Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, also known as Jiang Jieshi or Jiang Zhongzheng note , was born in 1887 to a middle-class merchant family. While studying in Japan, he became an avid Chinese revolutionary-nationalist.
When the former Qing general Yuan Shikai managed to seize control of Beijing, declaring an end to the Manchu dynasty, the Empire was formally dissolved and replaced by a Republic under the presidency of the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen/Sun Zhongshan note . Yuan Shikai soon used his control of the Zhili- (Beijing-)region's military forces to seize power and declare himself Emperor in a highly unpopular and little-supported move. Upon his death in 1916, the country fragmented completely and came under the control of various Warlord factions. Sun Yat-sen went on to re-found the Kuomintang, or Guomindang, as the 'Chinese Kuomintang' Party in Guangzhou, in league with friendly warlord allies. It should be noted that the KMT was more of a coalition with various wings, each having their own idea on how a Chinese republic should be run. These ranged from liberal to conservative, from authoritarian to democratic, but they all wanted to see China unified and not run by a monarchy. Due to Sun and Chiang taking regular advice both the left and right wings, the KMT was effectively centrist throughout most of the 20th century, allowing them to ally with Germany, the USSR and the USA at various points.
After returning from his military-education in Japan, Chiang served as the first Commandant of the famous Whampoa Military Academy - which oversaw the training of the core of the Kuomintang's military forces for Sun's programme of centralisation through the use of armed force. The academy produced most of the famous Chinese generals of the age, and some other notables like the Academy's Socialist Ideology Teacher/Instructor Ho Chi Minh. Sun died after just a few years, and not long after his death Chiang claimed leadership of the Kuomintang from the left-leaning Wang Jingwei and launched the long-awaited Northern Expedition (in league with the Socialist parties, like the Communist Party of China).
In 1920, Chiang met his "fourth" note and most famous wife, Soong Mei-ling, the youngest of the famous Soong sisters. Educated in America, fluent in English (speaking with a Georgia accent) and belonging to one of the wealthiest families in China, 'Madame Chiang' was an effective diplomat, and instrumental in establishing foreign relations with Allied leaders later on. Soong Mei-ling stayed with Chiang for the rest of her life, and had no children with him. Interestingly, Chiang converted to Christianity by decree of Soong's mother, and prayed every morning alongside his morning meditations. note
By the end of the Northern Expedition, Chiang was dubbed "The Red General" due to his close ties with Soviet leaders and alleged communist sympathies. However, halfway through the 1927 campaign, Chiang decided to eradicate the socialists within the KMT government and army, initiating the Shanghai Massacre which saw the purges of thousands of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members. This soon escalated into a campaign of "White Terror" up the Yangzi to Wuhan, which the socialist members of the KMT had just taken - and which was in serious danger of becoming an independent power-base for them, from which they could easily backstab Chiang and take Nanjing-Shanghai if he continued to campaign northward without destroying them as a major political force. With the socialist elements gone, the KMT quickly swung from a democratic government to an authoritarian one under Chiang, who ruled China as a military dictator. Following Sun's theory of 'the People's tutelage', where China would be put under one-party rule until the people were educated enough for actual democracy, all other political parties were expelled except the KMT. Although Sun had not encouraged it, Chiang also began eliminating any form of opposition to KMT rule, usually via bullets and the secret police.
Chiang went on to use anti-communist campaigns repeatedly as an excuse to move his troops into various areas and effectively take over from the local warlords, capturing the area for his own regime. His 'allies' didn't like this very much, and was the main reason why they would later team up and try to take him down. The socialist Kuomintang's standing armies in the Wuhan-Hunan area were crushed by the end of 1927, however, and the survivors went on to found several Communist Parties and Communes/Soviets in the mid-Yangzi region which Chiang went on to crush after he had finished 'unifying' the country later the next year. This unification was in name only, however, as Chiang effectively had to choose between fighting everyone and making compromises. Given the weakness of the country's factions, especially compared to an increasingly jingoistic empire on their doorstep, he tried to take out most of his political enemies without fighting - i.e. through politicking, or assassination or effectively annexing their territories in the course of Communist Suppression campaigns and 'campaigns'.
In 1929 Zhang Xueliang, Warlord of Manchuria and son of the late Zhang Zuolin (Warlord of the same) overplayed his hand with the Soviets and basically started a Sino-Soviet War when the Red Army marched in to give him a dressing-down. Zhang had been pursuing a programme of flirtation with the Soviets to preserve his freedom of action with the Kuomintang, and vice versa, but his years spent as his father's protege had not taught him about the subtleties of politics and diplomacy - Xueliang had spent his time fighting his father's wars, not dealing with their fallout. Zhang pleaded with Chiang and the Kuomintang for help in repelling them, and aid was sent, but their forces were no match for the Red Army's superior logistics, organisation, and abundance of heavy weaponry. Zhang was forced to give economic concessions to the Soviets and, with his army weakened, was left both indebted to and dependent on Chiang.
In 1930, after two years of chafing under Chiang's attempts to expand his power-base at their expense, China's greatest Warlords formed a grand alliance to topple Chiang and destroy the Kuomintang once and for all. The Central Plains War began when the powerful New Guangxi Clique, Yan Xishan of Shanxi and Shaanxi, and Feng Yuxiang of Anhui teamed up and attacked the Kuomintang on all sides - only Long Yun of Yunnan and Zhang Xueliang of Manchuria abstained from joining in the fun. Though the situation was grim at first, as the Kuomintang's forces were outnumbered and the regime teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the Kuomintang eventually pulled through - though the Guangxi Clique had taken Guangdong from them, their geographical remoteness from the Yangzi and the core of Kuomintang territory meant that Chiang had had time enough to annex Feng's territories before focusing on them and Yan. Then, when it looked like Chiang might win after all, Zhang declared his support for Chiang and made threatening moves against Yan in the north. Yan and the Guangxi clique soon signed a peace with Chiang, much of the North China Plain remaining in the hands of the Kuomintang and formerly-KMT Guangdong province in those of the Guangxi Clique. With the end of the Central Plains' War, the Kuomintang was confirmed as China's strongest faction and the Warlord Era was over.
A year later, at the height of a Kuomintang 'Communist Suppression Campaign' which Chiang was using to gain control over the various petty warlords of the upper Yangzi basin, units of the Imperial Japanese Army struck out on their own and attacked the forces of 'the Young Marshal' warlord Zhang Xueliang (son of the late warlord Zhang Zuolin, whom the Japanese had assassinated). They went on to soundly beat the Manchurian warlord's forces, driving him from his old powerbase and causing him to call on Jiang for aid. Chiang ignored him, though Zhang's appeals to Chinese nationalism seemed to strike a chord that Chiang realised it would be difficult to ignore in future. He knew China and the KMT were too weak to take on Japan and win; but he couldn't say that, not directly. Instead he famously quipped, "The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The Communists are a disease of the heart". Several generations of textbooks produced by the Board of Education of the People's Republic of China, and the textbooks of many highschool children throughout the Anglosphere, have used this quote to decisively prove that Chiang was both unpatriotic and unhinged (because of his apparent fixation upon Communism when the Japanese clearly presented a greater threat).
What is not often mentioned is the fact that the Kuomintang did fight Japan the very next year, in the 1932 January 28 incident at Shanghai. Chiang had his doubts about his forces' preparedness before then, but the battle revealed numerous weaknesses and deficiencies (of unit and command-structure, of logistics, of training, of equipment) that would likely have proven utterly disastrous had the battle escalated into a full-blown war. The Kuomintang was forced to abandon its programmes of land-reform and focus on preparing its military for war; desperate for support, Chiang turned to Weimar and then Nazi Germany to provide his forces with the arms and the training they needed; he had his staff set out a programme for the reorganisation and rearmament of the Kuomintang's forces and a plan for the defence of the country, with the help of the renowned General Alexander von Falkenhausen. He even sent his adopted son to train with the Wehrmacht's officer corps. In the meantime, however, he set his troops about another series of Communist and 'Communist' suppression campaigns.
Four years into the ten-year plan to reform his forces, Chiang's troops were poised to launch a final suppression campaign against the forces of the Chinese Communist Party - 'final', as it had a very good chance of success. Chiang made the mistake, however, of entrusting command of the forces to the skilled but embittered Zhang Xueliang. When Chiang came to oversee the beginning of the campaign to crush the Yan'an Soviet, which was on Yan Xishan's proverbial doorstep, Zhang (with a measure of assistance from Yan) had his soldiers massacre Chiang's guards and hold him hostage, demanding that he agree to an Anti-Japanese Alliance with him and the Communists - or he'd kill him. Chiang called his bluff on the 'killing' thing, at least partly because Yan Xishan had quite carefully explained to Zhang just how likely it was the country would dissolve into chaos if Chiang died (i.e. almost certainly). But Chiang recognised the groundswell of popular opinion that supported Zhang's proposal, though not the way in which he'd put it forward, and he called off the campaign. He still had Zhang imprisoned, though - for the rest of his life. note
When the Second Sino-Japanese War came a year later, in the summer of 1937, it started in the north. Ironically enough, Japan's High Command had just begun to re-assert a degree of control over its forces for the first time in decades (Korea-based elements of the Army had basically dragged the entire country into the Manchurian endeavour by acting more-or-less independently). Unlike their field commanders, High Command had a realistic idea of just how expensive and pointless a protracted war with China would be; accordingly, they were beginning to prepare to disengage from China, as they were sympathetic to the cause of the (like them, anti-Communist) Kuomintang.
However, bourgeois and popular urban Chinese opinion had already been strained to the breaking point by the hostile actions of semi-independent Japanese forces in the past decade. The larger-than-usual border clashes between Zhang Xueliang's and Japanese-friendly forces in the north were effectively made into a war when Chiang attacked the Japanese quarter in Shanghai. A three month long, million-man battle which saw the use of artillery, tanks, planes and warships later, Shanghai was in Japanese hands with several hundred thousand Kuomintang troops dead - over two thirds of Chiang's best and most loyal German-trained troops of the 'reformed' core army under von Falkenhausen were killed.
Japan went on to occupy the very heartland of Kuomintang territory - the entire lower Yangtze delta all the way up to Wuhan, which fell the next year - with Kuomintang forces fighting, and dying, hard, yet successfully dragging Japan into a stalemate. For four years the Guomindang fought Japan alone, holding onto just one major agricultural area (the recently-subjugated upper Yangtze basin), a mountain range (Henan-Jiangxi), some mines, and a handful of factories disassembled in their entirety and hauled a thousand miles upriver (by ox-cart in many cases) to Chongqing, wartime capital of Kuomintang China and most-heavily-bombed city in history. Operation Zet - a generous delivery of Soviet aeroplanes, artillery, small-arms, petrol, machine-tools (so KMT factories could be re-tooled to produce ammunition) and technical assistance - and continued Soviet 'donations' delivered by truck through Mongolia made continuing to fight the war possible, and Soviet loans helped fill the massive holes in the Kuomintang's budget. All those supplies were essential, you see, as the Kuomintang were unable to produce any of those goods (though they could make some ammunition for them) by themselves and the Japanese had made it virtually impossible to get those goods by sea. But both Soviet military supplies and credit dried up soon after the Soviets' resounding victory under General Zhukov at Nomonhan/Khalkhin Gol and the resultant Soviet-Japanese Non-Aggression Pact. By 1940, the Kuomintang was totally on their own, only saved by Japanese military incompetence and the fact that the KMT army was constantly mobilizing, despite their chronic supply problems.
After four years of warfare, by 1941 the Kuomintang was on the verge of collapse. Soviet aid had been invaluable to the Kuomintang's survival to-date, but no longer. The Kuomintang had to scale-back the war effort now, as they didn't actually have enough ammunition to sustain an open war anymore - the 1938 Battle of Wuhan had seen a full quarter of the entire Kuomintang's ammunition used up, and that was when they still had Soviet assistance. The Kuomintang had turned to buying the petrol, machine tools, and military supplies they needed via French Indochina and British Burma. But compared to the days of Soviet Aid it was just a trickle, and Japan had since occupied French Indochina and thus cut the Kunming-Saigon railway in two. A single, narrow road - the 'Burma Road' - through the mountains was the Kuomintang's only remaining link to the outside world. And with the Kuomintang scraping the bottom of the fiscal barrel and most of the world's industrial 'slack' now occupied producing war material for powers that weren't as broke as them, the road was pretty much useless as they could barely afford to buy and ship anything over it.
Japan hadn't sued for anything less than an extremely advantageous peace because they had lost a lot already (no thanks to their repeated atrocities on the locals enraging the Chinese armies), and they knew the Kuomintang couldn't possibly win just holding onto a few scraps of territory. They were right; since '39-'40, the Kuomintang had been forced to resort to increasingly extreme (and brutal) measures to survive. Where before they had only taxed the towns, now they taxed the peasants too. Moreover, they had once collected all of their own taxes; but now they had to 'farm' the collection out to local landlords. In 1937 they had administered their provinces from Nanjing; now, they were forced to let the provinces govern themselves. Even conscription - needed to fill the ranks, now that the supply of willing recruits had been exhausted - was beyond their means. The Kuomintang basically had to issue quotas to the local and regional governments, and pray that said governments weren't too brutal in the way they met them. Inflation, too, resulted as the Kuomintang was forced to print money in ever-larger amounts to pay its troops.
These problems were not solved when Japan brought the USA into the war, but US Loans did at least help stave off the Kuomintang's imminent implosion; however, the rest of the war was marked by an inexorable deterioration in the quality of the Kuomintang as a military force and as a regime. At least part of this was due to the inflation; though less money needed to be printed, the effective injection of so much extra money into a closed economy devoted almost entirely to producing things which did not further economic growth (bullets, shells, helmets, bandages) meant that the inflation got exponentially worse (because the economy shrank even as the amount of money in the economy became ever-greater). It was during the war that the Kuomintang, understandably, began to be associated with inefficiency and corruption.
Although they possessed excellent infantry weapons, such as the Type 24 service rifle, the powerful Mauser C96 and the ZB vz. 26 light machine gun, Chiang's National Revolutionary Army on the whole was horribly underequipped, undertrained and badly lacking morale compared to the Japanese. Most divisions had no artillery at all, and with the Chinese air force busy dealing with Japanese planes, no air support. Throughout the war, most Chinese troops had to defend key points only armed with bolt-action rifles, machine guns and stick grenades, plus any mortars they had if they could get them. Meanwhile, their attackers were often backed up by artillery, tanks, poison gas and aircraft. Machine guns were effective in stopping banzai charges, but a platoon had one light machine gun on average, while entire battalions only got a single heavy machine gun. This meant that banzai charges often inflicted heavy casualties on Chinese defenders, even if they outnumbered the Japanese attackers. Equipment losses were also high enough that by the late stages of the war, a large amount of Chinese equipment in the field was captured from the Japanese, such as sword bayonets and combat webbing.
Despite his victories against the warlords, Chiang demonstrated poor military skills when fighting the Japanese in 1937, often issuing unrealistic orders and sacrificing his best soldiers to fight Pyrrhic battles, losing much of his elite and best-trained German divisions during the costly Battle of Shanghai of 1937, and bungling the defense of Nanjing. As a result, his army suffered frequent defeats and his government was forced to relocate many times throughout the war. Once he figured out that a defensive war of attrition was a far better strategy, his troops were able to inflict large casualties on Japan and score a few victories, despite frequent defeats partly thanks to their ever-atrocious supply. The KMT survived largely due to foreign aid from the USSR, and later from America and their Lend-Lease program.
A few Chinese divisions were sent to fight in Burma, becoming the X Force and Y Force. Trained by the the Americans, X Force became extremely competent troops, so much that there were mistaken for foreigners when they arrived back in China. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Chinese-equipped Y Force were built up into the Chinese Expeditionary Force, retrained by the Americans and showed their skills in the Burma Campaign of 1944-45. Sadly, the rest of the NRA's troops did not enjoy such loving care. Most of Chiang's troops by 1945 were still badly treated, badly fed and many beat up civilians when things went wrong. Extensive training of NRA forces by the Americans and better supply helped remedy this aspect somewhat, but it was never enough to fully improve the Chinese army. Chinese troops did gain a few victories, such as the Battle of Taierzhuang and the defense of Changsha in 1939 and 1941. But for the most part, the Chinese military record often consisted of defeats, compared to the other three Allied powers.
Chiang also frequently clashed with his American military advisor Joseph Stilwell, who - despite his own demonstrable incompetence as a leader - was angered by what he saw as endemic and characteristically oriental incompetence and corruption in the Kuomintang regime. Because of his frequent demand for American aid which produced few visible results, Chiang earned (courtesy of Stilwell) the nickname "General Cash-My-Check". Stilwell's reports back to America portrayed Chiang and the Nationalists in the worst possible light, such as Chiang refusing to relieve Stilwell's men in Burma, despite Chiang actually sending 10,000 men and the 200th Division to help. His powerful relationship with the press gave Stilwell even more clout, and China began to sink lower in the eyes of the Allies. It didn't help that Stilwell's anger against Chiang turned into an obsession into besting 'the peanut'. A common belief is that Chiang stockpiled most of his lend-lease equipment to fight the Communists after defeating Japan, which greatly irritated the Americans. While this is true to some extent, such as how American equipment only became widespread in KMT forces during the civil war, Stilwell also had a hand in the matter by tightly controlling the flow of lend-lease supplies to China. This meant that the X and Y-Forces received most of the American equipment, while only a handful reached the Central Army. Eventually, Stilwell became toxic enough that he was relieved in 1944 and replaced by Albert Wedemeyer, who was far less caustic and willingly wanted to help Chiang. Wedemeyer managed to continue Stilwell's attempt to modernize the KMT forces and expand the Hump's airlift operations, as well as assisting the American pilots within China.
However, it's worth noting that Chiang had a soft spot for Stilwell as Stilwell was basically one of the few public figures in the USA who wanted America to help equip and reform the Kuomintang's military forces, as well as having a strong friendship with one of the KMT's greatest commanders, Sun Li-jen. That the Kuomintang received the little aid that it did - small arms and equipment enough to outfit half a million men, as compared to the tens of thousands of tanks, planes, and artillery pieces given to the Soviet Union - was largely a result of Stilwell's public insistence upon the matter.
The rot that had set in during the course of the war proved irreversible in the post-war years. For even though the regime apparently emerged from the war stronger than ever, and was part of the 'Big Four' of the Allies, in reality the Kuomintang had been critically weakened by endemic corruption and gross inefficiency at the lower levels of government, as well as 'increased' inter-factional rivalries between the different warlord coalitions under its wing. Combined with Stilwell's negative reports, America now had little confidence in Chiang's government. Truman was furious at both the KMT's corruption and demands for aid and money, imposing an arms embargo on China in response. Wedemeyer attempted to help by asking his government to ship captured German ammunition over to China, but it was denied. However, the Americans also wished to see China become a strong ally in the postwar world, especially as relations between the USSR and the USA drifted apart. With their persuasion, Chiang considered ending the "People's Tutelage" and slowly introduce representative democracy to China through a new constitution. The first "election" was held to elect a new leader for the KMT. Chiang won a landslide victory and declared himself first President of the ROC. But as negotiations with Mao broke down, both sides quickly mobilized their forces and the civil war restarted on 31st March, 1946.
Chiang had only been made more paranoid and distrustful by the highly stressful experience of the war (and the usual near-assassination and near-coup experiences) and so assumed even more official positions in the Kuomintang - so many, in fact, that it was physically impossible for him to do them all properly even in the course of his relentless sixteen-hour working days. The failure of the Kuomintang's autumn-winter offensive of 1946 to crush the Communist Party is partly the result of his failure as a general, but also his failure as an administrator; his troops basically ran out supplies half-way, allowing the Communist forces to flee from Yan'an largely intact. Such oversights could have been survivable, however, had Chiang not already decided to spread his loyal and allied forces across such a large area of north China and Manchuria, without bringing their overall c. 2:1 numerical superiority to bear on any one part of that area. This meant that the Kuomintang didn't have enough troops to either secure areas properly or force the Communists into decisive battle, meaning they were whittled away by constant attacks on their supply lines and on isolated forces. Badly treated in both training and at the front, morale sank among Nationalist troops, and many defected to the Communists, with the rate increasing as the war went on.
The Peoples' Liberation Army's unified command and unit structure also paid dividends in the regular fighting that followed in Manchuria in 1947, wherein most of the NRA forces there - some of the Kuomintang's best - were isolated and cut off, then exterminated. Though the troops numbers were about equal after this point, the raw numbers betrayed a massive organisational advantage on the part of the Communist Party, which commanded the complete loyalty and obedience of most of its commanders and soldiers - something Chiang could never achieve despite his best efforts.
The KMT went down hard, however, and the civil war took on an ever more brutal character as a year of regular battles were waged across north- and central-China. The Communists' organisational advantage eventually showed, and the NRA was driven back and eventually made an epic Last Stand at the Yangzi. When the line was broken, the Kuomintang broke with it. Chiang took what remained of his loyal forces - a couple hundred thousand NRA troops - and used them to ship the national bank's precious metal reserves, hundreds of national treasures and two million refugees to the islands of Hainan and Taiwan. The People's Republic of China was proclaimed just months later, on the First of October 1949.
Hainan fell just a year later - the People's Liberation Army basically commandeered every boat in China south of Shanghai - but Taiwan held out, at least in part due to the US giving Chiang's regime its backing. During his rule in Taiwan, Chiang, ruling as President for Life, finally succeeded in creating a modernized and well-disciplined army, as well as centralizing his power by ruling over Taiwan with an iron fist, imprisoning or killing any opposition in a period known as the "White Terror" in Taiwan. KMT corruption was also ended to an extent, and Chiang's government recognized limited civil liberties, although they refused to hold elections. Believing the Communist regime fragile, Chiang dreamed of leading a crusade to retake the mainland. After two decades of such preparations, failed attempts to put them into practice and attempts by the US to stop Chiang from wrecking their diplomatic relations with the PRC, he came to accept that this was a pipe dream, and he died in 1975. The KMT also became a centre-right political party after years of being centrist.
Following his death, his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo slowly undid his father's legacy of brutal political repression (but not his legacy of military strength, good governance note and economic prosperity), and paved the way for Taiwan to be come a stable parliamentary democracy, becoming one of the most revered statesmen in Asian public memory.
Unlike his son and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang remains a incredibly divisive figure today, both in mainland China and Taiwan. He is well-known for his personal incorruptibility, honesty, and frugality - in contrast to the incredible corruption of his government. Chiang is also credited for keeping the entire KMT and all its various wings united under him, a remarkable feat considering how utterly divided China was throughout the first half of the 20th century. He's also quite unfairly blamed for 'infighting' with 'fellow Nationalist leaders' that were to all intents and purposes the leaders of independent countries (particularly the New Guangxi Clique under Li Zongren) whom he only barely managed to bully into helping. Perhaps most of all, he is blamed for the Communists winning the civil war, although the question of "Who lost China?" remains unresolved. Detractors point to Chiang's authoritarian military dictatorship, his inability to improve the lives of China's peasants or end KMT corruption in China, demonstrating poor military skills when fighting the Japanese in the early years of the war, his boneheaded management of the civil war from 1946 onwards, and his violent treatment of the Taiwanese under his rule.
Oddly enough, few mention his political purges and repression in Chinanote as well as Taiwan, where the KMT began the second longest period of martial law in history under Chiang's rule. Beginning with the February 28 incident, the decades of martial law saw tens of thousands (many who were actually innocent) of Taiwanese killed or imprisoned, turned the island into a brutally-run police state and wiped out most of the Taiwanese intellectual elite. Many of the survivors of the 228 Incident deeply resent Chiang and dislike the KMT, with some even vandalizing statues of Chiang on the anniversary of the incident. Some Taiwanese of the Hoklo minority that were targeted during the Terror also have nostalgia for Imperial Japan's rule of Taiwan compared to the KMT's, and Chiang is practically reviled on the island today note . However, Taiwanese aborigines tend to challenge this view, as they suffered from racial persecution and vicious pogroms under Japanese rule. Although the KMT attempted to forcibly assimilate the aborigines into Han Chinese culture, most aborigines were spared from the Terror and the KMT also introduced several patronage programs that allowed aborigines to get jobs.
However, he is also credited for partial re-unification of China by subjugating and attempting to eradicate the Warlords and - most importantly - leading China through her War of Resistance against Japan, while Mao sat back for the most part. Interestingly, today's Mainland China is very much as Chiang seems to have wanted it (a largely-capitalist economy, but with a dictatorial government and state-owned companies in key industries) - and is almost nothing like what Mao wanted it to be, despite the mainland remaining officially Communist and revering Mao as the founder of the nation.