This is one of the most difficult book reviews I have done – this book was literally one of the most difficult, slowest books I have read in recent memory and yet was also incredibly compelling. Chiang Kai Shek is someone who is fascinating and yet is as a major World War 2 personality I know the least about. What does his famous title “Generalissimo” even mean!?
Given these fundamental questions almost everyone in America has about the second world war, The Generalissimo by Jay Taylor answers these questions (in passing), showing how amazing this book really is. Chiang Kai Shek, aka Chaing Jie Shi, aka Chiang ZhongZheng (thanks Chinese) is one of the most important, influential, and interesting figures of the 20th century, and it’s therefore amazing how little most histories give to him.
China in the early 20th century was weak country with gigantic potential. The story of the person who came to “lead” the country is fascinating, it involves internal and international politics. The requirements of the position almost invariably lead to a person who could handle the shame of international inconsequentialism while also having a broad view of the Chinese potential. Chiang Kai Shek was someone who embodied this ethos 100%. His person is a fascinating view of classical Chinese themes – stoic fortitude, boundless cultural avarice.
This book covers the history of the Republic of China from the beginning of Chiang Kai Shek’s career in the 1910s through the warlord era, through world war 1, then the interwar civil war era, the Japanese invasion, the Allied victory, then the inevitable failure of the civil war, the retreat to Taiwan, and finallly the decades long wait on the island.
The Generalissimo is a fasciatning, complete view of the most overlooked important figure of the 20th century and the shape of the modern world.
The most interesting take away of this book is Chiang’s (and his son’s) view that Taiwan is not separate from China, it is in their view just a province of China which supports an alternate government. This is very distinct from my own natural view of the two China’s, yet is compelling. Does the current president of Taiwan Tsai Ying Wen also hold this view?
Chiang KaiShek is someone who everyone on earth who speaks about the 20th century should know and yet is normally cast to a sideline. This book is an important step to correct this misconception and so is a great book to read.