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Chaing Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek
(1887-1975)
Chinese Nationalist

Chiang Kai-shek, Nationalist and unyielding anti-Communist, led the military unification of China in the 1920s and participated as a world leader in the Allies’ defeat of Japan in World War II. When he ultimately lost China to the Communists, Chiang maintained the republic by moving it to the island of Taiwan (Formosa), where he established economic development, political stability, and land reform.

Born in the Fenghua District of Chekiang Province, near Shanghai, on October 31, 1887, Chiang departed from the family tradition of farming and small business to pursue a military career. After brief training at the National Military Academy in Baoding, Chiang went to Tokyo and entered the Military Staff College. There he met Sun Yat-sen and joined his United Revolutionary League, the forerunner of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist, Part (KMT), which aimed to overthrow the imperial government and unite China into a republic.

Chiang went back and forth between China and Japan for the next several years, furthering his military training and honing his political thing. In 1911, as a subordinate to Sun, he commanded a regiment in the revolution that led to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912.

During the next decade, Chiang divided his time between combating enemies in China and continuing his military education in Japan. In 1923, Chiang, under the direction of Sun, traveled to the Soviet Union to both study their military and social systems and seek financial aid for his country. On his return to China in 1924, Chiang became the superintendent of the KMT’s Whampoa Military Academy, where he had the opportunity to influence young officers and increase his growing power base.

With the death of Sun in 1925, Chiang assumed the leadership of the KMT and began plans to eliminate the final warlords still holding out against the central government. In 1926, Chiang organized eight divisions to combat opposition clan leaders in north and central China. During the first year of this “Northern Expedition,” Chiang purged the KMT of Communist, many of whom had been members of the party since its inception. The following year, he married Soong Mei-ling, whose powerful and wealthy Western-educated banking family added to his influence. On October 10, 1928, Chiang assumed the position of chairman of the national government and ruled over a unified China.

By the early 1930s, the only remaining opposition Chiang faced were the Communists under Mao Zedong. His initial operations against the Communist Red Army were successful, forcing their withdrawal in what would later be celebrated as the “Long March.”

During the early days of World War II, Chiang initially ignored Japan’s invasion of Chinese Manchuria and continued his offensive against the Communists. This focus continued until December 12, 1936, when the Communists kidnapped Chiang during his visit to the northwest city of Sian. The conditions for Chiang’s release included his agreement to form a united front with the Communists against the Japanese.

United war against Japan began on July 7, 1937. Although his forces lost most of the country to the invaders, Chiang maintained a headquarters at Chungking in southwest China. Both Chiang and Mao took advantage of aid from the United States to build weapons and ammunition stocks for future warfare among themselves. They avoided significant combat but did contribute to the war effort by keeping a large number of Japanese committed to China rather than being available to combat the Allied Pacific island-hopping campaigns.

By war’s end, Chiang’s position as leader of the Chinese against the Japanese had elevated him to equal status with Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in combating the Axis powers. The Japanese surrender in 1945, however, did not bring peace to China. Rather, Chiang’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists immediately resumed their fight against each other. Despite efforts by the United States to mediate, the war continued, with the Communists gaining the advantage. In 1949, Chiang moved his Nationalist government, which was on the verge of collapse, to the island of Taiwan. During his flight from China, Chiang briefly gave up his position of president but resumed the title on March 1, 1950. From that time until his death on April 6, 1975, at age eighty-seven, Chiang ruled “Nationalist China” and developed the island into an Asian economic power. Although Chiang continued to court and receive U.S. aid, being one of the few leaders to send military forced to Vietnam to support the U.S. war effort there, he was never able to mount a significant reunification effort with the mainland.

Chiang switched back and forth from military to political leader with ease, both roles marked by zealous patriotism and a stubborn ruthlessness that often punished the people he claimed to protect. He directly contributed to the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, and even though the Communists eventually defeated him, Chiang proved effective in organizing and maintaining the Nationalist government on Taiwan.

While Mao appeared more influential at the time, fifty years later his state has greatly deteriorated, while Chiang’s memory evokes reverence in a still-free Taiwan. Only the greater territory and population of Communist China place Mao above Chiang on this list.