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  • Jay Taylor Finds Rehabilitating Chiang Kai-shek's Reputation No Small Task
  • David D. Buck (bio)
Taylor Jay . The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. xiv, 722 pp. Hardcover $35.00, ISBN 978-0-674-03338-2.

Jay Taylor's highly positive portrayal of Chiang Kai-shek rests on two pillars. First, Taylor draws heavily from Chiang Kai-shek's diaries where he finds evidence that Chiang crafted remarkably successful policies to cope with the problems facing China. From the diaries, Taylor draws the conclusion that Chiang was a man of great intelligence and strategic insights that he used to sustain the Nationalist Party throughout his life. Second, Taylor gives special attention to Sino-American relations from the late 1930s and finds that Chiang understood more clearly the terms of that relationship than did American representatives in China as well as officials in Washington, DC. Taylor concludes that Americans involved in China, including most presidents, lacked an understanding of China. In Taylor's view, Americans were short-sighted and ignorant of the underlying forces that Chiang correctly understood.

Taylor attempts to reverse a long list of failings that historians have attributed to Chiang Kai-shek. Various authors have seen Chiang as a remote and unfeeling autocrat, an advocate of fascist-style modernization, a wily manipulator of rivals and friends, an inept and interfering military commander-in-chief, a dithering ruler who never stuck by his decisions, a stubborn leader who sacrificed his people and his army to maintain his power, and even a poorly educated military marionette who lacked the capacity for strategic thinking. Other faults attributed to him are his toleration of corrupt and incompetent subordinates, his ties to Shanghai's underworld bosses, his favoritism toward his wife's family, his ignorance of economics, his unwillingness to fight the Japanese, his failure to use the modern military supplies bestowed by America to good effect, his distrust of America, and his fixation against the Chinese Communists. Taylor attempts to refute all these criticisms and more. Rehabilitating Chiang's reputation is no small task.

Although most of the book is strongly favorable to Chiang, Taylor admits Chiang Kai-shek failed miserably in ruling China in the aftermath of World War [End Page 1] II. Taylor returns to his positive view of Chiang when discussing the Nationalist administration of Taiwan after 1950 in spite of the record of suppression of all dissent, government by martial law, and continued advocacy of military invasion of the Chinese mainland.

In his conclusion, Taylor finds Chiang Kai-shek vindicated as a leader who understood how to achieve a strong, modern China. Taylor sees present-day China as reflecting much more Chiang Kai-shek's vision than Mao Zedong's. The abandonment of Maoist policies, including economic self-sufficiency and collectivist economic organization, as well as setting aside many fundamentals of socialism in practice, has led Taylor to think Chiang would see the present-day leaders of the People's Republic of China "as modern Confucianists, dedicated as he was to making China a well-regulated, harmonious, stable and prosperous society" (p. 594). Taylor's conclusion is reasonable. China is governed today by a single-party dictatorship organized along Leninist lines that represses freedom of speech, imprisons those citizens who speak out against its rule, controls the economy, and tolerates widespread corruption in government and business. The Communist Party no longer demands unending sacrifices from its people, but rather devotes itself to increasing their standard of living in order to retain full control of the state. Today, China is united, proud, militarily powerful, unbowed by all foreign criticism, prosperous, and committed to rapid modernization of the entire society. Chiang Kai-shek would have approved of all of these policies and would be elated with China's present world standing.


Taylor thinks that historians such as Lloyd Eastman and Frederic Wakeman Jr. were wrong to label Chiang a fascist. He writes, "Chiang was fascist in neither ends nor means." He finds, "Chiang showed no interest in duplicating the key aspects of Nazi ideology: racial supremacy, territorial expansion, and hemispheric if not world conquest" (p. 101). Certainly Chiang...


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