»  National Review

March 22, 2004

  Shrewd, But Small

Chiang Kai Shek
by Jonathan Fenby

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I think Chiang Kai Shek's career is well known, at least in outline. The last Chinese emperor abdicated in 1912. China fell into utter chaos until, in 1926, Chiang marched an army northward and achieved a semblance of national unification. From 1928 China was under Chiang's dictatorship, with Nanking as the capital. However, Japan seized Manchuria in 1931. Four years later, Chiang's grand effort to stamp out the Chinese Communist party failed when Mao Tse-tung took his followers on the Long March to a remote region. In 1937 the Japanese invaded metropolitan China in force and a general war commenced, with the U.S. joining in on China's side after Pearl Harbor. Chiang and Mao maintained a wary alliance until Japan's defeat. Then there was civil war. The Communists won, establishing the People's Republic in 1949. Chiang fled to Taiwan, where he maintained an authoritarian dictatorship until his death in 1975.

The conventional wisdom, naturally much encouraged by the Communists and their Western shills, is that Chiang lost China because he was inflexibly incompetent, cared nothing for the common people, and alienated his U.S. ally by permitting his wife's family to loot the country for their own enrichment. One of the things one hopes to learn from a book about Chiang is the degree to which this conventional wisdom is correct. Jonathan Fenby's new biography leaves one believing that it is, with some minor qualifications. To borrow a rhetorical figure from Orwell: Some things are true even though the Chinese Communist party says they are true.

In fact, once civil-war passions had cooled, the Communists adopted a more generous line towards Chiang. When he died in 1975, they offered to make a suitable burial plot available for him in his home district. (The offer was refused.) The traditional attitude of the Chinese to failed political enterprises is: "If you win, you're the Emperor; if you lose, you're a bandit." This at least has a certain moral neutrality about it, and leaves scope for magnanimity, so long as the failed enterprise can be shown to have had some patriotic color. Chiang's undoubtedly did. Fenby shows us that Chiang was, from his earliest years, motivated mainly by patriotism, though it was a patriotism refracted through his own narrow mind and stunted, unattractive personality.

Yet Chiang's greatest enemy was neither Japan nor Mao, but China herself. It requires an effort of imagination for an American of today to grasp the sheer backwardness of China in the period Fenby is writing about, the first half of the 20th century. China was, to be sure, a great civilization, with a glittering literary tradition stretching back continuously to the Bronze Age, respectable accomplishments in pre-industrial science and technology, and a great body of religious and philosophical writing. In matters social, political, and economic, however, China was medieval. Reading Fenby's book, time and again one feels oneself to be not in the modern world at all, but in the Scotland of Macbeth, the Germany of Otto the Great, or the England of the early Plantagenets. Listen:

Though the small, delicate, ruthless governor [of Yunnan Province] had rallied to the Kuomintang cause in name, his revenues from opium and slave-labor tin mines made him anything but a model ally for the national revolution. … He had invited a rebellious general with whom he had reached a peace agreement to a luncheon banquet in a tent. At the end of the meal, a swordsman behind the guest chopped off his head, which was then hung from a telegraph pole at the entry to the capital …

It did not help that Chiang himself was distinctly a product of that very backwardness. His governing style was imperial-Confucian: "Tremble and obey!" He could not be bothered much with consultation, and resented disagreement. By Fenby's account, he was not such a military duffer as I had previously supposed, though if the old adage that "amateurs think strategy, professionals think logistics" is true, he was definitely a military amateur. In economics he was a perfect blank, and only got as far as he did by leaving decisions in this sphere to the brilliant T. V. Soong. When Soong resigned in 1933, to be replaced by the comparatively clueless H. H. Kung, China's economy soon began to unravel.

On Chiang's key American allies, Fenby leaves one with the impression that British General Sir Alan Brooke's summaries, which he quotes, were not far off the mark. Joseph Stilwell, said Sir Alan, was "a hopeless crank with no vision," while Claire Chennault was "a very gallant airman with limited brain." Sir Alan's verdict on Chiang himself was: "a shrewd but small man … very successful at leading the Americans down the garden path."

Chiang's great asset in those garden-path excursions was his third wife, née Soong Mei-ling, who died last October at the age of 105. Mei-ling was famously charming. She charmed the socks off many persons of great intelligence and perspicacity. (Most notable among the uncharmed: Franklin D. Roosevelt.) Her charm must, though, have been of the kind that transmits itself only by chemical emanations, because it does not come through in any of the written accounts I have read — of which Fenby's is at least the twentieth. Though plainly a very intelligent woman, and possessed of an icy kind of prettiness, Mei-ling was also calculating, manipulative, vindictive, a hypochondriac, and a crashing snob.

On the much-debated question of whether the Missimo and the Generalissimo ever performed the conjugal act together, Fenby's account of the marriage reinforced my impression that they probably did not, though it is unlikely we shall ever know for sure. The only woman who ever owned a piece of Chiang's stony heart — other than his mother, whom he worshipped — was the hapless Jennie Chen, whom he married in 1921, when he was 34 and she 15. Chiang sent Jennie away in 1927 so that he could contract his power-marriage with Mei-ling, and thereafter relieved himself with concubines. In old age Jennie wrote her memoirs. They seem truthful, are more even-handed than one would expect, and do not contradict known facts on any important point. Fenby has used them to good effect in his description of the young Chiang. The future Generalissimo courted Jennie very passionately, by her account; though he rather spoiled the effect by bringing a nasty case of gonorrhea to the marriage bed. Either the disease or the treatments left both of them sterile. Chiang had no children by either Jennie or Mei-ling; his son Ching-kuo was the issue of a traditional arranged marriage when Chiang was fourteen.

Fenby's researches have been prodigious, his writing is fluent and engaging, and his judgments seem to me uniformly sensible. This is much the best account of Chiang's career that I have read. The book is well planned, with breaks in the narrative to discuss key points — a detailed comparison of Chiang's personality and style with Mao's, for instance. The only fault I can find is that Fenby stops his story in 1949, with nothing about Chiang's 26-year dictatorship over the unfortunate people of Taiwan. That is, however, excusable, as Chiang's defeat on the mainland rendered him little more than a historical footnote. Whether he really deserves anything better from posterity is discussed by Fenby in a thoughtful epilogue. This is a fine book, a splendid achievement, an engrossing narrative, and a valuable work of reference.