Chiang Kai-Shek, by Jonathan Fenby

April 3, 2011 at 20:07 (Asian History, Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , )

9/10

A remarkably coherent and deeply focused look at Chiang, and a surprisingly comprehensive study of China through the first several decades of the last century. Fenby spends a judicious amount of time devoted to the background of China, including the Warlord Period; the life, philosophies and influence of Sun Yat-Sen; foreign activity in China (from the Western Concessions and the eventual meddling of the League of Nations all the way down to petty despots carving out miniature fiefdoms). While Chiang does not appear on the scene for some time, Fenby dedicates enough time to make his reader feel intimately acquainted with the country Chiang took over, without sacrificing anything in the way of either quantity or quality in his study of the Generalissimo himself.

Considering the vast scope that Fenby allows himself, it is surprising he has the stamina to stay on track and (regardless of cliffhanging international events) bring things back to Chiang without doing any disservice to the communication of the big picture. Perhaps it is simply Fenby’s good fortune that Chiang was so often at the centre of the key events – or, like Tehran and Yalta, then at least wishing he was at the centre. Whether through good fortune or skilled writing, the end result is a startlingly hollistic view of the early twentieth century, and while (as always) a grounding in the politics of the time is invaluable, this book almost precludes the need for familiarity with its subjects.

When considering the outright hostile contempt present in the subtitle–China’s Generalissimo and the nation he lost–it would be entirely natural to expect this book to be riddled through with lingering sentiments regarding the ‘yellow devil’ and his innate inability to carry out his own manifest destiny, and the crying shame it was that the good old boys of Western Europe and the Americas were not able to pull his chestnuts out of the fire in time (the latter a phrase that Chiang, of all people, frequently uses!). Fortunately, this book seems to be refreshingly free of condescension, and if Chiang and Mao (not to mention the warlords) are painted as belligerent, stupid and arrogant men at times, then the same treatment is given to the depressingly mad Patrick Hurley, or the tired old George Marshall, or the senselessly squabbling Stilwell and Chennault. It is a tragicomic mix of megalomaniacs and tyrants, of fools and slaves, of greed and mass murder; but one feels that (whatever this account’s actual failings) Fenby has certainly gone to some effort to depict his chosen slice of history fairly.

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