Chiang Kai-shek

Lori Reese
TIME 100: AUGUST 23-30, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 7/8

The contest for leadership of China after Sun Yat-sen's death had several contenders but one clear favorite: Chiang Kai-shek. He had married Sun's sister-in-law, waged a fierce campaign in 1926 that captured Beijing for the Kuomintang and fought the Japanese during World War II. Surely, this stoic warrior had a greater chance of saving his floundering nation than a poorly armed band of peasants led by a little-known socialist poet. How could the mighty Chiang Kai-shek lose China?

Like Mao Zedong, Chiang had dreams of national glory informed by the harsh realities of his youth. Born in 1887 in a remote farm village in the eastern province of Zhejiang, he began working at the age of nine after his father died. At 18 he left China to train at Tokyo's Military Preparatory Academy among soldiers whose discipline and sophistication inspired him to believe that China could one day have a modern army. He relished Japan's harsh winters and the academy's strict regime, later boasting that they allowed him to nourish his appetite for "eating bitterness."

With the first tremors of revolution in 1911, Chiang returned to China and joined the Kuomintang. When he succeeded Sun at its helm in 1926, the Manchus had been toppled, but China was plagued by factionalism and organized crime. Chiang, sustained by the Soviet aid Sun had arranged, built the party's first viable army and crushed the warlords. By the time the Kuomintang marched into Beijing in 1928, the communists had been purged from its ranks.

One of Chiang's most significant moves was to link up with the powerful Soong family. In 1927 he married the beautiful U.S.-educated Soong Mei-ling, daughter of a prominent Shanghai publishing tycoon, and adopted her Christian faith. "To my mind the reason we should believe in Jesus is that He was the leader of a national revolution," he later said. Soong's talent was public relations. "The only thing Oriental about me is my face," she told rapt Western audiences while conducting U.S. tours to raise support for the nationalists. Such efforts and a belief that the Kuomintang was a bulwark against Japan's imperial ambitions ensured Chiang a place among the Big Four powers during World War II. The monk-like general, dressed in unadorned fatigues, was found in the spotlight alongside Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

Meanwhile, high-level Kuomintang officers were growing complacent--and corrupt--with an influx of Western money and military aid. Chiang sought to increase his party's strength with ties to China's wealthy landlords, alienating the peasants who represented more than 90% of the population. By the end of World War II, the communists, with their large numbers and relatively coherent ideology, were formidable rivals. After four years of civil war, Chiang and the nationalists were forced to flee to the island of Taiwan. There they established a government-in-exile and dreamed of retaking the mainland.

Like Sun Yat-sen, Chiang left an incomplete legacy. Personally ascetic, he allowed corruption to flourish. A darling of Western democrats, he imposed martial law on Taiwan--though after his 1975 death his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo eventually lifted it. Like Sun, he tried and failed to unify a divided nation. But unlike his predecessor, Chiang Kai-shek left behind a prosperous economy that grew into a genuine democracy.