Chiang Kai-shek was born in Xikou (Chikow, Hsikou), Zhejiang, to Chiang Shu-an, a salt merchant and the leading man in the village, and Wang Tsai-yu, Shu-an’s third wife (the first two having died). He was given the “milk name” of Jui-yuan (Auspicious Beginning); his mother called him Zhong-zheng (Chung-cheng, Balanced Justice). The honorific name Jieshi (Between Rocks) was later bestowed upon him; “Kai-shek” is an attempt to Romanize the Cantonese pronunciation of this name. (His wife Jennie records a different story in her memoir. According to what her mother was able to find out, Chiang Shu-an was not Kai-shek’s birth father, but his stepfather. His biological father had urged his wife to follow him and the other children to another place to escape the ravages of famine , but had to leave her and Kai-shek behind because she said she could not walk far because of her bound feet. She later worked as a seamstress for Chiang Shu-an, who eventually married her and adopted Kai-shek as his son.)
After graduation from a military academy in Japan, where he had met Sun Yat-sen, become an enthusiastic support of the Chinese revolution, and joined the Tongmenghui (Sun’s organization), Chiang returned to China to participate in the revolution. He eventually became a trusted associate of Sun, who appointed him founding commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy in 1918, when Chiang also joined the Nationalist Party (KMT [Kuomingtang] = GMD [Guomingdang]). He succeeded Sun in 1925 as leader of the KMT upon Sun’s early death. In 1926-1927, by ruthlessly eliminating all rivals, he unified much of the country, defeating warlords and breaking with the Communist Party, whose members he brutally purged from the KMT after they had staged a political coup that would have removed him from all power.
He formed a Nationalist government in Nanjing in 1928, with himself as virtual military dictator, though many democratic and modernizing reforms were undertaken during the so-called Nanjing Decade. He continued to seek to eliminate the communists, despite Japan’s increasing encroachments and domestic calls for stiff resistance to the Japanese. Finally, after the Xian Incident in 1936, he was forced to enter into an uneasy alliance with the communists in order to fight the Japanese. He led the Republic of China during the Second World War, and was elected President of the Republic of China in 1948, but was forced to retreat with many members of his government and army to Taiwan in 1949.
Once in Taiwan, he not only purged the Nationalist Party of all known communists but also many corrupt members, and exterminated the many communist agents who had been sent to the island, but also allowed his son Chiang-kuo tosuppress the Taiwanese independence movement with great brutality, earning much resentment as a result. In later years, Ching-kuo, who was otherwise capable and personally honest, helped to restore some of his father’s reputation by attempting to clean up corruption, introduce democratic forms, and modernize the economy, with Kai-shek’s full support.
Since the facts of Chiang’s career are well known and easily accessible, the rest of this article will concentrate upon his personal life and the credibility of his profession as a Christian.
His mother, a devout Buddhist, sought to inculcate the tenets and practices of her faith in her son from his infancy. As a child, he was known for his tendency to assume command of others, expecting obedience. The death of his father when he was very young forced his mother to work hard to support her son. As he watched her dealing with unscrupulous people, an intense rage started to burn in him, and he began to see himself as part of an exploited people – China, carved up by foreign powers; Han Chinese, ruled over by corrupt Manchus, and the relatively poor, taken advantage of by the rich. He reacted by turning in upon his own resources, spending a great deal of time alone, surrounded by mountains and streams, and meditating upon his next move.
At the age of fifteen, he was married to a nineteen-year old, basically illiterate woman, Mao Fu-mei. The couple seem to have been close for the first two months of their marriage, but Chiang’s mother rebuked him for uxoriousness. Fumei dutifully distanced herself, and the two drifted apart.
While in Japan, he not only acquired a taste for its cuisine, which was healthier than Chinese food, but also became fluent in the language. He absorbed, too, the bushido spirit, which called for utter loyalty to a cause and its leader, even to death. In 1911, after leaving Japan, he was backed by a powerful patron in Shanghai, Chen Qimei, who became like a father to him, as did Sun Yat-sen after Chen was assassinated. Chiang soon became known for personal self-discipline and for the order and discipline of the regiment under his command. For a number of years he lived mostly in Shanghai, where he became acquainted with a number of secret societies, with whom he formed lasting ties. Some sources stress the nationalist, anti-Manchu thrust of these societies, while others emphasize their cruelty, corruption, and criminality, especially in the case of the Green Gang.
Chiang earned many enemies, who considered him “conceited, self-loving, reserved and ambitious.”. Even Jennie, who was devoted to him, described him as “aggressive, stubborn, sensitive, headstrong, and quick tempered.” Her narrative portrays a man inordinately vain, proud, conceited, quick to take offense, and almost never forgiving . Still, Chiang expressed passionate love for her in words and deeds, and could be quite tender and thoughtful. He freely admitted his need for her and dependence upon her.
When first Chen Qimei and then Sun Yat-sen died while Chiang was still young, he lost both of his father figures; his grief was real and deep. For the rest of his life, he once again chose to rely upon no man but himself. He had cherished intense devotion, amounting to hero-worship, toward Sun.
Chiang loved the great outdoors, where he found the quiet and solitude he needed to collect his thoughts. Before his conversion to Christianity, he was a pious Buddhist like his mother, and often visited temples and shrines. The Chinese classics, including books of history formed the basic material of his moral and social outlook, which was thoroughly Confucian. His skill in military strategy found its roots in and Sun’s Art of War, and he consciously framed his ambition to unify China on the example of the First Emperor of Qin. Later decisions to sacrifice thousands of soldiers in battles and campaigns he could not win reflected the extreme pragmatism and callousness towards human life of these ancient figures. Likewise, he believed that a wife should subordinate all her desires to the career of her husband, even to the point of giving her life for him like heroines of past eras.
As a young man, Chiang was known as a promiscuous womanizer, despite being married and having a son. (He had also adopted another son, Wei-guo, the progeny of a close friend and a Japanese woman, though some believe he was also Chiang’s natural offspring.) At this time, he contracted a form of venereal disease that rendered him incapable of fathering any more children.
His first marriage fell apart as his wife, who did not share China’s passion for politics and revolution, complained of his frequent and long absences. He often beat her, and at least once dragged her by her hair down a flight of stairs. Finally, in 1921 the two settled upon a relatively amicable divorce, though the woman grieved deeply. Chiang Ching-kuo was their only son. Besides his first wife, and after their divorce, Chiang had two other wives (though he later referred to them only as concubines), Mao Fumei and Zhang Ah Feng (Chen Jieru; “Jennie”).Fumei later took charge of bringing up Ching-kuo.
Chiang married Jennie in 1921, and for seven years she lived with him, served as his private secretary, and accompanied him almost everywhere, and was known as “Madame Chiang Kai-shek.”Not long after, and while still married to Jennie, Chiang fell in love with Song Meiling, whom he had met on several occasions. She was the sister of Sun Yat-sen’s widow, Song Chingling, to whom Chiang had also proposed twice, hoping to forge a political union. Her other sister, Ailing, was married to T.V. Song, a very wealthy banker. There seems to have been a political deal worked out through the mediation of Meiling’s sister Chingling, wedding the Song family wealth and Shanghai connections to Chiang’s military and political assets. When Chiang sought to marry Meiling, the strong Christian identity of the Songs meant that their daughter could not be joined to a non-believer.
It was also doubted whether Chiang had been properly divorced from his first wife, and there were persistent rumors about Jennie, whom Chiang had sent off to America without divorcing. Chiang produced proof of his divorce and discounted all stories about Jennie, claiming publicly that he did not know the woman who was calling herself “Mme Chiang.” (When Jennie returned from America after five years, Chiang provided housing and a living allowance for her until the 1960s, when he learned that she was planning to publish her memoir. Agents of the KMT succeeded in preventing publication of what would have been a damning expose of Chiang’s terrible temper, impetuosity, grandiose ambition, ruthless self-promotion, and callous treatment of her.)
When Meiling’s mother asked Chiang whether he would become a Christian, he replied that he would not change his religion just to marry Meiling, but he would read the Bible and pray for God to show him what he should do. Permission was granted, but Methodist church law forbade a church wedding between a Christian and an unbaptized person. Methodist Bishop Z.T. Kuang went to the Songs’ house to pray for the couple and pronounce a blessing upon them after a lavish civil ceremony on December 1, 1927.
Thenceforward, Chiang read his Bible daily (starting with the Old Testament), prayed privately, and knelt with his wife to pray. He resisted her efforts to persuade him to become a Christian, since he still had doubts and was not yet committed. Bishop Kuang answered his many questions, but did not press him to make a premature decision to follow Christ. In the midst of a campaign against a rebellious general, Chiang found himself surrounded, with capture and death imminent. He found a local Christian chapel, entered it, and told God that he would become a follower of Christ if he survived. A heavy snowstorm impeded his enemy’s advance, and Chiang’s forces gained the victory. He was baptized by Bishop Kuang in 1930. When asked why he had become a Christian, he replied, “I feel the need of a God such as Jesus Christ.”
In addition to his wife’s impact, he had perhaps also been influenced by the Christians in his government, since seven out of ten high officials in Nanjing were believers.
Quickly, Song Meiling became an essential source of strength and support, as Jennie had been. She helped Chiang keep up with world news, reading and digesting English publications daily; introduced him to Western literature, music, and culture; served as personal advisor, ambassador, and interpreter; and taught him English well enough so that he could both understand and speak the language, though this was not known by more than one or two Westerners until long after his death. Pretending to wait for the interpreter to finish before he responded, he could actually use that time to reflect on what he had heard and prepare his reply.
At the same time, his marriage, though outwardly harmonious, was wracked at times by conflict and tension, aggravated by Meiling’s extravagance and domineering personality, as well as by his intense emotions including a very bad temper. Later, however, the two became very loving towards each other, often holding hands in public despite traditional Chinese strictures against such an open display of affection.
Though he indulged Wei-guo, he was quite stern towards his natural son Ching-kuo, constantly exhorting him to improve his calligraphy and exercise strict self-discipline. During the brief alliance of the KMT with Soviet Russian communists, Chiang had allowed Ching-kuo to go to Moscow to be educated. The young man became known for his hard work and his utter devotion to the Marxist-Leninist revolution.His public denunciation of his father as a traitor after the purge of Communists in 1926 was sincere, and led to a deep split between them for several years. Upon Ching-kuo’s return to China, however, he rapidly became his father’s most trusted aide and second-in-command, especially after the retreat to Taiwan.
Close friends and associates have borne abundant testimony to Chiang’s daily Bible reading, prayer, and open affirmation of his faith in Christ. Some contemporaries say they noticed that after his baptism he seemed to believe less in force and more in conciliation. After gaining his release from his captors in Xian, he stated that he had been strengthened during his ordeal by reading the Bible and entrusting himself to God’s care, so that he did not fear death and thus would not give in to their threats and demands. He wrote in his diary, “The greatness and love of Christ burst upon me with new inspiration, increasing my strength to struggle against evil, to overcome temptation and to uphold righteousness…” He further claimed that he forgave the two main perpetrators because of the example of Christ on the Cross. Refusing to take credit for the victory over Japan, Chiang repeatedly thanked “Our Heavenly Father.”
A visitor to his house in Chongqing was stunned by a time of family prayer after dinner, during which the General asked God for strength and energy for his soldiers and himself; requested that God would help the Chinese people not to hate the Japanese; and calmly placed himself and his nation in God’s hands, imploring divine wisdom to know how to serve God the next day. Though some believe that his refusal to call for punitive action against Japan after the war reflected merely pragmatic interests, this glance into his private life shows that he may have acted out of a spirit of Christian forgiveness. In any case, his stance towards the Japanese, who had committed indescribably horrible atrocities in China, for which they have never adequately apologized, stands in stark contrast to the harsh penalties imposed by the “Christian” Allies upon Germany after World War I.
Chiang’s Christian commitment found expression in his diaries; his public statements; regular church attendance; and the open support of both Chinese and foreign Christians, including missionaries. One of the most public manifestations of his ethical convictions in his early years was the New Life Movement, an attempt to reform Chinese civilization and morals on the basis of Confucian principles, with some admixture of Christianity. Chiang and his wife poured enormous energy, time, and resources into this campaign, for which he solicited the help and support of Christian missionaries. They generally approved of the project, and in some places it took on a Christian flavor. The invasion of China by Japan put a virtual end to this ambitious undertaking, as it did to so much else that the Nationalist government was attempting.
In later years, Chiang was heavily involved in the translation and publication of Streams in the Desert into Chinese, and worked closely with John C.H. Wu in his translation of the New Testament, going over the draft and making suggested corrections many times. The front piece of Wu’s version of the Psalms indicates that it was produced “under the editorial supervision of Chairman Chiang.” Wu found enough material about China to write a 265-page book on his spiritual life, published in 1975.
During the 1960s, after Meiling was transformed by an awareness that Christ had died for her sins, Chiang’s relationship with her grew even closer, as the two often prayed together. Chiang’s diaries reveal his constant reliance upon God for wisdom and strength. Western missionaries who knew him in Taiwan report that he seemed humble, gentle, and genuine in his faith when they saw him in church each Sunday, and had no reason to doubt the sincerity of his Christian profession. Though the general populace of Taiwan were surprised to see a large cross at the head of the funeral cortege, and to read at the opening of his will that he had been “a follower of the Three Principles of the People and of Jesus Christ from his youth,“ those who had known Chiang were not.
On the other hand, some of his ideas, actions and personal characteristics seem to belie the depth of his faith, or at least its impact upon his conduct. Chiang read widely in the Confucian classics and in Chinese history, and believed strongly in the value of China’s culture heritage, especially Confucianism. During a crisis in his relationship with the United States, he wrote, “What I must do is accept the humiliation and wait for my opportunity … all depends on my self-reliance, self-scrutiny, self-mastery, and self-strengthening,” words which are typically Confucian. His Christian sermons seemed unclear on the distinctions between personal salvation and national recovery, and there is ample evidence that he saw himself as the “Messiah” or national savior, of China.
His long and consistent alliance with the Shanghai underworld made him complicit, at least to some degree, in their corruption and cruelty as did his reliance upon his own secret police, which engaged in countless acts of brutality. Reports of corruption on a grand scale by his wife’s family call his own integrity into question, though he had no power to control them; still his nepotism is undeniable. His decision to breach the levees of the Yellow River in order to stall the advance of the Japanese, and then again to halt the Communists, led to the deaths of thousands and deprived many more of their homes and livelihood. When a major disturbance broke out on Taiwan in February, 1947, Chiang ordered an immediate military suppression, which led to the death of thousands of Taiwanese. Four days later, he rescinded the order, but the damage had already been done. Though he replaced the governor responsible for giving him a misleading report, he did not punish him. In the following years, he actively allowed Ching-kuo to perpetrate what is known as the “White Terror,” in which thousands more were detained and at least a thousand executed.
Chiang’s positive character traits included extraordinary personal courage, a huge capacity for work, a very strong will, and immense stamina. In the face of repeated betrayal by the Americans, the Communists, and people close to him, he comforted himself with the words of the Bible and a daily reading of the devotional book, Streams in the Desert. In May of 1934 he wrote, “Believers in Jesus must control themselves, endure insults, and be patient in suffering. Every day [they[ must bear the cross along with Jesus.” He clearly imbibed the major theme of Streams in the Desert, which was “perseverance and unwavering faith in the face of failure, disaster, and martyrdom.”
On the other hand, he was notorious for refusing to take advice, or even to seek the counsel of advisers. He brooked no disagreement, and would fly into a rage when criticized. A fine strategist with prescient insight, he was a mediocre military leader who often issued orders from afar without any real knowledge of battlefield conditions, and then altered his plan without notice. More than once, he ordered loyal troops to fight to the death, knowing that their resistance was fruitless. Some of his closest companions considered him to be an arrogant egotist. There is evidence that he often said one thing and did another, or said one thing to one person and something else to another. Though he projected an image of imperturbable calm in public, he could cry like a baby behind closed doors.
In defense, many have argued that Chiang’s autocratic leadership style is simply the norm for Chinese, and can be found in some of the most outstanding Chinese church leaders even today; that he was surrounded by mortal enemies and spies, and could really trust no one; that his murderous purge of communists in Shanghai was undertaken only after his enemies had formed a rival government, committed atrocities and put a price on his head; that war compels one to make decisions that will cost many lives, in order to save more people; that he matured in his Christian character as he grew older; and that a Christian’s true heart can be known only to God. If his private diaries, public pronouncements, consistent support of Christian churches and foreign missionaries, and active involvement in the production of Christian literature which we have noted above mean anything, then we may perhaps say that Chiang Kai-shek’s Christian career represents the halting, stumbling, but steady pilgrimage towards the Celestial City of a sinner saved by grace. Final judgment belongs only to God.
- Robert Berkov, Strong Man of China: The Story of Chiang Kai-shek. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 1938.
- Anthony G. Bollback, Giants Walked Among Us: The Story of Paul and Ina Bartel. Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Christian Publications, Inc., 2002.
- H.H. Chang, Chiang Kai-shek: Asia’s Man of Destiny. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and company, In., 1944.
- Chieh-ju Chi’en, Chaing Kai-shek’s Secret Past: The Memoir of His Second Wife. Edited & with an introduction by Lloyed E. East man.San Francisco, CA: Westview Press, 1993.
- Elmer T. Clark, The Chiangs of China. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1944.
- Brian Crozier, The Man Who Lost China: The First Full Biography of Chiang Kai-shek. (Very helpful.)
- Austin K. Doyle, Admiral, US Navy (Retired). Private conversation with the author.
- Jonathan Fenby, Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004. (Filled with details from eyewitnesses.)
- Lloyd Haft, “Perspectives on John C.H. Wu’s Translation of the New Testament,” in Chloe Starr, editor, Reading Christian Scriptures in China. New York; T&T Clark, 2008.
- Robert Payne, Chiang Kai-shek. New York: Weybright & Talley, 1969.
- James H. Taylor, III. Private conversation with the author.
- Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000.
- _______, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
- Hollington K. Tong, Chiang Kai-shek. Taipei: China Publishing Company, 1953.
- _______________, Christianity in Taiwan: A History. Taipei: The China Post, 1961.