The Chiang Kai Shek Diaries

A contributed article by Jerome Keating.
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The Chiang Kai-shek’s Diaries: What Do They Tell, What Do They Hide?
Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

On March 31, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution will begin to make its collection of the Chiang Kai-shek diaries available for historical research. The diaries provided first will be those that cover the years 1917 to 1931. These diaries of Chiang Kai-shek as well as later ones of his son Chiang Ching-kuo also on loan to the Institution will unquestionably provide a rich treasure trove to explore. However they will also pose a tremendous challenge to historians and researchers of Chinese history.

There is no question that the diaries will provide an abundant source of much wanted information; anyone interested in the history of modern China and Taiwan will look forward to the insights and perspective they will provide into the happenings and personalities of those tumultuous times.

Yet after the immediate exaltation of knowing that they are available there follows the realization of the difficulties to be encountered in accurately interpreting them. In a variety of ways, diaries always have a secret side of what they do and what they do not reveal.


The fact that Chiang Kai-shek let it be known as early as 1950 that he wanted them preserved indicates they will present how he wanted to be remembered. We are also told that the diaries will be further edited by current family members. Certain names and details will only be available in 2035. While this could be expected for privacy reasons, it does raise the question of how much privacy is needs to be protected especially in matters that happened over fifty years ago where most if not all of the participants are now deceased.

Nevertheless the diaries will be a great benefit. Historians will certainly not be the only ones who will want to read them. Even psychologists can anticipate controversy in contrasting what Chiang Kai-shek wrote with what he did in the reality of history.

For starters, Chiang senior early on in the 1930s recorded how he detested the Japanese and would not want to give an inch of Chinese soil to them. Was this done in response to many of his critics in 1931 who doubted that he had the will to oppose Japanese aggression? Likewise how does this square with how he was first concerned with eliminating his main rivals the Chinese Communist Party. It would take the Xian Incident in December 1936 to force him to turn his attention to the Japanese who had already made huge inroads into China.

Continuing further, his wartime record against the Japanese for many years was one of retreat. In 1943, the Allied Forces made him part of the Cairo Conference and gave him both arms and assurances of future territory particularly because they were afraid that he would make a separate peace with Japan, and force them to continue World War II on their own.

Similarly, in another sample entry in 1948, Chiang records that he felt the main problem with the KMT in China was corruption and rot from within. Was this an honest self-assessment of the party at that time and if so, why was he helpless to prevent it? It certainly would prove to be a main reason why they would lose China.

For those who would follow his retreat to Taiwan and the subsequent corruption, White Terror and Martial Law inflicted on that island until well after Chiang’s death in 1975, other natural questions come. Why did he still not do anything about it? Why did he maintain his extended presidency that was against the constitution of the Republic of China? How could a man that professed to be for democracy, never allow the people of Taiwan to vote for their president in the thirty years of his control?

That the Chiang diaries were meticulously preserved over all these years raises additional questions. What about diaries of others especially his opponents that were destroyed under his watch. One prime example is that of the diaries of Lei Chen who died in 1979.

Lei was once a strong supporter of Chiang Kai-shek, but he fell afoul of him when he pressed for democracy in Taiwan and began publishing the Free China Journal. Lei Chen would subsequently be arrested in 1960, put on trial, convicted and sent to prison. Chiang Kai-shek himself would step in and require that his sentence be no less than ten years and that it could have no appeal.

In prison Lei would write volumes on the hope and goals of democracy in Taiwan and his experienced treatment by Chiang. All of these materials would be confiscated and destroyed.

Diaries often hide more than they reveal; they certainly can hide more than actual taped conversations of the times. For those who lived through the Watergate period in the United States, the experience of the Nixon tapes immediately comes to mind.

In the hopes of providing the “true picture� for historians and to illustrate what great contributions he would make as president of the United States, Richard Nixon secretly taped all that was said in the Oval Office. He hoped to leave a legacy. What he had hoped would be his glory in many ways turned out to be his downfall. When the Watergate break-in occurred, the tapes became part of revealing how far reaching was the “cover up.� The only thing that saved Nixon from complete blame was the 18 and ½ minute gap in his conversation with H. R. Haldeman that was “accidentally� erased by his loyal secretary Rosemary Woods. The words were lost to history and only a smoking gun remained.

Such are the many questions that arise with the Chiang diaries. Regardless, the diaries will be a definite and needed contribution to history. We can only hope the world will have historians who will measure up to the difficult task of interpreting them for what they really say and what they hide.

Other writings of Jerome F. Keating are available at http://zen.sandiego.edu:8080/Jerome

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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