength of his language experience, he was permitted to take a competitive examination to study in Japan, and was admitted to the Shimbu Gakko military academy in 1907. 

Chiang the Revolutionary

Chiang became convinced in his youth that China must reunite and shake off foreign imperialism, and this remained the focus of his political career throughout his life. He helped organized fellow Chinese expatriates into a revolutionary cell aligned with the nationalist movement of Sun Yat-sen, the Kuomintang. Chiang sought to model reform in China on the example of Japan, with the encouragement of Japanese pan-Asians.  In 1911, he slipped away from Japan and returned to China, mailing his uniform and dagger to military headquarters to show that he was not an ordinary deserter. At Shanghai, Chiang was immersed in the murky world of revolutionary politics, forging links with the Chinese underworld (particularly a secret society called the Green Gang) and helping overthrow the governor of Chekiang at Hangchow. At the same time, he became the sworn brother of Chang Ching-chiang (Zhang Jingjiang), a wealthy financier.

Meanwhile, Sun Yat-sen was outmaneuvered politically by Yuan Shikai, a former Imperial general who had defected to the Kuomintang. Yuan became the first President of of the Republic but flouted the authority of the new Parliament. When seven provinces attempted to secede, Yuan quickly defeated their forces and outlawed the Kuomintang. In 1941 he had himself declared dictator for life, and began preparations to assume the title of emperor. Chiang attempted an attack on Shanghai Arsenal that ended in fiasco, and he fled to Japan and joined Sun Yat-sen in exile. Returning to Shanghai in November 1915, Chiang continued to stir up revolution until Yuan's death in 1916.

With Yuan dead and the Kuomintang in disarray, China entered a period of warlordism in which military governors fought each other for power. Sun Yat-sen began rebuilding his movement in Canton, naming Chiang as commander of the revolutionary army. However, Sun had lost most of his support, and Sun and Chiang fled to the International Settlement in Shanghai. Here Chiang ran wild until 1920, when Chen Jiongming seized control of Canton and invited Sun back.

In 1901, at the age of fourteen, Chiang had entered an arranged marriage to nineteen-year-old Mao Fu-mei. Though Mao gave birth to Chiang's only son, the marriage was unhappy, and Chiang divorced Mao to marry Chen Jieru in 1921. There seems to have been genuine affection between the two, but Chiang would discard Jieru in turn, in 1927, in favor of a marriage to Soong Mei-ling, a sister-in-law of Sun Yat-sen.

During the period between 1922 and 1928, Chiang received significant assistance from the Russians, who saw in the Kuomintang an effective counterweight to Japanese influence in China.  At this time, the Chinese Communists were part of the Kuomintang. Chiang helped establish the Whampoa Military Academy on an island in the Pearl River outside Canton, where Russian advisers trained a generation of officers to a standard of professionalism previously unseen in China. Political indoctrination to ensure loyalty was a key element of the training. When Chen turned against the Kuomintang in 1923, Chiang helped Sun escape, and later directed the mercenaries who drove Chen out of Canton. This cemented Chiang's status as Sun's political heir.

Chiang visited Moscow in 1923 with a delegation sent by Sun, but found the Russians "conceited and autocratic" (quoted by Mitter 2013) and was so soured by the experience that he remained anti-Communist for the rest of his life.

Leader of the Kuomintang

A British journalist once noted that Chiang "has never hesitated to forgive his enemies ... or to betray his friends" (Mitter 2013). After Sun's death in 1925, Chiang outmaneuvered his rivals to become the acknowledged leader of the Kuomintang. Chief of these rivals were Wang Ching-wei  (Wang Jingwei) and Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong). Wang was a handsome man and a powerful orator who came to national attention well before Chiang or Mao and who was closer than either to Sun Yat-sen. He had been sentenced to death for attempting to assassinate the prince regent in 1910, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, he was released with the fall of the Qing, and he married his co-conspirator, Ch'en Pichün (Chen Bijun). Wang was widely regarded as Sun's political heir, and was elected head of the Political Council of the Kuomintang on Sun's death in 1925. Mao joined the Kuomintang with the other Chinese Communists in 1923 and replaced Wang the Kuomintang director of propaganda.

Chiang took the pragmatic attitude that, if he was in charge of the army, he was in charge, and did not concern himself much with civilian titles. Ironically, given his distrust of the Russians and his deep anti-Communism, Chiang had the support of the Kuomintang's Soviet advisors, who mistrusted Wang. Within a year, it became clear than the real power lay with Chiang. Chiang first defeated another attempt by Chen to seize Canton, then seized Hainan early in 1926. Then, with his base secure, Chiang organized the Northern Expedition to unify all China under the Kuomintang. By March 1927, the Northern Expedition had seized Wuhan and Nanking in central China.

The units that seized Wuhan were dominated by Communists who, under prodding by their Russian advisers, allied with Wang to proclaim Wuhan the capital of China and headquarters of the Kuomintang. Chiang had just seized control of Shanghai, and he responded to this bid by the Communists to take control of the Kuomintang with a sudden, brutal purge of Communists. Beginning on 12 April 1927, Chiang's allies from the Green Gang massacred thousands of Communists in the city. Chiang expelled the Russian advisers and allied himself with the landlords, financiers, and businessmen of China, and it was at this time that he professed Christianity and married Soong Mei-ling, sister of Sun Yat-sen's widow. Chiang then established his government at Nanking. Mao and the other surviving Communist leaders fled to the mountains of southern Kiangsi, while Wang refused to serve under Chiang until early 1932.

The Nanking Decade of 1927-1937 was arguably the most rapid period of progress in China until the death of Mao Tse-tung. Though Chiang believed China was not ready for liberal democracy (which he once described as "a poison to be expelled from the country's body politic"), and though he ruled as a military dictator, he also established the institutions of modern government, regularized China's foreign relations, and worked to improve China's infrastructure. However, Chiang had little understanding of economics or of the politics of mass movements, and he never really appreciated the plight of China's huge population of uneducated rural peasants. His approach to them was based on the New Life movement, a weird mixture of Confucian paternalism and Methodist puritanism which sought to eradicate opium, foot binding, tobacco, and alcohol. Ironically, this movement had significant Fascist trappings, including a corps of Blue Shirts modeled after Hitler's Brown Shirts.

Chiang was also hampered by the questionable loyalty of the regional warlords. Chekiang, Kiangsu, and Anhwei were securely controlled from Nanking, but the more distant provinces were only weakly controlled through uneasy agreements with the warlords. Shansi was controlled by Yen Hsi-shan, Manchuria by Chang Hsueh-liang, much of north China by Sung Che-yuan, Chinghai by Ma Lin and Ma Pu-fang, Sinkiang by Sheng Shih-tsai, Szechuan by Liu Hsiang, and Yunnan by Lung Yun.

Chiang was determined to crush the surviving Communists, whom he perceived as puppets of Russia and as the only real threat to his position. After initial campaigns based on maneuver ended in costly defeats, Chiang settled on a more successful strategy of building fixed fortifications around the Communist base areas, then slowly contracting this fortified perimeter. In 1934, the Communists of the Kiangsi base area were able to break out of a portion of the Kuomintang perimeter held by a warlord of questionable loyalty to Chiang, beginning the Long March that would take them to Yan'an in northern Shensi province. During the Long March, Mao Tse-tung was able to outmaneuver political opponents to take control of the the Chinese Communist movement, apparently with the backing of Stalin, who saw China united under Chiang as the best counterweight to Japan but was not prepared to completely abandon his ideological allies.

The War with Japan

Chiang had been powerless to resist the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931, which was a severe blow to his prestige. He responded with a brilliant political gamble, which was to resign from office on 15 December 1931. As he anticipated, no other leader was able to take his place, and within days top generals announced their refusal to follow anyone else, tax collectors refused to forward funds to the government, and there were public demonstrations for Chiang's return. Chiang returned to power in January 1932 with his position greatly strengthened, and even Wang agreed to serve in the new government as President of the Executive Yuan (equivalent to prime minister).

Chiang wished to avoid further confrontation with Japan until he had finished eradicating the Communists. However, continued Japanese encroachments on northern China forced the issue. In 1936, Chiang flew to Sian, supposedly with the intention of organizing a final offensive against the Communists. Instead, he was kidnapped by Chang Hsueh-liang (Zhang Xueliang), former warlord of Manchuria, who tried to compel Chiang to unite with the Communists in a United Front against Japan. Both Taylor (2009) and Mitter (2013) believe that Chiang was already secretly negotiating with the Communists, and that Chang, who was unaware of the negotiations, had made a terrible mistake. In either case, the outbreak of general war between Japan and China following the Marco Polo Incident of 1937 kept Chiang from repudiating the United Front.

The Japanese breakout from Shanghai in 1938 destroyed the best of Chiang's divisions, and thereafter the Japanese Army ran riot in the Yangtze river valley, capturing Nanking and Wuhan and advancing as far as I'chang. However, as the Japanese Army became stretched ever thinner, Chiang's armies were able to stalemate the Japanese, winning an occasional victory in the field (as at Changsha) but usually just harassing the overextended Japanese supply lines.

Chiang was a skilled politician but unsuccessful general.  For political reasons, he continually worked to centralize control of the Chinese armies, which destroyed the initiative of his field commanders. His regime become noted for widespread corruption and incompetence, with top officials skimming their take from American aid that passed through their hands.

Mei-ling was an important political asset to her husband during this period.  A Chinese-American educated at Wesley College, Madame Chiang spoke flawless English and was fluent in several other languages.  She charmed influential American publishers, particularly the Luce family (publishers of Time and Life), and heavily influenced American reporting on the war in China.  Her brother, T.V. Soong, was a banker and the leader of the powerful China lobby in Washington. On the other hand, Madame Chiang was strongly suspected by American officials in China of "filtering" unpleasant messages to her husband.

Chiang in turn was a mixed political blessing to the Allies. His refusal to bow to the Japanese, combined with his outspoken opposition to colonialism, helped put the lie to the Japanese claim to be fighting a war of Asian liberation. However, his anticolonialism was also welcomed by Indian nationalists and estranged him from the British, to the point where Chinese forces were not welcome in Burma until it was much too late for them to make much difference. The United States and Britain would continue to diverge in their views on China throughout the war.

When the Pacific War broke out, Chiang was delighted, correctly foreseeing that that the Americans would destroy the Japanese Empire. He demanded an American chief of staff, whom he thought would direct the American gravy train into China. Instead, he got "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. Stilwell had been military attaché to China during the Nanking Decade, knew the language, but harbored a deep contempt for Chiang even before arriving in China in early 1942. Stilwell never became an effective chief of staff, in part because Chiang had no intention of turning control of his armies over to a foreigner, and in part because Stilwell was much more interested in leading men in combat than in directing armies from the rear.

During the first Burma campaign, Stilwell discovered that Chiang was communicating directly with his Chinese commanders and contravening Stilwell's orders, which may explain why Stilwell embarked on the stunt of walking out of Burma with a small headquarters when he was supposed to be leading the Chinese forces. Stilwell later ignored Chiang's plight when the Japanese Ichi-go offensive threatened to overrun southern China and penetrate Szechuan province, Chiang's final stronghold. There is evidence that Stilwell hoped to see Chiang overthrown and replaced with someone more pliant, in effect having the United States take control of the Chinese government.

One of Chiang's signal accomplishments was the termination of the unequal treaties with Britain and the United States in January 1943. Weinberg (2005) has suggested that resentment of the unequal treaties was at the heart of Chiang's world view and explains much of his policies. Whereas Western historians have generally concluded that China was left vulnerable to foreign influences by the corruption and weakness of the Qing Dynasty, the common Chinese view was that China became weak and corrupt because of foreign influences. This reflected the traditional Chinese disdain for foreigners, which was also evident in Chiang. It provides at least a partial explanation for his break with the Communists, whom he perceived to be puppets of Russia. It also explains the violently anti-British attitude of Chiang and Madame Chiang. Ironically, Chiang was repeatedly forced to turn to foreigners for assistance, first from Japan, then Russia, then the Western Allies.

Final Victory, Final Defeat

Chiang was determined to see the return of all Chinese territory lost to Japan, including Manchuria and Formosa. He was undecided on whether to demand control of the Ryukyus, whose historical ties to China were far weaker. (In the end, the Ryukyus remained Japanese territory.)  The return of Manchuria raised the issue of the Japanese railroad concessions and lease of the Kwantung Peninsula, which the Russians were certain to claim for themselves. Chiang sought to hold off the Russians by granting the United States naval bases in Chinese territory, but in the end the Russians took what they wanted in Manchuria and the United States proved a reluctant ally. A strong anti-imperialist, Chiang rejected the idea of Chinese control of Thailand, Korea, and Indochina, but was willing to consider a joint Chinese-American trusteeship over Korea, again to thwart Russian ambitions. Again, the Russians could not be kept out of Korea.

The end of the war with Japan in 1945 led to open war with the Communists, who had hoarded their strength while Chiang's armies were crippled by the final Japanese Ichi-go offensive. The Chinese Communists were victorious, driving Chiang and his followers to Taiwan in 1949. Here Chiang continued to exercise tight political control until his death, which opened the way for true democratic government.

Following Chiang's death, Madame Chiang emigrated to the United States, where she died in 2003 at the age of 106.


Dorn (1974)

Dupuy (1992)

Fenby (2003)

Hastings (2007)

Liu (1956)

Mitter (2013)

Sih (1977)

Taylor (2009)

Tuchman (1972)

Weinberg (2005)

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