Tuesday, March 23, 2010

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

Jay Taylor Wins 2010 Lionel Gelber Prize for Book on Chiang Kai-shek

The GeneralissimoJay Taylor, a U.S. Foreign Service specialist and Harvard University researcher on China for many decades, has won the 2010 Lionel Gelber Prize for his book The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

According to Jury Chair George Russell, The Generalissimo is a remarkable achievement, a fresh and impeccably documented approach to a vital issue that puts the histories of the Chinese Revolution and of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists in a new and more favourable light. For decades since the Chinese Communist revolution, the triumphalist historical view of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party dominated. Chiang was viewed as a greedy villain and a puppet of Western capitalist influences. It is a tribute to Taylor’s objectivity that his own views changed as he researched the topic.

The jurors agreed that this was an important, intriguingly written contribution that would stand the test of time and would be an important corrective to another era’s intellectual fashion, as China itself is forced to consider the continuing remarkable success of the Republic of China. That success owes a great deal to the austere and contradictory personality of Chiang Kai-shek, which Taylor brilliantly illuminates.”

I'm really excited to see this book win such a prestigious prize. I haven't read it yet, but anyone with a finger on the pulse of Chinese history will tell you that a revisionist history book on Chiang Kai-Shek was long overdue.

From the Globe and Mail:

Mr. Chiang was given the name General Cash-My-Cheque by U.S. officials to whom he regularly went for financial aid while fighting the Japanese and Communists. During and after the wars, his regimes were seen as plagued by corruption (though Mr. Taylor's research suggests the generalissimo himself was not on the take).

His rehabilitation comes as relations are rapidly warming between Beijing and Taipei, where the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) was voted back to power in 2008 after an eight-year absence. With the Kuomintang now seen as the most Beijing-friendly of Taiwan's political parties, quarrels over history have been shoved aside in favour of the closer economic and cultural ties that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou both seek.

More controversial is a new reassessment of Mr. Chiang that argues that although the Nationalist chief lost the war, it was he who laid the foundations for China's current rise, by reuniting the country and by securing for Beijing one of the five permanent, veto-wielding seats on the United Nations Security Council.

Drawing from 56 years of Mr. Chiang's own diaries, in addition to Chinese, American and Russian sources, Mr. Taylor's biography The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China surmises that while Mr. Chiang made some enormous errors – most notably the White Terror campaign of arrests and executions unleashed on his political opponents in Taiwan – his accomplishments outweigh the harm done.

“I came to the conclusion that Chiang did commit crimes against humanity in Taiwan … but on the balance he comes out as having made some remarkable contributions to Chinese history,” says Mr. Taylor, a historian and former U.S. government intelligence analyst, who has also written a biography of Mr. Chiang's son and successor to power, Chiang Ching-kuo.

Indeed, in his conclusion, Mr. Taylor says that even though Mr. Chiang lost the war to Mao's Communists, his ideas won the longer struggle to shape China. He argues that the country today's Communist Party presides over is in many respects closer to Mr. Chiang's vision than to Mao's.

“If the Chiangs could see modern Shanghai and Beijing, they might well believe that their long-planned ‘ counterattack' had succeeded and that their successors had recovered the mainland,” Mr. Taylor writes in the conclusion of Generalissimo.

“Truly, it is their vision of modern China, not Mao's, that guides the People's Republic in the 21st century.”

Although China is rethinking Mr. Chiang, that last idea is far too revisionist for Mao's heirs. Mr. Taylor's book is being translated into traditional Chinese ahead of its Taiwan publication, but he doesn't expect to see it on Beijing book- shelves any time soon.

The Far Eastern Economic Review reviews the book here

And one more from the Washington Post.

A good companion read might be Hannah Pakula's "The Last Empress" ( a biography on Soong Mei-ling (1897-2003), usually called Madame Chiang Kai-shek.


Anil P said...

Interesting. More so since almost nothing is seen of Chiang Kai-shek in the mainstream media, as if Taiwan and its history is but a footnote.

Atleast I have rarely happened upon it.

Lotus Reads said...

So right Anil P! It is for that reason precisely that I wanted to showcase this book. Also, I'm always interested in revisionist histories. History is almost always written by the victors so,when someone comes along and is willing to dispute that stand with a convincing argument borne out of years of research, I am excited to hear what he or she has to say. Thank you for dropping by!

Leela Soma said...

So pleased that you have chosen a book about a fascinating region and its history that we get only glimpses of. A great comment about history usually written by victors Angie.Thanks for the various reviews of this book too.

Happy Reader said...

I haven't read much about chinese history and this sounds like a great read. Thanks much for this post!

Lotus Reads said...

@Leela ~ You are so welcome Leela! I don't know if I'll ever get around to reading this book, but the reviews have been so informative that I feel I have already learned so much on the subject matter.

@Chitts ~ Pleasure! I used to be a huge fan of Chinese history, especially its Imperial history....but then I got sucked into Mao's cultural revolution and that is where I have stayed for a while. Reading "My Life as Emperor" was my feeble attempt to return to Imperial China but perhaps I chose the wrong book to do that. "The Generalissimo" is in the period that came just after the revolution and is also a very interesting period....full of intrigue.

Sanjay said...

Thank you Lotus, for showcasing this book. I learned so much more about Chiang and that era. If I read the book I suppose I would learn more. Even as I read that I was struck by the fact that mainland China would be loath to ever give any credit to Chiang for the transformation that you see there today (something that you so astutely picked on).
The strong nationalistic trait in China would never allow that for they do believe that they have been denied their rightful place in the world (whether you agree or not).
If you do read this book would love to read your review!