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IN LATE OCTOBER and early November of 1887, China suffered droughts, flooding of the Yellow River and cholera outbreaks in the cities of Nanking and Hangzhou. In Shanghai, a criminal was sentenced to stand in a cage without food or drink until he died. Along the Yangtze River, a magistrate conjured up the ghosts of dead men at a murder trial. Down south, a campaign to get rid of 'evil characters' led to 906 summary executions in Guangdong province. In the city of Canton, the god of plague was sighted - 'a semi-human monster with huge feet'. In Peking, there was great concern about the illnesses of two Manchu imperial princes. A physician summoned from Zhejiang province on the eastern seaboard cured one, and called for the livers of river otters to deal with the malady affecting the other.
In the doctor's home province, a messenger carrying a lantern walked through the night to call a midwife to assist with the birth of a child in the village of Xikou. On the upper floor of a two-storey house by the river running through the village, a boy was born at noon on 31 October. His paternal grandfather gave him the 'milk name' of Jui-yuan (Auspicious Beginning). His mother later called him Chung-cheng (Balanced Justice), and he finally gained the honorific name of Jieshi (Between Rocks) which would have a prophetic echo as he found himself sheltering in the cave outside Xi'an forty-nine years later. When he moved to Canton in the 1920s, its rendition in the local dialect produced the name by which he was to be generally known in the West, Chiang Kai-shek, though in the national language of Mandarin he is known as Jiang Jieshi.
Xikou was a small village with three streets lying on a crossing point of the slow-flowing Shanxi River. The Yutai Salt Store run by Chiang's family looked out at the waterway with its flat-hulled bamboo boats. Salt was a government monopoly, and the merchants who handled it enjoyed a certain standing. The house lay behind a wall topped with circular tiles, with a flagged courtyard onto which a room opened where Chiang's father and grandfather sold salt, wine, rice and sundry goods over a wooden counter. There were two other rooms on the ground level, one with a phoenix design set into the floor.
Across the river were thickly wooded hills and, beyond them, the trading harbours of the East China Sea. The big port of Ningbo was 30 miles to the north along a broad track through valleys and vegetable fields. Verdant hills with rows of tea bushes rose behind the village to the monastery where Zhang Xueliang would be held. Above it towered a ridge known as the Snow Mountain. In spring and summer, pink, purple and red blossoms dotted the slopes. From the peak, there was a commanding view of a lake and a stony path to a waterfall with a 600-foot drop. On the ridge, Chiang would later build a summer residence called Miao Terrace, writing its name in his own calligraphy to hang over the central courtyard. With its back to the mountains in the midst of pine woods and bamboo, the two-storey building was classically restrained, and reflected its owner's love of nature. The Generalissimo, who was brought up from Xikou in a sedan chair, liked to sit outside contemplating the hills. A photograph shows him dressed in a long robe, black slippers, skullcap and spectacles sitting looking into the distance from a wicker chair. The caption reads: 'Mr Chiang Kai-shek thought deeply at Miao Terrace'.
The Chiangs were the leading family in the village, being among a multitude of Chinese who claimed descent from a celebrated ancient statesman, the Duke of Zhou. They had lost much of their assets in the great Taiping rebellion which spread over China in the middle of the nineteenth century. The paternal grandfather, Yu-piao, gave the job of rebuilding the family fortunes to one of his three sons, Chiang Shu-an. Running the family shop, he was known as an honest broker in village disputes, a peace-maker who inspired confidence in his neighbours. His first wife died giving birth to their second child. He married again, but his second wife, who appeared to be barren, passed away eighteen months later. So, at the age of forty-five, he wed for the third time.
His wife was Wang Tsai-yu, the twenty-two-year-old, widowed daughter of a farmer who had retreated to a Buddhist monastery after her husband's death. An accomplished seamstress, she was sharp and ambitious. She gave birth to Chiang a year after the marriage; she had no breast milk, and a local man recalled that his grandmother fed the baby - 'from then on, Chiang's family sent us a gift of money every spring festival,' he added. One of Shu-an's cousins took over as wet nurse for the baby, living in a room at the back of the salt shop.
As a child, Chiang was often in bad health. When not ill, he sought to stand out among his playmates, behaving in what he described as a haughty and lordly manner. In games of soldiers, he preferred to be the commander. A contemporary recalled that he 'liked to be at the head of the children'. Looking back, Chiang took a theatrical view of the perils of his childhood playing. 'I was frequently exposed to the risk of being drowned or burnt to death, or else severely cut or wounded,' he wrote. There were certainly times when he put himself in danger, for example by pushing chopsticks down his throat to see how far they would go, or nearly drowning in a water jar. But the habit of making himself the centre of melodramatic attention was to be a hallmark of his behaviour as a young man.
His early education was entrusted to village tutors, with whom he made slow progress in rote learning of classic texts. He showed a solitary side which would be evident throughout his life, going off on his own to bathe in mountain streams, walk in the hills and visit monasteries. He listened to roaring waterfalls and birds, and rode bamboo rafts down streams to watch the fishermen using cormorants with bands round their necks to prevent them from swallowing the catch they plucked from the water.
When the boy was five, the paternal grandfather passed away, and his three sons squabbled over the inheritance. Two years later, Chiang's father died, and his widow was left to fend for herself as her in-laws and stepchildren took most of the family assets. Much later, Chiang's second wife would set down a very different version of his origins, claiming that an investigation showed he was really the son of a poor farmer in the central province of Henan who had abandoned his wife and son during a famine - she had found a job as a nurse and governess for a widowed salt merchant called Chiang whom she subsequently married. Unless contemporary inhabitants of Xikou and later historians were involved in a vast campaign of deception, the chronology of this tale makes no sense. In an inverse process to the family's claims to notable lineage, the story quoted by his second wife, whom he had abandoned, looks like a bid to take a leader down a peg by attributing humbler origins than those he proclaimed.
On the other hand, the story of the mother protecting her son against adversity does have a certain echo. Every account attests to Chiang's remoteness from his father, his closeness to his mother, and her difficulties after she was widowed. Parallels would be drawn with the Confucian sage, Mencius, whose mother brought him up with great devotion despite her poverty. Chiang would invoke Wang as a leitmotif of his writings and diaries, constituting a mantra through which he could set her up as a model whose perfection was a continual reproach to himself and his unworthy compatriots. His filial attachment acted as a resource by which he could demonstrate to himself that he possessed the humility needed by a truly superior being. In the Chinese code, a man who was aiming high had to admit - in letter if not in spirit - to his own inadequacy; how better to do this than to measure himself against an iconic mother figure to whom all possible virtues could be attributed, and who was beyond reality as a construct of her son's psychological needs?
After she was widowed, Wang left the salt store and moved into a three-room house down the street by the river. In due course, this would become Chiang's main residence in the village, greatly expanded as befitted his status with an ancestral hall, rock garden and large reception room. But, by his account, his mother struggled to make ends meet, raising her children in a Spartan, authoritarian regime. No longer the wife of a prominent member of the village, she had to take in sewing and was regarded as an outsider because she came from another district. On one occasion, tax collectors demanded money she did not have readily available. So they imprisoned Chiang until she came up with the sum. That made a deep impression on him; a memoir he wrote on his fiftieth birthday recalled: 'My family, solitary and without influence, became at once the target of ... insults and maltreatment ... To our regret and sorrow none of our relatives and kinsmen was stirred from apathy.'
For a few years, Chiang was outdone in his mother's affections by a younger brother who was described as having extremely good looks and whom Wang loved as her favorite child. But the boy died at the age of four. After that, Chiang recalled, 'She centered all her hopes on me, hoping anxiously that I should make a name for myself.'
'Her love was more than the love of an average mother: she was more of a disciplinarian than any strict teacher,' he wrote later. 'She taught me about the value of hard work as well as the elements of good social behaviour ... From early morning to late at night every minute of her time was devoted to my well-being.' When he was eighteen, Chiang posed for a photograph with her, a handsome young man in a quilted jacket standing behind his mother who sits squarely on a wooden chair. Her eyes are deepest. Unsmiling, she epitomizes the harshness of her existence, what Chiang later called 'the shadow of cold realities'.
From his mother, he learned to erect a protective wall between himself and his surroundings, and to tread warily while never admitting defeat. From an early age, he lived on his internal resources, and followed his own morality. Impulsive and domineering, demanding attention and regarding himself as the centre of the universe, he could become self-absorbed and introspective, withdrawing from the world. 'At play, he would regard the classroom as his stage and all his schoolmates as his toys,' a teacher recalled. 'But when he was at his desk, reading or holding his pen trying to think, then even a hundred voices around him could not distract him from his concentration. His periods of quietude and outburst sometimes occurred within a few minutes of each other: one would think he had two different personalities.'
There was little or no time for relaxed family relationships. Rather, an intensity bordering on hysteria reigned. When he left his mother on a trip, a tutor recalled, Chiang wept till his eyes became red. When he was downcast, one of his teachers remembered, 'the contagion of his grief would deeply depress the neighbours and cause his mother to retire to the adjoining room, there to shed tears herself'. When the boy came home from a stay with cousins at the age of twelve, he burst into uncontrollable sobs on seeing his mother. 'From his childhood, [he] constructed a number of strong ego defense mechanisms against an experientially hostile world,' the historian Piton Loch wrote in his study of Chiang's character in early life. 'They were to become a powerful mental wall behind which the rejected boy could withdraw in isolation, the better to preserve the stability of his personality or to re-stabilize a personality threatened with collapse.'
In 1901, a marriage was arranged between Chiang and Mao Fu-mei, a robust, illiterate village girl. He was fourteen; she was five years his senior. His heart was hardly in becoming a husband. During the wedding banquet, Chiang joined boys playing outside, and had to be dragged back to the meal. Wang saw the girl as a useful helper since her feet were only partially bound, but her affection was limited: Chinese mothers-in-law are not known for their tenderness to their daughters-in-law. After meeting Mao twenty years later, Chiang's second wife recalled her saying that the first two months of the marriage had been happy as Chiang took her on walks in the hills and raft rides down the river. But his mother then blamed the teenage bride for being a disturbing influence on her son, and leading him astray as they gallivanted in the mountains. When Kai-shek and she talked or laughed in the house, Wang would tell her to be silent.
'Therefore,' Mao recalled, according to this account, 'I kept quiet and seldom spoke. More and more I avoided any direct conversation openly with him in the house. That was not easy, however, especially when he asked me questions and expected my answers. The situation went from bad to worse, and Kai-shek soon became impatient with me. I dared not say one word to defend myself, even when he scolded me, for, as you know, the villagers in their narrow-mindedness would accuse me of being an unfilial and disobedient daughter-in-law. And you know what that means in an isolated village like ours! The strain gradually caused a split between Kai-shek and me. All I could do was to weep secretly over my utter helplessness, and for a long period I suffered from melancholy.'
Mao found solace in devout Buddhism while Chiang left the village to attend the Phoenix Mountain School in the district seat of Fenghua, from which he was nearly expelled for leading a protest calling for better teaching. After two years, he shifted to a private school in Ningbo where he heard a teacher extolling the importance of the army. A year later, he moved again, to the Dragon Middle School in Fenghua. The classical Chinese learning by rote, with no questions asked, formed his mindset - he was always to believe that the issuing of an instruction was enough; orders were to be obeyed just as the texts of Confucius and his disciples were to be enunciated as eternal truths.
One of Chiang's teachers, Hollington Tong, later to be his obsequious information director, recalled him as a 'serious-minded student' who grabbed the newspapers when they arrived from Shanghai and studied them in the small reading room. He had also already adopted his lifelong habit of getting up early, practising exercises and meditating while others slept. 'It was his custom to stand erect on the veranda in front of his bedroom for half an hour,' Tong wrote in a hagiographical biography. 'During this time his lips were compressed, his features were set in determination, and he stood with his arms folded.
Excerpted from Chiang Kai Shek by Jonathan Fenby Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Fenby. Excerpted by permission.
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