The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China by Jay Taylor - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Reluctant Dictator

The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China


Harvard University Press 722pp £25.95 order from our bookshop

Even in the rapidly widening field of modern Chinese history, it is unusual and gratifying to read a book that upsets not only the reader's previous views but even those of the author himself. When I began learning about contemporary China in 1955, Chiang Kai-shek and the survivors of his regime from the civil war with Mao's Communists had been on Taiwan only six years. We learned that Chiang, a stubborn, unimaginative man and a devout, ascetic Christian, was surrounded by corruption. We learned, too, that he had been comprehensively outfoxed by the hugely popular Mao, who was now propelling China to the reforms Chiang had failed to deliver, and it was probably only a matter of time before Taiwan fell to Mao's armies. As Columbia University's Andrew Nathan has said of Chiang, ‘For decades he was a dominating figure in the American imagination of the Far East, in such roles as China's heroic wartime leader and, later, the feckless and corrupt loser in the Chinese civil war.’ 

Jay Taylor, for many years an American Foreign Service officer specialising in Chinese affairs, met Chiang several times in Taipei in the early 1960s and was surprised by his limp handshake. When he wrote his earlier book, on Chiang's son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, he admits: ‘I portrayed

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