BIOGRAPHY MARCH 31, 2011
The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek And The Birth Of Modern China | by Hannah Pakula
Click to purchase
FOR MUCH OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Americans’ images of China were shaped by the actions of one couple—the “Gimo” Chiang Kai-shek and his glamorous wife Soong Mayling, known as “Madame.” One of the most important figures of the twentieth century—although now largely unremembered by Americans under the age of sixty—Chiang ruled China from 1927 until 1949, and then Taiwan from 1949 until his death in 1975. He was the primary shaper of the Republic of China, which governed mainland China from the end of the Manchu dynasty in 1912 until the establishment of the People’s Republic; and a major Allied leader in World War II; and Mao Zedong’s principal antagonist in the Chinese civil war, and after 1949, the leader of what became the Taiwan miracle. Americans saw Chiang in the 1930s as an austere, disciplined modernizer, forging a new China out of the chaos of warlordism. In the 1940s he was admired as a heroic wartime leader and then scorned as the corrupt and feckless loser of a civil war. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Americans prized him as a bulwark against communist expansion; but in the 1970s he was known mainly as a dictator resisting the Taiwanese push for democracy.
The sharpest battle over Chiang’s image was fought during and after World War II. The Luce magazine empire—Time and Life—and The New Yorker’s Emily Hahn, among others, loved the unsmiling, ascetic, and Christian general, who was always pictured in military uniform. They also doted on his photogenic American-educated wife, who had converted him to his faith. The two reportedly prayed together daily. They stood for the alliance of civilized forces East and West against the barbarity of Japanese militarism and German fascism.
But on the other side there ranged such brilliant reporters from the field as Theodore White, who worked for Time but dissented from the party line, Life’s Jack Belden, Newsweek’s Harold Isaacs, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, Edgar Snow of the China Weekly Review and author of Red Star Over China, and Graham Peck, an Office of War Information official who wrote a brilliant memoir called Two Kinds of Time. They all portrayed Chiang as corrupt, venal, and weak.
The wheel of historiography never stops turning. Both of the Chiangs have now come in for sympathetic reevaluations, each convincing in its way. Jay Taylor previously published an important biography of Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who succeeded his father as ruler of Taiwan upon the latter’s death in 1975 and presided over its breakthrough to democracy in 1986. In The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan, which appeared in 2000, Taylor focused on the three-way machinations after 1949 among the Chiangs, their American allies, and their mainland-China enemies, as well as on the younger Chiang’s role as his father’s brutal security capo on Taiwan and his paradoxical emergence late in life as a patron of democracy.
Taylor went into his research on the life of Chiang père accepting the conventional view that he was a brutal dictator who “possessed no authentic principles or ideals and had few if any achievements.” Instead his research revealed that Chiang was an astute strategist and a smart military leader, successful in many of his diplomatic gambits, personally honest, a sincere neo-Confucian as well as a sincere Christian, and a faithful and loving husband to Madame Chiang, despite extensive dalliances earlier in life—in short, an entirely different man from the one previously known to history.
At the core of Taylor’s reconsideration is his appreciation of the strategic problems that Chiang faced in trying simultaneously to unify a China divided among warlords, defend the country against Japanese aggression, and defeat a communist insurrection, all on the basis of a backward agricultural economy battered by the Depression. After rising to the top military post in the young Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and training a new officer corps on the basis of Japanese principles, Chiang undertook the Northern Expedition against much larger warlord forces and by 1928 achieved preeminence, although not nationwide control. This campaign “established him as an accomplished military leader,” Taylor writes. “With no tanks, one artillery unit with World War I cannon, frequently no maps, virtually no trucks, and only a few main rail lines, he had successfully maneuvered multiple army corps over fronts that could stretch as long as a thousand miles.”
Chiang was much criticized at the time—and later by historians—for his failure to stand up to Japan during that country’s long process of encroachment on China, from his first clash with Japanese troops in the city of Jinan, Shandong, in 1928 through the Japanese occupation of eastern China in 1937-1938. Taylor explains the strategic logic of Chiang’s decision to pull back step by step as Japan advanced: he needed time to retrain and expand his forces with the help of German advisers. To do so, he needed to stay in power and to levy resources from the economy. This in turn required him to quell continuous warlord challenges and to fight the rising communist insurrection, whose forces kept eluding him because of inconsistent support from his warlord allies. With stoic patience, he neither surrendered to Japan nor lashed out prematurely, but engaged in a series of costly (and losing) battles as he pulled back, ultimately to Chungking.
Conventional historiography likewise criticizes Chiang for sitting passively through the eight-year Japanese occupation of much of China, as he waited for the United States to join and win the war. Taylor insists instead that Chiang granted Japan a pyrrhic half-victory and set up a stalemate that bled the enemy and contributed to the ultimate outcome. He understood as few did that the Hitler-Stalin pact would draw Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia, where they would come into conflict with the United States, Britain, and France, helping to shift the balance of power against the Axis. Also contrary to the accepted wisdom, Chiang engaged Japan militarily throughout the war and lost millions of troops, while the communists got a good press for fighting well when, according to Taylor, they almost never did so. Chiang was smarter than Roosevelt about Stalin’s long-term ambitions in China, and more insightful about the nature of Chinese communism than the China hands in the American Foreign Service and the U.S. Army Observer Group in the communist capital Yan’an (the so-called Dixie Mission), whose officers thought the communists were pro-American pragmatic reformers.
Among the most fascinating pages in Taylor’s important book are two meticulous chapters on Chiang’s struggle with General Joseph W. Stilwell, seen against the background of the war in China, politics in Washington, and the allied leaders’ strategic shifts during World War II. Taylor deconstructs the Stilwell myth that had its origin with Western reporters of the time and was set in marble by Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant, but finally unfair, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, which was based on Stilwell’s diaries. In Taylor’s telling, Stilwell’s ill-fated first campaign in Burma exposed his tactical and strategic shortcomings and earned him Chiang’s mistrust. His equally ill-conceived second Burma campaign also failed, after he and his superiors in Washington ignored Chiang’s good advice.
Again and again Taylor shows that Chiang’s strategic thinking was superior, and that Stilwell was insubordinate and insulting. He was dishonest with Chiang, his nominal superior, and lied to Washington. He colluded with Chinese officers who were dissatisfied with Chiang. Twice he ordered plans drawn up for Chiang’s assassination, Taylor believes on his own initiative. Toward the end of his tour, in fact, Stilwell’s misapprehension of his own role and Chiang’s seems to have approached megalomania as he imagined himself—a “sixty-one-year-old Yankee who only four years earlier had been a long-serving U.S. Army colonel without combat experience”—“becoming in effect the most powerful man in the country of 400 million.” Chiang’s only fault was that out of concern for Roosevelt’s prestige and a misplaced hope that Stilwell would come to understand how things worked in China, he did not demand Stilwell’s recall earlier than he did.
But Stilwell had a public relations sense that Chiang not only lacked, but scorned. Jack Belden accompanied Stilwell on his retreat from Burma and turned him into a hero. Teddy White was Stilwell’s friend. With the help of anti-Chiang Foreign Service officers serving in China, Stilwell cultivated the media during his trips to Washington. All this gets Taylor into the long-running, heated historical debate over the role of the “China hands,” such as John Stewart Service and John Paton Davies, who held the same critical attitude toward Chiang that Stilwell did. Taylor believes their views were unprofessionally biased and their conduct partisan.
After the war, while the presidential envoy George C. Marshall credulously chased the will-o’-the-wisp of a negotiated settlement on the basis of communist assurances that they were negotiating in good faith, the Soviets helped the Red Army to consolidate its position in the northeast. By 1947, when General Albert C. Wedemeyer recommended aid for Chiang, it was too late, with the civilian administration decaying, corruption spreading, military morale sinking, and communist momentum building.
Taylor’s account is not without its errors of fact, leaps of speculation, and unnecessarily numerous slips in romanization. Nor is it free of imputations about what characters “must have” said or intended that are sometimes useful to create interesting—but unsubstantiated—narrative connections. But his book provides a fresh look at many topics—Stalin’s role in aiding both the KMT and the CCP, Mao’s extreme compliance with Stalin’s subtle shifts in policy (contrary to earlier views that Mao often defied Stalin), Zhou Enlai’s special tie with Chiang (up to and including his alerting Chiang to Beijing’s secret contacts with Nixon and Kissinger), the reasons why Japan launched its Ichigo campaign in China in 1944, and the backstory of various abortive negotiations that Chiang’s representatives had with Japan. Taylor analyzes each key military battle in Chiang’s career, both tactically on the ground and as part of the contending forces’ strategies, attending to the roles not only of the KMT armies but of U.S. forces in China, the CCP, the Japanese, and the Soviets.
Taylor also provides a favorable review of Chiang’s political efforts. He gives high marks for potential to Chiang’s economic and administrative reforms of the Nanking Decade between 1927 and 1937. Despite Chiang’s use of German military trainers for his troops, and the popularity of fascist ideology worldwide at the time, Taylor refutes charges that Chiang was a fascist, pointing out that although he believed that China needed a phase of authoritarian rule, he never endorsed racial supremacy, territorial expansion, or a cult of the personality. Being labeled a fascist by progressive Americans at that time was part of Chiang’s bad PR, based partly in the contrast with the supposedly liberal Chinese communists. In fact, Taylor points out, Chiang was an anti-colonialist (which explains Churchill’s dislike of him) and a socialist.
But the book is not a whitewash. Taylor points out that Chiang did many bad things, and not always for reasons that made sense. He aligned himself with Shanghai gangster boss Du Yuesheng, who brutally massacred the communists and labor activists in Shanghai. He raised funds by taxing rather than suppressing the opium trade, unleashed an enormous flood that killed millions of peasants by breaking the dikes of the Yellow River in order to slow the Japanese advance, tolerated corruption among his military officers and his wife’s relatives, oversaw assassinations and kidnappings and torture by his security people as part of a series of ruthless political wars, and intervened unwisely in the tactical operations of his generals in the field. Toward the end of the war with Japan, his fear of being deposed by some of his generals led to his denying supplies to troops in some important battles. He underestimated the strength of the Chinese Communist Party and his own troops’ weaknesses in the early phases of the civil war. With his son, he carried out a white terror against activists and democrats on Taiwan. Taylor remarks that Chiang showed no remorse over many “innocent lives lost by violent acts that he justified as vitally necessary.”
Coming closer to Chiang than previous biographers, Taylor provides new insight on his character—a combination of unwavering physical bravery and discipline with a sense of martyrdom and shame. In fact, Chiang exceeded his critics in beating up on himself. In his diary, which he kept from 1918 until he was incapacitated by a heart attack in 1972, he berated himself as “ruthless and tyrannical; irritable; conceited; stubborn; wicked; … extravagant; jealous; stingy; lascivious; arrogant; full of sorrow and indignation.” The key to his character was patient revenge—the ability to “endure great humiliation” and prevail. Of course, striking that posture before the world was a sure way to look like a loser.
The diaries are one of Taylor’s key sources—along with a vast Chinese language literature, scores of interviews, oral histories, archives, and the voluminous Foreign Relations of the United States documentary series—and no other Chiang biographer has used them so thoroughly. Indeed, his view of Chiang is, in the end, essentially the same image that Chiang presented of himself in the diaries. And this raises the question of Chiang’s purposes in writing them and how they are to be read.
Chiang’s diaries resemble the log books self-cultivation kept by Neo-Confucian literati. According to Pei-yi Wu’s classic work, The Confucian’s Progress: Autobiographical Writings in Traditional China, such writings —often entitled “self-indictment” or “self-reproach”—obsessively chronicled the writer’s own moral failings. But unlike many Western diaries, they did so from an outward point of view: the narrative voice was that of the examiner rather than the examined. As in Chiang’s diaries, the writing brush is one’s own, but the voice is that of a merciless judge, not of the agonized sinner in all his temptation and ambivalence. This quality of impersonality was reinforced by the narrative economy of classical Chinese, which Wu calls “the perfect instrument for stating and restating the exemplary.”
The Neo-Confucian tradition dovetailed with the moral promptings of the strict form of Methodism to which Chiang converted. Chiang prayed, meditated, and—for several years, during the harshest days of wartime—read nightly from a collection of Christian testaments called Streams in the Desert,which centered on the message of Jonah: perseverance in the face of disaster, tragedy, humiliation and failure. Such reinforcing traditions help explain Chiang’s combination of discipline and emotionality. They also help to explain why even in Taylor’s account we never get fully inside Chiang’s head in the manner of Western memoirs or psychobiographies. Chiang seems to have been as stiff, stubborn, disciplined, and humorless on the inside as he was on the outside, even though he was also subject to fits of screaming and weeping. He resigned so often from his posts with words of harsh self-criticism that his KMT and American allies stopped believing in his sincerity. He remains a contradictory and in some ways elusive figure, and probably always will.
Hannah Pakula’s method is different from Taylor’s. Although she quotes occasionally from Chinese sources (evidently consulted through the offices of an assistant), her immensely long book is mostly an assemblage of quotations from contemporary observers and later historians who wrote in English. For some reason, wartime China attracted an array of dazzling stylists—not just professional journalists such as White and Hahn, but also visiting luminaries such as Auden, Isherwood, and Martha Gellhorn, and silver-penned missionaries, military officers, and diplomats who kept diaries and sent letters home. Published or unpublished, Pakula has with extraordinary energy found them all, partly in the work of Chiang and Soong biographers who have gone before and in the contemporary press, but also in large part in a range of personal archives, especially of Americans who had dealings with the Chiangs; and she picks the plums from every pie.
But what seems to count most in her narrative is whether a story is fun to read. “There are several stories told about the early days of the Chiang marriage,” Pakula writes. “They may well be apocryphal, but all are grounded in reality”—and she proceeds to tell them. There are three versions of a “nasty story” about one of Mayling’s sisters; Pakula offers all of them, without judging which if any is true. “One of Madame’s personal attendants told the following story, which may or may not be true,” she says at one point, and then tells the story. She relies at length on the memoir of a woman whom Chiang took as a concubine early in his career but who claimed to be a full wife, without saying why she credits this claim, which other historians including Taylor have questioned. Perhaps most egregiously, Pakula repeats at length an implausible story from a memoir by Gardner Cowles, Jr., the publisher of Look magazine, which claims that Mayling had not just a friendship (which she did have) but a one-night stand with the visiting American politician Wendell Willkie, without expressing any reservation about—or even interest in whether—it is true. Taylor scrutinizes the same tale and doubts it.
Selected from across the ideological spectrum and from successive layers of time, the array of quotations that Pakula offers piles up into a veritable archeology of Orientalisms. China is a land of “filth, disease, hunger and madness”, Shanghai a city of “glitter and wealth … and the grinding poverty of the lower classes.” People are roasted in kettles “without water, until the flesh falls from the bones.” Chiang Kai-shek is “extremely Oriental.” A female character combines “the sophistication of Western culture … with the subtle charm of the Orient.” Repeatedly Pakula introduces some character’s devious act with the phrase, “in true Chinese fashion … ” This becomes rather hard to take.
Similarly, the book is a (not unpleasurable) thesaurus of 1940s gender stereotypes. Mayling possessed a potent sex appeal that fostered adolescent reactions from hard-bitten, felt-hatted scriveners and loud, bourbon-swilling Americans. Pakula quotes numerous male reports of Mayling’s slim figure, good legs, “ivory satin skin,” dulcet voice, “piercing eyes,” and graceful hands. We read about her tight-fitting black, red, green, or white cheongsams with high slits and elegant diamond fasteners, and her gold and ruby jewelry. Isherwood once wrote that “She could be terrible, she could be gracious, she could be businesslike, she could be ruthless … I never heard anybody comment on her perfume. It is the most delicious either of us [he and Auden] ever smelt.” Tough Teddy White raved that “She is a beautiful piece of woman. Her figure is probably the best in Chungking and she has … the prettiest legs I have ever seen.” Life headlined a photo spread, “Mei-ling (‘Beautiful Mood’) Helps Her Husband Rule China”; the Cincinnati Times-Star gurgled, “Almond-Eyed Cleopatra Is ‘Power Behind Power’ in War-Time China.” And so on. Mayling had an instinct for self-presentation but, as Pakula points out, for much of her career as the leader’s wife she also had the professional help of an Australian journalist, W.H. Donald, who labored effectively to win her a good worldwide press.
If all this does not count as critical scholarship, it is nevertheless hugely effortful and often enjoyable to read. Pakula handles a complex cast of characters and a turbulent political environment with aplomb, although the spotlight sometimes leaves Mayling for too long as the author strives to portray the full political, military, and international context in which her protagonist operated. In the end, however, historiography by quotation can only reproduce the conventional narrative, since the most quotable folks writing in English, such as Stilwell and White, were the ones most critical of the Chiangs. Reading their rhetoric is fun in the way that watching an old Bogart movie is fun, but the narrative, on the political side at least, is precisely the one that Taylor’s scholarship has now made out of date.
About personal matters, however, Pakula’s account is not only consistent with Taylor’s, but probes more deeply. Her documents and eyewitnesses add up to a credible picture of a relationship rooted not just in political opportunism on his side, but in a primal attraction; nor just in greed for power on her side, but on the need for a mission to absorb an extraordinary talent and energy. From an invaluable trove of letters that the young Mayling sent to a Wellesley College chum named Emma Mills, Pakula quotes her as yearning for a way to work “for the betterment of China” and feeling that “the one way to solve my problems is by a life of self-abnegation”—or else “to [get] married, and be done with the whole thing, and then just drift along and keep myself from thinking.”
She found the opportunity for both marriage and self-abnegation in her participation in Chiang’s Sisyphean project to unify and defend China. When she visits the battlefront, and comforts the war-wounded, and visits Colonel Claire Chennault’s pilots to talk knowledgeably about airplanes, and risks her life to rush to her husband’s side during the 1936 Xi’an Incident, and handles the most sensitive business of his office, and serves as the regime’s most effective spokesperson with American politicians and the public—when she manages to do all this, Pakula’s Mayling is hard-working, courageous, and real.
The last five decades of her life were an anti-climax. She bounced back and forth between Taiwan and the United States. In Taiwan, she made several attempts to block liberal reforms under her husband. In the United States, she worked to invigorate and to fund the China lobby and to promote a rigid anti-communism, never letting go of the idea that if the United States had not betrayed her husband, the Chinese communists would not have come to power. After Chiang’s death she lived another twenty-eight years, mostly in New York, reclusive and often in poor health. She made a final attempt at the age of eighty-eight to turn back the democratization process that had been launched by her stepson in Taiwan.
Her husband, by contrast, remained politically engaged until a heart attack put him out of commission three years before his death. Taylor’s long section on Chiang’s years in Taiwan is one of the most masterful parts of his book, opening up a subject that no one else had seriously investigated. Previous biographies of Chiang in English ended with his flight to Taiwan, leaving untold twenty-six years’ worth of events that bore importantly on the international politics of Asia and U.S.-China relations. Taylor is uniquely qualified to write this story, not only because of the deep digging he did for his book on Chiang Ching-kuo but thanks also to his sure-footed ability as an ex-Foreign Service officer to find his way around in the vast Foreign Relations of the United States documentary series.
During the Taiwan years, Chiang had surprisingly intense struggles with his American patrons. His position at the start was tenuous. The communists had defeated him and, as Taylor shows by close analysis, would have been able to conquer Taiwan militarily after a year’s preparation. The Taiwanese over whom he ruled hated him, and the Americans who were his sole hope for survival wished his regime would disappear. (They even explored several ways to make it happen.) But Chiang—in despair and sometimes irrational—persisted, and eventually fate threw him some lucky curves. Among these were Kim Il Song’s invasion of South Korea, which caused the Americans to reverse their previous decision not to protect Taiwan from mainland invasion; and Mao’s bombardments in 1954 and 1958 of the off-shore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which prompted Eisenhower (unwisely, in Taylor’s view) to threaten the use of nuclear weapons and tighten defense ties with Chiang; and America’s entanglement in the Vietnam War, which gave Taiwan new importance for the U.S. military and the CIA. Chiang was also blessed with a series of American ambassadors and a long-serving CIA station chief whom Taylor portrays as biased in his favor.
Most importantly, Chiang’s American flank was protected by the vigor of the anti-communist movement in American politics, which Mayling and her China lobby had been so influential in creating. When a series of presidents from Truman to Eisenhower through Kennedy wanted to weaken ties to the KMT and explore openings to Beijing, Taylor shows that in every case fear of the political reaction at home stayed their hands. It was a relief for Chiang when his friend Richard Nixon became president. Taylor’s account of how Nixon lied to the Chiangs as he pursued rapprochement with Beijing—and how they saw through him—is a bitter lesson in political realism.
During the decades when his American ally was trapped in its prickly relationship with him, Chiang asserted control over Taiwan and, aided by resources left over by Japan and advised by American trained technocrats, got the economy on an even keel, carried out land reform, and started a nuclear weapons program, which the United States eventually forced his successors to drop. Meanwhile his son quietly started down the path of gradual political reform, with a clearer and earlier eye on the ultimate goal of democracy than other scholars have previously thought. Much remains to be written on the internal events in Taiwan—how the economy grew, and the rise of the pro-democracy movement there—but Taylor has staked out the part of the story that relates to the crucial relationship with the United States.
In the late 1940s, as Chiang’s numerically superior troops lost battle after battle in the Chinese civil war, a struggle broke out in Washington over “who lost China.” On one side was the view fostered by Stilwell, Marshall, the China hands, and the anti-Chiang media that Chiang’s defeat was what he deserved and the communist victory nothing to be feared. On the other were the China lobby, partially funded by Chiang’s wife and other KMT representatives in the United States, the pro-Chiang media, and conservative Republicans in the Congress, who blamed the Truman Administration for failing to supply needed support that would have enabled the Nationalists to win. In self-defense, Dean Acheson’s State Department published hundreds of declassified cables in a China White Paper designed to show that it had warned Chiang repeatedly to stop corruption and to create an effective army. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI weighed in, arresting a group of alleged spies who were involved in various ways with a magazine called Amerasia, among them China hand John S. Service. (Based on illegal wiretaps, the case produced anemic plea deals on the part of two defendants; Service was vindicated although he was hounded out of the Foreign Service. His story is told in Honorable Survivor, a terrific new book by Lynne Joiner.)
All this took place against the background of the emerging Cold War, as tenuous U.S.-Soviet cooperation gave way in the scramble for post-war positions of geostrategic advantage in Europe and Asia. The China debate flowered into the McCarthy crisis, which launched what became an abiding struggle between realism and ideology in American foreign policy that lasted throughout the Cold War and remains with us today. It is often forgotten how central the Chiangs were—as objects and as actors—in shaping the moralistic and ideological strain in our foreign policy—its for-‘em-or-agin-‘em construction of options, its abhorrence of grand strategy, its equation of complexity with treason. Mayling’s thesis that the left betrayed Chiang and abandoned China to communism has remained for sixty years one of the main themes of American conservatism. Chiang’s impossible mission and rigid rectitude formed the hard template against which a young, rising world power shaped its conviction that history is a moral parable, in which one must affirm a man to take him as an ally and condemn him to stand against him.
Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and coeditor of How East Asians View Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2008).
Please read a note from Isaac Chotiner, executive editor of The Book.