Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Paper on Parade: The Chiang Personality Cult

He looked up again at the portrait of Big Brother. The colossus that bestrode the world! The rock against which the hordes of Asia dashed themselves in vain! He thought how ten minutes ago — yes, only ten minutes — there had still been equivocation in his heart as he wondered whether the news from the front would be of victory or defeat....

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

The other day I was discussing Chiang's successful grip on power in the KMT for several decades. For me personally Chiang's ascendancy over China for so long, given that he was, by all accounts save the recent hagiography by Jay Taylor, an incompetent and a brute, has always been a bit of a mystery. Why would anyone ever follow such a person?

The answer, of course, is that people too often look at the Chiang regime and see only Chiang, whereas what they should see is regime: the structure. A key factor in authoritarian control, especially in quasi-Leninist structures as different as the Communist Party of Russia, the Nazi Party, or the KMT, are the political and social structures that compel the subject to follow along with the dominant ideology and to reproduce its discourses and understandings in his or her own thinking. The ultimate goal of any Party-State is to colonize the human mind so that active enforcement of doctrine becomes redundant: the subject identifies the forbidden as sin or thoughtcrime and so herself refrains. A trivial but good example of this form of control in current discourse is the casual way in which most Taiwanese refer to China as the mainland. By doing so, they recapitulate KMT ideology about Taiwan's relationship to China in everyday conversation, invariably without considering what they are doing. Similarly, when people refer to the Japanese occupation they recapitulate the false KMT claim that China owned Taiwan during the era of Japanese sovereignty. And what you express on the outside, you recapitulate on the inside.

How one aspect of KMT ideology was reproduced in the minds of his followers and subjects is the topic of a paper by Jeremy E. Taylor, The Production of the Chiang Kai-shek Personality Cult, 1929–1975 (China Quarterly, 2006)(not the same Taylor who produced the hagiographies of Chiang Ching-guo and Chiang Kai-shek), which offers a sketch of how the personality cult centered around Chiang Kai-shek was produced by both state and non-state actors in Taiwan society. As such, it shows how in states organized along centralized Leninist lines, the shaping of human behavior by political and social structuring is far more important in reproducing State ideology at the level of the individual than mere killing of political opponents. Nor is it merely a question of carrot and stick: Leninist (and colonial) ideological systems produce subjects who are active participants in their own oppression and the oppression of those around them.

Taylor opens with a few simple questions that the paper answers:
How and why did a personality cult develop around the figure of Chiang Kai-shek? Who was responsible for its production? And how did this cult reflect the particular circumstances in which the Nationalists found themselves in Taiwan?
The paper is concerned only with how the cult was produced and reproduced, not how it was received among the people of China and Taiwan.

Was there a personality cult? Taylor points out that it is possible to argue, given the lack of a formal bureaucratic agency dedicated to the production of a personality cult, and Chiang's repeated condemnation of personality cults in similar authoritarian societies like China and the USSR. Taylor argues, however:
Although it is true that no single agency held responsibility for encouraging veneration of Chiang, a personality cult – something that the political scientist Pao-min Chang has described as “the artificial elevation of the status and authority of one man … through the deliberate creation, projection and propagation of a godlike image”11 – did indeed exist in Taiwan in the post-war years. The many hands involved in the creation of this cult shared a common goal of raising Chiang above the level of others, and making his rule appear permanent and unalterable.
The origins of the cult lie in the Nanjing period prior to WWII, asserts Taylor. There Chiang learned to draw on Confucian ideologies of piety and respect in presenting himself, and in re-imagining himself -- I might note, a dictator who had seized power and ruled with great incompetence and savagery -- as the father of the nation and "the personification of Chinese history and culture."

It was in Nanjing that the streets were paved with Chiang: the habit of naming boulevards after major figures of the regime began, Taylor says. There too Chiang consecrated a massive Memorial Hall to Sun Yat-sen, thus annointing himself Sun's successor. Nanjing was also full of organizations that promoted Chiang....
Representative of these was the Officers’ Moral Endeavour Association (OMEA, lizhishe), an organization founded by graduates of the Whampoa Military Academy in 1929, and modelled largely on the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Although the original goals of the OMEA were to “instil an uplifting moral influence in the Huang Poo cadets [sic]”17 and provide entertainment and educational services for members of the armed forces, the Association found its calling in the production of propaganda focused on Chiang Kai-shek and his wife.

The OMEA was one of many organizations that developed in the Nanjing years and which shared a common belief in the need for a strong leader for China. Indeed, as Frederic Wakeman has shown, the use of the term lingxiu (leader/fuhrer) in reference to Chiang Kai-shek, a practice that was to become a mainstay of the Chiang cult on Taiwan, can be attributed not to Chiang himself but to followers from a group known as the Lixingshe who sought to promote loyalty to their mentor.
Chiang thus served a need. These organizations and others then engaged in mass production of Chiang imagery. An OMEA member was Chiang's personal photographer, and learned Soviet and American propaganda techniques. Wartime also provided the opportunity to use, and learn from, propaganda about the Chiangs aimed at American audiences.

After 1949 the regime relocated to Taiwan. Both techniques perfected in the Nanjing years, and new ones developed out of local ideas, were aimed at the Taiwanese. Taylor writes:
One example was the extensive use of Chiang Kai-shek’s name – Zhongzheng – in the christening of schools, parks and thoroughfares in Taiwan, usually in tandem with similar institutions named after Sun Yat-sen. This began within weeks of Taiwan’s cession to Chinese rule in 1945, marking a continuation of the efforts that had been made in Nanjing and Chongqing, so that by the time of the Nationalist government’s complete relocation to Taipei in 1949, almost every city and town in Taiwan could claim a Zhongzheng Lu (Chiang Kai-shek Road) and a Zhongshan Lu (Sun Yat-sen Road) thanks to the efforts of zealous city and county administrators.24 Similarly, other techniques first employed on the mainland were used in Taiwan in this era. Stephane Corcuff notes that the first statue of Chiang to appear in Taiwan was raised only 192 days after retrocession.25 And by the early 1950s, Chiang’s face was criss-crossing the Taiwanese countryside on the front of “propaganda trains” (xuanchuan lieche),26 just as it had done on the mainland a few years earlier.27
Although much of the statuary has thankfully vanished, the street names remain. As anyone who has traveled around Taiwan is aware, the Chiang regime also appropriated the areas of power of the previous colonial regime, the Japanese. Thus the presidential palace (zongtong fu) in Taipei, which had been built in the 1910s to house colonial government-general in Taiwan, "was officially renamed the Jieshou Tang (literally “the Hall of Chiang Kai-shek’s Longevity”) within weeks of Taiwan’s cession to Chinese rule." The KMT also brought in Taiwan-born artist to create art that celebrated The Dear Leader.

Propaganda production was disseminated by the General Political Department, one of the institutions that was set up in Taiwan to maintain the continuity of the Cult once the regime was wrenched from its home in Nanjing, much as Dracula brought crates of Transylvanian soil with him to London. The General Political Department distributed Chiang's dull announcements, and its Fine Arts Department became home for many OMEA Chiang artists. Another key department in the Chiang cult was the China Youth Corps (CYC), which fostered the Cult among the young. Taylor observes:
It even sponsored young intellectuals to travel abroad and learn leader-worship skills in other authoritarian societies. Roberto Liang (Liang Junwu), one of the most celebrated painters of Chiang Kai-shek portraits in the 1970s, had travelled to Spain in the 1960s to pursue studies with funding from the Corps. It was there that he had learnt the art of producing iconic portraits of dictators and their families, having “had the honour of painting portrait [sic] of Miss Bina Franco, the sister of Generalissimo Franco.”38
The KMT has always appropriated and reworked local Taiwan heroes and stories to legitimate its own political action, as we saw with the recent CCP-KMT lovefest in Xiamen that borrowed religious and folk ideas from Taiwan culture in the service of annexing Taiwan to China. In the Chiang Cult case, an extant leader cult, that of Koxinga, and reworked it in terms of Chiang Kai-shek's own life:
The parallels between Koxinga and Chiang (both anti-colonial heroes who had fought against “illegitimate” mainland regimes from bases on Taiwan) were stressed by the Nationalist government almost as soon as Chiang had evacuated to Taipei. Sites associated with Koxinga were restored and celebrated. By 1950, Chiang Kai-shek’s calligraphy adorned a shrine that Japanese colonizers had raised in honour of Koxinga.40 In government-sponsored publications, Koxinga’s exploits were described with reference to Nationalist-inspired vocabulary that recalled Chiang’s own campaigns: Koxinga’s victory against the Dutch East India Company being termed a “retrocession of Taiwan” (fuTai);41 his campaign against the Qing a “northern expedition” (beifa).42 Indeed, at times, the figures of Chiang and Koxinga even seem to have been deliberately conflated in official discourse. As Marshall Johnson has noted in referring to the Nationalist government’s presentation of Koxinga as a pre-incarnation” 43 of Chiang, propaganda collapsed the centuries that separated the two figures. Both were labelled “minzu yingxiong” (hero[es] of the nation) on statue-bases, for example.44
The loss of China represented a problem for the KMT, because the holy sites associated with Chiang's life had been cut off from the experience of his subjects in Taiwan. Taylor argues that the lack of the actual terrain of Chiang's life meant that a new mode veneration of Chiang emerged, one in which the man became the physical symbol and incarnation of the land itself:
Yet the constant references to Chiang as a man of alpine qualities; the propensity that photographers such as Hu Chongxian had for capturing images of Chiang in mountainous climes; and even the claim that the temporary resting site for Chiang’s body in Cihu was chosen because of its topographical similarities to his hometown in the mainland would all suggest that the links between Chiang and the mountains of Zhejiang were very much forced.47 Such associations helped reinforce the idea that Chiang was not simply the leader of China, but was himself a physical personification of the country.
Another effect of distance from China was the "historicization" (Frederic Wakeman's term) of Chiang, in which he became a figure abstracted from specific times and spaces. "By its very nature, the Chiang cult entailed an attempt to transform a living leader into an historical or quasi-mythical figure so that the transience and recentness of Chiang’s rule on Taiwan could be replaced by a facade of permanence" Taylor says.

Taylor also asks an important question in the reproduction of the Chiang Cult: to what extent was participation and reproduction enforced? In many cases, such as schoolchildren, soldiers, and prisoners, it certainly was. In other cases, Chiang fulfilled ideological needs (as we saw above). Reproduction of the Cult was also carried out by the financial and status incentives offered to local artists who created Chiang statues. Taylor describes:
Interesting insights emerge from studies conducted by Taiwanese art historians such as Zheng Shuiping, who has argued that the vast number of statues of Chiang produced during the 1950s was not the result of an enforced directive, but rather of competition amongst sculptors and designers who saw such work as a means to improve their own professional standing.55 Indeed, the production of a substantial percentage of Chiang statuary was not directly commissioned, but was tendered by way of advertisements in the Central Daily News (Zhongyang ribao); artists, as well as others such as construction companies, chose to compete against each other for government and Party contracts.56 The picture that emerges is thus one of an environment in which individuals willingly produced Chiang statuary out of professional and commercial concerns.
The Chiang cult was also distributed freelance, so to speak, by individuals who sought to acquire works of art or items that had some connection to Chiang. For individuals who wished to carve a path to high places in the Party-State, production of art or Chiang biographies was a key route to higher rank. The structure, not merely the carrot and stick, did the shaping, as Taylor notes: "The cult’s production was thus supported by a political and public culture in which participation in the Chiang cult was rewarded."

Taylor raises many questions for future research, including those of the effects of technology and Taiwan's connections with other, similar cultures, that were beyond the scope of this paper. His closing lines are a thing of beauty:
Heir to Sun Yat-sen; latter-day Koxinga; hero of the nation; leader – Chiang probably imagined himself as all these things at one time or another. Yet it was only through the imagination of others around and below him that he was able to present himself in such terms to the people of Taiwan.
In my view one of the enduring successes of the Chiang Cult -- along with the mass market advertizing and propaganda techniques his American allies used to shape Western perceptions of his place in the politics of his time -- is that Chiang is viewed with a profound double standard as somehow "less of a dictator" than his non-Asian counterparts like Hitler, Stalin, Franco, or Mussolini. Its effect is also felt today in the continual defense of Chiang by KMT loyalists, and in the need of current KMT politicians to somehow link back to the Chiang charisma -- though they usually do so by reference to Chiang Kai-shek's son Chiang Ching-kuo. The popularity of the younger Chiang is in its own way a kind of psychic compensation for the absurd and groundless veneration of the father -- Ching-kuo is the Chiang that, in today's modern Taiwan society, it is ok to admire.
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Ben Goren said...

Thank you for your thorough and insightful expose of a mortal, a man, a mere bag of flesh and bone exalted beyond all reason and justification in the pursuit of power over an imagined nation, and a distopian vision of a centralised and uniform China that would match the empires of the foreign Song and Qing occupations.

Both the KMT and CCP remain slaves to a social darwinism inspired racist ideology of crude nationalism.

'Cult' of Chiang indeed.

Anonymous said...


This is a really interesting piece and I wish more people were aware of the nuts and bolts of the performance.


Shashwati said...

Great post Micahel! do you have a copy of the paper? i'd love to read it

Dixteel said...

Yep...there is still a long way to go in liberating people's mind from Chiang regime.

Anonymous said...

I love the Nazi references. American sensationalistic rhetoric providing fuels for the ignorant.

Much can be said about American's idealistic political utopia being forced fed to the world this given time. Underlying that, it too is easy to draw comparison between Nazi Germany and the USA.

It is irresponsible and reasonably enough to say that the academic merit of your paper is significantly lessened by your biased view.

Sage said...

I'm glad I saw this piece, very well done and interesting.

I think we can not discount the role that the Soong family played in the myth of CCK.

And .... I'm still waiting for someone to tell me what the playboy, frequent traveler and talking head, Sun Yat Sen has to do with Taiwan. ??

His picture should be taken off the wall of classrooms around the island and his likeness removed from all public buildings.

It is insulting.

Anonymous said...

Religion vs cult. Is there a difference?
If there is, what are there?