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.
After graduation from a military academy in Japan, where he had met Sun Yat-sen, Chiang become an enthusiastic supporter of the Chinese revolution, and joined the Tongmenghui (Sun’s organization), Chiang returned to China to participate in the revolt. 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 he unified much of the country, defeating warlords and breaking with the Communist Party, whose members he purged from the KMT.
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 (1927-1937. 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 Xi’an 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 Communists but also many corrupt members and exterminated the many communist agents who had been sent to the island, but also brutally suppressed the Taiwanese independence movement, earning much resentment as a result. His capable and honest son, Chiang Ching-kuo (Jiang JIngguo), helped to restore 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; 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. 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.
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.
Chiang Kai-shek cannot be understood apart from his intense commitment to the Chinese nationalist revolution, in its republican and not communist form. His early exposure to communism on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1923, and then the growing struggle with the Communists for struggle within the KMT, resulted in a profound aversion to Marxist-Leninist politics, even though he saw the need to re-organize the KMT along strict Leninist lines and followed Sun’s socialistic economic tendencies. He strongly believed that communism was inimical to Chinese culture and would prove disastrous for the Chinese nation. His refusal to resist Japanese aggression until he had suppressed the communists was based upon a fundamental strategic conviction, and not a personal rivalry with Mao Zedong.
When forced by domestic or American pressure to forge an alliance with the Communists, he did so with great reluctance and reserve, and never fully committed himself or his resources to that union.
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.)
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, the two settled upon a relatively amicable divorce, though his wife grieved deeply. Chiang Ching-kuo was their only son. Besides his first wife, and after their divorce, Chiang was reported to have several concubines, one of whom, Zhang Ah Feng (Chen Jieru; “Jennie”) he seems to have married in 1921. At this time, he contracted a form of venereal disease.
Not long after, he fell in love with Song Meiling, whom he had met on several occasions. There seems to have been a political deal worked out through the mediation of Meiling’s sister Ailing, wedding the Son family wealth and connections to Chiang’s military and political assets. When Chiang sought to marry Song Meiling, daughter of the wealthy financier T.V. Song, the strong Christian identity of the Songs meant that their daughter could not be joined to a non-believer. 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; 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. 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 spotted 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. 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.
Their marriage, though outwardly harmonious, was sometimes marked by conflict and tension, aggravated by Meiling’s extravagance, domineering personality, and probable infidelity, as well as by his intense emotions, bad temper and inability - or unwillingness - to engage in marital sexual relations.
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 sent Ching-kuo 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 Xi’an, 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. “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.
A visitor to his house in Chongqing was stunned by 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.
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. 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 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’s 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. His 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. This assessment was shared by his personal chaplain. 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. His Christian sermons seemed unclear on the distinctions between personal salvation and national recovery.
His long and consistent alliance with the Shanghai underworld made him complicit, at least to some degree, in their corruption and cruelty; likewise, 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. Though his role in the military suppression of Taiwanese dissent in the infamous February 28 incident is unclear, his active oversight of the ensuing White Terror is well established.
Chiang’s positive character traits included extraordinary personal courage, a huge capacity for work, a very strong will, and immense stamina.
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 mediocre military leader, he 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.
His lifelong commitment to Confucianism makes some wonder whether his fundamental faith was more a matter of traditional Chinese ethics than Christian belief. Did his extraordinary self-control in public stem from dependence upon God, or upon the inner strength he had long learned to cultivate?
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.