BEIJING – Photos of Mao’s archenemy Chiang Kai-shek adorn the walls of a Beijing restaurant, and his face looks up at diners from the menu. Online, the deposed Chinese leader’s image is used to sell the kinds of lamps and swords he might have used. A liquor brand has patterned its bottle on Chiang’s memorial in Taipei.
Twenty years ago, Chiang was considered an enemy of the people on mainland China. Today, he has become part of mainstream culture — sort of.
There has been a grudging acceptance of Chiang’s historical role in fighting against Japan following its invasion in the lead-up to World War II. Chiang later lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists in the Chinese civil war and fled in 1949 to Taiwan, where he ruled until his death in 1975.
His revival on the mainland points to how China’s Communist Party uses history to make points about present-day politics. Chiang is doubly useful in that sense because China’s relations with Taiwan have been warming, while those with Japan are in steep decline.
Chiang’s rehabilitation has been “really remarkable to observe from the outside” and likely was undertaken initially as an attempt by China’s leaders to tempt Taiwan into reunification by being “a bit more accommodating about their version of history,” said Rana Mitter, author of the book “China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival.”
“Now, of course, Chiang’s role as someone who fiercely opposed the Japanese during the war is politically very useful,” Mitter said.
Chiang came to power as head of the Chinese Nationalist government in 1928 and much of his rule was spent fighting the Japanese and Mao’s Communists. For more than two decades after the Communists took over, many in the West still considered Chiang the face of China.
His shift on the mainland has been noticeable, if unstated. Over the past decade, Chiang’s Nationalist soldiers, known as Kuomintang or KMT, have gone from being portrayed in TV dramas as little more than corrupt and greedy characters to evincing patriotism and even courage as they fight the Japanese.
In Mr. Chiang’s Mainlander Restaurant in Beijing’s central business district, renamed earlier this year, Chiang’s face is drawn on the bright yellow cover of a menu and reprints of Chiang photos are pasted on the wall, including one of his wedding day. The 15 yuan ($2.40) specialty rice with stewed diced pork is made from a secret recipe that was shared with the restaurant by the offspring of friends of Chiang’s family, said restaurant boss Ren Zuxiang.
Though the photos on the wall can make customers smile, Ren said, many people still don’t feel at ease to give an honest assessment of Chiang the way they might about Sun Yat-sen, the founder in 1912 of a constitutional republic in China that put an end to more than 2,000 years of imperial rule.
“When talking about Sun Yat-sen it’s no problem, but the political conditions here are not so relaxed as in Taiwan, so someone who didn’t know you well wouldn’t say they liked Chiang,” said Ren. “Not many ordinary people dislike him, though.”
The shift on Chiang has not been a complete rehabilitation and is unlikely to become one. It would be hard for the ruling Communist Party to allow public discussion of his fierce anti-communism, for example.
“We haven’t seen any official documents carrying very positive comments on Chiang Kai-shek. The most is that Chiang had played some roles in resisting the Japanese aggression,” said Chen Hongmin, director of the Center for Chiang Kai-shek and Modern Chinese Studies at Zhejiang University.
Chinese university students who study an introduction to modern Chinese history read a description of Chiang as the “representative of bourgeois or black forces” — and that hasn’t changed much in 60 years, Chen said.
But controls on research into Chiang and his period have loosened on the mainland, Chen said. This, as well as the opening of Chiang archives in Taipei in the late 1990s, has allowed academics to refute the common belief on the mainland that Chiang failed to fully resist the Japanese, Chen said.
“In the past, we used to say that the Communist Party forces dominated the resistance in the occupied areas, but the documents show that Chiang also attached great importance” to this effort, devoting many soldiers to it and ordering the generals on the front line by telegram to fight until death, he said.
Academics have concluded that Chiang’s anti-Japanese resistance and his economic development of Taiwan were positive aspects and “it seems that the government doesn’t object to those,” Chen said, though he warned that changes in Beijing-Taipei relations could affect future academic work on Chiang.
The revival of Chiang as an anti-Japanese patriot points to the wider issue of nationalism in China. Whereas class warfare made Mao’s China tick, the present-day Communist Party has turned to nationalism “as an alternative way of binding people together,” said Mitter, who is also a professor of Chinese history and politics at Oxford University.
“In the context of saying that all Chinese should stick together against outside enemies, remembering the war against Japan is a profoundly useful historical example,” he said. “I would say the demands of present-day politics have shaped which elements of history the regime wants to emphasize.”
In Mao’s time, Taiwan was the enemy. Japan had been greatly weakened after its World War II defeat, and China had an interest in trying to pry Japan from the Cold War embrace of the United States.
While Beijing still considers the self-governing island of Taiwan part of its territory that eventually must be taken back — by force if necessary — relations between the two have warmed in the past decade as they have focused on improving trade.
At the same time, while China and Japan are linked by billions of dollars in trade, investment and aid, their relations are at their worst in years. Both are building up their militaries and accuse the other of growing assertiveness, including in a dispute over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Both countries also have fanned memories of war. In response to what China calls the denial of war crimes by Japanese politicians, the State Archives Administration has been publishing old confessions of Japanese war criminals — one per day since the beginning of July.
Last month, President Xi Jinping gave a speech to mark the 77th anniversary of the start of a war with Japan in which he warned against people who “beautify the history of aggression.” His words also evoked the image of Chinese sticking together.
“The great war of Chinese people’s resistance against Japanese aggression brought the awareness and unity of the Chinese nation to a level never reached before,” Xi said.