[This review was published in the Fall 2012 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 397-406.]


Book Review


The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China

Jay Taylor

Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011

          Jay Taylor is a Research Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, having once served as the China desk officer in the U.S. State Department.  When we consider the extensive original materials to which Taylor has had access, we can understand how it is that this very detailed, and yet readably accessible, chronological account of the life of Chiang Kai-shek is a substantial addition to the literature on modern China.  Those materials, available through the Hoover Institution Archives, include the 56 years of Chiang’s personal diary (the final portion of which was not released until the summer of 2009), and abundant memos and letters. Although the first Harvard University Press edition of this book came out in late 2008, Taylor added a Postscript in late 2010 to reflect those more recently released diary entries, which he reports have not contradicted any of the information conveyed in the original text.

          Chiang Kai-shek was, of course, one of the monumental figures of the twentieth century.  His life, and the role he played at the center of China’s history during the decades that followed the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, are essential pieces in the historical mosaic.  This would make Taylor’s biography of particular interest even if it were not made exceptional by the sources he has been able to employ.

          There are reasons, however, to see the book as both valuable and important while at the same time entertaining significant reservations about it.  Taylor shows every indication of being a careful and meticulous scholar, and one who arrives at considerable objectivity by virtue of a basic fair-mindedness that precludes writing a partisan polemic.  At the same time, however, he comes from an academic milieu that colors his perception of personalities and events and that atrophies his moral sensibilities.  That academic milieu has long produced the conventionally accepted perception of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek.  As is well known, during the critical years that led to Mao’s 1949 conquest of the Chinese mainland, a coterie of American intellectuals insisted that the Chinese Communists weren’t really Communists at all, but were social democrats and “agrarian reformers.” (John K. Fairbank, after whom the Fairbank Center at Harvard is named, was among them.) The result is that when Taylor undertakes to write a biography of Chiang, his conscientious narrative is sprinkled, here and there, with perversities of judgment that have been formed in this crucible, even though in various connections he has broken free of the conventional views.

          Taylor speaks of himself as a “moderate liberal and foreign policy pragmatist.”  This means that in the context of today’s intellectual culture his views would be seen as eminently reasonable.  It is necessarily jarring to its “moderate” consensus to observe, as we must, that its understanding, not just of Mao but of Communism much more broadly,  has been colored by a reality-denying condonation.  Consider, for example, the passage in which Taylor describes a dichotomy as having existed in the 1940s between “the rational and secular humanist strains of both the Western and Chinese enlightenments,” on the one hand, and “the ultra-nationalism, racism, and absolutism of atavistic fascism,” on the other.  Whom does he place on the “rational and secular humanist” side of this dichotomy? – “the liberal democratic, the pragmatic authoritarian, and the Jacobin totalitarian.”  Thus, we are given to believe that the Communist regimes of Stalin and Mao, in the latter of these categories,  stood on the “rational and secular humanist” side of the ledger.  It is no doubt this orientation that prompts Taylor to give his readers a much understated description of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s.  Unless otherwise informed, a reader would have no idea that from 26 to 30 million people were starved to death in the largest atrocity in history.[1] It may seem moderate when Taylor observes that “From the outset, the Communists at least matched, and in some cases far exceeded, the Nationalists’ ruthlessness,” but this faux even-handedness belies the fact that Mao, not Chiang, was one of the great killers of all time.  (His mass killings were by no means limited to the Great Leap Forward.)  Taylor’s conventionally leftist mindscape no doubt accounts, too, for his ability to pass off as “seeming[ly] patently false” the very serious and well-supported accusation that leftist intellectuals such as Owen Lattimore, Edgar Snow, Lauchlin Currie, John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, among others such as Fairbank, were instrumental in fashioning the American policies that led to the fall of China to Mao.

          Several other instances of this conformity to the “moderate consensus” can be given, but we won’t dwell on them.  An accurate view of Taylor’s book requires that an equal emphasis be placed on the book’s value, which is considerable.  Readers will find the chronological account of Chiang’s life fascinating and informative, beginning with Chiang’s birth in 1887 and ending with his death at age 87 in 1975.  Chiang was a protégé of Sun Yat-sen, the “father of modern China,” until Sun’s death in 1925.  Sun’s program, in characteristic Chinese enumerated fashion, consisted of “Three People’s Principles” (nationalism, democracy, and “people’s livelihood”), although the commitment to democracy was long-, not short-, term: Taylor says “Sun’s original idea [was] that… democracy could be introduced in China only after an indefinite period of ‘tutelage’ under the Revolutionary Party and military rule.”  Although Sun accepted Soviet military assistance, he refused to enter into a united front with the Communists and rejected the idea that “class struggle” (central to Marxism-Leninism) applied to China.         

Chiang became the leader of the Kuomintang (nationalist) Party after Sun’s death, and the decades that followed comprised a saga of war against (and sometimes a tactically essential collaboration with) a number of contending forces: the warlords who dominated a number of regions in China; the Communists under Mao; the Soviet Union; Japan; the United States (the government of which, though Chiang desperately needed its aid, was often a major thorn in his side); a large number of Communist infiltrators into the Kuomintang; contending factions within the Kuomintang; and even disloyal generals.  Major themes, of course, are the many years of struggle against Mao and the eight-year all-out war with Japan, which invaded the Chinese mainland in 1937 (this was preceded by earlier years of contention with Japan, which had seized Manchuria in 1931). 

          We will leave it to readers to immerse themselves in the details of Taylor’s narrative.  It is beyond the limits of this review to recount them here.  We will limit ourselves to a few points, eclectically selected, that seem of particular interest.

          1.  Chiang’s personal characteristics are interesting and somewhat at odds with an image many of us have had of him.  He was “a strong nationalist, extremely bitter [as were most Chinese] about Western humiliation of China in the past.”  Although he was a “devout Christian,” he mixed this with an “ascetic, neo-Confucian outlook.” (This philosophy emphasized “character development, self-discipline, and the conscious cultivation of the self… The concept of the superior man….”) Taylor tells us, in the context of the late 1930s, that “Chiang was not an ideologue or even a strong conservative.  He was in fact a left-Confucianist.”  Despite being “on the left,” not having any affinity for capitalism, and at one time wanting “to unite with all the revolutionaries of the world,” he “despised Mao as an enemy of Chinese culture and a Soviet lackey.”  He wanted the Comintern to have no role in Chinese affairs.  Unlike Mao who encouraged a cult of personality, Chiang, though egotistical, was never self-adulatory.

          2. A theme that recurs throughout the chronology is that Chiang, struggling over many years to orchestrate what was needed to bring China together as a unified nation under circumstances in which China was perpetually under attack and/or tending to splinter apart, found it necessary always to be the petitioner, fashioning compromises to appease those upon whom he had to depend.  With its immense land mass and large population, China ranked among the major nations of the world, but it was never treated as such, being very much a doormat.  Taylor says that although Chiang projected decisiveness, “over the years he also proved to be a pragmatic compromiser, backing down and making concessions to warlords, Japanese, Communists, and Americans….” The necessity for doing so held him back from going to war with Japan after Japan seized Manchuria in 1931.  It caused him to do everything possible to get along with Gen. Joseph Stilwell (who hated Chiang but was placed in close proximity to Chiang for several years by the Franklin Roosevelt administration) and never to complain about him, despite expressing bitter complaints in his diary.  We know, separately from Taylor’s account, that General George Marshall’s 1946 mission to China was pivotal in preventing Chiang from defeating Mao, but Chiang felt he had no choice but to accept it.  Taylor says “Chen Lifu had told the Generalissimo that he should turn down the Marshall peace mission because if it failed as it probably would, the Americans would blame the Chiang government, not the Communists.  But Chiang rejected this advice.  Continuing American economic and military assistance was critical….” He even sought to appease the Soviet Union: “On Christmas Day [1945], Chiang sent his son Ching-kuo to Moscow to evaluate Stalin’s intentions, and, hoping to put Stalin in a friendly mood, he followed through on his commitment to recognize Outer Mongolia’s ‘independence.’” We see from these and many other instances that Chiang was rarely, if ever, in a position to be a master of his (and China’s) own fate.

          3. This was reflected, too, in Chiang’s exclusion from many of the important decisions affecting China that were made during World War II.  Taylor tells of the “secret attachment to the Yalta Agreement, signed February 11 [1945],” in which the Soviet Union was given strategically vital concessions in Manchuria, Outer Mongolia and elsewhere in exchange for Stalin’s promise to enter the war against Japan within 90 days after Germany’s defeat.  “Roosevelt agreed not to tell Chiang of the secret accord until twenty-five Soviet divisions had completed… their move to the eastern frontier.” The Potsdam Conference in July 1945, right before the end of the war with Japan, was conducted by Truman, Churchill/Atlee and Stalin “without the presence of China’s leader.”  In 1951 when the peace treaty with Japan was being negotiated, the Truman administration “promoted [the] decision that neither Taipei [Chiang] nor Peking [Mao] would be invited to participate.”  In 1971, the Chiangs “were furious that the Americans had failed to even consult with them” before turning over to Japan an oil-rich group of islands that were claimed by China [both Mao and Chiang] and Japan.  Nor was Chiang made privy to the planning for the 1972 Nixon trip to Peking, a trip that led to considerable appeasement that was damaging to the Republic of China on Taiwan.

          4. An intense propaganda campaign was launched against Chiang in the American media during the critical years of face-off against Mao in the late 1940s.  Part of the image that was painted of Chiang was that his government and the Kuomintang Party were riddled with corruption, which was compared unfavorably with the idealism and discipline on Mao’s side.  Taylor tells us that “Zhou Enlai’s agents and Chiang’s many other enemies exaggerated or fabricated many accounts of corruption in the postwar period, but many were true.”  We are told that although Chiang himself was scrupulously honest, he was confronted with corruption throughout his career, and wasn’t able effectually to suppress it until he wielded more total power on Taiwan (to which he and his forces fled in 1948-9 in the face of Mao’s victory). The essence of Chiang’s conundrum can be seen in Taylor’s account of the situation soon after Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925: “Unfortunately, the majority of Chiang’s army commanders simply rejected his proposal to centralize military financial matters – and Chiang soon realized that he had to give the fight against corruption much lower priority than that of retaining cohesion and loyalty among his disparate supporters and allies, both civilian and military.”  Taylor says, much later, that “Chiang privately agonized over the problem of venality” and that “over the years Chiang had executed a number of officials for corruption;” but the realities he faced continued to force him to his 1925 position: “Corruption, he believed, was a problem best addressed in a fundamental way once peace and unity had been restored.  Loyalty, for him, was the most important virtue in his generals….”  What he yearned for most was a more dedicated following who would share his neo-Confucianist values, and he admired Mao’s “soldiers and cadre for their idealism, commitment, and spirit” even as he “hated the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘inhuman and deadly’ ideology, its tactic of class struggle, and its obedience to Moscow.”

          5. Taylor debunks the criticism made by “notable Western authors” who “insisted that after the war [with Japan] began, ‘from first to last, Chiang had one purpose: to destroy the Communists and wait for foreign help to defeat the Japanese.’”  The facts give the lie to this assertion: between 1931 and 1945, Taylor says, “at least three million Chinese soldiers had been killed or wounded, and perhaps a million more had died of disease or malnutrition.”  (All of this was along with nine million Chinese civilians who died in the war.)  Of the casualties, less than ten percent were from the Chinese Communist armies.  “The Communists were engaged in precisely the strategy that Chiang was accused of pursuing.  The CCP’s Central Revolutionary Committee, near the end of 1941, reaffirmed that the party would engage ‘mainly’ in a ‘political offensive’ against the Japanese and should ‘save and preserve its strength… and wait for favorable timing.’”  In the fall of 1940, Mao had launched one major offensive against the Japanese with 104 regiments, but the result was a disaster, with the effect that “Mao would never launch another major offensive against the Japanese.”  (The fact that Taylor speaks so honestly on such an issue attests to his book’s by no means being a partisan polemic against Chiang.  Far from it: Chiang, though presented realistically, comes out looking pretty good.)

          6. Taylor doesn’t focus on the effects that flowed from Mao’s conquest of mainland China, but he does mention facts that are bound to be of interest to those who see the Korean and Vietnam wars as consequences.  We know that after MacArthur defeated the North Korean army in 1950, driving all the way to the Yalu River, Mao instituted what ought properly to be called “the second Korean war” by invading with hundreds of thousands of troops.  As with Mao’s efforts generally, this was strongly supported by Stalin.  “In mid-September [1950], Stalin cabled the Chairman asking if he could send troops to save Kim Il-sung… Stalin promised that the Soviet Union would meet China’s entire requirement for artillery, tanks, and other equipment… The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Air Force would grow from about 150 to 1,400 Russian-made frontline aircraft, including 700 MIG 15s.”

          The symbiotic relationships that fed the Vietnam War are well illustrated by what Taylor tells us.  Just months after Mao’s victory over Chiang, Ho Chi Ming “secretly arrived to discuss the Vietminh’s coming military offensive.”  To aid Ho’s fight against the French, Mao was supplying 1,000 tons of arms per month by mid-1953 – and “many PLA technical personnel and advisers were serving secretly with Ho Chi Minh’s forces.”  To counter this, the United States  provided non-Communist Vietnam $1.5 billion in economic assistance between 1951 and 1964.  It is interesting that Chiang wrote President Lyndon Johnson in November 1964 advising against the use of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, saying that Asians should themselves take the primary responsibility for their defense.  He especially warned against a protracted war of attrition, foreseeing that it would impoverish and embitter the Vietnamese themselves and would be a war that, as Taylor paraphrases the letter, “the American people would have neither the stomach nor the nerves to endure….”  This proved prescient.

          7. As we mentioned earlier, Taylor’s book is a detailed narrative covering many years.  Arguably the most important part of the chronology has to do with the 1945-9 war between Chiang and Mao, with the role of the Truman administration, which included  Gen. George Marshall’s “peacekeeping mission,” looming large as part of it.  Readers will find this part of the chronology useful as a source for many details, but will find that it has to be supplemented by other reading, since Taylor treads lightly when it comes to explaining how and why China was lost to Mao.  (He even puts quotation marks around “loss” to indicate his aversion to assigning responsibility to the American role.  That role involved insistence on cease-fires when Chiang was winning, allowing Stalin time to pour in more arms and equipment to Mao; years of insistence on Chiang’s entering into a coalition government with the Communists; and withdrawal of American aid to Chiang. Because a reader can come away without any real grasp of these factors and their significance, the account leaves much to be desired.)  

          8. The book sheds some light on a question that has long interested this reviewer.  It is one that has especial relevance today.  Although Taylor almost certainly hasn’t thought about the question itself, his narrative provides some facts that bear on it.  The question is: How much has the United States’ role in world affairs for over the past century been motivated by the impulse toward “global meliorism,” seeking to spot and correct the ills of the world, as distinct from resisting the expansion of the totalitarian systems?  It seems that the global meliorist theme has run strongly through much of what has been done.  From details Taylor gives us, we see this with regard both to Taiwan and South Korea.  Soon after Mao’s mainland victory, the Truman administration made a demarche (declaration of policy) to Chiang telling him that the American posture toward Taiwan would “depend largely on the action of the present Chinese [Chiang] Administration in establishing an efficient administration which would seek to bring the people a higher level of political and economic well-being.”  When in the early 1950s, Chiang’s son’s counterintelligence work led to the conviction of 600-plus people per year as spies or subversives, John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State under Eisenhower, “gently suggested that he improve human rights in his country.”  After militant post-election protests forced Syngman Rhee into exile from South Korea in 1960, “Chiang was deeply disturbed,” according to Taylor.  “In his view, the Americans, again chasing the chimera of democracy in an undeveloped country under siege by a powerful Soviet-supported regime, had encouraged the internal opponents of a strong anti-Communist leader.” These would seem to be instances of “global meliorism.”  They occurred during the Cold War, but were interventions that were not limited to combating Communism.  We have seen a good many such interventions in recent years.


Dwight D. Murphey           


[1] For confirmation of this estimate of deaths, see the following books that have been reviewed in this journal: Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1998), reviewed in this journal’s Summer 1998 issue, pp. 216-219.  Li was for many years Mao’s personal physician.  Also, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story (2006), reviewed in our article “China’s Maoist Legacy” in the Spring 2007 issue of this journal, pp. 61-73.  The Li book review may be accessed at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as BR52 (i.e., book review number 52); the Jung-Halliday article is available at the same website as A93 (i.e., article number 93).