Battlepanda: Non-Monday bookblogging -- The Soong Dynasty


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Non-Monday bookblogging -- The Soong Dynasty

According to my count, I've read 34 books so far this year (I've blogged about most, but not all of them). Seeing as how there's only 15 weeks left, in the year, it seems I am about three or so books behind. Not an insurmountable deficit.

The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave

Just as the portrait of Mao still hangs over Tiananmen, the giant bronze of Chiang Kai-shek still sits in his otherwise-hollow memorial hall in Taipei. Both men were first-class sons of bitches who are widely despised in private estimations in both countries, yet retains their officially-sanctioned veneer of respect. In China, of course, the Communist party still rules with an iron fist. It's easy to explain why they find it convenient to leave Mao on his pedestal -- to knock him off would undermine their own legitimacy, such as it is. It's much harder to explain why, even after he is long dead and the monolithic power of his party dissapated, Chiang still beams from every Taiwanese coin. At least they got rid of his image when they updated the paper currency.

Of course, since long before I picked up this book, I've known that Chiang Kai-shek was a awful despot whose reign in Taiwan is now called the "White Terror" era. What I didn't know was that Sun Yat-Sen, a figure honored on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, especially in Taiwan where he is called our country's father, was such an impotent, bumbling incompetent. The historical accounts I've previously been given always glossed over why he gave power to Yuan She-kai so soon after the successful eleventh revolution (which as it turned out he didn't even have much of a hand in.) Now I know. He had no choice. Yuan had him by the short and curlies.

O.K., now I've probably already you guys off this book by making it sound like some arcane text concerning Chinese/Taiwanese history. It's not. At least, it's not just that. What it really is is a juicy expose "reads like a novel" as one reviewer puts it, but is even better because it is all true. The Patriarch Charlie was an astonishing rags-to-riches story, but it was his kids who siezed the levers of power in China. Of the three sisters, the avaricious Ai-ling became, in the authors words though I paraphrase, probably the richest woman to have put her fortune together through her own cunning. The idealistic Ching-Ling struggled bravely but rather ineffectually as a voice of moderation, refusing to be co-opted by either side. The power-hungry May-Ling married the Generalissimo and dazzled the Americans on his behalf with her barnstorming red-baiting good-versus-evil rhetoric. Their brother T.V. was the financial wizard who, initially at least, fought hard to give China's currency concrete standing before Chiang made it clear that he wanted his finance minister to be nothing more than a rubber stamp.

Chiang Kai-shek's despotic rule did not come to an end when he lost China to the communists. Instead, he transplanted his regime to Taiwan, where he continued to claim with increasing absurdity that he is the legitimate ruler over all of China proper. The White Terror continued. Taiwan was under marshal law. Pro-Democracy dissidents were crushed ruthlessly -- shot in demonstrations, snatched in the middle of the night, left to languish in jail cells or executed. After Chiang's death he was suceeded by his more moderate, enlightened son Chiang Ching-Kuo who finally set in motion the democratizing reforms that resulted in today's multi-party democratic system. After the move to Taiwan, the Soongs lost influence, though they still remain very very very very rich.

Against all the sins of Chiang can be set one redeeming counterweight -- he kept Taiwan from falling to the communists. Taiwan's growth rate accelerated, and even now, when the "Taiwan Miracle" is deemed over and the economy seems to be in the doldrums, it is still a prosperous country. For some, that is enough to let sleeping dogs lie and his head on the coins.