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Chiang Kai-Shek: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

Chiang Kai-Shek was an important 20th Century Chinese leader. We will learn about Chiang's early life including the historical context, his leadership of the Nationalist party, and his command through various conflicts from 1928-1975.

Man of Mystery

Chiang Kai-Shek, known as the Generalisssimo, was the nationalist leader of China and later Taiwan. Although the U.S. allied with him, his reputation in America hinged on the word of Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell, who hated Chiang. Historians are still trying to figure this guy out as new research is producing a more nuanced picture of the provincial general who fought major internal and external foes.

The Chiangs and Stilwell
The Chiangs and Stilwell

Early Life and China

Chiang Kai-Shek was born in 1887 during China's Qing Dynasty. The Qing ruled China from 1644, but in the 1800s, suffered a series of embarrassments at the hands of Western countries and was forced to grant major land and trade concessions. It was a time of upheaval and rebellion against the Qing and the Westerners.

Chiang left China when he was 18 to attend military college in Japan. After his return, he became active in the nationalist rebellion in China. In 1911, Nationalists, frustrated by the Qing's weakness against the West, deposed the dynasty and installed the Chinese Republic. Chiang joined the Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang or KMT. In 1924, he commanded a military academy in Canton where he worked to strengthen and modernize the army.

Meanwhile, the new Chinese Republic struggled. After its first leader died, China fell into chaos with local warlords and militias carving up the countryside. Chiang became head of the KMT in 1925 and partnered with the Chinese Communist Party or CCP in an ambitious military campaign called the Northern Expedition to reunify the country. Together, the KMT and CCP defeated the warlords and unified China.

By 1928, Chiang became leader of China under the KMT and had enough of the CCP. Although the CCP helped unify China, it was still intent upon instigating a Communist revolution. Chiang ordered bloody purges to decimate the CCP and strengthen his own government. By 1934, he nearly succeeded eliminating the CCP, but a new conflict changed his focus.

Sino-Japanese Conflict and World War II

Starting in 1931, China fought Japanese Imperialists in the Sino-Japanese Conflict. Japan sought to establish itself as the foremost Asian power and occupied Manchuria in northeast China. Chiang struggled to counter this invasion while continuing to crush the Communists. In 1936, Chiang was taken hostage in the city of Xian by two of his generals who demanded Chiang ally with the CCP army to fight the more serious Japanese threat. During hostage negotiations, Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, secretly assured Chiang he would support Chiang's campaign against the Japanese and supply China with weapons; Chiang agreed. In 1937, Japan launched a full invasion of the Chinese mainland and perpetrated one of the worst massacres in history, the Rape of Nanking. Meanwhile, the alliance allowed the CCP to survive and rebuild.

Chiang Kai-Shek and Mei-ling
Chiang Kai-Shek and Meiling

World War II broke out in the midst of this conflict. In 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into war allied with China. Chiang and his wife, Soong Mei-ling, traveled to meet with the allied leaders. Chiang spoke no English, but Mei-ling was educated in the U.S. and spoke English fluently. Madame Chiang took the lead in negotiations with the allies and became known as a beautiful, shrewd diplomat.

Civil War

Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek
Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek

At the conclusion of WWII, the Japanese were beaten, but China lunged forward into a civil war. Chiang had done little to reform or modernize China and the KMT lost public support. KMT forces developed a reputation as weak and ineffectual after rumors that Nationalist forces abandoned the city during the Rape of Nanking. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell, who worked directly with Chiang, despised the Generalissimo, calling him 'a grasping, bigoted, ungrateful little rattlesnake.' Although Mei-ling made allies in the U.S., Stilwell's harsh opinion spread to many American journalists and politicians.

After WWII ended, Soviet forces fighting Japan in Manchuria refused to leave. The CCP joined the Soviets in the North and conquered Chinese cities. From 1946 to 1949, the CCP, led by Mao Zedong, fought Chiang's KMT forces. Chiang's forces were exhausted and weakened by years of war against the Japanese; public opinion turned against Chiang Kai-Shek. In 1949, the CCP was victorious; Mao Zedong established the communist People's Republic of China with himself as the leader.

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