What you need to know
'Chiang Kai-shek was the greatest single fighter of the CCP, bar none. He also led China through one of the darkest periods of its history, including a brutal war with Japan and two periods of civil war, which wrapped together were a central part of the greatest conflict in human history.'
In keeping with the theme, on May 6 The News Lens posted an opinion piece titled “Deleting the Generalissimo from Taiwan is the Right Move.” This piece implied that readers are of one mind regarding Chiang’s legacy, which is subjective and could be read as a narrow understanding of Taiwan and its plethora of political perspectives.
Chiang’s statues deserve to remain on public display. He’s too important of a figure and he did too much for Taiwan to banish all observance of his legacy to the Cihu Mausoleum in Taoyuan.
The problem with Chiang and his legacy is that the issue is complicated; “deleting” him not only oversimplifies this profoundly significant figure, but also does a disservice to Taiwan’s intricate and complex history. History should be comprehensive, not selective, and dismissing Chiang as nothing more than a corrupt, brutal dictator is not only inaccurate, but also a convenient vehicle for a politically opportunistic rewriting of the story.
On one hand, disapprobation directed towards Chiang is appropriate. In an era of rising Taiwanese identity, he is a nationalist Chinese figure who fought for a united China - one that included Taiwan. He was also a dictator, and certainly not a benevolent one.
He was also other things. Chiang Kai-shek was the greatest single fighter of the Chinese Communist Party, bar none. He also led China through one of the darkest periods of its history, including a brutal war with Japan and two periods of civil war, which wrapped together were a central part of the greatest conflict in human history.
His perspectives and his behavior were colored by his experiences. He was kidnapped by his own allies, brought to the brink of defeat on multiple occasions, faced American assassination plots, and struggled to pilot a fractious military and political machine through the vicissitudes of 20th Century Asia. He remained magnanimous towards his general-warlords in the face of insubordination, and when he was defeated on the Mainland took the lessons of strong central control to heart. Sadly, Taiwan suffered for it.
This isn’t to apologize for Chiang’s brutality during the White Terror. He rightly deserves to be condemned for his hand in the 228 Massacre and his iron grip during Martial Law, and his victims deserve recourse. However, that shouldn’t be his only legacy. George Washington is referred to as the “Father of his country,” but was also a slave-owning, native-killing pseudo-monarch who worked to combat slave uprisings. Winston Churchill was equally racist, having personally fought in British raids in what is now Pakistan and Sudan. And these heroes of the West, among countless others, are remembered as much for their contributions as for their crimes.
Similarly, Chiang did a tremendous amount for Taiwan. His administration is responsible for Taiwan’s export-led economic strategy that saw a profound improvement in living conditions and led to Taiwan becoming one of the Four Asian Tigers - a strategy China belatedly copied. He initiated much-needed land reform in Taiwan after he realized not doing so in China possibly cost the KMT popular support during the Civil War. Finally, without Chiang’s leadership in Taiwan and diplomacy abroad, there exists the very likely possibility that Taiwan would currently be part of the People’s Republic of China, and democracy and the conditions for it would never have flourished here.
Chiang is a singularly complicated figure who led China and Taiwan during a singularly complicated period, and deleting him from public visibility in Taiwan would do wrong by history - removing all mention of him unless inimical would be as irresponsible as forcing society worship him as a hero.
As a longtime resident of Taiwan and an earnest student of its history, I hope Chiang Kai-shek can be viewed as neither villain nor hero, but as an important leader who faced difficult choices in a difficult time. Many of these were bad choices, but many were not. All of them deserve acknowledgement.
For a fair and illuminating treatment of the man, I strongly recommend picking up “The Generalissimo” by Harvard historian Jay Taylor. I also recommend “Taipei: A City of Displacements” by Joseph Allen, for a great analysis of how layered and complicated Taipei, and Taiwan, can be.
Editor: Edward White