Book Review: How Chiang Kai-shek Blew It

OK – the real title is The Legacy of Sun Yatsen, and the author was Gustav Amann, a sometime confident of Sun Yatsen1). Amann, a German engineer, born in 1882, died in 1950 (or in the late 1940s, probably in China), worked for the Siemens AG, in Hankou from 1911 to 1919, and in Beijing and Shanghai afterwards2). Chinese sources refer to him as 古斯塔夫.阿曼. He was apparently part of non-governmental cooperation between Germany and China, and helped Sun hiring German military officers as advisers.

The Legacy of Sun Yatsen was initially published in German – Sun Yatsens Vermächtnis, Berlin, 1928 -, and in English soon after, in 1929, New York and Montreal.

"The Legacy of Sun Yatsen", Montreal, New York, 1929

"The Legacy of Sun Yatsen", Montreal, New York, 1929

The translator, Frederick Philip Grove, added a note of his own, ahead of the author’s preface, an introduction by Karl Haushofer, and a criticism by Engelbert Krebs.

I’m not sure how the book came to me – it has been here for many years. I started reading in September, some ten or fifteen pages at a time. At first, I expected some sort of an insider’s story – but Amann was up to something different, as the subtitle suggested anyway: a History of the Chinese Revolution.

Apparently, much of the story was news to the translator:

Without identifying himself with any views propounded in the present volume – partly because he disagrees, partly because he simply does not know – the translater advised publication of this work of a German because he found in it a picture of a great subversion in modern history which, to say the least, is striking and novel. It seemed to him that the book, quite apart from its historical value, presents a struggle for freedom which is symbolic of the Promethean nature of man. No desire for propaganda was among the motives which prompted his labour.

Amann’s account of the revolution starts with with a short review of China’s initial years of interaction with Europe, from 505 and 1270 – the Nestorians and Marco Polo, to the cession of Hong Kong and the years leading to the Xinhai Revolution. This then leads into a  long eulogy – sort of a post-funeral eulogy – on Sun Yatsen, which goes on for many pages. When reading, I seemed to understand the translator’s carefully stated distance to Amann’s case.

Sun Yatsen is a saint. Chiang Kai-shek is a bugger, but at least Amann doesn’t label him a reactionary as he does with many other players in the KMT’s big game during the 1920s.

That the Confucian spirit will live on in the customs and usage of the people is a certainty. That Confucian morals and ethics will prevail in conduct, we must heartily hope and wish. But that the spiritual revolt already embraces the Chinese people as a whole [and no difference need be made between Cantonese and the Chinese of the north], that is the very thing which gives it its irresistible power from which events shoot up in spite of all politics. That the nationalist movement started from Canton is mere chance. It is a national wave which might have started anywhere – wherever Sun Yatsen was at work.

But that doesn’t make the Legacy a boring book. Amann was quite a narrator, and on some 300 pages only, he slowly rose the dramatic arc from 1925 to 1927, from Sun Yatsen’s death to a botched end to the first Northern Expedition.

In some ways, Amann takes the role of many-a present-day sinologist, even if in an intuitive, rather than in a “scientific” way. Several times, he criticizes the European and American press – both their press overseas and within China at the time. Right after the initial remarks by Haushofer and Krebs, in his first chapter, Amann writes, by way of introduction:

The daily press is almost the only source from which the public gathers information about events in China. The spasmodic turmoil and the difficulty of arriving at a survey of the happening are responsible for the temptation to concentrate attention on mere externals. Curiosity, eager for sensation, prefers to devote itself to symptoms rather than to trhe causes of the mighty convulsions of the East. In the work of reporting, that seriousness which is due to the tragedy inherent in any revolution is, I am sorry to say, often wanting. At best the turn of events is represented as political or economic. Who, today, has an inkling that here is a great, ancient culture, hit in the innermost substance of its life by the hard drills of a western-European civilisation, which, in spite of subverting innovations fights on in a desperate struggle to preserve that mode of life which was allotted to it by nature and hallowed by tradition?
The Germans like to call themselves a matter-of-fact nation. At a time when this word had not yet become so fashionable though it held perhaps more truth than it does today, the great economist Wilhelm Roscher wrote in his “National Economy”, published 1854:
“The life of a people, like any life, is an indivisible whole, the manifold manifestations of which are connected by an inner bond. Whoever, therefore, wants to understand one side of it must know all sides; and, above all, there are seven sides which must be considered in this connection: language, religion, science, art, law, politics, and economics.”
Wilhelm Roscher goes on to say:
“That even for the material interests the spirit of the people is the main thing, is proved by the example of the Chinese who have known printing, gunpowder, and compass for such a long time without, for all that, having acquired a clearly defined public opinion, a good army, and a respectable carrying trade.”
[…] It is true that even today China has no considerable carrying trade, no good army; but it has at last a public opinion.
What we understand of it is only the elemental way in which it finds utterance, not its contents. Perhaps this modest attempt to honour the theorem of Wilhelm Roscher will find enough readers who are interested in the reality of the public opinion of China. (p. 23 – 25)

With that, Amann enters his 505/1270 to 1927 Chinese history review.  At the point where he describes his perception of events in 1911 and 1912, one might understand why Amann’s book on Sun Yatsen was relevant at the time.

Amann had probably been in China since 1911, in Hankou, next to the site of the Xinhai revolution in Wuchang. Both Wuchang and Hankou are now part of the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province. And unlike many others there, Amann was most probably a curious foreign businessman.

The ways of popular politics are obscure; their course was lighted up for the foreigners by no star of insight. Even after February 12, 1912, the date of the public abdication of the Manchu Regent, the foreigners in China believed that the proclamation of a republic was the result of chance. To prove that, the English historian J. O. P. Bland filled many pages of his book on the revolution. The foreigners saw nothing but what they could attribute to their own influence on the Manchu government.

The more, Amann argues, they were caught by surprise when the development went beyond a foot-dragging preparation period for a constitutional monarchy, which would only have strengthened the very circles in which the foreigners pursued their trade. (pp 65, 66)

If you consider buying the Legacy yourself, it might be a good idea to stop reading this post here until you have read the book, because otherwise, this post may forestall too much of the enjoyment only the book itself can offer. It still seems to be widely available on the internet, in second-hand bookshops.

The foreign powers had no interest in doing anything that could help Sun Yatsen’s KMT to gain power or influence, writes Amann. All the same, the nationalists did consolidate their grip on the south – not least for the help in technical and organizational matters that came from Russia, i. e. the newly-established Soviet Union. Throughout the book, Amann highlights Mikhail Borodin‘s contributions to the KMT’s success and repeatedly points out that a revolution modelled after the Russian one hadn’t been Borodin’s goal – an issue on which Karl Haushofer and Engelbert Krebs, in their prefaces and criticisms to the book, disagree with Amann.

Another major player is T. V. Soong (宋子文), finance minister in the nationalist government, and Sun Yatsen’s brother in law. Amann quotes from a letter Soong wrote to a friend:

“I have taken over the office of finance minister. I don’t know yet what will have to be done; but there is nobody else among us who knows.” (p. 177)

Securing the KMT government’s revenues, from taxes to import duties, is described as a long struggle, with some success, but no completion, against the foreign powers. What is described as Soong’s complete achievement at the time is the introduction of an economy based on paper money, with an  adoption of creative methods to circumvent some of the Chinese habit of mere barter trade: all taxes were to be paid in Soong’s bank notes.

Reading the book, it leaves the impression on me that Amann himself, when describing the formation of a Chinese public opinion, refers to foreign violation as its ferments too frequently, occasionally lacking one or another star of insight himself. Class relations only count occasionally, even though – or because? – Amann himself would  probably share most of the views of Sun Yatsen’s family people in the KMT of  1927.

Consolidated at home in the south, the KMT began its first Northern Expedition. It was a fast and successful one, very much attributed to the Russian advisers by Amann, reaching and extending beyond the Yangzi River. But the rapid expansion wasn’t accompanied by political consolidation in the areas gained. First warlordist trends emerged in the regions “controlled” by the KMT.

This entire period from the occupation of the province of Hu-Nan by the nationalists stood in the sign of war and military leaders. The martial successes made the originally intended character of the campaign fade away. The defeat of potentates in the place of whose autocratic régime a popular government was to be established became more and more a campaign of conquest on the part of the armed power.

The KMT’s political arm opened its headquarters in Hankou. Chiang Kai-shek kept his HQ in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, by a beeline of some 200 kilometers southeast of Hankou.

Besides for militarist tendencies, Amann criticizes Chiang Kai-shek for being too close to the foreigners – and the share of the Chinese population whose business was closely connected with the foreigners. Besides, both Chiang himself and his generals had developed a dislike for the Russian advisers.

Amann must have felt much of the disappointment he describes as Borodin’s disappointment.

How the Chinese stand with regard to each other in this deep thing, what they themselves feel, is hard to say. Probably, what is treason to us, is to them only human nature. They escape it by never allowing themselves to be caught in unconditional devotion. Within the family, even with strangers, the Chinese are as a rule full of the frankest respect for friendship proved, or services of friendship received; they are touchingly loyal. Ingratitude arises from the system. The social structure of family ties withholds their innermost from flowing readily into the wider social connections. But is not in our own social, economic, and political system a service also priced most before it is rendered? Even in our world of politics, finance, and industry, there is a far way to the pure heights of gratitude for its own sake. (pp 268-269)

The new militarism was to blame for the opposition and resistance by the communists within the KMT, according to Amann, who makes a not merely ceremonial effort to characterize Chiang in the most favorable terms he can still possibly find:

In the sense, then, of the old, classical bureaucratic tradition, Chiang Kaishek’s attitude was irreproachable. But in his subjective choice of position he committed grave errors against Sun Yatsen’s cause. The collectivist system of government demanded of the nationalists first of all and under all circumstances, the preservation of an unbroken front towards the outer world. Chiang Kaishek, however, never redeemed his first step towards a separation, that step which held him in Nan-chang. Holding on to his old stubbornness, he refused to attend the convention of the central executive council at Hankau which was called, as an emergency measure to save, if possible, the régime at Hankau out of dissension, for the date of March 7, 1927. Twenty-six members of the council had appeared. Chiang Kaishek with his nearest followers stayed away. (p. 289)

As for the run-up what is now referred to as the Shanghai Massacre (not referred to as such by Amann), to both the foreigners and the rich Chinese merchants of Shanghai, the usurpation of a commanding position in the state by the proletariat remained hateful, and Chiang Kaishek was visibly and powerfully influenced by it in his resolutions (p. 285).

This point was the innermost causal motive of the quarrels which had driven Chiang Kaishek into the opposition. He was a soldier. Discipline and order were second nature to him; he hated the phenomena of high-handed action which, against the rigid ideas regarding property held by the upper strate of the population, were necessarily connected with the emancipation of peasants and workmen. […] To him, these disturbances were intentional anarchy; he held the communistic elements in the government responsible for them.

From such purely subjective suppositions Chiang Kaishek believed, no doubt in all honesty of conviction, that the right to strike and similar means of compulsion in the hand of proletarians must become fatal to empire and people. He believed that he was called upon, by means of power of his army, to return the carrying-out of reforms to the hands of government. He wished to help the common people. He wished to concede to it the consideration which it demanded, but not the power. Self-help of the people he condemned as a matter of principle; and at last he went so far as to suppress it by force of arms. He had, then, reached the point where the reactionary propertied classes wanted to see the nationalist government. (p. 287)

It’s strange to think that Amann was probably still in China when the KMT prepared its flight to Taiwan. As early as in 1927, he seemed to expect little from the KMT army, nor from its propagandistic clout, once the Russian advisers had left the ruined field of their efforts and returned to the Soviet Union.

Borodin, Amann wrote in his description of Soviet intentions in China as he saw them,

was, of course, a member of the communistic order of Russia. He belonged to the Trotzki group which is today known as the opposition of the Stalin government and represented, in Russia, the radical dictatorship of the proletariat. But to hurl communistic propaganda into the Chinese people was not Borodin’s task. Trotzki himself has, on several occasions, issued public declarations of the aims of Russia in China. Russia, he said, gave its help for the purpose of freeing the country from the capitalistic compulsion of the foreign powers; it did not aim at a dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat of China has no aims of its own. In the system of old China, its class had admission to the official careers; with this tradition the proletariat was satisfied; it had no desire to rule by dictatorship. The awakening of workmen and peasants to political life, by Sun Yatsen, had accordingly called forth, in labour unions and peasant associations, none but economic hopes. […] They had not risen to fight for power over the middle class and over the class of officialdom. In the Kuo-Mintang, too, and in the nationalist government, an overwhelming majority of members and leaders were totally averse to communism. They looked to the methods of Russia to help them lead the common people to salvation themselves. A dictatorship of the masses over their leadership they would not have tolerated; nor a communistic expropriation of private property. (p. 217-218)

Without Russian input from 1927, Chiang’s army was almost – allegedly – reduced back to the state of which Amann had given pretty unflattering descriptions earlier in his account.

Chiang Kaishek’s fighting forces reached at times beyond Hsu-Cheu, on the railway from Pu-Keu to Peking. But they could not force a decision against Sun Chuan-fang’s regiments which, reorganised in northern Kiang-Su, had reappeared, and against the Shan-Tung troops of Chang Chung Chang. Chiang Kaishek lacked that knowledge of a superior military and propagandist attack on strategic points of the front, by means of which the Russians had made him a present of lightning successes in battle. At last the Nanking army had even to fall back to the right bank of the Yang-Tze-Kiang, content with defending this side of the river. (p. 294)

Not quite so – and the looming Central Plains War wasn’t the end of the story either. But what a wonderful world this could be if Amann had been right with his defiant statement at the end of his account:

Militarism within the Kuo-Mintang will still be vanquished, whichever way it be; for the ideas of a liberation from autocracy, of a share in the determination of the conditions of its own life, of a deliverance from the power of the propertied classes over the living life of the common people, are working deeply in the masses.
All times have fought for freedom; every age for a freedom of its own; and the Chinese people will fight on for its special freedom.



1) Stefan Berleb, doctoral dissertation, Brisbane 2005, quoting Causey, Beverley: Germany’s Policy towards China, 1918 – 1941, Cambridge, Harvard University

2) Andreas Steen, Deutsch-chinesische Beziehungen, vom Kolonialismus zur “Gleichberechtigung”, Berlin 2006, page 587


Memorabilia found fake, China Post, December 4, 2010
Hsinhai – a Revolutionary Opera, November 12, 2010
Book Review: Gang then, Dynasty now, May 12, 2010

7 Responses to “Book Review: How Chiang Kai-shek Blew It”

  1. Outrageously good! Thanks for the entry, looking forward to picking this up…



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