"If when I die, I am still a dictator, I will certainly go down into the oblivion of all dictators. If, on the other hand, I succeed in establishing a truly stable foundation for a democratic government, I will live forever in every home in China."
Born into a prosperous family in Zhejian Province, Chiang was raised to be a soldier. He was sent to the Paoting Military Academy in 1906 and later to Japan, where he served in the Japanese Army from 1909 to 1911.
While in Japan, Chiang came under the influence of anti-dynastic Chinese expatriates. In 1911 he returned to China to take part in the ousting of the Qing Dynasty. He later became involved in attempts to overthrow China's new president, Yuan Shi-kai, who had aspirations of becoming the nation's new emperor.
Chiang joined forces with Nationalist Party leader Sun Yat-sen in 1917 and served as military aide for Sun's government in Guangzhou (Canton). Chiang then began to build his power base within the Nationalists. He visited the Soviet Union in 1923 to study the Soviet military system. Upon his return Chiang established the Whampoa Military Academy.
In 1925, following the death of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang's stature grew. He launched a successful expedition against China's warlords, who had divided much of northern China among themselves.
Civil war with the Communists
Up to this point Chiang had worked with China's Communist Party. Communists had even been admitted into the Nationalist Party. By 1927, however, growing tensions between Chiang and the Communists prompted Chiang's violent suppression of his former allies, an action that launched China's civil war.
In October 1930 Chiang converted to Christianity, the religion of his second wife, Soong Mei-ling, the youngest daughter of the powerful and wealthy Soong family, whose Westernized members helped finance the Nationalist cause. Chiang's marriage to Soong Mei-ling, who was to become world famous as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the passionate defender of "Free China," made him the brother-in-law of Sun Yat-sen's widow, Soong Ching-ling, his wife's sister.
Japan seized Manchuria in 1931 and threatened to invade the heart of China, but Chiang ostensibly ignored this potential threat and concentrated all his forces against the Communists, forcing those who remained to embark on their famous Long March in 1934. The Long March, a tactical retreat by the Communists, took those who survived to northwestern China. It also helped Mao Tse-tung consolidate his power as Communist leader.
In 1936 Chiang was kidnapped by one of his generals, forced to meet with Communist leader Chou En-lai and compelled to halt the civil war and establish a united front against the Japanese. The truce came shortly before full-scale warfare broke out between China and Japan in 1937.
Criticized for corruption
For the next four years China fought Japan on its own. In 1942, when the conflict in China was swept into World War II, Chiang was declared supreme commander of Allied forces in the China theater. But he came under growing criticism from some Allied commanders for corruption and neglect in his armed forces. He also devoted part of his forces to harassing his Communist rivals.
From left, Chiang, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Cairo, November 1943
After Japan's defeat and the end of World War II in 1945, Chiang resumed his war with the Communists. Despite having apparent military superiority, as well as an army well equipped by the United States, Chiang lost the trust of many Chinese. After some initial successes, Chiang's armies suffered a devastating series of defeats at the hands of the Communists.
By early 1949, with the surrender of the region around Beijing to the Communists, the Nationalist military forces collapsed. Chiang, along with his supporters and remnants of his army, retreated to the island of Taiwan, which they declared the Republic of China.
As the international Cold War grew, Chiang was given additional aid and support from the United States, which in 1955 signed a defense agreement with Taiwan.
Chiang died in 1975, less than four years before the United States normalized relations with the People's Republic of China and formally broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan.