Chinese military and political leader Chiang Kai-shek joined the Chinese Nationalist Party (known as the Kuomintang, or KMT) in 1918. Succeeding party founder Sun Yat-sen as KMT leader in 1925, he expelled Chinese communists from the party and led a successful unification of China. Despite a professed focus on reform, Chiang’s government concentrated on battling Communism within China as well as confronting Japanese aggression. When the Allies declared war on Japan in 1941, China took its place among the Big Four. Civil war broke out in 1946, ending in a victory by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and the creation of the People’s Republic of China. From 1949 until his death, Chiang led the KMT government in exile in Taiwan, which many countries continued to recognize as China’s legitimate government.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Early Life and Career

Born in the coastal province of Chekiang on October 31, 1887, Chiang ran away from home after his father died and joined the provincial army. He received formal military training at the Paoting Military Academy in northern China, and later in Japan. When uprisings against the ruling Qing (Manchu) dynasty broke out in China in 1911, Chiang returned home and joined the struggle, which ended in the overthrow of the Manchus and the formation of a Chinese republic. In 1918, he joined the Nationalist Party (known as the Kuomintang, or KMT), founded by Sun Yat-sen.

Did you know? Chiang Kai-shek's second wife, Soong Mei-ling, became a significant political figure in her own right. In addition to her address of Congress in 1943, the Wellesley-educated "Madame Chiang" wrote many articles on China for the American press.

With Sun’s support, Chiang founded a military academy at Whampoa, near Canton, in 1924. He began to build up the Nationalist army, based on methods Chiang observed during a visit to the Soviet Union. During this same time, Chinese Communists were admitted into the KMT; after Sun’s death in 1925, they began to clash with more conservative party elements. As Sun’s successor, Chiang led a successful military campaign against local warlords in northern China and consolidated control within his own party by expelling the Communists in a brutal coup in 1927. In 1928, he formed a new central government out of Nanking, with himself as head of state.

Chiang Kai-Shek: Internal and External Conflict in China

Chiang sought to institute a modest program of reforms, including financial and educational reforms, infrastructure improvements and a revival of Confucianism, supported by the “New Life Movement” campaign. The bulk of his government’s energies and resources, however, were focused on threats to its own stability from within and outside of China. The Communists were operating their own opposition government from rural strongholds, while war with Japan–which seized Manchuria in 1931–seemed imminent. Chiang initially focused on the communist threat rather than confront Japan directly, a choice that angered many of his supporters. In the Sian (Xian) Incident of December 1936, one of his generals seized Chiang and held him captive for two weeks until he agreed to ally with Mao Zedong’s Communist forces against Japan.

Japan invaded China the following year, sparking the Sino-Japanese War. China fought Japan on its own for more than four years, until the Allies (with the exception of the Soviet Union) declared war on Japan in 1941. For its efforts, China earned inclusion among the Big Four powers, and Chiang’s international reputation skyrocketed. In 1943, his Western-educated wife, Soong Mei-ling, became the first Chinese and only the second woman to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, when she asked for increased U.S. aid for China in the Sino-Japanese War. At the same time, however, Chiang’s government was losing a good deal of support within the country itself, thanks to his relative passivity toward Japan and increasingly conservative policies that favored landowners and mercantile interests and alienated peasants (who made up nearly 90 percent of the Chinese population).

Chiang Kai-Shek: Civil War and Government in Exile

In 1946, a year after Japan’s surrender, civil war broke out in China between KMT and Communist forces. With the Communist victory in mainland China in 1949, Mao declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Upon his defeat, Chiang fled with the remnants of his Nationalist government to Taiwan, which had been turned over to the Nationalist government after the defeat of Japan according to terms agreed upon in Cairo in 1943. Backed by American aid, Chiang launched Taiwan on the path of economic modernization, and in 1955 the United States signed an agreement guaranteeing Taiwan’s defense. Many countries continued to recognize Chiang’s government in exile as the legitimate Chinese government, and it would control China’s seat in the United Nations until Chiang’s death.

From 1972 onward, however, Taiwan’s preferred status (especially in relation to the United States) was threatened by improving U.S.-China relations. In 1979, four years after Chiang died, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established full relations with the People’s Republic of China.