chiang kai-shek and sun yat-sen -- 1/14/20

Today's selection -- from Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang. In the late 1920s, as Chiang Kai-shek used force to assume leadership of the Nationalist party, his problem was legitimacy. To rectify that, he acted to elevate and deify the recently deceased Sun Yat-sen and then emphasize his connections to Sun. Sun had been the symbolic father of the revolution and the party, but not succeeded as a leader of the effort. Chiang's deification of Sun sought to gloss over that:

"Chiang's biggest problem was legitimacy. His predecessors in the republic had all been elected, however problematic some of the elections might have been. Chiang's conquest did not win the hearts and minds of the population and he was not seen as the liberator. When his army had marched down Beijing streets, they were greeted with 'thunderous silence' by expressionless onlookers, noted one observer. The Beijing leaders, on the whole, enjoyed a far better reputation than him. Nor did his victory convince people of his military genius. Many believed that Beijing was defeated by Soviet military might rather than by him. The fact that Chiang had broken the Russian hold on his party was only grudgingly appreciated, Other Nationalists had been acting against Moscow's control while Chiang was ostensibly pro-Russian. To these men, the Generalissimo was an opportunist.

"Chiang claimed to be the heir of the Father of China, and promoted Sun to divine status. At his own wedding, an enormous portrait of Sun hung on the platform, flanked by the flag of the Nationalist party and that of the country he was about to rule. The flag of China was basically a duplication of the party flag on a red background, symbolizing Sun's vision that his party would dominate the nation. Everybody -- the newly-weds and their over 1,000 guests -- bowed three times to Sun's portrait, introducing a ritual that would become ubiquitous in ceremonies across China.

"As a matter of fact, Sun was far from godlike in the Generalissimo's private thoughts. Once with May-ling [First Lady of the Republic of China] and Big Sister [Ei-ling Chiang's unofficial main adviser], he talked about how Sun's Russia policy would have led to a Communist takeover of his party and country, and would have doomed both -- had he, Chiang, not saved the situation by stratagem. But for political reasons, he needed Sun's deification.

"He also needed an ideology from Sun for his regime. Sun had produced a sort of ideology: the Three Principles of the People (san-min-zhu-yi). This was an imitation of Lincoln's 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'. Roughly, the principles were nationalism, the people as the masters, and the welfare of the people. They were as vague and mercurial as Sun's real-life beliefs. Talking about them to camera for a three-minute English newsreel, Chiang, his interpreter and May-ling gave different defi­nitions. The first lady was meant to talk about how Sun's principles had liberated Chinese women. This was something so intangible that she had to memorize her lines by rote. As a result, having talked fluently about women's role in China as she saw it, she got stuck when it came to Sun's supposedly great contribution; she could not remember what she had to say. Haltingly she stumbled on: 'Dr Sun has given women economic ... and ... economic ... and ... ', and she ground to a halt. Giggling embarrassingly but sweetly, she turned to her husband, who had been looking on with palpable anxiety and who now whispered in her ear. She completed the sentence: ' ... has given women economic and political inde­pendence.'

"Nevertheless, that the 'ideology' was vague and open to inter­pretation did not matter in the grand scheme of things. It was benign and worthy. The problems started when Chiang aimed for precision and announced that the political system under him would be 'political tutelage' (xun-zheng), which was the not very euphe­mistic name Sun had given to his brand of dictatorship. The word xun brings to mind the image of a superior lecturing inferiors. Sun had said this was how the people of China should be treated by him and the Nationalists. The Chinese were slave material and unfit to be the masters of the country; 'so we revolutionaries must teach them', 'lecture them', 'using methods of force if necessary'. A propaganda poster illustrated Sun's words: China was pictured as a toddler being pulled to a higher state of existence by Sun. This was a drastic departure from Chinese culture, which frowns on openly holding ordinary people in contempt.

"The Generalissimo dictated that no one was allowed to be irrev­erent about Sun. In organizations like schools and offices, people were made to gather once a week to commemorate Sun. They had to stand in silence for three minutes, read Sun's deathbed Testament, and be lectured by their bosses. All this was alien and off-putting to the population. They had never had to do this under the emperors. And for nearly two decades, they had been living in a form of civil society with a multi-party political system, a reason­ably fair legal system and a free press. They had been able to criticize the Beijing government publicly without fear of retribution. In 1929, a number of prominent liberals spoke out in a collection of essays called On Human Rights. Hu Shih, the leading liberal of the day, wrote that his fellow countrymen had already been through a 'liberation of the mind', but now 'the collaboration of the Communists and the Nationalists has created a situation of absolute dictatorship and our freedoms of thought and speech are being lost. Today we may disparage God, but may not criticize Sun Yat-sen. We don't have to go to Sunday church services, but we have to attend the weekly [Sun]

"Commemorative Service and read the Sun Yat-sen Testament.' 'The freedom we want to establish is the freedom to criticize the Nationalist party and to criticize Sun Yat-sen, Even the Almighty can be criticized, why can't the Nationalists and Sun Yat-sen?' And, 'The Nationalist government is deeply unpop­ular, partly because its political system fell far short of people's expectations, and partly because its corpse-like ideology failed to attract the sympathy of the thinking people.'



Jung Chang


Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2019 by Globalflair Ltd.


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