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Who is Chiang Kai-Shek?

Sheri Cyprus
Sheri Cyprus

Chiang Kai-Shek is a Chinese political leader best remembered for being China's national leader during the brutal Japan-China war that began in 1937. He led the Guomindang army before becoming the Republic of China's leader in 1928. His government fled to Taiwan in 1949, but he continued to serve as president from 1950 until his death in 1975.

Born 31 October 1887, in Xikou, Zhejiang Province, China, Chiang was raised in a home that was struggling financially, but with his ancestral ties connected to Hequiao in Jiangsu Province, he was socially considered to have upper class ancestry. His father, Chiang Zhaocong, died when Chiang was just three years old. After a Japanese military education, he spent a few years in the Japanese Imperial Army. He was wed to Mao Fumei in an arranged marriage that produced a son and a daughter.

Chiang Kai-Shek was born in China, but he retreated to Taiwan in 1949.
Chiang Kai-Shek was born in China, but he retreated to Taiwan in 1949.

Chiang Kai-Shek proved his leadership potential successfully in the Guomindang army. He was so respected for his military abilities, that he surpassed many other qualified candidates to be selected to replace Sun Yat-Sen as the leader of the Guomindang after Sun Yat-Sen died in 1925. Chiang became the national leader of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1928. The Chinese Civil war had started in 1927, the year before he took office, and Chiang wanted to eliminate the communists.

A statue of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Taiwan.
A statue of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Taiwan.

Much of Chiang's leadership over China was ineffective because he couldn't control the country enough to keep it secure from Japanese invaders. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, and in 1937, it executed the attack that led to the Japan-China war. Chiang's Guomindang army was not prepared to resist the Japanese and soon China lost its capital city, Nanjing/Nanking. Later referred to as "The Rape of Nanking" and "The Nanking Massacre," the Japanese army stormed the city and raped and killed large numbers of Chinese people with mass firing squads. The estimated number of victims vary, but many historians believe that about 300,000 or more Chinese people died during the raid.

Despite the terrible results of the Japan-China war, Chiang Kai-Shek was credited with using strategy to get Western military support for China, even though this lengthened the war. By the time of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, China was an Allied Power along with Great Britain, Russia, and the United States. Once the war ended, however, the Chinese Civil War flared up again, with the communist forces eventually forcing Chiang and his allies out. He relocated to Taiwan and resumed his presidency, with plans to retake the mainland. That never took place, however, and Chiang died in Taipei in 1975 at the age of 87 due to kidney failure.

Discussion Comments


Chang Kai Shek had an impressive military career. He went to military school in Japan and then served in the Japanese Army. He was a great military leader in the Guomindang Army. My question is, why, if he was Chinese did he serve in the Japanese Army?

His military record was so good that he passed over many other candidates to become the leader of China and reigned for 47 years. In those 47 years, he must have accomplished some important things to help China, economically and politically.


It's no wonder Chiang Kai-Shek wasn't successful in governing China and keeping it organized and strong enough to avoid the Japanese invasion. The country of China is huge and has a big population of diverse people. He wanted to rid the country of communism, but any kind of democracy was difficult to implement.


Recently I visited Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-Shek's legacy has become a controversial one. He has a very grandiose memorial hall in Taipei and there has been a lot of arguing in recent years about whether to rename and repurpose it now that Taiwan is a democracy (one other Chiang Kai-Shek fact that I learned is that he is not actually buried in the memorial hall even though that's what I assumed at the time).

His wife, Soong May-ling, also known as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, seemed to be almost as popular a subject as Chiang Kai-Shek is, judging from all the books I saw about the two of them.

Can anyone else think of an example of a leader who is still admired by some, but has a controversial place in his country's history now that people are more free to speak out about it?


They always say that history is written by the victors, and Chiang Kai-Shek is not considered a winner in most circles, due to his inability to keep China under control, first against the Japanese and then against the communists. But if you compare the legacies of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, it looks to me like Kai-Shek may have just been the right person at the wrong time.

The China of today is no flourishing model of democracy or anything, but it's closer to Kai-Shek's vision of a fairly open and successful economy with a fair amount of personal freedom (if not political freedom, unfortunately) than it is to Mao's tightly-controlled one.

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    • Chiang Kai-Shek was born in China, but he retreated to Taiwan in 1949.
      By: gringos
      Chiang Kai-Shek was born in China, but he retreated to Taiwan in 1949.
    • A statue of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Taiwan.
      By: Alan Wu
      A statue of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Taiwan.