The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan Review

The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan
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The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan ReviewThis is a very important introduction for the West of a remarkable,
and still little understood, Chinese leader.
If Chiang Ching-kuo
(CCK) had survived to lead a unified China, he would be one of the few
non-Westerners who would be extensively written by Western scholars.
(The "twentieth" century, a name that itself implies a
Western perspective on history and time, is of course a history of the
West's triumph over other civilizations. Consequently contemporary
society remembers little of the other great civilizations that have
contributed to the human experience: the Arabic Islamic, the Chinese
(or Sinitic), the Indian, to name the few obvious ones. But I
digress.) Had his father not been the great but tragic Chiang
Kai-shek, whose influence on modern China will forever overshadow his,
CCK would be even more respected in his own right. Had he been
educated in English (the most influential language in the past
century) and lived in a country that was able to engage with the rest
of the world, such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, he would have been
able to let his own views be better known throughout the world, and
thereby improve his chances of a favorable historical review. CCK had
none of that. By the time he reached the pinnacle of power, his arena
was not great and ancient China, but tiny Taiwan, isolated and
ostracized by the rest of the world, and beholden to a far-away
country (the US) which, though arguably well intentioned, was also
quick to sacrifice its interests for geopolitical needs. CCK will
probably never command the attention accorded to a Mao, a Deng, a
Chiang Kai-shek or even a Lee Kuan Yew. Yet to the extent that
Taiwan's separation from the mainland is temporary, CCK's legacy may
yet positively impact the fate of one quarter of humanity.
book's greatest strength is its objectivity. The author did not start
by writing a laudatory biography of CCK. Indeed the author does not
disguise any of the Kuomintang's and CCK's cruel misdeeds and follies.
However, in the end the author assesses the man and paints a largely
favorable picture. This is important, for it is a very human picture,
unlike the almost saint-like quality created by CCK's more ardent
supporters, nor the dismissive cold shoulder given by the opposition
("CCK only did this because the Americans forced him to; CCK did
this only for the KMT's own surivival."). Readers will
appreciate the author's description of CCK's Russian experience, which
molded his character, his philosophy and his methods. His struggle
with the KMT right wing is little understood even by many Taiwanese
today, who mistakenly believed that he could have democraticized
Taiwan much earlier without bloodshed. The roles of the United
States, which was not always a true friend, and the Chinese
communists, which was not necessarily always an enemy, are portrayed
in a balanced manner. We learn that, long before Washington broke off
ties with Taipei, CCK had calmly prepared for Taipei's isolation and
its eventual reckoning (reconciliation?) with the mainland. A true
Chinese republic, the first in our history, came of age under his
stewardship. Unlike his father, who wanted to re-create an ancient
China on Taiwan, and unlike his successors, who now want to separate
artificially Taiwan's undeniable links with Chinese civilization, CCK
led a Taiwan that became Chinese ("became" because it first
had to rid itself of 50 years of Japanese colonial influence) but also
unique, modern and, later, democratic. James Soong, one of CCK's
better lieutenants, once commented that if the Republic of China were
to succeed, it needed to be "more Chinese than the Chinese
communists and more Taiwanese than the Taiwanese independence
advocates." CCK knew that Taiwan could be both. For the last
decade in which he led, Taiwan accomplished just that. When future
scholars examine the years from 1949 through 1990, they may conclude
that Taiwan's scholastic and literary contribution to the Chinese
speaking world was disproportionately large relative to its
The book has minor deficiencies. Perhaps to retain the
attention of the average Western reader, the author skips much detail
in describing various important events, leaving the serious reader
craving for more. The book attempts to, but does not convincingly
answer, many important questions surrounding CCK: How did he reject
communism after starting out as a staunch bolshevik in Russia? Was he
a closet communist? What were his true views about the Americans?
Did he truly desire unification, or was he waiting for a moment for
independence? The conventional wisdom is that he was a staunch
patriot, that he desired unification, and that he never truly believed
that the Americans could be trusted. CCK was also capable of
incredible cruelty, and perhaps more should have been devoted to this
dark side of Taiwan's development, which will remain a blemish on an
otherwise favorable record (the author contends, however, that CCK was
not chiefly responsible for much of the "white terror", a
view shared by many). Like all good works on Chinese issues, the book
should have included a map of China and Taiwan, and a glossary of
Chinese characters.
One hopes that this work will invite more
scholarship on CCK and this important period in history. When CCK
died in 1988, it was still difficult to fully assess his legacy.
Twelve years have passed. While still short by historical standards,
one can already safely say that he was one of the greatest Chinese
statesmen of the last century.
Those who lived in Taiwan during the
CCK years saw a time of unprecedented economic opportunity and greater
political participation. For those whose families came from the
mainland, it was also a land where traditional Chinese culture could
continue even as it was being systematically destroyed on the mainland
(it has only recently been rehabilitated). For those who lived
through that era, CCK's historical assessment is no longer important.
He was the man who symbolized peace, stability, security and
prosperity. He will be fondly remembered.
The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan Overview

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