Chiang Kai-shek: The Generalissimo

Portrait of Kai-Shek Chiang
Formal portrait of Chinese soldier and politician, President of the Republic of China, General Chiang Kai-Shek (1887 - 1975), Taiwan, 1957. John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Chiang Kai-shek (1887 to 1975), also known as Generalissimo, was a Chinese political and military leader who served as head of the Republic of China from 1928 to 1949. After being forced from power and exiled by Chinese Communists after World War II, he continued to serve as president of the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Fast Facts: Chiang Kai-shek

  • Also Known As: Generalissimo
  • Known For: Chinese military and political leader from 1928 to 1975
  • Born: October 31, 1887 in Xikou, Zhejiang Province, China
  • Died: April 5, 1975 in Taipei, Taiwan
  • Parents: Jiang Zhaocong (father) and Wang Caiyu (mother)
  • Education: Baoding Military Academy, Imperial Japanese Army Academy Preparatory School
  • Key Accomplishments: Along with Sun Yat-sen, founded the Kuomintang (KMT) political party. In exile, Director General of the Kuomintang government on Taiwan
  • Major Awards and Honors: Recognized as one of the Big Four allied victors of WWII
  • Spouses: Mao Fumei, Yao Yecheng, Chen Jieru, Soong Mei-ling
  • Children: Chiang Ching-kuo (son), Chiang Wei-kuo (adopted son)
  • Notable Quote: “There are three essential factors in all human activity: spirit, materials, and action.”

In 1925, Chiang succeeded Sun Yat-sen as leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang, or KMT. As head of the KMT, Chiang expelled the communist arm of the party and succeeded in unifying China. Under Chiang, the KMT focused on preventing the spread of Communism in China and fighting increasing Japanese aggression. When the United States declared war on Japan in 1941, Chiang and China swore their allegiance and assistance to the Allies. In 1946, Communist forces led by Mao Zedong, a.k.a. Chairman Mao, overthrew Chiang and created the People’s Republic of China. From 1949 until his death in 1975, the exiled Chiang continued to lead the KMT government in Taiwan, recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of China.

Early Life: Chinese Revolutionary

Chiang Kai-shek was born on October 31, 1887, in Xikou, a town now in the Zhejiang province of the People’s Republic of China, to a well-off family of merchants and farmers. In 1906, at age 19, he began his preparations for a military career at the Paoting Military Academy in North China, later serving in the Japanese army from 1909 to 1911, where he adopted the Spartan ideals of the Japanese Samurai warriors. In Tokyo, Chiang fell in with a group of young revolutionaries plotting to overthrow China’s Qing dynasty ruled over by the Manchu clan.

Chiang Kai-shek
Chinese political and military leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887 - 1975), circa 1910. FPG / Getty Images

When the Qing Revolution of 1911 broke out, Chiang returned to China where he took part in fighting that succeeded in overthrowing the Manchus in 1912. With the fall of China’s last dynastic order, Chiang joined with other republican revolutionaries to oppose former Qing dynasty general Yuan Shikai, China’s new president, and eventual emperor.

Association With Sun Yat-sen

After an attempt to overthrow Yuan Shikai failed in 1913, Chiang helped found the Kuomintang (KMT) party. Largely withdrawing from public life from 1916 to 1917, he lived in Shanghai where he reportedly belonged to an organized financial crime syndicate known as Qing Bang, or Green Gang. Returning to public life in 1918, Chiang began a close political association with influential KMT leader Sun Yat-sen.

Kai-Shek Chiang
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek speaking at meeting of Chinese National Assembly. A picture of the father of Chinese Democracy, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, behind him. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images / Getty Images

Attempting to reorganize the KMT along communist lines, Sun Yat-sen sent Chiang to the Soviet Union in 1923 to study the policies and tactics of its Red Army. After returning to China, he was appointed as commandant of Whampoa Military Academy near Canton. As Soviet military advisers streamed into Canton to teach at Whampoa, Chinese communists were admitted into the KMT for the first time.

Anti-Communist Leader of the KMT

When Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, Chiang inherited leadership of the KMT and began trying to stem the rapidly growing influence of the Chinese communists within the party without losing the support of the Soviet government and military. He succeeded until 1927, when in a violent coup, he expelled the communists from the KMT and quashed the Chinese labor unions they had created. Hoping his communist purge would please U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, Chiang succeeded in establishing closer relations between China and the U.S. government. 

Chiang now continued to reunify China. As supreme commander of the Nationalist revolutionary army, he directed massive attacks against northern tribal warlords in 1926. In 1928, his armies occupied the capital in Beijing and established a new Nationalist central government in Nanking headed by Chiang.

The Xi'an Incident and World War II

In 1935, even as the Empire of Japan threatened to occupy Northeast China, Chiang and his KMT continued to focus on fighting Communists within China rather than the external threat of the Japanese. In December 1936, Chiang was seized by two of his own generals and held hostage in China’s Xi'an Province in an attempt to force the KMT to change its policies regarding Japan.

Held captive for two weeks, Chiang was released after agreeing to actively prepare his armies for war with Japan and to form an at least temporary alliance with the Chinese communists to help fight the Japanese invaders.

With the horrific Japanese Rape of Nanking massacre in 1937, all-out war between the two countries erupted. Chiang and his armies defended China alone until 1941, when the U.S. and other Allies declared war on Japan.

Post-World War II and Taiwan

While China held an honored place among the Big Four allied victors of WWII, Chiang’s government began to decay as it resumed its pre-war struggle against internal communists. In 1946, the civil war resumed and by 1949, the communists had taken control of continental China and established the People’s Republic of China.

Chiang Kai-Shek with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill
1943-Cairo, Egypt: President Roosevelt seated outside during the Cairo Conference with Mr. and Mrs. Chiang Kai Shek, and Winston Churchill. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Exiled to the province of Taiwan, Chiang, along with his remaining Nationalist forces established a weak dictatorship on the island. Over the next two decades, Chiang reformed his Nationalist Party, and with ample American aid began Taiwan’s transition to a modern and successful economy.

In 1955, the U.S. agreed to defend Chiang’s Nationalist government on Taiwan against future communist threats. However, the pact was weakened in the early 1970s by improving relationships between the U.S and the People’s Republic of China. In 1979, four years after Chiang’s death, the U.S. finally broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in order to establish full relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Personal Life

Chiang had four wives during his lifetime: Mao Fumei, Yao Yecheng, Chen Jieru, and Soong Mei-ling. Chiang had two sons: Chiang Ching-Kuo with Mao Fumei, and Chiang Wei-Kuo, whom he adopted along with Yao Yecheng. Both sons went on to hold important political and military positions in the Kuomintang government in Taiwan.

Born and raised a Buddhist, Chiang converted to Christianity when he married his fourth wife, Soong Mei-ling, popularly called “Madam Chiang” in 1927. He spent the rest of his life as a devout Methodist.

Death

Months after suffering a heart attack and pneumonia, Chiang died of cardiac malfunction and renal failure on April 5, 1975, in Taipei at the age of 87. While he was mourned for over a month on Taiwan, Communist state-run newspapers in mainland China briefly noted his death with the simple headline “Chiang Kai-shek Has Died.”

Today, Chiang Kai-shek is buried along with his son Chiang Ching-Kuo at Wuzhi Mountain Military Cemetery in Xizhi, Taipei City.

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