Years ago, in the late 1980s, I found myself stranded at the station in Taian, Shandong Province after I missed my train because I was unaware that China had implemented daylight savings time and the clock had moved ahead an hour. The first ticket I could get back to Shanghai was for the next day, standing-room-only in hard seat. So, with a night to spend on a train station bench, I did what any good traveler would do: wrote in my diary.
The station was packed to the rafters with other travelers who had made the same mistake (problems with the trains is said to be one of the main reasons China stopped changing the clocks) and, like me, had time to kill. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by dozens of people who pressed in to watch me write and talk about me as I did so.
“I think it’s French,” I heard one man say.
“No,” another countered, leaning in close to study my (bad) handwriting as if it were scratches on an oracle bone. “It looks like Russian.”
When I informed them – with probably not very veiled irritation – that it was English, an older man asked what I was writing. I told him it was a journal of my thoughts and experiences and he nodded thoughtfully.
“That’s a very good habit,” he said. “You should continue with that for your whole life.”
“Do you keep a diary?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” he immediately demurred. “I am Chinese – for us to keep a diary is much too dangerous.”
I recalled this conversation recently when I visited the Hoover Institution at Stanford University to learn about the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek from research fellow Tai-chun Kuo. The multitudinous, handwritten diaries – some water-logged, others mold-blooming and bug-eaten – were deposited at the Hoover Institution in 2004 by Elizabeth Chiang Fang Chih-yi, the widow of Chiang’s grandson Eddie Chiang Hsiao-yung. Eddie was the youngest son of Chiang’s own son, Chiang Ching-kuo, and he quietly arranged for most of the diaries written by both his father and grandfather to be taken to Canada; when he and his wife moved to the San Francisco Bay area, they brought the diaries with them.
Chiang Kai-shek was a committed and avid diarist, approaching it with the discipline he seems to have applied to pretty much everything in life. His writings fill a remarkable 66 volumes and span the years 1917 to 1972; the only volume missing is 1924, and that is believed to be at the Second Historical Archives in Nanjing. His diaries are to be kept at Hoover for a period of fifty years, or until a permanent home for them is found in China. Scholars are permitted to peruse facsimiles on green paper in a Hoover reading room, but cannot make photocopies; quoting from the diaries requires permission from the Chiang family, who retain ownership. These somewhat unusual conditions of use apply because the family was initially leery of allowing access to the personal notebooks of their scion.
“There are many private things,” Kuo explained. “He wrote about daily life, philosophy, competitors, friends. He was very honest and straightforward. He wrote about how he felt, about how he controlled his sexual desire.”
After 18 months of negotiation, Elizabeth Chiang and other members of the family were ultimately persuaded that Chiang’s writings should be made public.
“I told the family that Chiang fought for China’s modernization all his life but was so misunderstood by Chinese and his image has been greatly distorted,” explained Kuo. “I guaranteed the Chiang family that it would lead to a reevaluation of Chiang Kai-shek.”
And, indeed, that reevaluation seems to be happening. According to Kuo, hundreds of scholars from China have visited Hoover to study the diaries; on any given day, more than a dozen can be found in the Hoover reading room hunched over green papers, immersed in Chiang’s thoughts. New scholarship about Chiang and the Sino-Japanese war invariably draws on the diaries.
“I knew the diaries were precious and the contents would be very important to understand modern Chinese history but none of us could expect the impact would be so huge,” said Kuo.
Scholars understandably focus on big issues, like the Sino-Japanese war or the nature of Chiang’s relationship with the Communist Party and his American colleagues. It is well known, for instance, that the American general “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell detested Chiang Kai-shek and disparagingly referred to him as “Peanut.” (According to Kuo, this was not only because of the shape of his head, but because Stillwell regarded Chiang as a “little person.”) But the diaries seem to reveal that Chiang Kai-shek was oblivious to Stillwell’s disdain.
“When Stillwell arrived in Chongqing in March 1942,” Kuo explained, “Chiang Kai-shek opened his arms. He saw himself as senior and was willing to educate Stillwell – he told him to be patient and consult, to learn from the experiences of Chinese generals.”
In his diary, Chiang noted, “I gave Stillwell lessons.” Stillwell, however, in his own diary – also in Hoover Institution archives – wrote, “Peanut gave me lessons – bullshit.”
For me, however, it is Chiang’s more personal jottings that are most revealing. Having lived in Taiwan when the island was still under martial law, I learned early on to despise Chiang Kai-shek for a whole host of reasons. But the diaries reveal a man who appears to have been trying to do what he thought best for his country – even if he wasn’t immediately succeeding and the collateral damage was terribly high. They also seem to show that his Christian faith – which has often been seen as a political ploy – was in fact genuine.
“Many people, including myself, thought Chiang Kai-shek was a fake Christian – that he did it to marry Mei-ling,” explained Kuo. “But after we read the diaries none of us questioned it. He read the Bible every day, he copied sentences from the Bible, he mentioned God, he asked for God’s help – if not every day, then every other day.”
On one occasion in 1944, during the battle of Hengyang, Chiang bargained with God, promising in his diary to build the world’s largest cross and have it set on Mt. Hengyang, if only God would help him to successfully defend the city. As Kuo explained, “He wrote, ‘God, I have tried my best.’ Every time when he was suffering, he turned to God.” When prayer failed, he even contemplated suicide, suggesting it would be the only alternative if the war were lost; in later years, when the civil war was indeed lost by his side, he criticized himself for being too stubborn, overly confident, and failing to listen to advice.
Chiang’s wife, Soong Mei-ling, apparently did not understand her husband’s obsession with diary writing. Like that man in the Taian train station, she perhaps recognized its dangers and, according to Kuo, believed that “we should go out without leaving any traces, only ashes.” But Chiang’s decision to keep this long and detailed record of his thoughts – to leave traces – will ultimately enable scholars to further flesh out the caricature he has become, and the historical record along with it. Chiang Kai-shek will never be a hero to anyone, and the list of his errors, miscalculations, and outright wrongs is likely to remain long. But perhaps one day he will be perceived as a man who, in his own words, did his best.
(This was published first in Caixin, http://english.caixin.com/2013-07-12/100555004.html)