Biography – The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China

The absence of a bibliography is a serious defect in this hardcover edition published by Harvard University Press. It is a pity as Jay Taylor has written the latest and an excellent biography on Chiang Kai Shek.

Reviewers of this book portrayed this book as groundbreaking, far surpass previous scholarship, and provide the most authoritative assessment of Chiang Kai Shek. And yet as recently as 2003, we had the excellent biography by Jonathan Fenby titled Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek and the China He Lost. It is unfortunate that this book is not referred to or analyzed in this book.

Fenby’s biography evokes the atmosphere better. Fenby gave more detailed info and writes with a flair that is typical of a good journalist of which he is one.

Taylor in his biography adopts the traditional view that the Empress Dowager was all-powerful and had sided with the Boxers in the Boxers Uprising. It is unfortunate that there was no discussion at all of the contrary view taken by Sterling Seagrave in his very well-researched biography of the Empress Dowager called Dragon Lady- The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. Sterling had presented compelling evidence that the traditional view was based on false facts concocted by George Morrison the Peking correspondent of the Times of London, Sir Edmund Backhouse the Chinese translator for Morrison and JOP Bland the Shanghai correspondent of the Times of London.

I would still recommend this book. The strength of this book is that Taylor had access to the extensive diaries of Chiang Kai Shek when he was given a set in 2003 by the Taiwanese authorities. These diaries were not available to Fenby when Fenby wrote his biography.

Ultimately, I would recommend reading these 2 books as Chiang Kai Shek’s life is the history of China spanning the fall of the Manchu Empire in 1911 to the Communist victory in 1949 and finally the history of Taiwan. Chiang’s life in China until his flight to Taiwan was a violent life, a life where there was not a single day of peace and tranquillity. To comprehend such a complex and tumultuous life one needs to read both these 2 books.

There are some minor errors in the notes. For example, Han Su Yin’s book on Zhou En Lai is called Elder Son and Eldest Son at note 133 and 135 and 159 on pages 622 and 623. The correct title is the Eldest Son. Iris Chang who wrote The Rape of Nanking is called Irish Chang at note 58 on page 626.

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