Cover: The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, from Harvard University PressCover: The Generalissimo in PAPERBACK

The Generalissimo

Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China

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Product Details


$24.00 • £19.95 • €21.50

ISBN 9780674060494

Publication Date: 04/30/2011


752 pages

6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches

41 halftones, 4 maps

Belknap Press


Taylor succeeds in recovering a complicated man who was responsible for military and economic success as well as stunning failures… The Generalissimo is now the best English-language biography available. Taylor has considerable narrative skills, and is the first Western biographer to have drawn on Chiang Kai-shek’s handwritten diaries.—Jeremy Brown, The Times Literary Supplement

Now that Jay Taylor has written his comprehensive book The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, we are able to see Chiang as a man of considerable cunning, brutality and patience who skillfully played a weak hand against the Japanese and Mao’s forces while extracting huge sums from the Americans.—Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Times Book Review

This enthralling book by Jay Taylor of Harvard University shows that [the] conventional views of both Chiang and the Chinese civil war are caricatures. It is the first biography to make full use of the Chiang family archive. This includes Chiang’s own diary, in which he wrote at least a page of classical Chinese daily from 1918 to 1972. The picture that emerges is of a far more subtle and prescient thinker than the man America’s General Joseph Stilwell used to refer to as ‘peanut,’ and Britain’s chief of staff, Field-Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, dismissed in Cairo as ‘a cross between a pine marten and a ferret.’The Economist

Jay Taylor’s new biography, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, challenges the catechism on which generations of Americans have been weaned. Marshaling archival materials made newly available to researchers, including about four decades’ worth of Chiang’s daily diaries and documents from the Soviet era, it torpedoes many of that catechism’s cherished tenets. This is an important, controversial book… Chiang emerges as a flesh-and-blood man rather than the buffoonish cardboard-cutout figure he has generally been portrayed as.—Laura Tyson Li, The Washington Post Book World

Chiang Kai-shek has long been viewed as a failure for having lost mainland China to Mao’s People’s Liberation Army in a stunningly short span of time. This richly detailed biography argues that Chiang’s neo-Confucian vision for a modern China may yet win… Drawing on a revelatory cache of newly available diaries and records, Taylor reveals the complexities of the soldier and statesman, showing him to be shockingly brutal at times, oddly passive at others, naïvely earnest, quick to tears, and always surrounded by intrigue.The New Yorker

Taylor shows in great detail that Chiang and his often-maligned troops fought more effectively against Japan’s heavily armed and well trained war machine than is generally realized. He also depicts in a mostly positive light Chiang’s performance during a quarter of a century in exile at the head of the Nationalist government on Taiwan, where he set the stage for the island’s shift from dictatorship to democracy… Generalissimo is well-written, and takes on an epic quality as Taylor guides us through many turning points in modern Chinese history. He draws on new materials, but his greatest strength is the fairness of his approach.—Dan Southerland, The Christian Science Monitor

Master of his material, [Taylor] provides excellent in-depth accounts of episodes such as Chiang’s kidnapping by Zhang Xueliang, the Manchurian exiled warlord, at Christmas 1936, the negotiations over the years between Nationalists and Communists and the old man’s later years in Taiwan… This is the most thorough inquest on the Generalissimo so far.—Jonathan Fenby, Times Higher Education

More than three decades after his death, Chiang is still the most controversial and polarizing figure in Taiwanese politics. In his new biography, Jay Taylor attempts to weave a life out of historical fact and rescue one of the central figures of modern Chinese history from the emotional effervescence of both supporters and detractors… Taylor does much to overturn the popular reading of [Chiang] and to illustrate Chiang’s contributions to the Allied war effort. While his scholarship presents a more nuanced view of Chiang, it also uncovers a darker narrative for the Allies, who repeatedly failed to honor their commitments to Chiang… Judging by his stated goal of challenging assumptions and rounding out cardboard characterizations of Chiang, Taylor succeeds admirably. He uncovers a man devoted to reversing a century of humiliation in China.—Robert Green, Far Eastern Economic Review

The traditional view of ‘General Cash-My-Check’ as a corrupt and incompetent bit-part player in the story of modern Chinese history is overturned here. Taylor suggests that far from being an incompetent dictator he was actually a shrewd and even noble man, making the best out of a bad hand.—George Pendle, Financial Times

Even in the rapidly widening field of modern Chinese history, it is unusual and gratifying to read a book that upsets not only the reader’s previous views but even those of the author himself… Now a different Chiang stands before us. Drawing on new material, years of interviews with the dwindling number of those with first-hand memories of the Chiang family, and scrutiny of Chiang’s voluminous diaries, Taylor reveals a much more interesting and despite his stiff exterior, frequently adaptable Chiang… The book is a huge advance on our knowledge of what happened in China from the early twentieth century to the present day, when an updated version of Chiang’s Kuomintang is again in power in Taipei… There will be no oblivion [for Chiang]. Jay Taylor has seen to that… A substantial and comprehensive contribution to our knowledge of China.—Jonathan Mirsky, Literary Review

A new and apparently exhaustive biography… This could well be one of the more important non-fiction books of the year.—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

[An] important book… Coming closer to Chiang than previous biographers, Taylor provides new insight on his character—a combination of unwavering physical bravery and discipline with a sense of martyrdom and shame… Taylor’s long section on Chiang’s years in Taiwan is one of the most masterful parts of his book, opening up a subject that no one else had seriously investigated.—Andrew J. Nathan, The New Republic online

This careful culling and quoting of Chiang’s diaries is a device Taylor uses effectively to show Chiang’s personal qualities. Taylor rejects the commonly held notion that these diaries deserve to be ignored, as being devoid of historical interest; instead, by juxtaposing quotations from Chiang’s diaries with vivid and detailed descriptions of the major political and military events unfolding in the wider world, he gives a kind of intimacy to what otherwise might be merely inchoate reflections. Thus, to some extent, Taylor has been able to construct a series of more emotional linkages between Chiang and the world within which he worked.—Jonathan D. Spence, The New York Review of Books

Reading [Taylor’s] excellent, scholarly work, the fruit of five years’ research, one does not warm to Chiang but comes to appreciate the emotional complexity of his character, and to admire his fortitude in the face of colossal odds.—Simon Scott Plummer, The Tablet

What makes Taylor’s biography unique is his use of documents from the Guomindang Party’s archive and Chiang’s recently released diaries, which span the entirety of Chiang’s adult life and offer intimate insight into his inner world, particularly his relationships with his sons and his struggle to reconcile Confucianism and Christianity… In describing each period, Taylor is always careful to situate Chiang in the context of domestic and international politics, thus making this book an accessible introduction to modern Chinese politics.—L. Teh, Choice

American historians tend to portray Chiang Kai-Shek (1887–1975) as an inept dictator who mismanaged China until Mao Zedong expelled him in 1945 and he finished his life ruling Taiwan under the protection of the U.S. military. But this…lucid biography by Taylor, a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, describes an impressive figure who left China a greater legacy than he has been given credit for… Taylor does not conceal Chiang’s brutality and diplomatic failures, but he is an admirer who makes a good case that Chiang governed an almost ungovernable country with reasonable skill and understood his enemies better than American advisers did.Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The story of Chiang Kai-shek is so big, so interwoven with the story of modern China, and so complex, that it has defied a good biographical treatment. Now, Jay Taylor has provided us with a strong, vivid, and eminently readable biography of this major twentieth-century leader that captures his ‘life and times’ better than any previous work in English.—William C. Kirby, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University

This splendid biography far surpasses previous scholarship on Chiang Kai-shek, providing new insights into the savage international and civil wars in China that raged for almost thirty years as well as Chiang’s quarter century on Taiwan where he laid the predicate for democratic governance on the besieged island.—David Lampton, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Chiang Kai-shek rivaled Mao as a dominant figure in the history of modern China. Taylor has taken a fresh look at his long, eventful life based on new sources, and suggests a controversial but persuasive new reading of Chiang’s motives and actions. This vividly realized account will be the authoritative work for a long time to come.—Andrew J. Nathan, author of China’s Transition

Following his masterful account The Generalissimo’s Son, Taylor has fully tapped Chiang Kai-shek’s personal diaries and a comprehensive range of sources to provide the most authoritative assessment of this towering figure in the Chinese revolution and global politics of the 20th century.—Robert Sutter, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Awards & Accolades

  • Honorable Mention, 2010 Bernard Schwartz Book Award, Asia Society
  • 2010 Lionel Gelber Prize, Lionel Gelber Foundation, Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, and Foreign Policy
  • A Financial Times Best History Book of 2009
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