Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:47 PM CST – China


Chiang Kai-shek


How a biography of Chiang Kai-shek, commissioned by Chairman Mao, might be one of the greatest stories never told on the Chinese mainland

Various Chiang Kai-shek biographies published on the mainland

Beijing Library in the 1960s, at the time the mainland’s most complete archive of works relating to Chiang Kai-shek Photo by Xinhua

Chiang and Mao Zedong meet in Chongqing prior to the Civil War (1946-49) Photo by Xinhua

One day in the early fall of 1966, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Chen Zheng was forced to make some heartbreaking decisions. The next morning, Mao’s Red Guards would come to his bookstore to po sijiu – smash the Four Olds of old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. For Chen, that meant pretty much anything he had in his office.

The 29-year-old editor of the Zhonghua Book Company maintained an office in western Beijing which was piled floor-to-ceiling with suddenly-prohibited materials, including an entire bookcase dedicated to China’s former head of state Chiang Kai-shek. Chen was also in possession of the 12-million-character transcript of a book of Chiang’s collected speeches and musings, edited by Chen himself.

The Red Guards were notoriously unpredictable. Depending on what band arrived to perform the “inspection,” or even what mood their ringleaders were in, victims could suffer anything from a minor verbal reprimand to public humiliation to torture and death. During the bloodiest months of the Four Olds campaign, booksellers, art collectors and academics had been paraded through the streets, harangued in urban squares, starved, tortured to death and executed.

As Chen recalled the terror he felt that day to NewsChina, he wrung his hands. “What could I do?”

Chen couldn’t bring himself to destroy his priceless collection, even though at that moment countless antiques, valuable books and other precious relics were being turned into bonfires across the city. After consulting with his superiors, Chen papered over the glass doors of the bookcase and put “low-risk” but still politically unorthodox works in his office’s most conspicuous places to provide ample fuel for the marauding Red Guards.

“I was determined to protect the manuscript with my life.” Chen said. “If it were ruined, I would be doomed.”

The Red Guards never came. Until today, Chen’s Chiang Kai-shek collection has remained untouched, gathering dust.

Search for Chiang’s Words

After graduating from Renmin University of China in 1965 with a master’s degree in modern Chinese history, Chen was assigned to the Zhonghua Book Company work unit, then under the administration of the Ministry of Culture.

The company’s chief editor immediately put Chen, a Chiang specialist, in charge of a book on Chiang’s collected words.

The book was initiated at the personal request of Mao Zedong, who was unsatisfied with the narrow reading lists consisting almost exclusively of the orthodox Marxism favored by his underlings. Mao wanted communist cadres to be well-versed in alternative schools of thought – including Chiang’s – in order to be more eloquent defenders of Marxism.

The Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee relayed Mao’s demand to the Zhonghua Book Company and another publishing house to co-edit a collection of Chiang’s musings.

Without any editorial experience, Chen was assigned to collect materials for the book in Beijing, with other staffers sent to do the same job in libraries in the other formerly Nationalist strongholds of Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou.

“The only standard for material was that we had to find complete articles, as Chiang’s real meaning could only be known in context,” Chen told our reporter.

Though well-versed in modern Chinese history, Chen felt that to find Chiang’s publicized words, unedited and unadulterated by Party propaganda officials, was a hugely challenging task. Luckily, the team had a few consultants who worked as newsmen before the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, including an editor of pro-Party Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao and a translator for the Associated Press’s office in Shanghai.

They suggested that Chen delve into the archives of the Central Daily, the Kuomintang’s mouthpiece, and the Shun Pao for sources prior to 1949, and for Chiang’s later thoughts, that he should dig through a new selection of Chiang’s works published in Taiwan in 1960. They also recommended copies of the Central Daily and Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News, the Kuomintang’s other major propaganda publications, though copies were hard to come by on the mainland.

Chen spent almost the whole of his first working year scouring libraries, including the Beijing Library and the libraries of the Central Propaganda Department, the China Academy of Natural Sciences and those affiliated with various colleges. None had a complete run of issues of the Central Daily in its collections. Chen regularly spent the night in his office to shave hours off his lengthy daily commutes.

Among these libraries, the Beijing Library (now the National Library) had the most complete collection of back issues of the Central Daily. As access to any non-orthodox material was limited to high-level cadres, Chen and another three editors had to be granted special access privileges before being able to leaf through Republican newspapers, carefully setting aside any articles that referred to Chairman Chiang, President Chiang or Chiang Kai-shek.

Selected newspapers would be transported back to the editorial office, and the most pertinent articles would be photocopied for potential inclusion in the upcoming collection.

Large chunks of Chiang’s speeches and thoughts started appearing in China’s chaotic national media only after Chiang consolidated power within the Kuomintang in 1927. In the early years, along with the parts of the country under the direct control of the Nationalist government, China was split into colonial and semi-colonial areas, regions controlled by independent warlords and others run by Communist guerillas, a political mess which produced an equally chaotic media environment. Chen only managed to collect odd snippets relating to Chiang from the first decade of the 20th century, when he was still serving as a military advisor to Sun Yat-sen.

Material relating to Chiang after his flight to Taiwan in 1949 was impossible to find in mainland libraries – possessing such material was a major offense for ordinary citizens. Chen had to turn to the National Publications Import and Export Group (NPIEG), the State company that monopolizes the import of books and periodicals in China even today. The NPIEG agreed to import the books for Chen from British-held Hong Kong.

Chen also attempted to locate material through the Reference News, a heavily-edited digest of world news published daily by the official Xinhua News Agency for the exclusive perusal of top Party leaders. The Reference News proved to be a rich source of Chiang’s speeches and opinions. By the end of 1965, the team had collected about 12 million characters in direct quotations from the former Generalissimo.

The editorial team then began the task of linking top Communist leaders’ rebuttals of Nationalist ideology and quotations directly concerning Chiang’s politics to actual quotations attributed to Chiang himself. Almost immediately, they began to uncover some uncomfortable truths.

50 Years Adrift

Nowhere in the collected materials could  researchers find the source of quotations attributed to Chiang used in the widely-available polemic The People’s Enemy Chiang Kai-shek, published during the civil war. The book was authored by Chen Boda, Mao’s private secretary of 31 years and at the time head of the Cultural Revolution Group, a body established to oversee and direct the course of the Cultural Revolution, making Chen one of the most powerful men in China.

Chen Zheng would have to submit a report to the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee to explain this discrepancy.

“The reply was to the effect that it was natural for Chen [Boda] to forget the provenance of quotations since the book was composed in wartime almost two decades ago.”

In other words – drop it.

Chen said that over the course of editing  the book, a very different picture of Chiang began to emerge. Chiang’s words were kept whole, never revised or omitted, even when he was denouncing or insulting the Communists. Passages in which Chiang asserted his determination to fight against the Japanese were also left intact, despite the fact that the Party had painted Chiang as a weak and vacillating leader who had left fighting the Japanese to the Communists.

The finished collection consisted of 40 volumes of about 400 pages each. The first four volumes, mainly Chiang’s quotations during the First Revolutionary Civil War (1924-1927), had already been printed shortly after the Cultural Revolution began in May 1966 and sent to the Propaganda Department for final approval. Another 16 volumes had been proofread and the remaining 20 had been typeset.

The book’s cover was baby blue, not gray as was the requirement for anything deemed “capitalist spiritual poison (a category which at the time included The Catcher in the Rye and The Count of Monte Cristo as well as the collected works of Leon Trotsky). Gray cover books were absolutely forbidden for ordinary Chinese, but were circulated among a small circle of top officials and academics for “internal criticism.”

However, as Mao had ordered this book to be published, it was viewed as a special case, and an initial print run of 5,000 was applied, while Mao would double the number.

But the executive order never came. In May 1966, just prior to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, all work at the Zhonghua Book Company was halted. Communications from the Central Propaganda Department, itself awash in purges with countless officials being fired, demoted or sent to the countryside to perform hard labor, ceased entirely. Proofs of the last 20 volumes of the planned collection were printed in haste and mothballed just before the company’s entire staff was relocated to farms in distant Hubei Province.

Only after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, and with Mao on his deathbed, did the Zhonghua Book Company ask the Central Propaganda Department to publish the book. Their request was ignored. The proofs continued to sit in storage, remembered only by those editors who had survived the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, including Chen himself.

In 2005, when Chen had already retired and most other editors in charge of the book had passed away, he suggested to publish the book as a vital source of information on modern Chinese history, citing Mao’s personal interest in seeing it published.

He was denied, with officials claiming that as Mao only gave a verbal order to publish the book, this did not constitute a binding requirement. Chen has been contacted by multiple publishers in the People’s Republic showing their interest in printing the book, but none of them could manage to make it happen.

It seems China’s authorities are still not ready to give their blessing to such a portrait of the Chairman’s former nemesis.


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